As Politico reports, Neil Gorsuch on Thursday night delivered a victory lap speech at the annual conference of the Federalist Society. The article tells us that Gorusch’s big applause lines concerned his:
Snide reproach to those who characterize the Federalist Society as a secret cabal scheming in darkness to infiltrate and control the federal judiciary; and
Full-throated and triumphant affirmation of originalist and textualist judicial philosophies the Federalist Society and legal conservatives support as articles of faith.
Let’s consider these remarks in turn.
The Secret Cabal
This is what Gorsuch said. “If you’re going to have a meeting of a secret organization, maybe don’t have it in the middle of Union Station and then tell everybody to wear a black tie. It’s not a shadowy cabal in need of Joe McCarthy.”
Here’s the thing. No one believes the Federalist Society is a shadowy cabal. While not a large organization compared to its right-wing big brother, the Heritage Foundation, The Federalist Society is enormously well-funded and well-organized. One could infer the organization schemes and acts under cover of darkness, given its lack of emphasis on publishing research. However, the Federalist Society’s explicit mission has for decades been to function as an “activist” organization, with the clearly stated aims of:
Recruiting law students to its values, methods, goals, and practices; and
Packing the federal court system with its acolytes.
Gorsuch’s remark is therefore a disingenuous red herring, but one fully consistent with the feckless line the Federalist Society has fed its suppoters and backers for years – that we’re small, beleaguered, disparaged, and maligned / but plucky, feisty, principled, and courageous.
Originalist and Textualist Judicial Philosophies
This is what Gorsuch said. “The duty of a judge is to say what the law is not what it should be. Tonight I can report, a person can be both a committed originalist and textualist and be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Originalism has regained its place and textualism has triumphed and neither is going anywhere on my watch.”
Several points here.
As Gorsuch well knows, the distinction between what the law is and what it should be is not binary, but subject to gradations of ambiguity, nuance, and consequence. His statement about the duties of judges is therefore rhetorical and ideological, not substantive and meaningful, and more significantly relevant as an ahtorical rendering of the Constitution as revealed religion.
Originalism and textualism have likewise become ideological shibboleths freighted with meaning for those initiated to their mysteries. Federalist Society luminaries will tell us judicial review does not need knowledge or guidance assembled from legal precedent, legislative history, social science, natural science, or data science. Judicial review requires only the inert words captured in a small, fixed, and dated set of canonical “founding” texts (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers, etc.). These “original” texts are a Procrustean bed, a Solomonic, incontrovertible measuring stick, no matter how anachronistically ill-equipped they may be for comprehending and adjudicating the most pressing matters and challenges of our time. Hence, legal conservatives such as Gorsuch will writhe around the unanswerable and possibly irrelevant question: What did this clause of the Constitution mean to the Founders? One might reasonably ask in return: Why not closely inspect entrails?
Gorsuch’s preening and strutting bombast reflects, generally, the triumphalist swagger of The Federalist Society, which for the past three decades has viewed itself as a government-in-waiting, now fully ascendant, and not in the least bit troubled by the need to saddle and mount the rampaging, caterwauling, bucking bronco they once swore never to ride.
The crudest presumptions of natural law theory still inform our political and cultural conflicts. In recent posts, I’ve focused on the logical and moral contortions a focus on creator worship as the ground of our being requires of revealed religions. Alabama’s Republican Party offers the most recent permutations of this bizarre fever dream.
On Tuesday, former (twice!) Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (with a rich symbolism perhaps not fully appreciated) rode his horse Sassy into the unincorporated town of Gallant (population 850, also known as Greasy Cove) to cast a ballot for himself as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.
In the wake of a backlash against “DC swamp” candidate Luther Strange, Moore coasted to a win over nine other candidates, and will once again face (the geographically vast, awesomely named) Strange in a late-September run-off primary. As Senator, Moore promises to restore Christianity to the Capitol and fight the rise of Islamic “Sharia law” in the United States, commitments presumably of little significance to Strange, a former oil industry lobbyist.
While it’s tempting to linger on the incredible Gothic theatricality of this event (for example, the mixed metaphors of “the swamp” as the habitation of the “silk-stockinged elite“), for our purposes, we need initially only pay attention to Moore’s deranged, megalomaniacal Constitutional rants, which begin with the Bible, linger around themes such as God’s desire for families to keep loaded guns at home to protect their children, and end with the natural law gymnastics of early 19th-century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.
Moore’s jurisprudence and politics fully conform to the conservative commitment to natural law as a gift and instrument of God via revelation. “I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics,” Moore told a gathering of elderly white folks at Mr. Fang’s Chinese Restaurant on the night before the primary vote. “It’s what God has done through me.”
In a conversation that evening with Jeff Stein of Vox, Moore emphasized, repeatedly, “You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.” According to Moore, Justice Story, one of the most highly regarded jurists of the early Republic who in recent years has become, somewhat surprisingly, a fan favorite of legal conservatives and natural law enthusiasts, supported and refined the view that the duty of the Constitution and the First Amendment was to “foster religion and foster Christianity.”
