A week ago, City Journal published “Crazy Like a Visionary,” a review essay I had written about Ashlee Vance’s new biography of Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCity, and sundry other starry-eyed, high-tech enterprises.
As I explained in the essay, my interest in “Green energy” and interplanetary space travel is minimal at best — or, to be more accurate, I am indifferent to space travel. I like it here on terra firma, thanks very much, and I am positively hostile to the Green Lobby, which is full of cynical opportunists like Al Gore, who have greatly enriched themselves by pandering to liberal smugness, and fraudulent mountebanks like Michael Mann whose preposterous “hockey stick” graph sums up in a single mendacious image so much that is wrong with global warming climate change hysteria.
“Environmentalism,” the philosopher Harvey Mansfield observed more than twenty years ago, “is school prayer for liberals.” It seemed almost funny then, when the eco-nuts were but a fringe phenomenon. Now that they’re making government policy on a national scale (the war on coal, e.g.), the humor has palled. The word “sustainable” has been transformed from a reliable emetic into a weapon in the war against prosperity.
When it comes to energy, in short, my own view was summed up by the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion.
It follows that I am an enthusiastic proponent of fracking — frack early, frack often is my motto — for the simple reason that I think you want to have as much energy as possible as cheaply as possible. The recent collapse of oil prices — the other day oil was trading at under $40 a barrel — has made fracking less economically attractive, but I expect that is a temporary condition.
I mention these disclaimers because the burden of my essay was to celebrate the achievements of Elon Musk, the “visionary” of my title. This turned out to be too much for some of my readers.
“Musk’s greatest success is as a tax-farmer,” fumed one commentator, “a fact glaringly overlooked by his hagiographers. And the Mars fetish is on a par with the mad religiosity of Jim Jones.” “Musk is a free lunching huckster,” concluded another serious thinker. “Kimball is a dolt.”
I’ll leave that last comment — along with the witty “What a ghastly prose style!” — to one side. But I think it is worth pausing over the criticisms of Musk and the issue of government subsidies.
I’ll be brief about Musk himself. The chap Ashlee Vance portrays is a fascinating specimen: driven, talented, personally difficult and professionally demanding. Like Steve Jobs, with whom he is often compared, he is a perfectionist who can’t countenance anything less than total commitment and stellar performance. Some knowledgeable observers agree with another CJ commenter that Musk is “just another fraud.” No evidence was adduced for that judgment in the comment, but it is perhaps worth noting that the animus it expresses finds echoes elsewhere. In a personal communication, a friend who is a successful investor noted in response to my piece that he had shorted Tesla and SolarCity and opined:
The Tesla bubble rivals the dot com excesses. Green technology + scam accounting + crony capitalism + dishonest CEO = Tesla.
I agree that that tabulation spells disaster. But does Tesla belong on the right side of the equals sign? I am going to leave the charges of “scam accounting” and dishonesty to one side because I have no way of adjudicating the charges. But in a larger sense, I think we can say that the proof will be in the pudding, which is still on the boil. Maybe it’s all an elaborate Wizard of Oz fabrication and Elon Musk is but a cackling jokester manipulating a congeries of shiny baubles. Maybe.
At the end of my piece, I quoted the investor Peter Thiel, an old rival of Musk’s at PayPal, which they collaborated on in the early 2000s:
We had a blanket rule against investing in clean-tech companies for about a decade. … On the macro level, we were right because clean-tech as a sector was quite bad. But on a micro level, it looks like Elon has the two most successful clean-tech companies in the U.S. … [Y]ou have to ask whether his success is an indictment of the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things. To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.
Of course, Thiel might be wrong. To make a decision about that, we would need to have some agreed upon metric of success and a timeframe within which it would have to be accomplished. There is no doubt that Tesla is a risky venture. But that’s what capitalists do: they take risks. Sometimes they pay off. Often they don’t. Time, the ever eloquent, will eventually tell.
“But capitalists should not indulge their risky ventures with government, i.e., with my money!” That’s the more general criticism about Musk and Tesla. In the course of my essay, I quoted a recent Los Angeles Times article that claims Musk’s businesses have received some $4.9 billion in government subsidies. “Musk and his companies’ investors,” the article concluded, “enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.”
