Question: “In today’s dollars, each slave in 1860 cost about $17,000. Wouldn’t whipping decrease work output and decrease resale value?”
You misunderstand how the system of slave based production on cotton and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South worked.
The work load for each slave laborer per day was set by the slave owner based upon the maximum output that could be achieved by the best hands with the most experience under the best conditions. Each slave was given an output quota that was a percentage of that…a quota that was the maximum that that hand could achieve based upon their experience.
Those maximum production figures were well known, being published in Planters’ Journals , Southern Slave Owners’ Newspapers subscribed to by the slave-owning classes. These journals described and promoted methods designed to get the greatest possible productivity out of the enslaved labor while spending as little as possible on their care and feeding. For some time those journals promoted the idea of feeding the enslaved workers on cotton seed waste. Cotton seed waste cost nothing. But it had NO nutritive value and as a sole source of nutrition would cause a man to starve to death.
The primary mechanism for increasing productivity on the slave plantations of the Deep South was the systematic application of violence and torture.
ANY slave who for any reason failed to meet their essentially arbitrarily assigned quota was whipped. These whippings were extremely painful. They were ordinarily administered by a sadist using a heavy braided stock whip intended to be used on animals. The whipping always resulted in torn and bleeding skin and were accompanied by loud uncontrollable involuntary screaming that could be heard hundreds of yards away. The diaries of the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted who spent a year on Southern Plantations notes that one of his most vivid memories from those plantations was the screams of men and women being whipped. Those whippings often caused men used to brutal conditions to lose consciousness from the pain.
The whippings were a management technique. They were purposely administered sadistically and publicly. The other slaves, exhausted from their labors but still required to fetch their own water and gather their own cooking fuel and spend hours preparing their own food before sleeping and being woken before dawn, were required to watch them.
Systematic whippings were used to increase productivity. Once the hands were generally able to achieve the set quota, the quota for everyone would be increased. Those who could not achieve the new quota would be whipped.
The Southern Slave-Owning Classes were both sadists and perverts. There was an obvious sexual sadism involved in these whippings. Southern men, who bragged to each other in their letters and journals of the number of female slaves they had raped, would whip the females when they were staked to the ground on their backs naked with their legs spread and whipped across their bellies and thighs.
Southern brutality was so extreme that both male and female slaves died in agony while being whipped. But Southern law specifically allowed a slaver to kill his own slave. There were no penalties for doing so. The only restriction on killing a slave applied when the murderer was not the slave’s owner. In such a case the killer was NOT guilty of or tried for murder. Rather he was required to make a cash payment to the dead slave’s owner for depriving him of his property.
When all of the hands could achieve the new higher arbitrary production quotas, the Best Hands, who were the most experienced and therefore had the highest productivity, would themselves be whipped to encourage them to achieve a super-human output. Then the quota system would be adjusted upwards based upon the output of these Best Hands and the whippings would continue.
How effective was this system of obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture? We have three objective indicators that this systematic torture greatly increased the wealth of the Southern Slave-Owning Classes.
- Picking cotton is a skilled task that is difficult to learn, requires eye-hand coordination to do well and quickly, and under the best conditions will result in bloodied hands. Believe me, you can’t do it. Yet many Black slaves learned to quickly and simultaneously pick cotton on two rows using both their right and left hands ambidextrously. This takes an almost impossible level of concentration, skill, and dexterity. But it was done by tired nearly-starving beaten people working from before dawn to dusk in the hot southern sun. The slaves learned to do the impossible to avoid being whipped.
- Before the Civil War these Slave Labor Plantations increased their productivity 2% each year, for 17 consecutive years, without any increase in capital investment or any change in production methods. This continuous increase in productivity without investment over that long a period in time is, from the point of view of a capitalist-investor, astounding! This increase in productivity was achieved through the systematic use of torture and violence by Southern White Slave Owners.
- After the Civil War and the Emancipation of the Slaves Southern White Planters resorted to using Paid White Labor for planting and picking cotton. That Paid White Labor was not able to achieve even ONE THIRD the average productivity of Black Slave Labor during the pre-war years.
As for the argument that the Slave Owners might not want to diminish the resale value of their enslaved brutalized human property and would, therefore, refrain from whipping them: NO. there are two reasons why that was not true.
