Category Archives: Politics

HOW TO THINK: INTERVIEW WITH ALAN JACOBS

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University.  His terrific new book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, frames our conversation.

 

Moore: I regularly say that I had to write my books. And this continues to be true with the two book projects I am currently working on. Gathering from the tenor of your latest book’s content, it seems like you felt a high degree of compulsion to write How to Think. Is that true?

Jacobs: Yes, and true for this one more than for any other. When the Presidential election campaign and the Brexit debate really started heating up, I became more and more concerned by what was passing for debate on the issues and personalities involved. There was (there still is) a lot of shouting, and, above all, many people seemed absolutely determined to mischaracterize their political opponents’ views. It was as though not thinking had become a virtue. The more I reflected on how such an environment might have come to pass, the more clear it became to me that I needed to write this book.

Moore: In David McCullough’s fine biography of John Adams he mentions how the second president believed his son, John Quincy, must go overseas to get a complete education. How critical is it for our own education to interact with people from diverse backgrounds?

Jacobs: In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill stated the case in a way that, in my view, cannot be bettered. I would be foolish to use my own words when his superior ones are available:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.

Moore: To what degree, if any, is careful thinking made more difficult by the ubiquity of social media?

Jacobs: It is very difficult to overstate how inimical social media are. All the major social networks want to keep us engaged with their site, and that means we need to be emotionally manipulated: to feel delight, triumph, rage, contempt, and to register those feelings instantaneously. And as long as we’re doing all that, we cannot think.

Moore: Does the unity and diversity of the trinity help us better think about important and complex matters?

Jacobs: If so, I’m not sure how! But I think the relational character of the very Godhead itself, the continual interplay-in-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should remind us that we, made in the image of that God, cannot be monads. In their lesser and limited ways, all healthy human communities, and especially the community called the Church, imitate the endlessly relational unity of the Triune God. This is why I argue in my book that you cannot “think for yourself” and shouldn’t even if you could: thinking is something we always do in response to other people.

Moore: You address the area of emotions and their importance to thinking. Many would not make that kind of connection. Why did you?

Jacobs: There’s a great deal of evidence now — the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has done a lot of it — that demonstrates that people who are unable to have proper and healthy emotional responses to the world make bad decisions. But wise persons have always known this. As C. S. Lewis comments in The Abolition of Man, the importance of training the feelings is central to much ancient thought, pagan and Christian alike: “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”

Moore: You’ve written a well-regarded book on C.S. Lewis’s imagination. Other than his native brilliance, what are a few things Lewis did that made him a great thinker?

Jacobs: That passage I just cited gives one indication! (His awareness of the need to touch people’s dispositions as well as their rational faculties explains his writing of fiction as well as apologetics.) But I believe the really key thing is this: Lewis, though raised in a Christian home, if not an especially devout one, became an atheist as a teenager and indeed for some years was quite assertive in his atheism, always feeling free to mock the simple beliefs of his friend Arthur Greeves. So when, at around the age of 30, he became a Christian, he was able to do so only after unstitching a garment of conviction that he had stitched up quite determinedly over a period of fifteen years. As a result, he came to know both atheism and Christianity from the inside. He was always in the position that John Stuart Mill, in the passage I quoted above, says that the genuinely thoughtful person must be in: knowing the strongest arguments of all sides in a dispute, and knowing them as though from the inside.

Moore: If you could wave a wand, what three books would you have every American read to equip them to be better thinkers?

Jacobs: I’m reluctant to make a list, in large part because, as I explain at length in my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I’m a big believer in reading at whim. But also, what you need to read depends on what you need to understand. So here’s a suggestion: Consider the people whose views you find especially appalling, but also appallingly popular. Find out what they read. Find out what books they believe are the most compelling accounts of their position, the ones about which they say, “This is it. This is what I stand for.” Now, go read all that. At the very least, you’ll sharpen your own thinking by having to articulate your own response to arguments you detest.

But beware: you just might end up changing your mind.

 

THE DEMON IN DEMOCRACY

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Professor Ralph Wood, the gifted writer and teacher, works his craft at Baylor University. Ralph recommended that I read The Demon in Democracy. I’m glad he did, though it was not a comforting read.

Legutko’s big idea is that the liberal democracy of our day shares many of the same features as communism. There are commonalities such as a penchant for utopianism. There is also an undying belief that one’s system of thought is perfect and so should be immune from critique.

Most of us simply accept that everything about liberal democracies is wonderful so questioning any part of it would be un-American. Actually, the opposite is true. Serious questioning of political institutions is at the heart and founding of our history, something most of us have forgotten.

Legutko teaches philosophy in his homeland of Poland.   He is not opposed to progress per se, but finds a troubling hubris at the heart of many modern notions of progress.

More than once I put a marginal note of “no dissent allowed” to characterize the lack of scrutiny most Americans give to the modern notion of liberal democracy. And it is the modern notion, not the older versions of liberal democracy, that is in the author’s crosshairs.

If you want to know more about why serious thinking and free speech (on both the left and right) has gone the way of the Dodo bird, this book has much to offer.

THE FRACTURED REPUBLIC

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Yuval Levin writes wise, thoughtful, and accessible books. His previous book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, was terrific. And as I said in its review, it is not just for “political junkies.”

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism can stand on its own, but I would recommend reading The Great Debate as well.