Here, Roy Moore parses a view of religious liberty consistent with the precepts of Robby George, the Acton Institute, and other conservative Christians for whom conscience becomes the principled basis for ignoring legislation, regulation, and court decisions of the federal government with which they disagree on the basis of the “self-evident” precepts of natural law. Of course, this parsing has long formed the hallmark of Roy Moore as a jurist, with his placement of the stone tablets of the Decalogue in the Alabama state courthouse and his refusal to enforce the marriage equality ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court (with helpful cover from Antonin Scalia’s high court dissent and full-throated support from Robby George).
Roy Moore, quoting from Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution, has for several decades been instructing us that “the rights of conscience are beyond the reach of any human power; they are given by God and cannot be encroached on by any human authority without a criminal disobedience of the precepts of natural or revealed religion.” On Senate primary election night, with a flourish characteristic of the natural law synthesis initially formulated by Aquinas, Moore concluded, “We need to go back to the recognition that God’s hand is still on this country and on this campaign. We must be good again before we can be great. And we will never be good without God.”
Christian-conservative jurists and philosophers will often invoke Abraham Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision as the ultimate defense of conscience in response to judicial overreach. In reality, these appeals to conscience and religious liberty are, like patriotism, a last refuge of scoundrels. Arguments on behalf of conscience, natural law, and higher law – whether voiced by Antonin Scalia, Robby George, or Roy Moore – mask a theocratically minded support for states’ rights that both dissolves the foundations of nationhood and obliterates the rights of conscience when they fail the arbitrary test of Biblical authenticity.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis, 1:28)
In 2007, Professor Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, delivered the John Dewey Lecture in Philosophy at Harvard Law School. George himself received his legal education at Harvard, and was there introduced to ideas about the relationship between law and morality, the study of which, as he happily tells us, became his life’s vocation.
George’s 2007 lecture, entitled “Natural Law” (and subsequently published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy), for our purposes serves beautifully as a primer on the intellectual foundations of philosophies of natural law. The lecture is broad and basic enough to initiate the unwashed, yet sufficiently subtle and nuanced to entice those already fluent with natural law and other Western moral philosophical traditions (specifically, utilitarianism and deontology).
I hope to further distill from this natural law primer the ideas on which the logical coherence of natural law philosophy depends. From that foundation, I’ll launch an exploration of the political and moral challenges presented to us in the 21st century by natural law philosophy’s subordination, itself, to the precepts of revealed religion.
George’s language in this lecture/essay is probably more turgid and formal than it needs to be, even for an august institution such as Harvard, but as we shall see, this pontifical style conforms to the vaulted sense of purpose that generally characterizes Catholic moral philosophy (for other examples, read pretty much anything from First Things, the Catholic-inspired journal of religion and public affairs). One of the challenges in addressing this elaborate, high-sounding (almost Counter-Reformation Baroque) language is to avoid its seductions and attend to how easily its curlicues can blandish us into a kind of nodding, soporific submission that muffles some of the philosophy’s underlying nastiness. Anyway, let’s get into it.
[Note: Those who wish to probe a bit further into the political and legal meaning of natural law philosophy should review the article entitled “Natural Law Theories,” authored by Robby George’s Oxford University dissertation adviser, John Finnis, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The two essays track each other closely.]
Natural Law philosophy both absorbs (from revelation and scripture) and communicates (into public discourse and legal practice) a quite specific understanding of the human individual as the summit of God’s creation, shaped in the image of God himself. The vocabulary of natural law philosophy organizes itself around this concept of the imago Dei. Here are some key terms, all of which we’ll consider throughout this series of essays: Revelation, Creator, Creation, Nature, Imago Dei, Individuality, Reason, Freedom, Human Dignity, Character, Virtue, Self-Evidence.
Natural Law Defined
Human Flourishing. George associates rights and justice with an account of human flourishing that encompasses intrinsically (and presumably exclusively – an important point to which we shall later return) human goods. George’s stipulations affirm a concept of humanity – the flourishing – as a noble end in itself, to which both individualism and collectivism risk becoming dangerous subjunctives that reduce human individuals and human associations to merely instrumental currencies of value or exchange. In this balance between our inner life and individual fulfillment and our external relationships and social happiness, George locates an Aristotelian golden mean toward which we must constantly strive, with natural law the carpenter level that trues our behavior in relation to this moral constant.
Practical Reason. George emphasizes, repeatedly, that reason is the means by which humans can identify and pursue the goods that support the flourishing of the species (with the exercise of one’s rational faculties itself one of the highest types of flourishing). George specifically emphasizes the singular gift to humans of “practical reason”, the quality of mind that allows us to discern the goods humans all seek, as well as the virtues attached to this seeking, and the flexibility to accommodate and adapt to the diverse circumstances of our existence in order to pursue these goods. Fair enough. But natural law philosophy here pivots momentously, by conflating reason and nature.
Nature and Reason. The background to this conflation of reason and nature is the crazy-complicated intramural philosophical conversation about the naturalistic fallacy. For our purposes, we need only emphasize that within the tradition of natural law philosophy (following Aquinas), nature refers to the intrinsic essence of a living creature, generally associated with its capacities. In this sense, human nature refers to the rational capacities that we use to locate and pursue “intelligible, intrinsic” goods. So the term natural law itself might more accurately mean “the laws of reason”, or “the laws that direct and secure our pursuit, via reason, of intelligible, intrinsic human goods.” And the idea of natural rights (a concept that flows in and out of the conversation about natural law) refers to “the rights of reason”, or “our rights to the intelligible, intrinsic human goods toward which reason directs us.”