- The most productive slaves, those who worked on the First Gang, were strong-bodied healthy males aged between 16 and 27. After that because of the onerous nature of their work and poor diet and lack of medical care their productivity decreased markedly. It was, therefore, determined by the Southern Planter Class that the most economically rational course was to work a man to death. The average life expectancy of a healthy male, who by our standards would have the body and stamina of a pro athlete (!), on the First Gang of a cotton or sugar cane slave farm was at best 17 years.
- The slaves were NOT actually owned. On the slave plantations in the Deep South all of the slaves were mortgaged. Fractional shares of each slave were owned by investors. The Southern Slavers were extremely poor businessmen who routinely lived beyond their means and were perpetually in debt…for their unpaid-for land, for their mortgaged slaves, to the merchants, and to factors to whom they had sold their crop before it had been harvested.
Southern Slave Agriculture was unspeakably evil and incompetently managed. Its main feature was obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture.
I truly hate to show this picture. It sickens me. But THIS is how Southerners treated slaves.
The Militant South 1800–1861, John Hope Franklin
Without Consent or Contract-The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert William Fogel
Slave Nation, Alfred W. Blumrosen & Ruth G. Blumrosen
Spying on the South, Tony Horowitz
Confederate Reckoning, Stephanie McCurry
Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
Lynching in the New South, Brundage
Fush Times & Fever Dreams-A History of Capitalism and Slavery, Joshua Rothman
Slave-based production was very profitable…as long as one was willing to accept systematic violence and torture. Towards the end of the Civil War slavery was being used by the South in industry and mining as well as agriculture. Slaves had already been colateralized and fractionally sold as bonds which were traded on the international market. In the pre-Civil war decade enslaved Blacks were the single biggest capital investment in the United States and cotton produced by slave labor was by far America’s most valuable export product.
In the decade prior to the Civil War a Black male slave between the age of 16 and 27 used for violence-based slave cotton or sugar production gave the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) of ANY investment.
Because of that I can see, lacking the American Civil War and Government Forced Slave Emancipation, violence-based slave production having continued into and through the 20th century not only in agriculture but in heavy industry and mining.
There is a problem with the $17,000 figure cited in the question. No economist or historian would use that. It is a grossly misleading figure based upon a conversion of a different currency in a different age with a different pricing structure and different commodities and a completely different distribution of income and effectively no taxation. The only useful comparative figure would involve the number of hours of labor needed by a person of a given social class to obtain a needed commodity that had equal utility/desirability in 1855 and 2019.
The planter class in the Deep South was generally composed of the dissolute spoiled sons of planter/slavers on the Chesapeake. They were speculators who competed with each other for a valuable commodity, e.g. slaves, and had by the mid-1850s bid the price of a young male slave up to absurd levels.
They were able to do this because slaves were collateralized and, like American home buyers in the decade prior to 2008, borrowed money wildly thinking that the value of slaves would continue to rise forever and they could always refinance their debt. They only needed easily obtained credit, not cash, to buy slaves.
Nevertheless, the market determined a price for slaves that was always far less than the money that could be made by owning slaves, especially if you were base enough to barely feed them (slaves had to grow for themselves or hunt and then cook almost all of the vegetables and protein they consumed), clothe them in hand-me-down rags, and work them to death.
Without getting into arcane detail, we can at best say that by the 1850s the price of young males slaves in the Deep South had been bid up to high levels but that the market still thought that the price still had the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) available in the United States.
Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, three justices said it was time to hear from the first detainee subjected to brutal interrogation by the C.I.A.
WASHINGTON — Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Supreme Court on Wednesday found itself struggling to address two issues stemming from that period: torture and government secrecy. Before the justices were done for the day, the proceedings had taken a surprising turn.
The basic question for the justices was whether the government could invoke national security to block testimony by two C.I.A. contractors who were instrumental in the brutal interrogations of the detainee known as Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded more than 60 times and is being held without charge at Guantánamo Bay.
Abu Zubaydah sought to subpoena the contractors in connection with a Polish criminal investigation. The inquiry was prompted by a determination by the European Court of Human Rights that he had been tortured in 2002 and 2003 at secret sites operated by the C.I.A., including one in Poland.
