A Guy’s Guide to Islam

Recently I read a story written by Jeremy, a young man about my age who, like me, was raised in beautiful Maryland, in a conservative evangelical subculture. We both later came to abandon some, but not all, of the beliefs we were raised with. For me, this involved questioning fundamentalism, trying on Calvinism, and finding a home in the Anglican Way. For Jeremy, it involved being kicked out of the house by his Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist parents, rejecting Christianity but realizing he still believed in God, trying out other religions, and finally settling on Islam.

In many ways, the teachings and practices of Islam were in accord with Jeremy’s most sincerely-held convictions. For instance, he was struck by its emphasis on equality before God. “Nearly everything I believed and actively tried to practice in my life,” he writes, “was present, to my great surprise, in Islam.” He appreciated that Islam requires its adherents to study its beliefs to become better people, and that it recognizes that sometimes people must take up arms for what they believe in.

After explaining why he converted to Islam, Jeremy remarks, “Ever since my wife and I converted, she has worn a hijab . . .”

Wait a minute. His wife? She never entered the story until this moment. Presumably they were married during at least part of the faith journey Jeremy describes, and was involved in Jeremy’s decision to embrace Islam–especially since she, too, decided to convert. But what were her reasons for doing this?

Where is her story?

Elsewhere Jeremy has written, “men and women in the eyes of Allah are equal, neither is better than the other.” But then he says, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has made one of them excel over the other, and because they spend out of their possessions (to support them).”

This formula doesn’t sound like equality, and it is actually very similar to patriarchy, an ideology that has drawn adherents among conservative Christian fundamentalists. I wonder what were the deeply-held beliefs Jeremy carried over from Christian fundamentalism into Islam.

Conservatism and progress

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.

The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.

No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect.

In a sense, Dmitri’s nasty and vengeful actions led to the death of Ilyusha. In the same sense, Smerdyakov was not the only person whose immoral hatred led to the death of Fyodor Karamazov. Smerdyakov’s childhood tutor Grigory frequently punished the young boy, resulting in his psychological disfigurement; Grushenka, a local woman, had dalliances with both Fyodor and Dmitri that caused resentment among the whole family and left Fyodor all the more contemptible a figure; additionally, the cold and logical atheist Ivan advised Smerdyakov before the murder that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted.” The Karamazovs and their acquaintances dwelt in a moral thicket of ill will and indignation, jealousy and jaundice. The ultimate result was Fyodor’s murder and intense suffering besides. Woven through the pages of the novel are the unmistakably prophetic words of Father Zosima: “Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone.”

So much of our political and social thought ignores the latent ways that our actions affect those around us. In our public culture, the standard test for condemning or allowing something is whether or not it directly harms other people. Often, as essayist Helen Andrews observes:

Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical.

It’s of only peripheral importance to plumb our human and emotional depths, or to ponder the direction and misdirection of our interwoven fates. Life expectancy and the Dow are up, so all is well—so goes our contemporary wisdom.

This “atomic” view of humanity, the idea that we exert little to no causal force upon others unless by direct or semi-direct action, lies implicitly at the root of the progressive ethos. It is understandably attractive, especially in light of the American conversation surrounding same-sex marriage in the last decade. This issue has enjoyed such dominance as the social issue of our age that entire worldviews have formed around it. It was and is plainly obvious to a sizeable portion of America that a loving union between two gay people yields no harm; in the end, they were right about the issue itself.

Conservatives should not have been so trenchant on the issue of gay marriage. Progressives should be proud of the work they’ve done on this issue and so many others. But every conscientious American, at this important point in our social history, should think carefully about the lesson we take away. Have we made progress, as some argue, by seeking the highest degree of individual autonomy and freedom from others, shrugging off seemingly outmoded practices, and allowing ourselves to do anything that does not visibly harm other people? Or, will lasting progress result when we learn to love others rather than just ourselves, seeking prudent reform with the recognition that we are all bound together?

Flickr photo by Stephen Melkisethian
70s-era progressives rallying in support of abortion profiteers. How quaint.

