The Modern World’s Foundation

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“[I]n the West, Christianity not only fulfilled the initial cognitive conditions for modern structures of consciousness… Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

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Pulled from the tail of Jürgen Habermas’s book-length interview Time of Transitions. There’s been some controversy about this quote, but the above is the real thing. The word he uses in German is erbe — heritage or legacy.

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Diplomacy, Ben Franklin Style

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“In France, seventy-year-old Benjamin Franklin began the third phase of his extraordinary life. His fame as a scientist and philosopher blended with the huge excitement he generated as the spokesman for the embattled new republic, the United States of America. With consummate shrewdness, Franklin wore the simple clothes of an American Quaker, an imaginary character created by savants such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French wanted to believe that in the new world a new kind of man was emerging, free of the corruptions and infirmities of their decadent old world. Franklin was more than ready to encourage this illusion. One excited Parisian wrote: ‘€œEverything about him announces the simplicity of primitive morals€… The people clustered about him as he passed and asked: “Who is this old peasant who has such a noble air?”‘

The old peasant, whose primitive morals had enabled him to maintain wives on both sides of the Atlantic without a hint of scandal, was soon displaying his gift for backstairs diplomacy. He began by charming France’€™s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes. With the help of several American victories on the battlefield, Franklin persuaded this cautious veteran of twenty-four years™ service in Europe’€™s capitals to back the United States, first with secret aid and then with a formal alliance in 1778. This was only the beginning of Franklin’€™s French accomplishments. He secured over $40 million in loans and gifts from the French treasury — €”the equivalent of perhaps $600 million today — €”money that kept the bankrupt American government functioning. He supervised the shipment of tons of supplies and weapons to America. He armed and equipped American sea captains, such as John Paul Jones, who preyed on British shipping in their home waters with spectacular success…

In a cheerful letter to a grandniece in America, Franklin had [an] explanation for his dalliances: ‘Somebody gave it out that I loved ladies; and then every body presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embraced, that is to have their necks kissed. For as to kissing on the lips or cheeks it is not the mode here, the first is reckoned rude, and the other may rub off the paint. The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable; by their various attentions and civilities, & their sensible conversation. ‘Tis a delightful people to live with.’…

Occasionally, one madam or mademoiselle asked him if he cared for her more than the other pursuers. With a smile Franklin would reply in his limping French, ‘€˜Yes, when you are closest to me, because of the power of the attraction.’

The remark combined flirtation and a reminder of his fame as a scientist. He was comparing the lady’€™s impact on him to the way an electrified piece of metal drew iron filings to it. Behind these amorous games lay the goal Franklin never forgot — €”persuading the French to back the faltering American Revolution. He knew — €”and cheerfully approved — the passion for politics among upper-class French women. He hoped their enthusiasm for his amiable American ways would be transmitted to their influential husbands or lovers.”

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Pulled from Thomas Fleming’s The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

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Rioting in Understatement

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“The two parties, which are really one party, cannot be put to use. They are the country’s ownership made carnival. Can the united action of individual citizens regain some control over government? I think so. But it won’t be easy, to riot in understatement. Attempts to cut back the war budget — whether the war be against communism or drugs or us — will be fought with great resourcefulness. When challenged with the billions of dollars wasted or stolen from the Pentagon, the establishment politician’s answer is clear: Abortion is against God’s law. He promptly changes the subject, the way a magician does when he catches your attention with one hand while the other picks your pocket…

Our political debate — what little there is — can never speak of the future except in terms of the past. I shall, therefore, present a formula to restore the Republic by moving boldly forward into the past. I wish to invoke the spirit of Henry Clay. Thanks to our educational system, no one knows who he is, but for political purposes he can be first explained, then trotted out as a true America Firster who felt that it was the task of government to make internal improvements, to spend money on education and on the enlargement of the nation’s economic plant… This does not seem to me to be too ambitious a program.”

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Pulled from Gore Vidal’s classic “Notes on Our Patriarchal State,” which is taken from his “State of the Union” speech from 1990 (embedded below). To get the full effect, flash forward to minute twenty-six and listen to this section. The text can be found in his collection Gore Vidal’s State of the Union.