I usually decline to comment publicly on the titles we publish at Encounter Books — as the publisher, what can I say? “Gee, this is an awfully good crop, what?” For the same reason, I tend not to review the books we publish at Encounter at The New Criterion. I made an exception for Robert Bork’s posthumously published Saving Justice, which Andrew McCarthy wrote about for the magazine, but I’ve found that making posthumous publication an unofficial qualifying criterion is too stringent a requirement for even the most publicity-minded authors. Some years back, some wag published a parody of The New York Review of Books called The New York Review of Us: you know, Joyce Carol Oates reviewing Norman Mailer who was reviewing Susan Sontag who was reviewing Joyce Carol Oates: literary spin-the-bottle among all the cool kids in the neighborhood.
But when my editor at PJM asked if I would say a few words about how we came to publish Michael Walsh’s new Encounter Book, The Devils Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, I thought “Why not?” I have a keen and impartial interest in all Encounter Books, of course, but the idea for Michael’s book struck a personal chord because it rhymes or overlaps conspicuously with my own book The Long March: How The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (also published by Encounter, as it happens, but long before I had anything to do with it). The theme of The Long March revolved around how the radical impulses of the Sixties (which had a long prehistory dating back at least to Rousseau) had not dissipated but had insitutionalized themselves in Western soceities, above all, perhaps, in the United States. “The Age of Aquarius,” I wrote in my introduction,
did not end when the last electric guitar was unplugged at Woodstock. It lives on in our values and habits, in our tastes, pleasures, and aspirations. It lives on especially in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog. . . . That ideology has insinuated itself, disastrously, into the curricula of our schools and colleges; it has significantly altered the texture of sexual relations and family life; it has played havoc with the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom; it has undermined the claims of civic virtue and our national self-understanding; it has degraded the media, the entertainment industry, and popular culture; it has helped to subvert museums and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting high culture. It has even, most poignantly, addled our hearts and innermost assumptions about what counts as the good life: it has perverted our dreams as much as it has prevented us from attaining them.
While I cast my eye back to some intellectual and political precursors, including some figures from the Frankfurt School like Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, I focused my attention on a bestiary of prominent, or once-prominent, gurus who, in various ways, sught to advance what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “the long march through the institutions,” the insidious process of revolution by co-optation, by insinuation, by subversions. Had I known about his work when I wrote the book, I would have included the toxic Rules for Radicals by one of President Obama’s chief mentors, the ur-“community organizer” Saul Alinsky.
Subversion is Michael Walsh’s primary focus and the battle he describes is nothing less than a battle between good and evil. The fons et origo of his story is the insidious machinations of the Frankfurt School and its doctrine of Critical Theory. “At once overly intellectualized and emotionally juvenile,” he writes, “Critical Theory – like Pandora’s Box – released a horde of demons into the American psyche.”
When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a fashionable central-European nihilism that was celebrated on college campuses across the United States. Seizing the high ground of academe and the arts, the new Nihilists set about dissolving the bedrock of the country, from patriotism to marriage to the family to military service; they have sown . . . “destruction, division, hatred, and calumny” – and all disguised as a search for truth that will lead to human happiness here on earth.
As Michael understands, the disguise is crucial: it underpins the whole enterprise. The rhetoric is all about freedom, salvation, utopia, the reality is slavery and immiseration. The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (the title, by the way, is from an early opera by Schubert) provides a seductive anatomy of those unholy seductions. I think it’s a whacking good book — learned, passionate, and literary in the highest, non-effete sense of that term — and the fact that it happens to jib neatly with some of my own work I take as an added inducement to praise. In other words, I like it, and I think you will too! Did I mention that it is available at Amazon here?
I mean “awful” in the old sense of “full of awe.”
It is not often that I agree with the politics espoused by The Guardian, England’s most left-wing serious newspaper (or perhaps I mean its most serious left-wing paper). But several years ago on this date — August 6 —The Guardian published a sober and clear-sighted article about the terrifying event whose anniversary today commemorates: I mean, of course, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The article by the journalist Oliver Kamm won my wholehearted endorsement and I wrote about it at the time.
The idea that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima — and, since the Japanese failed to surrender, of Nagasaki on August 9 — was a “war crime” has slowly acquired currency not only among the anti-American intelligentsia but also among other sentimentalists of limited worldly experience. In fact, as Mr. Kamm points out, the two bombings, terrible though they were, “should be remembered for the suffering which was brought to an end.” For here is the . . . I was going to say “inarguable,” but that is clearly not right, since there have been plenty of arguments against it: no, a better word is “irrefutable.” The irrefutable fact about the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 is that they ended World War II. They saved hundreds of thousands of American lives — including, possibly, that of my father, who was a Marine stationed somewhere out East — and, nota bene, millions, yes millions, of Japanese lives.