Today’s progressivism proliferated in the 1960s and 70s. By 2015 it has become enmeshed in the basic assumptions of multiple generations. There is much to admire in progressive philosophy and its results. Previous progressive movements—the civil rights movement, the temperance and women’s movement—held strong communitarian beliefs and goals. But today’s progressivism is built on a founding creed of radical individualism, one whose tendency is to divide. This atomistic creed, lodged somewhere deep in the American consciousness, impels many of us to seek liberation by flouting tradition and community.

But liberating ourselves from the seemingly irrational bonds of sentiment and ceremony sets us on a dangerous path. As we cleave ourselves from custom, we risk cleaving ourselves from one another.

The research on American loneliness is bleak. We feel, despite the unprecedented material bounty of our society, less connected now than at any previous time since 1960, the first year statistics were available. The catchphrases of the radical decades—“doing your own thing,” “free love”—have inculcated in the American imagination a faulty sense of freedom, a notion of human rights severed from human nature. Family and meaningful relationships are increasingly of secondary importance to the individualist aspirations of career climbing and instant gratification. Our indifference  – if not hostility  – to all beyond self yields a disregard for our traditions and an ignorance of our past. We are a generation of radically private historical orphans with little comprehension of a context in which to understand ourselves. Our worlds are shrinking inwards: we seek knowledge only of the immediately relevant; we deign less and less to empathize with others.

It may seem cranky and sentimental to lament the decline of the family dinner or the rise of phony celebrity culture. But these trends come at the cost of family and culture themselves. Progressivism’s strength is also its great danger: we seek liberation from each other, and in a sense, from the past. But human beings do not thrive in a condition of maximal autonomous choice. We need the attachments of community. We must find a way to remove chains without breaking the ties that bind.

The ideas of contemporary American progressivism, for all of the good that they do, cannot stand by themselves. Progressivism is not wrong in seeking progress, but its tendency to shrug away the ties of tradition, no matter their longevity, its tendency to estrange and atomize, leaves a void that conservatism can fill. Many conservatives, notably David Brooks, are calling for a post-Obergefell conservatism, one that sets aside its moral opposition to sexual orientation and addresses the cultural effects of radical individualism with love and warmth. “Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society,” Brooks points out. “They already subscribe to . . . selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.”

Brooks is not so much formulating a new conservatism, as underlining a conservative disposition that has been around for centuries, nursed variously by David Hume, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Wendell Berry, and many others. We need not form a new conservative canon. We need to read the one we have and apply it to our times.

Conservatism in this sense is no enemy of progress—so long as progress is humane. Conservatives seek to tie up the loose ends of our rapidly changing sociality, to give shape and substance to our congealed culture. Every social ideology has its bad side effects; conservatism, with its insistence on familial love and human connection, can be used to negate progressivism’s tendency to isolate and estrange.

As Brooks points out, conservatives must preach community as an antidote to impoverished despair, quiet desperation, and broken homes. But conservatism cannot yield to the dominant culture and overlook the realities of hedonistic life. The unbridled pursuit of self-gratification, the psychologically, socially, and sexually risky behavior of the younger generations, shears at our moral fabric and damages human beings. Conservatives must be willing to point out that the cultural dominance of these immoderations is tearing us apart. The mean but seemingly disconnected action of a Grigory may result in soul-shattering pain and anguish for a Grushenka.

Picture of Richard Hamilton's pop art collage "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different," 1992 version
Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different” (1992)

Smerdyakov commits suicide at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, on the eve of Dmitri’s trial. The symbolism must not be overlooked. He hangs himself from a nail on the wall, where in a traditional Russian home a cross or icon would be mounted. Here, Dostoevsky forcefully shows what is so easy for us to overlook: that isolation and despair are inevitable in a world that glorifies individualism; a world where atomized people have only themselves to worship; a world where “everything is permitted” without thought for the effects of our actions can have upon others.