Why Identity Politics Fails

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“The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints. Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth…

If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, actually share. And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals — including ones to benefit particular groups — in terms of principles that everyone can affirm. Ours must become a civic liberalism. […]

Elections are not prayer meetings, and no one is interested in your personal testimony. They are not therapy sessions or occasions to obtain recognition. They are not seminars or ‘teaching moments.’ They are not about exposing degenerates and running them out of town. If you want to save America’s soul, consider becoming a minister. If you want to force people to confess their sins and convert, don a white robe and head to the River Jordan. If you are determined to bring the Last Judgment down on the United States of America, become a god. But if you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the people you care about, it’s time to descend from the pulpit.”

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Pulled from Mark Lilla’s short book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, published last month.

In both its tone and substance, I think it’s as useful a Democratic roadmap as I’ve seen since last summer. (For ongoing discussion of the book, including some of its shortcomings, follow my friend Matthew Sitman.)

I’m descended from James

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“Like a lot of boys I played war when I was young, and like a lot of men I retained an intense and abiding curiosity about it. And like a lot of people, my family was deeply affected by war and probably wouldn’t have existed without it. One of my mother’s ancestors emigrated from Germany in order to fight in the American Revolution and was given a land grant in Ohio in return. His last name was Grimm; he was related to the great folklorists who recorded German fairy tales. One of Grimm’s descendants married into another frontier family, the Carrolls, who were almost wiped out by Indians during a raid on their remote Pennsylvania homestead in 1781. The Carroll wife managed to hide in a cornfield with her four-year-old son, James, while the Indians killed her two teenage sons and her dog. The husband was off in town that day. I’m descended from James.

My father was half Jewish and grew up in Europe. He was thirteen when his family fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Paris, and seventeen when they left Paris ahead of the German army and emigrated to the United States. He tried to sign up for military service but was turned down due to asthma, so he eventually helped the war effort by working on jet engines in Paterson, New Jersey. Later he got a degree in fluid mechanics and worked on submarine design. When I turned eighteen I received my selective service card in the mail, in case the United States needed to draft me, and I declared that I wasn’t going to sign it. The Vietnam War had just ended and every adult I knew had been against it. I had no problem, personally, with fighting a war; I just didn’t trust my government to send me to one that was completely necessary.

My father’s reaction surprised me. Vietnam had made him vehemently antiwar, so I expected him to applaud my decision, but instead he told me that American soldiers had saved the world from fascism during World War II and that thousands of young Americans were buried in his homeland of France. ‘You don’t owe your country nothing,’ I remember him telling me. ‘You owe it something, and depending on what happens, you might owe it your life.’

The way my father put it completely turned the issue around for me: suddenly the draft card wasn’t so much an obligation as a chance to be part of something bigger than myself. And he’d made it clear that if the United States embarked on a war that I felt was wrong, I could always refuse to go; in his opinion, protesting an immoral war was just as honorable as fighting a moral one. Either way, he made it clear that my country needed help protecting the principles and ideals that I’d benefited from my entire life.”

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Pulled from Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I’m descended from James.

That sentence, its ordering in the paragraph and use of the informal contraction where a self-serious “I am” would be tempting, is a reason Junger is a great writer.

Image: AARP

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The Bookends to Cary Grant’s Surprising Memoir

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“I was born in the provincial city of Bristol, England, but have avidly frequented the brightest capitals of the world ever since, and now keep a permanent residence in the so-called, through misnamed, glamour capital of Hollywood.

I had no sisters, was separated from my mother when I was nine years old, was stammeringly shy in the presence of girls; yet have married three times and found myself making love on the screen — in public, mind you, in front of millions of people— to such fascinating women as Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Mae West, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly.

I was an only child… My father made no more than a modest living and we had little money. Yet today I am considered, except among the wealthy, to be wealthy. I received only a sketchy education by most scholastic standards, lacked confidence and the courage to enjoy life, but on the screen seem to have successfully epitomized an informed, capable and happy man. A series of contradictions too evident to be coincidental. Perhaps the original circumstances caused, created and provoked all the others. Perhaps they can all be reconciled into one complete life, my own, as I recall each step that led to each next step and look back on the path of my life from this older and, I trust, more mature viewpoint…

Regardless of a professed rationalization that I became an actor in order to travel, I probably chose my profession because I was seeking approval, adulation, admiration and affection: each a degree of love. Perhaps no child ever feels the recipient of enough love to satisfy him or her. Oh, how we secretly yearn for it, yet openly defend against it.