Were those bombings terrible? You betcha. I, like most people reading this, have read John Hersey’s manipulative book on the subject and have seen plenty of pictures of the devastation those two explosions caused. But again, if they caused suffering, they saved the much greater suffering that would have ensued had the United States invaded Japan. This was understood at the time. But in recent years a revisionist view has grown up, especially on the Left, which faults President Truman for his decision to drop the bombs. “This alternative history,” Mr. Kamm argues, “is devoid of merit.”
New historical research in fact lends powerful support to the traditionalist interpretation of the decision to drop the bomb. This conclusion may surprise Guardian readers. The so-called revisionist interpretation of the bomb made headway from the 1960s to the 1990s. It argued that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less the concluding acts of the Pacific war than the opening acts of the cold war. Japan was already on the verge of surrender; the decision to drop the bomb was taken primarily to gain diplomatic advantage against the Soviet Union.
Yet there is no evidence that any American diplomat warned a Soviet counterpart in 1945-46 to watch out because America had the bomb. The decision to drop the bomb was founded on the conviction that a blockade and invasion of Japan would cause massive casualties. Estimates derived from intelligence about Japan’s military deployments projected hundreds of thousands of American casualties.
Mr. Kamm’s article elicited the usual howls of rage and vituperation. But he was right:
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.
What is the essence, the core, of conservative wisdom? One part is that when it comes to the real world, the choices we face are often not between good and bad but between bad and worse. This is particularly true in times of war. A difficult lesson. But crucial for those who wish to do good as well as emit good-sounding slogans.
I suspect it is a bad sign when comic opera starts to remind you of your country’s political life. I went with some friends last night to the Santa Fe Opera to hear Mozart’s early La Finta Giardiniera (“The phony Garden Girl”). No, I had never heard, or even heard of it, either. It was written early in 1775, when Mozart was 18. There being no video games or internet to distract him, he dashed it off in a couple of weeks. There is some dispute about who wrote the libretto, which is good news for the true author, since it is pretty silly. The opera was first performed where Mozart wrote it, in Munich, in 1775, and he later rewrote it for a German version (Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe), which was the only complete score known until the Italian version was discovered in the 1970s.
The pretend gardener of the title is, naturally, a noblewoman in real life, the Marchioness Violante Onesti. She is disguised as a lowly gardener at the estate of the town’s mayor, Don Anchise, toiling in obscurity after her excitable lover, the Count Belifore, stabbed her in a jealous rage. There is a lot of jealous rage in this opera, and many cross currents of passion and mistaken identity. Don Anchise is in love with the pretend gardener, who, wouldn’t you know it, loathes him. His niece, Arminda, meanwhile, is engaged to the knife-wielding Count, who of course discovers his lost and perforated love in the cabbage patch. “When Belfiore confesses his lingering love for Violante,” one reads in a précis, “Arminda jealously conspires to abduct the other woman. When Violante is found, she and Belfiore lose their minds and believe themselves to be Greek gods.”
It was at this point that I began to see shades of Washington, D.C., wafting over the stage. The opera opens with everyone declaring what a splendid day it is: “Che lieto giorno.” They say that, but they know it isn’t true. A sassy servant has her cap set for the mayor, who pines for the gardener, who discovers she still loves the Count, who also loves her, while the mayor’s temperamental niece rants and raves before finding solace with the Cavalier Ramiro, sung by a castrato in the original but since Bruce Jenner wasn’t available last night, the part was sung by a female mezzo in drag. (I wonder if the current transsexual craze will bring back the castrati?)
By the end of the opera everyone has paired off—the two real servants with one another, as decorum insisted, the niece and the Cavalier, and the Count and the Marchioness—except the mayor. He, alas, is left out in the cold to accept his fate and await another beautiful girl gardener. Good luck with that.
Well, it was an agreeable way to beguile an hour (three, actually). The staging was only mediocre, I’d say, but the acting was by and large appropriately buffa. The mayor’s sassy servant (Laura Tatulescu) and the mayor’s niece (Susanna Phillips) were especially droll, as was the mayor himself (William Burden). The air is thin in Santa Fe (elevation 7,199 feet) and, while the singers had acclimated, the orchestra wanted a bit of puff, I thought.