Imago Dei. Why does this conflation of nature and reason matter? Because for philosophers of natural law, reason is a highest-order capacity specific and unique to humans, one not possessed by other creatures, a capacity that we alone share with the God that created us. Robby George adds to our rational faculties an additional, distinctly human, attribute: the capacity for “freedom,” by which he means free will, freely choosing. Together, reason and freedom constitute our nature as humans. They grant to us capacities for deliberation, judgment, and choice. Both ontologically and epistemologically, we can imagine the operation of these capacities as pure mind apprehending itself and the world. And for George, this unique human potential to step outside of ourselves is what allows us to escape from the dependent status of other creatures enmeshed in the web of causation and to become ourselves, like God, uncaused causers. “These capacities are God-like [and] constitute a certain sharing – limited, to be sure, but real – in divine power. This is what is meant, I believe, by the otherwise extraordinarily puzzling Biblical teaching that man is made in the very image and likeness of God.” (NL, 176)
Creator. George takes pains to emphasize that the logic of natural law philosophy does not require a belief in a Creator God, but his own belief in such a God suffuses the Natural Law essay and, truly, imparts to this essay its most intellectually radical and significant moments, when George identifies the creative potential of practical reason and free will as a God-like, “awesome” power (a term he uses more than once, inadvertently summoning, in my mind, concepts of power associated with the Bush “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003).
Human Dignity. Consistent with Catholic theology, natural law moral philosophy cleaves mind from body, spirit from flesh, attaching mind/spirit to the Creator God and body/flesh to God’s Creation. The ultimate value emerging from this dichotomy is the Catholic trope of human dignity, most clearly enunciated during the Second Vatican Council, and at the heart of the New Natural Law postulated by Catholic philosophers in the aftermath of Vatican II. For Robby George, human dignity derives from the human capacity for rationally motivated action (based on deliberation, judgment, and choice) free from the influence of external forces (reasons) or internal emotions. The Catholic concept of human dignity specifically refers to “religious liberty” as free exercise of one’s conscience with regard to spiritual matters. From legal and political perspectives, however, just laws and virtuous behaviors generally acknowledge and support the objective reality and intrinsic dignity and value of each human person, and this more general sense of the term is mostly how George discusses human dignity in the Natural Law essay.
Character and Virtue. With free choice, we not only constitute/create a “reality” in the external world, we constitute/create ourselves as possessing a distinct, unique “character” we own and for which are responsible with reference to our words and deeds. As Robby George states, “morally significant choosing leads to a focus on virtues as habits born of upright choosing.” (NL, 186) The culminating evidence of human dignity and human flourishing, then, is the upright behavior of rational individuals, according to a catalog of virtues, freely understood and freely chosen. Everything else is a falling away.
Promethean Individuality. Robby George’s primer on natural law absorbs and reinforces conventional Western ideas about individuality that probably owe more to the Enlightenment project (and less to Aquinas and the teachings of the Catholic Church) than he would like to admit. By anchoring these ideas to the Biblical concept of Imago Dei, however, he apotheosizes the individual human as a freely choosing, creative, God-like power. An uncaused Causer. The promethean echoes here are notable, but for our purposes, the most important implication concerns how natural law sets humans, who alone share reason with God, in opposition to the natural world, which does not reason or possess consciousness as we ordinarily think about these ideas.
Creation. Three important points regarding Creation (or what we might otherwise call Nature), as distinct from Creator.
Capacities. The idea of capacities as the source of a creature’s nature (as in, it is the nature of a human to reason or a wildebeest to run in a herd) helps us to think about how we can imagine the created world itself, taking it in its own terms (without any reference to a Creator God), as the tablature for the inscription of the laws of nature.
Civil Society and Positive Law. Natural law, loosened from a necessary dependence on revealed religion in the past 500 years, may have provided the Christian West with an emergent flexibility that opened a space for civil society and positive law that still (despite the influence on Western thought of Averroes), remains unavailable to Islamic cultures.
Revelation and Common Goods. When framed in the context of a revelation-dependent philosophy of natural law, which in Genesis radically separates the Creator from the Creation, we can see how the natural world provides the stage on which God-like humans act to fulfill the mandate to subdue the earth. It is far less clear, indeed doubtful, that the concept of a common good, as Robby George describes it, entails the goods of natural world itself.
Self-Evidence and Causation
Robby George does not use the term self-evident in his Natural Law lecture. But the idea of self-evidence is central to natural law philosophy as conceived by Aquinas (and as expressed as a way of thinking about fundamental truths in the American Declaration of Independence).
If one thinks about natural law as the laws of nature inscribed upon the Creation, generally, without reference to the rational, free will of a Creator, one might be able to deduce quite a bit of existential truth from these inscriptions. But Robby George and other natural law philosophers remain Scripture-dependent for the ways in which they constitute self-evidence, and this entirely handicaps their enterprise.
