The Long View: The Forge of Christendom

Cricketer, historian, and author Tom Holland is here a proponent of the thesis that one of the things that truly differentiates the Christian West, Christendom, is the separation of powers between church and state that gradually evolved out of a fight over who was allowed to nominate bishops.

However, Holland also takes millennialism seriously, which adds a layer of interest for me. For many, it is one of those things that are just not mentioned in polite company. John also mentions here [I think elsewhere too, but I can't find it at present] the idea that Eastern Christianity never really developed the idea of just war. I find the idea intriguing, but I don't know the field well enough to confirm or deny. It is certainly plausible, with the relative unpopularity of Augustine in the Greek-speaking East, but on the other hand, Justinian also sent Belisarius to recover territory lost to Germanic barbarians. On the gripping hand, no one in the Roman empire after Belisarius managed to emulate his military successes.


The Forge of Christendom:
The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West

By Tom Holland
Doubleday, 2009
512 pages, US$30.00
ISBN-10: 0385520581
ISBN-13: 978-0385520584
(2008 British Edition: Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom)

 

The West has deep roots, reaching down past the Roman Republic to the level where Hellas differentiated itself from the societies of the Near East. Tom Holland, armed with an Oxford doctorate and a rolling prose style that the best Victorians might envy, has already written well-received popular histories on those subjects. (He also does vampire fiction.) Despite the West's continuities with antiquity, however, it's beginning in anything like the sense we mean it today was notoriously discontinuous. In the generation to either side of the year 1000, a new system booted that was clearly distinguishable from its Islamic neighbor and even from its sometime ally in Constantinople. In the author's telling, the first great characteristic act of the young West came at Canossa in 1077, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV conceded to Pope Gregory VII a right beyond the power of the state (the right to nominate bishops) in the Investiture Crisis. The concession was only temporary, and Gregory died in frustrated exile, but the pope's point stuck. Thereafter, the political and religious were recognized as different spheres with enforceable borders; the beginning of all civil liberties. This was something new in the world, but it was not the only novelty of the new society.

The two centuries that the book covers in detail, the 10th and the 11th, are among those stretches of history that make almost novelistic sense. The plot is driven by fear of the imminence of Antichrist and the hope for the Parousia.

The question of millennial expectation connected with the year 1000, whether that fear was important or even whether it existed at all, is one of those historiographical controversies that are prone to coup and counter-coup. 19th-century Romantic historians painted a dramatic and, well, Romantic picture of popular enthusiasm and even frenzy. The Romantics' successors, sometimes exaggerating what their predecessors had actually claimed, said the “terrors of the Year 1000” were a 19th-century myth and that the change of the millennium was little regarded at the time. Late in the 20th century, the American medievalist Richard Landes reopened the question (disclosure: I the reviewer am a member of his Center for Millennial Studies). His assessment informs Holland's book.

There was no revolutionary millenarianism around the year 1000 like that which occurred in late medieval or early modern times, Landes noted, but the fact is that the intellectual and political life of those generations was suffused by the preparation for a new age, impelled by a mood of expectation that had both a popular and an elite dimension. There was quite a bit of interest in the year 1000 itself. (Yes, people did know when it was: the information was available in every set of tables showing the dates for Easter.) There was at least as much interest in the year 1033, however, the millennial anniversary of Christ's Passion. One could argue that the West was actually born in the intervening years.

The term “postmillennialism” does not occur in this book, but something very similar to that doctrine was at work in the 11th century. Postmillennialism posits that Christ will return at the end of the Millennium; the millennial age itself, then, is a historical period during which human effort will perfect the world in preparation for that event. Postmillennialism was closely connected with the progressive, reformist Social Gospel that underlay much of the politics of the early 20th century. The idea of historical progress is really just a politely secularized version of postmillennial eschatology.

Medieval eschatology was different in detail but not in effect. St. Augustine in the fifth century (when the world did indeed seem to be ending, by any reasonable measure) had cautioned against the idea of a literal millennium as a period of historical felicity lasting 1000 years, though the Book of Revelation does mention a thousand-year reign of the Saints. He also cautioned against the temptation to apply information in the Bible to historical events in order to calculate precisely when the Second Coming would occur. He did, however, suggest that the reference in the Book of Revelation to a “millennium” could be taken as an allusion to an age of indefinite duration following the establishment of the Church by Christ that will end with his Second Coming.

