At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Unfashionable opinions can be wrong; prevailing orthodoxies can be right. I don’t know what Orwell expects here, but I do know that he is correct regarding the power of ideology to silence, the need to cultivate environments that allow for the free and open exchange of ideas, and the establishment of a public discourse that encourages speech, civil disagreement, and the possibility of reasoned argument and exchange.
From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then, again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a reevaluation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but clearly it is likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. The friends of totalitarianism in this country usually tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. It is pointed out that all historical records are biased and inaccurate, or, on the other hand, that modern physics has proved that what seems to us the real world is an illusion, so that to believe in the evidence of one’s senses is simply vulgar philistinism. A totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist. Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact. It is at the point where literature and politics cross that totalitarianism exerts its greatest pressure on the intellectual. The exact sciences are not, at this date, menaced to anything like the same extent. This difference partly accounts for the fact that in all countries it is easier for the scientists than for the writers to line up behind their respective governments.
The Anabaptist tradition has also shaped my thinking. John D. Roth says it well: “Anabaptist Christians embrace their political responsibilities – not primarily as citizens, or as representatives of political parties, or as a lobby group shouting to be heard, but as ambassadors of the Prince of Peace who came as a servant, welcomed children and foreigners into his circle, and taught us to love our enemies.”
This perspective can and has led to separatism. That’s why I’m cautious toward the Anabaptist tradition. But I find it compelling because it takes the kingdom of God seriously. Anabaptists are also wary of worldly centers of power. Roth writes:
The most powerful seduction of political engagement, particularly in democracies, is the illusion that true power is in Washington or Ottawa or Asunción or Tehran. Yet Christians believe that history is carried forward by the church, not the state. How would you see the world differently if your primary source of global news came from church leaders around the world or from Christian relief and service workers in other countries rather than from Fox, CNN, or the echo chambers of social media?
That’s a powerful question.
Anyway, people ask me from time to time how Christians think about politics. My answer: “Lots of ways.” Familiarity with various perspectives helps us remain humble, clarifies the perspective best defining our viewpoint, and enables to better understand what we expect from the church and the surrounding political culture. Knowing the perspectives helps us better understand what we champion, why, and how as a Christian, what our goals are, and where the dangers lie.
I’ll return to Rick Berry. He writes:
Our political ideologies are the product of people who simultaneously reflect and distort God’s glory—and no creation is greater than the people who created it. Our goal in the public square therefore should not be merely to champion our political tribes, because that would mean working to empower their sin as much as it would mean empowering their glory. Instead, we should seek to witness to our political tribes, even critiquing our own groups when necessary, and we often must do that by contrasting ourselves against them.
Stated differently, even if we do develop a sound and well grounded approach to politics as Christians, we should never turn our particular viewpoint into an idol, and we must never lose our prophetic voice.
In this interview with Adrienne LaFrance of the Atlantic, the now deceased New York Times columnist and host of Masterpiece Theater Russell Baker offered a few nuggets on work, writing, politics, comedy, and journalism. I extracted a few of my favorite portions.
LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?
Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.
LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?
Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.
On writing as labor:
Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.
On changes in the political scene in Washington:
LaFrance: When I covered national politics, the longest-serving senators would always tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. That’s not really true, is it? Because if you look back at the history, there’s always been fighting.
Baker: Well there has, but not like now. It’s another world. At one point I covered the Senate for several years. I knew everyone. The Senate’s easy to cover. There are only 100 guys. It’s just the right size. But the Senate now has become something quite different than what it was when I covered it. It was an important body when I covered it. I started covering the Senate during the Eisenhower years. It was important in any number of policy matters. To be on the Foreign Relations Committee was to be a heavyweight. I mean, [Senator J. William] Fulbright’s resistance to the Vietnam policy had real weight in the events that followed. And that was true on the financial side. The Finance Committee chairman really had influence.
Now nobody has any weight. Nobody listens. As a matter of fact, they don’t have any respect for the job anymore. Trent Lott was the majority leader for the Republicans and chucked the job to become a lobbyist. If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate, he would have been disgraced. A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now. The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story.
When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. [Sam] Rayburn was the speaker of the House. They worked closely with Eisenhower to get things done. It’s inconceivable that any of those men would have taken it upon himself just to frustrate Eisenhower.
Politics is almost a nonstop activity now. There’s not much government that goes on. But with Rayburn and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy —all those people—they governed. Governing is tough. Now they don’t spend much time governing. It’s mostly posturing.