The problem, ultimately, is the need to establish a ground of being, the Uncaused Cause, to which self-evident truths can appeal, and Scripture (along with the idea of a Creator God in whose image humans have been created, in opposition to the rest of Creation) is preposterously inadequate to provide this existential foundation. Not least because in a world governed by complexity (morally and biologically and otherwise), the idea of causation itself begins to break down.
Next: Thomist Antecedents of Natural Law Philosophy
Worship the Creation, Not the Creator: An Immodest Challenge to Natural Law, Catholic Theology, the Intellectual Foundations of Conservative Politics in the United States (and Pretty Much Everything Else)
Writing about hunchbacked Nostradamus Steve Bannon, and other topics in the past year (mostly, but not all, Trump-related) creates the sensation that one is (metaphysically speaking) sitting on the shoulders of something, unformed and drenched in darkness, but real and mutable and worth exploring further, no matter what the risk.
Writing anything worthwhile is usually about this sort of exploration or quest to uncover the large, masked forms of our existence. This process requires commitment and trust, that we can figure out things as we go along, that creation (and storytelling) is an adventure of discovery, not the schematic unfurling of foreknowledge.
Existential Risk Requires Existential Thinking
Here’s the concern. When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, breaching inequality, toxically “illiberal” nationalism, and generational abandonment – we have unhinged ourselves and crossed a globally bro-bauched point of no return that half-measures (and quarter-measures,etc.) cannot address.
Of course it is tempting – given the scale of the problem and of the potential harm, and the general uncertainty of the causation – to minimize or dismiss these concerns. To wish them away, or to imagine the harm will come to others and not to oneself. But the direction is clear, and the wager is entirely on the order of Pascal’s.
And here’s the problem. For the most part, the scale of our thinking does not even approximately match the scale of our risk. We delude ourselves if we think it really matters whether today’s special election in Georgia delivers Tom Price’s seat to prepubescent Democrat Jon Ossoff. Or whether Donald Trump releases his tax returns. Or whether Bill O’Reilly returns to Fox.
Perhaps a better way to make this point is to say without a robust, coherent framework for assessing the meaning of these events or moments, we cannot assign any significance to them at all. In this sense, we need to avoid the temptation to take each event or moment on its own terms, especially those events and moments that spotlight the words or deeds of a single individual, and that are merely anecdotal and so almost by definition possess no meaning beyond themselves. We need to be clear about the architecture of assumptions that activates meaning for our actions.
Normal Times. This focus on an architecture of assumptions is to some degree a matter of historical perspective. In “normal” times (if such exist), we feel free to apply a pretty immediate temporal lens to the things that happen around us, a perspective that encompasses merely personal or generational memory. In these normal times, we scan the headlines and respond within a framework of familiar, morally comfortable, and largely programmed, biases and instincts and heuristics, in which events or people are summed into categories of “good” or “bad” associated with a scale of virtues.
Strenuous Times. In “strenuous” times, we might shift to an elongated temporal lens, that reaches back to foundation moments or ideas or claims in our history as a community, a state, or a nation. We need benchmarks for how things have changed, how they have remained the same, and what steps and adjustments we should take in relation to those historical patterns and dynamics. This is where data and metrics and precedent and research can help us, as with disruptive trends in the economy, health, education, culture, or religion that require active debate and appeals to traditional sources of authority and legitimacy, typically summoned by the actors in major court cases (Plessy, Brown) or political movements (Populism, Suffrage, Civil Rights).
Perilous Times. In yet more “perilous” times, we may need to think creatively and take intellectual or mental leaps to grapple with risks or opportunities that are beyond our experience and standard tables of knowledge. The film Hidden Figures instructs us on how both mathematical thinking and racial and gender biases needed to bend and reshape themselves to conform to the requirements of launching and landing a manned spacecraft. The demands and stresses of war are also sources of innovation and disruption, which typically lead to the shattering of conventions, the erosion of boundaries, and the emergence of new cognition maps.
Extinction Moments. Finally, there are “extinction” moments, when radical disruption on a scale outside of human time and memory requires us to peel back vast slices of the past, lay bare the ground of our being as a species, and rebuild upon that purled soil. Extinction moments are infrequent and can involve disease pandemics (such as the Black Death of the 14th century or, more recently, AIDS and Ebola) or extreme environmental events (earthquakes, tsunamis), but can also target specific populations in sustained acts of destruction ranging from ethnic cleansing to systematic genocide.
Extinction moments require us to consciously, with all of the mental strength we can muster, look past the emotionally comfortable and familiar rituals of our minds, past problem-solving heuristics that work well enough in “normal” times, past nearly everything we regard as a given in our lives. The most profound extinction moment, of course, is the extinction by our own hand of life on the planet as we know it.
The Big Think
Climbing around in the dark doesn’t lend itself particularly to systematic thinking, although eventually some full picture probably does emerge. For the next year, though, my intention is to do some extinction-appropriate purling, to appropriately scale my own thinking to the level of risk and challenge we face in the world.
