Peter Hitchens vs. *First Things* on COVID-19 and free speech

Peter Hitchens is a conservative journalist and author who writes a blog at DailyMail.com. Last week he published a post titled, “Please Protest against the Censorship of First Things magazine.”

Here is a taste:

For some years I have written occasionally for a thoughtful American magazine called First Things. Last week, they asked me to censor what I had written. They said: ‘We are trying to be slightly less critical of the lockdown measures on the site these days (though criticism is of course warranted), so we’ve made a few changes to the final paragraphs.

‘The First Things board has concerns about some of the pieces we have published on Covid. They have asked us to be less dismissive of Covid-19.’

They then asked me to ‘revise’ what I had written (which I have now published unrevised on the Peter Hitchens blog). I said no, and have ceased to write for them. It is a sign of the deep damage this panic is doing to Western freedom that the censor’s stupid, heavy hand should reach even into such gentle places.

Here is a taste of the piece that did not make into First Things:

The events of the past few months, in which men have tried to hold back the spread of a sub-microscopic virus with plastic screens, five-foot gaps, loose cloth muzzles, mass curfews and the closure of the world’s economies, have reminded me of the walls built to hide the Trill Mill Stream, and of my smug laughter at the story when I first heard it. Can such measures really be the answer, even if they are proportionate to the problem? We seem to be back in the era of making moonbeams out of cucumbers. Worse, most of us seem never to have heard or understood the fable of King Canute, who ordered the tide to turn back, to show his flattering courtiers that the power of governments, especially over nature, has very severe limits.

Energetic testing seems to show that the virus has slipped past these modern defences with ease, though in most cases without troubling its carriers all that much. But what it has also shown is that the more you test , the more you find and that in most cases, the virus is not that dangerous to those who catch it. Yet this discovery has absolutely no effect on government policies or on media accounts of the problem, which continue as if this was an exact repeat of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

Many, in fact never even have any symptoms. Yet up go the plastic screens and on go the muzzles (a beloved library known to me, supposedly a quiet refuge for thought and research, has followed this trend, so making it almost unbearable to go there any more). Does the clue to our current state of wilful folly lie in Donne’s warning that learning without an understanding of the true nature of the universe is hubristic and will never get us very far, that ‘all knowledge that begins not, and ends not with His glory, is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance’?  

So what is going on here? First Things, especially its editor, R.R. Reno, has taken a lot of heat for questioning the COVID-19 lockdown. We blogged about Reno’s coronavirus columns here and here and here.

The names of the members of the First Things board can be found here.

The First Things e-mail to Hitchens suggests that there may be some tension between the board and the editorial staff. Meanwhile, Hitchens is upset because his piece downplaying COVID-19 will not get an airing at this conservative magazine.

I should also add that I learned about Hitchens’s blog post when court evangelical Eric Metaxas shared it on his Facebook page. Metaxas, who has been doing his radio show from a bunker in his house, also seems to think that COVID-19 is not a serious threat.

By the way, Hitchens and Metaxas did not seem to be entirely on the same page a few months ago when they were discussing topics such as COVID-19 and “taking a knee.” This is unusual for a Metaxas interview. He mostly interviews people who agree with him.

*First Things* Editor: The “measures we have taken in the last few weeks have been…pointless”

First Things 2019R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has used his magazine, which he claims is “America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” to call for the opening of churches and the economy.  He seems to have it all figured out. As he writes in his most recent piece “Coronavirus Reality Check,” COVID-19 is not a threat to society. He seems to suggest that public health officials and the media are lying to us. Here is a taste:

On March 16, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London predicted a coronavirus death toll of more than two million in the United States alone. He arrived at this number by assuming that infection would be nearly universal and the fatality rate would be high—a terrifying prospect. The next day, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis sifted through the data and predicted less widespread infection and a fatality rate of between 0.05 and 1.0 percent—not that different from the common flu. The coronavirus is not the common flu. It has different characteristics, afflicting the old more than the young, men more than women. Nevertheless, all data trends since mid-March show that Ferguson was fantastically wrong and Ioannidis was largely right about its mortal threat.

But Ferguson’s narrative has triumphed, helped by our incontinent and irresponsible media. A young doctor in Wuhan died—COVID-19 must be dangerous and deadly for everybody. Hospitals in Italy are overwhelmed—we are witnessing a pandemic of epic proportions. China succeeded with draconian methods of mass quarantine—these must be our only hope of protection against the coming disaster.

By the end of March, most of the United States had been locked down. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs. More than $6 trillion has been spent to save society from complete collapse. Relentless warnings have whipped the populace into frenzies of fear. All of this to contain a disease that, as far as we can tell at this point, is not significantly more fatal than the flu. Moreover, given how rapidly the coronavirus spreads, it seems likely that the radical and untested method of lockdown does little to control it.

