Features November 2021
The specter of Chinese civilization
On Chinese and Western models of governance.
Editors’ note: Angelo M. Codevilla, who died on September 21, 2021, was reviewing final edits on this essay at the time of his death.
Since few doubt that the increasingly numerous Chinese people are rising in power and self-confidence while we Americans continue to become less and less attached to the values of our own civilization, it makes some sense to ask whether we are doomed to succumb to Chinese civilization. This is especially pertinent given that the way Chinese people live has always been much the opposite of the way Americans want to live.
Does China represent the fatal crossroads of Western civilization? The question, as phrased, calls for an unequivocal no. Americans may well end up living under tyranny resembling that of today’s China. But that tyranny’s core is not the classic civilization of Confucius, Laozi, and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This civilization is what the Chinese themselves abandoned around the turn of the twentieth century. Today’s tyranny in China itself is by, of, and for the Communist Party. It is Western civilization’s perverted legacy, built upon ancestral Chinese habits.
China has not historically been a nursery, never mind an exporter, of totalitarianism or revolution.
China has not historically been a nursery, never mind an exporter, of totalitarianism or revolution. Moreover, China’s rulers have traditionally had neither interest nor capacity to export any way of life. Their goal vis-à-vis America is now to maximize revenue while minimizing America’s will and capacity to interfere with China’s growing overlordship of Asia. This requires merely coopting the U.S. ruling class, which the Chinese find easy through garden-variety corruption.
Our own civilization is in the process of being undercut by its own ruling class, which abandoned Western culture as it was taking power over the past century. By then negating explicitly the civilization’s defining premise—that all humans are created equally in God’s image, and hence that legitimate rule must be based on persuasion rather than force—our ruling class has placed itself on essentially the same ground as that of yesteryear’s and today’s Chinese despots.
Chinese despots offer a calm, orderly tyranny in exchange for equal obedience by all alike.
The “Chinese Model” that our side’s would-be tyrants are eager to copy merely adds technical refinements to standard despotism. Our leaders want to impose it, confident that Westerners will accept it as the Chinese people do. But they mistake Chinese civilization as well as their own. What they wish to impose is, in fact, different from what exists in China in purpose and nature. Applied in today’s Western world for the purposes of our own woke tyranny, Chinese-level social control would be harsher than the Chinese original. Chinese despots offer a calm, orderly tyranny in exchange for equal obedience by all alike. By contrast, our own ruling class demands that one class of people obey another’s ever-evolving and unpredictable orders, while submitting to insult and injury. China is not what Americans should fear. Today, as in Lincoln’s time, “if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Totalitarianism is not Chinese
China was never the land of the free. The net of waterworks that irrigated some of the world’s most fertile land and facilitated travel within it was the doing of millions of human beings forced to dig. Even the Han Dynasty’s hundreds of miles of rammed-earth walls, never mind the later thousands of miles of sculpted stone, bespeak millions worked to death. Emperors and would-be emperors advertised their brutality. Some had themselves depicted wearing robes onto which are embroidered images of bloody heads severed by bloody blades. The Forbidden City’s sculptures feature angry, jealous lions and dragons. The emperors’—and their favorites’—choice of everything, including concubines, was arbitrary and absolute.
And yet, law ruled in China. It was not statutory law, never mind natural law. It was customary law, enforced by officials whose expertise in it was certified by rigorous, competitive, high-stakes examinations. Ordinary Chinese depended on that law and its impartial enforcement for the most important things: the duties of children to parents, marriages, titles to land, rents, loans, inheritances, lawsuits, etc. The near-static nature of the supply of land and food, coupled with the constant increase in the population, meant that legal processes secured the livelihood of the most able and doomed the less able to marginalization at best. For millennia, China was the land of law.
Stability was the objective of traditional Chinese political theory.
The law’s content simply reflected how things were done. Things should be done the way they were done, period. Readers of Confucius’s Analects (ca. 475 B.C.–220 A.D.) have always noted their substantive commonality with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (ca. 335–322 B.C.). Yet Aristotle describes what he understands to be the order of nature, of the household, among other things—namely what is right for man because man is man. But when Confucius said that “fathers should be fathers and sons should be sons,” he was authoritatively describing the way that proper fathers and sons had always behaved. Enforcing such behavior and other aspects of how things were done was the whole purpose of law. The idea was that if law does not enforce doing things as they are, then things will cease to be as they are, and therefore as they should be. Reality’s authority is also the reason why telling the truth about the world is essential. Until 1905, the deeply Confucian Chinese imperial civil service enforced that law.