In the tenth century, the condition of Western Christendom was dire enough to suggest that maybe the end was near and the 1000 years should be taken literally after all. In that century and the eleventh, sophisticated clerics tended to vehemently deny the possibility of predicting the End Time using calculations drawn from the Bible, all the while assuming a near-term eschaton in their worldview and planning.

The imminence of Doomsday had practical implications for medievals. Before the advent of Antichrist set the dramatic machinery of Revelation in motion, the world must first be evangelized and set to rights. This implied the revival or restoration of the Roman Empire in Christian form; even before Constantine, Christians had come to regard the Empire as “the Restrainer” of Second Thessalonians, the power in the world whose presence prevented the eruption of the worst historical evils, and whose final withdrawal would mean the end of the age. In the Byzantine Empire, where Rome never entirely fell, the hope for a penultimate age of peace became centered on the figure of the Emperor of the Last Days. He would restore the ancient empire and end his career by laying down his crown at Jerusalem, thereby marking the beginning of the end. This idea was easily transferable to the West, particularly after Charlemagne revived the imperial title in 800. (That was another possible date for the beginning of the endtime, by the way, arrived at through another set of calculations based on the seven-millennium model of history.)

We should recall that there is little institutional continuity between the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. The last Carolingian “emperor” died in 905, long after anything resembling an empire had lapsed. The title was revived in 962 by Otto I, who had won the Battle of the Lech against the then-pagan Hungarians in 955. Both events were part of a process that solidified the idea of a German identity. Not incidentally, the battle also ended one of the several existential threats to the still inchoate West that were defeated in the decades before 1000.

The author emphasizes that Christendom was born in a near-death experience. The measure of security that Charlemagne had been able to bring to Europe scarcely survived him. From the east came Slavs and Hungarians. In the south were the Muslims: Sicily was an emirate for much of the period covered by this book, and corsairs sacked St. Peter's in Rome as late as 846. In the north and on all the coasts there were the Vikings, and in France there were the French.

“France,” “French,” “Germany,” “German”: all are anachronistic terms for this period, the author reminds us. “East Francia” and “West Francia” are better. Be that as it may, one of the themes of the ninth and tenth centuries was the trend among the elites in what would become France toward pure predation. In most of Europe, castles were usually places of refuge or barriers against barbarian invasion. In France, they were often prison towers to facilitate the plundering of the population and attacks against the bandit lords in the neighboring castles.

In such a situation, anyone who could impose legitimate order was clearly doing God's will, even if violence was necessary to do it. When bishops consecrated German kings, they left no doubt that one of their duties was to defend their people from their appalling enemies. The papacy began a practice of endorsing campaigns in Italy and Spain for the defense of Christian polities. The practice would evolve into the theory of the crusade.

This was in marked contrast to the Byzantine Empire, a church-state that regarded war as the greatest of evils. The Orthodox Church never developed an analogue of the theory of the Just War. The state favored defensive fortress warfare and acute diplomacy to solve its problems. Despite the contempt this posture often inspired in the Latin West, it worked at least as well against the Muslims as the Western preference for the offensive. At any rate, it did until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when a fresh invasion of Turks caused the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. That defeat set the events in train that would lead to the request for help from Constantinople to the West that sparked the First Crusade. The book ends with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

On the level of diplomacy and military affairs, the elites of the West were often sidetracked by impractical schemes of universal empire. They did nation-building, but by accident; what really interested them was universal empire, always with an eschatological dimension. That dimension was no less present in the reform of civil life, however, and usually to better effect.

Any outburst of disorder was regarded by medievals as a precursor of Antichrist, or at least a type. The violence of the lawless aristocracy of the West was just as evil and intolerable as the depredations of the Hungarians, and just as much a sign of the endtime. The remedy in this context was not counter-violence, but holy example, particularly holy example as set by the most innovative monasteries. The most important monastery of all, perhaps as important for the reform of the West as the papacy itself, was the monastery at Cluny, founded in 910:

