For the second time in 18 months Republicans have needed to make use of the distinction between ephebophilia and pedophilia while defending one of their own.

The fact that we are here may well say all that needs saying about our political moment.

But on the chance that it does not, let’s venture another word.

To whatever extent we are having a debate right now over whether or not Tucker Carlson should face stern public condemnation from his fellow conservatives and should issue a public apology for his remarks before making a permanent retreat from public life it is because we have come to believe that the worst thing that can happen to a person is that they would lose power.

Power, by which we mean the ability to shape and influence reality, is the all-consuming good currently pursued with reckless abandon by virtually everyone in our republic. And, of course, as Andy Crouch reminded his readers sometime ago, power can be a great good.

The difficulty, of course, is that power without a telos, without a good it hopes to actualize, is a monkey with a bazooka. And so it is with us today.

Carlson, when confronted over his horrifying words—and we should be clear: he joked about his daughter’s underage classmates sexually experimenting with one another, said a humiliated beauty pageant contest was vulnerable to sexual advances and was like “a wounded gazelle separated from its herd,” and referred to Iraqis as monkeys—refused to apologize. And we should note his reasons for not apologizing:

“There’s really not that much you can do to respond. It’s pointless to try to explain how the words were spoken in jest, or taken out of context, or in any case bear no resemblance to what you actually think, or would want for the country. None of that matters. Nobody cares. You know the role you’re required to play: You are a sinner, begging the forgiveness of Twitter.

Carlson refuses to apologize because to apologize is to make oneself weak. It is to cede power to one’s rival. Whether or not one has need to apologize is, in this account, wholly irrelevant. The jockeying for power is all that matters and morality is simply a game we take up when doing so is useful to ourselves.

Certainly, it is true that public apologies have been weaponized. So it must be in a world increasingly captive to the norms of online shaming. Because of this, people involved in public life must understand the rhetorical significance of apologizing and make wise decisions about how to respond when called to give an account of themselves.

Those observations, however, are hardly relevant to the issue at hand. The issue at hand is that Carlson joked about his daughter’s friends sexually experimenting with each other.

It may well be the case that public apologies are weaponized in the culture wars. But that has no bearing on the fact that a man who made such awful remarks ought to apologize for making them. To suggest otherwise is merely to engage in a slightly more clever form of rationalizing sin.

But, of course, the bigger story here isn’t just about Tucker Carlson; the story is about power and specifically about things greater and higher than power.

Literature is filled with people like Carlson, people who think the only question in life is who has the power to exert their will over others. Tolkien works with this vice, a mixture of greed and cynicism, in various ways with both Saruman and Sauron. Saruman rejects being “the white” because white, as a color, can be broken. (“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf astutely replied.)

More recently, Voldemort, the villain in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is similar—he breaks his soul seven times, doing irreparable damage to it in the process because he cannot imagine anything worse than physical death, which is the loss of power. And, of course, Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is completely obsessed with this question: Do people actually have beliefs that run deeper than the desire for self-preservation… or is human morality just a bad joke to be set aside the moment the self is threatened?

In From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun says that the decadent culture is the one that no longer knows why it exists. Though, “it is a very active time, full of deep concerns,” it is also “peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.” Barzun continues, “the loss it faces is that of Possibility (sic). The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through.” In such a regime, all that is left is, as Schaeffer said decades ago, personal peace and affluence. And we struggle to imagine pains greater than the loss of those things.

This is why our stories of moral failure never terminate on the question of apologizing for the wrongs done and making restitution with those affected. They always escalate up to power and, specifically, to whose quest for personal peace and affluence will be aided by this failure and whose will be hurt. Our imaginations have become constrained. We do not see any broader horizons.

And so a man speculates about his daughter’s friends sexually experimenting with one another and, when called to account, his concern is not with his daughters’ friends, how his daughter feels about his words, the evil things he said, or with what state his soul must be in to willingly give voice to such things publicly. Rather, his concern is with protecting his status, avoiding any sign of weakness.

But, of course, there is another possibility. There are, it turns out, things greater and higher and nobler than mere power. And such is the greatness of these things that one can, when one has sinned, acknowledge that sin and ask forgiveness. It is better to be on your knees in a cathedral than proudly on one’s feet in a Fox News studio.