In short, stability was the objective of traditional Chinese political theory. Just as fathers had to do certain things to maintain the family, so emperors had to fulfill their duty to maintain order. And if they didn’t do the things that pertain to them, or did them badly, then things ceased to be as they were and should be, and the social fabric unraveled from the top. While “losing the mandate of heaven” remains a nebulous concept, clearly the thrust of the idea is that when rulers don’t deliver stability, they bring obligations to an end.
Traditional Chinese despotism, then, was anything but revolutionary. Nor did it pit one part of society against another. It was not about class warfare or racial warfare, much less about revolution. Nor was it even oligarchical—an alliance of the powerful, entitled ones against the masses. It was about securing imperial power while interfering with the masses’ orderly, predictable lives only to extract labor and obedience from them. China knew only the choice between stable despotism and chaos.
China, Communism & totalitarianism
Upper-middle-class students who had sojourned in London, Paris, and Berlin brought Communism to China in the early 1920s. Zhou Enlai was one of 1,200 of these. Academically trained, Zhou absorbed Marxism–Leninism and helped transition the then-nationalist Mao Tse-tung to it. There is no evidence that Mao (or anyone else in the Chinese Communist Party) understood or cared about Karl Marx’s thought qua thought. Mao’s Little Red Book (1964) is Marxist gobbledygook, but it does reflect Marxism’s un-Chinese essence: tear down the pillars of the house and build anew.
Chinese Communists also adopted Lenin’s construct of the Party as the ultimate weapon of conquest and power. From the 1920s to ’40s, in China as everywhere else, would-be Communists were preoccupied with building cadres for the Party. Yet China, from the 1920s on, was in the throes of civil war. Mao and friends were building and wielding their own army for it, too. Thinking of those leaders as Party cadres in the Leninist sense seemed logical. Chinese history would also have led them to think of Party cells as eventual substitutes for the defunct imperial bureaucracy that had run the country for thousands of years.
Upper-middle-class students who had sojourned in London, Paris, and Berlin brought Communism to China in the early 1920s.
But whereas stability had been the imperial bureaucracy’s purpose, war was the Party’s purpose—total war to abolish all that was old and replace it with something that no one could define but that required complete denial of the present. That, or perhaps Mao’s insatiable hunger for power, negated all manner of law, thereby denouncing stability and Confucius himself. Thus did Mao dictate and superintend all manner of un-Chinese, untenable ventures, chiefly the superseding of the family with communes and the organization of economic activity into collectives. That chaos is what made Communist China a place of famine and fear. Unpredictability, not harshness, is what made Mao’s rule unacceptable. We think of Mao’s reign as totalitarian. For the Chinese, the term “revolution” is more meaningful and more frightening.
That very superintendence over a vast land and a billion people, however, made it inevitable that the Party cadre would take the place, and eventually adapt into the role, of the old imperial bureaucracy. Once Deng Xiaoping had defeated the last of the Maoists in 1978, these officials transmuted into their imperial predecessors—minus the competence. But that did not matter in the most important respect. Stability, allowing the rebirth of family and private economy, was enough to satisfy the modest demands of ordinary Chinese. The “mandate of heaven” does not seem to require more.
By the early 2000s, it really did not seem that anything happening in Chinese society might hurt America. The number of card-carrying Communists on American university faculties may still be higher than the number of serious Communists within China itself.
Far from making, never mind exporting, revolution, the Chinese Communist Party seemed satisfied that the people were eating better than ever and enjoying luxuries such as air conditioning. And although the Party cadres themselves rose and fell by the laws of favor, they administered a scrupulously fair and demanding system of academic exams by which ordinary people could make or break their futures. It seemed as if China had reverted to something like its millennial normality. In some ways, it had. Indeed, the quiet growth in China of a seemingly export-friendly version of something that we think of as totalitarianism was more important for us than for the Chinese.