Father Zosima saw the impending tragedy for which Smerdyakov and the Karamazovs were destined, though he knew that he was helpless to avert it. Yet what he preached is the very thing with which conservatives can heal the fissions attendant to our contemporary hedonistic culture. Genuine love for mankind transcends everything, even tradition. Zosima prays for Smerdyakov, although it was not the Church’s practice to bestow such grace on suicides. The most broken among us deserve the most compassion.

Dostoevsky had an ability matched by few other authors in history to touch the core of humanity and expose it. The Brothers Karamazov is an exercise in lamentation over the profound if subtle ways we affect each other, too often pushing one another toward brokenness. But occasionally he shows us the way out. A human life, as Dostoevsky sees it, is a “moment of acting and living love,” a moment in which each of us has a chance to counteract the pain and suffering of our fellow men. If the dark-spirited actions of Dostoevsky’s characters send ripples of hate and despondency across the sea of human relations, deep, neighborly love can calm the troubled waters.

If the conservative movement is to have a serious future, it must take up this task. The message of the basic moral interconnectedness of mankind and the importance of love cannot be abandoned. The ills of modernity are simply not going to cure themselves.


WILL SHIREY is a junior at Penn, from Waterloo, Iowa. His hobbies include reading, swimming, and having occasional medical emergencies. He owns three flannel shirts and is working on cultivating other hipster affectations. Not yet brave enough to stand athwart history yelling “stop,” he enjoys standing idly by the leftist consensus of his campus and whispering “you are way too mainstream for me.”

Farting around at National Review

Conservatives: we don’t have to freak out about National Review. They haven’t “sold out,” and they haven’t endorsed same-sex marriage, as you can see from articles like these. Their only error is that they continue to employ a managing editor who suffers from intellectual and moral imbecility.

But we must offer them sympathy in this. One wouldn’t, after all, want to cast such a person out on his own resources. He might be driven into prostitution sex work (not that there’s anything wrong with that, by his reasoning).

Joseph Bottum had at least the decency to be wrong in a literary and interesting way. Not so Jason Lee Stearts, whose entire argument—all five thousand, four hundred gassy words of it—rests on an inability to define or use the word “fulfillment” properly. I’m not kidding—there is literally nothing of substance there.

Karl Marx quipped that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Unfortunately, Stearts’s article doesn’t even rise to the level of farce. It’s just flatulence, and not even of the kind that’s likely to provoke intellectual climate change.

It’s not the end of civilization—it’s just the end of you

I’ve been too busy with other things to write much lately. My wife and I welcomed our first child, and on top of that I have been pleasantly busy in my day job. I hope to gather some interesting thoughts and return to this website soon. In the mean time, you may appreciate—if you have not already read it—something I wrote at Jordan Bloom’s invitation for Front Porch Republic. (You should read and support FPR.) This expresses some of the primary reasons I’m skeptical of the “social contract” as an adequate explanation for how our social order is put together, especially when it comes to the institution of the family. This skepticism also applies to civil government although I didn’t cover that as much.

“. . . order evolves not as a simple compact among equals but as the complex human response to the inescapable fact of our biological and social inequality.”

You can read it here: “Alienated Children and Inalienable Rights.”

Speaking of social contract and the family, Michael Brendan Dougherty has written a brilliant and lucid explanation of the two modes of family—natural or contractual—which are in conflict in Western society right now. To me, this appears to be the most important political and social justice issue of our time. Dougherty writes:

“In fact, guaranteeing the right to procreate to same-sex couples practically demands the erasure of biological parenthood, as same-sex couples cannot have children without involving a member of the opposite sex, somehow. And equality demands even more. To create the equal experience of full parenthood for both, the child’s curiosity (or claims) on his or her biological parents must be obviated and denied, whatever the heartbreak.”

Although people like Mr. Dougherty and I are accused of being on the “wrong side of history” for taking the side of children and the natural order, the truth of the matter is that the liberal experiment is falling apart and we need to preserve these natural institutions so that civilization can be sustained while we look for a humane political consensus.

I hope that the Irish, of all people, recognize this, and that they will once more save civilization for future generations.

“Vote No” poster from Ireland

[The quip entitling this post was borrowed from the title of one of “Spengler’s” books.]

