Friday, April 28, 2006

The Right to be Wrong?

The Right to be Wrong is the title of a book put out by The Beckett Fund, a religious freedom advocacy organization. In it, Kevin Seamus Hasson protests the dogmatic anti-dogmatism of secularizing agencies such as the ACLU. But one can't talk about the right to be wrong without considering right to do wrong. Abraham Lincoln once summed up the difficulty: "if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that any body has a right to do wrong."

Springboarding from Lincoln's insight, I cluttered Domenico Bettinelli's Blog hashing out the distinctions necessary between a natural right to do wrong, which is perposterous, and a political right to do wrong, which is an idea tolerable but poorly phrased. Truthfully, it is only a right to be immune from coerced belief that has any real logical traction.

David S. Oderberg has crafted a fine analysis of the incoherence of a strictly-phrased "right to be wrong." His essay, "Is there a Right to Be Wrong?"(PDF format) begins with some choice quotations on the topic of truth:

‘Truth is the highest thing that man may keep.’ -Chaucer

‘Truth is treasure, the best tried on earth.’ -Piers Plowman

‘Truth is the most pleasant of sounds.’-Plato

‘Veracity is the heart of morality.’ -T.H. Huxley

‘No one who lives in error is free.’ -Epictetus

‘A man protesting against error is on the way towards uniting
himself with all men that believe in truth.’ -Thomas Carlyle

‘Driven from every corner of the earth, freedom of thought
and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience
direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.’-Samuel Adams

‘Love truth, but pardon error.’ -Voltaire

‘The greatest right in the world is the right to be wrong.’ -Harry Weinberger, NY Evening Post 1917

He adroitly explores the tension between the first six and last three quotations. Here he is taking on the movie catchphrase of Batman Begins, "we fall so that we can learn how to get up again":

"The thought proposed by the defender of the right to error is that there is something inherently good, by which he means life-affirming, personality-developing, education-enhancing (pick your favourite New Age buzzword) in the making of mistakes. But how can this be so if it is also good to acquire truth? If it is good to acquire truth it must be good to eliminate error, since the latter is necessary for the former. But if it is good to eliminate error it cannot also be good to fall into it, any more than it can be good to be healthy but also good to be unhealthy. This tension, if it is real, means either that acquiring truth is not good after all, or what is more likely, that the idea of there being something inherently good in making mistakes is an illusion."

Oderberg does not shrink from noting the deleterious effects that error has on the rational life:

To take an analogy, although this is disputed by experts, my own experience tells me that the more I use glasses, the less able I am to focus correctly without them—I have to learn to focus correctly again, within the limits of my inherent optical defect. A person whose sense of balance is distorted by an inner ear infection has to overcompensate by feeling she is standing at an angle in order to be sure of standing straight. When she recovers, she will have lost her ability to recognize what her normal sense of balance is telling her, and will stagger about for a while until she relearns how to recognize and interpret the impulses from that sense. Similarly, a person who is cavalier about whether her intellect is directed at truth or falsehood ends up—again under various influences such as desire and emotion—forcing herself to believe what her intellect is naturally inclined to tell her is false; as a result, she will tend to become literally incapable of facing up to any unpleasant reality. Her intellect will be damaged, and repairing it by using her already-damaged intellect itself will not be much easier than using a broken telephone to call the telephone repairman.

Localist Virtues vs. Nationalist Self-Interest

From an old Philadelphia Society meeting:

Americans, like most people, have a history containing multiple streams of competing political standards of value. All traditions, in truth, demand a measure of choice and some selection criteria by which one stream rather than another is preferred. In particular, Americans have inherited from the years surrounding their country's separation from Britain, two contrasting visions of republican government. One vision, that most readily associated with American ideals held from the time of the first plantations in the seventeenth century and advanced as the goals of the War of Independence, held Americans to be particularly virtuous and, thus, especially capable of democratic self-government. The second vision, one embraced largely in an atmosphere of disappointment in the decade following the end of America's first war of independence, is best associated with the ideals of self-interest as the recognized engine of political and social life, and with centralized patterns of governmental control modeled on America's British Imperial inheritance. These are the two visions of "republican" government that, I suggest, Americans have inherited and that, as conservatives, we are asked to choose between. That is, we must choose between the longer-lived vision of virtue and local self-government that remains resident in localistic and Christian based politics today, and the shorter-lived vision of self-interest and elite governmental imposition favored by America's liberal elites.
-Barry Shain
Self-Interest Versus Virtue: Conservatism and America's Divided Inheritance

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Eunomia Against Jacobin Capitalism

David Larison speaks against a marketplace of competing morals:

Many libertarians do subscribe to this "marketplace of morals," which will continue to make them unwitting accomplices with increased government regulation as they tend to dismiss forms of social control and traditional authority as being as equally undesirable as government regulation. But so long as man needs some constraints to check his willfulness and passions, the less people rely on non-governmental mechanisms of social control the more they consign themselves and their posterity to the caretaking of the state. I think this is the very concern that Mr. Suderman expresses when he worries about introducing "unfair competition with society's moral institutions" by involving the government.

