Reigniting The Meaning Of Citizenship Through National Service

It’s been a long time since a common rite of passage among our nation’s men was to put on a uniform and defend your nation, community, and family. Yet at a time of increasing hyperpolarization in our country, as well as the deteriorating state of our nation’s youth in mind, body, and soul, national military service may be an idea worth considering once again.

National service has been ever-present in our country’s history. From militias in the Revolutionary War era to the wartime drafts in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, to peacetime drafts through various parts of our nation’s past.

The legacy from those eras of conscription still remain in the form of the Selective Service system, which many of us remember being notified that we needed to register for upon reaching age 18.

The Selective Service system also has been the subject of debate in recent years, as many persons have considered whether women should register for it as well – such as during the 2016 Presidential election when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton called for such.

Among other republics and democracies in the world national service is relatively common, from the nations of Europe to Africa, from the Middle East to Asia to South America. Conscription began falling out of favor since the end of the Cold War, as the general state of worry over military conflict faded.

Yet in recent years conscription has made a comeback. French President Macron has been trying to reintroduce military conscription in order to “foster patriotism and heal social divisions.” Norway recently expanded its military conscription in 2016 to include women, as Sweden has now re-introduced conscription as well.

Perhaps the most noted military conscription program is that of Israel, which requires all men and women to serve about two years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with few exceptions. While brought about by military necessity, it has also cultivated an Israeli citizenry that has the character, grit, and sense of duty to keep their nation thriving.

It used to be that way in America, as serving in the military was a relatively common experience. In 1980, veterans totaled 18% of adults in the United States. In contrast, by 2016 that number had fallen to 7%.

At a time when our nation is reeling from divisions along seemingly every line possible, it is worth considering a common and shared experience as national service to reconnect our country together. The benefits are very clear in other nations, as despite often no overt military conflict conscription still provides a variety of security and social benefits to the country.

Undoubtedly the implementation of a conscription program, not seen in our nation for almost half a century, would be difficult initially. Not only have the times and culture changed, but so has the very nature of our armed forces.

Our military nowadays is an extremely high-tech organization and finding how to best utilize the massive manpower from our almost 330 million person nation would require careful delineation.

Furthermore, many of our nation’s youth, estimated currently at 71% of those between the ages of 17 and 24, are grossly unfit for military service. Creating a new conscript category and integrating them usefully into the nation’s military would be challenging, but given how seemingly every other nation is able to do it effectively we undoubtedly can find a way to as well.

The idea of national service would undoubtedly require a significant period of pilot programs and testing. The idea has been proposed frequently in the national discourse throughout the years and particularly during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. It is a big, nation-changing policy that certainly, if it gets further traction and consideration, would be a serious national debate.

National service is a very realistic program that could do a lot in solving many of our nation’s otherwise seemingly unsolvable problems, as well as reigniting reflection on the meaning of citizenry in a republic.

I think it is worth considering at our present time, as, although it seems a big change, nonetheless could revive our American spirit and heal our nation in an extraordinary way.

 

The post Reigniting The Meaning Of Citizenship Through National Service appeared first on The American Spectator.

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Of Morality And Marshmallows

The Atlantic reports on a new study suggesting that the famous “marshmallow test” is unreliable as a predictor of future economic instability. Excerpt:

In the case of this new study, specifically, the failure to confirm old assumptions pointed to an important truth: that circumstances matter more in shaping children’s lives than Mischel and his colleagues seemed to appreciate.

This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run—in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior—than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

Maybe so. But might it also be the case that children raised in more affluent homes will have been taught the value of resisting their impulses? I say this because one of my own children has had a very demanding sweet tooth from earliest childhood. He is also impulsive by nature. It has taken years of effort on the part of his mother and me to train him to say no to his impulses — not only for sugar, but, as he has gotten older and started earning spending money, his enthusiasms for buying things that strike his fancy. Many times I have pondered the difficulty he is going to have managing his money if he doesn’t get this impulsiveness under control. He’s a very good kid, highly moral and responsible, but impulsiveness is his Achilles’ heel.

He’s not being raised in poverty. We are middle class people, but culturally I guess that puts us with more in common with the affluent than not. Our impulsive child has been raised in a stable household — materially and emotionally — so there are no environmental factors that nurture his impulsiveness. From an Orthodox Christian point of view, this is simply one of his passions, something he has to struggle against. I have my own particular passions (anger and gluttony). Orthodoxy teaches that life itself is a struggle to crucify the passions and order ones desires towards the will of God. There is nothing wrong in principle with wanting to eat a marshmallow, but if your reason and your will are overcome by that desire to eat a marshmallow, you are weak, and can fall into sin. The regular fasting that Orthodox Christians do is designed to train the will to desire what God desires for us, not what we desire for ourselves.

Anyway, all of that is prelude to what I want to tell you. Last night, I was at a dinner party with some friends. One of them, N., told a long story about a local carpenter she and her husband had hired to do some renovations on their house. I won’t tell the story in depth, because the story is hers to tell, and she’s a writer. The gist of the story is that N. and her husband have been working with this guy for a long time — it’s a big project — and have gotten to know him well. He’s working class, and economically quite precarious. N. said the man has become a friend, and that she and her husband have been working hard to help him stabilize his life.

N. said — again, I’m summing up, but the details are sort of breathtaking — that the carpenter’s personal life is a study in chaos. He cannot grasp that he has the power to determine future events by the choices he makes today. A sense of moral agency totally escapes him. He sees N.’s ordinary family — they have kids — and thinks that they are simply one of fate’s winners. N. talked about the extraordinary lengths she and her husband have gone to befriend and to help this man, but how ultimately it has been futile. No matter what they say to him, no matter what they do for him, he cannot get it together. And he is leaving all kinds of chaos in his wake (several wives, kids, etc.).

I told N. that my wife and I have been in the very same situation, trying to help someone just like that who had become a friend … and in the end, concluding that it was futile. I wrote about it in the past on this blog: how I had gone to my lawyer, offering to pay him to represent this impoverished friend in a particular case. Lawyer said he would take my money and meet with the friend, but that in his lengthy experience with these cases, he could tell me that I’d be wasting my money and his time, because my friend would not follow through. It’s in the nature of people who get themselves into these kinds of situations, he said, to keep doing what got them into that situation in the first place. I told him I would be willing to take that chance to help her.

Next time I saw this friend, I told her to make an appointment with Lawyer X., that he would be willing to advise her, and that I would pay the bill. She thanked me profusely, but said that wouldn’t be necessary that she had decided to … well, that she had decided to keep doing the same stupid thing that got her into this bind in the first place. The country lawyer’s practical experience in dealing with the poor was wiser than my heart-on-the-sleeve idealism. Not for the first time did I feel like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. (My future epitaph: “Call me Azzberry”.)

At dinner last night, my friend and I dwelled on the intractability of human nature in cases like this. She said that she had to conclude that a stable family life in childhood provides psychological goods that cannot be given through any other way. There aren’t enough government programs, personal charitable efforts, or anything else to compensate adequately for a chaotic childhood. My friend was certainly not saying that we can wash our hands of the responsibility for our neighbor’s welfare, but she was concluding — accurately — that we have to recognize the limits of our ability to change the lives of others. She was also saying that her experience with the carpenter made her more fully aware of how important it is to do everything she can to give her own children a stable home life.

