In today’s Acton Commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” I examine the themes of faith and freedom expressed in Suzanne Collins’ enormously popular trilogy. The film version of the first book hit the theaters this past weekend, and along with the release has come a spate of commentary critical of various aspects of Collins’ work.
As for faith and freedom, it turns out there’s precious little of either in Panem. But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, as I argue in today’s piece: “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”
Last week I was also privileged to participate in a collection of pieces at the Values & Capitalism website related to “The Hunger Games.” I provide an alternate ending (along with some explanation here) at the V&C site, where you can also check out the numerous other worthy reflections on Collins’ work.
Over at the Liberty Law Blog, there is an excellent post titled “Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, and the Dialogue of Liberty” by Alan Snyder. Snyder delves into the influence Chambers had on Reagan and how their worldviews differed as well.
Many conservatives and scholars felt Chambers’ prediction that the West was on the losing side of history in the battle against Marxism collapsed after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union. For many, the ideas of Chambers and his pessimism about the future of freedom seemed dated. Snyder elaborates on the relevance of Chambers and that the testimony of his witness still stands:
One of Chambers’s closest friends, Ralph de Toledano, noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.” In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man? As he wrote in Witness:
God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …
… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.
For more on Chambers and the impact of his witness, read my review of Richard Richard Reinsch’s Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. This exceptional book is a must read.
In an article appearing in the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg discusses the growth of religion in China, its system of crony capitalism, and its need to accept freedom. Opening the column, Gregg describes how the Catholic Church’s freedom from state control in China is at stake. Gregg later explains that there isn’t just corruption in China’s crony system of capitalism, but also in its society:
It’s abundantly clear, for instance, that China’s economy is hardly the capitalism envisaged by Adam Smith. Instead, it’s a crony-capitalist arrangement. One symptom of this is the extensive corruption prevailing throughout Chinese society.
In 2010, Transparency International ranked China as 78th out of 179 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index. That made China only slightly less-corrupt than Russia! Moreover, as Yashen Huang illustrates in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (2008), apparatchiks from China’s Communist party, government, and military exercise far-reaching control over thousands of the businesses powering China’s development in the special economic zones. That’s a recipe for a growing culture of accelerating bribes, nepotism, and fraud.
Wiser heads in China, however, know crony capitalism isn’t infinitely sustainable. In the long-term, China needs the rule of law and a stable system of property rights — all of which implies limiting the capacity of those with political power to act arbitrarily.
But while rule of law and property rights are essential for sustainable economic growth, they are not enough. Equally important is a generally accepted moral culture that most people have internalized and generally follow.
The moral culture in China has been dismantled by the government. Gregg argues the rule of law and property rights are not enough for economic growth, China also needs a moral law. After the decimation of Confucianism, which provided the moral glue for the Chinese society, many are now turning to religion:
And religion is plainly on the rise in China. Five years ago, the English language version of the Communist Party’s newspaper, China Daily, reported on the results of studies done by Shanghai University professors which indicated that millions of Chinese — especially the young and particularly in the special economic zones — were becoming Christian.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. It is materialism that leads to atheism, not the growth of wealth per se. Economic liberty requires and encourages people to think and choose freely. But such thoughts can’t be quarantined to commercial considerations. With increasing wealth, many Chinese now have the time and resources to explore life’s more important questions. Many have found answers in Christianity.
Such developments, according to some Chinese officials, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Back in 2006, the then-head of China’s religious affairs ministry, Ye Xiaowen, begrudgingly acknowledged the various Christian churches’ contributions to helping Chinese society cope with the effects of increasing wealth.
While China will benefit from a strong moral presence within its borders, which will aid in solving its corruption problems, Gregg foresees the Catholic Church and the Chinese government being at odds when the government questions doctrines or bishop appointments. There is a way out for China, as Gregg concludes, and that is by accepting freedom:
The way out, of course, is for China’s rulers to accept freedom’s indivisible character. Once you concede religious or economic liberty, it’s hard to quarantine its effects. Acknowledging this, however, would require China’s Communist Party to self-terminate its grip on political power. Regrettably, as history illustrates, Communists never do that — or at least not until it’s truly inevitable.
To read the full article click here.
Richard Reinsch II has an excellent condensed summary of his book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary over at the Heritage Foundation. I really cannot praise Reinsch’s account enough. It is perhaps the best book I read in 2010.
I reviewed the book on the PowerBlog and in Religion & Liberty. We also featured Whittaker Chambers as the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure in the last issue of Religion & Liberty. In the write up, we included the citation to the 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously awarded to Chambers by President Ronald Reagan. The citation reads:
At a critical moment in our Nation’s history, Whittaker Chambers stood alone against the brooding terrors of our age. Consummate intellectual, writer of moving majestic prose, and witness to the truth, he became the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, a controversy in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering. As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire. The words of Arthur Koestler are his epitaph: ‘The witness is gone; the testimony will stand.’