I have been to 5 or 6 performances at the Sante Fe Opera. It is always an agreeable experience. The setting is breathtaking there in the New Mexican desert, and the roofed but open-air theater, though architecturally severe, is engagingly dramatic. In recent years, however, I have tended to get the uncomfortable sensation that I am watching some sort of allegory. Last night, Mozart’s opera buffa reminded me of the bumbling absurdities of our masters in Washington, pretending to be what they aren’t, casting about in the dark in jealous rages, deluded into thinking they’re pagan gods of some description. It’s a good thing I didn’t go on Monday: Salome was on offer that night, and I shudder to think what parallels Strauss’s gory entertainment would have suggested.
Here in the desert fastness of Santa Fe, the air is thin and Donald Trump seems very far away. I have been partly amused, partly alarmed, by the frenzied cataract of abuse Republicans have heaped upon the Donald. Just a few weeks ago, he was merely an annoyance, entertaining if you like bluster, but certainly not serious. Then he made his remarks about John McCain not being a war hero, or at least, not the sort of war hero he, D. Trump, really likes. I was at a dinner party the day Trump made that remark and was assured by a prominent pundit that Trump was now finished and good riddance. That hasn’t happened yet. In fact, Trump seems to keep rising in the polls. Today’s RealClearPolitics running average has Trump at 18.2 with someone named Bush a fairly distant second at 13.7. At this point in the game, that same pundit assured us assembled serious thinkers, polls don’t matter. So we can discount the numbers.
Or can we? The late, not-really-lamented Spy magazine used to describe Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” which seems about right. What, when you come right down to it, does the man stand for? What does he believe? As Kevin Williamson has tactfully pointed out, we don’t really know. Trump has supported and indeed donated to Hillary. He is pro-abortion. He was, judging by his actions, pro-illegal immigration until, fifteen minutes ago, he was against. He is good friends with Chuck Schumer. And he sees nothing wrong with Kelo-like deicsions enabling the state to confiscate private property for (just to take a random example) casinos emblazoned with large gilded Ts.
No, Donald Trump is, as Kevin remarks, a clown. But here are two things to bear in mind. First of all, the wave Trump is riding will probably help Jeb Bush more than anyone. As the Serious People who actually choose our political leaders contemplate the Trump phenomenon and panic, they are likely to do what they did with Bob Dole and cluster round the most anodyne, least threatening candidate, and that means Jeb, who is clearly the Establishment’s choice. (Headline in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Bush Drawing Big Bucks From GOP Establishment.”) As I have said before, I would rue a Bush candidacy, and indeed a Bush presidency. For one thing, two men from the same family in a quarter century is enough. For another, Bush is wet. Even assuming he won, he would merely keep the seat of the presidency warm for the next left-wing Democrat who would embark anew on the process of dismantling the capitalist, freedom-loving principles that made the United States a beacon to the world.
But let’s leave Bush to one side—if only we could!—and return to the clown in mufti, Donald Trump. What only a few commentators have cottoned on to is that Trump has touched a nerve. His popularity may be fragile, may even be illusory. But he has, in his semi-articulate jabbering, reminded people that there is a world outside the beltway. It’s partly a matter of substance, partly style. People in many parts of the country are appalled by the flood of illegal immigrants that is changing the character of this country. Trump speaks to that. He also, quite obviously, eschews the focus groups. He doesn’t care about donors because he could himself pay for his own campaign several times over. He says what he thinks. It would be nice, perhaps, if the path between his cerebellum and his mouth were a bit longer and more circumspect, but his bluntness plays to the masses. He delights in tweaking the politically correct establishment.
In the locker room at my gym a week or two back, two blue-collar chaps were talking about a house in a town near me that has been taken over by illegal immigrants. A dozen or more people live there, drifting in and out. The house is a wreck, as are the grounds. The police take no notice. Something, one of the fellows said, should be done. That’s when the other chap mentioned Donald Trump. I didn’t catch all the details of their conversation, but it was clear they liked what he said, and they liked the way he said it. He didn’t care whom he offended. He just said what he thought. Maybe he went a little far. But wasn’t that better than the (my term) milquetoast establishment terrified of offending some constituency, somewhere?
I don’t think Donald Trump will be the GOP candidate in 2016, and I don’t think he would win if he were. But he has raised some issues that the high and mighty dispensers of conventional wisdom would do well to ponder. Moreover, he has done it in a way that, though terribly, terribly vulgar, is catapulting Trump to first place in the polls. What does that tell us? That the people are stupid and need to be guided by the suits in Washington? If you believe that, I submit, you are going to be profoundly disappointed come November 2016.
The New York Times is very keen that somebody, anybody, “lend” Greece more money so that it can stay in the eurozone a bit longer.
