Samuel Gregg, Director of Research at the Acton Institute and author of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America can Avoid a European Future, and more recently Tea Party Catholic:The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing, delivered a lecture on November 7th in the Acton Building’s Mark Murray Auditorium focusing on the subject of his latest book as part of the 2013 Acton Lecture Series. We’ve embedded the video of his lecture below; if you’re interested in Gregg’s lecture on his earlier book, you can find that one after the jump.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Tyranny Is the True Enemy,” I explore the latest film installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” I pick up on the theme that animates Alissa Wilkinson’s review at Christianity Today, but diverge a bit from her reading. As she writes, a major aspect of this second part of the series has to do with fake appearances and real substance, and the need to “remember who the real enemy is.”
Wilkinson is upset with the marketing buzz surrounding the film, arguing that it “declaws” the substantive message of the books themselves. There’s an element of truth to this. It comes home especially when watching an interview like this, in which Jennifer Lawrence seems to embody the idea that for a celebrity in today’s culture, “you never get off this train,” as Haymitch puts it to Katniss and Peeta on their own promotional tour.
But in focusing on the distracting nature of commercial merchandising of the films, I argue that Wilkinson ends up distracted from who the real enemy is. There is much that is morally problematic about the way that the Capitol operates. Wilkinson rightly shows the shallow consumerism and sensuality of Capitol couture. But the fact that this isn’t the real enemy, so to speak, can be shown by a bit of thought experiment.
Suppose that the consumption habits of the Capitol were far less odious to our moral sensibilities. Suppose the citizens all lived chaste, upright, and responsible lives in their city. Their oppression of the districts would be no less troublesome for all their virtuous consumption. The decadence of the Capitol only puts the real tyranny over the districts into sharper relief. John Tamny argues that to read Catching Fire as “anything other than a polemic against communistic, brutal government is a certain act of willful blindness.”
I won’t go quite that far, and I don’t agree that the film/book has nothing at all to do with critiquing consumerism, but I do think that such alternative readings often forget who the enemy really is. As Tamny (mis)quotes from Catching Fire, Katniss herself identifies the enemy as the one “who starves and tortures and kills us in the arena. Who will soon kill everyone I love.”
In the opening sequence of “Catching Fire,” Katniss is illegally hunting in an attempt to provide much-needed protein for her family. At one point, Katniss and Gale come across a flock of wild turkeys. This image is especially striking at the release of this film during the Thanksgiving season.
Far from promising a “turkey in every pot,” President Snow has no regard for the welfare of anyone in the districts. The citizens of the Capitol are all that matter, to the point that people like Katniss have to resort to illegal hunting and the black market for basic necessities like medicine and food.
There is a connection between hedonism and what might be called a “soft” form of tyranny characteristic of the vicious circle between the citizens of the Capitol and the government. And while tyranny in all its forms is to be rejected, the real enemy in the Hunger Games is the hard tyranny of President Snow and his jackbooted thugs. Everything else is, in the end, a distraction.
Since the French Revolution, Americans have glanced over to our friends across the Atlantic Ocean as a model of what a country should not do. That tradition continues. France’s centralized planning of the economy, health care, education, the family, religion, and so on is not working. The New York Times reports:
The pervasive presence of government in French life, from workplace rules to health and education benefits, is now the subject of a great debate as the nation grapples with whether it can sustain the post-World War II model of social democracy.
Well, those who champion economic, moral, and political liberty predicted this ages ago. As expected, government control of French society has crippled France’s “capability to innovate and compete globally.”
What is more, “investors are shying away from the layers of government regulation and high taxes.” Again, not surprising.
The French government continues to raise taxes and create reasons to redistribute workers’ earnings. According to the article, in France “most child care and higher education are paid for by the government, and are universally available, as is health care.” The cost of health care is “embedded in the taxes imposed on workers and employers; workers make mandatory contributions worth about 10 percent of their paycheck to cover health insurance and a total of about 22 percent to pay for all their benefits.” This is unsustainable.
In a new article at Intercollegiate Review, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the current state of “idea conservatives” and their place in the broader context of American conservative thought encompassing an amazing diversity of ideological subspecies. But it is ideas and core principles, more than anything else, that informs conservatism and its various movements, despite the many fractures and fissures. Gregg makes a compelling case for rooting “conservatism’s long-term agenda” in the “defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization.” His article is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?” Excerpt from the Gregg article:
… as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.
Such an enterprise goes beyond demonstrating Christianity’s contribution to institutional frameworks such as constitutional government. Conservatives must be more attentive to how Judaism and Christianity—or at least their orthodox versions—helped foster key ideas that underlie the distinctiveness of Western culture. These include: (more…)
Sustained prosperity is new and sustained prosperity for masses of people is completely unprecedented. What is sustained prosperity? It’s three or more generations of people who do not need to focus on survival or live in economic depression, but who can live comfortably even if they live paycheck to paycheck.