The United States government invoked the state secrets doctrine to bar the contractors from testifying in an apparent effort to avoid formally admitting what is common knowledge: that Poland was host to one of the so-called black sites.
Three justices proposed a novel solution: Why not let Abu Zubaydah himself testify in connection with the Polish inquiry? By allowing him to describe what he had endured, the justices suggested, the court could sidestep the question of whether the government had to allow the C.I.A. contractors to appear.
“Why doesn’t he testify?” Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked Abu Zubaydah’s lawyer. “He was there. Why doesn’t he say this is what happened?”
The lawyer, David F. Klein, said that was not possible. “He has been held in Guantánamo incommunicado,” Mr. Klein said of his client.
In the argument’s final minutes, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch urged the government’s lawyer to allow Abu Zubaydah to testify.
“Why not make the witness available?” Justice Gorsuch asked Brian H. Fletcher, the acting United States solicitor general. “What is the government’s objection to the witness testifying to his own treatment?”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor pursued the point. “Are you going to let him testify as to what happened to him?” she asked.
Mr. Fletcher would not give a direct answer. “I’m not prepared to make representations for the United States, especially on matters of national security,” he said.
But he promised to give the court a more considered response, presumably in a letter, after consulting with other government officials.
Justice Gorsuch seemed exasperated by the government’s position.
“This case has been litigated for years and all the way up to the United States Supreme Court,” he said, “and you haven’t considered whether that’s an off-ramp that the government could provide that would obviate the need for any of this?”Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, participating in the argument remotely after testing positive for the coronavirus last week, asked the last question, and it was an even more fundamental one. It concerned the status of the 2001 law that approved going to war against those responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or A.U.M.F.
“Is the United States still engaged in hostilities for purposes of the A.U.M.F. against Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations?” he asked, seeking to get at whether the United States still has a basis for holding Abu Zubaydah.
Mr. Fletcher said yes. “That is the government’s position,” he said, “that notwithstanding withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, we continue to be engaged in hostilities with Al Qaeda and therefore that detention under law of war remains proper.”
Most of Wednesday’s argument was devoted to an exploration of whether the government could invoke the state secrets doctrine to bar the C.I.A. contractors, James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, from testifying about the torture of Abu Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn.
He was the first prisoner held by the C.I.A. after the Sept. 11 attacks to undergo so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which were based on a list of suggestions drawn up for use on him by Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, both psychologists. It is undisputed that Abu Zubaydah was tortured at one or more black sites, and the justices frequently used the word “torture” to describe what he had endured.
Mr. Fletcher said Abu Zubaydah’s treatment was not a secret but that its location was. “Our nation’s covert intelligence partnerships depend on our partners’ trust that we will keep those relationships confidential,” he said.
That trust would be broken, he said, by confirming or denying the existence of an alleged C.I.A. facility in Poland.
That gave rise to a semantic puzzle. Was it possible to allow testimony from the contractors about what had happened but not where?
Chief Justice John G. Roberts said it seemed that the contractors could talk about many things other than the location of the events.
Mr. Fletcher disagreed. “You can’t take the location out of this proceeding because the whole point of the proceeding is to get evidence for a Polish investigation,” he said.
Mr. Klein, a lawyer for Abu Zubaydah, said he did not seek testimony about Poland, as a prosecutor there already had the relevant information. Rather, Mr. Klein said, he sought to provide the prosecutor with information about his client’s treatment by asking the contractors a series of questions.
“What happened inside Abu Zubaydah’s cell between December 2002 and September 2003?” he asked, giving the dates during which his client was understood to be held in Poland.
- “How was Abu Zubaydah fed?
- What was his medical condition?
- What was his cell like?
- And, yes, was he tortured?”
Justice Elena Kagan sketched out what she suggested was a gap in Mr. Klein’s argument.
The government has “conceded that Abu Zubaydah was tortured, but, because of relations with allies with cooperating intelligence services, they won’t say where it happened,” she said. “And you’re here saying: I need to know when it happened, and to know when it happened, the government would essentially be saying where it happened too.”
Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and was initially thought be a high-level member of Al Qaeda. A 2014 report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said “the C.I.A. later concluded that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of Al Qaeda.”
