Harper’s Notes (4/15)

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: Civil War, suppression, sacraments, and more.

The editors

April 15, 2024

Sacrament or superstition?: In the latest installment of The Harper Review’s spring debate, contributing editor Francesco Rahe considers the nuances of beliefs that some might call foolish. Though the Communion wafer may look like an ordinary cracker, Catholics believe that it actually is the body and blood of Christ. Rahe argues that leaps of faith are typical in our lives—we cannot know everything, and so we must choose to believe.

The gathering storm: In their new essay for Commentary, Seth Cropsey and Harry Halem, researchers at the Yorktown Institute, offer several gloomy predictions for the future of the liberal world order. Russia has seized large swaths of Ukrainian territory. Israel’s war with Iran’s proxy army, Hamas, threatens to swell into a broader regional conflict. China, emboldened by the West’s inanition, aims at reunification with Taiwan—by force, if necessary. Meanwhile, the United States, preoccupied with domestic troubles and the promise of another ugly election cycle, is doing little to interfere. This raises several troubling questions: Has America quietly abdicated its leadership in global security? Will the American-led West peacefully reassert global preeminence, or is war with Russia, China, and Iran inevitable?

Theory in practice: In a Boston Reviewarticle, Harvard historian Peter Gordon discusses the rise and fall of so-called “theory,” referring to the thought of European Continental philosophers like Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, over the twentieth century. Gordon situates his summary with reference to two works: Irene von Alberti’s film The Long Summer of Theory and Philipp Felsch’s recent book The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960–1990. Gordon describes von Albertini’s film as an exploration of how theory can be applied to life, while Felsch’s book is more of an intellectual history of theory’s popularity within German intellectual circles. While theory declined due to an inability to address real problems, Gordon says, the positive aspects of theory are still worth remembering.

Cultural crackup: Berlin’s art scene has suffered a “cultural crackup” as a result of sanctions placed on artists and cultural organizations who publicly express pro-Palestine and anti-Israel views amid the Israel-Hamas war. In a recent piece for Critic’s Notebook of The New York Times, Jason Farago argues that pressures on free speech and association threaten Berlin’s reputation as a capital for avant-garde art. In post-wall Germany, Berlin cultivated its arts scene through government funding, but certain artists have come into conflict with the government’s support for Israel. Farago writes that Germany sees this support as part of its “Staatsräson” or “reasons of state,” which is aligned with a national project of assuaging guilt about the Holocaust. He argues that anti-Israel critique, even by government-funded artists, is censored because it’s seen as a threat to German national identity. Farago warns that overregulation of the arts, however, risks counteracting the German end of countering bigotry, including anti-Semitism.