Notice that I’m not saying — nor did I hear her to say — “affluent” home life. My folks never had a lot of money. We were an ordinary working-class to lower-middle-class family. But the gift my mother and father gave me of an orderly, stable childhood was priceless, I now see. How did they do it? They were both imperfect people who endured their share of difficulties in marriage, caused by their own flaws, as well as a period of economic stress. My father is no longer with us to discuss the matter, but the truth is, neither one of them would have been given over to much self-reflection on the question. They were the kind of people who would have simply said, “We made a vow,” and left it at that. For them, that was reason enough to stay together — that, and they always made it clear that the needs of us kids came before their own. That was just how my folks went through life. Not to get too philosophical about it, but for them, that was the Tao.

That wouldn’t have guaranteed stability in my family’s or my late sister’s, but they gave us such a good model of how family was supposed to work. Again, I don’t want to hold my mom and dad out to have been perfect. I don’t think there are any perfect families, and certainly mine had its particular flaws, some of which had unfortunate long-term consequences. That said, I am so very grateful to my parents for holding things together, and showing my sister and me that it is possible to build that kind of life, even when you don’t have much money.

My father was the chief breadwinner in our household, and, because they were a traditional 1950s-era couple, he was the one who dictated how our financial resources would be handled. I find this interesting with relation to the Atlantic article because having grown up very poor in the Great Depression, he ought to have been shaped by the experience of inconstancy in a particular way. Remember, the Atlantic writer said:

There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

That’s how my father grew up, but that same experience made him far more likely to do what he could to hedge against chaos. He talked to Ruthie and me a lot about these things, relating him to his childhood. His own father was away from home for most of my dad’s early childhood, entirely because he had to work and send money back to support his wife, children, and elderly mother, who lived in the household. That sense of vulnerability made a profound impression on my dad, who was determined that his children would not feel it, if he could help it.

Daddy wasn’t unique in that. What I can’t quite understand today is why his response to childhood poverty and insecurity was so very different from what is normal today. That is, Daddy’s response was to live as an adult in such a way that he was less vulnerable to that chaos, and in which his own children were made less vulnerable to the chaos that would have come had outside pressures broken the family apart. I’ve written many times in this space about how he had deep compassion for people who were poor and suffering victims of circumstance, but also something bordering on contempt for people who were poor and suffering, but who always blamed others, or fate, for their suffering. He would say, “You can’t do nothin’ for people like that.” This was the opinion of a man who had once been poor, and who had lived his entire life in the same community as poor people, and working with them. Kind of like that country lawyer I mentioned above.

It seems to me that aside from his personal qualities, my father was the beneficiary of a local culture that, for better or for worse, had a strong bias against people living morally disordered lives. I should add that my dad had much more hostility towards middle class and wealthy people who lived that way. “They know better,” he would say. “They don’t have an excuse.” In his case, it wasn’t so much a matter of religion — my dad wasn’t particularly observant — as it was a matter of shame and honor. The culture that shaped my father’s code said it was dishonorable for men and women to live in ways that violated its core moral code. I heard my dad say on a number of occasions, “There’s no shame in being poor,” but he also spoke with stern judgment against men who abandoned their families, people who wouldn’t work, and so forth.

That code could be harsh, but it was more realistic about life than a lot of what passes for wisdom today. I think that has a lot to do with why Jordan Peterson is so popular. He gives to young men a sense of moral agency. Peterson is not Moses coming down from the summit of Sinai, but he talks common sense to a culture that has forgotten it. There has never been a society, and never will be a society, in which somebody can live like a fool and not pay the consequences — and for that matter, inflict consequences on others. You can’t not show up for work and expect to keep your job forever. You can’t ignore your kids and expect that they will grow up to be responsible people. You can’t get loaded every weekend and wonder why your roof is falling in, and won’t fix itself. You can’t allow television and social media to raise your children, and expect that they will be good.  And so forth.

“The world doesn’t owe you a living,” my father would lecture me, usually when I hadn’t done my homework, or failed to do something I was supposed to have done. I suppose this attitude is what made my dad a natural conservative. He couldn’t stand people who were ungrateful and lazy. His basic attitude towards us kids was: I bust my ass to provide for y’all, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you waste the opportunities you’ve been given. There was a time in my life when I thought he was so square, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t any other way to live. My dad was keen to help people who were down on their luck, and I see now that he allowed himself to be taken advantage of by some folks with hard-luck stories. Mostly, though, what he was eager to do was to teach people how to help themselves, and to encourage them to do so. For him, this was a matter of natural justice. A society in which people were rewarded even though they did the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing, was not a just or good society. And doing the right thing always meant subjugating your own desires to the greater good, especially the greater good of your family.

Here’s a funny thing: a few years back, when I was working with the African-American actor Wendell Pierce on his memoir of growing up in south Louisiana, I spent some time speaking with his Uncle L.C. Edwards, the last surviving member of Wendell’s parents’ generation. Uncle L.C. was the same age as my father, and like him, had grown up in rural poverty. I loved the stories of L.C.’s parents (that is, Wendell’s grandparents): poor black farmers who weren’t educated, but who had a very strong religious ethic, and who placed enormous value on education and self-discipline as the only reliable means of self-advancement. Poverty was the enemy of both L.C. and my father, but Lloyd and his siblings also had to deal with Jim Crow. If memory serves, every one of the children of Wendell’s grandparents got educated, and escaped poverty. I’m telling you, the chapter on Papo and Mamo (the grandchildren’s name for L.C.’s parents) is worth the price of the book. Here’s a characteristic excerpt:

One Christmas evening after supper, the Edwardses went to call on their College Point neighbors, to wish them a happy holiday. The kids were startled to go into one house and to see that all that family had eaten for their Christmas meal was potatoes and grits. When they returned home, Papo told the children, “This is what I mean when I tell you it’s important to save for a rainy day. If you put your money aside now, you will have enough to eat well on Christmas.”

Given the man Papo was, if the Edwardses had any food left, he probably took it to that poor family and didn’t tell his own children for the sake of preserving their neighbors’ dignity.

His children remembered Papo as a slow talker but a deep thinker. He never made a quick decision, but acted only after prayer, deliberation, and sleeping on it. Whatever the answer was, he arrived at it through careful reason, not passion. Acting on impulse was the sure way to lose your money, in Papo’s view.

Papo worked for a time in a sugar factory and received his weekly wages in a brown packet. He had a firm rule with himself: Wait twenty-four hours before spending a penny of it. Uncle L.C. said that as a young working man, he thought his father’s rule was silly. You have the money, he figured, so why not enjoy it?

But when he got married and started a family of his own, he understood Papo’s good sense and followed the rule himself. Uncle L.C., who worked at the DuPont chemical plant, has done well through saving and investing over the years. To this day, he credits Papo for teaching him by word and example the importance of being careful with your money and not letting your passions guide your decisions.

