Even More on Christian Intellectuals

John Schmalzbauer made some arresting observations about the demise of Books & Culture (that add to Alan Jacobs’ own wondering out loud about Christian intellectuals):

From the Dial and the Partisan Review to Commentary and Dissent (dubbed Dysentery in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), small-circulation periodicals have played a key role in many intellectual movements. The same goes for religious intellectual life, where journals like Commonweal and Christianity and Crisis have cultivated both theological literacy and civic engagement.

Inspired by dreams of a better world, little magazines originate in a frustration with the way things are. While Commonweal offered a Catholic alternative to the New Republic and the Nation, Christianity and Crisis began as a response to the rise of European fascism. According to Dissent founder Irving Howe, “When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine.”

Like many little magazines, Books & Culture was a response to a problem. As Wilson remarked in a recent podcast, “It was not accidental that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind came out in ’94 and the first issue of B&C in ’95.” Lamenting the persistence of anti-intellectualism within American evangelicalism, Scandal was an “epistle from a wounded lover,” articulating Mark Noll’s “hope that we American evangelicals might yet worship God with our minds.”

In so many ways, Books & Culture was the concrete expression of this ideal. Printed on tabloid-sized paper and illustrated with literary caricatures, it was modeled on the New York Review of Books. Overseen by Wilson and Noll, the magazine soon won the respect of readers from outside the evangelical subculture, including Peter Steinfels of the New York Times. In an Atlantic cover story on the “opening of the evangelical mind,” sociologist Alan Wolfe praised Books & Culture for nurturing a “humanistic tradition of writing about poetry and fiction for the informed lay reader.” Joining Commonweal and First Things on the website of Arts & Letters Daily, it is the only evangelical publication listed on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s virtual roster of magazines and book reviews.

Schmalzbauer adds that finances were a big part of B&C’s problems:

Three years ago, Books & Culture survived a near-death experience by raising over $250,000 in pledges. As in the past, much of this support came from evangelical colleges and universities. Despite this reprieve, the magazine was never able to break even, requiring a hefty annual subsidy from its parent company, Christianity Today.

Such financial problems are not unique to evangelical periodicals. Over its long history, Commonweal has weathered several difficult episodes. Today its board includes a director with McKinsey & Company and a former partner with the white shoe firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore. Out of an annual budget of $1.7 million, the magazine raises about $400,000 from Commonweal Associates. In a similar way, the Christian Century has relied on advertising revenue and private donations, establishing the Martin E. Marty Legacy Circle in 2013.

What Schmalzbauer fails to factor into his analysis is that for all of B&C’s intellectual orientation, its parent company was one where the likes of non-intellectual evangelicals flourished (from Ann Voskamp to Billy Graham). Other small intellectual magazines did not have that burden. Commentary magazine did not have to worry about offending populist Jews. Partisan Review did not have to play footsie with leftists who read Marxist self-help bestsellers. That means that the gate keeping role that high brow magazines need to perform was always a bit of a liability for Books & Culture. The magazine wanted to call evangelicals to the life of the mind, to repent of the scandal, even as the parent company, Christianity Today Inc., needed to refrain from offending the scandal ridden evangelicals.

Another reason why the magazine/journal frustrated mmmmeeeeEEEE.

They Can’t Help Themselves

No, I refer not to evangelicals who are going to praise and worship in worship or to Neo-Calvinists who are going to turn every square inch into an outpouring of grace. Instead, I have in mind the media elites who cannot quite get over how smart they are and who continue to notice that Donald Trump did not graduate from the Kennedy School of Government (nor did his supporters graduate from Harvaleton — HarvardYalePrinceton). The issue of that New Republic bemoaned the election’s results began by retreading a column that former editor, Franklin Foer, had written about the George W. Bush administration. (The Franklin Foer, by the way, who left the magazine when he thought it had lost its way.) Here is how the current editors introduced Foer’s 2001 editorial:

FOLLOWING BARACK OBAMA’S election in 2008, a diverse cadre of intellectuals flocked to Washington to serve in the new administration. Eight years later, those same liberal elites are reeling from the election of Donald Trump. He campaigned in direct opposition to the smarty-pants Ivy Leaguers who trod the halls of the White House during the Obama years.

This is part of what Foer himself in 2001 wrote:

Eight years ago, the Clinton administration ushered in what seemed like a social revolution. The Clintonites didn’t just bring an ideology to Washington; they brought a caste. Gone were Poppy’s crusty boardingschool WASPs. In their place was a new kind of elite: multicultural, aggressively brainy, confident they owed their success not to birth or blood but to talent alone. “Perhaps more than any in our history,” wrote The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, “Clinton’s is a government of smart people.” Or at least credentialed people. The White House staff alone boasted six Rhodes scholars. One-third of Clinton’s 518 earliest appointments had attended Harvard or Yale—or both. The president called his staff “the top ranks of a new generation.”

The Clintonites set out to solve America’s problems by thinking smarter thoughts than anyone before them. Almost immediately, the project went awry. They produced a health care plan that was thoroughly rational; it was also mind-numbingly complex, hopelessly bureaucratic, and the product of an undemocratic process. And it almost ruined Clinton’s first term. . . .