Earlier generations of monks, following the prescriptions of their rule, had devoted themselves to manual labour, so as to display humility, and to scholarship, so as to train their souls; but the monks of Cluny had little time for either activity. Instead, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, they sang the praises of the Lord: for this, in heaven, was what the choirs of angels did. Indeed, on one occasion, it was claimed, a monk had ended up so lost in his devotions that he had actually begun to levitate. Prayers and hymns, anthems and responses: the chanting never stopped. [Abbot] Odo had required his brethren to recite one hundred and thirty-eight psalms a day: more than three times what had traditionally been expected of a monk. Barely a minute of a Cluniac's life went by, in short, but it was governed by ritual, as unwearying as it was implacable. Hence, for its admirers, the monastery's unprecedented nimbus of holiness: "for so reverently are the masses performed there,” as Rudolf Galber put it, “so piously and worthily, that you would think them the work, not of men, but of angels indeed.”

Cluny, at least in this telling, was Shangri-La, but a Shangri-La that succeeded in projecting its inner peace onto much of the outer world. The monastery was an important element in organizing the Peace of God Movement, under which the armored aristocracy swore before bishops and huge assemblies of peasants to respect the lives and property of the general population. The movement went on for decades, and as the author notes, it implied the formalization of a social structure based on the private appropriation of what had once been common property. Nonetheless, the commoners apparently believed that even an unequal law was better than no law. The Peace of God was not the Millennial Kingdom, but it was regarded as a preparation for that no longer distant prospect. As it ran its course, everywhere the cathedrals were built, and the landscape took on the look of ordered settlement.

Meanwhile, the borders of Christendom were expanding through missionary effort. The author plainly admires St. Adalbert, who left important posts at Magdeburg and Rome to die a martyr in 997 in the evangelization of the east. The conversion of the rulers of the Scandinavians and the Normans (and of the Russians, for that matter) seems to have been marked by a fair amount of Realpolitik. They had a lively sense that a Christian king or duke had far more legitimacy than even the most successful tribal plunderer. These accessions left the heartlands of Christendom more secure. Nonetheless, they too were evidence that the end was near, since the end could come only after the remotest parts of the world had heard the Gospel. Surely newly Christian Iceland was as remote was it was possible to be?

Much of the book's attention is given to Spain, where the famously wealthy and sophisticated Caliphate of al-Andalus made one last drive against Christian Leon before imploding from its own internal divisions. The recapture by Christian forces of the ancient Visigothic holy city of Toledo put the strategic position of Moorish Spain past remedy.

Fatimid Egypt also comes into the picture. Caliph al-Hakim entertained eschatological notions, in his case centered on himself. His destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem in 1009 simultaneously appalled the West and confirmed its view that the climax of history could not be far off. (Latterly, in some tellings, he joined the ranks of Hidden Imams; he is still venerated or worshipped by the Druze, depending on whom you ask.)

Though the West still interacted with Islam and with the Byzantine Empire in important ways, by some point in the 11th century it had become an “intelligible unit” in Toynbee's sense of “civilization,” a society with a story that can be understood only on its own terms.

The author allows the text to reflect the sources, usually to good effect. If someone said they saw a dragon, then they saw a dragon; why argue about it, since the dragon is rarely the point of the story? When the author wants to be critical, he lays on the solemnity a bit too thick, which is actually a very medieval thing to do. The downside of this approach is that the text glides over points that are controverted. It is also economical of explanatory digressions. Still, any reader who does not know about the filioque clause will no doubt find everything he needs in the substantial bibliography and large number of footnotes. This book is a delight to read.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-07: Ronald Reagan; Ecumenical Americanism; UN Transnationalism

As I've said before, John wasn't a fan of Ronald Reagan, but John did think Reagan had some success as a chief executive. In fact, John saw him as embodying a bit of the archetype of the king [or the Emperor], the still center around which the world turns,. This is a bit odd for a late-twentieth century American president, because what we usually call the Imperial Presidency is a whirlwind of energy and rapid-fire decision-making, immortalized in Teddy Roosevelt.

The mental space filled by traditional kingship is an old, old idea, one that runs through the West and the East alike. In politics, few take this idea seriously, but artistically it is just as potent as it ever has been. Take this passage from the Return of the King, which I think of everytime the concept of the king comes up:

Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam's face beside him. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king's head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. 'Look Sam!' he cried, startled into speech. 'Look! The king has got a crown again!'
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
'They cannot conquer forever!' said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.