This project will both explore and confront canonical ideas regarding Thomist natural law and Catholic human dignity theology; Western conceptions of individuality, selfhood, agency, rationality, causation, and morality; and the pretty stunning inadequacies of religious belief founded on revelation. My general assumption is that to one degree or another we accept most of these ideas as “self-evident” (including natural law ideas about “self-evidence” itself), but that they actually are not at all self-evident, and dismantling these ideas is akin to dismantling an atomic bomb, and no less urgent and important.
In this project, the most pivotal argument will be that peeling back our past tells us that revealed religion – specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is the big obstacle obscuring our ability to grasp basic realities of our existence and blocking our capacity to address challenges to our existence. The foundations of revealed religions tend to be textually arbitrary and fragmented and evanescent, and so in times of strife wholly inadequate as a basis for holding together societies under stress and at risk.
But even more damning, these religions promote and require their own form of idolatry, absolute submission to and worship of an inscrutable, capricious, human-seeming Creator – in whose image we are told we have been created – who uncannily reminds us of the sour-tempered, inebriate father from our childhoods, sullenly abusive and quick to unsheath his belt or unspool the flat of his hand (no wonder we all suffer from PTSD).
The alternative is simple enough. First, we do not need to worship an arbitrary, entirely preposterous concept of a Creator (who is actually created in our own inadequate human image). We need not base our thoughts and deeds on the flat, toneless, scriptural archaicisms we imagine to be representations of his will. Second, we can and must instead turn our attention to revealed truths that are far more “self-evident” and miraculous, the truths enfolded within the body of the earth, which is the Creation itself.
It’s possible a Big Think project of this sort should daunt, intimidate, or humble me, but it really doesn’t. I don’t harbor the illusion that I’m gifting the world with some gold-encrusted pearl of wisdom (after all, this essay starts by invoking David Letterman). But I do harbor the illusion that we – as a species – face an existentially significant moment and we don’t have a ton of time to sort things out. Pretty much an all hands on deck moment. Which is daunting, intimidating, and humbling.
Where do we look for strength? Perhaps, within the frame of reference of Catholic theology, caritas (loving care for the creation) is the enabling, empowering condition and state of mind toward which we must strive (and so the occasion for calling forth a theology rap battle between St. Thomas of Aquino and St. Francis of Assisi, refereed by St. Augustine of Hippo).
Fragile Democracies. Around the world, in nation after nation, the commitment to liberal democracy has weakened. Fewer people believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy; more people are open to military rule if government institutions weaken; and broadly based parties and movements have become influential or gained power by arguing that existing regimes and institutions are illegitimate. Most strikingly, young people are significantly more likely to believe only weakly in liberal democracy and are more open to military or authoritarian alternatives.
Systemic Corruption.Studies of corruption regimes in nominally liberal democracies such as Brazil, Argentina, and Korea also confirm what we intuitively know, that the pursuit of private gain infects and hollows out trust in governing institutions. Systemic self-dealing and the absence of accountability corrodes norms and ideals of public service and breeds pervasive cynicism about the rule of law. The unabashed mixing of public and private interests in the Trump government also assaults these norms and pretty much obliterates public trust and the rule of law, and in these respects fully resembles an emerging corruption regime.
When Words Mean (Less Than) Nothing. Corruption regimes also hollow out public speech. When the assumption prevails that all public figures and politicians lie and deceive endemically, political parties and political movements are more likely to self-organize as territorial gangs and warlords with tribal loyalties and affiliations. Movement rhetoric becomes more about sowing further mistrust and breeding cognitive chaos, rather than striving to meet standards intrinsic to a nation’s governing institutions and founding ideals.
It Can Happen Here. It Is Happening Here. Those among us who deal in ideas need to ask ourselves hard questions, perhaps especially in the academy (of which I am not a member). The fragility of intellectual diversity and discourse in colleges and universities is a major problem, at many levels. I think Nicholas Kristof gets that right. If universities and colleges close minds, where else on earth will they open? But Kristof, and David Brooks and Thomas Friedman and other mainstream pundits who get paid for being “wise and reasonable men,” entirely miss a deeper point, which is that insular and sheltered academic institutions are incredibly vulnerable.
The Coming Purge. In a pretty vile, self-congratulatory (and self-disclosing) post-election interview, Steve Bannon savaged the media and others who had written off Trump’s. Their mistake, he said, was that they did not understand Politics Is War. In the recent election, the Democratic Party and the establishment media had made the foolish, contemptible error of bringing a (butter) knife to a gunfight. So yes, as Kristoff says, the time for liberal hand-wringing is over. Because Trump and Bannon and Betsy DeVos and like-minded partisans in Congress and in state legislatures (e.g, Wisconsin) will now seize every opportunity to diminish and curb student activism, diversity programs, and academic freedom. They will place their people in charge of public institutions, cut funding, roll back tenure protections, dismiss faculty they don’t like, and purge and and punish and silence everyone else. These looming realities are what academic institutions need to concern themselves with, not white privilege and its discontents.