Not surprisingly, then, Bush has crafted an administration largely devoid of intellectuals. His staff contains no Rhodes scholars. Of his 14 Cabinet members, only two went to Ivy League colleges, and only one holds a Ph.D., Secretary of Education Rod Paige— and his doctorate is in physical education. The Protestant establishment that shaped W’s father is dead—there is not a single powerful American institution that remains exclusively in WASP hands.

Almost all the wonks who traveled to Austin to instruct Bush in policy have either been ignored in the transition or handed second-tier positions. As Newsweek reported, frustrated onservatives have created an acronym for the administration: NINA, for “No Intellectuals Need Apply.”

Well, aren’t you smart. But if you were really smart and had studied political theory just a smidgeon you might be aware that philosopher kings are not so great an idea, and that democracies don’t always select the smartest governors. A smart person might concede that running things combines a lot of different skill sets, not to mention dependence on providence (or good fortune for the less spiritual).

Heck, only a couple months before the election, New Republic ran a review of a book that argued in effect that only the educated should vote or run for office:

For Jason Brennan, a professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown, the answer lies in sorting Americans by their level of education. His book, Against Democracy, argues for the establishment of an epistocracy, or rule by the wise. Under his scheme, your race is irrelevant, as well as your gender, social class, ethnicity, or even party. If you are informed about politics, you get to vote. If you are not, too bad. “Epistocracy,” in his words, “means the rule of the knowledgeable. More precisely, a political regime is epistocratic to the extent that political power is formally distributed according to competence, skill, and the good faith to act.” . . .

Any suffrage-restricting regime will have to address the question of how we determine who gets to vote, and Brennan has an answer: Just as we test for who can drive, we ought to rely on exams to determine who can have the franchise. To this there is an obvious objection. Tests rarely conform perfectly to the quality they presume to measure. I can fail at geography but nonetheless have good political judgment, just as a political whiz kid who knows the names of every member of Congress could also lack social graces. Any scheme for limiting democracy contains biases. One of the advantages of extending suffrage as widely as possible is that you limit the biases to as few as necessary. . . .

Despite—or perhaps because of—his disdain for politics, Brennan is ignorant of how politics actually work. “In the United States,” he writes, “the Democratic Party has an incentive to make the exam easy, while the Republicans have an incentive to make the exam moderately hard, but not too hard.” He has clearly not been paying attention. In Donald Trump’s America, low-information voters cling to the Republicans, while Democrats are becoming the party of the informed. If you are a liberal, you might consider applauding a scheme to allow 02138 (Cambridge, Massachusetts) more power than 38944 (Leflore County, Mississippi). For Brennan, this is not a problem: His faith in an epistocracy is firm, and let the chips fall where they may, even if the wise turn out to be the most liberal. But it does seem problematic that a libertarian proposes a voting scheme that would give power to the least libertarian sections of the country. Follow Brennan’s advice, and the whole country will eventually become the People’s Republic of Cambridge—and that, I can tell you from personal experience, is no libertarian paradise. (Just try not sorting your garbage here.)

There’s a reason that absent-minded so often goes with professor.

It’s Fascist When You Exclude the Universities?

Michael Kinsley thinks Donald Trump qualifies technically as a fascist:

The game has several names: “Corporate statism” is one. In Europe, they call it “dirigisme.” Those two other words for it — “Nazism” and “fascism” — are now beyond all respectability. It means, roughly, combining the power of the state with the power of corporations. At its mildest, it is intrusive regulations on business about parental leave and such. At its most toxic, it is concentration camps. In the 1930s, a few Americans (including a few liberals) bought into it. Pearl Harbor ended that argument. Even for Trump, “fascism” itself now is a dirty word, not just a policy choice. Even Trump would not use it — least of all about himself.

Did Kinsley worry about combining the power of the state with the power and prestige (we’re the smartest people in the world) of universities? It’s not as if nothing could go wrong (beware the negatives):

Indeed, illiberal progressive elitism has only become more pervasive as the gap between the “educated and the ignorant” has widened.

With the rise of think tanks, research universities, and advocacy foundations and nonprofits—the vast, interlocking, insulated complex we’ve constructed to formulate, advocate, and execute public policy—we have only reinforced the barrier between the everyday voter and governance. In order to understand, much less engage in, today’s abstract, detached, and data-saturated discourse of public policy, participants require ever more specialized academic expertise. If a problem can’t be expressed in a statistical formula—with the obliteration of nuance, detail, and local variability this entails—then the problem simply doesn’t exist.

What we now call the “rise of the meritocracy” may have begun well over a century ago. But as it accelerates today, its costs are becoming more apparent. The meritocrats sort themselves out not only socially, but geographically as well, into coastal and university enclaves. There, in a contemporary bow to positive eugenics, they engage in assortative mating. Their children then follow the sheltered path from university day school to Princeton to a career in social entrepreneurship, convinced that they can “change the world,” as the slogan goes, without ever touching down in that vast swath of cultural desolation unhappily separating Nassau Hall from Palo Alto. The distance between the “educated and ignorant” grows ever larger, both literally and figuratively.

You could also call this “corporate statism” since the biggest and smartest universities in the U.S. are corporations whose assets tax collectors cannot touch.