The great temptation?

There are many interesting angles in a very moderate and balance column posted by Ross Douthat in the New York Times over the weekend. His subject was the latest culture conflict which has evolved out of the general LGBTQ revolution/counterrevolution – with Florida’s counterrevolutionary offensive vis-a-vis school texts in the eye of the storm. But perhaps the most worrying angle is the one with which he concludes. It is his focus on what this war has done, not to a society’s understanding of biology, sexuality and gender. His concern is that in our discourse we now see undermined the very principles of openness, sincerity and honesty which have for millennia marked our conversations with each other.

Glancing across the parts of the planet where the trajectory of the LGBTQ revolution is in its most advanced form, he sees a readiness to consider its scientific and medical aspects everywhere except in the US. I wonder if he is reading it right there? What he sees is that American liberalism, all the way up to the Biden administration, is drifting away, on these questions, even from the most liberal and secular parts of Europe. “From Britain to Sweden there is an increasingly vigorous debate around adolescent medical interventions, widespread doubts that they are actually supported by the data and a partial reconsideration of their general application to transgender-identifying youth. In liberal America there is mostly just an orthodoxy, even if the cracks show here and there.”

This of course, is a further reinforcement of the desperate polarisation which everyone there complains about but no one seems prepared to engage with the intolerance at its roots.

He finds the American climate unique in this regard and clearly worries about its effect on the thought processes of moderate conservatives like himself who enjoy a substantial liberal readership. He is after all, a very highly regarded columnist in the New York Times. The whole thing puts him distinctly outside his comfort zone. 

“You will notice,” he writes, with regard to his categorisation of the three camps with a stake in this war, “that I have written this essay in a studiously cautious style, on the theory that as I am in fact a known social conservative, my too-vigorous prosecution of the skeptics’ case would serve only to reinforce the current progressive orthodoxy — enabling the response that, see, to doubt the wisdom of puberty blockers or the authenticity of teenage self-identification is the province of Catholics, religious conservatives, the out-group.”

The great temptation for the moderate person today, he seems to say, is to emulate the ostrich and to stick our heads in the sand. This, he recognises is to follow a theory of conflict-avoidance, shading into cowardice. 

He concludes, sticking his head straightforwardly above the parapet, with a prediction: “Within not too short a span of time, not only conservatives but most liberals will recognize that we have been running an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.

“Which means that if you are a liberal who believes as much already, but you don’t feel comfortable saying it, your silence will eventually become your regret.”

We might wonder why the well documented stories of the follies of corporate America of the past two decades – highlighted so thoroughly by documentaries on the streaming channels – are not having more of an impact. These go back to Enron, through the opioid scandal involving the FDA, Purdue Pharma and others, down to the Theranos and Boeing 737 Max debacles. Why are these are not focusing the minds of people pushing procedures which may not just be dismembering unfortunate individuals but also threatening to turn their own society into a sterile husk. 

A Christian future for liberalism?


The current geo-political turmoil, with Ukraine in the eye of the storm, is upsetting all kinds of certainties and semi-certainties. Many of these we may have been priding ourselves of possessing. One is the semi-certainty, held by perhaps a majority of Christians, that on the political spectrum their values were going to be better protected by the right as opposed to the left. This was so much so that in current discourse “the Christian right” itself became a political category.

Now, however, a great deal of rethinking has been forced on the lazy-minded categorizers. This has been forced on all who place value on religion itself, of any denomination or creed. A genuine orthodox Christian has no choice but to flee from the murderous political regime which until very recently was being seen as a defender of the faith. That title has now become as unworthy of Vladimir V. Putin as the title defensor fidei bestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 became. In the Islamic world the brutalities of Iran and Saudi Arabia, so-called defenders of the muslim faith, can only be an affront to its genuine adherents. The growing extremism of Narenda Modi’s regime must pain any peace-loving Hindu.

But the cleansing process does not end with the potential  it has for the purification of religions. It also shows signs of bringing the secular world back to its senses. Ezra Klein, a young liberal-minded columnist in the New York Times suggests that the exposure of the excesses of the right now gives liberalism itself an opportunity to bring itself back from the brink of disaster, a scenario outlined a few years ago by Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame in his book on the failure of liberalism. Its intolerances and narrow minded bigotry has been for years threatening what Klein sees as its true universal spirit.

In Klein’s reading, the anti-liberal right – where it was identifying itself as Christian – was never true to the Christian faith. In fact, in its true form it was something that they feared – as Vladimir V. Putin must now do. The liberal left, on the other hand, for the recent decades in which it has not adhered to universal principles has suffered by its separation from the belief of genuine Christians.

Klein explores all this in a recent long article in his newspaper. He does so partly in the context of what he describes as a moving and beautiful collection  of essays by Ukrainian writers on the country’s history and its troubled relationship with both Russia and the West.

In his article he echoes the famous opening epigram of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-between – “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” He suggests that the trap which liberalism fell into was to marginalize all those who valued elements of tradition, their histories and their nations. To do so for him was a fatal flaw, betraying the universal spirit which should imbue true liberals.

“Liberalism”, he writes, “needs a healthier relationship to time. Can the past become a foreign country without those who still live there being turned into foreigners in their own land? If the future is to be unmapped, then how do we persuade those who fear it, or mistrust us, to agree to venture into its wilds?

“I suspect another way of asking the same question is this: Can the constant confrontation with our failures and deficiencies produce a culture that is generous and forgiving? Can it be concerned with those who feel not just left behind, as many in America do, but left out, as so many Ukrainians were for so long?”

Then he moves to suggest this daring answer.

