On this edition of Radio Free Acton, your humble host bravely battles a late-spring cold to bring you an interview with Jonathan Witt, Managing Editor at TheStream.org, and author of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and The West Forgot. Was Frodo a small-government type? Was Tolkien a card-carrying member of the local Republican party? Or were the hobbits short-statured hippies who really enjoyed their pipe weed and the free healthcare provided by the Shire’s smooth-running, benevolent bureaucracy? Find out on Radio Free Acton!
This week the University Bookman published an essay in which I reflect on some of the lessons we can learn from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, especially related to the recent discovery of an excised section. L’Engle, I argue, is part of a longer tradition of classical conservative thought running, in the modern era, from Burke to Kirk.
Although L’Engle’s narrative vision is drenched in Christianity, she is often thought of holding to a rather liberal, rather than traditional or conservative, form of the faith. However, in an intriguing essay published as part of an edited collection by Regnery in 1986, L’Engle describes what the proper role of the church, particularly of her Episcopal church, ought to be with respect to social realities.
I discovered this piece while doing some research for my own small book on the economic teachings of the ecumenical movement. In “What May I Expect from My Church?” the question she raises with respect to the “Anglican establishment” was precisely the one that interested me with respect to the ecumenical movement: “Where and how do I want my establishment to inject itself into secular controversies?”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “A Parable for the Unemployed,” I provide a brief survey of the biblical view of work, concluding with reference to the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. As I argue, this parable “might just as well be called the parable of the jobless. It teaches us to wait patiently and expectantly for ways that we can be of service to God through serving others.”
Or as the Theology of Work biblical commentary puts it, “If the vineyard owner represents God, this is a powerful message that in God’s kingdom, displaced and unemployed workers find work that meets their needs and the needs of those who depend on them.” If you don’t think this is a message of import for today’s world, then you might have succumbed to some statistical deception.
But from another perspective, one that the church hasn’t always fully appreciated, this parable might be taken as an illustration of the necessity for job creation. For every jobless person, some business owner or entrepreneur must create a job. Without the work the vineyard owner needed done, there would have been no jobs for those waiting in the marketplace “doing nothing.” One of the greatest things one person can do for someone is to create some meaningful and productive job for that other person to do.
And again, if the vineyard owner is understood in some sense to be in the place of God, then God has a job for each one of us to do in this world. Thus Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write in the context of other different parables that “God is a free enterpriser because he expects a return on his investments.” God expects us to be about the work he has given us, or as Jesus put it, to “be about My Father’s business.”
Detroit home owners are being put out of their homes, but it’s not because of bankers. Then by who?
It’s the Detroit city government seeking to collect back real estate taxes. There are always tax foreclosures, but foreclosures are growing from 20,000 in 2012 to an expected 62,000 in 2015. Who is putting poor people on the streets in Detroit? The government.
There is a twist here based on the fact that Detroit homes have an old (and therefore way too high) assessed valuation that the taxes are based on. So for the homeowners, it’s easier to let the property go into a tax foreclosure and then buy it back at a tax sale than it is to pay the overdue taxes based on assessed property values that have fallen 70% in recent years. People follow incentives.
We have a narrative in America stating that all financial evils come from the banks. Even Scott Burns used his space to hammer the banks for the 2008 collapse. His proof: The fines that large banks have paid to the government. (more…)
Earlier this year, UCLA made available for the first time the audio of a speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. given just over a month after the march from Selma to Montgomery. On April 27, 1965, King addressed a number of topics, including debate surrounding the Voting Rights Act.
At one point in the speech, King stops to address a number of “myths” that are often heard and circulated, and one of these is of perennial interest, as it has to do with the interaction between positive law, morality, and culture. We often hear, for instance, that law is downstream from culture, and this is true enough. Thus King admits (starting at around the 33:35 mark) that there is some truth in this kind of view as far as it goes. But this does not mean that there is no place for legislation.
As King puts it,
It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And when you change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes and the hearts will be changed. And so there is a need for strong legislation constantly to grapple with the problems we face.
In light of the discussion about distributism in the recent comments, I’m posting John Zmirak’s excellent Religion & Liberty review of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and the West Forgot by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards (Ignatius Press, 2014) here on the PowerBlog. Note how he ends the review with a discussion of Tolkien and whether his work lent support to distributism. Have at it.