I have made over 60 pictures and lived in Hollywood for more than 30 years. Thirty years spent in the stimulating company of hard-working, excitable, dedicated, loving, serious, honest, good people. Casts and crews. I recognize and respect them. I know their faults and their insecurities. I hope they know and forgive mine. Thirty years ago my hair was black and wavy. Today it’s gray and bristly. But today people in cars, stopped alongside me at a traffic light, smile at me!

I feel fine. Alone. But fine. My mother is quite elderly. My wives have divorced me, and I await a woman with the best qualities of each. I will endow her with those qualities because they will be in my own point of view.

As a philosopher once said, ‘You cannot judge the day until the night.’ Since it is for me evening, or at least teatime, I can now look back and assess the day. It’s been a glorious adventure up to here — even the saddest parts — and I look forward to seeing the rest of the film. Just as I did in 1932 when I sat in that Paramount Studio office. I took up the pen and wrote for the first time ‘Cary Grant.’ And that’s who, it seems, I am. Well, as some profound fellow said, ‘I’d be a nut to go through all that again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.'”

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Selections from Cary Grant’s short self-published autobiography, Archie Leach. He did find that woman, by the way.

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Barbarian Days

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“Things changed after that between me and Mark… I followed him around at work, sitting in while he examined patients. He had been a bit of a prodigy when we were in college. After his father developed a tumor, Mark, who was pre-med, started studying cancer with an intensity that convinced many of his friends that his goal was to find a cure in time to save his father. As it turned out, his father didn’t have cancer. But Mark kept on with his cancer studies. His interest was not in fact in oncology — in finding a cure — but in cancer education and prevention. By the time he entered medical school, he had created, with another student, a series of college courses on cancer and coauthored The Biology of Cancer Sourcebook, the text for a course that was eventually offered to tens of thousands of students. He cowrote a second book, Understanding Cancer, that became a bestselling university text, and he continued to lecture throughout the United States on cancer research, education, and prevention. ‘The funny thing is, I’m not really interested in cancer,’ Mark told me. ‘I’m interested in people’s response to it. A lot of cancer patients and survivors report that they never really lived till they got cancer, that it forced them to face things, to experience life more intensely. What you see in family practice is that families just can’t afford to be superficial with each other anymore once someone has cancer. Corny as it sounds, what I’m really interested in is the human spirit — in how people react to stress and adversity. I’m fascinated by the way people fight back, by how they keep fighting their way to the surface.’ Mark clawed at the air with his arms. What he was miming was the struggle to reach the surface through the turbulence of a large wave.”

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From the eighth chapter (“Against Dereliction”) of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

The chapter opens with Conrad, writing in The Mirror of the Sea: “The ocean has the conscienceless temper of a savage autocrat spoiled by too much adulation.”

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What’s a Midlife Crisis?

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“I used to think, before I had one, that the midlife crisis was something that happened to weak-minded chumps who didn’t have backbone. Now I believe that midlife crises are structural: they’re to do with your whole life. They’re to do with facing things that haven’t been faced before. And what gets them going is a hysterical overreaction to the certainty that you’re going to die.

One of the definitions of youth is that you think death and decay are things that happen to other people; some part of you thinks, funnily enough, in my case it’s not going to happen. Though you’re intellectually persuaded that it will, a bit of you goes on believing it’s just a rumor as far as you’re concerned.

Milan Kundera said that ‘we’re children throughout our lives because every 10 years we have to learn a new set of rules.’ I think that’s a good remark, and I think it’s spectacularly true of the mid-life. When I was 40, I thought I knew everything. I was even almost bored by the transparency of everything and how clear life was to me. Then suddenly, I was pitched up on the shore of the mid-life, and I thought, ‘I don’t know anything anymore! I’ve got to learn all this stuff anew.’ And that’s a frightening thought, but it’s an exciting thought, too. And you do pick up these sort of hints and pointers about how you can live the next period of your life.”

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Martin Amis, speaking in a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose.

Later in the conversation, Charlie remarks, “You’ve said you’re happy about all this but also, in some ways, saddened.” Amis’s reply: “Well, I’m sad about the sunderings that proved necessary, or at any rate have happened in my life. Friends. Family. Wife. It all feels unknown out there now.”