“The answer to that — if there is an answer to that — may lie in the Christianity the anti-liberals feared, which too few in politics practice. What I, as an outsider to Christianity, (he is Jewish) have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.”

Some of this spirit, in secular form, can, he writes, be seen in the Ukrainian essays. “The tone is anything but triumphalist, with Russia having taken Crimea and the rest of Europe and the United States shrugging it off. The perspective is largely tragic, clear-eyed about the work that may go undone and the distance left to travel. But the writing is generous, too: suffused with love for country, honesty about an often bloody history, determination despite a disappointing present and, above all, a commitment to one another.”

He concludes by saying that there is much to learn from that merger of self-criticism and deep solidarity. Put in Christian terms he might have said that with humility and Charity, the world might well be saved. It would. It will.

Ill-weaved ambitions and their discontents

Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani

I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er. 

There is surely something salutary in the coincidence of the streaming of The Tragedy of Macbeth over the same months that the tragedy of Elizabeth Holmes has also been unfolding on our screens in the Hulu produced series, The Dropout, based on an original ABC podcast of the same name.

If there ever was an age of ambition, this is it. So much so that there are even signs of a backlash against it. To be reminded how toxic ambition can become must only be good for us. It is as though the illusory follies of the American dream have now infected the whole world. In 2015 Holmes – a Gatsby for our times? – told a magazine interviewer, “I am living proof that it’s true that if you can imagine it, you can achieve it”.

After the banquet scene in Macbeth (Act 3, Scene 4) , when the ghost of the murdered Banquo appears to him, he cries, part in despair, part in vicious resolution,  “I am in blood / Stepped in so far…Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” The blood on his hands matches the blood surging in his veins which fires his resolve to hold on to the kingdom for which his ambition drove him to murder those who stood in his way.

In the Elizabeth Holmes story, blood is more than just a symbol. The blood was real. The victims of her fraudulent deceits on which her whole Theranos blood testing start-up was built, were real – and their lives were deemed at risk because of the faulty process. Driven by her ambition, admirable to many as she started out, she was gradually corrupted by it, lied in pursuit of it and betrayed and abused many of those whom she deceived in order to hold on to the wealth and celebrity she had attained through it. 

There are not many of Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays in which ambition does not play a role in the downfall of central characters. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal bemoans the fate of Hotspur whom he has killed on the battlefield: 

Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk! When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound. But now two paces of the vilest earth are room enough

But then, from the primordial plunge of Satan into hell, through the tragedy of his first human victims, to our own day, ambition has been an element in our nature which has moved mankind to great good, or, “ill-weaved”, to  great evil. 

Shakespeare did not vaunt ambition or the ambitious. He warned us of it. Yet it seems our own age does vaunt it and the fears of Lady Macbeth about the courage of her husband seem unfounded if the political and  business culture of our time are closely examined.

Yet do I fear thy nature.

It is too full of the milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.

(Act I, scene 5)

Elizabeth Holmes, paraded her ambition under the cloak of philanthropy – saying her goal was to save lives with a revolutionary and speedy blood testing procedure. For good measure she was going to obliterate the existing testing agencies which were making billions of dollars using snail-paced tried and tested methods. She probably did start out with good intentions. Tragically, when she discovered that her company was failing to make it, she opted to fake it. From then on it was downhill into the pit where she now rests, awaiting sentence as a convicted fraudster.

In the space of a few years, Elizabeth Holmes moved from being an attractive and dynamic 18 year-old Stanford undergraduate to become a barefaced fraudster. Icons of the high-tech world helped her to shed her humanity along the way. One of Silicon Valley’s big names and one of the richest men in the world is Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle. He is portrayed in The Dropout as one of the first to teach her how to raise capital. In the process he tells her to start firing people, it would seem, just for practice. She proves herself to be a very apt pupil, without any trace of the milk of human kindness.

Rufus Norris, in a recent  interview with The Guardian, reflected on a production of Macbeth at Britain’s national Theatre. He talked about this illness attending ambition: 

If you look at anyone successful, anyone successful that I’ve known, there is an illness that attends it, and it’s an illness that enables you, to one degree or another, to cut off your humanity, because your success inevitably means someone else not quite making it, whether that’s me going up against a couple of people I knew really well for the job that I’m now in [artistic director of the National Theatre], or the bank manager getting the bank manager’s job, or somebody putting their child into private school, because it’s a form of ambition.

This kind of consciousness, or awakening of conscience, seems to be growing and is part of that backlash referred to earlier. The Guardian article which quoted Norris seems to spell out the folly of one kind of ambition in the words of the unashamedly, unrelentingly ambitious Michelle Mone, a serial entrepreneur: 

“I think it’s all down to self-respect and looking at yourself in the mirror and asking: ‘Am I happy with myself?’” she says. “If you’re happy with yourself, then fair enough.” Yet she isn’t happy. “I always look in the mirror and I say to myself: ‘You can do more.’ So I push myself all the time. I set goals all the time, I just don’t stop. But once I achieve them, I set more. I’d rather be ambitious than lazy. So I’m proud that I am ambitious.”

Two for the price of one? Vanity of vanities. As portrayed in The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes did a great deal of work on her image and her motivation with the help of her mirror.

A recent long-read  article by Noreen Malone of Slate in the New York Times dealt with the problem of ambition in the context of the current changes in attitudes to work, the workplace and the phenomenon of “the great resignation”.