Messages In A Bottle. The only question that remains for all of us is What Is To Be Done? This is not an easy question to answer, and the answers may vary among us. But it should be the single question that occupies our thoughts and our conversations. I’m aware that I write things and send them by email in this Journal Of Jeremiadus. I appreciate my methods are unorthodox. I also don’t know much about whether people read what I write, so the emails definitely have the quality of a message in a bottle. Which I’m okay with. Because most of our communications, when you think about it, have that quality. We lose a lot of control when we try to speak with and understand each other. We know this. Communication between living creatures is fraught. Meanings are diaphanous. When we speak with others, we risk presuming too much about the value of what we are saying, and about what they can and should do with our speech on the basis of the value we assign to it.
Macaque Monkeys. But speech is pretty much all we have. You might have seen the recent article about the macaque monkeys, who possess the ability to vocalize like humans, but not the brain wiring to actually fashion speech, at least as we understand it. The macaque monkeys in some ways resemble Donald Trump, our next President, who similarly can vocalize like other humans, but who (in addition to his emotional challenges) is obviously profoundly learning disabled (a point that cannot be overemphasized) and who therefore lacks the brain wiring to communicate in a humanly meaningful way.
Epistemological Incoherence. Our status as humans is at stake when we think about the contemporary degradation of speech, the gaslighting (Teen Vogue!), the epistemological incoherence we now confront, and the fog of war that has begun to descend upon us. So messages in a bottle are somewhat like luminescent beacons that can help to guide us through the darkness. If this is true, then one of the things we can do is send out as many messages as we can, with no certain knowledge that any one bottled message will reach its destination, but with an awareness that the focus and coherence of our messaging can somehow lead us home. For my part, this means that one of things I can do is write as if my life depends upon it.
This Will Not Happen.Which is, in a sense, the answer for all of us to the question What Is To Be Done? Each of us has a skill or a gift, a mastery in some domain. And we must each use that special type of mastery in the service of the things we most care about, because everything of value in our diverse, profluent, abundant world is profoundly at risk. So even more than writing (or researching or teaching or composing or painting or healing or building or litigating) as our lives depend upon it, we must do these things as if the world depends upon it. Without ego. Without hope of personal gain. Without regard for personal consequences. It really amounts simply to each of one us individually, in our own way, saying No. This Will Not Happen.
Explaining Our Befuddlement. One of my recent (and perhaps faddish) obsessions is with emergent systems. It may be useful for us to consider the Trump phenomenon in these terms. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll only say that our befuddlement about the political inversion we have recently witnessed probably is the result of what we might (loosely and metaphorically) call a phase state transition, such as the transition from water to ice, in which the properties that constitute reality fundamentally shift. To the degree we live in a world in which we map reality along a stable continuum, say of water temperature, we might experience the water as warm or cold, but know it always to be water. When water phase shifts and becomes ice, that continuum shatters. We live in a new reality. If we remain trapped in the cognitive map of the continuum of the old reality, we are truly lost.
What I Am Gonna Do. Therefore (and as a heads up), I am committing myself to writing – and sending – something out via my Journal Of Jeremiadus on a thrice-weekly schedule (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). Please (please) unsubscribe if this is too much for you (I would certainly understand). But if you don’t unsubscribe, I can promise that the things I write will be short (between 500 and 1,000 words) and specifically and usefully topical (e.g., white nationalism, Breitbart, the Urban Dictionary, identity politics, the Anthropocene, the prison industry, Citizens United, charter schools, the gun culture, free speech, Constitutional originalism and textualism, revealed religion, ontological fundamentalism, head injuries, war casualties, patriotism, trees, frogs, water rights, ice cap melt, desert encroachification, ocean acidification, fascism, voting rights, emotional dysregulation, urban violence, mammalian consciousness, stochastic tinkering, the three-point shot, horse racing, fiction, executive compensation, automation). In each of these essays, I also promise to keep the focus on the larger themes of what it means to be human, and what we can do, specifically, to shrink and subdue the evil that has risen amongst and between us.
Figuring out what personality disorder explains Donald Trump is an emerging (possibly self-defeating) parlor game, part of our efforts to make sense of the new political world in which we live. Last week, N. Ziehl posted thoughts on Facebook about the narcissism of Donald Trump (republished on Medium and then again by James Fallows in The Atlantic). I have written myself about Trump’s narcissism. Prior to the election, most of these armchair diagnoses functioned as both warning about the risks of electing Trump and as a way to reassure ourselves that the American electorate, collectively and infinitely wise, would ultimately vote with their heads, not their spleens. Post-election, conversations about Trump’s narcissism have more the flavor of tactics for surviving a four-year cage match with a deranged grizzly bear.
This recent suffusion of the familiar tropes of narcissistic symptomology (grandiose self-conception, impulsive behavior, absence of boundaries, instrumental manipulation of others) and etiology (attachment trauma, foundational mistrust, arrested emotional development) should remind us that narcissism is a social pathology (in the sense that, unlike with depression or bipolar disorder, narcissism requires active social engagement to exist). Trump’s personality disorders don’t matter enormously except to the degree his political ascent communicates and refers us to political dimensions of this pathology that refract the distance we have traveled from norms of political health. In other words, we might be missing the mark if we spotlight the personal narcissism of Trump without embedding its importance for us politically in the social and relational dynamics on which narcissism feeds.
