Contempt Is Not a Cure: C.S. Lewis on Owning the Elites

Why C.S. Lewis would have rebuked a common conservative attitude as the work of the devil.

It’s become common on the Right to hear people talk about “the elites” in a very peculiar way. Not only are the elites people we must loathe and refuse to imitate, but they are inverse moral examples. What they do and believe is the opposite of what we ought to do and believe. If a particular idea or behavior or line of reasoning is one that is used by an “elite,” that fact alone is an argument against it. Large swaths of contemporary conservatives seem to organize their entire political and ethical life around the goal of sticking a finger in the eyes of elites.

I think C.S. Lewis would have some strong things to say about this. Listen to the way he describes the sin of pride as being less bad in the stage of vanity (caring too much what others think of us) and much worse in the state of contempt. Lewis’s description of contempt in Mere Christianity suits the conservative attitude toward “elites” almost perfectly:

The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you.

Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals—or my artistic conscience—or the traditions of my family—or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’ In this way real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.

Of course, contempt is what many working class Americans believe the elite feel toward them, and they’re often right. Lewis was not naive about class. He was deeply skeptical especially about the intellectual establishment of his time, believing it to largely be (especially in university) a morally and spiritually bankrupt “inner ring.” Lewis understood the power that wealthy, influential people wield over the lives of others, and he challenged this power as forcefully as any Christian writer I’ve read.

Nonetheless, Lewis eschewed the kind of reverse identity-formation that soaks through much Western life. Note how Lewis includes “the traditions of my family” as a motivation for contempt. Even “blue-collar” goods like family tradition and community sensibility can be co-opted as license to resent. Whereas the popular notion is that being looked down upon by someone with wealth and privilege is an infinitely worse evil than our resentment of them, Lewis thinks (correctly) that pride is an equal opportunity destroyer. Our place in the social strata does not determine how well our souls can tolerate the devil’s work.

Contempt is not a cure. Conservative Christians who love “owning” the elites, and who are willing to sacrifice their moral compass in order to do so, should remember that.

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Does Morality Matter on the Right Anymore?

The main reason I wrote my reply to Ben Domenech about Hugh Hefner, and the main reason I’m thankful to First Things for running it, is that I sensed—correctly, as it turned out—that Domenech’s sentiment was more widely shared on the Right than conservative evangelicals might want to believe. “Cultural conservatives,” those who argue not just for small government but for moral wakefulness and a virtuous public square, are increasingly seen as the pariahs of the Right. The election of Donald Trump, a cultural conservative’s foe if there ever were one, is proof that, politically speaking, what curries favor with conservative politicos nowadays is more about libertarianism and a kind of anti-Left disposition. Put another way: I don’t think most conservative Americans are like, say, Milo Yiannopolous, but I don’t think most have a big problem with him. Milo is not conservative in any sense, except for the sense that liberals hate him and he returns the favor. That seems to be enough to qualify as a conservative right now, and one implication of that trend is that the moral qualms of puritanical cultural conservatives (the kind who would excoriate Hugh Hefner no matter how many feminists he upset) are now obnoxious.

Does morality matter on the Right anymore? Before progressives and tradinistas respond with, “It never has! #Capitalism,” let me clarify what I mean. I’m not asking if morality matters to the Right, according to the Left. I’m not asking progressives if they think American conservatism has lost its conscience. No, I’m actually asking my fellow conservatives to be honest for one minute. Does morality, public and private, matter to the Right’s agenda in 2017? Does the fact that Hugh Hefner commercialized and weaponized pornography make a dent in his free speech, anti-pantsuit legacy? Domenech’s piece and others similar to it seem to suggest no, or not really.

This is very intriguing to me. The porn industry is awfully low-hanging fruit for a traditionalist conservatism. The scent of technocracy, Sexual Revolution, and abortion politics are all over it. Yet here we are in 2017, after the death of the Western world’s most powerful and most important pornographer, debating on the Right just how much of his legacy is actually worth celebrating, because it offended the easily offended. Something tells me this is a shift worth caring about.

After all, if morality is iffy on the Right today, where we will be in 20 years? Will Margaret Sanger become a conservative hero after her eugenicist ideals are banned from bookstores and libraries at the behest of progressives? Will Alfred Kinsey be “reconsidered” by the conservative movement for triggering the transgender literati? Will atheists and cultural deconstructionists who preach the end of faith be looked on with gratitude by conservative publications, just because they were willing to say the words “Islamic terrorism”?

Does morality matter on the Right anymore? Or is it just about not being the Left?

 

photo by Alan Light

If You Like Your Theocracy, You Can Keep Your Theocracy

My issue with pieces like this one comes down to a question of good-faith. In a certain context, given some mutual assumptions and amongst people who share particular convictions, arguing from the New Testament to a certain political program can be persuasive and valuable. The trouble comes when such an argument appears ex nihilo in a secular worldview universe. Then it becomes a transparently manipulative attempt to appropriate a belief system that the author clearly sees no transcendent value in–aside from the value of momentarily making his opponents look like hypocrites.