Consider this theory: that the current office ennui was simply the inevitable backlash to the punishing culture of the previous decade’s #ThankGodItsMonday culture. And furthermore, sometime around the rise of #MeToo (and after Donald Trump’s election), ambition began to seem like a mug’s game. The enormous personal costs of getting to the top became clear, and the potential warping effects of being in charge also did. It wasn’t just the bad sexually harassing bosses who were fired but the toxic ones, too, and soon enough we began to question the whole way power in the office worked. What started out as a hopeful moment turned depressing fast. Power structures were interrogated but rarely dismantled, a middle ground that left everyone feeling pretty bad about the ways of the world. It became harder to trust anyone who was your boss and harder to imagine wanting to become one. Covid was an accelerant, but the match was already lit.

She talks about how in a span of less than 20 years we have moved from the hustle culture portrayed in Mad Men to Sunday nights  in which people are now watching Succession, “the beloved pitch-black workplace drama of the post-Trump nihilistic years.”

Perhaps ambition and the ambitious will take a back seat. But don’t hold your breath. The powerful instincts which drove Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and which drove Elizabeth Holmes and her paramour, Sunny Balwani – currently being tried for fraud – are deep in our nature. Like many forces in our nature, subject to right reason they are forces for good. Ungoverned, they corrupt us. 

Late 20th and 21st century culture of rampant individualism has fatefully opted for small government of our passions. The tragedy and loss of the once visionary Elizabeth Holmes – and probably many we will never hear of – is the price we pay for cultivating the ungoverned self.The Guardian article on the subject of ambition suggests that we might look to the works of the modern martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in El Salvador in 1980. He suggested we might consider a different sort of ambition: “Aspire not to have more but to be more,” he said. The wisdom behind those words suggests that we move beyond our material preoccupations and onto a higher plane, encompassing the wonderful reality of our common humanity. That path would hopefully  lead mankind to a true appreciation of our nature, and perhaps the discovery that  there are more things in heaven and earth than might be dreamt of in our untamed ambitions.

A long and winding road to justice and peace

There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws… What is the difference between the two?…An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 

The path of mankind towards the goal of a just state and a truly just rule of law has been long, full of many wrong turnings and indeed, strewn with multiple miseries. Yet we keep going in spite of all that. King’s simple definition of an unjust law, and by implication, a just one, is governed by its adherence – or otherwise – to the moral law. But how hard it has been for us to agree on what that latter law is and how to know it. It was not so hard in earlier ages when there was a surer guide to help us know right from wrong. This was an age when there was a clearer consciousness of the foundations of such a law. That was an age when men and women allowed their consciences to be formed by that consciousness – the consciousness of God.  

Among the leaders and rulers of our age, Martin Luther King was one such man. There are others but not many. They are, sadly, exceptions to the flawed rule governing our age – the law of self-interested pragmatism. If an action produces the desired result it is a good act. If not, forget it. That is about as far as our moral compass of choice takes us in the high-tech world of today. The pragmatic rulers to whom we entrust the management of our fragile societies now leave their consciences on the hat-stand when they enter our legislative chambers – and indeed boast of doing so..

At the very dawn of parliamentary government – in the troubled environment of the Plantagenet monarchy of England – we find a golden moment when that furtive search for justice was guided tentatively by a ruler who was guided by his acceptance of a divinely inspired moral universe. 

The events are recounted by the historian, David Carpenter, in his masterful biography of King Henry III. He tells of how, after the king’s wedding and subsequent coronation of his youthful bride, the happy celebrations at Westminster on 20 January had to be cut short. “Fear that the Thames, swollen by rain, would flood the palace, drove the court  to Merton priory, eight miles away in Surrey. It was there, on 23 January, that the king, the  Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of Abingdon, the bishops ‘and the greater part of the earls and barons of England’ agreed a series of provisions ‘for the common utility of all the kingdom’.” 

The ‘statute of Merton’, as it became known, did not stand alone. Between 1234 and 1237 the king issued around a dozen provisions dealing with the law and government of the realm. They were very much the product of the cooperation between the king and the political community. 

This was the aftermath of the reluctant signing of Magna Carta in 1215 by Henry’s somewhat vicious father, King John. Reluctant is a euphemism, for in truth John had, if not a gun to his head, certainly a knife at his throat. The barons had already landed a French army with a ready replacement for John at its head. On John’s death the following year, Henry, a nine-year-old child, succeeded to a throne shaken by civil war. But with the help of skillful guardians he made it to maturity and assumed personal rule of the kingdom in 1228. Gradually he asserted his authority and by this enactment of a series of provisions through his ‘great council’, the institution which in these years was for the first time recorded as a ‘parliament’, very significantly advanced the cause of true justice in the realm. 

The ‘statute of Merton’ and subsequent provisions enacted in the few years following, dealt with the protection of widows and orphans,  regulating the composition and frequency of local courts, devising new legal rules and actions related to succession and possession of property, remedying the abuses of royal officials and restricting the king’s rights of compulsory purchase. The legislation covered a whole range of issues and impacted on many sections of society. The statement at Merton that the legislation was conceived ‘for the common utility of all the kingdom’, was an explicit acceptance of the  concept of ‘the common good’ in political morality.

“For Henry”, Carpenter tells us, “the legislation was closely linked to his religion.” According to the great recorder of events of that time, Matthew Paris, he promulgated the statute of Merton ‘for the salvation of his soul and the improvement of his kingdom, influenced by a spirit of justice and piety’. “Henry himself,” Carpenter adds, “on another occasion, wrote of abolishing evil customs ‘for the health of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and heirs’. (This was all) in the spirit of his coronation oath to abolish bad laws and introduce good ones. He may well have been influenced by the example of Edward the Confessor, a legislator, so it was thought, deeply concerned with the welfare of his people.”