Talking with L.C. was like speaking with a black version of my own father. Though he had long been in retirement when I met him, L.C. was always thinking of ways he could make a little money. He told me about how he would take fatherless black boys from a nearby trailer park, and try to teach them something about working to make money and to plan for the future. He told me how sorry he felt for those young men, who had no father in the home to offer them direction, or a sense of responsible manhood.

But his pity had strict limits. Like my own father, L.C. was death on those who wouldn’t work or practice self-discipline. He told me about how his own wife, a retired public schoolteacher, quit her job the very day the last of their adult children no longer needed their help paying for college. She was of a generation for whom education was the most precious thing, their ticket out of poverty and oppression. Today, though, she was worn down by students who wouldn’t work, wouldn’t behave themselves, and parents who blamed the schools and the teachers for their kids’ failures.

American culture is far less friendly to the worldview of those Depression babies like L.C. and my father. Politics and economics are complicated things. You can’t simply apply a moral code to every situation, and expect it to solve the problem. But let’s recognize this: very few Americans in 2018 are as materially poor as my dad and L.C. Edwards were when they came into this world in the 1930s. Is there anybody in America today who is poorer than a black child born to uneducated farmers living in the Deep South under American apartheid? And yet, look what they did with what they had been given! There never will be a society in which family won’t matter, and in which moral self-discipline won’t matter. 

The wealthy, and those with social connections, can absorb a lot more disorder than the less well off can, but money won’t last forever.

The world we have today is wealthier, and in some ways is better able to defray the cost of that disorder. We have more of a social safety net today than we did back then. But this world is much poorer in social capital, which is not something you can raise from Chinese bankers.

There’s a lot of brokenness in this country, and no clear way to fix it. The people my dinner companion and I were talking about last night are white. They live in Charles Murray’s fictional Fishtown. They diverge greatly from the core values and practices of stable middle-class and well-off Americans, in ways that were not true a couple of generations ago. Society has grown far more individualistic and tolerant of non-conformity. This is not entirely a bad thing! But the cost to people who don’t have a lot of social and material capital to begin with has been immense. People love to imagine that if only we brought good jobs back to America, or voted in this or that political party, then these problems would solve themselves. I don’t believe that’s true. That’s no reason not to try to improve opportunities for people, but there are no government programs or private charitable initiatives that can meaningfully compensate for the loss of a sense of moral order and purpose.

Finally, I phrase occurred to me while writing this post, a fragment from something I’d read ages ago. I googled it, and the source turned up here. Here is the excerpt I was thinking about. The writer is talking about the 1950s:

It was a more human world in that it was a sexier world, because sex was still a story. Each high school senior class had exactly one girl who got pregnant and one guy who was the father, and it was the town’s annual scandal. Either she went somewhere and had the baby and put it up for adoption, or she brought it home as a new baby sister, or the couple got married and the town topic changed. It was a stricter, tougher society, but its bruising sanctions came from ancient wisdom.

We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”

The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.

But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.

The old America had a delicate sense of the difference between the general (“We disapprove”) and the particular (Let’s go help her”). We had the moral self-confidence to sustain the paradox, to sustain the distance between “official” disapproval and “unofficial” succor. The old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support. We don’t so much anymore. For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.

Message to society: What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.

The author of those words is Peggy Noonan. She published them in, get this, 1992. Some things have gotten better over the last 26 years. For example, when she published this, David Dinkins was mayor of her town, New York City, and the city would record just over 2,000 homicides. Know how many the city recorded last year, 25 years after the column was published? Only 290.  Progress is real!

On the other hand, I can’t get out of my head the words spoken to me by a professor at an Evangelical Christian college. Speaking about the student body, which is predominantly white, he told me that he didn’t think most of them would ever be able to form stable families. I was shocked by this.These were not kids from the blighted projects or wretched rural trailer parks. Why not? I asked.

He said, “Because they have never seen it done.”

We live in a society in which the moral code that we applaud and the people we celebrate all say: Take the marshmallow now, and don’t worry about the future. This is going to cost us.

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Economic stability continues when nothing changes

John Williams, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank and soon to take the same position at the New York Fed, argues that we are in a new era during which real interest rates will be low for a long time. Perhaps. Perhaps I am growing cynical …

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Leftism = Egalitarianism

As we enter the age where Leftism, having gained supremacy fifty years ago and failed in all of its promises, prepares to pass on into the dust-bin of history, it makes sense to understand what Leftism is.

On this site, we treat politics as a series of philosophies. Philosophies are explanation for how the world works and what we should do about it. At the core, each philosophy possesses a basic statement which summarizes its approach, and this is why they are distinctive.

It has become common — and that word never means anything good — for people to bloviate on about how they are “neither Left or Right,” which forgets that these two things are distinct philosophies, and like many things at a basic level, indicate a necessary fork in the road of human thinking.

Very few realize that the Right is our continuation of what was there before Leftism, and that while it has been misinterpreted and linguistically slaughtered like everything else in our declining society, its basic philosophy still stands: conserve the best of the past while aiming for inner excellence.

Even fewer understand Leftism. What is Leftism? An encylopedia provides us the roots of Leftist philosophy:

Left: In politics, the portion of the political spectrum associated in general with egalitarianism and popular or state control of the major institutions of political and economic life.

Now we can see the basics of the philosophy: it is egalitarianism plus the idea that the State should enforce it. Continuing our exploration, we ask, “What is Egalitarianism?” Fortunately a specialized encyclopedia of philosophy provides an explanation of egalitarianism:

Egalitarians think, firstly, that unfair life prospects should be equalized. Secondly, that equality is the most or one of the most important irreducible intrinsic or constitutive worth(s) of justice. Thirdly, that welfare should be increased. Fourthly, that justice is comparative. Fifthly, that inequalities are just when otherwise advantages are destroyed in the name of justice. Lastly, that there are certain absolute humanitarian principles like autonomy, freedom or human dignity.

The suffix “ism” tends to mean a philosophy that advocates using its root term as a means of solving problems and leading the best possible life. For that reason, elitism means those who advocate choosing the elite or quality over quantity; socialism denotes using socialized means of production; egalitarianism indicates those who want to use equality as a universal tool for fixing and enhancing society.

In that definition, we have every aspect of modern Leftism. They want to create a Utopia through progress toward equality. They think this should be done by taking from the successful and giving to the unsuccessful. They believe in using the State to do this through Civil Rights programs.

Through that understanding, we can see that Leftists — liberals, communists, marxists, socialists, anarchists, libertarians — are all degrees of the same thing, namely the idea of equality being both a goal and a method of achieving the best possible civilization and lives, although uniquely they see a “perfect” Utopia as possible.

Let us then revisit the historical portion of the definition of Leftism from above:

The term dates from the 1790s, when in the French revolutionary parliament the socialist representatives sat to the presiding officer’s left. Leftists tend to be hostile to the interests of traditional elites, including the wealthy and members of the aristocracy, and to favour the interests of the working class (see proletariat). They tend to regard social welfare as the most important goal of government. Socialism is the standard leftist ideology in most countries of the world; communism is a more radical leftist ideology.

In this we see how egalitarianism translates into reality: since we cannot make the unsuccessful more competent, we must penalize the successful, and have a strong gangster-style government to take their wealth and give it to the less competent. This creates a Darwinian death spiral but transfers power to the Leftist Regime.