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The Powerful Have the Gift of Knowing Who Their True Enemies Are

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“Gathered together and finally free, with a dim hope of promised lands, they were as if drunk. They stormed through villages and cities, taking everything… and they killed all the Jews they came upon here and there and stripped them of their possessions.

‘Why the Jews?’ I asked Salvatore. He answered, ‘And why not?’ He explained to me that all his life preachers had told him the Jews were the enemies of Christianity and accumulated possessions that had been denied the Christian poor. I asked him, however, whether it was not also true that lords and bishops accumulated possessions through tithes, so that the Shepherds were not fighting their true enemies. He replied that when your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies. I reflected that this is why the simple are so called. Only the powerful always know with great clarity who their true enemies are. The lords did not want the Shepherds to jeopardize their possessions, and it was a great good fortune for them that the Shepherds’ leaders spread the notion that the greatest wealth belonged to the Jews.

I asked him who had put into the crowd’s head the idea of attacking the Jews. Salvatore could not remember. I believe that when such crowds collect, lured by a promise and immediately demanding something, there his never any knowing who among them speaks.”

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Pulled from chapter eight of Umberto Eco’s 1995 novel The Name of the Rose. One should note that the “Shepherds” here are the Pastoreaux, Salvatore’s gang of crusaders, not guys who look out for livestock for a living.

Image: Wikicommons

Yoni

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“Yoni loathed war and fighting. To kill horrified him… Because he had to fight to save his nation’s life, he made himself into a great fighting man. But he knew, as all men of sense know, that war today is an empty and dangerous lunacy, not a practical political technique. He was philosopher enough to understand this truth… and he was man enough to know… that if he had to, he would die fighting for the Return and for peace. So consecrated, he flew off to Entebbe, and to his great hour.

Like one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sketches in stone, his letters are a work of rough suggestive art. The mysterious figure only half-emerges from the native rock. And yet the figure is there. When we close the book, we know nothing of Yoni’s secret exploits, little of his magic with women, little of his terrific labors in his army assignments, little of his intense family relationships. Yet we know the man; all we have to know, and all we will know. He inspires and ennobles us, and he gives us hope. That is enough. That is the best art can do.

Shelley wrote of the dead Keats that his soul

… like a star
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

I wanted to close this introduction by applying those words to Yoni. But I cannot. I see him in my mind’s eye shaking his head, with a grin and a deprecatory farewell wave. And I hear his last words, like a distant marching song on the wind, יהיה בסדר — ‘It’ll be okay.'”

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The closing to Herman Wouk’s introduction to The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu.

The Kushner Dilemma

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“I was in a coffee shop a few days after the election and someone I knew from childhood recognized me. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Tell me everything’s going to be okay.’

A lot of us who study politics have the impulse to give an answer to that person that will make her feel better. So we create a story wherein Steve Bannon is the source of all the irregularities and anomalies in the White House, and if only someone nicer, someone like Jared Kushner, would take over, things would be okay.

They’re not going to be okay.

With Jared Kushner you get a different set of problems than you do with Steve Bannon. Obviously he’s way less ideological. He’s not connected to Breitbart. But he doesn’t know anything. And even more than that, the problems of public integrity that have stalked this White House become worse the more power the Kushner family has.

It was the Kushner family that negotiated this $400 million payout from a Chinese state-influenced bank. Although that deal had to be dropped in the face of pressure from Congress, presumably everyday, people in the Kushner family circle are thinking of similar transactions.

And, look, 35-years-old: [he and Ivanka] are not children. That’s half your life on this planet. And they haven’t bothered to learn anything about the roles they now have.

If Jared Kushner were a truly public-spirited person, what he would do is separate himself much more fully from his business interests, and say to the president, ‘Dad, it’s clear you need an A-team here. And what I’d like to do for you is run a staffing process, whereby instead of giving your China portfolio to me, and giving your Middle East portfolio to me, and giving your Reinventing Government portfolio to me, we’ll bring in people who actually have known about these issues before November of last year. And, while we’re at it, let’s get the State Department staffed, too.’ […]

Anyone who has worked in government knows that administrations run through a deputy system. Deputies prepare information that is then handed over to principles. And, a third of the way into the first year of this presidency: no deputies.

Donald Trump may feel like a winner. I’m sure he’s a much richer man than he was on election day. But the rest of us, I think we’re all losers.”

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David Frum, speaking in an interview on Charlie Rose last month.

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