Tag Archives: liberty

Eagle, Earnings and Eminent Domain

Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear seems to have expected questions about the Eagle Mine on this morning’s Q4 2013 earnings call. At the outset, he announced that Senior Vice President Paul McRae was on hand to answer any questions about Eagle analysts might have. But to my surprise there was not a single question about Eagle. Analysts seemed content to rely on the company’s guidance.

Conibear sounded an optimistic note. Despite a “brutal winter,” he said, Eagle is fully on track for production of nickel and copper concentrates by the end of 2014. Underground drilling at the mine proceeds apace, and the mill is “a beehive of activity.”

Neither he nor McRae were called upon to address transportation at the mine, which is still unresolved and may soon run into new legal challenges.

At the start of this week, the Marquette County Road Commission announced that they “can” – or at least they “plan” — to use eminent domain to seize property for County Road AAA. This came as a surprise to some people at the hearing and to the owners of a piece of land along the AAA route known as the Hingst property. The Hingst are not interested in selling. So whether the Road Commission can do what it plans to do may be left for the courts to decide.

The analysts on this morning’s call seemed either unaware or unconcerned that Eagle’s haul road might be delayed by litigation – or that the route between the mine and the beehive of activity at the mill is approaching a legal crossroads. Of course, Lundin Mining has deep pockets and can continue to fight legal challenges as they arise; but eminent domain controversies are not always easily or speedily resolved and the county may not have the stomach for protracted litigation over property rights and the divisiveness it can create.

You wouldn’t imagine that anything can stand in the mining company’s way from local news coverage of the AAA road. Interviewed by Molly Smerika of ABC10 News, Marquette County Road Commission Engineer Manager Jim Iwanicki tried to tout the public benefits of the AAA, advancing the disingenuous argument that the haul road will be a “public road, for everybody”; and Smerika didn’t bother to ask what he meant by that, or just how the Eagle Mine trucking route will serve the public good.

Smerika even gave Iwanicki a pass on the specious claim that the local “tourism industry” will benefit from the 55 MPH haul road. What could be more relaxing than a high-speed drive in heavy truck traffic? Spectacular roadkill the whole family can enjoy.

In that same interview, Iwanicki mistakenly calls the mining industry a “benefactor” of the AAA road. He clearly meant “beneficiary,” but it’s a telling slip. Lundin has taken over where Rio Tinto left off, as the chief if not the sole driver of infrastructure development and, it appears, public policy in Marquette County. After the CR 595 fiasco, the Road Commission seems determined to deliver for the mining company; but until the county takes the Hingst property, there is still room for doubt whether the confident guidance on the Eagle project we heard this morning is fully warranted.

Everybody’s A Beginner

This passage from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition has come up again and again as I think about asking, action and non-coercive power — or what I’m calling the power of asking — so I thought I’d share it. It’s a little dense, but it repays careful reading.

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin,” “to lead,” and eventually “to rule,” indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere). Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action. [Initium] ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nullus fuit (“that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody”), said Augustine in his political philosophy. This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before. (pp. 176-177)

Pay close attention to Arendt’s distinction of action from labor and work in the first few sentences. That’s crucial. For Arendt, action is “never conditioned” by “others.” Unlike labor or work, action isn’t something we undertake because it is “forced” upon us by necessity or “prompted” by utility. It is not prescribed, commanded or ordered, nor are its terms to be set down for us by others in the form of rules or requirements. Its “impulse,” for Arendt, springs from within, or rather from that within us which responds to the fact that we are, each of us, a beginning.

You might get the impression from this passage — which places emphasis on initiative and invokes “the principle of freedom” — that acting is something one does, something one can only do, entirely on one’s own. That would be a misreading. There is a difference between autonomy and isolation, and a difference between being free from constraint or necessity and acting freely with others. We are all self-starters but we are also capable of starting things together.

It takes coordinating, and that’s where asking comes in.