Leftism consists of several sub-philosophies, all of which share a common goal of Utopia through progress of equality, which means that all Leftist philosophies are essentially the same, differing only in degree. On the mild side of Leftism, liberalism, libertarianism, and classical liberalism hide their real goal:

Liberalism, political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics. Liberals typically believe that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.

…Liberalism is derived from two related features of Western culture. The first is the West’s preoccupation with individuality, as compared to the emphasis in other civilizations on status, caste, and tradition. Throughout much of history, the individual has been submerged in and subordinate to his clan, tribe, ethnic group, or kingdom. Liberalism is the culmination of developments in Western society that produced a sense of the importance of human individuality, a liberation of the individual from complete subservience to the group, and a relaxation of the tight hold of custom, law, and authority. In this respect, liberalism stands for the emancipation of the individual. See also individualism.

Liberalism also derives from the practice of adversariality in European political and economic life, a process in which institutionalized competition—such as the competition between different political parties in electoral contests, between prosecution and defense in adversary procedure, or between different producers in a market economy (see monopoly and competition)—generates a dynamic social order. Adversarial systems have always been precarious, however, and it took a long time for the belief in adversariality to emerge from the more traditional view, traceable at least to Plato, that the state should be an organic structure, like a beehive, in which the different social classes cooperate by performing distinct yet complementary roles.

Individualism creates egalitarianism because no individual wants to be left behind or restricted in what they can do. As a result, they demand a utilitarian solution: everyone does whatever they want — small exceptions are made for crimes and blatant antisocial behavior — and decisions are made by choosing whatever is most popular.

This comes from the notion of the moral worth of the individual in individualism:

Individualism, political and social philosophy that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual.

If the individual has moral worth, then all individuals must be included and their choices supported, which naturally prohibits the type of cooperation necessary to create civilization. Individualism expresses itself through “rights” by which an individual can reject the need to uphold social standards, customs, and principles.

Although it was called by different terms, individualism arose from the Renaissance, in which “man is the measure of all things” became a replacement for classical ideas of social order. Instead of designing civilization as a structure, it was conceived as a container for individuals which sought to facilitate their desires.

The French Revolutionaries stated as much when they placed the individual at the center of their society, and made it the goal of that society to serve all individuals.

This inverts social order. Instead of having standards and rewarding those who meet them, we make people the standard, and assume that they can be motivated with external carrot/stick combinations like money and the threat of not having money. Over time this breaks down, and so societies turn toward socialism in order to keep their ideology intact.

We fight a war of ideas. The West adopted individualism, then egalitarianism, and implemented them in Leftism because as the most successful society on Earth, it had the wealth and power to take on a crazy notion and not have it fail immediately. Over the past centuries and especially past fifty years however, we have seen that it fails anyway.

For us to displace Leftism from the West, and nothing else will save us, we must get to the root of this dysfunction and remove the moldy old Renaissance™ and Enlightenment™ notions of equality from our thinking. This requires that we get over ourselves, but we have surmounted greater challenges in the past.

Read more from Amerika…

Dear Ex-Friends in #TheResistance

Julie Kelly, American Greatness
Hey, what’s up. Long time no talk.I think the last civil conversations we had occurred just days before November 8, 2016. You were supremely confident Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election; you voted for her with glee. As a lifelong Republican, I

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A Christian Approach To Psychedelics

Here’s the tl;dr version of this post: Michael Pollan’s new book, How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science of Psychedelics Tells Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is terrific, and ought to be read by my fellow conservative Christians. Yeah, you heard me: this is a book about LSD and magic mushrooms from which religious conservatives can learn a great deal. I encourage you to read it with an open but critical mind.

Let me explain. Sit down, this is going to take a while. And I’m going to ramble.

Pollan’s book (henceforth, HTCYM) is in part a history of psychedelic compounds (like LSD and psilocybin) in medical research and practice. I had no idea that in the 1950s, there was a lot of serious medical research on psychedelics as treatments for addiction and depression. The word “psychedelic” comes from the Greek word meaning “mind-manifesting,” and was not coined by 1960s hippies, but by 1950s scientists. It turns out that scientists experimenting with psychedelic compounds were getting good results treating depressives and addicts with it. In one of the more surprising facts reported by Pollan, Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, kicked the bottle after an experimental treatment with belladonna.

Timothy Leary is a villain in Pollan’s narrative. Leary was such a reckless, vain showboater that he ended up making psychedelics into a weapon of the counterculture. His antics caused serious scientific research into psychedelics and their possible therapeutic value to fall into disrepute for decades. Only now are scientists picking up where their colleagues half a century ago left off.

There are two parts to the story Pollan tells that interest me.

The first is about how psychedelics, administered under certain conditions, can help people who are suffering greatly. I’m going to write a bit about that below.

The second is about what psychedelics may tell us about the nature of mind, of epistemology (how we know what we know), and of reality itself. If you’re the kind of religious believer who reflexively rejects this area of inquiry because it’s associated with the dopey 1960s counterculture, then I urge you to set aside your prejudices and read Pollan’s book.

In his introduction, Pollan talks about how reading the founder of psychiatry, William James, on religious experience, caused him to open his mind. Pollan:

“No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness disregarded.

“At any rate,” James concluded, these other states, the existence of which he believed was as real as the ink on this page, “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

The first time I read that sentence, I realized James had my number: as a staunch materialist, and as an adult of a certain age [Pollan was born in 1955 — RD], I had pretty much closed my accounts with reality. Perhaps this had been premature.

LSD, commonly called “acid,” was discovered by accident in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who had been working with the ergot fungus. He accidentally got some of a compound he had synthesized on his skin, and had the world’s first acid trip.

What had happened to Hofmann’s brain? As a general matter, psychedelic compounds work on receptors within the brain, somewhat short-circuiting the brain’s default mode network (DMN). This means parts of your brain that normally don’t communicate with each other do while under the influence of the drug. The DMN is what organizes sensory input, and allows you to order experience. The DMN blocks out a lot of sensory information, the admission of which into consciousness would pretty much disable one. The DMN is responsible for maintaining our sense of ego, of separateness, and subjectivity.

According to Pollan, when you’re tripping, the DMN is suppressed, and you lose the sense of a barrier between yourself and the world outside. You experience that world with a much heightened sense of wonder. Much of Pollan’s book is taken up with therapeutic use of psychedelics, and accounts of how they have helped people. Some who have been afflicted with addiction, compulsion, and depression find that a single psychedelic experience, under clinically supervised conditions, serves to “reboot” their brain, and to break that harmful patterns of thinking.

Others who are suffering from terminal diseases find that psychedelic experiences greatly ease, and even eliminate, their anxiety over death, easing their passage. There’s a powerful testimony in the book left behind by a terminally ill man who participated in NYU psilocybin trials. The experiences left him with a profound sense of peace and ultimate meaning, and helped him to meet his death with a sense of serenity.