Totalitarianism & social control
Let us see how a phenomenon that has developed in China over the past generation more fully than elsewhere, one that we Westerners call totalitarian, now threatens us.
“Totalitarian,” to Westerners, describes a ruler’s attempt to exert control over someone’s rightful autonomy, regardless of the power grab’s success, because we assume that we have rights that natural law forbids be taken from us. Property may be the most obvious of these. Your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are also naturally, inalienably your own. Mussolini first used the term totalitarismo in reference to his boast of “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” even though his regime’s aims were hardly as ambitious as the goals of those who have sought to remake humanity—such as the perpetrators of the French Revolution and those inspired by Marxism–Leninism. We Westerners believe that any uninvited attempt to control what is ours is inherently unlawful and illegitimate.
Unquestioning acceptance of despotism has made China a fertile petri dish for the growth of the latest virus: a computer-enforced “social-credit” system of societal control.
In China, however, law has coexisted very well with all manner and degree of despotism and social control. So long as there remains stability and regularity in people’s lives, the waxing and waning of China’s bedrock despotism has not affected its legitimacy. But unquestioning acceptance of despotism has made China a fertile petri dish for the growth of the latest virus: a computer-enforced “social-credit” system of societal control.
Always and everywhere, rulers seem to be in search of rationalizations and means of increasing their power over the ruled. They call upon religion or patriotism, invent or adopt pseudoscientific creeds, foster hopes, fears, and panics, and of course use any and all technological advances in service of their quest.
The unprecedented opportunity for social control offered by advances in computer technology, and the Chinese government’s successful use of it for that purpose, combined with the Chinese people’s matter-of-fact acquiescence, has led—misled, I believe—Western leaders to imagine that something like a “social-credit” system is transferable to the West.
Few thoughtful people ever imagined that computer technology would be anything but a mortal peril for human liberty and a boon for the power-hungry. That is why, pretty much everywhere, enthusiasm for modern data-processing’s promises of efficiency, personal connectivity, and the widespread flow of information were accompanied by at least some worry about how easily this tool could become the key to a totalitarianism more rigorous than had ever been imagined.
Everywhere, that is, except in China, because the Chinese people’s historical and habitual acceptance of despotic authority obviates questions concerning the legitimacy of using “big data,” or anything else, to serve government power. Such use involves the coordination of state and corporate activities to rate the actions and thoughts of individuals relative to authoritative priorities, then to reward and punish these individuals based on their behavior—by making certain ratings a condition for travel, for instance. Not incidentally, in China the use of computer-aided surveillance for enforcing laws and social norms has coincided with a decrease in its historically high level of social cohesion.
Nothing could be more Chinese than lists containing criteria of personal behavior, and even of opinion—by which rulers may manage individuals by directing, judging, rewarding, and punishing them. But even in China there is no single integrated system for rating financial, political, or moral behavior, in part because the standards being enforced vary from place to place, and with the changing concerns of officials.
Regardless of the above, the very existence of the databases, their acceptance, and the fact that they may be used for all manner of enforcement have enabled Chinese officials to bring the full weight of government and society to bear on any matters important to them. Using data management to cut and shape the flow of information, mobilizing support with rewards while punishing dissent, has made today’s Chinese leadership more unchallengeable than the emperors of old ever were.
The ruler does not convince the ruled of anything, and he does not try.
Keep foremost in mind that these new tools only confirm Chinese rule’s main, distinctive, despotic characteristic: in China, ruling does not involve the least bit of persuasion. The ruler does not convince the ruled of anything, and he does not try. The ruler rules exclusively by command and coercion. No wonder Westerners, who must convince the ruled to agree, or suffer dissent, envy the Chinese and yearn to imitate them.
But Westerners fascinated with social credit in China neglect the radical difference between what it means there and what it would mean here. The lingering presence of the Confucian tradition suggests that the criteria for rating people must have much to do with how things have been done and continue to be done, and that any system must be administered in a stable, sustainable manner. The stricter the demands, the less tolerant of change. Our looming Western tyranny is quite the opposite. Not only for logistical reasons is it impossible to imagine a Chinese social-credit system forcing people to deny the difference between men and women, or even to utter the words “father, mother, son, daughter.” Besides, China’s regime has no interest in such things, unlike the gender-obsessed commissars found throughout Western governments and academia.