One of the things that interests me about asking is that it can prompt action while recognizing and respecting freedom and autonomy. It can be a way of coordinating our actions with those of others, or of entering into league or “company” (the word is Arendt’s) with others — acting together. The power of asking is that it doesn’t set down rules or requirements, or set up a chain of command. It is a different kind of prompt: more like a cue for improvisation than a script to follow.

Asking doesn’t mean we have to do away entirely with all those rules, protocols and titles that structure human society and human institutions, but we also don’t have to take them so seriously and assume they are the primary condition of our lives. They are, at best, secondary agreements.

Leaders — the first to ask, or the first to act — may be primus inter pares, but in this view a leader is always inter pares, among equals. When we ask and when we act we are all on equal footing, and all of us, by the very fact of our birth, by nature, have the capacity to act, to begin, to set things into motion. We are all beginners.

O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

The Delta Response to Gamma Rats and Sociopaths

Doug Casey may not believe, along with Margaret Thatcher, that there’s no such thing as society, but he seems to have given up on ours. An investor and a self-styled libertarian, Casey thinks the country is done: “All the institutions that made America exceptional – including a belief in capitalism, individualism, self-reliance and the restraints of the Constitution – are now only historical artifacts,” he wrote in a post this past week. The “moral rot” runs so deep, Casey argues, that there is no fixing the institutions; the rot has become institutionalized.

How did things get so bad? Casey has a simple answer, one that doesn’t require much reading of history or economic analysis: sociopaths. Sociopaths “are now fully in control of major American institutions. Their beliefs and attitudes are insinuated throughout the economic, political, intellectual and psychological/spiritual fabric of the US.” These “really bad actors” – Casey estimates that they make up about 4 percent of the population –“are drawn to government and other positions where they can work their will on other people and, because they’re enthusiastic about government, they rise to leadership positions. They remake the culture of the organizations they run in their own image.”

Casey is hardly the first to claim that sociopaths have taken over. The movie The Corporation popularized the trope. If in the wake of Citizens United corporations are persons, then (runs the argument) they are the kind who belong in a straitjacket. Since then, and especially since things went bust in 2008, it’s become popular to characterize CEOs and Wall Street investors as sociopaths; it borders on cliché. Casey’s simply transferred the argument to government: no surprise, really, that it is as dysfunctional and destructive as the other centers of power in twenty-first century America.

Casey recommends flight over fight. He argues that it makes better sense than ever to become an International Man (the initial caps are his: the International Man appears to have achieved an iconic status in his mind), and find a safe haven to keep one’s assets and one’s life out of the reach of the sociopaths. Casey sees this flight from society not as the act of a misanthrope, but a “gamma rat”:

You may recall the ethologist’s characterization of the social interaction of rats as being between a few alpha rats and many beta rats, the alpha rats being dominant and the beta rats submissive. In addition, a small percentage are gamma rats that stake out prime territory and mates, like the alphas, but are not interested in dominating the betas. The people most inclined to leave for the wide world outside and seek fortune elsewhere are typically gamma personalities.

I have to admit that the fantasy of becoming an International Man holds its attractions – a hoard of wealth, prime real estate, the finest mates (check their teeth and gums, just to make sure). But it is, ultimately, a fantasy of power and control that betrays a feeling of powerlessness and a loss of control.  The International Man would have us believe that he is a refugee, fleeing persecution, but he doesn’t ask for pity or succor; he demands privilege and exemption from all that is common.

He is shrewd and selfish, not heroic. Odysseus, arguably the first international man, was wily, but he suffered heroically because he longed for home. The gamma cannot be nostalgic; home is where he finds or makes his fortune, until the taxman catches up. He fancies himself a hobo or tramp, but he has investment assets, property and multiple passports. He wants to own but not owe – not nothing to nobody, nohow. He accumulates wealth but, it would seem, cares nothing for common wealth; that may make him rich, but it also makes him the enemy of prosperity.

If the International Man is iconic, he would appear to be an icon of idiocy, in the classical sense of that word. Arendt puts it this way in The Human Condition: “a life spent in the privacy of ‘one’s own’ ([in Greek,] idion), outside the world of the common, is ‘idiotic’ by definition.”

