Tag: Tocqueville

ACF PoMoCon #27: Carl Eric Scott


This week, we’ve got Tocqueville, America, and rock music on the podcast–my friend Carl Eric Scott returns to the podcast to remember our great friend Peter Lawler and how blogging helped him both formulate and get across his thoughts to the great American audience, bridging the gap between his academic vocation and the press. We also talk about what we learned from him that’s led us to our own activity in music and film criticism respectively. We conclude with some talk about Carl’s Rock Songbook, a one-of-a-kind conservative investigation of rock music, the age, the ideas, even reflections on it in cinema, from a perspective educated by Plato, Allan Bloom, and Martha Bayless!

ACF PoMoCon #22: Brian Smith


Friends, here’s our sixth conversation in memory of the late professor of political philosophy and public intellectual Peter Lawler. This week, Brian Smith, managing editor of Law & Liberty–my editor!–joins me for a conversation about his friendship with Peter, their work on Walker Percy, and Peter’s Tocqueville book, The Restless Mind–or rather how his insights shed light on our own crisis, since we have forgotten or neglected to be relational.

The American Zeal for Punching Up


Red-blooded, real Americans are sick of America’s elites punching down on them. Authentic American politics, like authentic American comedy, roots for the underdog and punches up, not down. The problem with today’s elites is their down is up and their up is down: Our elites believe they’re signaling their superior virtue by “punching up” when they ridicule heartland America, but of course what they’re really doing is using their privileged social status to punch down on heartland America instead. Or that’s how it seems to many of us. For those unfamiliar with this punchy lingo, comedian Ben Schwartz explains,

“Punching up” and “punching down” are relatively new pop-political terms, often found not far from words like “mansplaining,” “problematic,” and “trolling.”

Beauty, Power, Babbling, and Tocquevillian Sex Ed


“He drinks because of you.” Even knowing now what I didn’t know then, the claim stinks of false blame, though youth and beauty are said to have great power over those who admire them. Young I was. But beautiful? Not really, I thought. A great many budding young women are kept far too busy frantically scrambling to keep the less-beautiful parts of puberty from turning their bodies into an embarrassment to take the extra step of deliberately using their bodies to gain power over others. Some girls absolutely are Machiavellian little minxes equipped to use “sexiness” to manipulate others before they’re even old enough to drive. Other girls are as absolutely not: these latter are innocents in a society that still claims (however implausibly) to value innocence. And of course, gals come in all stages in between.

Toddlers are innocent. Toddlers are hilarious – and destructive – because they haven’t yet figured out their own agency. Our own toddler likes nothing better than to make something “happen” – but he has little idea what, or why. He’s more powerful than he knows, which adds to the havoc. Much innocence comes from simply not knowing yet what the hell you’re doing. While babies’ innocence of basic motor coordination, language, literacy, and social skills is cute, it’s not inherently valuable. Indeed, the quicker children outgrow that kind of innocence, the better. But we do value youngsters’ sexual innocence. We also value young adults’ sexual agency. Puberty is sexual toddlerhood, only we’d really rather not have our teens exploring the world with their genitals the way toddlers do with their mouths. Fortunately, children are, at least in theory, quite grown up in other ways by the time puberty hits; in theory, able to apply lessons they’ve learned about their agency in other spheres to sexual agency; in theory, able to use reason to assert their sexual agency while maintaining their sexual innocence. In practice, though, developing sexual agency while maintaining innocence is tricky, especially absent wise counsel.

Conservatives want youth – but especially, let’s be honest, young women – to exercise more agency in guarding their genitalia. Even libertine conservatives want today’s young women to recognize their sexual agency better, and most conservatives would also like to narrow the gap between the age at which women lose sexual innocence and the age at which they marry, through some combination of earlier marriage and later loss of virginity. We want this not primarily to control women (though for some, control is part of the appeal), but to make human life generally more flourishing – for women, too. One problem, though, is that, while lack of awareness of one’s own sexual power isn’t all there is to innocence, it’s part of it.

America and Marvel, Part V: Genres and Their Reflection on American Society


I will close this series with two brief explanations of how genre itself involves reflections on American society. I have recently been working on horror movies, so that is one of my examples. American horror comes down to two versions of an attack on progress. One is Christian — Hitchcock did it, his many imitators since John Carpenter do it, and endless others. These stories try to put together the universal and the particular in this way. They start with a social setting that is very broad and designed to show what’s happening with American freedom. They then move on to an individual story of the emergence of evil. How crazily implausible evil has become, and how maddening, therefore, is supposed to teach the audience that they didn’t see evil in the setting. The unwillingness of good respectable middle-class Americans to see the evil in their hearts, and therefore in their society, leads them to countenance or even provoke monstrous things.

