I Regret the Time I Attacked Bill Bennett and Got Noticed.

It was early in the new millennium. I was working for a state-based think tank and desperately wanted to make a name as a political commentator. Looking back from 2019, I’ve had a lot of opportunities and scratched the itch pretty thoroughly, but in those days I was palpably hungry.

I was just beginning to write for the new political websites that were popping up and eagerly sought each opportunity to get something else out into the stream. Every new posting meant two things. First, I would be able to say what I was thinking and have large audiences take notice. Second, I’d get my name out there. The point is that my radar was active. I was ready to move.

I saw a story about Bill Bennett in the news. He had been a hero of mine. I loved his promotion of virtue through his books and appearances. According to the report, Bennett was big on playing slot machines. As a righteous young person attentive to even the whiff of hypocrisy, I felt outrage. How could it be that the preacher of virtue and moderation took his speaking fees from evangelizing those good things and fed the money into slots???

As upset as I was, I saw opportunity, too, though. I quickly wrote up a column-sized lament about conservative heroes having feet of clay. I can no longer recall who published it, but I went further in this case. I realized that I could gain a greater audience and perhaps make a name for myself by promoting the piece further. I wrote to the publishers of Real Clear Politics and to Andrew Sullivan. Why did I choose Andrew Sullivan? Because he was a well-known gay writer who would surely appreciate a piece criticizing a lion of the right like Bennett. I cringe now at my opportunism then.

Even though I was a nobody with very few bylines to my name, I got the treatment from Sullivan and from Real Clear Politics. Had Twitter and Facebook been available at the time, I’m sure I would have gone viral with my howl of despair and betrayal. At the time, I was pleased with myself and counted my achievement to be quite a coup.

In retrospect, I regret the whole thing. What did I achieve by participating in the shaming of one of my own heroes? Was I angry? Yes. But I cannot avoid the fact that my own desire for advancement and reputation was at least as important as my moral outrage.

Why do I mention it now? The episode is well forgotten almost two decades later. It’s just that I’ve been noticing something, lately. People at the New York Times and the Washington Post do occasionally publish columns by people in my community (meaning conservative evangelicals). But it should not escape anyone that the pieces by people in my tribe that make it to those august pages are almost always of a particular type. The Times and the Post are game to publish earnest writing from conservative evangelicals criticizing their own people for moral cowardice, for hypocrisy, etc.

Now, it is important to call a spade a spade and to face up to the truth, but we may need to exercise a little discernment in realizing that the elites only want us when we are attacking our own. Further, we should ask ourselves what our motives really are. Maybe our laments should go elsewhere than to those who wish to weaponize them.

Christianity and Paradoxes

From my journal written back in 2001:

Tertullian: I believe because it is impossible.

Jews: God’s people, yet most persecuted.

Christ: Fully man, full God. A king with no material kingdom, no army. Innocent of any crime, but crucified. Message of peace and nonviolence, but came to bring a sword and assaulted the moneychangers.

Trinity: How can you have one God in three distinct persons?

Major heroes: Terribly flawed. Moses, David, Peter, Saul/Paul

Christ: Virgin birth. The meek shall inherit the earth. Blood that cleanses. Faith like a mustard seed moves mountains.

Paul: I do what I do not want to do.

Christ: Life after death. Total defeat to win total victory.

What’s Doing the Work in the Trump/AOC Squad Controversy? Is it racism or something else?

Many years ago I served as a teaching assistant for the political philosopher Francis Beckwith. As we talked and spent time together, I learned some of his habits of speech. One thing he would often do was to analyze an argument and then say “what’s doing the work in the argument is . . .” It seems to me that in the Trump/AOC Squad controversy we have a misconception of what’s doing the work.

The AOC Squad, featuring Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, function as a bloc on the left who agree on a highly critical view of American politics and culture. In essence, they believe the United States is extremely unjust, reparations for slavery are appropriate, socialism is a good guide for economic policy, a green new deal is needed, etc.

Donald Trump responded to them in a ham-fisted and offensive way by encouraging them to go back to their original countries and fix what is broken there. The problem, of course, is that they are American citizens who have been elected to the U.S. Congress. Clearly, he is mistaken or is not mistaken, but is rather trying to offend or whip up negative sentiment against them.