This is the kind of theological co-opting that harms the gospel, whether it comes from the right or the left. I have Christian friends who believe, as Kristof apparently does, that the teachings of Jesus lead us to a particular system of healthcare in government. Their perspective is informed by Scripture and Christian ethics. But it’s also informed by a more general humility toward the lordship of Jesus Christ and the inspiration and authority of the Bible. My Christian friends who argue from a biblical perspective for their healthcare policy also believe that, for example, Jesus really was speaking through the apostle Paul when he says that those who practice fornication, adultery, homosexuality, idolatry, covetousness, etc, will not inherit the kingdom. Their perspective on healthcare comes from a place of good faith, and even if I do not agree politically, I have to reckon with their arguments as if it is indeed possible that they articulating a genuinely Christian position.

But Kristof’s op-ed comes from no such place. There is little evidence that Kristof himself operates on a biblical worldview, and there is even less evidence that he really believes a Christian-oriented political governance would be good for the country. In 2004, Kristof issued a strong rebuke to Christians who opposed same-sex marriage, attacking them for their transparently theocratic attempt to force their religion on their neighbors:

In any case, do we really want to make Paul our lawgiver? Will we enforce Paul’s instruction that women veil themselves and keep their hair long? (Note to President Bush: If you want to obey Paul, why don’t you start by veiling Laura and keeping her hair long, and only then move on to barring gay marriages.)

Given these ambiguities, is there any solution? One would be to emphasize the sentiment in Genesis that “it is not good for the human to be alone,” and allow gay lovers to marry.

This quotation does not flatter Kristof’s healthcare column. It exposes a mercenary use of Scripture and a disingenuous instinct toward religious belief. Those who warn against theocracy and the apostle Paul when talking about marriage are not entitled to appeal to the lordship of Christ when the topic turns to healthcare. As C.S. Lewis said, Christ did not leave us the luxury of dismissing him as merely a good moral teacher. He is a liar, a lunatic, or a lord–and the right choice doesn’t depend on which party has a majority.

(photo credit)

The Worst President Ever

A president with wrong ideas is not a good president. But a president with wrong motivations would be the worst president imaginable.

Too often we think of politicians and rulers as fundamentally different types of people than the rest of us. It’s an understandable misconception, given that our ruling class is overwhelmingly technocratic and elite. From trust funds to the Ivy League, the existential gap between taxpayers and the leaders they get to choose from seems infinite.

But powerful humans beings are still human beings. That means they experience the same temptations, doubts, frustrations, and ambitions that their electorate experiences. If you want to understand the most powerful, influential people in the world, the best way to start is to try to understand the people working in the cubicle across from you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or taking notes on the other side of the classroom.

Every adult understands intuitively the difference between the wrong kind of person and a person who is just wrong. We practice this intuition every day on spouses, coworkers, children, law enforcement, etc. How many parents have pled for understanding from exasperated teachers with the words, “They’re not a bad kid”? Or how many of us have tried to get out of the speeding ticket by insisting that we had no idea the change in zone limit, or the speedometer has been messing up? Nobody in the right mind says, “You have to understand, my child is just an especially wicked and stubborn kid,” or, “Honestly, officer, I love speeding and breaking the law. Can’t you empathize with my loves?” In the contexts that come to us every day, we practice the difference between the wrong motivation and the wrong application.

What bewilders me about this election is the amount of people I’m running into who willingly concede that their candidate of choice may be the wrong kind of person. There’s a maddening air of willing indifference when it comes to motivations and basic moral orientation. And these same people are likely thrashing another politician, on the other side of the aisle, for being “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” in their policies or worldview. It’s almost as if there’s a huge group of voters in my social sphere who think the wrong kind of president is better than a wrong president.

But surely this is asinine. It’s a delusion that can only be maintained by divorcing entirely a person from their actions. If a candidate who seeks office consistently demonstrates morally contemptible behavior, a self-seeking narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation, how is it at all possible that his or her leadership will not reflect that? How is it possible to be the wrong kind of person but the right kind of leader?

Surely this is not the logic we would apply to even our babysitters. It’s one thing for a sitter to cluelessly give the children sugary sweets right before bedtime. That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake that can be cured through correction. But it’s another thing entirely for a sitter to plop down on the sofa, immerse herself in her phone, and let the children do whatever they want so long as she does nothing she finds inconvenient. The first babysitter needs instruction and perhaps some common sense. The second babysitter needs a moral intervention.

Parents get this distinction. Why don’t voters? Why are so many people in my Facebook feed convinced that character is negotiable if we’re talking about getting the job done? Why are so many evangelicals farming out their convictions about integrity for the sake of keeping the score between Left and Right even? When did we convince ourselves that the wrong kind of person can be the right kind of president?

A president with bad beliefs is a dangerous thing. But a bad person is even worse than bad beliefs. If this is true on Monday morning in the office, or on Saturday night during date night, it’s so much more true in November.