I put scare quotes around the word “lend” because, as everyone knows, any money that is shoveled into Athens’s coffers will be spent and not repaid. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” advised Polonius, “for loan oft loseth both itself and friend, and borrowing dulleth the edge of husbandry.” Shakespeare is not popular by the Piraeus.
No, Greece faces what the economist Steve Moore, writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, called “financial oblivion.” There are about 11 million Greeks. They owe some $350 billion. That’s 350,000,000,000. You do the math.
Moore thinks that “the big loser” in Greece is socialism. Maybe. Moore is right that “the natural and unavoidable consequence of socialism everywhere it has been tried” is that financial catastrophe he warns about. And in a rational world, people would notice the regularity of this process — install socialism, ruin the economy (among many other things) — and they would conclude that socialism was a bad idea.
That’s in a rational world. In this world, we have the New York Times, which just yesterday had at least three handwringing articles about the situation in Greece. An unsigned editorial argued that, “for Europe’s sake,” Greece must be kept in the eurozone, cost be damned. OK, the Greeks have been profligate, the editorial concedes, but “European leaders have made the crisis worse by their mismanagement.” (I bet that staggered you.) Now it is incumbent upon “Europe,” i.e., Germany, to save “a small, paralyzed country.”
While you wipe a tear away at the spectacle of a country that is presented as a hurt puppy, consider “Soften the Greek Deal,” Roger Cohen’s article in yesterday’s Times. Oh, it’s a “tough” decision, Cohen allows. The Greeks have been naughty. Still, on balance, taking everything into consideration, keeping an eye on the long view and being statesmanlike and adult about the issue, Germany ought to fork over more money lest “medicines and imported foods disappear from pharmacies and supermarkets within a week or two” and the euro suffer a “body blow.”
But my favorite of yesterday’s pieces about Greece in our former paper of record was by Old Reliable, the Times’s resident economic Dadaist, Mr. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. According to Mr. Krugman, Europe must act now to stop the “bleeding” in Greece. Those nasty Germans have been like doctors of yore, bleeding patients because they didn’t know what else to do. And when the patient failed to improve, they prescribed more leeches. “If the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt,” Mr. Krugman warned, Greece will have to start using Monopoly money, aka the Drachma, to “pay” its bills.
What do all these pieces have in common — apart, that is, from that insufferable tone of unearned moral superiority that comes with publication in the Times? Yes, that’s right, they all grandly recommend that someone else fork over the truckloads of cash that Greece wants. Everyone knows Margaret Thatcher’s quip about socialism: sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Sooner or later, and it is looking more and more like it might be sooner, the Germans are going to run out of money to pay for the Greeks’ lavish pension plans and retirement schemes.
But all is not lost.
This is the season where various publications ask their friends and acquaintances for some suggestions for summer reading. National Review has just published their roundup here, to which I have contributed several extremely brief suggestions (along with the suggestion of one entire book). I will only be giving away a little if I reveal that the centerpiece of the miniature chrestomathy is a tidbit from the Declaration of Independence. Remember the “self-evident” truths that Thomas Jefferson enumerates?
The list begins with what the philosopher Harvey Mansfield described as “the self-evident half-truth” that “all men are created equal,” and proceeds with some other thought-provoking assertions. Consider: we are all, said Jefferson, endowed by our “Creator”—hey, wasn’t Jefferson supposed to be an atheist? Then why did he speak of a rights-endowing “Creator”? Er, um . . . Anyway, according to Jefferson we have these “unalienable Rights,” e.g., “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One other side track: Some churls have pointed out that happiness is not a possible goal of human activity and that John Locke’s original phrase, the pursuit of life, liberty, and property, would have been better. Logically, perhaps, but in the 18th century, as today, “happiness” produced more emollient psychological vibrations.
But let’s leave the happiness/property issue to one side. Since we are now being ruled by a majority of nine unelected, black-robed lawyers from Harvard or Yale (apparently no other institution will do), it is the next clauses of Jefferson’s literary firecracker that seem to me especially pertinent. One: “That to secure these rights [life, liberty, etc.], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”; and Two: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, . . .”
I am past believing that the torpid American people will rise up to protest anything short of an effort to take away their central heating or access to Netflix and HBO. Who needs the “consent of the governed” when 320 million people have a majority of nine lawyers to rule them—not, note well, to interpret the law (that was the original job description) but to make policy by dint of hermeneutical ingenuity, e.g., the statute says “exchanges establish by the state,” where by “state” was meant one of the fifty states that compose the (once) United States. It is the work of a moment for our masters to say that by “state” Congress, which framed the law, didn’t mean “state” but rather meant “the federal government.” Or squash pie. Or whatever.