Based on these stories alone — and there are lots of them in Pollan’s book — it seems immoral to deprive psychiatrists of these medicines to use on the suffering. These accounts in HTCYM struck a resonant chord within me. In college, I knew personally a man who had been suffering from depression for two years, and who was drinking heavily. He dropped acid for kicks one night, his first psychedelic experience. That single trip changed his life. As he later described it, it made him see that his sense of isolation and self-hatred were illusions, and the world itself was filled with beauty, life, and love. It convinced him that God was real.

Leaving aside the theological aspects of the story, I can confirm that that single drug experience changed his outlook and behavior overnight. The recollection of that story, in fact, is what prompted me to buy Pollan’s book at once when I heard about it. As Pollan writes, researchers are discovering that there is something about psychedelic drugs that breaks old patterns of thinking. Bill W.’s experience of the “Higher Power” that would become part of AA came from his belladonna event.

For me, though, the most interesting aspect of all this is what it might say to us about the nature of consciousness, and the existence of the transcendent realm — and ultimately, of God.

When you do psychedelics, are you in some sense encountering the transcendent realm? Or is it entirely a hallucination? Put another way, are the trippy perceptions you have manufactured entirely by your brain, or does the drug make you sense something that is actually there, but hidden from perception under normal conditions? Or some of both?

Bill Richards is a psychiatrist who was involved with the early scientific explorations of psychedelics. From Pollan’s book:

Richards emerged from those first psychedelic explorations in possession of three unshakable convictions.

The first is that the experience of the sacred reported both by the great mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real” — that is, not just a figment of the imagination. “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.”

Second, that whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis for religion. (Partly for this reason Richards believes that psychedelics should be part of a divinity students’ education.)

And third, that consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains. On this question, he hold with Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, who conceived of the human mind as a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to frequencies of energy and information that exist outside it. “If you wanted to find the blonde who delivered  the news last night, “Richards offered by way of an analogy, “you wouldn’t look for her in the TV set.” The television set is, like the human brain, necessary but not sufficient.

 

Pollan quotes another scientist who was involved with psychedelics as a volunteer in a 1999 Johns Hopkins trial:

Turner is now an ordained Zen monk, yet he is also still a physicist, working for a company that makes helium neon lasers. I asked him if he felt any tension between his science and his spiritual practice. “I don’t feel there’s a contradiction. Yet what happened at Hopkins has influenced my physics. I realize there are just some domains that science will not penetrate. Science can bring you to the big bang, but it can’t take you beyond it. You need a different kind of apparatus to peer into that.”

 

In 2006, Hopkins neuroscience research Roland Griffiths published a landmark paper based on these trials. Here’s a Hopkins press release on it. The famed religion scholar Huston Smith (d. 2016) had this to say about Griffiths’ work:

The Johns Hopkins experiment shows — proves — that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so, it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drug laws.

OK, there’s a lot to process here.

What is a mystical experience? According to Pollan, William James set out four criteria that he says separate authentic mystical experiences from counterfeit ones:

1. The experience is ineffable. People who have undergone them struggle to convey what the experience is like.

2. The experience is noetic. You have the sense that you have learned some profound truth or truths that you couldn’t have learned any other way. “Dreams cannot stand this test,” James wrote. People who have these experiences often change their lives in meaningful ways.

3. The experience is transient. It lasts only a short time, but its effects do not.

4. The experience is passive. People who have the mystical experience aren’t seeking it, but only receive it.

I have to interject something personal here. In my life, I have had four or five mystical experiences. Two of them were profound, life-changing events. One of them I may write about one day. The other I never will. In both of the profound cases, all of James’s criteria were met. Those experiences not only have to do with why I am a religious believer, but also with why I am the kind of religious believer that I am. I’m not going to elaborate on either of those cases here, so don’t ask.

Reading the descriptions in Pollan’s book that psychedelic users give of their trips sounded quite familiar to me. Note well that Pollan himself tries several types of psychedelics as research for this book, under supervised conditions, and does not become a religious person because of it. But it did give him profound experiences of awe, experiences that changed the way he saw himself and the world. Pollan points out something that everyone I know who has done psychedelics have said to me: it’s not like a narcotic, in that you feel stoned or drunk. You are in most cases lucid.

Are these experiences less authentic when induced by a chemical, as opposed to by intense prayer, meditation, fasting, and the like? Not from a neurological point of view. It turns out that under observation with fMRI machines, the brains of experienced meditators and the brains of people on psilocybin look at lot alike. Pollan writes that “the practice and the medicine both dramatically reduce activity in the default mode network.”

To put it more crudely, the money a man puts in the bank after 30 years of hard work is no more or no less valuable than the money put in the bank by a man who won the lottery. But then, the man who acquired that money through hard work will regard it differently. This may be why the psychedelic experience is wasted on many people.

Nevertheless, reading Pollan makes me far less inclined to dismiss the value of hallucinogenic experiences because they were acquired cheaply. He writes:

What is more material than a chemical? One could reasonably conclude from the action of psychedelics that the gods are nothing more than chemically induced figments of the hominid imagination. Yet, surprisingly, most of the people who have had these experiences don’t see the matter that way at all. Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a “Beyond.”

It’s not that they deny a naturalistic basis for this revelation; they just interpret it differently. If the experience of transcendence is mediated by molecules that flow through both our brains and the natural world of plants and fungi, then perhaps nature is not as mute as Science has told us, and “Spirit,” however defined, exists out there is immanent in nature, in other words, just as countless premodern cultures have believed. What to my (spiritually impoverished) mind seemed to constitute a good case for the disenchantment of the world become in the minds of the more psychedelically experienced irrefutable proof of its fundamental enchantment.

… So here was a curious paradox. The same phenomenon that pointed to a materialist explanation for spiritual and religious belief gave people an experience so powerful it convinced them of the existence of a nonmaterial reality — the very basis of religious belief.

This is heavy stuff. Eastern Orthodox Christianity teaches that the cosmos is panentheistic. What does that mean? From Orthodox Wiki:

In panentheism, God is viewed as creator and/or animating force behind the universe, and the source of universal truth. This concept of God is closely associated with the Logos as stated in the 5th century BC works of Heraclitus (ca. 535 BC — 475 BC), in which the Logos pervades the cosmos and whereby all thoughts and things originate; e.g., “He who hears not me but the Logos will say: All is one.” A similar statement attributed to Jesus by John 10:30.

While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within God. Panentheism holds that God is the “supreme affect and effect” of the universe.

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, creation is not “part of” God, and the Godhead is still distinct from creation; however, God is “within” all creation, thus the parsing of the word in Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christianity is “pan-entheism” (God indwells in all things) and not “panen-theism” (All things are part of God but God is more than the sum of all things).

The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have a doctrine called panentheism to describe the relationship between the Uncreated (God, who is omnipotent, eternal, and constant) and His creation that bears surface similarities with the panentheism described above but maintains a critical distinction.

Most specifically, these Churches teach that God is not the “watchmaker God” or mechanical God of philosophy found in Western European Enlightenment. Likewise, they teach that God is not the “stage magician God” who only shows up when performing miracles. Instead, the teaching of both these Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all. That is, God’s energies maintain all things and all beings, even if those beings have explicitly rejected Him. His love of creation is such that he will not withdraw His presence, which would be the ultimate form of slaughter, not merely imposing death but ending existence, altogether. By this token, the entirety of creation is sanctified, and thus no part of creation can be considered innately evil. This does not deny the existence of evil in a fallen universe, only that it is not an innate property of creation.