The tragic poet in this case resorts to these shocking things rightly called horror on the assumption that nothing else will even get a hearing. This is also what David Lynch wants to teach Americans; or Neil LaBute. These are very sophisticated movie-makers, but they are basically Christian moralists. They mean to remind Americans that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop believing in evil. Instead of providence, you get God’s wrath.

The alternative to Christian horror is scientific horror. America has great examples in Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, more or less to correspond to the great British insights offered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I note in passing that these two British books, answering to the Victorian century of progress, deal with science taking control over life and then over good and evil respectively. Those, you will recall, are the two trees the fruit whereof was forbidden to man in Genesis.

America and Marvel, Part IV: Show Business and the Marvel Identity


Let us now see how all this emerges from show business. The box office seems to be growing exclusively on the strength of pricier tickets, as fewer people go to the movies. Fewer movies are made every year, counting movies with any kind of broad release — not 4,000 theaters, but say more than 500. The number of studios and the number of sources for stories are also decreasing. In the business, the idea is called intellectual property. In that sense, a minuscule oligarchy sells what a massive democracy wants to buy. The view of America you get at the movies is concentrating, ignoring more and more of the country. So, let us look at what we buy or, rather, buy into, while only really renting.

Today, cinema is dominated by three genres:

  1. Superhero movies.
  2. Animation, mostly about cute animals, often about redeeming villains.
  3. Teenage horrors-with-a-happy-ending, that is, political paranoia.

These are replacements for, respectively, action movies, family movies, and social criticism movies. There are many changes to speak about, so far as society is concerned. The audience for all these stories is getting younger; the knowledge of American society required to follow the movies is itself decreasing. Observations on life in America are constantly replaced by symbols.

America and Marvel, Part III: The Role of Cinema


I will start with some eminently questionable remarks. Let us start from the place of cinema in American life. Americans are notorious for the great gap their society leaves open in-between personal, private experiences, particular to each one and interesting mostly to himself — and public debates or public discourse, which is dominated by abstractions.

Tocqueville famously said Americans are uniquely given to general ideas — whenever doubt should arise about anything, a principle will be stated with god-like certainty. What lies in-between the abstract or universal and the personal or particular is judgment. Judgment, in both common senses of the word, is frowned upon in America. Obviously, moral judgment is frowned upon because it is a form of discrimination and the ground and mode of discrimination — it also odors of inequality, as he who judges necessarily sets himself the superior of he whom he judges. But judgment offends not merely equality — it also offends independence, or individualism.

You will notice, if you pay attention to your fellow Americans, that they spontaneously desire to raise an individual objection to just about any general statement in order to ruin the credibility of that statement. In America, every word for generality becomes suspect — think merely of the scientific word stereotype, which is not something anyone would say about his own way of thinking or mode of argument. The sacred rage against general rules is the intellectual correlative of the moral problem of judgment. There is a kind of heroism in Americans that leads them to fight off the claims of the intellect, that their freedom or unpredictability may remain intact. The argument against judgment is that it traps people’s individuality in human types available to the intellect in abstraction from experience. Each one wants to retain his essential mysteriousness, his opacity to the scrutiny of reason. This is politically salutary in many ways — a people without this aggressive rejection of reason would be easily tyrannized, indeed, with its consent. But it also creates serious problems. In America, taste is impossible publicly to distinguish from prejudice. Judgment, however, requires a ground more amenable to the intellect than inclination, less shifting than preference, and more social than habit.

America and Marvel, Part II: Reflections of and on Society


A few days ago, I talked to my associate Prof. Harmon who raised a fundamental question by way of a preposition. This is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. He asked whether I meant to speak of American cinema as a reflection of American society or a reflection on it. As I said, the movies are our human way of seeing what we’re like, as humans. But what does that mean more clearly?

“Reflections of society” involves the obvious meaning of imitation. What you see on the screen is what the movie-makers saw looking around — America. But this could mean two different things, being that no movie can reflect America as a whole. American movie-makers might offer Americans the images they think will please them — they see what Americans approve, and are governed in their works by that experience. This would mean cinema is a kind of flattery; a barely concealed form of self-congratulation. Every theater-going experience is really an awards ceremony in disguise. There is more than a little truth to that. Do people leave the theaters of this great notion in a soul-searching mood, somewhat chastened by the experience, or rather smug, and even self-important?

Or on the other hand, you could have what in literature we used to call realism and naturalism: An impious, immoderate staring at ugliness and misery, to chasten the bourgeois materialism of modern society. That’s not fun cinema. Even in America, this paradise, there is misery and there is suffering. That could be reflected in the movies instead of the fun stuff. This is not unheard of, but is very rare; it’s been rare in every decade except the Seventies, and the vaguely suicidal public mood in America at that time suggests there is more than a little that’s questionable in this fascination with ugliness.