John mentions David Warren in passing in this blog entry. Warren wrote a column for the Ottowa Citizen until 2012, mostly about the war on terror, but sometimes about his travels around the world, or Catholicism, or whatever struck his fancy. I was a regular reader for years, and then I just dropped off after a while. Like John J. Reilly, Warren was a defender of the Iraq War in the early 2000s, but when I have dipped into his new website on occasion, I get the impression that he is penitent for this, and for anything else he might have done.

The quoted passage from 2004 strikes me as especially relevant today. In part, you can cast the current political turmoil across the United States and Europe as a contest of localism versus globalism. I certainly have. Yet, in a curious way, the localists [or nationalists, as they are usually called by their opponents], have quite a bit in common with each other. John certainly isn't the first to notice that ordinary patriotism and Western identity are starting to converge


Ronald Reagan; Ecumenical Americanism; UN Transnationalism

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Radio Moscow loved to air commemorative stories. They were essentially documentaries that consisted half of commentary and half of historical revisionism. For whatever reason, National Public Radio in the US has the same predilections. It would be unfair to say that they were delighted with the death of Ronald Reagan last Saturday, but they did rise to the event with singular enthusiasm. They actually cancelled regular programming for a while, so they could offer "continuous coverage." How do you offer continuous coverage of a wake? Hourly bulletins to say the deceased is still dead?

For myself, I cannot say that I was ever a great fan of Ronald Reagan. I actually voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. I did vote for Reagan in 1984, however; there's no point in arguing with success. Much nonsense has been written about Reagan's alleged divorce from the ordinary operations of government. In fact, he was an effective manager of a familiar type. Still, his chief abilities as a leader where charismatic, mimetic, symbolic. The traditional king, it has been said, is not an executive, but he "subdues opposition through the rumor of his imperturbability." There's the Reagan presidency for you.

* * *

David Warren, that invaluably gloomy Canadian, had this to say on the occasion of President Bush's trip to Europe for the D-Day commemorations:

The extraordinary thing about the West that was exposed, in the lightning of 9/11/01, is that it is one country, in an advanced state of decadence, turned against itself. And for one of the parties to this spiritual and intellectual civil war (not a battle of ideas, but a battle of "ideas against anti-ideas"), it is more important to defeat their internal enemy than to confront any threat from abroad. The loyalties are no longer to nations. Instead, an Italian who votes for Berlusconi has more in common with an American who votes for Bush, than either of them has with his own countrymen who vote the other way.

The idea that the Left is becoming transnational is now commonplace; Michael Moore wins awards in France for propaganda films that are praised from Berlin to Berkeley. However, as I have been arguing for a few years, there has been a corresponding internationalization elsewhere on the political spectrum. This sentiment, nowhere a movement, reconceives patriotism as an aspect of a broader sense of Western identity. The speech that Aragorn gives to the Host of the West in The Return of the King film might stand as an expression of it for the time being, until life starts to imitate art.

* * *

Speaking of art, a professor of political science at the Naval War College, one Thomas P. M. Barnett, is credited with providing the Pentagon with a new geopolitical map of the world. His model uses terms like "core" and "periphery," but this is not your father's World System's Theory. For Barnett, India and Russia and South Africa are as much in the core as Japan or Great Britain. A core state is any state that abides by international trade rules, which permanently demilitarize its relationship with other core states, or so Barnett hopes. That is far from saying that universal peace is about to break out: beyond "the functioning core" is the "nonintegrating gap." Michael Barone summarizes the strategic implications:

Barnett says we need two kinds of military forces. One he calls "leviathan"...a relatively small body of fierce warriors, heavily weighted to special-forces teams -- the kind of forces that achieved such speedy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq...But we need very much larger forces, set apart from the warriors, of what Barnett calls system administrators or sys admins. "The sys admin force will be civil affairs-oriented and network-centric," Barnett writes, "an always-on, always-nearby, always-approachable resource for allies and friends in need." They will be doing most of the things our military forces have been doing or have been trying to do in Iraq since May 1, 2003.

This is precisely what the Pentagon does not want to do. The Clinton Administration, through timidity, let the Pentagon get away with preparing to fight a high-tech version of World War II. The Bush Administration, in its first few months, let the Pentagon carry on the same way, but not through timidity: they had a theory about it.

