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The Dangerous Foolishness of First Things

April 11, 2020
The Dangerous Foolishness of First Things
Medical staff move bodies from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to a refrigerated truck on April 2, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

1. Catholic Stuff

It’s the Easter Triduum, so I’m hoping you’ll indulge me in a little bit of Catholic inside baseball.

A couple weeks ago, Rusty Reno, the editor of the journal First Things, published a remarkable piece in which he argued that taking measures to stem the tsunami of the coronavirus epidemic was demonic and that anyone who, for instance, willingly doesn’t go to Mass while there’s a pandemic on is enthralled with the material temptations of the world of the living, rather than being fixed on the eternal world of God’s kingdom.

I’m abstracting only slightly and, to be honest, I’m not going to link to the piece so you can read it for yourself, because (a) it is making an argument that is dangerous to people’s lives and (b) it is one of those performative acts of transgression that ought not be rewarded.

Anyway, this piece was widely praised by the coronavirus-truther brigade and some Trump apologists—and dunked on with various degrees of charity by everyone else.

Yesterday, First Things published a piece by Fr. Thomas Joseph White rebutting Reno’s piece. And just like that, many of the people who had been outraged by Reno’s essay began applauding and praising him and First Things for being so broad of mind and large of spirit that they were willing to publish “the other side.”

I’m not going to link to the White piece, either, because I would like to make the case to you that when Fr. White decided to publish this essay in First Things, he made matters worse, not better.

Let me explain.

There are two sides to most of intellectual life and it is generally a good thing to be open to arguments from both of them.

For instance: If you have a magazine of ideas, you might publish an argument that paying reparations to African-Americans would help remediate the sins of slavery in America. And then you might publish an essay arguing that, actually, paying some sort of reparations is immoral, or imprudent, or would only make matters worse.

You might publish an essay arguing that the capital gains tax rate ought to be X. Then you might run an essay arguing that if the capital gains rate were X, it would have suboptimal results and that the optimal rate should clearly be Y.

Most of intellectual life falls under these rules of engagement.

But there are subjects which do not. For instance, what would you think of a magazine that ran an essay making the case for the Flat Earth? And if, at a later date, that magazine ran an essay saying, “actually, the Earth is spherical,” should they be celebrated for bringing to the table both sides of the debate?

Probably not.

But the better analogy in this case is vaccination.

There is a moral component to Reno’s original piece, namely that he took a stick of dynamite and tossed it into the middle of the pro-life movement. If you care about the pro-life position, that is unfortunate and good luck getting traction the next time you try to argue that a woman should carry a baby to term, even if it imposes hardships on her. Reno’s essay is destined to be thrown in the faces of pro-lifers in much the same way that the feminist movement’s reaction to the Clinton impeachment was used to discredit it for a generation.

But there is a practical dimension, too. Because what Reno is agitating for is a clear and present danger to public health. Not a broad, generalized danger, like saying, “Hey, smoke some cigarettes, how bad could it be.” We’re talking about a specific danger tied to a particular moment in time and space. He is agitating for large gatherings in New York City at an hour when the virus is spreading, the city’s hospitals are overrun, and people are dying by the thousands.

So let’s say you edit a journal of ideas and pen a piece arguing that vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary and cause autism. And then, a couple weeks later you run a piece by a doctor who explains that, actually, vaccines are exceedingly important, provide immeasurable good, and that there is no scientific evidence that they cause autism.

Would you give that magazine credit for running pieces on “both sides” of the issue?

I would not.

Further, I would argue that the doctor who wrote the follow-up piece actually made matters worse by publishing in the journal. Because what he did was grant the magazine legitimacy and contribute to a sense among the magazine’s readers that, when it comes to the efficacy and safety of vaccines, there are really two sides to the issue, and that reasonable and intelligent people can disagree on the reality.

Because while it is true that there are two sides (or more) to most issues, this truism is not universal.

2. Kidnapping Jewish Children

By the way, this is not the first time that Reno and First Things have tried to play the both-sides game. Two years ago, in another bit of performative radicalism, the magazine published a piece defending the kidnapping and baptism of a Jewish child. (I won’t link to this either, because while it’s not a danger to public health, it is remarkably grotesque.)

There was a swift backlash to the piece, not only from Jews but from conservative Catholic intellectuals. Eventually Reno wrote his own piece pushing back on the arguments made by the first piece. At which point many of the Catholics who had objected at first clapped and commended the magazine for being willing to take on “both sides.”

I understand that many Catholics have a great deal of nostalgia for what First Things once was. But when people show you who they are, you should believe them.

3. The Hit Maker

A little essay from James Cameron about how he became a director:

It was 2001: A Space Odyssey that toggled a switch in my brain and turned me into a practitioner. I was 14 and had never picked up a camera before. But now I wanted to know how visual-effects shots were made. So I got my dad’s Super 8 camera and started building model kits of the spacecraft in the movie. I read the 2001 ‘making of’ book probably ten times. And I figured out that if you painted tinfoil black, put a light bulb behind it and poked pinholes in it, you could make a pretty decent star field. My first epic space story had a budget of probably ten bucks. But it got me off my duff.

Back then, however, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a writer or an artist or a physicist or an astronomer or a sculptor. I was all over the map — my brain was just firing in all directions at once. And I didn’t really focus on the idea of being a filmmaker for real until I was in my mid-twenties. In my mind I had all these images for hyper-kinetic space battles, with aerobatic motion and energy weapons firing and ships exploding. Then I went to a movie theatre and saw a little thing called Star Wars. And I felt like one of those paranoid-schizophrenic people that puts a little bit of foil underneath a wig to keep the CIA from spying on their thoughts. Because the images I had in my brain were up there on the screen. For me, it wasn’t the shock of the new — it was the shock of the familiar. And I thought, “If the world rewards this film as resoundingly as it has, then there’s a market for what’s in my brain.” It was time to get busy.

A year on, in 1978, I was on a set with two friends making Xenogenesis, a proof-of-concept reel for a complete science-fiction feature. We managed to talk this girl who wanted to be an actress and another friend of mine who was a writer into starring in it, as a young space couple. It was wildly ambitious, completely impractical and pretty dreadful, but the imagery is actually not that bad. And I learned an awful lot. How to run a 35-mm camera, how to do in-camera matte paintings, how to rotoscope. And I got to say “action” and “cut”. That’s when you become a director. All you have to do is shoot something and say “action” and “cut” a few times. Everything after that is just negotiating your price.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.