The Ziehl essay reminded me that, many lifetimes ago, I had actually written quite extensively about the political meaning of narcissism. In 1989, I published an article in the journal Political Theory entitled “His Majesty the Baby: Narcissism and Royal Authority” (which led to a brief exchange – here and here – with political theorist Patricia Springborg published in a subsequent issue of Political Theory). The premise of the article was that Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism”, and his famous reference to “his majesty the baby,” might yield interesting insights if we focused attention less on “the baby” and more on “his majesty.” Below, I’d like briefly to apply the insights of the article, particularly those deriving from object relations theory, to the unreality of our present circumstances, the major lesson being that we need to appreciate how Trump has tapped into the psychologically atavistic and primitive desires and anxieties of a broad swath of the electorate, conditioned by real and addressable events in the world.
A simple rendering of the N. Ziehl essay on Trump’s narcissism might be “don’t feed the beast.” And this makes enormous sense, as attention is the only thing that fuels our President-elect, who possesses no inner life as most of us experience it, and so does not feel himself to exist without the attention and validation of others. But here’s the problem. We can’t not feed the beast. We cannot look away. None of us, those who voted against Trump no less than those who voted for him, those who despise and fear him no less than those who worship him (as on Reddit) as their new emperor-god. Trump only exists because we allow him to. He cannot directly make us read his tweets and follow his headlines. But he doesn’t need to, because each of us, yoked to the Pavlovian incentives of social media and reality television, experience the same override of our cognitive processes when he or his minions ride into our field of vision as we do with the Kardashians or with other celebrities. We literally lose our minds.
We have seen this before. History provides countless instances of the distortions and excess and cognitive confusion that can occur when a single ruler tramples the hedges of law and convention and becomes the “disintermediated” focal point of the political landscape. The family intrigues of imperial Rome, the machinations of the medieval papacy, and the rancid behaviors of the absolutist, dynastic (and inbred) ancien regime provide templates for this type of descent. The current moment presents some twists, however, with a semi-choreographed institutional implosion (a back-to-the-future return to a post-modern state of nature) that Donald Trump, with his cavernous emotional needs and intuitive, mercenary affinity for shit disturbance, has relentlessly exploited, thumbing his nose indiscriminately at all convention, and absorbing and enlarging himself via a calculus of taunts that in no way resemble political discourse as we have ever before experienced it, nor to any reality most of us can recognize, but which for these reasons offer a voice to those who see through a glass darkly (darkened gorilla glass of myriad “devices”) and mutely, and for whom speech and rhetoric are simply instruments for hyperventilation of an inchoate rage, and for the promise of succor and satiety and safety. No wonder democracy has exposed fragile, reed-like foundations confirming (ironically, of course), the dark realism of Alexander Hamilton and, before him, of Thomas Hobbes.
As many pundits have noted (some only with 20-20 hindsight), Trump is both vessel and voice, the (perversely unintended) consequence of an enormously successful eight-year campaign by Congressional Republicans to destroy Barack Obama, assisted by entirely craven and merciless political allies in the heartland: 1) a hugely well-funded and well-organized business / lobbying complex; and 2) a consolidated Tea Party / white nationalist media (I think we can now safely use “white nationalism” as an appropriate term for the goals of conservative talk radio, book publishing, and digital media). These scorched-earth campaigns activated and exploited popular emotional vulnerabilities and deficiencies that had little to do with concrete interests, needs, and goals, and everything to do with the mercenary accumulation of power.
This project of political destruction has really been about cementing fear and loathing into our political institutions (let’s call it the real infrastructure project). And clearly, many analogies of this sort present themselves, from whatever myth or fantasy one chooses, anything to characterize the unreality of the moment. The bottom line, however, is that we can no longer ignore the toxic emotional energy released by this recalibrated political environment, the intentional birthing of a new, diminished and twisted kind of man.
My article on narcissism and royal authority is obviously dated, and it is with some trepidation that I even introduce it into conversation about politics in the 21st century. But having read the essay again, after a break of several decades, I think the analysis is still pretty robust, partly because it was always meant to ground our understanding of politics within a universal model of human development, but also because the impact of economic globalization and digital communication and media technologies has, if anything, heightened the polarized, yet twinned, experiences of helplessness and omnipotence around which a political narcissism can form itself. Two paragraphs from the article summarize the emotional dynamics supporting this condition.
Object relations theorists, such as Margaret Mahler and Heinz Kohut, do not deny that separation from the mother dictates that the young child exchange “some of his magical omnipotence for autonomy and developing self-esteem.” However, they also stress that separation and individuation do not require the flourishing young child to abandon the primary narcissism of its infancy. Rather, the child’s developing ego builds upon this narcissism as a foundation, as a source of basic trust, inner strength, and enduring self-regard. Mature and socially valued qualities such as creativity, empathy, humor, and wisdom represent successful attempts to harness and to transform the energy generated by narcissistic sensations of grandiosity and omnipotence. With the attainment of these qualities, burnished over time, comes the ability to accept one’s mortality, to live fully and completely within the limits imposed upon us a embodied creatures. This, Heinz Kohut suggests, represents the ego’s definitive triumph over the narcissistic self. It may also provide a measure of the distance psychologically between royal subjection and democratic citizenship.