* * *

One might reasonably suppose that the United Nations is the proper body to organize the "sys admin" forces that Barnett talks about. The problem is that UN peacekeeping is becoming a planetary laughingstock. Consider this recent report from Africa:

June 3 BUKAVU, Congo -- Renegade commanders captured this strategic Congolese town Wednesday, setting off a crisis that threatened the fragile transitional government and a peace process that ended five years of war....U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the capture of the eastern Congo city and called on the region's warring parties to abide by an earlier cease-fire. The United Nations defended its troops' inaction against the factions that took Bukavu, saying the mandate of its 10,800-strong Congo force did not extend to battles... Hundreds of people rioted outside U.N. headquarters in Kinshasa and in the main northeast city of Kisangani, blaming U.N. forces for failing to stop Bukavu's fall. The crowds in Kinshasa threw stones at U.N. headquarters and set vehicles afire, while protesters in Kisangani burned U.N. vehicles and a U.N. office.

Yes, you read that right: the mandate of the UN's army (an overwhelming force in that context) dids not extend to battles. International forces of neutrals and NGOs really should be keeping the peace in places like the Balkans and the Congo. However, it is becoming clear that some constitutional feature of the UN prevents it from doing this effectively.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-10-02: Wellstone's Wake

It really is the conventional wisdom even now that lower turnout helps Republicans, but who now remembers that 2002 saw increased turnout in the midterms and a huge Republican victory?

This was an occasion where John praised President George W. Bush for at least having some ideas of how to govern, although he didn't seem to think much of these ideas, except that W. did seem to take national security seriously.

John was on record encouraging the Republicans to adopt some kind of universal health insurance as a party platform. Over time, I came to see that he had a point. John thought healthcare was a public good, not a public right, which makes a major difference. Good health isn't something owed to you by others, which is a right. Good health is good, and we are all better off if the health of our fellow citizens is better, but how you frame it makes a major difference.

John's point-of-view was that offering public healthcare as a "right" was a frequent trick of the despotic regimes of the world in the twentieth century to claim that they offered many "rights" to their subjects that Western democracies could not or did not. The fact that many of their people were in fact in poor health wasn't the point. After all, who could fault them for their poverty.

The point here is that political rights do not truly depend upon wealth, or at least they shouldn't. If you are going to have a trial, the right to not incriminate yourself or the right to confront your accuser can simply be part of the standard procedure. All of the pieces are already in place, you simply have to do it. Healthcare isn't like this. You need an incredible infrastructure of equipment and trained personnel to make it happen, along with a distribution network for the supplies needed. If the truck broke down, do you lose your rights?

The most obvious rejoinder to this argument would be that the rich have greater relative access to their political rights than the poor. This is correct, although one should keep in mind that access to rights in modern societies is also available to the clever and hard-working, and being rich has become very strongly correlated with those things in the modern world.

The affirmative response would be the cultures that have developed political rights in the modern sense also developed the traits that are most effective at producing economic growth. These cultures were not always the richest or the most powerful, it simply happens that the political rights developed in the same place that produced the greatest wealth, over a very long period of time. Compound interest tends to add up, if you have a culture that can avoid the economic crises that destroy savings.

Finally, while the Simpsons remain incredibly popular, the data we have is that the series was at its best in the 1990s, so John's dyspeptic comment has some empirical vindication.

Wellstone's Wake

 

To tell you the truth, I was not greatly offended by the pre-election memorial service for the late Senator Wellstone of Minnesota. That was the one that turned into a political rally at which Republican dignitaries were booed, including Wellstone's colleagues from the Senate. The family was actually being tactful when they asked that Vice President Dick Cheney not attend. Paul Wellstone had his merits, among which was a fierce-but-fair partisan temper. A wake that consisted of a rally of 20,000 Democratic activists would have been just what he wanted.

The problem was that it was not what the voters in Minnesota wanted. Had the memorial service been held three weeks before the election instead of just one, the odor of rancor would have dissipated, and the candidacy of senator-emeritus Walter Mondale would certainly have benefited from the boost that the event gave to the morale of the faithful. As it was, people voted on the basis of their exposure to real politics, rather than to the smooth marketing of a normal campaign. The irony, as more commentators than I have noted, is that the memorial rally not only won the election for the Republican, Norm Coleman, it also lost the Democrats control of the US Senate.