Information management & the model
Indeed, it seems that contemporary Western regimes, ours in America especially, are interested in little else besides frivolous questions of identity and how such questions may be used to control the population. Western businessmen, political leaders, and government bureaucrats have always looked enviously at the Chinese population’s docility. Willful and ignorant, the Western elites see China with their own agendas foremost in mind and see no reason why something that works in China should not work in America—especially if they, the allegedly enlightened elite, want it to.
In fairness, we must note that China’s complex foreignness lends itself to misinterpretation. The original Western Sinologist, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), came to understand China’s Confucian subtleties only after a lifetime of study. Today’s Chinese government has overlain those principles with pure will, right down to the words themselves. The radical simplification of contemporary Chinese orthography has made it almost impossible even for Chinese to read Confucius in the original.
Still, the main reason why Western leaders misunderstand China is that they have never learned or appreciated their own civilization. Our overlords ask: Why is it that Westerners, Americans above all, won’t simply do what they are told? Why do we insist on coming to our own conclusions about right and wrong, better and worse? Why do we noisily demand informed consent?
What contemporary Western leaders miss is what the Book of Genesis revealed, and Greek philosophy clarified: that the world is made according to, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and that all humans are equally creatures of the same God, equally subject to those laws; that understanding and living by these laws is every human being’s equal right and duty; and hence that, rightly to rule one another, we humans must convince one another. In other words: acting properly depends neither on tradition nor on power, but on right and wrong, better and worse, objectively true.
Acting properly depends neither on tradition nor on power, but on right and wrong, better and worse, objectively true.
Although even the wokest of the corporate leaders and government officials who run America do not openly deny this foundational civilizational pillar, and thereby affirm the duty of ordinary people to obey rulers blindly, the emergence of the technical means by which to restrict and manage the information available to the general population has spurred many among them to try working around that pillar. They seek to obviate informed consent, by more or less forcefully managing the flow of information.
For many of our rulers, this does not pose problems of principle because, having thoughtlessly internalized the notion that truth and error, right and wrong, are relative (or as Marxists put it, “superstructural”) to the realities of interest, they effectively believe that power makes its own right. In practice, they agree with Plato’s Thrasymachus, who maintained that right is everywhere the interest of the stronger, and with China’s rulers as well.
Networked computers make it possible to spread favored versions of events—“our truth,” rather than the truth—and to discourage, if not punish, the circulation of disfavored versions of events, which nothing prevents us from calling “inaccurate,” “problematic,” or “disinformational.” Those who control our information are careful not to label material that they thus stigmatize as “false,” lest someone defend it as factually true. Reference to objective reality is dangerous, and it is far better to stick to trials of power.
Consider just one example of the elite ability to control the flow of information under the guise of protecting the population. Speaking about efforts to discredit, restrict, and shut out of circulation non-favored ideas about the covid-19 epidemic, the Surgeon General of the United States said, “we expect more from our technology companies. . . . We’re asking them to monitor misinformation . . . to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.” The current White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, seconded that: the Biden administration had, she said, “increased disinformation research and tracking.” It was “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” She did not quite say that it was “ordering” Facebook to act upon its judgment about what is information and what is disinformation and what the difference might be. But she added, “We’re working with doctors and medical professionals . . . to connect medical experts . . . who are popular with their audiences with . . . accurate information and boost trusted content. So we’re helping get trusted content out there.”
In short, the current presidential administration wants companies such as Facebook to do more censoring of thoughts that do not fit its agenda than those companies are already doing. The force of that censorship comes mostly from the consensus that exists within the ruling class that thoughts that do not flow from itself, that do not reflect its agendas, should be effectively banished so that the public will know only “trusted content.” But trusted by whom? Computers do not create the ruling class’s unanimity of interest and hence of opinion. They are neither more nor less than a means of imposing that unanimity on a general population whose recalcitrance the rulers must fear.