Narcissism assumes pathological dimensions only when, to return to language introduced by Freud, the grandiose “ego-feeling” never shrinks as an adjustment to reality and instead persists into adulthood as an artificially inflated entity. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel has explored connections between narcissism in adults and the regressive, ultimately destructive, impulses liberated by social movements and regimes sustained by a charismatic or messianic leader. She suggests that this type of leader promotes illusion. He draws on the authority of the omnipotent mother of earliest infancy, whose seductive siren song to the child is that he or she need not grow up. The personal ego may freely dissolve into the maternal matrix sustained by the encompassing aura of the group itself. Individuals need not identify with other individuals so much as they ought to identify with the group in its entirety. The megalomania induced by this transubstantiation of personal identities from discrete, self-contained unities into one vast, throbbing organism confers upon each individual the sense of possessing an omnipotent ego. Each now inhabits a “colossal body.” Within this narcissistic mental world, from which reality has been banished and in which there no longer exist any limits, the individual imagines he or she will no longer see through a glass darkly, but now will witness face to face the magic place where all wishes come true.
If we are to neuter Donald Trump and reorient our politics toward a specific, mappable reality of needs and goals, we must remind ourselves, continually, that Trump’s power rests in his ability to claim and hold our attention (consider the Medusa legend, with all of its gendered and sexualized meanings). It is precisely in those moments where he claims us that we lose ourselves, and experience the disorientation of the narcissistic fable. Trump and his various Sith Lords (including, we may assume, Steve Bannon as Darth Sidious) have successfully spun their web using three specific techniques of disorientation that both absorb and reinforce politically the narcissist pathology: 1) normalization; 2) confusion; and 3) misdirection. Let’s examine each in turn.
Normalization – Donald Trump has benefited not simply from the obliteration of behavioral norms and policy conventions by Tea Party white nationalists and the business-lobbying complex in the past eight years. He has personally normalized a paranoid, demonizing chaos of the mind that most closely resembles the Salem Witch Trial on a national scale, in which the dominant emotions are anger and contempt, a sadistic will to punish the weakest and most vulnerable among us on behalf of hyper-inflated fantasies of threat and menace.
Confusion – By leveling “adult” (or “elite”) norms of professional conduct, Trump has also sanctified the roaring, rampant anti-intellectualism of Breitbart, Infowars, Rush Limbaugh and other Tea Party / white nationalist “patriots” that collapses knowledge into opinion, rant, screed, and worse. As others have noted, the effect is less to disprove evidence-based knowledge as it is to call into question the concept of knowledge altogether, and so destroying the epistemological ground of our capacity to act effectively (and collectively) in the world.
Misdirection – Trump wants us to focus on him – on his tweets, his family, his finances, his improprieties, his boorishness, etc. – partly because he craves the attention, but not incidentally, because when our gaze is upon him, we are not paying attention to the flow of ideas and policies, and on the underlying machinery and political agenda of Tea Party.
Taken together, these techniques further enmesh us within the narcissistic bubble, in which fantasy and and willed ignorance displace reality, disengaging us from norms of civility based on learned skills of empathy and intersubjectivity. The essence of their impact is to externalize, embody, and personalize evil (perhaps not a surprising outcome in a movement inspired by the revealed religion of a personal God). If an emotionally consistent thread runs through the guttural language of the movement conservatives, it is a relentless passion for naming names, creating demons, and outsourcing evil to specific individuals and targeted groups. Again, we have seen, in both the past and the present, where the personalization of evil can lead.
Our task, then, is to depersonalize our own conception of the challenge. One of the fatal mistakes of the Clinton campaign was to take the bait and turn the election into a referendum on the character of Donald Trump. Within the unmoored, unbounded political landscape of our time, it was perhaps inevitable that Trump supporters, and probably even Trump fence-sitters, would internalize attacks on Trump’s character as attacks on themselves. The term “deplorables” has now become a badge of honor for many of Trump’s most ardent citizen voices in flyover land. But of course these are the folks we want to reach, or at least to neutralize. And so we need to focus less on the personal failings, misdeeds, and excesses of Donald Trump and members of his misbegotten royal court. Instead, we must attend to the conditions that have produced this political metastasis. We need to cure the disease, not kill the patient. And so we must attack Trump’s positions, not his personality or his lifestyle. We must specifically and closely track the activities of Congress, because after eight fallow years, Trump has liberated a Republican-controlled legislature to undertake a Bacchanalian frenzy of lawmaking, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen in at least 50 years. We need to closely track the impact of court appointments and court decisions and directions of Constitutional lawmaking. We need to study and map and itemize the networks and assets and activities of movement conservatives
The national (and global) risks we face are deep and serious, with complex and layered causes, and we should not assume they will happily resolve themselves any time soon. We will need to play a long game, with a selfless and disciplined awareness of the stakes that allows us to transcend and see beyond the chaos in which Donald Trump himself seems to thrive and does not at all mind exploiting. But awareness of these underlying social and emotional dynamics can can help us to focus on the institutional foundations of reason, insight, and wisdom that are the source of our sanity as a democratic nation.