Would you like to write for The Hipster Conservative? Email hipsterconservative@gmail.com.

God, the satirist

Consider the well-worn saying that “God has a sense of humor.” This is usually meant to refer generally to the unexplained ironies and lucky chances we encounter in life. What I mean, though, is that God as a person, or rather, as three persons in undivided unity, has a personal style of humor which he employs in speech, often through the literary device of satire.

What is satire?

Satire is a genre that, while broad, has certain definite characteristics. The literary distinction between friendly Horatian satire and splenetic Juvenalian satire illustrates two poles of the satirical genre. Any particular satire can fall anywhere in between, and may retain characteristics of other literary genres. The following summarizes the essential character of satire:

In his classic The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye claims that “there are two halves to literary experience. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with.” Satire is the preeminent genre used by writers who want to show a world gone awry. . . .

Even though all satire targets something foolish or evil, there is always a stated or implied satiric norm by which the object of attack is satirized. In the Bible, satiric norms include the character of God, the moral law of the writer’s religious community, basic virtues like love, generosity, or humility, and the golden rule (behaving toward others as one wants to be treated by others). [source]

This “better world” of normal ideals is an essential element of satire, and may either be explicitly referenced or left unspoken. This often depends on whether the intended audience is aware of or in agreement with the “norms.”

Satire is not always in keeping with the taboos of polite society. Many find it low and offensive. Ambrose Bierce observes this tendency in his satiric definition of satire:

An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a sour-spirited knave, and his every victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent. [source]

Although Bierce is right that Americans do not care for ‘negativity,’ the act of ‘tearing down’ has its right place, if not in the American psyche, at least in the pages of Scripture, associated with the destruction of physical and theological idols—as in this verse from Deuteronomy:

You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. (Deut. 12:3 ESV)

The purpose of satire is the destruction of false idols and the restoration of true norms.

Satire in the Old Testament

God often uses satire in the Old Testament. The book of 1 Samuel tells an incident in which the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and carried as a prize into the temple of their fish-god Dagon, whose image had a man’s upper body and a fish’s tail. After the first night, the priests of Dagon return to find their god doing obeisance to the Ark. They set him up again only to return the next morning to find him again fallen down in front of the Ark, but this time his head and hands are broken off and sitting on the threshold of the temple. The Philistines are also afflicted by painful boils and mice. But rather than worship the true God, they have his Ark sent away—with offerings of golden boils and mice—to propitiate themselves and their own impotent god.

In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah calls the people of Israel together along with the priests of Baal and presents a sharp-edged object lesson. After the people fail to choose between Baal and Jehovah, Elijah proposes a test: although the prophets of Baal outnumber him 450 to one, the question will be determined objectively: the God to provide fire for his sacrifice will be acknowledged as the true one. Elijah allows his adversaries the first try, taunting them as they attempt to invoke their god.

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

Elijah then proves Jehovah’s power through significant actions. He first builds his altar with uncut stones, calling them after the tribes of Israel:

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name…” (1 Kings 18:27–31)

The satirist is not only concerned with tearing down but also builds up what is true. Elijah’s construction of the altar symbolically reminds the people of Israel of their sacred calling. He then drenches the sacrifice, fuel, and altar with water, the element opposite to fire, in an act of absurd contradiction, to show that Israel’s devotion to God has been quenched. God answers with overwhelming certainty. His fire consumes the water, fuel, sacrifice, the altar itself, the trench around the altar, and even the dust. In a return to right norms, the priests of Baal are driven out and slaughtered.

Idols are a frequent target of satire. In various places, the prophets point out the folly of idol worship in ironic juxtapositions.

He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14–17)

The book of Jonah is the most overtly satirical book of the Bible. God sends the prophet Jonah to warn Nineveh, a wicked enemy city, of impending judgment. However, no character in the story is less devout than Jonah himself. Attempting to flee God’s calling, he boards a ship to Tarsus. When God sends a dreadful storm after him, the superstitious sailors recognize that someone aboard must have angered God to have elicited such disaster. They save their own lives by throwing Jonah overboard. The reluctant prophet is then swallowed by a fish for three days while he prays very piously for God’s deliverance.