Henry III, although not always wise or faultless in what he did, was profoundly motivated in these enactments. Paris also affirmed that he was inspired by his marriage to Eleanor, his young Provencal bride, doing good in the hope that ‘God would consummate a joyous beginning with a happy end by conferring the gift of children’. The legislation reflected Henry’s pious concern to protect widows, help the poor and bring the position of the Jews into line with the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council. In England this provision ameliorated an existing law which had laid down that Jews were not to remain in the kingdom unless they could be of service to the king. 

Undoubtedly, the path to justice is a long and winding one – as such a small step illustrates. However, such small steps for man – if I can be allowed a rather clumsy allusion – are necessary ones if we are to continue to make our way to better rather than worse conditions for mankind. But to those who might cry out ‘foul’ for the assertion that the true foundation of morality is consciousness of God, as it was for King Henry III as much as it was for Martin Luther King Jnr., we have only to recall what history shows us are the fruits of so many regimes which denied this and made man the ultimate arbiter of what is just and unjust.

And what would you expect?

Today a worrying post arrived from Bari Weiss’ Common Sense platform. The rot which has corrupted our political, literary, and entertainment world – not to mention the education systems on which the future of our civilisation depend – is now threatening to undermine the institutions on which are founded our efforts, although often flawed, to administer justice to each other.

It is worrying, but we shoould not be surprised. Why would they not do this, marxists as they are? Political revolution for marxists was never a piecemeal operation – revolution in one counrty, they knew, was doomed to failure. So with cultural revolution. All must fall or all will fail. For those defending freedom and justice, therefore, every battle is important and winning battles will eventually mean winning the war.

She introduces this long essay by Aaron Sibarium on the latest target of those dedicated to capturing and eviscerating the institutions which hold our civilisation together:

If you are a Common Sense reader, you are by now highly aware of the phenomenon of institutional capture. From the start, we have covered the ongoing saga of how America’s most important institutions have been transformed by an illiberal ideology—and have come to betray their own missions.

MedicineHollywoodEducation. The reason we exist is because of the takeover of newspapers like The New York Times.

Ok, so we’ve lost a lot. A whole lot. But at least we haven’t lost the law. That’s how we comforted ourselves. The law would be the bulwark against this nonsense. The rest we could work on building anew.

But what if the country’s legal system was changing just like everything else?

Today, Aaron Sibarium, a reporter who has consistently been ahead of the pack on this beat, offers a groundbreaking piece on how the legal system in America, as one prominent liberal scholar put it, is at risk of becoming “a totalitarian nightmare.”

This is a long feature on a subject we think deserves your time. Save it, share it, or print it to read in a quiet moment:

In 2017, the super lawyer David Boies was at a corporate retreat at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Florida, hosted by his law firm, Boies, Schiller and Flexner. Boies was a liberal legend: He had represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore, and, in 2013, successfully defended gay marriage in California, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, paving the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling two years later.  

On the last day of the retreat, Boies gave a talk in the hotel ballroom to 100 or so attorneys, according to a lawyer who was present at the event. Afterwards, Boies’s colleagues were invited to ask questions.

Most of the questions were yawners. Then, an associate in her late twenties stood up. She said there were lawyers at the firm who were “uncomfortable” with Boies representing disgraced movie maker Harvey Weinstein, and she wanted to know whether Boies would pay them severance so they could quit and focus on applying for jobs at other firms. Boies, who declined to comment for this article, said no.

That lawyers could be tainted by representing unpopular clients was hardly news. But in times past, lawyers worried about the public—not other lawyers. Defending communists, terrorists, and cop killers had never been a crowd pleaser, but that’s what lawyers had to do sometimes: Defend people who were hated. 

When congressional Republicans attacked attorneys for representing Guantanamo detainees, for example, the entire profession rallied around them. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that John Adams took pride in representing British soldiers accused of taking part in the Boston Massacre, calling it “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered to my country.”

But that’s not how the new associates saw Boies’s choice to represent Weinstein. They thought there were certain people you just did not represent—people so hateful and reprehensible that helping them made you complicit. The partners, the old-timers—pretty much everyone over 50—found this unbelievable. That wasn’t the law as they had known it. That wasn’t America.

“The idea that guilty people shouldn’t get lawyers attacks the legal system at its root,” Andrew Koppelman, a prominent liberal scholar of constitutional law at Northwestern University, said. “People will ask: ‘How can you represent someone who’s guilty?’ The answer is that a society where accused people don’t get a defense as a matter of course is a society you don’t want to live in. It’s a totalitarian nightmare.”

Read the full article here.

The rise and rise of Ron DeSantis

To me this reads like a very balanced assessment of the current state of play and politics via @NYTOpinion.

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

He writes:

Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, is giving Donald Trump a run for his money as the most divisive politician in America.

“We want people that are going to fight the left, and that’s what we need to do in this country,” DeSantis declared in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 8. “That’s what we’re doing in Florida, standing up for people’s freedoms. We’re opposing wokeness. We’re opposing all these things.”

In a Nov. 5, 2021, article on the liberal Daily Beast website, “Desperate, Deranged DeSantis Devolves Into Dumb Troll,” Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote that DeSantis “is a terrible governor who is failing his leadership course with flying colors. Driven only by politics and naked ambition, he pursues reckless policies that divide Floridians and may even put them in danger.”

The governor routinely succumbs to right-wing pressure groups, Navarrette continued, “because he apparently has no core beliefs other than the unshakable conviction that he should sit in the Oval Office.”

On Jan. 17, 2022, The Guardian followed up from the left:

In a red-meat-for-the-base address at the opening of Florida’s legislature last week, themed around the concept of “freedom” but described by critics as a fanfare of authoritarianism, DeSantis gave a clear indication of the issues he believes are on voters’ minds. They include fighting the White House over Covid-19, ballot box fraud, critical race theory in schools and defunding law enforcement.