Tassels and Truth

I spent about four hours of my Monday night at a college graduation. My wife was being awarded her degree in elementary education, and she was joined by (according to the college president) 995 other undergraduates. Graduates were welcomed, inducted, charged, presented, and awarded, in that order. The night was long; speeches repeated, processionals and recessionals slogged, and of course, each of the 995 students were called, conferred, and congratulated individually.

It was a ceremony clearly not tailored to the entertainment generation or the babies of endless social media connectivity. Neither was it the du jour of those “radicals,” found so often on college campuses, who detest tradition and protest uniformity. Students marched in step behind large banners, signifying their membership in one of the university’s schools. Everyone wore the same traditional black gown and cap. Songs older than many US states were sung. It was, in many ways, a kind of religious ceremony, in which tradition, institution, and (academic) success made up the liturgy.

I realized at one point that for all the endless intellectual coddling and culture policing that characterizes the contemporary American university, a bachelor’s degree culminates in an event that defies such self-expressive autonomy. Graduation invites students, faculty, family and friends to believe that they are participating in something greater than themselves, to find satisfaction and joy in the idea that what they have achieved has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Yes, graduates have their names called, and yes, graduates receive their own degrees. But the entire ethos of the ceremony is one that says: “This is not ultimately about you.”

This is the opposite, of course, of what many undergraduates learn in the college classroom. We hear almost daily updates on an American university culture which at every turn empowers freshmen and sophomores to authenticate themselves through protest, rather than sit and learn about an imperfect world at the feet of imperfect people. Much of young adult life is what Alan Jacobs calls the “trade-in society,” a life of loose connection and easy escape from situations that become difficult. If institutions become ornery, if they cease to align up perfectly with my individual desires and goals, then the solution is to either give up on the institution or else demand that it change.

Nihilism in higher education has been rampant for some time. But if what I saw Monday night was an indication, it looks like it has mostly failed to leave its imprint on graduation. Presidents and executive administrators sat on the stage, above the floor of graduates; no one protested this obvious hierarchy. I didn’t see any letters to the editor in the following days demanding that the school change its individualism-stifling policy on the robe and cap. Nary a thought was given to whether the school fight song, written in 1892, might have been penned by someone with questionable social or political opinion. In other words, there seems to be no pressing need to make commencement in our sociopolitical image. The ritual is allowed to be ritual.

Why is this? Why, among all the college unrest and university politics in our culture today, is there no national movement to “democratize” commencement? Why is there no formidable backlash to its rigidity and solemnity?

Perhaps one answer is that graduation is one of the few moments remaining in our culture where achievement needs tradition. What a conferring of degrees means is dependent on what, or who, is conferring them. This is, after all, the difference between a college education and a few bucks paid to a diploma mill at a PO box. Anyone can write anything on a piece of paper. But the bigness—we might even say transcendence—of the commencement ceremony befits a time where graduates are declared matriculated by those with the (trigger warning) power to say so.

A commencement invites students to become not just graduates, but alumni. That’s why so much of the chancellor’s speech on Monday was given to exulting in the university’s history and prestige. Students aren’t just receiving degrees; they’re receiving membership, a form of covenant (however informal) that ties them to a specific place and a specific body. Implicit in the commencement is the idea that people need to belong, and that belonging to something greater than and outside oneself is not opposed to individual achievement and success.

Unfortunately, from August to April, much of college life teaches the opposite. From radical deconstructionism in the humanities, to rank scientism in mathematics and biology, to the campus hook up culture—all of these coalesce into a living liturgy of lonely autonomy and hopeless self-authentication.

Is the unraveling of the American campus really a surprise? I can’t see how it is. If everything in the classroom and commons area screams that transcendence and God are nothing but ciphers for the powerful, might one eventually want to apply the rules learned about home, country, and religion to the college itself? Why be oppressed? Higher education was comfortable directing this energy toward the general culture for decades; the only problem now is that the barrels are turned the wrong way. If Lady Thatcher was right that running out of other people’s money was the trouble with socialism, you might say the problem with nihilism in education is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s safe spaces.

So the drama of higher education continues. In the coming years we will see just how strong an institution it is, as it tries to fend off the threats of digitalization, debt, and decay. It very well could be that the internet age was created for such a time as this, to rescue the university from itself and provide a generation with the knowledge and intellectual formation that a coddling college culture has defaulted on. In many ways it would be, as Ross Douthat has noted, a punishment that fits academia’s crime.

Whatever the future holds, let’s hold off on tampering too much with commencement. It’s indeed tedious and self-congratulating. But it’s also a spark of meaning and permanence and truth in the cavernous culture of higher ed. As tassels move to the left, it could be that something much bigger moves to the right.

Beware the Politics of Anger

The reality then is that our angry emotions are not always—or even usually—to be trusted. And if this is true in marriage, parenting, and friendship, it is also true in politics.

We have this election season a few candidates, on both sides of the ideological aisle, who are said to be “tapping into American anger.” What this means is that these candidates, demonstrably more so than their rivals, address explicitly the frustration, resentment, and fear that many in the country are feeling at the moment. Continue reading “Beware the Politics of Anger”