Which brings me to Jefferson’s main event. He thought that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” He then went on to enumerate the many ways in which the king of England had trampled on the rights of the colonists, e.g., “He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat our their Substance.” Who knew that the EPA, the IRS, and other such entities were of such long tenure? Or consider this complaint: “ He has combined with others to subject is to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; . . .”
At a small dinner party last night, our host glided lightly over the activities of the Supreme Court this past week in order to canvass the table’s thoughts about who the candidates might be for the 2016 presidential election. The usual names percolated through the sands of our discussion. My suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was by no means a sure thing was met with friendly disbelief. The Democrats do not have another plausible candidate, ergo, the Hillary is it. I still have my doubts. The aging activist clearly has health issues and is so festooned with scandal—not to mention her utter lack of accomplishment as a senator or secretary of State—that even James Carville must be worried. “No, no,” it was explained to me. “The Hillary is it. It doesn’t matter what she’s done. Someone could turn up a video of her selling Libyan women and children into slavery and she would still get the nomination. It’s not her against the other chap (or, as it may be, the other lass), it’s their team against ours, blue against red. American politics are increasingly polarized, which means they are increasingly nasty. What matters is power, not principle.”
Maybe so. Or rather, indubitably—at least so far as the concluding observations are concerned. We’ll see about the Hillary. My friend’s observations about the character of contemporary American politics were still echoing in my mind when I read Andy McCarthy’s essay “Let’s Drop the Charade: The Supreme Court Is a Political Branch, Not a Judicial One.”
McCarthy began by noting the risible anguish of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in his dissent from the Court’s support of same-sex marriage yesterday that “the Court is not a legislature.” No? A scant 24 hours earlier he had joined the majority in saving Obamacare—what Justice Scalia memorably rebaptized as SCOTUScare—by the simple expedient of hermeneutics (that’s Greek for “dissimulation”). The law that Congress wrote states that in order to qualify for health care subsidies people must be “enrolled in through an exchange established by the state.” But the law that the Supreme Court wrote Thursday says that “established by the state” didn’t mean “established by the state.” It meant “established by the federal government.” It’s the Cole Porter school of legal interpretation: “good’s bad today,/ And black’s white today,/ And day’s night today, . . . Anything goes.”
Amid the cataract of commentary on the Court’s SCOTUScare and same-sex marriage decisions —gloating and ecstatic on one side, anguished and despairing on the other—there has been a curious obbligato from some precincts of the Right, namely, that the decisions are a “gift” to conservatives because now these hot-button issues will not be part of the 2016 presidential campaigns. I think that Michael van der Galien comes closer to the truth when he says: “Conservatives Should Rejoice at the Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Ruling? Are You Kidding Me?” The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Which Chief Justice Roberts might want to gloss as “are reserved to the federal government, not the states, and certainly not the people,” because, after all, who’s to say that the Tenth Amendment does not suffer from what the Chief Justice deplored as “inartful drafting”? Whatever.
Andy McCarthy, in the column I link to above, touches on one of the most disquieting features of this orgy of judicial legerdemain. “[F]or all the non-stop commentary,” McCarthy notes, “one detail goes nearly unmentioned”:
Did you notice that there was not an iota of speculation about how the four Progressive justices would vote?
There was never a shadow of a doubt. In the plethora of opinions generated by these three cases, there is not a single one authored by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, or Sonia Sotomayor. There was no need. They are the Left’s voting bloc. There was a better chance that the sun would not rise this morning than that any of them would wander off the reservation.
Think about that for a moment. “Jurisprudence,” as McCarthy observes, “is complex.”
Supple minds, however likeminded, will often diverge, sometimes dramatically, on principles of constitutional adjudication, canons of statutory construction, murky separation-of-powers boundaries, the etymology of language, and much else. Witness, for example, the spirited debate between the Court’s two originalists, Scalia and Clarence Thomas, over a statute that, in defiance of Obama policy, treats Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory.
When was the last time you saw such debate and principled differences of interpretation on what Latinists might call the Court’s sinister side? Take your time. On the Court, as well as in electoral politics, it’s increasing us against them, our team against theirs, red v. blue. This is not a reassuring development.