The view from the right is starkly different.

On March 14, Rich Lowry, editor in chief of National Review, heaped praise on DeSantis as “the voice of the new Republican Party,” a politician who “opens up a vista offering an important element of Trumpism without the baggage or selfishness of Trump.”

Lowry argues that DeSantis has strategically positioned himself on the cutting edge of a political movement with the potential to have “broad appeal to GOP voters of all stripes without the distracting obsessions of the former president.” 

Read the full article on the NYT.

The Power and the Glory – “a work of singular literary value”

Giovanni Batista Montini – St. Pope Paul VI

Graham Greene was a complicated man – and his novels were no less complicated. He clearly did not shy away from leaving people with problems to think about – and we can only thank him for that. His life was also somewhat complicated. He was a convert, his conversion initially motivated by his love for a devout Catholic woman. But he was neither a faithful husband nor, after a time and for many years, a faithful Catholic. But he died reconciled to the faith, the Church and its sacraments. 

He was never hostile to the faith and once wrote to a cardinal, “I wish to emphasise that, throughout my life as a Catholic, I have never ceased to feel deep sentiments of personal attachment to the Vicar of Christ, fostered in particular by admiration for the wisdom with which the Holy Father has constantly guided God’s Church. I have always been vividly impressed by the high spirituality which characterises the Government of Pius XII. Your Eminence knows that I had the honour of a private audience during the holy year 1950. I shall retain my impression of it until my last breath.” 

His novels reflected much of the turmoil of his own journey in the faith and were, still are, valued by many for the negative capability they have to tell the truth about the human condition and mankind’s struggle to be good in the face of the evils assailing him from without and from within.

One prominent churchman made this assessment of his work, writing that “his harsh and acerbic art touches the hearts of the least receptive and reminds them, however gloomy they may be, of the awe-inspiring presence of God and the poisonous bite of sin. He addresses those who are most distant and hostile – those whom we will never reach”.

The Power and the Glory, probably Greene’s most famous novel, was the context in which those remarks were made. It was published in 1940 but did not become controversial in Catholic circles until the 1950s. Prompted by this, the Vatican appointed two consultants to study the book in 1953. Both were critical, deeming it immoral and in the opinion of one, “odd and paradoxical, a true product of the disturbed, confused and audacious character of today’s civilisation”.

The novel is set in the southern-Mexican state of Tabasco, which is governed by a ruthless persecutor of Catholics, Tomas Garrido Canabal. An atheist and a puritan, Canabal detested organised religion and alcohol. The central figure in Greene’s book is an alcoholic priest, who is put to death by Canabal’s police at the end of the novel. Although he anticipates his execution, and knows that he is walking into a trap, he chooses to perform what he sees as his duty and attempts to give the last sacraments to a fatally wounded criminal. The priest puts the chance of saving another man’s soul ahead of his own survival. Is he a martyr? Or is he being justly punished for his lax and scandalous life? The moral and theology of The Power and the Glory are ambiguous. Unfortunately ambiguity – which is at the heart of much of the literature we treasure— is something to which many of a censorious and too literal – as opposed to literary – turn of mind are both deaf and blind.

But not so, Cardinal Giovanni Batista Montini, pro-secretary of state at the Vatican, and later to be elected Pope Paul VI in 1963. Montini, hearing of the controversy and the drift which the Vatican officials were taking, wrote to the secretary of the Index of Forbidden Books (disbanded in 1966) in the Holy Office that the book was “a work of singular literary value. I see that it is judged a sad book. I have no objection to make to the just observations [of this work]. But it seems to me that, in such a judgment, there is lacking a sense of the work’s fundamental merits. They lie, fundamentally, in its high quality of vindication, by revealing a heroic fidelity to his own ministry within the innermost soul of a priest who is in many respects reprehensible”

He suggested to the Holy Office that “it would be well to have the book assessed by another consultant before passing a negative judgement on it, not least because author and book are known worldwide”. Monsignor De Luca – whom Montini suggested – concurred with him about the book’s literary quality and morality:

“Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh according to expert opinion, are to be considered the two major living novelists: being Catholic they do credit to Rome’s faith, and they do credit to it in a country that is of Protestant civilization and culture. How can Rome be gruff and cruel? They are the successors of Chesterton and Belloc and, like them, rather than attempting to convert the small fry, strive to influence superior intelligences and the spirit of the age in a manner favourable to Catholicism.”

“This,” De Luca went on, “is not a matter of heresy or even a scandal; it has nothing to do with theologians or depraved persons. We are dealing with great writers, who are often naive and obstinate like children, in states of mind that are, from time to time, not inclined to praise but gloomy, not exultant but insistent…To condemn or even to deplore them would…demonstrate…that our judgement is light-weight, undermining significantly the authority of the clergy, which is regarded – rightly – as unlettered bond-slaves to puerile literature in bad taste. 

“In the case of Graham Greene, his harsh and acerbic art touches the hearts of the least receptive and reminds them, however gloomy they may be, of the awe-inspiring presence of God and the poisonous bite of sin. He addresses those who are most distant and hostile – those whom we will never reach”.

Greene’s justification for what he had written was that the aim of the book was to oppose the power of the sacraments and the indestructibility of the Church on the one hand with, on the other, the merely temporal power of an essentially Communist state – revolutionary Mexico in the early  20th century.