What else should we call a person who sees bad actors taking control, institutions failing, society collapsing, and decides to get out while he still can? What would be his motto? Ask not what you can do for your country, but what you can grab for yourself?

More importantly, what would it take to go beyond gamma – to delta, let’s say, where you can apply yourself to meaningful work, and to building the next society?

The delta understands social collapse and institutional failure not simply as a crisis, but as an opportunity to create something new. The delta wards off doom by doing humble work, tinkering, fixing and reclaiming. As I conceive it, delta is all about tikkun — doing the difficult work of “world repair,” not throwing one’s hands up in despair. It takes imagination. Poets, painters and teachers can be deltas; they give us new models to work with. So can inventors and entrepreneurs. In fact, I would put social entrepreneurs and socially responsible investors at the forefront of the delta group. And delta is on the rise: B-corporations, which work to produce public benefits, have won legitimacy in seven states; legislation in pending in seven others.

Deltas work at a remove from the dysfunctional centers of power, on the edges of organizations, independently and within small groups, where they can experiment and learn from each other. The delta looks for alternatives to the destructive power dynamics of the alphas and the betas – flatter organizations, fair dealing, transparency and collaboration. If the gamma is entirely self-directed, even to the point of idiocy, the delta is other-directed, altruistic, a maker of community. Deltas stay networked, because they recognize the limits of the self, and know that our lives and our liberty take on meaning only with and in relation to others, no matter how much we may fantasize about going it alone.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

The trouble is, we’re not in Kansas anymore, and Kansas is no longer the place it used to be. The pursuit of Bin Laden has exhausted our treasure and killed thousands. It has transformed the state in countless ways and extended the reach of the state into our lives.

So this brief note, just to say I am not so sure the occasion calls for jubilation and dancing in the streets. Maybe, instead, it’s time for some sober reflection on where this decade-long pursuit has brought us, and where we go from here.

I look at the past ten years and I have no confidence – absolutely none — that our political leaders are up to the task, or that we, the people, will make or can make better choices about our foreign adventures or interventions and the protection of our own liberties.

The flag-waving celebrations at Ground Zero and outside the White House are over. Now everyone from Dick Cheney to the President has been quick to remind us that the War (or whatever it’s being called these days) isn’t; and — we are already being told – we must remain ever vigilant.

Beyond the Axis of Evil

Not too long ago President Bush was calling Iran part of the Axis of Evil. Now Iran stands for the hope of the whole world. This stunning reversal is not due to any new formulation of policy or act of diplomacy. It is a tribute to the Iranian people and – no matter what may happen in the course of the next few days — we already owe them an enormous debt for reminding us what a precious and powerful thing human liberty is.

The Axis of Evil was a way of mapping the world, or of making the world conform to a very particular agenda. It implied and entailed a grand Theory of The World, and it relied on distortions that still inform the political debate and frame perceptions.

It’s part of a tangled web of lies and deceit we still need to undo.

Delivered on January 26, 2002, Bush’s Axis of Evil speech was one of the first loud drumbeats for the war in Iraq. David Frum came up with the phrase after being ordered by head White House speechwriter Mike Gerson to find some pithy way to make the case for toppling Saddam Hussein in the first State of the Union Bush would deliver after September 11th. In his speech, Bush described an alliance of rogue states and terrorists who threatened world peace and were intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That, we now know, was meant to scare us into war and stifle dissent. And it was the start of a terrible campaign.

Frum claims the phrase “Axis of Evil” was meant to recall Roosevelt’s urgent summons to action against the Axis powers. But it was clearly also an attempt to give Bush the Younger some of the historical stature and moral gravitas of Ronald Reagan, who drew a hard line against the Soviet Union in his “Evil Empire” speech. And yet for all his talk of liberating the Middle East, Bush never found his “tear down that wall” moment, perhaps because by 2002 the world had so changed from the time of Reagan that we were the only imperial power left standing.