On comedic writing (I censored the curse words):
LaFrance: You mentioned your column, so I want to get your view on comedic writing generally. Do you think that humor is more parts truth or more parts absurdity?
Baker: I don’t know! I don’t know what it is. You know, you laugh, it’s humorous. I am curious about the decline of wit in humor. That may be a cyclical thing. But humor’s much cruder than it was when I was working in that area, when humor required certain cleverness. Whereas now you say a nasty word and the audience will break up. It’s a nervous tic. You just say a four-letter word.
Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says “s***” or “f***,” and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts. When you’ve got to do as much work as he does, I can understand why you go for the cheap laugh.
On the pointless, inconsequential concluding question:
LaFrance: I know we’re running out of time. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?
Free speech is in the news. What is being debated is whether it is a good thing. I believe it is.
The reason for the debate is because of something referred to as “cancel culture,” instances were a social media outcry bubbles up over current or past transgression or a problematic stance, followed by the demand that a person, show, movie, book, any artifact, individual, or institution, be tossed to the curb. Someone said the wrong thing, took the wrong position, liked the wrong person’s tweet, or expressed something that someone somewhere found unsavory, and now that because that position or idea is repudiated according to contemporary moral standards of propriety, out they must go. Cancel culture is often explained by way of example. You’re probably thinking of one now. I’m thinking of this controversy.
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.
The letter further states, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The signatories claim that this is taking place on the left and the right, that both extremes in American political discourse are eliminating anything that might resemble what has classically been described as the public square, a space designated for open and free debate. The letter concludes with the following appeal:
The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
What has followed has been controversy. Some have asked about the subtext of this statement. The New York Times wrote about the publication of the letter and the varied reactions to it. The letter, signed by Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, David Frum, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Haidt, Atul Gawande, and Malcolm Gladwell, among others, should not be controversial. Some found it to be so not because of the substance of the ideas themselves, but because of associations with select individuals who signed. The timing of the letter was questioned by Mary McNamara, but I wonder when would have been a good time for such a statement.
McNamara makes other, more significant points, including the fact that cancel culture isn’t new and that public debate is always messy. If you think cancel culture is new, just replace the concept with the word boycott, and think of instances when you thought boycotts were good and helpful vehicles for social change, and when you found them to be just downright silly.
But there is a difference between messy public debate and healthy public debate. While all public debates may be messy, not all public debates are healthy. Some discourses are reasoned, others are fanatical. To simply say, “cancel culture is fine because it isn’t new” does not preclude that this current iteration we are now seeing in our discourse isn’t somehow insidious or particularly destructive toward the free exchange of thought. Kevin Williamson, writing for the conservative opinion journal National Review, states:
Cancel culture is not discourse but antidiscourse, a genre of speech intended not to facilitate the exchange of views and ideas but to prevent such an exchange. It is free speech in the sense that shouting down a speaker is free speech.
One obvious response to the defenders of cancel culture as simply more speech is that criticism of cancel culture is speech, too, as is criticism of criticism of cancel culture, as is criticism of criticism of criticism of cancel culture — you can follow that recursive loop as far out as you like, traveling a great distance without going anywhere.
But the more important thing to understand is that critics of cancel culture oppose the sanctions that are being advocated and imposed for political and social nonconformism, not the ability of rage-addled morons to engage in such advocacy as a matter of formal rights.
Williamson simply suggests that advocates of cancel culture who are driving our discourse aren’t being honest. And I agree. There are those who are saying they are in favor of free speech while simultaneously claiming that we are in need of censoring, and the plain fact is that those two claims are mutually exclusive. Alan Jacobs cites Freddie deBoer, who says it well:
So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?
You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.
Count me among those who believe we need more speech, not less. People should be free to think and say things I find offensive and wrongheaded, to express those views publicly and in print, and to make arguments for their position.
Likewise, I should be free to disagree with any position I believe to be wrong, to do so publicly and in print, and to make counterarguments not only in seeking to demonstrate those positions are false, but to persuade others concerning what I believe to be right.
My commitment to these values is not only guided by my admiration for the United States Constitution. These commitments are also rooted in my Baptist convictions, reflective of bedrock principles of my religious faith. I believe in free inquiry, free thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom from it, free association and free expression first because of my Christian convictions, and second as an American.