The only people who previously enjoyed sustain prosperity were the aristocratic landowners and royals especially of Europe and Asia. After the industrial revolution a few business men and bankers were added to that list but only if their wealth was handed down for more than two generations. No even we do.
Isn’t this the definition of the very rich? Yes, but what is new is that the entire group of people we call the ‘middle class’ has also become comfortable in the four generations since WWII.
How big is the middle class? Even though there are billions who do not enjoy this prosperity, fully 1.80b people are in the global middle class today (and another .15b people are rich). Of that 1.8b there are 18% who live in the U.S., another 36% live in Europe, and 20% are in the BRIC nations.
How did so many join the middle class? It was through the opportunities of new businesses, new inventions, a new high level education for the public, and new skill and knowledge based jobs. These are only possible where there is liberty and governments that allow businesses to prosper.
Why do Africa, the Mid-East, and Latin America have a very small middle class population? Because those regions still retain the old definitions of aristocratic and inherited wealth. That’s the polite way to say it. The reality is more that corrupt governments have plundered their own nations and their own people by corralling the wealth of the land including oil and minerals for themselves.
Humility is probably one of the most difficult human virtues to achieve. For me, as a Hungarian intern at the Acton Institute, listening to Samuel Gregg’s June lecture in Grand Rapids on his new book, Becoming Europe about the Old Continent’s crisis is instructive. Relations between the United States and major European powers have been testy from time to time, of course, but Europe seems to lack self-criticism.
Aging Europe, an unsustainable social model, a two-speed Europe: these are some key expressions we hear about Europe every day. Each of these phrases reflects a problem with the evolution of European society and the free market. Actually, it seems as if the continent is living out its teenager years unsure whether to commit to social-democracy or the free market. Meanwhile, doing both of them wrong. As we can expect from a teenager, the symptoms refer to deeper-rooted problems. (more…)
There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”
They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.
This description of servile and licentious tenancy can be directly contrasted with a vision of responsible and faithful stewardship, in which the steward acts in the interests of his or her lord. As Paul writes, “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2 ESV). On the Christian view, it is in our best interest to align our interests with God’s, submitting our stewardship to his will and his law.
Alejandro Chafuen, president and chief executive officer of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and board member of the Acton Institute, recently wrote a piece for Forbes.com discussing youth unemployment in the United States. According to the latest report, U.S. youth unemployment is at 16.2 percent which is more than double the adult unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for youth in Europe is currently at 24 percent. Chafuen asks, “Can we learn from the European experience?”
Using data compiled by the economic freedom indices of the Fraser Institute in Canada, and the Heritage Foundation, in the United States, we recently looked at how economic freedom, labor regulations, social spending, and regulatory climate, correlated with youth unemployment. Against our preconceptions, at least as shown with our simple static analysis, there were no convincing results. I will spare the reader the statistical jargon and graphs and focus on apparent contradictions. (more…)
It is no secret that Europe is becoming less and less religious. A 2010 survey stated that only about half of Europe’s citizens believed in God, with some places (such as Sweden and the Czech Republic) registering belief in only about 20 percent of the population. And it’s not just that less people believe; it’s that there is growing hostility to religion in the EU.
Take for example Slovakia. The National Bank of Slovakia has ordered the removal of religious symbolism for a coin minted specifically for that nation’s celebration of the arrival of Christianity in that nation.
The coins, designed by a local artist, were intended to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands but have instead become tokens of the faith’s retreat from contemporary Europe. They featured two evangelizing Byzantine monks, Cyril and Methodius, their heads crowned by halos and one’s robe decorated with crosses, which fell foul of European diversity rules that ban any tilt toward a single faith.
Stanislav Zvolensky, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bratislava, that nation’s capital, is distressed by this move, saying that it shows hostility towards Christianity, which is a significant part of Slovakia’s history. Not only that, the archbishop says that Christianity has been a uniting force in Slovakia, and that should be celebrated. (more…)
The Dark Ages: that time when people knew the Earth was flat, the civilization of the Western Roman Empire had collapsed, and people basically sat around waiting for something – anything – good to happen.
Except the Dark Ages weren’t so dark after all. Anthony Esolen, professor of literature at Providence College would like to set the record straight.
Nobody teaches history in schools anyway, much less the history of Europe. They do current events, social studies. The literature of the Middle Ages is largely ignored … they’ll either do modern philosophy or jump from Plato to Descartes as if nothing happened of any important in between.
The Middle Ages (roughly the 5th – 15th centuries A.D.) have often been seen as a time of intellectual darkness between the Roman Empire’s achievements and the ascent of the Renaissance. However, Esolen wants to make known that this was a time of great human achievement in art, literature, architecture and philosophy. His five minute video gives insight into the fact that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark after all.