On Raising Taxes

“But we have to make cuts,” I said. “The federal government is out of money, and there’s nothing else to do.”

“Rubbish,” Mr. Magundi replied. “We have an enormous untapped resource. We can raise taxes, which are at the lowest rate now in more than half a century. Americans pay less in taxes than people in almost any other civilized nation. We could easily afford to pay a lot more.

“But our politicians have ruined us economically. For their own selfish purposes, they convinced the average American that taxes were out of control, spiraling ever higher, and the only way to stop the ascent was to elect them. The fiction has become so much an unquestioned fact that, to an ordinary American, to say that we need to raise taxes is literally nonsense. You might as well say ‘What this country needs is more burglaries and murders,’ or ‘What this country needs is bulbous flatweave periodontal combustion.'”

On Our Prison Population

“Big deal,” Mr. Bates replied. “So we have a higher percentage of our population behind bars. But that’s where those people deserve to be. Do the crime, do the time.”

“You must have a shockingly low opinion of our country,” Mr. Magundi said, “if you think Americans are more likely to be wicked than people of every other civilized nation. As a patriot, I find your attitude more than a little offensive. You’re lucky I’m a peaceable sort of patriot, instead of one of those patriots with baseball bats. But still, if I were you, I’d refrain from bad-mouthing my country in mixed company.”

On the Golden Age

“She says that people used to live in peaceful villages,” I was explaining, “as long as society was matriarchal.”

“We love to imagine that there was a peaceful golden age at some point in history,” Mr. Magundi said, “but our illusion always evaporates when we actually know the history. We used to say that the Maya were a civilization of peaceful astronomers; then we learned to read their writing, and discovered that they loved to boast about how many other Maya they’d killed. Whenever we read that some ancient society was ideally peaceful, that wars and aggression were unknown in their time, we may be sure that we simply haven’t dug up their killing fields yet. So I think we have to give up on the golden age as a fact of human history, and recognize it instead as a fact of human psychology—or, if you prefer, as a fact of theology. Our minds tell us that there is a perfection from which we have fallen. Whether you regard that as an original sinless state, or as a sort of dimly perceived Platonic ideal, we have a mental certainty that we live in a fallen world.”

On Going to College

“But the tuition is more than I make in a year,” Mrs. Bowman was complaining. “I want Derek to go to college, but even if there were enough loans in the world, I don’t see how he’d ever pay them off.”

“It does look as if our system of higher education is just about broken,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “But that may not be entirely bad. For the past several decades, our assumption has been that our children will graduate from high school, then go to a college in some completely different part of the country, and then take the best job offers they get in whatever part of the country. The lower classes—the people who don’t get a college education—still stay in their own communities, but the educated classes are expected to be completely mobile.

“We never question our assumption that college graduates need to go wherever they can be most profitably employed. But the result is that there’s no permanent educated class in our communities anymore. The people who might be natural leaders of our communities don’t form communities: they live in interchangeable suburbs, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re in Massachusetts or Colorado. If I were a cynic, I might say that our communities end up being run by stupid people, but I would never be so uncharitable as to equate lack of education with stupidity.

“Now, however, we seem to have hit accidentally on the one potential cure for this rootlessness of the educated class. We have raised the price of higher education to the point where it may simply be ruinous even for comfortably well-off families. And so we may end up abandoning the university system as we’ve built it up, in favor of a system where we stay home for most of our higher education, perhaps in community colleges, or in some similar institution we haven’t thought of yet. Educated people might get in the habit of thinking of the place where they grew up as home. And in spite of the disadvantages to Harvard and Cornell, I think that might be a very good thing.”

On the Feedback Loop

“They’ve done all their research,” I said, “and they’ve kept only the features people said they liked best. But somehow there’s nothing to read in there.”

“We’re a marketing-driven culture,” Mr. Magundi said. “The marketers who decide what goes into popular newspapers and magazines want certainty. They want to know they can sell their product. So they very scientifically track and survey their readers to find out which things they like best, and then give them only those things. They keep refining, throwing more and more of the less popular stuff out and adding more and more of the things that get high marks in surveys. They listen to the people, and they give the people only what the people say they want.

“But the problem is that magazines and newspapers help form popular culture. If the things that are forming popular culture will only respond to popular culture, what do we have?

“Now, you know what happens when you get a microphone too close to the loudspeaker. The signal from the microphone comes out the loudspeaker and goes into the microphone and comes out the loudspeaker and goes into the microphone, and round and round, until you get a feedback loop, which is just a high-pitched squeal that makes you want to cover your ears. And that’s why you can’t find anything to read anymore. You can go to a newsstand and see millions of words, but all they add up to is a high-pitched squeal, because the whole publishing industry is caught in a gigantic feedback loop.”

On Victorian Morality

“But isn’t that kind of a Victorian attitude?” I asked.

“We’re all Victorians,” Mr. Magundi replied, “and never more than when we condemn Victorianism. We judge by Victorian standards: we pass the same humorless and scientistic moral judgment on everything as the Victorians did. We demand, as they did, that all human actions must be consistent and virtuous; and when we condemn the Victorians, we really condemn them for being insufficiently Victorian—that is, for not being scientific and consistent enough in their moral judgments. I think sometimes that I might like to revert to a less scientific and more charitable pre-Victorian idea of morality; but I’m a Victorian, living in the moral world the Victorians made, and I can no more escape that world than anyone else can.”

On Charity

“I’m with Mr. Rooney on this one,” Mr. Bates said. “I can’t understand what that guy was thinking.”

Mr. Magundi asked to borrow the newspaper and turned to the article in question. “Well,” he said, “dismissing the first remark, which is standard 9/11 conspiracy nonsense, what did this unhinged football player say?” He pointed to the newspaper.

“Here’s one: ‘I believe in God. I believe we’re ALL his children. And I believe HE is the ONE and ONLY judge.’

“And this one: ‘Those who judge others, will also be judged themselves.’

“And then there’s this one: ‘For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell … I ask how would God feel about your heart?’

“All of this is not only the most unobjectionably orthodox Christian doctrine, but in fact a very clear and straightforward statement of it. Yet we call it ‘hard to explain or even comprehend.’ Now, I’m not usually a dogmatic pacifist, because I think the world is too complicated to make hard and fast rules about most things. But my best theological argument for pacifism is this: that war makes a simple statement of Christian moral principles incomprehensible to people who call themselves Christians. War is a mind-altering drug: when you make your best theological arguments for a ‘just war,’ I must always suspect that, no matter how clever you are, it’s really the drug speaking. And when you say you can’t comprehend a statement like ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ I know you’ve become a helpless addict.”