You may recall that the Bible includes an extensive and well developed wisdom tradition, texts that offer examples and sayings that can guide and uphold a healthy, well-ordered, and functioning society. You also will recall that the Bible also includes a prophetic tradition, a record of those within those societies who spoke with boldness and clarity concerning injustices and oppression that took place. Healthy discourses make space for both the sage and the prophet, and healthy societies seek to preserve the past while also discerning when and where to break from it.
For free speech to be possible, we will need to cultivate and uphold a constellation of the virtues and values that make such a discourse possible. We need values like freedom, liberty, dignity, love, mercy, justice, humility…I could go on. It is not easy being free. We need a larger story within which to frame free speech, one that allows free expression, but also imparts a way of understanding the world by which speech can be judged good or bad and a means of reasoning together that allows for such evaluations to be established politically, as part of a way of life.
The establishment of a healthy public discourse has never been easy, and even when conditions have been at their best, there have always been instances of injustice and oppression that have been ignored, suppressed, and marginalized in favor of preferences and privileges of the powerful. A healthy society has the humility and the wisdom to acknowledge that power differentials always result from politics, and that the work of justice is ongoing.
America has experienced fractious moments in the past, and our present moment is another instance where we are divided. There are those among us who are determined to widen that divide.
If nations are to be understood by what they love supremely, then freedom is and always has been the key to America. But the question facing America is, what is the key to freedom? The present clash is not between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, urban and rural, heartlanders and coastals, or even globalists and nationalists, important though those differences are. The deepest division crosscuts these other differences at several points. At the core, the deepest division is rooted in the differences between two world-changing and opposing revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and their rival views of freedom and the nature of the American experiment.
[ . . . ]
There is no escaping the coming showdown, for Americans are fast approaching their Rubicon. Is 1776 to be restored (with its flaws acknowledged and remedied) or is it to be replaced by 1789 (and its current progressive heirs)? The outcome will favor one view of freedom or the other, or perhaps the abolition of freedom altogether. For the two main rival views are far more contradictory than many realize, and with their scorched-earth attitudes and policies, they cannot live with each other forever. The middle ground is disappearing. A clean sweep of the cultural landscape is what each wants, and neither will talk of compromise or allow anything to stand in its way. Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism o f 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. The American republic divided in this way cannot stand. The United States can no more continue half committed to one view of freedom and half committed to the other than it could live half slave and half free in the 1860s.
[ . . . ]
Needless to say, the issues between the different sides are for Americans to debate and resolve. But such are the stakes for all humanity, particularly when the debate turns to the future, that perhaps an outsider may raise some questions. What is freedom, and what are the terms of the American experiment? Which of the two rival views of freedom best serves the interests of human flourishing? Which of the two grounds the vision of a free and just society for all citizens, based on the dignity of every human person and allowing for disagreement and opposition? Which view allows a free people to sustain their freedom under the challenging conditions of the advanced modern world and the global era? How will the American experiment survive in the world of posthumanism? Statements about freedom are often deceptively simple, though profoundly consequential, yet they are the issues at the crux of the American crisis. The outcome of the struggle will determine the future of the American republic. It may also determine the future of humanity itself.
Last Call for Libertywas published in 2018, and at that time I thought his rhetoric was provocative and bombastic, exaggerated to make a point. I agreed with Guinness about the nature of freedom, how difficult freedom is to sustain, how a constellation of commonly held ideas about freedom are absolutely critical for the overall well being of a nation, and how institutions must be healthy and well-functioning if a people are to flourish and thrive. I agreed with him about the uniqueness of the American experiment and the importance of knowing America’s history. I also agreed that America contained within her Constitution and her history mechanisms and systems for reform and refinement toward “a more perfect union,” and while flawed, that America was and is a good place to live.
The debate that Guinness foresaw is now here. Now is a time of testing, not only for individuals, but for communities. Guinness writes, “The personal and the interpersonal precede the political.” While most of us think of America firstly as a democracy, Guinness argues for its standing as a covenantal or constitutional republic whose well being depends on the health of our formal ties in marriages, families, schools, churches, and other voluntary associations. While many of us look to the national debates and the news media as a barometer for our societal health, that might just be the wrong place to look. We might be wiser to look to our city governments, churches, neighborhood associations, and civic life as a means of determining where we’re getting it right and where change needs to be enacted.
And as we engage, we need to do so as informed citizens, as people who are familiar with both our national triumphs and our national sins. To deny either would be naive. But we must also be clear on the ideas about freedom and liberty by which we would like to shaped, where they come from, and where they may lead us. As Guinness clearly states, no less than the future is at stake.