They must fear it because, although the substance of what they demand is often not as harsh as what Chinese rulers demand of their subjects, Americans are not civilizationally conditioned to accept demands as part of the world’s natural order, as Chinese subjects are. Take the imposition of internal passports as a condition of employment, travel, and so on. The Chinese do not need to cite public health or any other excuse to enforce such a stricture. But no excuse may convince many Americans to accept them, especially since those who tout them do so on a transparently partisan basis. But our oligarchs bolster and impose their demands with such force and reach as to create what might appear to be a new model of civilization, one dangerously ignorant of the traditions that have allowed Western civilization, and America especially, to flourish throughout history.
Revolutionary civilization is impossible
In the twenty-first century, an oligarchy has replaced the American republic. The people’s elected representatives had previously ruled by persuading each other and their voters. But the distinction between public office and private power has given way to the criterion of proximity to a community of powerful individuals and institutions. In a republic, power derives its legitimacy from the voters. In oligarchies like our current model, power is exercised by persons who control the country’s institutions. They don’t think of themselves as citizens, but as “stakeholders.” Their legitimacy derives from each other’s support. How did stakeholders replace citizens? Who are these stakeholders, and by what right do they rule?
As government grew in size and power, it drew unto itself the practical allegiance of the country’s most powerful private persons. Even without formal legal provisions such as that of Italy’s 1926 National Council of Corporations (Italian fascism’s defining feature) or the U.S. National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (partially invalidated by the courts), prolonged association between regulators and regulated, between administrators and administered, soon erased distinctions between them. Seamlessly, the same people changed from one role to the other. Not being wholly responsible to government or to private business, they ended up as the effective owners of the “stakes” they have in the system.
In the twenty-first century, an oligarchy has replaced the American republic.
Agreements within “public–private partnerships” also differ in nature from ones made among elected representatives. The latter, as James Madison argued, draw out the “deliberate sense” of the people by adjusting their interests politically. But regulatory decisions, indeed administrative decisions by their very nature, are made on the real or pretend basis of expertise. But who judges expertise, if not the ones who pretend to have it? And if these experts also dispense the money that gives access to credentials, then there occurs the situation about which President Dwight Eisenhower warned us: “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” because a “government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”
And as Ike warned, the process did proceed through the “power of money” via federal “project allocations.” Beginning in the 1960s, Congress lavishly funded multiple mandates to rid America of poverty, ignorance, racial discrimination, and much more. Each of these in turn mandated a bureaucracy to dispense the money. These in turn created classes of people who lived by these moneys and, along with the bureaucrats, took ownership, thereby becoming stakeholders of the programs.
Oligarchy is the replacement of representative government by the melding of public and private power with the administrative state. Throughout history, most oligarchies have united around the stakeholders’ primary common interest in orderly rent-seeking. Typically, oligarchies have nothing to do with ideas of right and wrong, never mind with ideology. And if they form out of a political party, that party is all about oligarchy itself.
But ours is not a typical oligarchy. The sense of superiority to the rest of America had been the animating force behind the Progressive movement around the turn of the twentieth century. From their embryo, the disparate parts of the American administrative state/oligarchy shared this sense. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the will to hurt and to demean the rest of the population grew among these stakeholders, to the point that today, this vengeful approach overshadows and endangers their very power.
This happened because the tasks that these public/private institutions were empowered to fulfill always had something hostile, vindictive about them. Rid America of poverty? Can we do that without blaming our least favorite people for its existence? What about ridding America of racial discrimination? Clearly, our least favorite people are responsible for it and must be made more than a little uncomfortable. And if that takes raising the level of racial animus, it’s for a good cause. As the power of stakeholders grew, other kinds of modern progressives lent support and demanded coequal attention to their grievances against the rest of the American people. That is why America’s ruling oligarchy is a coalition based on little but grievances, which the several sets of stakeholders usually do not even share. These are bitter, often screaming, grievances, many of which have long since morphed into sheer hate. The oligarchy’s opponents are, in the telling of American elites, responsible for everything from the black murder rate to the frying of the planet.
Forcefully restricting and managing the information available to the general population empowers and institutionalizes the division between rulers and ruled.
