Hasn't Yet Been Tried
No.134: November 18, 2022
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
It has been quite a week. On Tuesday I published a 6,000-word book review that got an enormous response by Square Inch standards. As expected, the author of that book and his tribe did not like it, but I did not write it in hopes that they would. They’ve been busy trying to come up with something to say, and from what I can see on Twitter they’ve landed on: “Mattson doesn’t understand Bavinck.” Or that I don’t understand what the author was actually saying.
I understand both perfectly well.
At any rate, as a result there are a lot of new faces around here. So welcome! Make yourself at home. If you are interested in weekly cultural commentary on a wide variety of topics, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for a steady stream of negative polemical content like that book review, you might have come to the wrong place. I rarely write purely polemical essays. In fact, I think I have written two in the last decade, and it only happens when a strong sense of duty demands it. When theologian David Bentley Hart wrote a heretical essay on the resurrection of the body, I couldn’t rest until he was answered. And after watching for weeks people cheering this new book on Christian Nationalism, I decided to read it for myself. And, well, I was again compelled by a strong sense of duty.
It is not just the theology that bothers me, bad as it is. (I didn’t have “Calvinists for the inherent goodness of man” on my 2022 bingo card, but here we are.) It is the insatiable thirst that people have for power, and this is becoming a defining feature of our political landscape. I expect it from the progressive Left, which has always been about constraining people to their vision of the good. Ronald Reagan wasn’t lying when he said that a liberal is someone who wants to reach around your shower curtain to adjust the temperature of the water. Now the far Right wants in on that action, too, to achieve a State large and powerful enough to direct all of society to some higher, “common good.”
It is this coziness to and lust for State power that we ought to find alarming. Conservatives often mock the socialists who constantly argue that “true socialism has yet to be tried.” But I daresay it is impossible to listen to the nationalist crowd without hearing the exact same note: true nationalism hasn’t yet been tried. The problem has been poor implementation of an all-encompassing State; the right people haven’t done it yet; Stephen Wolfe’s hoped-for “Great Man” has not yet arrived.
He is not going to arrive. I didn’t have “Milton Friedman understands Total Depravity better than the Calvinists” on my bingo card, either, but he was right in saying that there are no angels who are going to organize society for us.
It is quite staggering to me that so many conservatives and Christians can read a book that unapologetically treats individuals as mere cogs in a collective enterprise bending toward a singular “national will"—a will that then finds its full expression in a singular head tasked with ordering the entire social organism toward that end, and think to themselves, “Sounds legit! Sign me up!”
Do we not know how this story ends? Have we no experience with these kinds of social and political experiments? Oh, on the contrary. We have no excuses whatsoever. No amount of “this time it will be different!” will sway me.
Coincidentally, as it happens, just last night I sat down and watched a film I’d never seen before: Mr. Jones. Based on a true story (and the story that prompted George Orwell’s Animal Farm) it tells of a young Welsh one-time diplomat and freelance reporter named Gareth Jones, who prior to the outbreak of World War II travels to Moscow hoping to interview Josef Stalin. He wonders how Stalin is paying for his massive military buildup, given that the Russian ruble is worthless currency.
“Grain,” he is told by New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent (and despicable wretch) Walter Duranty. Grain from Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world. “That is Stalin’s gold,” he says. The Great Man has a five-year-plan that is making record harvests!
It turns out that journalists are not allowed to leave Moscow to see anything for themselves, so Mr. Jones surreptitiously finds a way to make it Ukraine. And, well, it is tough to watch. Like, really: if you don’t have a strong constitution, I don’t recommend watching this film. He arrives during the Holomodor, Stalin’s man-made famine and forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians. All these people, men, women, and children—just cogs in a collective wheel—sacrificed for the national “common good.”
This is not exactly ancient history, and the continued allure of totalitarian power mystifies me. That word, by the way, “totalitarian,” was not originally pejorative. Coined by the Italian fascists, it simply meant “holistic.” A totalitarian State is one that cares for the whole of the person and the whole society, in all its nooks and crannies. It ensures that everything is ordered and directed toward the greater national good. We know what this means in practice, alas. We have witnessed it over and over again. It made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history, and I, for one, am unimpressed by the effort to slap the label “Christian” on it.
One of the common rejoinders by the nationalists is, “Oh, yeah? Well, what’s your alternative?” The obvious reply is that you are living in it. All the hysterical posturing and framing of contemporary society as some kind of dystopian hell-hole is just posturing. It is almost meaningless rhetoric. Oh, sure a nation as broad and diverse as ours has a great many challenges and a great many divisions, and I write about them all the time. But we do have a system—devised and founded by men who understood the depravity of man and the corruptions of concentrated power—whereby no one faction gets a permanent upper hand, and there are exceedingly few permanent political victories. And in the “meantime,” people are free to pursue their interests and dreams, to settle in whatever communities they desire, to organize as they wish, to speak and preach and advocate and persuade others of what is good. And this keeps them from killing each other or building gulags. It is okay to be short of utopia.
As Jonah Goldberg wisely wrote recently: “That’s good enough.”
I am pleased to announce that my forthcoming essay collection, The Magnificent Pig: and Other Letters To My Friends is on the very cusp of release! Once all the publishing details and “version-linking” is complete on Amazon, I will send out a more formal press release. And I will be including a special offer for those who buy the hardcover version! So stay tuned.
Thanks so much for reading this week’s The Square Inch! Have a wonderful weekend.
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