 

* * *

Does this really tell us anything about the state of the Democratic Party? Some people made merry at the Democrats' expense, pointing out that both of the emergency replacement candidates for Senate races in 2002 were old, very old, war horses. The short answer may be that, although Mondale lost, Frank Lautenberg won in New Jersey, beating the invincibly obscure Republican, Douglas Forrester. (As we say in New Jersey, Forrester is such a bad campaigner he could not even get indicted in this state.) Personally, I think that it is something of an asset to a party to have a supply of old geezers in the freezer, in case something goes wrong. Real morbidity is when you nominate the geezer in the first instance, as the Republicans did with Bob Dole in 1996.

The problem with the Democratic Party is that it is getting, well, wistful. We see this in the alternative universe to which so many Democrats have retreated, the NBC show The West Wing. In last night's episode, President Josiah Bartlet humiliated his stupid Republican opponent with the Southwestern accent, racking up huge gains in Congress amidst subplots about the difficulties of voter registration. Probably, when the episode was written, the producers expected that it would mark the beginning of a reconvergence of their alternative universe with the real world; hardly anyone expected the Republicans to do as well as they did last Tuesday. As it was, the show was an instance of instant nostalgia

Christian Slater put in his first appearance, by the way, as a naval officer assigned to the White House. He joins Lily Tomlin, who is now President Bartlet's lovable dragon-lady secretary. When Mr. Rogers becomes Secretary of State, we will know that the time has come for NBC to find a replacement.

 

* * *

A more serious example of the Democratic disconnect was also offered around election day, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a strange column entitled "American Idol," Friedman describes the huge, enthusiastic reception that Bill Clinton received on his recent visit to Berlin. Friedman argues that America and Americans are not unpopular in Europe these days. Europeans continue to admire American optimism, as represented by the former president, even as they patronize it. Their dissatisfaction is confined to the grumpy old Republicans who happen to run the United States today. The Republicans, Friedman argues, are practicing just the sort of Realpolitik that the Europeans so recently outgrew, and which they therefore loathe. He implies that the way for America to endear itself to Europe is to wear a Clintonian face.

You don't have to be a Clinton-hater to suspect that there was something a little perverse about presenting Bill Clinton as the model American abroad, just as election returns were showing that the candidates lost for whom he had campaigned heavily. (Peggy Noonan called the effect "The Clinton Thud.") There really is a stratum of the Democratic Party that is best understood as a section of "transnational society" ("tranzies," for short) who will not be happy until there is some authority they can appeal to above the heads of the American voter. Such an attitude cannot be good for any democratic party (note lower case).

 

* * *

And what of the Republicans? There has long been an assumption (which I sometimes shared) that Republicans do better when turnout is lower. That was not the case with the recent elections, however. Turnout last Tuesday was about 39%, up two points from the admittedly dismal 37% of 1998, the last midterm election. The higher turnout was largely the product of a few, highly contested races. The most important of these was the reelection campaign of the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. The Republicans won that race, as well as most of the other high-profile races around the country. This makes it hard to argue that the Republican gains were the result of public apathy.

There is no point in getting elected if you have no ideas about governing. The elder President Bush did not understand that, but his son George W. Bush does. One may like or dislike his agenda, but he does have one, and it is far from merely symbolic. The great merit of the current Administration is that it understands that the chief focus in this era must be national security. That said, though, the Administration also needs to be cured of the illusion that the whole of fiscal policy consists of tax relief, and that the whole of tax relief is lowering the capital-gains tax. A demand-side tax cut is in order. They should talk to Senator Corzine of New Jersey; I am sure he would be happy to talk to them.

The Republicans should also reconcile themselves to the fact that some form of universal health insurance is inevitable. It can be done well or badly. If it happens under a Democratic Administration, it will be a perpetual subsidy for the psychiatric industry and for Planned Parenthood. If the Republicans do it, it can be a manageable catastrophic-illness program that will remove much of the pressure on private insurers for higher premiums. The president has only to broach the matter to deprive the Democrats of 60% of their agenda.