“24” was the Bush administration’s favorite TV show. It was also a quasi-apocalyptic nightmare that reduced America to a cathedral of death worship. That is not coincidental. This is the seventh episode of Pretty Good, a show about stories that are pretty good.
It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.
Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.
Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public square. Rod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.
Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularism” is actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.
Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”
This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it
- rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
- Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.
In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion.
Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.
More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.
Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.
Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.
But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”
For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.
Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”
The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.
The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”
For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”
Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.
To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.
A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.
First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.
Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”
Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as
- unrestrained capitalist greed; as
- authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
- callous environmental degradation; as a
- superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
- petty “sanctimonious nationalism.”
In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:
We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.
But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
And here’s another:
In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.
By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”
If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.
But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today.
Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?
This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.
We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.
But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.
This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
Secretary of State reinforces alliance with kingdom while discussing Yemen, Khashoggi
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Monday with Saudi Arabia’s leaders, bearing a message of support for a close Trump administration ally at a time when the relationship is under pressure at home and abroad.
Mr. Pompeo met separately with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal court in the kingdom’s capital, telling reporters afterward that he raised at least two difficult issues—the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
On those issues and on allegations of Saudi human-rights abuses, Mr. Pompeo stressed the friendly nature of ties between Washington and Riyadh.
“The Saudis are friends, and when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo’s stop in Riyadh came near the end of a multination Middle East trip and took place as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a re-evaluation of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, including its support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.
But Mr. Pompeo, smiling in brief public appearances with the Saudi leaders and other officials, adhered closely to the administration’s stance regarding Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 killing of Mr. Khashoggi. He pressed for accountability, but avoided personally blaming Prince Mohammed, who U.S. intelligence officials have concluded likely gave the order for the killing.
Mr. Pompeo and other officials consistently have emphasized the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its vital role in countering Iran, a main thrust of Mr. Pompeo’s trip, which has included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Pompeo said he broached the issue of human rights, but didn’t specifically address allegations that a Saudi crackdown on dissent has included acts of torture against jailed women’s-rights activists, including lashings and electric shocks.
On Yemen, the U.S. mission to the kingdom said on Twitter that Mr. Pompeo and the crown prince discussed the conflict and “agreed on need for continued de-escalation and adherence to Sweden agreements, especially cease-fire and redeployment in #Hudaydah,” referring to the Red Sea port city that is the gateway for the vast majority of the country’s food and aid.
The administration has accelerated its efforts to secure a peace agreement in Yemen, for a conflict that has killed tens of thousand of people and caused a humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who Riyadh sees as proxies of their rival Iran, and they have used U.S.-made bombs and intelligence assistance in their bid to defeat the group.
“We discussed with Pompeo the joint effort in fighting Iran’s expansionist policies that harm regional and international security,” former Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said, according to the Saudi state-owned Ekhbariya news channel.
The officials discussed the crises in Yemen and Syria, the situation in the Red Sea region, and efforts to fight terrorism and extremism, Mr. Jubeir said, according to the channel.
Mr. Pomeo also addressed a pair of Twitter messages sent Sunday by President Trump in which he vowed to devastate Turkey’s economy if it targets Kurdish populations in northern Syria as the U.S. withdraws its forces. Mr. Trump called for a 20-mile safe zone between the Turkish border and U.S.-allied fighters, and also called upon America’s Kurdish allies not to provoke Turkey.
“The president’s aim there, I think, is the one that we’ve been talking about for some time. Which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey,” Mr. Pompeo said, referring to Islamic State by an acronym.
The exact method of achieving these “twin aims” has yet to be determined, the secretary said. “If we can get a space—call it a buffer zone; others might have a different name for it—if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”
Mr. Pompeo planned to return to the U.S. earlier than planned to attend a family funeral, the State Department said on Monday. After departing Saudi Arabia, the secretary was traveling to Oman for meetings with leaders there, but planned to forgo a scheduled stop in Kuwait.
The secretary’s swing through the Middle East was aimed at reassuring partners and promoting a new regional alliance. Mr. Pompeo arrived in Riyadh from Doha, where the U.S. and Qatar held their second strategic dialogue.
During his remarks in Doha, the secretary pledged to continue trying to broker an agreement between Qatar and the four states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—that have isolated the country over allegations of support for terrorism.