This Orthodox Christian panentheism is distinct from a fundamentalist panentheism in that it maintains an ontological gulf or distance between the created and the Uncreated.

If this is true — and I believe it is — then it strikes me as likely consonant with Henri Bergson’s theory of consciousness: that it does not emerge from the brain, but that the brain is rather a receptor of the consciousness that is really there. In my own mystical experience, which occurred many years before I became Orthodox, I felt the presence of the divine filling all things, and that all things are connected. This, by the way, is classical mysticism, not just Christian mysticism. When I first happened upon Orthodox Christianity, I thought, “Of course! That’s how it was for me!”

It’s hard to talk about this stuff for reasons that Pollan elaborates. He writes that people who are trying to recall the things they experienced on psychedelics end up saying things that are totally banal, e.g., “Love is all there is.”

The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious. Yet people come out of the experience understanding these platitudes in a new way; what was merely known is now felt, takes on the authority of a deeply rooted conviction. And, more often than not, that conviction concerns the supreme importance of love.

Anyway, Pollan’s book makes me reflect on how religious ritual and material expressions (e.g, in church architecture) exist both to replicate the foundational encounter with the Divine, but also to create environments in which it becomes more likely that ordinary people will experience at least a glimmer of those numinous events. For me, my encounter with the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, while not precisely mystical, provoked an awareness of the transcendent realm immanent in those stones and stained glass.

Pollan concludes that the psychedelic experiences compels us to question our notion of reality:

The model suggests that our perceptions of the world offer us not a literal transcription of reality but rather a seamless illusion woven from both the data of our senses and the models in our memories. Normal waking consciousness feels perfectly transparent, and yet it is less a window on reality than the product of our imaginations — a kind of controlled hallucination.

Huston Smith on this point: “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.” Integration is essential to making sense of the experience, whether in or out of the medical context. Or else it remains just a drug experience.

Which is why so many people who dropped acid or did mushrooms at Grateful Dead concerts did not become spiritual. Which is why other people run smack dab into the paranormal, and don’t allow it to change their lives. My own father was at the center of a poltergeist situation after his father died, and accepted it as real … but it changed nothing in his life, even though the clear lesson of it was about the power of forgiveness.

What if what we consider to be normality is, in fact, simply a “take” on experience? Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal has written about how “dogmatic materialism” has caused science and scholars to wrongly dismiss experiences and phenomena that don’t fit into their materialist boxes. Readers from a long time back will recall my writing about linguist Daniel Everett’s experiences with the Piraha tribe of the Amazon, and how the tribespeople claimed to be seeing a spiritual entity that neither Everett nor his daughter could see. From that post:

Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahas were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagai, was still there.

His young daughter came out to have a look, and like her father, saw nothing. Everett continues:

What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.

As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.

Everett is an atheist and a scientist, but he cannot deny the power of what happened to him that day by the river. It indicates that our ability to see what is actually there depends on our subjectivity. Either the Piraha were hallucinating, or Everett and his daughter were. Either there was a jungle god (or demon) present, or there wasn’t. Some of them were seeing something that wasn’t really there (was a projection of their minds), or the Everetts were blind to something that was truly present. The fact that Daniel Everett doesn’t actually believe in the existence of jungle gods, but cannot bring himself to dismiss the Pirahas here, is hugely significant, and speaks to the WEIRD phenomenon we’ve talked about in his space before. That is, what we in the secular, rationalist West call “normal” and “objective reality” is far more subjective than we think.

I like this passage from Pollan:

Even in the case of the minerals, modern physics (forget psychedelics!) gives us reason to wonder if perhaps some form of consciousness might not figure in the construction of reality. Quantum mechanics holds that matter may not be as innocent of mind as the materialist would have us believe. For example, a subatomic particle can exist simultaneously in multiple locations, is pure possibility, until it is measured — that is, perceived by a mind. Only then and not a moment sooner does it drop into reality as we know it: acquire fixed coordinates in time and space. The implication here is that matter might not exists as such in the absence of a perceiving subject. Needless to say, this raises tricky questions for a materialist understanding of consciousness. The ground underfoot may be much less solid than we think.

So, I promised to discuss “a Christian approach to psychedelics”. What would that look like? Here are some suggestions and thoughts:

  • We should not dismiss psychedelics out of hand — not for the sake of treating those suffering from mental disorders or terminal illness, but also for those interested in studying consciousness.
  • It is compatible with the metaphysics of premodern Christian tradition — especially Eastern Christianity — to believe that God is everywhere present, and in some sense (not just symbolic) fills all things. Orthodox Christianity (and Catholicism?) posits that this is a theological and metaphysical truth. It has been confirmed by Christian mystics. Psychedelic drugs may reveal this truth in a different way.
  • Pollan is correct to say that a purely neurochemical explanation for these states doesn’t negate their spiritual meaning. Certainly not for Christians in the sacramental tradition, who take for granted that God can and does communicate with His creation through matter.
  • On the other hand, Christians should approach these things with extreme caution. Opening yourself up to the numinous  is spiritually risky. Not every spiritual presence wishes us well, or tells the truth.
  • Pollan writes that people who bring Christian expectations to psychedelic experiences often have Christian experiences. Those who do not, do not. If psychedelic experiences are real, why wouldn’t God reveal Himself in Christian symbols to non-Christians having them?
  • Science finds no neurological difference between brains deep in meditation, and brains in the grips of a psychedelic experience. From the point of view of Christian mysticism, is there a difference? If so, what is it?
  • Huston Smith says (accurately, I think) that having a spiritual experience is not the same as having a spiritual life. If you don’t integrate the insights of your experience into daily life, it’s meaningless. Smith also says that psilocybin “undermines modernity’s secularism”. How might it do that? How can we be sure that people won’t simply drop acid, do mushrooms, or whatever, and then go back to ordinary life, as if nothing meaningful had happened? Perhaps psilocybin use can undermine confidence in materialism as an explanation for reality, but I don’t see how it could effect mass transformation, and the re-enchantment of the world. Though I’d certainly like to hear Christians discuss it.
  • Can psychedelic data be accounted for within a Protestant worldview? Do psychedelics undermine Protestantism in a particular way? If a Protestant pastor took psilocybin in a controlled experiment, he would have many of the same experiences as everybody else who takes them, because they work on the brain the same way. How would he explain them? Maybe some of you readers are Protestants who have done psychedelics as believers, or before you were believers. How do you regard that experience?
  • Do Catholics, Orthodox, and other sacramental Christians whose Christianity comes from the pre-modern (that is, pre-Reformation) era, have a particular vantage point from which to evaluate the psychedelic experience? If so, what is it?