In his introduction to a later edition of The Power and the Glory, Greene gives a telling personal account of this affair in which he wondered if there was any other authority in the world which would have treated a stubborn resister as gently as he was treated by the Catholic Church when he dug in his heels. He wrote:


The Archbishop of Westminster read me a letter from the Holy Office condemning my novel because it was “paradoxical” and “dealt with extraordinary circumstances.” The price of liberty, even within a Church, is eternal vigilance, but I wonder whether any of the totalitarian states … would have treated me as gently when I refused to revise the book on the casuistical ground that the copyright was in the hands of my publishers. There was no public condemnation, and the affair was allowed to drop into that peaceful oblivion which the Church wisely reserves for unimportant issues.

In a long article on this affair in The Atlantic, 2001, Peter Godman takes the story on into the 1960s. In July 1965 Greene had an audience with Montini, now Pope Paul VI. “He told the Pope that The Power and the Glory had been condemned by the Holy Office. According to Greene, the Pope asked, ‘Who condemned it?’ Greene replied, ‘Cardinal Pizzardo.’ Paul VI repeated the name with a wry smile and added, ‘Mr. Greene, some parts of your book are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.’” Godman commented:

“These sentences have intrigued me ever since I first read them, some years ago, in Greene’s Ways of Escape. The records of censorial investigations undertaken after the death of Leo XIII, in 1903, are in the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and are not available to be consulted by outside scholars. In February of last year I sought and obtained an audience with the Congregation’s prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. To my request that an exception be made to the rules, the reply was one word, uttered without hesitation: ‘Ja.’”

Godman’s explorations of those archives reveal much of the detail of the case and the denouement suggests the same judgment as Greene himself made on the ultimately wise conclusions reached despite the fallible and fumbling manoeuvres of some of the dramatis personae in the comedy.

“The mindset of Rome’s censors”, he says, “was not malevolent. It is difficult, however, to resist the conclusion that it was dim. Defensive about their authority (which they desired to assert even as they doubted its efficacy), and incapable of grasping the conceptual problems posed by Greene’s writing, they could be checked in their course only by intervention from above.” That was Montini’s intervention. 

Godman poses the question, why did Montini stand up for Greene? He describes him as “an intellectual whom John XXIII is said to have likened to Hamlet. Montini was alive to the problem of moral ambiguity. He was capable of discerning links between apparent contraries where less perceptive others saw none. 

“Montini was not only a reader of refined literary tastes but also a collector of literary manuscripts. Among them was the handwritten original of a booklet on Saint Dominic by Georges Bernanos, which ends with the sentence ‘There is only one sadness—not to be a saint.’ Montini treasured that work, echoes of which he cannot have failed to hear in The Power and the Glory. The words ‘He knew now that…there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint’ come at the very end of the penultimate chapter of Greene’s novel.”

Finally, Godman notes, three weeks after Greene had written his letter to Cardinal Pizzardo, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Ottaviani, scrawled on it that Cardinal Griffin had told him that the Holy Office should “understand and excuse” this right-thinking convert. And that is what was done.

Whose side are they on?

Ref Sohrab Ahmari’s article below:
The whinging liberals have once again make fools of themselves. Whose side are they on in this conflict – trying to drive a wedge in the united front now confronting this monster? They are just clutching at straws to try to shore up their self-destructing liberalism. @PatrickDeneen

The ruling-class talking point du jour is that Russia’s war in Ukraine has dealt a crushing blow to Western populists. The populists, according to this view, tied their fate to Vladimir Putin’s: whether by praising him, calling for more genial relations with Moscow, turning a blind eye to Kremlin depravities, or some combination of the above. Now that Putin has launched a failed invasion of Ukraine—failed according to Twitter and feverish media wish-casters, at least—his populist fan club is also tainted by his cruelty and incompetence. Ergo, “populists are losing this war,” as a headline in UnHerd put it.

It’s pure poppycock, but before I explain why, let’s briefly pause to note the sheer grotesqueness of this ideological posturing at this moment. Amid the carnage wrought in Ukraine by Moscow’s aggression, the suffering of ordinary Russians under Western sanctions, and the anxiety that grips Europe as a whole, the liberal establishment sees fit to cashier misery into point-scoring against their domestic political opponents. This is the business we’ve chosen, you might say, and fair enough—but then kindly stop whinging about civility, decency, and unity.

As to the charge itself, it is built on a foundation of deliberate misunderstandings, misdirections, and outright slanders. While some of the criticisms might apply to some populists, they don’t apply to others. Yet the liberal columnists’ underhanded tactic is to barrage all populists with all the charges, to see what sticks. There are different versions of this, offered variously by William Galston in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, Eric Kaufmann in the aforementioned UnHerd pieceand Francis Fukuyama and Janan Ganesh in essays for the Financial Times.

Let’s attempt to unpack three of the main strands:

One charge is that Western populists fetishized Putin as an emblem of strongman confidence and now must “own” the logistical setbacks and military snafus dogging the Russian army on its path to conquest.

This was the line taken by Ganesh: “While liberals get lost in the bureaucratic and legislative fog, the autocrat supposedly cuts through (‘I alone can fix it,’ said Trump of the US). While the one thinks wishfully, the other grasps the eternal verities of power and strategy.” If Russia had easily subdued Ukraine, populists “would now, in that phoney I-hate-to-say-it tone, be urging their own societies to learn from the guile and virility of the illiberal world.”

Ganesh curiously didn’t quote any actual populists praising Putin’s mythic competence, but let’s generously concede that one Donald J. Trump has hailed the Russian leader as a “genius,” etc. The question becomes: competence in relation to what ends, given what conditions? Assume for argument’s sake that the NATO-ization of Ukraine is an existential threat to the Russian state. If so, then even a costly, messy invasion, mounted by a wounded former superpower with an economy the size of Spain’s, is effective enough if it in fact forestalls NATO-ization.