After the fish vomits him out on shore, Jonah undertakes his commission, traveling through Nineveh proclaiming “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” The entire city responds in fear and repentance. The king issues a proclamation: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” But when God actually does relent and spare Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry and complains, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah is not really interested in God’s will unless it aligns with his own prejudices.

God has the last word, reestablishing the true “norm” of his divine mercy: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Satire in the New Testament

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are obdurately forgetful of even the most fundamental principles of God’s law, so they must be constantly harangued by the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus encounters an entirely different situation. The Jews have finally adopted the Law as a way of life, but are failing to understand its deeper significance. Jesus uses a much more subtle sort of satire in his parables and deeds. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man in hell asks Abraham to send a beggar named Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they may avoid his torment. Abraham however observes that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In John’s gospel, Jesus actually raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. The religious leaders, far from being convinced by either the proofs of Jesus’ divinity in the Law and the Prophets, or by his miraculous actions, plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.

Similarly, Jesus claims he will give no “signs” of his divinity—miracles—for the religious leaders and instead recommends to them the “sign of Jonah.” Like Jonah, the religious leaders ignore all the “signs” in Moses and the Prophets that God’s will is to extend His merciful kingdom to the whole world. They look exclusively for a Messiah who will restore their nation’s earthly glory, and so they reject Jesus.

Christ’s bitterest, most “Juvenalian” speech, is in Matthew 23. He tells his disciples and the people who are gathered around:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.

Jesus begins by invoking the “norm”—Moses’ law—and ironically exhorting his listeners to obey the scribes and Pharisees out of respect for Moses—but not to imitate their behavior. After his initial catalog of their social hypocrisy, Jesus turns to direct, caustic accusations in high satirical style. The Pharisees and scribes “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” with their arcane distinctions that obscure rather than illuminate the law. Jesus repeatedly employs hyperbolic imagery, exaggerating their actions to match the sin in their hearts:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

These characterizations are harsh enough, but Jesus is not done with the Pharisees. He relates their present-day hypocrisy to the disobedience of their ancestors.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.”

“Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers,” Jesus taunts them, knowing they soon will.

Enrique Simonet: Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem (1892)
Enrique Simonet: Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem (1892)

Supreme Court Drinking Song

Let’s buy another round! Let’s buy another round!
We’ll pass no bar in town until our fears are drowned!
Show Congress we are wild!
Ignore appeals they filed!
Who cares what precedents they found?
Let’s buy another round!
We’ll pass no bar in town until our fears are drowned! Continue reading Supreme Court Drinking Song

A modern Babel

My favorite living American poet, A.M. Juster, just published a Candid Email to the Librarian of Congress, politely applying for the position of Poet Laureate. (#TeamJuster!) This reminded me of a verse I wrote under Juster’s influence while working for the Library, which like many great institutions has a darker human side. Continue reading A modern Babel

Juvenal on gay marriage

Gracchus has given a dowry of four thousand gold pieces
For a horn-player, or one perhaps who plays the straight pipe;
The contract’s witnessed, ‘felicitations!’, a whole crowd
Asked to the feast, the ‘bride’ reclines in the husband’s lap.
O, you princes, is it a censor we need, or a prophet of doom?
Would you find it more terrible, think it more monstrous
Truly, if a woman gave birth to a calf, or a cow to a lamb?
He’s wearing brocade, the long full dress, and the veil,
He who bore the sacred objects tied to the mystic thong,
Sweating under the weight of shields. O, Romulus, Father
Of Rome, why has this evil touched the shepherds of Latium?
Where is it from, this sting that hurts your descendants, Mars?
Can you see a man noted for birth, wealth, wed to another man,
And your spear not beat the ground, your helmet stay firm,
And no complaint to the Father? Away then, forsake the stern
Campus’s acres, you neglect now. ‘I’ve a ceremony to attend
At dawn, tomorrow, down in the vale of Quirinus.’ ‘Why’s that?’
‘Why? Oh, a friend of mine’s marrying a male lover of his:
He’s asked a few guests.’ Live a while, and we’ll see it happen,
They’ll do it openly, want it reported as news in the daily gazette.
Meanwhile there’s one huge fact that torments these brides,
That they can’t give birth, and by that hang on to their husbands.
But it’s better that Nature grants their minds little power over
Their bodies: barren, they die; with her secret medicine chest,
Swollen Lyde’s no use, nor a blow from the agile Luperci.
Yet Gracchus beats even this outrage, in tunic, with trident,
A gladiator, circling the sand, as he flits about the arena:
He’s nobler in birth than the Marcelli, or the Capitolini,
Than the scions of Catulus and Paulus, or the Fabii,
Than all the front-row spectators, including Himself,
The one who staged that show with the nets and tridents.