These are my first reactions to Pollan’s book. I’m going to give it a lot more thought, as preparation for writing my next book, which is going to be about the re-enchantment of the world (though I do not foresee advocating the use of psychedelics to that end, my priest will be happy to hear). I believe that Christianity is true — not just true for me, but true for everybody. I have long pondered how to be faithful to that conviction while honoring the mystical insights of those outside the Christian religion. I struggle to know how to fit into a Christian framework the experiences of people like my friend the nonbeliever who had an ayahuasca experience as she was dying of cancer. I mentioned it in this 2014 post:

My Dutch friend Miriam, who died of cancer late last year, told me last summer that she had recently visited a shaman who induced, as Miriam’s request, an experience with ayahuasca, the psychedelic plant used ritualistically in South America. It was a terrifying event for Miriam, but in the end, cleansing, and healing, she said. I won’t reveal what she told me she learned, but I can tell you that it left me sitting at her table weeping over its profundity — in particular, what she learned about the roots and the character of the intense suffering she had been going through for a decade. The ayahuasca experience did not save her from cancer, but it helped prepare her to die. I didn’t know what to make of it, personally. I had no doubt at all that her experience was real, and healing. But was it entirely contained within the subconscious depths of her mind — or did the chemicals in the plant unlock the doors of perception of a reality beyond her ordinary cognition? Miriam, who was New Agey, would not have seen the difference. And maybe there’s wisdom in that. For her, a woman facing death, it was all useful to bring her to a point of peace.

The question doesn’t resolve itself, however: did she hallucinate, or did she experience a dimension of reality closed off to most of us?

I wish I could tell you that Miriam’s experience under ayahuasca had been a Christian one. It wasn’t. It was about reconciliation with her late mother, and her worries about the teenage son she was going to leave behind when she died. But it was a healing one. And get this weird sign of the White Moth that happened to me and to us on my last visit to her.

In that 2014 post, I cite an experience by the worldly, even hedonistic, Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven, who had a powerful mystical experience among Dutch Pentecostals, but was so shaken up by it that he ran as far from the mystical as he could.

I’ve written about Pollan and psychedelics before, in a post titled “The Psychedelic Dante.” In it, I mentioned my college friend who changed after his experience with LSD. And I mention Dante:

As a freshman in college, B. was very depressed (though not diagnosed as such). His girlfriend had broken up with him, and he was drinking way too much to dull the pain. That spring semester, he would go down to the pub and drink himself silly. He was caught up in dark, sad music, and couldn’t seem to break out of the fog.

Then a mutual friend of ours asked him to try LSD one weekend. B. was not a drug user, but at that time, he was in such a state that he was willing to do anything to think about something other than his own misery. It turned out to have been one of the most profound experiences of his life.

B. told his friends later that he had felt a sense of oneness of all things, the presence of God filling the universe, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life. His depressed self, he said, had been turned relentlessly inward, and he was blind to the reality around him: that God exists, that He is love, that He is calling us all to unity with Him. He wasn’t a religious believer at the time, or at least not much of one, and he didn’t have a specifically Christian experience. He says that when the drug wore off, he had been — the phrasing here is mine — given a glimpse behind the veil, and seen things as they truly are. That was the end of his depression. He ended up becoming a Christian, and still is, thirty years later.

As B. saw it through the psychedelic experience, he had a choice: to turn outward, see the beauty of the world and God’s presence in it, because that was the truth; or stay mired in solipsistic, drunken, morose brooding. The fact that this choice occurred while under the influence of a drug did not make him — nor does it make me — doubt the truths revealed. It was as if B. had badly defective vision, but had been given a magic pair of eyeglasses that showed him what the world really looked like with corrected vision.

I absolutely do not want to give the impression that I am in any way endorsing recreational use of psychedelics. I knew others in college who used these drugs and did not appear to gain any sort of life-changing insights from them. They just had fun. I knew a couple of people who ruined their minds with them.

I also believe that psychedelics can be spiritually dangerous, because if they open you up to a different level of spiritual reality on the good side, they also open you up to the dark side. It seems to me risky to have a spiritual experience so profound that is unearned, that you haven’t prepared for, as a mystic would have prepared through years of prayer. A man who makes his millions slowly, through hard work, regards his fortune differently than a man who made his millions by winning the lottery. I could be wrong about this.

That said, I can’t deny the change I saw in B., and for that reason am excited to see medical science once again researching therapeutic uses for this category of drug. I believe that for many people, it can give them profound relief. If these drugs eventually become approved for use in controlled therapeutic sessions, good.

So what’s the Dante connection? Reading the Pollan article and thinking about my friend’s transformative experience thirty years ago with psychedelics, I kept thinking about Dante’s Paradiso, and how the poet’s imaginative description of heaven — as a realm of light, love, and harmony — is what B. says he sensed during his experience. The glimpse that the pilgrim Dante has of heaven in the poem changes his life, and causes him to return to the world moving in harmony with the God Who is love. Many people who have had life-after-death experiences come back changed in a similar way. This is a fair approximation of what happened to B., though again, it wasn’t specifically Christian.

The question remains: have B. and others experienced things as they truly are, or merely an illusion conjured by the brain? Does it matter? If these depressed people and others are having these life-changing positive experiences under the influence of psychedelics, should it matter if they are real, or a hallucination?

Your thoughts? Please be serious. I’m not asking you to agree with any of this, but I am asking you to take it seriously, even if you dismiss it. I want to have a real conversation about this, not just deflect wisecracks and potshots.

Read more from The American Conservative…

The Sad Decline of Barnes & Noble

Reports of Barnes & Noble’s imminent demise have long been foretold—and not necessarily exaggerated. The bookstore has been on a downward slide for years. In 2013, its CEO resigned amid the company’s Nook expansion failure. At the time, Idea Logical’s Mike Shatzkin alleged that Barnes & Noble would not recover; it could only hope to “make the slide into oblivion more gradual.”

Five years later, Barnes & Noble is still around. It’s now outlived Borders to become the last national bookstore competing with Amazon in the retail space. But survival does not necessarily mean flourishing: at the beginning of the month, the company’s stock plunged nearly 8 percent. According to the Guardian, the bookstore has lost $1 billion in value over the past five years.

“It’s depressing to imagine that more than 600 Barnes & Noble stores might simply disappear,” New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote a couple weeks ago. “But the death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible.”

Visits to Barnes & Noble were one of my favorite occasions as a child. Back then, there was something nostalgic yet stately about the bookstore. It seemed like a gem of grace and sophistication, a place not just to browse but to learn. I remember distinctive elements that still set the store apart in my mind: the hunter-green wallpaper, the woodcut and art deco feel of its literary decorations, the old-fashioned chairs and quiet corners suggesting a respect and reverence for the old and the classic. The store evoked the same “feel” I got when I handled an old antique hardback. Back then, the bookstore’s coffee shop had a few tidy tables where patrons could sit, but there was no wifi. I would grab a stack of five or six books and read the first chapter of each one before deciding which I wanted to buy.

Then there was Barnes & Noble’s children’s section, with its old-fashioned Winnie the Pooh prints and large, open stage for readings and play. The children’s book section felt like a fantastical wonderland: a place of discovery, serendipity, and beauty. Even when I got too “old” for it, this was always the part I gravitated to.

Of course, it’s important for a store to update and improve its style and form. I’m not saying Barnes & Noble should have stayed in the 90s and refused to renovate. The real problem is that they never seemed to prize their own distinctive beauty, and always sought to make themselves more like technology stores rather than emulating the success of their smaller, indie-bookstore counterparts.