The schism threatens to derail U.S. plans to form a Middle East Strategic Alliance envisioned as a counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Asked about his hosts’ reaction to his comments in Doha, Mr. Pompeo said the Saudis also hope to heal the rift with Qatar.
“We can certainly provide assistance and support, but at the end of the day those countries have to get it back together,” Mr. Pompeo said.
A human-rights commission reporting to Saudi King Salman is investigating the alleged torture of detained women’s rights activists, including accusations of waterboarding and electrocution, according to government officials and other people familiar with the activists’ situation.
A top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, allegedly oversaw some aspects of the torture and threatened at least one jailed woman with rape and death, according to testimony before the commission, those officials and others said.
One activist told the commission that security officials electrocuted her hands. “My fingers resembled barbecued meat, swollen and blue,” the woman told Saudi investigators, according to a person familiar with her statement.
.. Some of the imprisoned women’s rights activists were labeled as traitors in pro-government media and accused by the government of conspiring with unnamed foreign entities and of spreading discord in society. None of them have been formally charged... Critics say the government targeted activists to send the message that change can only come from Saudi Arabia’s top leadership. Prince Mohammed has cracked down on internal opposition while he pushes through his agenda to liberalize Saudi Arabia’s conservative society and open up its oil-dependent economy to foreign investors... Saudi security officers physically abused them, including by electrocution, lashing and sexual harassment. Some of the most severe treatment was meted out to Ms. Hathloul, according to the Saudi officials and other people familiar with the women’s situation.Mr. Qahtani personally oversaw her interrogation, which included waterboarding, people familiar with her situation said. “Saud al-Qahtani threatened to rape her, kill her and to throw her into the sewage,” one of those people said... Mr. Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s former media adviser and a top lieutenant, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. The Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, has reported he played a central role in the operation that led to the journalist’s death. Before he was fired, Mr. Qahtani was in charge of the monarchy’s crackdown on those it viewed as dissidents.
Of the 18 detained activists, at least eight have been physically abused in custody, according to Saudi advisers, activists and others with knowledge of the prisoners’ treatment. Much of the abuse occurred in a government-run guesthouse in Jeddah in the summer months, before they were transferred to a regular prison, they said.
.. “The detainment and torture of women’s rights activists demanding equal rights in Saudi Arabia is another example of how the current Saudi leadership does not share our values,” Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, told the Journal. “This pattern of human-rights violations is unacceptable, and it very well may have consequences for the bilateral relationship.”
I’m increasingly concerned that the U.S. and China are heading for a collision. At a time when the global economy and world stock markets are fragile, this would be bad for everybody. I do think there is a reasonable chance that Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping will hammer out some kind of a tentative deal at their G20 meeting in two weeks, but I fear that may be only a temporary ceasefire and that the longer term trends are likely to lead to more friction. One basic problem is that Trump and Xi are a bit alike: Both are overconfident, impetuous authoritarian nationalists who disregard human rights. Hence the symmetry of two freight trains colliding, the topic of my column on the long run souring toward China and the dangers ahead. Here’s what you should watch out for.
.. I’m still gnashing my teeth at the “caravan hoax” pulled by President Trump to scare voters into supporting GOP candidates in the midterms, and I think too many news organizations were too credulous in covering the story without sufficient context and fact-checking. We in the media shouldn’t allow ourselves to become a channel for fear-mongering and demonization. And now it looks as if the U.S. may spend $200 million pointlessly keeping U.S. troops in the desert near the border, away from their families over Thanksgiving, as a forgotten prop for the midterms. Meanwhile, we can’t afford effective treatment for 90 percent of people with drug addictions, and we can’t afford to reduce lead exposures that damage the brains of more than half a million American kids each year. Grrrrrr.
Saudi Arabia has changed its story again on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, pinning it on some fall guys but protecting the crown prince. And the U.S. seems happy to buy into that cover-up. Indeed, NBC reports that the U.S. is considering deporting a Turkish dissident cleric (something Turkey very much wants) as a kind of bribe to get Turkey to keep quiet about the torture, murder and dismemberment of Jamal. What the Trump administration doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the crown prince is not a force for stability in the Middle East, but for instability (as we’ve seen in the mess he’s made with Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon). Check out this extraordinary video reconstruction of the murder of Jamal and subsequent cover-up.