These greater beauties not only free us to apologize. They also open us to the radical idea that moral ends cannot be advanced by immoral means, that it is better to die a martyr than live as a villain. An openness to martyrdom expands the imagination. It gives back to the lost, decadent soul the possibility of something better.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • jdwalker

    Jake, your article is the first I’ve heard of this silliness since I don’t follow the gossip news or Tucker Carlson, so hopefully you can help me out with some missing information.

    Are you Carlson’s daughter? One of his daughter’s friends? The humiliated beauty pageant contestant?

    No? Then why does Carlson owe you an apology?

    Have you spoken with Carlson’s daughter, his daughter’s friends, or the humiliated beauty pageant contestant to confirm that Carlson hasn’t apologized to them?

    No? Then why all this whining about how Carlson hasn’t apologized for his comments?

    Your article is deeply ironic. It joins the insincere, false chorus of whining demands for a public apology not for the benefit of anyone who might actually deserve an apology and not for the benefit or the apologizer and his soul, but rather to continue in the service of those jockeying for power.

    And that seems to precisely reflect the comment from Carlson that you quote. Rather than being his reasons for why he feels he shouldn’t apologize, but only that those demanding his apology don’t care about the actual apology. Any public announcement of his contrition would be irrelevant since what he is apologizing for, to whom he is apologizing, etc. is irrelevant. It is a means to their ends.

    If your point is that public shaming and demands for general public apologies when it is discovered that someone said something that made someone else feel icky because it benefits members of the public to feel good about themselves and/or motivate them to stay in line, then maybe you can provide a defense for that position.

    I think the better point is why the public should care that Carlson said such and such about so and so, and isn’t that aweful, and he’s so mean, and I’ve got to go to gym class now.

    • BWF

      Carlson openly defended a man who raped teenagers (Warren Jeffs). Of course he deserves to be condemned for that.

      • jdwalker

        And your point being? I’m questioning the idea that the demand for and even the receipt of public apologies does anyone any good. Not whether it is correct to point out that rape is wrong. I don’t disagree with that part. I disagree with the idea that the public apology theater is something to contribute to.

    • toddh

      What is wrong with you

      • jdwalker

        I’m sure plenty, but if you would like to articulate a suggestion I’ll consider it.

  • KAM

    Wow this is poor thinking and writing.

    You assume your main point—that Carlson’s interest here is power. That is, I suppose, a plausible theory. But it doesn’t square with his own claims, or even the quote you offer from him. So you might at least pretend to argue for that conclusion. You present almost no consideration of what he said, originally or in this quote. You simply attribute “concerns”. You don’t make the case that he should apologize, or how, even if he is guilty as charged. You assume facts not in evidence about what he has confessed and asked forgiveness for, and when, and to whom.

    I gather that you are a political opponent of Carlson’s opinions. So be careful before rallying all that is “greater and higher and nobler” in attacking his motives.

    (And what does martyrdom have to do with any of this?)

    • BWF

      As it happens, the author (as most authors on Mere Orthodoxy tend to be) is politically conservative.

  • Thela Ginjeet

    You can bet it is about power, the power to shape ideas and influence reality, which is why Fox News advertisers are under heavy assault from progressive activist groups like Media Matters who exposed Carlson’s comments made over a decade ago. The telos in play here is to destroy Fox’s financial viability and ultimately to silence its viewpoints so that the views of the left can enjoy unquestioned hegemony. If you can’t have
    state run TV, why not the next best thing until you can? Social media giants like Google and Twitter regularly scrub conservative viewpoint and opinion critical of the left…we are already slouching toward a form of media totalitarianism until now only witnessed from afar in other countries, the consequences of which lead to things nobody ever stops to consider “how could it have happened here” until after it does. I certainly would not have said the things Carlson said, even in jest, but I’d hate to be judged by standards just twenty years out for the things I might say today. At the rate we’re going, nobody will survive the razor. I’m not sure a public apology would serve any national soteriological purpose because those demanding one don’t care; an apology is not their aim. Tucker as will the rest of us will have to stand before the bar of heaven and give an account of every idle word.

  • toddh

    The comments on this post are absolutely brutal. Mere Orthodoxy needs some readers better discipled by the Christian tradition, and less by Fox News.