In other words, the science increasingly shows that the measures we have taken in the last few weeks have been both harmful—with freedoms lost, money spent, livelihoods destroyed—and pointless.

Read the entire piece here.

I don’t know Reno’s career trajectory well enough to say that he is an authority on ethics and public health, but many of the scientists are saying that COVID-19 will come back with greater force in the Fall. I hope and pray this does not happen. But if it does, Reno is going to have some explaining to do.

The “bitter and angry remnant” at *First Things* Magazine

First Things 2019

I stopped subscribing to First Things magazine several years ago. I still check the website every now and then, but I am never surprised by what I find there. The magazine is no longer the intellectual feast that it was in the Father Neuhaus era.

Perhaps this is why Jason Vickers‘s recent piece at Providence, a conservative Christian magazine devoted to foreign affairs, resonated with me. Here is a taste:

I first encountered FT when I went to work for William J. “Billy” Abraham in the late 1990s. As the assistant to the Outler Chair in theology at Southern Methodist University, one of my daily jobs was to retrieve Billy’s mail. Once a month, I found myself reading the latest issue of FT on my way back from the mailroom. Often, I would read it cover to cover before handing it over. Here was a journal that modeled the intellectual virtues that Billy so frequently talked about: fairness in argument, careful consideration of evidence, avoiding logical fallacies, patience in exercising judgment, open-mindedness, humility, and empathy.

The content being published under the banner of FT today exhibits almost none of these qualities. Gone are the ecumenical tone and irenic spirit. Gone, too, is the commitment to intellectual virtue. In place of the things for which Father Neuhaus and FTwere once standard bearers, one now finds essays clearly calculated to polarize and offend (if they are not so calculated, then their authors are unrivaled in their lack of self-awareness). FT now exhibits open hostility toward other Christians and the wider population. It is no longer winsome and inviting. It is no longer evangelical. Rather, the mindset of many of its authors, most notably its senior editor, R.R. Reno, strikes me as that of an angry and bitter remnant. They write as though they are the last Christians in America.

Consider the views that Reno and others have expressed in the pages of FTover the last couple of weeks. In a series of essays that are intellectually vicious in their criticism of the response to the global pandemic (especially the response of Christians), the authors divide the world into two groups of people. On the one hand are those who worship God, care deeply about virtue, and know that death doesn’t have the final say. Such people are the true Christians, and they are a picture of calm during the present so-called “crisis.” Because of the steadfastness of their convictions, they don’t lose their wits. They are faithful. They don’t overreact. (It is surely no accident that Reno’s daily “Coronavirus Diary” amounts to a self-portrait in knowing calmness—he walks his dog, stops by an empty cathedral to pray, goes to his office, and returns home.)

On the other hand, the rest of us are hunkered down in our homes, terrified of death and dying because we are materialists who no longer believe in God or in life after death. We would do anything to prolong mere “physical life,” because that is all we have left. We are materialists, atheists, idolaters, or worst of all, dishonest Christians (“Christian leaders,” says Reno, “secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age”). We are even told that we don’t “petition God” anymore, choosing instead to place all our hope in science and technology. Nor do we care whether the scientists to whom we turn for hope are themselves virtuous people. We’re too lathered up in a panic to be worried about such high and lofty things. The same goes for our blind and irrational trust in the government. Unlike true Christians, we are so afraid of death and dying that we can’t even bring ourselves to speak death’s name. We prefer to speak of “saving lives” rather than “delaying death.”

The intellectual viciousness of these and other essays is truly stunning.

Read the entire piece here.

Editor of *First Things* Magazine: “There are many things more precious than life”

Corona Healthcare

An editor of a magazine or journal sets it ideological course. R.R. Reno, a conservative Catholic, is the editor of First Things. Since it was founded by Richard John Neuhaus in 1990, First Things has been a beacon of the pro-life movement.  So forgive me for being surprised at Reno’s latest article: “Say “No” To Death’s Dominion.”

Here is a taste:

At the press conference on Friday announcing the New York shutdown, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York—I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” 

This statement reflects a disastrous sentimentalism. Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents. Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn. The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of “saving lives.”

I had to read this passage several times (in fact I read the entire piece several times) to make sure I gave Reno’s argument a fair hearing. In the end, I honestly can’t come up with any scenario in which justice, beauty or honor is more important than physical life. In fact, I think this is a false binary. How do you separate justice from the dignity of life–all life? There is beauty in the nature world, but human beings–even those who are sick and elderly and quarantined–create beauty.  It would seem that the practice of respecting the dignity of another person is the highest form of honor.  Do we honor our father and mother by exposing them to an illness that can kill them?

I am not a moral philosopher or a theologian, but everything about this passage strikes me as wrong. I don’t always agree with Reno, but I have always taken him seriously as an Christian thinker. What am I missing? Reno implies that we should visit our sick parents and possibly expose them to coronavirus because showing them love is somehow more important than their lives. He wants us to live-out our Christian vocation in a reckless fashion.