Now, ironically, the Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei claims this is a battle between good and evil, between “old friends and brothers” and “hungry wolves in ambush.” Western style diplomacy, says the Supreme Leader, is and always has been a charade: now the powers of the West “are showing their enmity against the Islamic Republic system and the most evil of them is the British government.” The Foreign Office lodged an official complaint; but Khamenei knows that right now his best chance is to tap into old resentments against the imperialists.

That requires another bizarre distortion of political realities on the ground, and a denial of the horrors perpetrated against ordinary Iranians. Maybe that makes those men evil, and maybe theocracy is one of the great evils the world has known. But that’s not really the urgent point and it’s not really time to debate it. This isn’t a morality play or a moot.

Bush’s Manichean rhetoric and its accompanying narrative of good, exceptional America fighting the evil masterminds who plot our destruction and that of the entire world was a Cheneyesque cartoon, a vast oversimplification. Even Peggy Noonan (no raving liberal, but a Reagan speechwriter) pointed out in her column today that what’s happening in Iran right now doesn’t conform to any images or preconceptions we have of Iran. History is being made before our eyes; but it certainly isn’t happening along any axis that George Bush or David Frum were capable of delineating, let alone seeing.

The scenes from the streets of Iran – of ordinary people out in the street, grappling with security forces, coming out against all odds to demonstrate, a young girl killed, people beaten and slashed and shot by the Basijis – should make us grope for new words, or leave us speechless. They defy neat descriptions and pat phrases. In Iran, right now, people are out in the streets, redrawing the map of the world.

Universal Rights are Not Just American

Obama issued a new statement on Iran today, saying that the United States stands with those who seek to exercise the “universal rights to assembly and free speech.” While this seems like exactly the sort of thing the Republicans have been urging the President to say all along, there are nevertheless some who are ready to take offense at the very idea that Iranians might value the same freedoms we do.

Just this week, for instance, Charlotte Hays took a swipe in the National Review at Obama’s “tepid response” to events in Iran, arguing that the President is “unaware of the historical sources of America’s moral strength.” This is because

the president hailed democratic process, freedom of speech, and the ability to select one’s own leaders as “universal values.” But they aren’t. A quick glance around the world’s totalitarian regimes, including most especially that of Iran, should convince anyone of that.

Only a very quick glance indeed could convince anyone of Hays’ argument. But let’s take a closer look. It’s downright odd to argue that human liberty is not valued under repressive governments because repressive governments suppress human liberty; or that since our ideas of democracy and freedom come “ from America and the West,” there can be no other, competing ideas of human freedom and democratic politics. Haven’t the people of Iran done enough in the past week to prove that they, too, aspire to self-determination?

In fact, as Afshin Ellian points out in a piece that appeared this week in the Wall Street Journal, the current regime in Iran represents a betrayal of the “basic freedoms” and values for which a previous generation of Iranians fought: “the basic freedoms of Azadi-e Baian, Azadi-e Qalam, Azadi-e Andish-e: freedom of speech, freedom to write, and freedom of thought.” Those are the values of an open society. It is myopic, chauvinistic and ignorant to say they are ours exclusively.

Nostalgia Hour at the Club for Growth

Daniel Henninger has one thing right: the Republicans had better start talking about economic growth. But first they have to stop dithering and consorting with buffoons like Rush Limbaugh or threatening to go beyond the cutting edge and get really hip hop.

Then (one hopes) they will join the conversation about growth that’s already underway in many quarters — not just within the Obama administration, but also and especially in the private sector, which, if we are to believe Henninger, is the Republicans’ political bailiwick.

But (please) the public should not have to suffer through more teary-eyed sentiments or television specials about Ronald Reagan. Nor should we be asked to consider Ronald Reagan one of the great economic minds of the 20th century. He was not; and to put Reagan on a par with Milton Friedman or Henry Hazlitt is to misread history and to ignore the difference between political leadership (which Reagan provided) and philosophical range and depth.