So far, so good. But here is the problem. The president’s remarks, which I agree are offensive and mistaken, have also been repeatedly characterized as racist. So many people I respect and consider guides for my own thinking call these remarks racist.

The use of racism as a critique here doesn’t sit well. It is a crumb in the sheets. It is the tinnitus in the ear. What’s doing the work here? Is it really race?

Let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we had members of the U.S. Congress who were ethnically identifiable as Swedish and Norwegian. Imagine they had names that fit the bill and that they cultivated the identification by way of critique of U.S. cowboy capitalism and militarism. And let’s imagine they, too, were highly critical of President Trump and promised his impeachment.

Let us further imagine that this Bjornsson and Thorsdottir drew exactly the same rebuke from the president or something like it. “Go back to your stupid socialist countries and your minimal world influence. Go back to being irrelevant and useless. You love Scandinavia so much, go back there.”

Viewing the scene, would you conclude that racism was doing the work in Trump’s offensive remarks? I don’t think you would. I think you would conclude that Trump’s hatred of the Scandinavian view of national priorities and his anger at being criticized were doing the work. But you couldn’t say racism, could you? Of course not, it’s a white on white drive by rhetorical shooting.

But in the other aspects, the situation is basically the same. What we have is not the operation of racism, but the operation of jingoism, nativism, and Donald Trump’s own sensitivity to being criticized. I have a hard time understanding why the emphasis is so firmly on the color of the people involved.

Now, I know that many people will be shaking their heads and saying that I’m clueless, but I invite analysis of what I’ve suggested. I agree 100% that what the president said is wrong. I just disagree with why it is wrong. I don’t think racism is essential to the complaint. I suspect racism is the frame we use because it is bombastic and because we largely agree on the heinousness of it. If you are a political opponent of the president, you would rather charge him with racism than jingoism or being thin-skinned. It just resonates so much more strongly.

But again, what’s doing the work?

A Conversation with Libertarian Christians

I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve always been highly sympathetic to that point of view. I recently discovered a letter I wrote my parents in 1988 in which I talked about how I’d seen Ron Paul addressing a group, had been impressed by his arguments, and was sorry that he could never win. So, while I’m not a full-scale libertarian, I am a bit of a fellow traveler to some extent. (I’m also a fellow traveler with the folks at the American Solidarity Party, so go figure . . .)

For that reason, I was very happy to give a podcast interview to the Libertarian Christian Institute. We talked about faith and politics and particularly about why government is both necessary AND potentially the most dangerous institution in a society by far. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.

“Don’t Ban Equality.” Seriously?

By now most folks are aware of the ad run by a couple hundred CEO’s expressing their opposition to Georgia’s anti-abortion law. They characterize the law as “bad for business.” That’s a strange approach since it would seem to pose killing unborn children as “good for business,” which is fairly unsettling.

I also can’t help but think about the language of not banning “equality.” I may have missed something. Can men commit infanticide with impunity? Or to be as even as possible, are they permitted to terminate the pregnancy of their partner on their own initiative? Neither of those things being the case, I don’t think we are talking about “equality.” The letter strains the meaning of language to the limit and beyond.

As ever, the fundamental question is not equality. The fundamental question is the personhood of the unborn child. If the unborn child has personhood, then male/female equality is not really the most pressing issue, is it?

The Strange Matter of Walt Longmire’s Age

The cancellation of a television program detailing the exploits of Sheriff Walt Longmire, first on A&E and then on Netflix, left me hoping for more.  I began gathering and reading the novels by Craig Johnson.

Walt Longmire is a somewhat different guy in the novels.  Bigger personality, more outgoing, larger guy (about 250 pounds), and a much used sense of humor.  By contrast, the Longmire of the television show is more the strong, silent cowboy type.  A muted Clint Eastwood.

There’s another thing that is different about Walt in the books.  He’s a Vietnam Veteran.  That’s what takes me to the matter of his age.  In the novels, we hear a lot about Walt and Henry in Vietnam.  Both men also played football.  Walt played for the USC Trojans in the early 1960’s.  Let me run that by you again.  Walt played college football in the early 1960’s.