I do, however, resonate with some of Reno’s piece. How long do we leave the elderly in a state of isolation? My 78-year-old parents have been on lock down now for about two weeks. How long do we keep churches closed? These are good questions and it seems like science might be able to help. I am glad to hear scientists and healthcare experts are working on this. I think we need to know more about this disease and its effects before we start pontificating.

And this:

Put simply: Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage. We must never do evil that good might come. On this point St. Paul is clear. But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.

There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost. Satan rules a kingdom in which the ultimate power of death is announced morning, noon, and night. But Satan cannot rule directly. God alone has the power of life and death, and thus Satan can only rule indirectly. He must rely on our fear of death.

I am struck by the binary thinking here. Reno says that if churches are closed and people cannot visit their neighbors and engage in face-to-face contact, at least for the time being, then Satan must be at work. When Reno talks about “triage” it sounds a lot like what armies call “collateral damage.” In other words, we need to bomb the hell out of a country because a just war theorist thinks it is the morally correct thing to do, even if it means innocent people will lose their lives. If they die, they die. That’s the price of doing God’s will.

Reno is correct when he says that we live in a society in which we always make indirect decisions about who lives and who dies. But we should never sit back and passively accept the existence of such a society.  Isn’t part of our calling as Christians to try to work toward changing such a world? The Christian faith is paradoxical in this regard. We believe the world is broken. We also believe we must engage in acts of justice as a means of working toward wholeness (shalom). Both are true. But I am afraid in this case Reno leans too heavily on the side of tragedy. As Eric Miller recently wrote, “which of your fellow parishioners, Mr. Reno, are you willing to expose to the virus? Could you tell us their names? Will you be sure to let their families know?” There is something disgusting about using the term “triage” to talk about death in our current moment.

And this:

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.

Or maybe this generation was just foolish. Reno is engaging in the worst form of nostalgia here. He has turned our ancestors into heroic Christians who stared influenza in the face, endured its “punishing blows,” and did not give death its due. The result of this heroism was 675,000 dead Americans.  Read the historians! I have been posting about the 1918 influenza for a couple of weeks now. There is a reason why, until recently, no one talked about this tragic moment in American history.

We have been self-quarantined now for two weeks. Perhaps the message for the church is patience, not a rush to judgment that leads us to make questionable claims about the dignity of human life.

“Which of your fellow parishioners, Mr. Reno, are you willing to expose to the virus?”

church-1515456_960_720

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, recently wrote a piece titled “Keep the Churches Open.” Here is the first sentence: “Cancelling church services is the wrong response to the coronavirus pandemic.” Read it here.

Historian and cultural critic Eric Miller recently e-mailed me with this response to Reno’s piece: “Which of your fellow parishioners, Mr. Reno, are you willing to expose to the virus?  Could you tell us their names?  Will you be sure to let their families know? “

Fans of the poet Wendell Berry will recognize Miller’s words:

Questionnaire

By Wendell Berry

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Eric also recently called my attention to John Ganz‘s recent piece at The New Republic:

Again and again conservative intellectuals have fastened themselves like barnacles onto demagogic movements such as the ones led by McCarthy and Trump; if they don’t they risk cutting themselves off from mass politics entirely. That specter always means doom for right-wing intellectuals, wince it effectively dispels what small amount of influence they can have, as well as their subscribers, viewers, and donors.  

Law professor John Inazu, author of Confident Pluralism: Suriving and Thriving Through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016), has also criticized Reno’s piece:

Please stay home this Sunday. The churches are working overtime to help you stay connected to God and each other in these troubled times.

Alan Jacobs to Evangelicals: If Character No Longer Counts, Then What Does Count?

Trump fans

In an essay in the Spring 2017 issue of National Affairs, Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs wonders why so many evangelicals no longer value character in their presidential candidates.  He writes:

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 presidential campaign was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians, including many Catholics and most evangelicals, of a position that they had once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. It is not difficult to understand how this happened, though people who share many fundamental religious convictions will be debating for a long time the wisdom of replacing the familiar standards for evaluating political candidates.

All this has received a good deal of attention in the press. But one very important element of this change of emphasis has been neglected: If character no longer counts, or at least is no longer definitive, then what does count? What criteria should determine a Christian’s attitude toward a political candidate? There is no uniform answer to this question, but the most common answer given by Christian leaders supporting Donald Trump is a troubling one. It replaces the public assessment of virtue with the private judgments of pastors. And it has consequences not only for Christianity in America, but also, thanks to the sheer number of Christians in America, for the whole social order and political culture of our country.

The piece critiques the pro-Trump arguments of William Bennett, R.R. Reno, Mark Bauerlein, Jerry Falwell Jr., David Barton, and others.

Read it here.