Do you remember the Nook? The company is still selling them, though it has been ages since I’ve seen one in-store (and even longer since I’ve met somebody who owns one). Barnes & Noble jumped on the e-reader bandwagon in 2009, hoping to compete with the Kindle and the iPad. But while Amazon and Apple were obviously and entirely digital companies, and their e-readers fit their image and model, Barnes & Noble’s Nook pursuit always felt a bit dissonant and off-color. In many ways, the Nook was the beginning of the store’s end—because it signaled that the company would always try to play “catch up” with the newest fad or trend rather than focus on its own secret sauce: physical books.

Compared to the old Barnes & Noble of my childhood, the new bookstore that just opened in Ashburn, Virginia is almost unrecognizable. It is large and minimalist, bare of decoration or color. There are only a few chairs scattered throughout, and little room to sit and read in the children’s section.

Instead, this new Barnes & Noble is half bookstore, half café: it features a souped-up Starbucks, bar, and a kitchen offering items like charcuterie and avocado toast. The theory here appears to be that, if you’re going to sit and read a book or magazine without buying it, they’re at least going to make you pay a hefty sum for wine or a croissant. But as Eater notes, “entering the restaurant business, with its notoriously low profit margins and high rate of failure, is an unlikely Hail Mary for the nation’s largest bookstore chain.” Many of the people I have seen parked at tables inside this Barnes & Noble don’t have books or magazines with them; instead, they’re plugged into computers and headphones, teleworking or doing conference calls.

Although this Barnes & Noble still hosts readings and book signings according to its website, there’s no obvious advertising for them in the store—and it’s difficult to determine where they are, considering the significant lack of sitting space. The children’s section boasts one table laden with Legos, with a few cushions surrounding it. There are no armchairs to sit and read a book with my toddler. Instead, we had to crouch on the ground next to a shelf of Dr. Seuss books in order to read together.

Perhaps it’s this—the table full of Legos but absence of chairs for reading—that best marks Barnes & Noble’s drastic transformation. For a long time now, the bookstore has seemed to emphasize everything but books: its puzzles and DVDs and records, gadgets and greeting cards and plush Harry Potter sorting hats. As one analyst told the Guardian, “The stores just look like an enormous Aladdin’s cave of all sorts of random products, including departments selling CDs and DVDs that are never crowded.”

It is sad that Barnes & Noble believes it must add all these other perks to get people to frequent their stores. It seems that, for a long time now, they’ve ceased believing in the power of their own product. Perhaps this is what really drives customers away: why go to a store that doesn’t really seem to love or understand its own telos?

It makes sense that, in this absence of love or mission, customers would increasingly turn to the indie bookstores Barnes & Noble was once driving out of business. These smaller stores still get it: although they’ve also had to be inventive in order to survive, they’ve stayed true to their mission and their product. As Guardian reporter Edward Helmore put it, “innovation is where Barnes & Noble went wrong. Other big booksellers have tackled Amazon’s onslaught by doing precisely the opposite—going back to basics and putting the books first.”

If Barnes & Noble were still a place to pause, to savor, and to experientially luxuriate in the codex itself, I don’t think it would be struggling as much as it is. If the store had put greater emphasis on book clubs and special memberships, story hours and author signings (as many indie bookstores have), it would have given readers a space that celebrates the book, its creation and its consideration, as well as the membership of bookworms. If the store had put more emphasis on hiring and training book lovers who were passionate about their product, it might have wooed the suspicious and the hesitant to buy more books. If it had invested less money in gadgetry and more in its volumes, as well as in the style and form of its shopping and reading space, it could have successfully differentiated itself from Amazon and emphasized the things that set it apart: physical interactions with physical books (and physical people, for that matter).

But as it is, everything that Barnes & Noble does today is done as well or better by someone else. You could go to its café and get a Starbucks coffee and croissant—or you could go to the nearest indie coffee shop and get higher-quality versions of the same things. Nearly every café and coffee shop offers free wifi and space to work these days. And indie bookstores usually offer both new and old books at the same (or better) prices, while providing their customers with a greater sense of passion and reverence.

Barnes & Noble has long been a place of learning and love. But in its determination to innovate, it has forgotten its telos. Which means that it won’t survive much longer unless it can rediscover what made it special in the first place.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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The Truth About the ‘Muslim Prayer Rugs’ at Fox News’s D.C. HQ

Over the weekend, reports began circulating in the media that Fox News’s D.C. headquarters had turned long time employee Oliver North’s former office into a “meditation room” complete with “Muslim prayer rugs.” North left FNC and vacated his office when he took the top job with the National Rifle Association two weeks ago.

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Lloyd’s of London Latest Insurer To Abandon NRA

There are people who think the NRA is out of line for their lawsuit against the state of New York. After all, those people argue, Governor Andrew Cuomo has a right to say whatever he wants, just like the rest of us.

To be sure, the freedom of speech is a sacred right, one equally as important as the right to keep and bear arms. I won’t support anyone trying to quell someone else’s freedom of speech.

However, that’s not what happened in New York. There, a powerful political figure with regulatory oversight of an industry directed that industry to make life difficult for a group of ideological opponents. What’s more, it’s working.

Not just has Lockton backed out of the NRA Carry Guard program, but now, so has Lloyd’s of London.

The Lloyd’s Corporation has given very careful consideration as to whether syndicates at Lloyd’s should continue to insure programmes offered, marketed, endorsed or otherwise made available through the National Rifle Association of America (NRA).

This is now subject to an inquiry by the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS). Therefore Lloyd’s Corporation has decided to direct underwriters in the market to terminate any existing programmes of this type and not to enter into any new ones.

Make no mistake, this is all part of an assault by the state of New York to undermine the mission of the National Rifle Association. Carry Guard isn’t the only self-defense insurance plan out there, but it’s the one under assault. Why? Because it’s part of the NRA and, in Cuomo’s mind, the NRA are the bad guys.

Unfortunately, Cuomo is overstepping his bounds. While courts based in New York will probably allow this crap to continue, the NRA is smart enough and has deep enough pockets to challenge this all the way to the Supreme Court. While the Court seems to be reluctant to get involved in gun cases lately, that’s not what this is.

This is about government overreach.

Lloyd’s of London has a reputation for insuring pretty much anything. Seriously, look at this list and tell me what you think they won’t insure. I’ll wait.

Yet now the company has decided it won’t insure programs through the NRA. I have a hard time believing that this has anything to do with the company’s own decision making and is more of a result of pressure from the state of New York.

While Lloyd’s isn’t based in New York, most financial companies like them at least have a significant presence in the state. Because of this, Cuomo’s government has a rather disproportional influence on their business. What’s more, I think Lloyd’s wants people to know it.

After all, look at the second paragraph of its statement. If that doesn’t look like pressure from New York, I don’t know what does.

The state of New York has never been considered gun friendly. No one has labored under any illusions otherwise. Not for a long time now. However, I never thought I’d see this kind of underhanded nonsense taking place in broad daylight for all to see and be allowed to continue.

Hence, the lawsuit. May it be heard quickly.

The post Lloyd’s of London Latest Insurer To Abandon NRA appeared first on Bearing Arms.

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