I encourage you to read Reinch’s summary. It is a fitting and informative tribute to one of the great minds of the 20th century.
Today is the 235th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. The PowerBlog has some excellent tributes to the Marines in the archives. They are certainly appropriate to highlight today:
Here is an excerpt from my post “The Few, The Proud, The Marines:”
When I worked for U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor in Mississippi, one of the rewards of the job was helping veterans with military casework. I was also able to meet many of the Marine veterans from battles such as Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Okinawa, the “frozen” Chosin Reservoir, and Khe Sahn. They are the men who helped spread the light and flame of freedom across the world. Today, this elite class of warriors remain dedicated to the courage and principles that made our country free. All the Marines I know are familiar with Ronald Reagan’s words, “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.”
And below is The 2010 United States Marine Corps Birthday Message, from the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen James F. Amos, marking the 235th birthday:
Check back in with the PowerBlog tomorrow for Veterans Day because there will be a special tribute to E.B. Sledge, a Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II and authored With The Old Breed.
Estelle Snyder makes an excellent case that Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms had similar humble backgrounds and beliefs that helped form a deep bond between the two men, despite being separated by language, culture, geography, and an Iron Curtain.
In a paper published by the North Carolina History Project titled “Champions of Freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms,” Snyder argues that their relationship was an important one in terms of confronting the evils of Communism with a more aggressive posture, aimed at expanding human freedom.
Some may forget that at the time the two figures met in the United States in 1975, the United States government was moving even further towards easing relations with the Soviet Union and advocating long term coexistence and mutual understanding. Some conservative leaders, most notably Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms, decided to aggressively attack that policy. Solzhenitsyn was instrumental in reinforcing and helping Helms and other conservative leaders argue that the United States was not properly confronting the Communist advance. Snyder notes:
Senator Helms was moved by Solzhenitsyn’s boldness in exposing the brutal truth about Communism that Helms had suspected and warned against for decades. It did not surprise him at all to learn that the Soviet government was intent on discrediting both Solzhenitsyn’s work and his personal integrity. He recognized the courage that Solzhenitsyn had shown in first daring to tell his story and then to risk re-imprisonment or worse by first making the decision to publish and now to speak out publically calling for his country to put aside their repression of personal freedom.
Senator Helms wrote Solzhenitsyn to express his admiration and appreciation for the author’s commitment to the pursuit of liberty in spite of the personal cost to himself and his family. Soon the two men had established a friendship through their regular correspondence that was fueled by their mutual commitment to the principle that every human being should be free from the control of tyrants.
Helms also invited Solzhenitsyn to the United States where the two first met in Helms’s Washington home. Despite the different worship styles of the Russion Orthodox and Southern Baptist traditions, Snyder points out in her paper their faith was an invaluable bond between the two. Soon after the meeting, Helms delivered a speech in which he said, “The news accounts have failed, I fear, to emphasize the real source of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s courage and strength, which is his faith in God.”
Snyder’s paper is a treasure trove of information on the relationship between Helms and Solzhenitsyn and their battle with Communism. It also chronicles the infamous stand off between Helms and fellow conservatives against President Gerald Ford after he snubbed Solzhenitsyn, by refusing to meet with him. The administration was afraid of angering the Soviets and did not want to threaten diplomatic agreements.
Solzhenitsyn and Helms’s confrontation with Communism was primarily a spiritual one that exposed the evils of a system that tried to erase man’s relationship with his Creator and limit his potential. Helms also said of Solzhenitsyn: “His testimony, I would reiterate, is that no man is inadequate if he has true faith in God.”
We have published a lot of work and analysis on Solzhenitsyn at Acton. This is something we are proud of and will continue. For the latest, check out the interview in Religion & Liberty with Solzhenitsyn scholar and editor Edward J. Ericson. I published a review of Righteous Warrior, a recent Helms biography. The review was also republished by the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I remember German reunification and reflect on its relevance for the present.
Twenty years ago this Sunday, East and West Germany reunited, capping one of the most extraordinary transformations in modern history. Communism in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites had collapsed; the oppressed nations of Europe rejoined the “free world.”
My generation was the last to straddle the two worlds, pre- and post-Soviet Union. When I was in elementary and high school, fear of atomic annihilation was real. The USSR was the great, looming adversary on the world stage. Debate over the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” was the ominous focus of international policy discussions.
Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.
After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.
This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.
One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”
Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.
The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.
Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:
Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.
This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.
Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.
Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.
Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.
Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.
The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”