I have often noted here the difficulty our progressive and enlightened age poses for the art of satire. Satire depends on some palpable distance between common reality and the thing satirized. “Ha!,” we say, we feel viscerally, when confronted by effective satire, “that exaggeration, that caricature, that satire dramatizes a dangerous tendency in our culture. Of course, no one really tries to extract cucumbers from sunbeams, as Swift suggests in his great satire Gulliver’s Travels, but the idea that they might shows you how absurd so much academic culture is.”
But what if it turned out people really did try to distill cucumbers from sunbeams? What then?
To bad for Swift’s narrative. For the satire only works if the extreme thing it presents really is some distance from the quotidian world.
What absurdity, what outrage, what assault on common sense (to say nothing of common decency) is safely beyond enactment that the satirist can rely on its being safely beyond the pale? For decades now, the art world (which is not to be confused with the world of art) has specialized in mounting raids to efface the distinction between outré and acceptable: the ne plus ultra is now the status quo, the surreal the new documentary. The same is true in the world of education, where delicate feminist snowflakes recoil from the perturbations of Ovid even as they broadcast videos of their sexual escapades. The normalization—that is to say, the currency, for there is nothing normal about it—of transexualism and attendant phenomena from the Baedeker of Kraft-Ebbing might make for a pandering line in Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, but it is hard, hard on the would be satirist, for if the world can celebrate Bruce-Caitlyn Jenner, it’s pretty much knock-off time all around. And then there is the world of politics. It’s almost sweet that some conservatives are scrambling to explain how Chief Justice John Roberts’s assault on the Constitution and what Antonin Scalia mournfully called the plain meaning of words is really, deep down, an opportunity for conservatives and a good thing because now they won’t have to dealing with the yapping disruption of the Left. How can you satirize that?
I was chatting (that is to say, emailing) with a percipient friend yesterday who, having cast a doleful eye about the mad, mad world we inhabit. “You ought,” he said, “write something on Juvenal.” Ever happy to oblige, I pointed out that I had done just that. Lessons from Juvenal appeared some years ago in The New Criterion. I hope and expect that most of my readers will have functioning subscriptions to that beacon of sanity, but since the piece is behind a paywall, I post it here free and for nothing for the delectation and guidance of neophytes and random web travelers. I begin with a few eipgraphs:
It is difficult not to write satire.
—Juvenal, on the Rome of his day
J’ai en ce moment une forte rage de Juvenal. Quel style! quel style!
—Flaubert, in a letter of 1853
Satire, if it is to do any good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based on a consistent ethical view of life.
—Kierkegaard, The Present Age
Probably the most politically incorrect Roman poet, certainly the most caustic, was the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis—Juvenal to us. We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption. Juvenal does this. We also expect satirists to exaggerate, to caricature, to lampoon. Juvenal does this, too, in spades. But satire, like liquor, comes in a variety of flavors and potencies. There is mild satire, whose means are gentle and whose aim is comic. Gilbert and Sullivan are satirists in this sense, as, in his satirical forays, is Horace, Juvenal’s meticulous, urbane precursor. Gentle satire pokes, but gingerly, in fun. Its goal is enlightenment, yes, but also laughter.
Juvenal belongs to a different tribe. When he pokes, he pokes hard, to hurt. His satire is bitter—an adjective that is never far from the poet’s name. The phrase “savage indignation”—often in Latin—is another epithet unfailingly applied to Juvenal, though it does not, I believe, occur in his work. Jonathan Swift, a rival in acerb satire, employed it in his epitaph, which pictures him happy at having finally escaped the saeva indignatio that so lacerated his heart during his life. There are plenty of hilarious passages in Juvenal. But in the end, as F. H. Buckley notes in The Morality of Laughter, Juvenal’s “savage indignation stifles our laughter.” Juvenal aims primarily at the catharsis of exposure, only incidentally at justice and reform. The element of humor is but an intermittent companion to his verse.
Juvenal’s signature disposition is rage—rage against women, foreigners, and pandering homosexuals; against cruel and decadent rulers, unresponsive patrons, uppity parvenus; against greed, pomposity, extravagance, vanity, innovation, stupidity, bad manners, and urban blight. Why write satire? “I will enlighten you,” Juvenal tells us in his the first Satire:
When a flabby eunuch marries, when well-born girls go crazy
For pig-sticking up-country, bare-breasted, spear-in-fist;
When the barber who rasped away at my youthful beard has risen ￼
To challenge good society with his millions; when Crispinus,
That Delta-bred home-slave, silt washed down by the Nile—
Now hitches his shoulders under Tyrian purple, airs
A thin gold ring in summer on his sweaty finger
(“My dear, I couldn’t bear to wear my heavier jewels”)—
Why, then it is harder not to write satires; for who
Could endure this monstrous city, however callous at heart,
And swallow his wrath?
