Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Remembering journalist Paul Greenberg, 1937-2021

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In April, our world lost a great American writer: Paul Greenberg died at age 84.

Long a nationally syndicated columnist writing from "small town" Arkansas, Greenberg won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for editorials on civil rights.  In D.C. Beltway circles, he is maybe best known for having given Bill Clinton the moniker "Slick Willie."  But Greenberg was no dogmatic partisan.  He described himself aptly as an "ideologically unreliable conservative."

Greenberg's politics were difficult to pin down, because he resisted labels and simply called the world as he saw it.  His parents immigrated from eastern Europe early in the 20th century, and their experience infused his morality and writing with a libertarian savor.  The same 20th-century-immigrant experience forged me, so I identify with the motivation.  An embrace of liberal immigration policy alongside a relentless insistence on conservative work ethic strikes some in America as a vulgar inconsistency, but, to me, strikes a sonorous chord.

Notwithstanding his famous wariness of Clinton politics, Greenberg was so much more than a political pundit.  A Jew from Shreveport, Louisiana (near my wife's home town), growing up during and after World War II, he was stocked with ample source material to inform comment on the American condition from a peculiar perch of simultaneous detachment and investment.  His writing exuded cultural fluency, from ancient wisdom to contemporary "fadtalk," as he termed it.  A Greenberg column could invoke the prophet Isaiah, philosopher Foucault, and Leonardo the mutant ninja turtle in one incisive analysis and scarce recognition of any juxtaposition.  Greenberg lionized early 20th-century editorialist William Allen White, whom he credited as having said, "A great editorial is one that says something everybody knows but nobody has said before."

A writer's writer, Greenberg wrote thoughtfully and lovingly, but always with profound humility, about the craft of editorializing.  In a column on the legacy of H.L. Mencken, Greenberg wrote of writing:

The first steps in the writing process may be painful as one watches what seemed a great idea fail the test of words, or turn into something entirely different.  But it is satisfying to watch something of form and substance emerge from the inchoate mass.  When it's well done, the writer feels like a sculptor chiseling away deftly at a block of stone.  If done poorly day after day, stroke after stroke, the effect on both writer and reader is more like that of the Chinese water torture.

Library of Congress Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (1950)
Greenberg lamented the gradual disintegration of journalism in the late 20th century and, as a student of Marshall McLuhan, fretted irascibly about the corrosive effects of ephemeral television.  He railed against the anti-intellectual condescension of the bullet point.  He wrote columns to a thousand-plus-word length that felt cordially readable, though a blog adviser today would animadvert as excessive.  (You're 450 words into this blog now; am I not tiresome?)  He insisted, "I remain convinced that anyone will read an editorial if it's irresistibly written."

I knew Paul Greenberg only by reputation and a degree of separation.  To me, mostly, he was a visage of halftone dots gazing into the world from the top of a broadsheet.  Greenberg's son, Dan, is a friend of mine, and a lawyer with whom I've been privileged to collaborate on many projects over the years.  Dan is possessed of obstinate integrity, humble yet profuse intellect, and earnest devotion to family.  So I always have appraised him as an apple that fell close to the tree.

When the news came that Paul Greenberg had died, I had a yearning to read more of his work, especially work that was not tied to the messy milieu of politics.  So I borrowed from the library a 1992 collection aptly titled, Entirely Personal.  The book compiled some of Greenberg's more intimate writings in chapters such as "family," "religion," "the writer," and "the small town."  These works predated my familiarity with Greenberg, so they were all new to me.  They were a treasure to unwrap.

I asked for, and Dan gave me, permission to share one his father's works from the book.  I had trouble choosing which.  I've read Entirely Personal twice now, and I've been struck time and again by how prescient the writings were, and how salient they remain.  There are superficial tells of their place in time—Ronald Reagan, Russians in Afghanistan, and appointment TV—yet, from these circumstances, Greenberg derived timeless observations that are equally meaningful in a world of Donald Trump, Americans in Afghanistan, and mass media overload.  There are surprisingly poignant pieces on family that speak eternal truths.  But, at this time of loss, they make me sad and seem intrusive—too personal. 

I was captivated especially by Greenberg's chapter on religion.  In the introduction, he recounted, "Someone once asked me how much of my writing was influenced by my being Jewish.  The immediate, spontaneous response that formed in my mind was: 'Every word, including and and the.'"  Besides his Jewish heritage and parents' immigrant experience, Greenberg grew up contemporaneously with the Holocaust.  Consistently with his proclivity for self-definition, his views were shaped invariably by witness.  He was, at once, spiritually conscious in his personal life and fervidly committed to the exclusion of religion from public life.

Thus, though it might be an unconventional choice, I found my favorite writing in the book in a column imitative in style.  In 1990, the Supreme Court issued a pair of key decisions on the religion clauses of the First Amendment.  In a case on the Establishment Clause, the Court permitted a Christian student club to meet in a public school over the objection of the school board.  One might expect a "conservative" and staunch advocate for the freedom of religion to applaud the decision.  To the contrary, Greenberg saw the decision as a threat to religion, specifically, to the freedom of church from state, an underlying theory of the Anti-Establishment Clause.  With devilish ingenuity, he wrote a cheeky retort as an addendum to The Screwtape Letters.

In memory of Paul Greenberg, great American writer, here is, "Letter from Below (With Apologies to C.S. Lewis)," published in June of 1990, and reprinted in Entirely Personal in 1992.  I'm not certain I agree entirely with Greenberg's absolutist stance on separationism.  But I understand and deeply appreciate the reckoning of his conviction.  Just as importantly, and characteristically, his witty observations speak also generally, and still today saliently, to the danger of majoritarian usurpation of individual self-determination.