Putin’s desired outcome may yet come to pass. He achieved Russia’s goals in Georgia, Syria, and Crimea. That is more than can be said for U.S. strategists with respect to their goals in Afghanistan. After 20 years, the Taliban took back power, while the Western alliance’s 300,000-strong Afghan army collapsed.

But there is another point here: If “autocratic” incompetence humiliates Western populists, as Ganesh suggests, it should equally embarrass plenty of blue-chip liberals who have waxed about a nondemocratic regime’s ability to get things done.

Remember Tom Friedman in 2010? “What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment?” Or how about Justin Trudeau in 2013? “There is a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say we need to go green, we need to start, you know, investing in solar.” The examples abound.

Liberals as much as Western populists, then, must “own” the failures of a nondemocratic regime—which is another way of saying this is a ludicrous line of attack.

Another argument is that populists advance an “anti-Western foreign policy,” born of their “hostility to the rules-based liberal world order.”

That was the line taken by Kaufmann, who says he would prefer populists like Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance to temper their anti-woke energies and focus them at home on cultural issues—not against elites in “Davos, Geneva, or Brussels,” which, he reassures, aren’t that woke. He should know, “having given talks at some of these institutions.” Or something. His commitments are a jumbled mess.

The bigger problem here is circular reasoning. Kaufmann assumes that opposing hawkism and escalation makes one “anti-Western.” Pro-Western-ness is thus defined at the outset as a preference for the foreign policies of the liberal imperium and its marquee institutions. Therefore, he concludes, Carlson, Vance, et al. are lamentably anti-Western. But this is to beg the question. Carlson and his populist confreres argue that hawkism is inimical to the interests of ordinary people in the West and, if escalated to a nuclear point of no return, to the survival of humanity at large. They are defining Western-ness differently than self-identified liberals, in other words, and judging by the record of liberal interventionism the past 20 years, such a redefinition is sorely needed.

Finally, there is the outright slander that populists admire Putin precisely for his cruelties.

It was lamentable to see this line taken up by Galston, someone I have often disagreed with but couldn’t fault for lack of probity in debate. Galston tsk-tsked Carlson for a recent monologue in which the Fox primetime host prompted Americans to ask themselves: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he ever threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”

Contra Galston, it is an uncharitable stretch to suggest that those questions amount to “defending Vladimir Putin against his American critics.” Carlson’s point, as Galston probably knows, isn’t that Putin is wonderful, but that after two decades of failed foreign adventurism, it behooves Americans to confront the monsters within our own order: a rapacious domestic overclass that has wrought inequality, health insecurity, opioid misery, stagnant wages, cultural degradation—and increasingly resorts to technological censorship to deal with popular discontent.

The establishment may yet succeed in hanging Putin like an albatross round the necks of its internal enemies. But doing so won’t resolve any of these internal crises. Then again, maybe that is the point.


Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a visiting fellow of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University. His books include From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Ignatius, 2019) and The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent/Random House, 2021). He is currently writing a book about privatized tyranny in America.

‘I put it down to the man upstairs’

Remember Mary Badham? Some of you will. She was the little 10-year-old who stole the show in the film version of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Mary played Scout, the daughter of widowed lawyer, Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck. Scout and her brother Jem, along with their friend Dill – a fictional representation of Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote – were the counterfoil innocents helping to underline the vicious racism at the heart of the story.

And where is Mary Badham now? Broadway has done its homework and has persuaded her – although she never became a professional actor – to mount the stage in a touring dramatised version of the version of novel and film. 

Mary Badham is now 69 and is clearly not going to reprise her original role. She will – with some misgivings – play the role of the cranky old racist neighbour, Mrs. Dubose, who lived close to the Finch family and in whose hair the children sometimes found themselves getting entangled. Misgivings? Because there is not a drop of racist blood in Badham’s makeup and for whom the film she helped make is one of the outstanding anti-racist documents of the last hundred years – as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was for the previous century.

She is married and now farming with her own family in Virginia. She describes herself as “just a retired old lady who likes to be in her garden and play with her grandkids.” But alongside a range of careers in which she was engaged during her earlier life, the Mockingbird phenomenon always had a presence and was for her a cause in its own right.

Throughout her life, she has been ready and willing to do talks, radio and television appearances discussing the film to promote its moral impact, saying ‘yes’ when given new opportunities. She has spent decades talking about the story at schools, universities and social clubs. “‘Mockingbird’ has been my life,” she said.

“It’s just weird, and I put it to the man upstairs — I just feel like he has something he wants me to say, and he picked me to say it and keep saying it,” she added. “My job has been basically to keep this story alive, and have people talk about it, so we can try to move forward with all of these problems that we still have.”
Actors in iconic roles returning to the scenes of the triumphs of their youth seems to be something like flavour of the year. Rita Moreno who triumphed as Anita in West Side Story in the 1960s has now returned to replace Doc – or Friar Lawrence – in Spielberg’ new version of that masterpiece. Now Mary Badham does it in To Kill a Mockingbird. These are not only tributes but are also achievements – and it certainly won’t damage ticket sales.

The Touch of Evil

From a final scene in The Thin Red Line

What’s this war in the heart of nature ? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? ls there an avenging power in nature? These are some of the existential questions posed by the mystical Private Witt in the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line, Terence Mallick’s great meditation on war and man’s descent into the barbarity of military conflict. He was trying to come to terms with man’s savage replication of inanimate nature’s ebb and flow. Looking for an answer to them is ever an urgent task. Indeed, it is a perennial task confronting generations of mankind from time immemorial. Today its urgency forces itself upon us yet again.