—Juvenal, Satires, II. 117–148, A.S. Kline trans.

Calvinists in Hell

On one hand we have 21 poor Egyptian martyrs who went to their reward calling on the name of Christ as they were beheaded by masked barbarians. On the other hand we have JD Hall*, a plump Reformed Baptist from Montana, and his friends, condemning anyone who deviates slightly from his own doctrinal system.

Perhaps one should not stop to kick every barking dog, but this one deserves it.

The Copts (the ancient Egyptian church) are not Christians, says Hall*, because they “believe in salvation-by-works.” Hall’s* supporting evidence for this is shaky, but according to him the Copts are like other non-Protestant Christian groups in that they “do not share our faith in Jesus” and prefer traditional communal expressions of faith, such as liturgy, creeds, and fasting, to personal expressions of faith like blogging about doctrine.

Confessions matter.” Yes, and these martyrs confessed Christ with their mouths even in the face of death. But you will not even confess them as brothers. Surely the blood of the same Christ cannot flow in your veins.

The Islamic State can only kill the body. You think you have the power to consign these martyrs souls to hell.

Do you have the authority to judge these men? Let us see who has received the authority to judge:

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4 ESV)

So I think we can be certain that the Coptic martyrs will be exalted in the kingdom of God. But what can we say for the Calvinist connoisseur? Hall* may not be going to hell, although that would be poetic. He already inhabits a hell of his own manufacture, cut off by his words and actions from the living body of Christ.

For more fulsome thoughts, see Jordan Cooper:


* NOTE: A reader has suggested that the Pulpit & Pen blogger may not be JD Hall. Although Hall appears to manage the blog and its social media presence, the post is unattributed.

Hunting the Snark

This Valentine’s Day, Oliver Morrison wrote a self-congratulatory love note to his fellow liberals in the Atlantic, arguing that the Left presently dominates the world of political satire because liberals are more tolerant of irony and ambiguous humor than conservatives.

Despite Morrison’s overtures to neutrality, his argument amounts to little more than the latest in a long line of attempts to demonstrate that liberals are smarter, cleverer, funnier, and subtler than conservatives. Morrison cited a study which found conservatives often failed to recognize that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, as evidence that conservatives don’t understand ambiguity. But the study’s authors drew a more [cough] ambiguous conclusion—they wrote, “we have outlined a cognitive process in which individuals who consume ambiguous political messages from ambiguous sources in late-night comedy interpret the messages in ways that support or reinforce personally held political beliefs,” suggesting that their results don’t reflect some difference in liberal or conservative DNA, but rather the fact that people tend to see what they want to see in ambiguous situations. So, confirmation bias.

But Morrison and I could trade stories about clowns on both ends of the left-right spectrum all day without either of us convincing the other. It would be more useful to point out the irony of his argument about irony: in the age of the post-liberal Left, old-fashioned political snark, the kind he says is so dear to liberals, is in grave peril.