What’s more, invoking the ghost of Ronald Reagan and hoping that he offers a way out of the darkness is just bad political strategy, unless of course the Republicans are intent on being the party of — well — sentimental old Republicans. Many young voters (most of whom were Obama voters this time around) were born during Reagan’s second term. To them, I’ll wager, “Ronald Reagan” sounds a bit like “William McKinley” or “Teddy Roosevelt.”

Unscientific about society

Social science may be able to account for society in part because it has remade society to suit its particular kind of knowledge (the “science” that I would call theory).

For most theorists who study society, there are great social forces at work, will we, nill we, and most of them do us no good; the self is a social construct; the individual is more patient than agent, subjected to a false or inauthentic subjectivity, often a victim.

But there are, interestingly enough, some resources for rethinking society in the history of the word society itself. Society, societas, denotes an elective or voluntary association, not an array of (dark, often hidden) forces that constrain and define and overwhelm the individual.

I want to think about the social not just as a precondition but as a human accomplishment, the fruit of liberty and free association, a state that human beings can achieve simply by choosing to come together, not just a gulag of the alienated, overdetermined self.

‘A Thought That Stops Thought’

Reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I was struck by this passage:

“The peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.’

There is a thought that stops thought.”

It’s hard to believe that this was written a century ago: Orthodoxy first came out in 1908. The chapter as a whole, entitled “The Suicide of Thought,” anticipates many of the arguments that were advanced in the culture wars of the 90s; and it is not too far from predicting current complaints about the pre-emptive surrender of self-doubting, liberal, uncertain, wavering, tolerant Western intellectuals in the clash of civilizations.

For Chesterton, “free thought” was already no longer a threat to anything but itself, having “exhausted its own freedom” and surrendered the objects of thought as well as the thinker himself to a indeterminate, Heisenbergian “flux.” (The quark, had he lived to know and understand it, would have terrified him.)

It’s worth remarking that if Chesterton was documenting the “ultimate dissolution of free thought,”as he puts it, by now we must have well exceeded the ultimatum. So the real question that this chapter of Orthodoxy raises is about where we are now. Are we living on after the dissolution of free thought? Are we witnesses to nothing less horrible than the survival of our own attempt at intellectual suicide?

Of course we may have moved well beyond feeling threatened by pragmatism or Nietzschean will to power or evolution, H.G. Wells or Bernard Shaw — all of whom filled Chesterton with dread or prompted his derision. But there’s small comfort in that observation: it could simply mean we no longer take the time to comprehend a thinker like Nietzsche or Wells, or that we take for granted the positions and attitudes in these writers that Chesterton found so alarming. We may be incapable of reflecting on the loss of our freedom, because the failure of free thought long ago made us unfree to reflect, or because we have a jingle in our head that tells us we’re free when we are not.

At the same time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense simply to assume that “thought” of the kind that Chesterton is talking about — philosophy, for lack of a better word — proceeds along a linear historical trajectory, making progress, gradually liberalizing and growing more dissolute. That’s one way of telling the story of the West. But the corrosive power of scepticism to undermine all certainty, including the sceptic’s own belief in himself and in his thinking, is hardly a new theme. Western thought is decadent from the very start, displaying at its inception a tendency to collapse in on itself, to deconstruct, to offer no quarter to those who look for objective certainty or refuge in the Absolute, to find stories within explanations, to make other stories of them, to drift in the ebb and flow of language toward, then away from things.

And yet, and yet: even if you want to quarrel with Chesterton about the shape of intellectual history, even if you can’t find a suicide note among the philosophical papers of the late 19th century, it would be foolish to deny that we are as vulnerable as he says we are. It may be that we are intellectually disarmed, as many critics now allege. It may be (as Chesterton would probably assert) that we are insufficient in our faith, without which reason cannot rule.

And it may simply be that we no longer believe there is, or can be, or ought to be such a thing as intellectual freedom, because we no longer believe in the liberty or the autonomy of the thinking individual, the reality of freedom or faith, the reality of reality, or in anything, really, but might. So we can bluster and bomb and beat them, but in our quieter moments we must admit that we have no idea what we are defending or fighting for.