Then there is the matter of election reform. Living as I do in a largely Democratic state, I am keenly aware that the Electoral College is a perverse incentive. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because, logically enough, he campaigned to win the electoral vote. This meant concentrating on lightly peopled states in the Midwest, while the Republican Party in states such as California and New Jersey were left to their own feeble devices. This neglect is hard to make up for during midterm elections. Even with the recent Republican successes, the campaigns that Republicans mounted in these voter-rich states were disheartening, to say the least.

I fully agree with the arguments against simply abolishing the Electoral College; imagine a very close race, and a national recount like the one in Florida in 2000. The solution, surely, is to tie the electoral votes to individual Congressional districts, and not to states. This preserves the many advantages of a winner-take-all system, while at the same time ensuring that the winner will have at least a plurality of the popular vote. We should fix this as soon as we can.

 

* * *

There is one venerable institution that deserves to be retired before it disgraces itself further. Did you see The Simpsons last Sunday? That was their eagerly awaited Halloween show, delayed after the holiday itself because the FOX network carried the World Series the Sunday before. It was not worth the wait. The writers repeated old jokes and scenarios, particularly in the middle story, in which do-gooder Lisa once again disarms Springfield just before an armed threat appears. Then there was the last story, a take-off on H.G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau. That had nothing to do with Halloween. In fact, none of the stories did; only the wrap-around story even featured a ghost. This is inexcusable, since several very good supernatural thrillers have appeared in the last year or two. The show is choking on film-school sensibility.

Surely the time has come for a final TV movie?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Religion

I wasn't a Catholic when I first started reading John's website. He is probably partly to blame for how I turned out, along with G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Fr. John Neuhaus. Which is just as well, since none of these men are around to defend themselves any longer. John had a theological bent that showed in all of his writing. I was intrigued, and it led me on.

John's take on papal encyclicals, and the papacy itself was particularly formative. The Anglo-Saxon parts of Europe and their overseas progeny are currently ascendant, and we are right to see those individualistic cultures as uniquely successful, and as the birthplace of the political notions that currently dominate the world. However, it is worth remembering that space was opened in Western Civilization for liberty when a Pope forced an Emperor to kneel in the snow. I have come to see this as one of the defining features of Western Civilization, and also how Western Christianity differs from Eastern. The space that opened up between Church and State allowed for more real freedom than anyone had ever had, and also served as the first example of the principle of checks and balances that American democracy embraces.

John saw the Papacy as a unique institution in the world, one tied up with the fate of the West. It is also the nucleus of something greater, as the oldest transnational institution. The Bishop of Rome has variously been "a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The Pope may not have many divisions, but the Holy See bulks large in international politics. If a system of world governance crystallizes, the Holy See will be a part of it. This is why people who aren't Catholic care so much about who is Pope. They rightly surmise that much is at stake. On a personal level, John was a fan of Benedict the XVI as well. John understood him better than most. I don't think John would have been surprised by Benedict's resignation. John always saw him as an unwilling pope who accepted elevation out of obedience, when he would have much rather gone back to live a life of writing, prayer, and meditation. I am sad that John didn't live to see Pope Francis. I would rather have enjoyed his commentary. Ah well. Perhaps we'll catch up someday.

Religion

I am what is known as an "orthodox" Roman Catholic. This means that, while my views are conservative, I do not think I am any more Catholic than the Pope. This is an important point

Readers who have looked under the other headings of this Web site will have noticed a certain theological twist in everything I write. Here are some pieces that deal directly with religious questions. Just click on the underlined words:

 

2011
The Reformation: A History [Diarmaid MacCulloch on one of God's Great Mistakes.] The Interior Castle [Saint Teresa of Avila describes the best case.]  

 

2010
Revelation of the Magi [Brent Landau's translation and commentary of an ancient Syriac text that is not quite the Party Line.] Findings [Charles Upton chronicles the decay of Traditionalism in the latter Kali Yuga.] The Red Book [Carl Gustav Jung's psyche in illuminated color, also called Liber Novus.]

 

2009
  American Babylon [Father Richard John Neuhaus's last book was on politics in the light of the eschaton.]

 

2008
  Earthly Powers [Michael Burleigh on "The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War."] Eschatology [Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) on Death, Eternal Life, and the End of the World.]

 

2007
  Spe Salvi [A review of Benedict XVI's second encyclical, Saved by Hope. The document is really about the idea of progress.] Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion [David Gelernter assures Americans that they are not as other men.]

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

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