Morrison’s article reminded me of the well-publicized case of Justine Sacco, a corporate executive who tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS, sparked a global wave of Twitter outrage, lost her job, faced death threats, and is now, as a recent New York Times Magazine article revealed, effectively in hiding. Sacco still insists, as she has all along, that the offending tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) was intended as satire, a joke about Westerners who are oblivious to the problems that plague the continent in the vein of the beloved hashtag #firstworldproblems. And while Sacco’s satire comes off as more juvenile than Juvenalian, there’s no reason to doubt her intentions in retrospect, since by all accounts she’s a very committed liberal. Sacco’s infinitely more likely to mock Western privilege than to make the insensitive joke that this tweet would have been were it sincere. But she turned the snark up too high, and paid dearly for it.

Image of Justine Sacco’s infamous tweet.
Can any reasonable person believe this was not intended satirically?

Steven Colbert himself learned something about the perils of snark in the well-publicized #CancelColbert affair last March. The official Colbert Report Twitter account tweeted an offensive line about Asians, which Colbert had deployed to mock the racism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, out of context. The Twitter activist Suey Park read the tweet, still out of context, and leveraged her considerable following to start what is commonly known as a “Twitter Firestorm” and demand retribution from Colbert and Comedy Central. Fortunately for Colbert, he’s a darling of the mainstream media, which quickly came to his rescue by pointing out that no, one of the most beloved liberals in America is not actually a flaming racist. But Colbert had stepped over the line. His snark was too snarky, too close to the sort of verbal violence and rhetorical repression progressives imagine they might hear from a gun-toting Harley-Davidson rider at a gas station in rural Alabama.

Liberals have learned from the cases of Sacco, Colbert, and others, which is why the satirical Twitter account Women Against Feminism, with 92,000 followers, clarifies its status as snark by making its tweets grammatically incoherent and rife with spelling errors. “I don’t need feimsis I like my men to be MASCULINE!! I will only date a man if he washes himself with shark blood and exfoliates with gravel.” Unfortunately, even these precautions are not enough, since most of its tweets still attract angry, deadly-serious replies accusing them of furthering the misogynist cause. At least so far there haven’t been any outraged hashtag campaigns against the account. Still, by qualifying itself so painfully, WAF’s snark loses its deadpan quality and ends up so obvious as to be mostly charmless and uninteresting.

No piece about the downfall of satire would be complete without the obligatory reference to “A Modest Proposal,” so here you go: if Jonathan Swift had published his legendary piece of snark today, the Twitter firestorm would probably have consumed several cloud computing storage centers.

How progressivism works.
How progressivism works.

The post-liberal Left, eternally vigilant for the least sign of ideological impurity, is now devouring its own parents, the jesters who made light of conservatism’s worst excesses back when liberals were in the minority.

Among the survivors of the purge is Jon Stewart, whose singularly straightforward brand of humor seems to be ideally suited to the post-snark age. Stewart excels at pointing out silly things that Fox News and Republican members of Congress do or say in clever ways, but his signature moments, which generally involve passionate shouting about the idiocy of X person or Y organization with the occasional self-deprecating joke thrown in, are not exactly ambiguous. And understandably so, because a little snark is a dangerous thing, and being misunderstood can cost you dearly in a world of angry young people with large Twitter followings, and a 24-hour news cycle that loves covering hashtag campaigns.

By the post-liberal Left’s standards, in fact, most snark, whatever its intentions, probably qualifies as the sort of verbal violence that must be eliminated at all costs. When statements are judged not by their meaning but by the internal state they produce in their hearers, and when we speak of being offended as suffering a kind of bodily violation, there is no room left for ambiguity in our discourse. Actually, by these standards isn’t snark—isn’t humor itself—a particularly insidious kind of privilege, afforded only to members of empowered groups who can afford to make jokes out of the cruel words that are even now ravaging the souls of the oppressed? (This particular problem surfaced in That Jonathan Chait Article’s anecdote about the feminist Facebook group.)

As a simple, unsubtle, and humorless conservative, I naturally cheer the decline of snark, but I offer a friendly warning to the liberals who are abandoning it. When, after a heroic struggle, the nameless baker of the original “Hunting of the Snark” finally killed the dread beast, he ran into unexpected consequences.


In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away—

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.