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Why Are You Troubled?

“Why are you troubled?  And why do questions arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.  Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” — Luke 24:38-39

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Seats on the Train to Unraveling

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Resigning from her post at the pinnacle of the commentary world at the New York Times with a magnificent document of huge cultural significance, Bari Weiss became a hero of the movement to restore classically liberal ideals like freedom of speech, mutual respect of those with differing opinions, and trust in a marketplace of ideas. She picked up this theme in a recent essay titled, “The Great Unraveling,” warning that the loss of that spirit of freedom is beginning to manifest itself in physical reality.

Her thinking on this matter found form in a dinner conversation with Catholic intellectual Robert George, who read to her a prose poem by Heinrich Heine that warned about the consequences as the German spirit shook off the “subduing talisman” of Christianity a century before Hitler’s rise.

Notable, given the theme of Weiss’s essay, is a seemingly unnecessary interjection into her narrative:

Robby is among the most important Catholic intellectuals of our era. He is a Princeton professor, a lover of great wine, a wonderful writer, a total gentleman, and one of the most articulate opponents of gay marriage in the country. 

Now is a good time to say that as soon as the pandemic ends I plan to invite all of my friends to an inappropriately large wedding where I will stand under a chuppah and marry a woman (Nellie Bowles, the love of my life). I am profoundly grateful that we have that right. And I’m grateful for all of those, including my friend Andrew Sullivan, who waged the battle to win it.

Robby might not want to go to a gay wedding. But I love that at least for now I still live in an America where he and I can sit together, over good food on a dark night in the middle of a pandemic and talk about what is broken and how we might join together to fix it. That act is the whole point of the American experiment. 

Obviously, this detail is relevant by way of showing how Weiss and Robby George can converse in a friendly way despite dramatic differences on one of the most profound areas of difference in our times, but how very interesting that she would feel the need to leaven her cross-ideological sympathy with a nod of gratitude to her ideological allies and a genuflection in the direction of “the battle to win” same-sex marriage.

Stylistically, I use the phrase “how very interesting” because I’m currently caught up in the voice of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, another German production that can be understood to have predicted the rise of Naziism by judging the German character. Intellectually, I emphasize the paragraph’s interestingness because it seems to me that the “battle” she lauds was an unveiling of and test case for the trends in the American character that she is beginning to lament.

The ingredients were all there. Emotional manipulation. Evidence of academia’s proselytization among the cultural elites. A news media refusing to treat the traditional side as if it had any validity worthy of consideration. Corporations leveraging their power to promote an ideological side. Courts rewriting the definition of words as a means of changing the law, thus signaling to a large portion of the country that we are not permitted to self-govern when our cultural betters have made up their minds.

This point sharpens to a supremely relevant two-word coinage from Sullivan’s book, Virtually Normal (my analysis of which is actually mentioned on the book’s Wikipedia page), wherein Weiss’s friend wrote:

Some might argue that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman; and it is difficult to argue with a definition. But if marriage is articulated beyond this circular fiat, then the argument for its exclusivity to one man and one woman disappears. (Emphasis added.)

As I explained in 2010, “my proximate concern was that this reasoning justifies any change to marriage, and its method any change to anything.” (Emphasis added.)

And so it has gone. We should applaud both Bari Weiss and Robert George for their willingness — their desire, even — to pursue interactions with those who harbor profound disagreements. Still, we should also be honest about their demonstrated fealty to the principles they ostensibly share. When it comes to a privilege for which she is grateful, Weiss does not bend to the beliefs and rights of her ideological opponents. Rather, she waves a flag for the battle that subjugated them.

In short, she has a seat of her own on the train that is plowing through our culture and flattening the subduing talisman of our classically liberal heritage like a penny on the tracks. She may feel kinship with the “strange” people “who see clearly that the fight of the moment, the fight that allows for us to have those disagreements in the first place, is the fight for liberalism,” but when it comes to her issue, disagreements aren’t actually permitted — at least not to the extent of allowing them to produce a policy that she does not like. In such cases, the opposition’s beliefs are pounded into a circular fiat to be rolled away.

Weiss may wish to lock away the weapons by which her battle was won before others take them too far, but the great unraveling she observes is evidence that she cannot. Her fellow “strange” people certainly cannot secure the armory unless they acknowledge the role that they have played and the damage they have done.

That damage is massive, and it is hydra-headed. Even as the heads of the media, the courts, and other cultural and political forces have gone on gnawing our discourse, civil rights, and civic institutions away, another head tears at an institution that would be central to stopping the decay: the family. To wit:

Fewer U.S. adults now than in past years believe it is “very important” for couples who have children together to be married. Currently, 29% say it is very important that such a couple legally marry, down from 38% who held this view in 2013 and 49% in 2006.

If she were to ask, Mr. George would no doubt tell Ms. Weiss that this is no surprise to him. After all, to achieve her desired goal, the cultural powerhouses and the courts changed the definition of marriage such that the institution is not ultimately about children, but about adults, and if the adults feel like they are committed to each other, then why do they need some old-fashioned ceremony? Moreover, if it is all about them, why should they make it more difficult to change their minds in the future?

Weiss closes her essay with the prediction that the “credentialed journalist[s] and liberal public intellectual[s]” who are cheering on the development of Big Tech censorship “will look like fools much faster than they realize.” Perhaps we can hope her previously demonstrated courage is substantial enough that she can honestly explore the contributing role of developments for which she, herself, cheers. If she has such courage, perhaps she can blaze a path for the acknowledgment of error that would be essential to find a way back toward re-raveling.

Featured image by Wendy Winarno on Unsplash.com.