In Praise of the Bourgeois, Liberty-Loving Race of Hobbits
By John Zmirak
"First they ignore it, then they ridicule it, then they willfully misunderstand it, then it becomes a classic." Mohandas Gandhi never said that about great works of literature, but it does describe the trajectory of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. We are long past the days when critics could lightly sneer at the book as "escapist," or convince people that it is secretly "militarist" or "racist." Too many tens of millions have actually read the work to swallow such poison pills. So readers of Tolkien who profoundly misunderstand the book and reject its central message have taken another tack: They have tried to misconstrue the work as a plea for radical environmentalism, Marxist revolution, or the use of the violent force employed by the state in the service of other agendas (such as Distributism) that were utterly alien to Tolkien. The Hobbit Party, by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards does a brilliant job of exposing these crass or crafty misreadings of Tolkien, presenting in plain English and scholarly detail the true complexity and beauty of Tolkien's epic, and more honest applications of his insights.
The Hobbit Party is an easy and pleasurable read, deeply informative and grounded in a fundamental sympathy with the vision of the good that Tolkien wove through all his works. If you only bought one book on The Lord of the Rings, this would be an excellent choice. It's especially worthwhile as a gift for students who are already fans of the book, since it will connect them to Tolkien's intellectual roots and moral aspirations.
Lord Acton famously said that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Joseph Pearce finds that comfort can play a similar role in our lives and that “absolute comfort corrupts absolutely.” That is why we tend to numb ourselves with distractions, from mood-altering drugs to social media:
Shortly after Odysseus and his men leave Troy, heading home after the interminable siege and ultimate destruction of that City, they land on the island of the Lotus-Eaters. After the horrors of war, with its blood-letting and blood lust, these peaceable folk seem very attractive, at least at first glance. They remind us perhaps of proto-hippies, choosing “peace” and “love” over war and hatred. They certainly seem attractive to Odysseus’ war-weary men who, like disillusioned veterans returning from Vietnam, embrace a lifestyle based on the use of soporific drugs. They desire to be “comfortably numb.” The problem with such a lifestyle choice, as the perennially wise Homer reminds us, is that those who choose it “forget the way home.” The problem is not primarily the drug itself, nor is it the apathy that it induces; the problem is that it distracts us from our ultimate purpose, which is to get home. To reiterate, the problem is not principally the drug, nor the drug-induced torpor; it is the distraction.
This point is made clear when we realize that we can substitute all manner of other things for the Lotus-plant. Other natural and synthetic drugs will spring to mind but so will drug-free addictive pursuits, such as pornography or the obsessive-compulsive way in which many of us engage in social media. The things with which we choose to distract ourselves are variable and therefore in the philosophical sense accidental; the thing which is common to all these multifarious means of distraction is the distraction itself, which is therefore, literally and philosophically, of the essence.
“Mockingjay, Part 1,” the first film installment of the finale to Suzanne Collins’ massively popular young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, has dominated the box office in its opening week and over the Thanksgiving weekend. As Brooks Barnes reported for the New York Times, “The No. 1 movie in North America was again ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,’ which took in an estimated $56.9 million from Friday to Sunday, according to Rentrak, a box-office tracking firm. Domestic ticket sales for ‘Mockingjay’ now total a hefty $225.7 million….”
While some would criticize the series for lack of depth, “Mockingjay, Part 1,” offers more than just a shallow cast of good guys vs. bad guys, acting as a window into the messy realities of tyranny, class, and freedom. (more…)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is considered by many to be one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. But you’d be hard-pressed to find him discussed in any public high school (or even most colleges or universities, for that matter.) A prolific writer (he penned everything from a popular mystery series to epic ballads), he thought himself mainly a journalist. While he never attended college, his knowledge had both depth and breadth:
Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology. His style is unmistakable, always marked by humility, consistency, paradox, wit, and wonder. His writing remains as timely and as timeless today as when it first appeared, even though much of it was published in throw away papers.
I’m slowly working my way through James Atlas’ biography of Saul Bellow, and I came to the section where Saul Bellow returns to his birthplace in Lachine, Quebec, for the dedication of the municipal library in his name. At the dedication he gave a speech, which includes this section:
I am here as a kind of testimony to the fact that it’s possible for a child from Lachine to do some things which have been called—not by me but by others—extraordinary. It also fits very well with my own resistance to that deterministic philosophy that tells you that the place that you come from makes you absolutely; it does not. The human soul has its own way to declare its own freedom and to develop itself in its own way, and it is not true to say: “Show me where you came from and I’ll tell you what you are.” That’s not the way things really are; we are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom: I see the thing that way. It is not necessary to be fully determined by one’s surroundings. Your mind and your spirit have their own liberty, and each individual should be loyal to that.
Stirring stuff, that.
But lest anyone misunderstand and think that Bellow was advocating merely a libertine individualism, we might consult the conclusion of his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which as Myron Magnet writes, includes the connection between the freedom and the moral nature of the human soul. Thus, writes Magnet:
From page one of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has “its own natural knowledge.” We all have “a sense of the mystic potency of humankind” and “an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.” We all know that we must try “to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.” We must live a life “conditioned by other human beings.” We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, as Sammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. “The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. . . . As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”