Please note that this republication is made possible by special permission of Dan Greenberg.  The work is copyrighted by Paul Greenberg and is not covered by the Creative Commons license to this blog.

Enjoy.


Letter from Below

(With Apologies to C.S. Lewis)

June 4, 1990

My dear Wormwood,

The best of news. On the first anniversary of another of our great victories, the one in Tiananmen Square, your affectionate uncle happened to be glancing through the public prints, which are second only to television in promoting our cause, when my eye fell on the latest decision of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning church and state, both of which have been our province from time to time. It seems the distinguished justices have been busying themselves blurring the distinction between the two—a work that would be most dear to my heart if I had one.

This time the justices aren't deciding just when a religious symbol has become sufficiently irreligious to be displayed on public property (may they never tire of such work!) but rather how to make religion an extracurricular activity, which of course is what it should have been all along. What better way to keep it from being essential?

It shouldn't be long before the happy impression spreads that religion requires the support of the state, or at least the occasional use of a classroom. It's a start. Experience has shown that the more official a creed, the less appealing. See the paltry interest in the established churches of Western Europe. Or note the disaster that has befallen that most established of pseudo-religions, Communism, in the eastern part of the continent. It's enough to make you weep. 

I loved Sandra Day O'Connor's formulation for the majority of the court: "A school that permits a student-initiated and student-led religious club to meet after school, just as it permits any other student group to do, does not convey a message of state approval or endorsement of the particular religion." Do you think she has any inkling of what it does convey—namely, state approval of religion in general? And a state that can approve religion can disapprove it, too. Indeed, I think approval is much the more effective way to stifle the thing.

Religion-in-general, my dear Wormwood, is our great ally. It should be encouraged at every turn. I can just see the kiddies sitting around homeroom now, deciding which after-school clubs to join. ("I just can't make a choice, can you, Rebecca Jo? Chess, scuba diving or religion, they all sound like fun. Maybe I'll take religion. They say it improves your communications skills. ") It shouldn't be long before faith is treated as a nice, constructive after-school activity.

Religion, the real thing, can't be practiced in general—any more than language can be spoken in general. You have to choose a specific one. Religion-in-general has all the moral authority and emotional impact of Esperanto. Our mission is to replace belief with some safe, state-approved substitute. Once we extend a veneer of religiosity over the schools, the genuine article can be expected to fade away. Better to have the little suckers pray in school than in church or, even more dangerous, at home. Civil religion, that's the ticket, my dear nephew.

John Paul Stevens may represent something of a problem. Thank hell, he was the only dissenter from this lovely little ruling. Only he recognized that it comes "perilously close to an outright command to allow organized prayer … on school premises." Do you think he's on to our game, namely more and more organization, less and less personal prayer? We have to reduce prayer to something else—an extra-curricular activity, another government benefit, an opening ceremony, a public convenience … anything but an intimate experience. That's when it's dangerous.

Only when prayer and Bible study are officially recognized as wholesome activities conducive to better grades and order in the halls will we have defanged the saving thing. The trick is to make it an instrument—a technique, an extra-curricular activity, never a state of being, or all our subjects will be left open to the Enemy. We'll know we're succeeding when school Prayer Clubs start having their own letter jackets. What a great day it'll be when we make religion utterly dependent on peer pressure.

Justice O'Connor says a school can still ban disruptive groups. That's precisely the kind of prayer we want to encourage, Wormwood, the kind that doesn't disrupt anything, especially not our stock in trade: ordinary, routinely accepted, unnoticeable evil. Real prayer can be a powerfully disruptive influence. It can revolutionize the most stable society; never forget what befell poor Nineveh when its people unaccountably listened to that Jonah person against all reason. Yet prayer can also be the one thing that holds people together when everything else has collapsed around them. Perverse, unpredictable thing, prayer. It needs to be put in the care of the proper authorities, namely the state.

Isn't the name of the law that the court upheld perfect? The Equal Access Act of 1984. I love it. The great problem with the First Amendment, which so long has stood in our way, is precisely that it does not provide equal access to religion. Government is explicitly barred from passing any law having to do with its establishment. Religion is set apart, as if it were something holy. Government is told not to touch it or even come close to it. This is intolerable, Wormwood. Only by bringing religion under the state's authority, by rendering unto Caesar what isn't his, can we blur the essence of religion, which is the separation of the holy and the profane. This decision should help.

The great challenge facing religion is not equal access to the world but how to retain enough integrity to stay distinguishable from the world. My fellow demon Glittercut did a good night's work when he invented Success Theology. Our job, my young protege, is to make religion indistinguishable from the world, one more extra-curricular activity. The last temptation—mastery of the powers and principalities—is still the most effective. As the world giveth, so give we.

What we've got to do is get people thinking of religion as something educational, beneficial, a means to some greater social end, an institution wholly worthy of a little government support—a tuition grant here and there, or a place to meet in the schools. We've got to get it on the dole. That way it won't go off on its own with unpredictable results. It needs to be woven smoothly into the social fabric so it can be corrupted with everything else. Left alone, there's no telling where it may spread. The Enemy can be dangerous when left to His own strange devices. Be warned, young demon, He is never stronger than when He appears weak in the eyes of the world.

Have you noticed the enthusiasm this ruling has kindled among many of the faithful? It's an inspiring sight. They've been handed a stone and think it's bread. Delicious.

That's about all the news from down under. I'm still vying with my old rival Gallclaws for the next GS-16 rating in the bureaucracy. The competition here is, of course, hellish. But news like this cheers me.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

© 1992 Paul Greenberg


Read more from Paul Greenberg at Jewish World Review, in one of his books, or in your preferred news archive.  The Greenberg family plans to archive his papers.

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