“Today every vice/ Has reached its ruinous zenith. So, satirist, hoist your sails.”
Juvenal’s loathing is visceral, breathtaking, unforgettable. His ninth Satire (he wrote sixteen altogether) is a conversation between Juvenal and an unpleasant, discarded rent-boy who rails against the perfidy and stinginess of his even more unpleasant former keeper. (“‘I paid you so much then,’ he says, ‘and a bit more later, and more that other time.’”) Gilbert Highet, the great classical scholar and an expert on Juvenal, called it “one of the most shocking poems ever written” but also “a masterpiece.”
Highet is right on both counts. The shock stems not so much from overt obscenity. There are only a few passages that the Loeb deliberately euphemizes (only once, I believe, does it render Juvenal’s Latin into Greek). Many classical poets outdo Juvenal in the deployment of four-letter words and the depiction of the actions they name. But no poet exceeds him in portraying the chilly perversion of human affections—not just sexual affection, but all the many forms of intimacy that bind us one to another. Juvenal was a connoisseur of contempt. But he was a dazzlingly eloquent connoisseur. His stinging hexameters glitter with linguistic brilliance and moral outrage. (They glitter, too, with a demanding vocabulary: of the 4790 words in the Satires, 2130 are hapax legomena.)
Who was Juvenal? We hardly know. If he wrote letters, none survives. For all their panoramic detail, the Satires contain only a handful of autobiographical tidbits. There are no contemporaneous accounts of Juvenal’s life or work. He savaged his fellows; they responded with a consuming silence. In the introduction to his excellent translation of the Satires (Penguin, 1974), Peter Green notes that Juvenal is among the most elusive of classical writers. We do not know where he was born, or when. We do not know whether he was married (probably not), or whether he had children. Highet conjectures that Juvenal was or became homosexual, chiefly on the evidence of his fearful contempt for women. But “probably” is the best we can do about even basic signposts. Juvenal was probably born between AD 55 and 70, which is to say during or just after the reign of Nero (54–68): a period of ostentatious corruption and moral breakdown. He was probably born in Aquinum, a town about one hundred miles north of Rome. His father seems to have been a well-to-do Spanish freedman. It is possible that Juvenal saw military service in Britain—there are some scattered allusions to Agricola’s campaign in the Orkneys (84–85) in the second Satire—and it seems likely that he embarked on a career in the civil service. Some speculate that he studied with the great rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35–c. 95).
Juvenal was obviously in and about Rome a good deal: his vivid, omnivorous descriptions of life there bespeak intimate knowledge of the city. He may have been exiled—possibly to Egypt—by Domitian around 92. If so, it may have been because Juvenal made a slighting remark about an actor called Paris, one of Domitian’s favorites (until, that is, Paris was suspected of pursuing an affair with the emperor’s wife, at which point he was promptly executed). Those who suffered exile had their property confiscated, which would explain Juvenal’s bitter depictions of impoverished writers seeking favors from indifferent patrons.
Exile in Egypt would also help explain Juvenal’s loathing for all things Egyptian (an animus he cordially extended to all things Greek). Would Domitian really have exiled someone simply for criticizing Paris? Probably not. Probably he would have had him executed. That, after all, is what he did to a poor chap who just happened to look like Paris. Ditto for some youths who put flowers on Paris’s grave. Domitian was—or became by the end of his reign—a paranoid, murderous tyrant. If Juvenal was exiled, he might well have been recalled when Nerva became emperor in 96 and issued a sort of general amnesty for those exiled by Domitian. The sixteen Satires—we possess a full fifteen and a fragment of the sixteenth—were probably begun in the late 80s. They amount to some four thousand lines of verse. Juvenal published them in five books between about 110 and 130—during, that is, the relatively benign reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117– 138). The only contemporary reference to Juvenal is by his older friend Martial, “the fashionable social pornographer” (Green’s phrase), who mentions Juvenal a couple of times in his Epigrams. In one epigram from the 80s, Martial called Juvenal “facundus,” “eloquent,” but he probably referred not to the Satires (as yet unpublished) but to Juvenal’s skill at oratory. Juvenal mellowed with age. His last satires lack the biting invective and linguistic pyrotechnics of the first dozen. After a period of poverty, Juvenal seems (judging from some hints in the Satires) to have acquired a modest competence: a small farm at Tibur where he could quietly entertain a few friends.