America’s oligarchy is made up of diverse elements that have little in common other than an indifference to or loathing of Western civilization in general and of the American republic in particular. Since members of the oligarchy support each other’s claims—over which they have no control—by the iron law of political necessity, there is no logical end to those claims. That is yet another reason why our oligarchy’s modus operandi relies so heavily on cutting off at the source any and all circulation of facts and arguments that would cause any set of stakeholders publicly to argue its case—an argument they might lose and that would surely upset other members of the coalition. This is why Google’s and Facebook’s censorship is essential to the oligarchy’s continued power.
Our oligarchy no longer even pretends that the commands it issues about what may or may not be discussed, what is “trustworthy” versus “misleading,” derive from anything other than what its members—very much including the government—demand here and now.
Forcefully restricting and managing the information available to the general population empowers and institutionalizes the division between rulers and ruled, and does so in a partisan, even tribal way. In America this practice is revolutionary because it so explicitly destroys the theory and practice of equality that had been the American republic’s defining characteristic, and because it does so on behalf of a part of the population. Google, Facebook, and Twitter, among many others, not only restrict what disfavored people may tell each other. They also limit certain segments of the population’s ability to learn from history and the great store of Western knowledge. They have arrogated to themselves the power to decide who is allowed to appear on the national stage by retaining the ability to wipe out whole accounts, as if their holders never existed. Moreover, they prevent the disfavored ones from using their platforms to complain. They do all this on behalf of the bureaucratic elite that runs most government in America, and whose officials adjudicate disputes.
Clearly the American oligarchy manages information differently, and for a radically different purpose, from China’s tyrannical state. Whereas Chinese rulers demand and get obedience on behalf of a millennialist mono-ethnic (or at least they so pretend), nonpartisan country (the title Communist having lost practical significance), America’s rulers demand it on behalf of allegedly aggrieved persons who never cease to stress their own difference from the ruled. The truly powerless Americans are, rather than objects of compassion, merely contemptuous in the eyes of the elite. That same contempt applies to the country as a whole and the Western civilization that has nourished it. Because the substance of the oligarchy’s demands changes at will and convenience, compromising with them is impossible. So is obtaining peace by surrender. One may search history without finding examples of tribal rule-by-aggravation lasting very long.
After the crisis, what?
Ever-intensifying tribal identity, tribal hostility, and tribal warfare usually result in war. But whether by civil war, or by some sort of reformist Thermidorean, Napoleonic, or Khruschevian regime—or goodness knows what—our collective madness will someday end. This by no means counsels complacency towards how this madness may affect the kinds of lives of which Americans may be capable in the future.
What is now America’s ruling culture has been gestating and marking Americans for more than a half century. The effects are all too obvious, and in some senses are worse than what the Soviets inflicted on the Russian people. Our society’s tone-setters have devalued marriage, and families now raise children in a way that is arguably more violent than the Soviets did in their most virulent phase. The Soviets never descended to devaluing academic excellence, especially in math and science.
Sure as we may be that the woke regime will eventually collapse, we can be just as sure that it will leave behind millions of people who share its culture, unable and unwilling to live in one they regard as alien. We cannot know how many Americans have joined that culture. Even their very presence among us will tend to suck, pull, push, and prod the rest of us into a lifestyle far nastier than anything in ancient or even modern China.
Freedom is valuable only in relation to the good.
Who will oppose them, and with what culture? Many on the right, justifiably fearful of their vanishing way of life, have chosen to defend it by defending freedom itself, abstractly. But freedom is valuable only in relation to the good. Noble as it may be to defend the right to lie, that right is worth defending only if it is part of a civilization that values truth. Nobody lives or dies for freedom abstractly.
The American republic’s Founders did not do that, and neither should today’s Republicans try to do it. The Founders articulated specific grievances of which they wished to rid themselves. And they chose to live by “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” These laws were no more abstractions than were the grievances. Nor was their love for those laws abstract. These people did not carry their Bibles as any sort of cultural badge. They read them to keep in mind what was expected of them and of one another.
Our ruling oligarchy has made it socially difficult even to think about the difference between what is right and wrong. This itself presents us with an important crossroads. Eliminating the intellectual and moral conversation that made the American republic unique has been the oligarchs’ effect if not also their objective. Their success in this enterprise haunts America’s future. China does not.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 3, on page 4
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