America and Marvel, Part I: Introduction


At first, this series may seem strange to you. All I can say by way of preparatory remarks is that cinema properly understood is the self-understanding of a society. It comprises individual taste, popular phenomena, prestige, and also great achievements. It is at once all-American and almost universally opposed in America. Cinema is part of civilization — it is an attempt to think through and therefore to educate Americans about what it means to be a human being. But it retains elements of barbarism — a surprising fondness for images, let’s say.

Cinema is remarkably democratic in that it shows us the bodies of human beings whom we instantly recognize, with all the moral and intellectual consequences that follow from that knowledge. But it is also aristocratic, in that it privileges stories which are impressive by reason of being unusual — we generally look for great beauty, great power, or great achievements in stories. Or at any rate, cinema inevitably produces celebrities, the most obvious form of inequality in America.

Cinema today is what books used to be in America. To define the thing by the work it does characteristically is to see that movies, like books or literature previously, are our poetry — our making up stories about the things that most interest us. Our poetry is defined by a concern with the wholeness of life or human action. This is not to say that the highest purpose of cinema is the only purpose — I start there because it is needful to do so in our times. I remind you of Tocqueville’s statement that poetry in democratic times is bound to lose its ambition. The greatest things somehow slip from view without our noticing it. So, what is typical of our situation is that cinema has overrun our lives while at the same time its every claim to consideration is collapsing.

ACF#8: Movies, Poetry, America, and Marvel


Hello, Ricochet! It is my pleasure to share my first public lecture on American cinema and society. I’ll start with thanks to my friends Tom Harmon and Matt Peterson, professors at John Paul the Great Catholic University–and, of course, to the university. And to the kids who did the audio-video work with precious little help from me. They’re too young I think for me to buy them a beer, but if they play their cards right… I’ll soon publish the written lecture, which is somewhat different, just in case not everyone wants to watch…

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A friend reads this journal, which I have not seen advertised on Ricochet, so let me do the honors. I would describe it as Straussian patriotism. Strauss was the one man who restored political philosophy in academia–including your Founders & Lincoln. Professors at Hillsdale–indeed, the man who runs the place–are students of students of Strauss. (In that […]

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A Jewish Atheist for a More Christian America


shutterstock_222016312A few years ago I got sucked into a LinkedIn college alumni chat group where political discussions were going on. For the most part, the participants were smart, articulate adults, not college students, all of whom, moreover, had endured the famously rigorous classical core curriculum of our alma mater. Nonetheless, in due course, every Media Matters talking point and lunatic piece of campus-Marxist SJW nonsense was trotted out one by one and presented as revealed truth requiring no further proof. These debates — which were heated but civil by Internet standards — went on for close to two years before they finally succumbed to a combination of acrimony and the meddling and censorship of the university’s busybody apparatchiks who ran the thing. Apparently, people don’t like to have their core beliefs about the world subjected to critical scrutiny and found wanting. No minds were changed. It was, on the whole, a depressing experience.

Anyone who has ever engaged in political debate must at some point have come to the conclusion that such arguments are pointless. In the long history of political debate, from the Athenian assembly to the lamentable farce that is the so-called World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, no fully-formed adult human has ever walked away from the experience a convert to the opposing position. When conversions do happen, as with Irving Kristol or David Mamet, they are the result not of rational inquiry, but of protracted mugging by reality. You can’t reason a man out of something he wasn’t reasoned into, and politics, like religion, falls into the category of things whose core precepts are not susceptible to rational interrogation.

Which brings me to my subject – the relationship between politics and religion in America. My claim is that the demise of traditional American political values – democracy, individual liberty and limited government – has a lot to do with the decline of traditional Christianity in the United States. I make this claim as a strong partisan of traditional American political values, but as a disinterested nonpartisan when it comes to traditional Christianity. The title of this post is a bit of an overstatement – I am not really a committed atheist. I am, however, as close to an atheist as it is possible to be while still remaining agnostic. I don’t have a God in this fight, in other words.

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In these latter days, I ask myself on occasion what is the last religion of mankind. We live in a world, increasingly, when, as the philosopher says, one can do whatever one wants in the bed–except smoke. I mean, tobacco. Who is the prophet & what is the prophecy? This is not easy to answer, because […]

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Only four things are certain since social progress began: Dogs will eat to excess; pigs will enjoy being unclean; people will play with fire; & GOP politicians will do the Philistine song & dance for the national audience, making sure no one suspects that their presidential-looking bodies harbor souls moved by the greatest enterprises known to mankind. It’s a […]

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Has everyone already read this? Mr. Mark Judge is trying to say a few things about a problem one does not much read about: Men committing suicide. This is called male suicide & I think I alone am bothered by that. I think the piece is a failure on every level. It’s hard even to understand how […]

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If I decided to follow in the footsteps of my brothers & go see the almost-chosen people inhabiting America, & then purloin a pack of cigarettes, I am advised, the police would be involved, & given my stiff-neckedness, I would end up visiting the correctional facilities afforded by your great nation–this is after all, not […]

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