The Fractured Republic is refreshing. Levin is a conservative, but that does not keep him from correcting his conservative kin, especially on fueling an expressive individualism that is just as toxic as those on the Left.  Levin believes that conservatives who appreciate the importance of “mediating institutions” like families, communities, and religious groups, is where promise for a better political climate moving forward resides.

Levin rightly sees both conservatives and liberals falling prey to nostalgia, a longing for a bygone era where things were so much better than the present. Both sides need to disabuse themselves of nostalgia in order to see their way forward in making wise decisions in a culture that is different from the past.

NOT HEADING FOR THE HILLS!

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Scholars are rarely prophets and prophets are rarely scholars.  I was reminded of this in reading the much debated, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher, journalist and outspoken Christian, is decidedly on the prophetic side of the scholar-prophet spectrum. This, however, does not mean that he is incapable of helping us better understand the far-reaching and practical ramifications of something as arcane as nominalism.

We must say right out of the blocks that Dreher’s book is not a jeremiad screed to head for the hills.  Rather, Dreher advocates for “exile in place.”  The preposition is key.  We are to cultivate faithfulness with other like-minded folks not simply to hunker down in our religious enclaves.  We should form these counter-cultural communities to strengthen our capacity to engage, not escape, our world.  This is a clarion call by a gifted writer to let the church be the church.

I have my disagreements with some of Dreher’s analysis and antidotes.  With respect to the former, Dreher is insufficiently aware of what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola Scriptura.  As Keith Mathison memorably puts it, sola Scpritura does not mean solo Scriptura.  Among other things, leaning on the thesis in Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation made for a potted history.  Dreher would have been greatly helped if he had availed himself of the work of either Mathison or D.H. Williams, especially his Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: a Primer of Suspicious Protestants.

As to antidotes, I don’t share Dreher’s sweeping denunciation of public schools.  For the record, our two sons attended Christian schools, had a few years of homeschooling, and went to public high schools.  All three have their strengths and weaknesses.  Sure, public schools can be a mess.  I saw incompetent teachers and weak administrators, but I also saw bogus rules, unprincipled administrators and mean teachers at the Christian school.  My experience, it needs to be noted, was both as a parent and a part-time teacher.

Dreher is rightly concerned about the corrosive effects of “moralistic, therapeutic, Deism.”  I share his concerns.  I also share Dreher’s conviction that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.”  As many have said, the church seems the most vital (and prophetic) when it works from the margins of power.  Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Dreher’s book is a good reminder of that reality.

NOT JUST FOR POLITICAL JUNKIES!

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The modern notion of “politics” is much narrower than the ancient one.  The modern idea thinks mainly of things like voting, lobbying for favorite causes, and those who govern.

Levin shows us in his terrific book that there is much more to politics.  For example, one’s understanding of human nature and history dramatically affect how one understands political change.  So-called progressives and so-called conservatives are given much to think about in this fine work.

Since I am late to the party in reviewing this book, let me close with one massive implication that came to me in reading this book and it deals with Christian theology.  For those of us Christians who gladly hold to more conservative or orthodox (small o) theology, there is something terribly important we can learn from Edmund Burke.  Burke believed that the best of tradition is true, but to convince more radical types like Paine, it was crucial to also show the beauty of tradition.  If I were to grade us conservative Christians on how well we do in showing the beauty of truth, I would give us a very low grade.  Carefully crafted doctrine is essential, but it needs to shine forth as beautiful.

You can purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Debate-Edmund-Burke-Thomas/dp/0465050972

MY NUMBER ONE GO TO SOURCE ON JACKSON

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I’ve read several good books about President Jackson.  None have been duds.  All of them taught me fascinating and important things about Jackson.

Jon Meacham combines some of my favorite features for biography: wonderful wordsmithing, lucid prose, an eye for the salient details, and a nose for smelling out the proper drama.

If you are looking for a terrific biography of Jackson, this is the place I would recommend.

TYRANNY IN AMERICA?!

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https://www.amazon.com/Tyranny-Twenty-Lessons-Twentieth-Century/dp/0804190119/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1496973754&sr=1-1

The short answer to my subject line is “yes.” The longer, but still short answer of “yes” resides in this tract for our times. I heard someone say that On Tyranny reminded them of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, a short, but powerful rallying cry for all Americans. The comparison seems apt.

Before you write off the author as some conspiratorial loon, keep in mind that Snyder is an eminent scholar of Eastern European studies. And it is the study of Eastern Europe that gives credibility to this work. Most importantly, is the fact that Eastern Europeans appreciate that things can go terribly wrong. Believing that a “new day in America” means “an even better day” is naive and shows that we are ignorant of history. Many of us, including our Western European friends, were stunned by the election of Donald Trump. Eastern Europeans weren’t.

I have two quibbles with On Tyranny. Neither are that significant. In the book and in a few lectures I’ve heard, Professor Snyder uses “the end of history” without defining it. Some of us are very familiar with the idea popularized by Francis Fukuyama, but others could be helped by some unpacking of the idea. My other minor reservation revolves around a sentence that closes out Professor Snyder’s third action step. Here’s the sentence: “We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions.” I think it is safe to say we are already being tested, but not having elections in 2018? That strikes me, even as a pretty grizzled “no Trumpster” as incautious.

Like I say those are quibbles. I am glad to see this book getting such a wide hearing.