The novels all appear to take place in the period consistent with their publication.  I wondered about that, but saw a reference in 2013’s As the Crow Flies to 9/11 as something that had happened several years ago.

Now, Walt mentions playing football at Southern Cal in 1962.  Let’s assume that was his freshman year by way of giving Craig Johnson the most charitable interpretation.  If Walt was 18 years old in 1962, then he was born in 1944.  Longmire’s first adventure is in 2004.  That means in his first adventure he was about 60 years old.  In his most recent, he’d be about 76.  This is a pretty old age for someone who still chases after bad guys and wins his share of fights.

For my money, Johnson should have just set Longmire’s tales in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Then, he could easily keep his Vietnam vet character.  Alternatively, he could follow what others have done and update their Vietnam vet characters to Gulf War vets.  In any case, I needed to pick the nit and I have.

Taking Inventory of the Writing Life

vintage letters typo vintage typewriter

Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

I just had a birthday.  As with many milestones, I find myself taking stock.  Because I know many people hope to write and leave something behind of their thoughts, analysis, beliefs, and feelings, I’m posting a personal inventory.  Maybe it will give you a sense of the possibilities.

When I was just about thirty years old, almost two decades ago, I yearned to publish something and thought that if I were to die without writing a book, I would consider my life a failure.  While I don’t encourage anyone to think of their lives in quite that way, such was my mind at the time.  I still remember the day when I sent an email to the editor of American Spectator offering a correction on an article.  He responded in such a friendly way, I suggested that I might write something for him.  He agreed.  I could almost see the new pathways opening in front of me.  Here is a rough inventory of what I’ve had the privilege to do since that time:

The Online Work (some estimation involved)

American Spectator: 30 pieces plus maybe 100 or more blog items.

National Review Online:  25 pieces inclusive of articles and symposia

The Federalist:  17 pieces

First Things:  One essay plus many blog items for First Thoughts

Public Discourse:  One essay

Quillette:  One essay

The American Interest:  One essay

The Acton Institute:  12 pieces plus blog items

Christianity Today:  8 pieces online

American Greatness:  One piece

Atlanta Journal-Constitution:  One piece

Chattanooga Times-Free Press:  Two pieces

Jackson Sun:  Around 10-20 pieces (full archive unavailable online)

The Gospel Coalition:  5 pieces

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:  4 pieces

Mere Comments (Touchstone): many blog items

RedState.com: various blog items

The Reform Club/hunterbaker.wordpress.com: hundreds of blog items

There are others that I can’t recall at this time.

Print Articles in Academic Journals:  6 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Journal of Law and Religion)

Print Articles in Intellectual Journals:  20 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Modern Age)

Book Chapters/Features/Forwards:  14

Books:  3 (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, The System Has a Soul)

Book Reviews of which I’m most proud:  Mike Potemra’s review of The End of Secularism for National Review, S.T. Karnick’s review of The End of Secularism for Books & Culture, and Andrew Klavan’s review of The End of Secularism for Pajamas Media.

Invited Lectures:  43 (So much of the real labor is here.  When people invite you to speak, you tend to write something new for them, which you can find a way to work into an article, a book chapter, a book, etc.)

Now, why would this inspire you?  It seems like an awful lot of work.  Yes, it is a lot of work, but it was done over the course of about 15 years with regular effort.  Nothing superhuman.  Writing begets writing.  If I recall, I may actually have had something ready to go the first time I corresponded with Wlady Pleszczynski at American Spectator.  He published me.  I’ve been going strong ever since.  It seems to me that a big part of the reason some people write a lot is simply because they feel they have the opportunity to publish and have an audience.

I’m deeply thankful for that first opportunity and for everything that came after.  But it is important to note that I’d been preparing for that opportunity with years of education, reading, thinking, analyzing,  (and frankly praying for it), etc.  If you have something good to offer, chances are you’ll be able to seize a moment.

Finding friends who write helps, too.  We tend to engage in the activities our friends undertake.  Writing is like that.  Find a fellowship of writers.  My fellowship started online, but I’ve met many of them over the years in real life and count some of them among my best friends today.