I know he meant something more subtle than it sounds, but to many ears it was a soundbite too far. The end of history, Francis Fukuyama declared in 1989, was upon us. His first outing with the idea was in an essay. This caused such a stir that it was expanded into a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. The occasion for his prophetic utterances was the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, bringing about the end of the Cold War.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

— Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, No.16 (Summer 1989)

Well, well, well? So much for wishful thinking. It was a little ironic to hear – on Bari Weiss’ Common Sense platform – Professor Fukuyama, discussing our current world crisis with historians Niall Ferguson and William Russell Meade, where the consensus was that we were now indeed entering Cold War II. Cold War I got its baptism of fire in the Korean War. Cold War II was now getting its hot war initiation with the Russian assault on the Ukraine.

Aside from the fact that historical narratives are about much more than the rise and fall of empires and ideologies, history will end when the human race has run its course on this earth. In the meantime human beings will forever need to struggle with the powers behind the forces we now see unleashed in Eastern Europe – the forces of evil, mysterious and malign, which take possession of our hearts and wreak havoc as they do. This is what we keep forgetting – at our peril. We have done it before and are now once again scrambling to try to make sense of it. 

T.S. Eliot more than hinted at our folly in  Four Quartets when he confessed,

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,

Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The river has long been a metaphor for man’s troubled journey in this world, sometimes more, sometimes less, mixing good and evil. Rivers in Ukraine are not only metaphors but real players in its current struggles.

Kiev on the banks of the Deniper

Our current incarnation of the implacable strong brown god bursting his banks is Vladimir Putin. This century has already had two other gods of different hues which have destabilised our fragile existence – the god of greed who ravaged the world economy in the first decade of the new millennium, and then the crowned monster – still of uncertain human origin – who cut short the lives of almost 6 million of us and inflicted pain an estimated 500 million more – and rising. All three of these are in different ways manifestations of  mankind’s capacity for evil. From time immemorial, to inflict pain and suffering on our race, a capacity which has been in evidence since evil first entered the heart of Cain, driving him to slay his brother Abel.

In their exchanges with Bari Weiss, these three aforementioned remarked on our failure to learn anything from history. That certainly is part of the problem. We keep forgetting the ogre slouching in the shadows, waiting for the moment  to come out and devour us. History, if studied and reflected upon with any wisdom, will lead us towards the overwhelming question, “why?”. Any honest grappling with that question will lead us further to consider the problem of evil, its origins and the need to mount defences against it. There is a mystery surrounding evil that material science will never fathom – and political science does not make much of a fist at it either. We do not like mysteries – except when they entertain us – because they ask us to be humble. Humility in turn nudges us to perhaps acknowledge that a God more powerful than the brown god – or gods of any other colour – may be needed to help us cope with what assails us in the greater and lesser onslaughts we suffer here in our earthly sojourn. 

But we also need to go even deeper, lest we adopt a holier-than-thou posture in all this, letting ourselves off the hook on the question of complicity in those things which have brought woe on our race. We need more than humility. We also need an honest self-awareness and a capacity for contrition. The greed and carelessness of the many compounded the exorbitant greed of the relatively few who triggered the financial crash of the last decade. The mystery of the origins of the viral forces which ravaged the world economy in this decade is still unresolved – but until the CCP gets itself a higher standard of honesty and openness, the jury will remain hung on that one. It is in this context that it is worth reflecting on the recent words of Philip Johnson, columnist with the Daily Telegraph.

He reflected on the  extraordinary reverence the French have for Napoleon Bonaparte, whose monument sits within an open circular crypt beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, conveying the unambiguous message that here lies a ‘great man’ of history. He notes that we are fascinated by such people, even though they are brutal, ruthless and despotic. They seem to weave a spell over the millions prepared to follow them, sometimes to destruction. But, he asks, to what extent do individuals determine history?

In War and Peace, Johnson reminds us, Tolstoy sought to debunk Thomas Carlyle’s theory that events are shaped by “great men” like Napoleon, seeing them instead as “involuntary instruments of history.”

The invasion of Ukraine, he argues, is being personalised as “Putin’s War” or the adventurism of “Mad Vlad”, thereby divorcing the event from its context by making it entirely a projection of one man’s derangement. 

But to what extent are the Russian people willingly swallowing the justification given on state-controlled media that Russian troops are merely engaged in a humanitarian operation in eastern Ukraine to protect their ethnic brethren from fascist death squads and genocide? Johnson cites Putin saying  that without helping the insurgents in the Donbas there would be “another Srebrenica”. “The fact this is preposterous is irrelevant if it is believed in Russia.”

Johnson again: “The so-called great men of history never act alone. Napoleon was followed by his Grande Armée into Russia and to miserable retreat because until then he had, by and large, been a winner, extending the boundaries of France, even egged on by “progressive” European thinkers. 

Putin visited a reenactment of the battle of Borodion, presaging the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Will the siege of Kiev presage another downfall?

Putin, puny as he may be, shares something of the trajectory of Napoleon. Like Napoleon, after the mayhem of the Terror, he pulled his country together again after the messy collapse of the Soviet experiment. Now for reasons so far unfathomable to most of us he also has set his sights on a new Empire. To help him along this path he has also become a dictator, has created a phony sense of national grievance, and manufactured an enemy in the West to generate  paranoia in his people. 

What now remains to be seen, even as this is written, is whether the Russian people will buy the lies he feeds them and cooperate in the evil which he is unleashing on them and a sovereign neighbour which simply wants to determine its own way in the world and find its place in the community of nations.

How this all ends is alarmingly uncertain.  It may be the end of Vladimir V. Putin, it may be the extinguishing of the independent State of Ukraine – but one thing it will not be is the end of history.