What troubles the crunchies, as it troubles me, about an undue regard for the virtues of "the free market" is that this sort of market, when not restrained or regulated either by its participants or, in the last resort, by the state, breaks down the very forms of social control and traditional authority needed to keep the state from becoming involved. (In so doing, it is also consuming the very corrective forces that keep the entire system from succumbing to massive corruption--think of this social control as a kind of balm for the market's self-inflicted wounds that keeps them from becoming horribly infected and gangrenous.) Unfortunately, this very dissolution of traditional social bonds is something that far, far too many anti-crunchy and libertarian proponents of the market make out to be a positive good and a "liberation" from the outmoded, patriarchal and repressive norms of bygone days. Larry Kudlow, call your office.

In other words, the more one wishes to keep the state out of the business of regulating morals the more one should be keen on the crunchy idea of self-restraint, rejection of consumerism and all the tawdry and vulgar products that the allegedly "moral marketplace" spews forth. The marketplace is only as moral as its participants, and it is only as consonant with virtue as the attitudes of its participants, so if a large number of those participants embrace a mentality of unrestricted consumption and acquisition (which has frequently been married to a debased aesthetic sense of the mass man and a crude ethic of self-gratification) the market will go from being a merely disruptive force in social life to a positively harmful engine of cultural rot. This, I submit, is not the kind of market Mr. Suderman wants to defend. But if he wants to insist that the crunchies are, in some measure, hostile to his idea of the market, he will find himself stuck with the sort of market that drives cultural rot.

On J. Hart's Selective Fulminations against Religious Influence in Politics

Jeffery Hart's year-old attack on Republican evangelicals, The Evangelical Effect is notable first for both Hart's direct analysis of evangelical religious belief as such, and second for his evasion of Catholic-Evangelical co-operation on certain policy issues he dislikes but attributes to Evangelical influence alone.

Hart, himself a Catholic albeit one of libertarian sympathies, makes much ado about nothing--that nothing being, in his opinion, Evangelical ecclesiology:

Because Evangelicalism is sustained by no structure of ideas, and, beyond that, has no institutional support in a continuing church, it flares up in repeated "Awakenings," and then subsides as the emotion dissipates. Because it is populist and homemade, its assertions tend often to be ridiculous, the easy targets for the latest version of H.L. Mencken.

If we recall Leo Strauss's formulation that "Athens and Jerusalem" -- science and spiritual aspiration -- are the core of Western civilization, American Evangelicalism is a threat to both, through ignorance of both.

Hart sees malign Evangelical influence in Bush's embryonic stem cell research funding decision and several government agencies' chariness towards sex education and emergency contraception. By some misjudgement of proportion, he also denounces a certain book in the Grand Canyon National Park bookstore attributing the canyon's creation to Noah's flood.

With the exception of that last, very minor creationist-friendly point, all the policies he contemns were likewise instated due in part to vocal Catholic campaigns--policies which even many Evangelical Republicans found ill-conceived, such as the stem cell decision.

It is said that in American politics conservative Catholics provide the intellectual heft while Evangelicals provide their electoral muscle. Should any Evangelical readers wish to play the brawn to my (alleged) brains, I am more than willing to consider volunteers.

Snideness aside, Catholics did indeed provide significant intellectual and political motivations for Bush's decisions. Hart's derogation of low-to-no-church Christian ecclesiology and his apparent favoring of ecclesial hierarchy and tradition, to state the obvious, do not cohere well with his advocating positions quite at odds with the living tradition of the Catholic faith. Considering the recent and remarkable chumminess between Evangelicals and Catholics, I should like to know why he is only griping at Evangelicals and not Catholics as well.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Forbes Writer Dispassionately Considers Duels to Death

It is said that egalitarianism killed off the Aristocratic practice of dueling. Looks like there's a zombie on the loose:

Should we encourage fights to the death? Perhaps. Allowing willing participants to risk life and limb should be accepted if it is the informed decision of all participants. There's a legal principle called volenti non fit injuria—"to a willing person, no injury is done." It holds true for athletes as well. If a person wants to risk death in the pursuit of fame, they should be allowed to do so.
-David M. Ewatt, Bread and Circuses

His Latin citation of the principle seems skewed; "volenti non fit iniuria" was only used in lawsuits seeking redress, not as a reason for decriminalizing "victimless" crimes. Libertarianism at its most vacuous and foolishly consistent.

If you google him, you'll find he's a baby-face in an expensive suit. He's likely never been in a fight in his life and still thinks Holden Caulfield's denunciations of phoniness have intellectual heft. His piece will certainly diminish the reputation of Forbes magazine in what remains of the civilized world.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Wisdom of Mr. Blue

"It is because most of us are such poseurs to ourselves that we so readily find a poseur out."

"Men are terrified of at suffering, at even the thought of suffering. Yet, through sufferings only can one attain wisdom. Through suffering only can one attain the greatest understanding. And without suffering it is hard to attain the kingdom of heaven."

Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue made for some light Lenten reading. Not a masterpiece, but very enjoyable.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Colorado Senate shuts out Catholic Journalists

Catholic press systematically shut-out of [Colorado] state senate meeting with Bishop
“Denver, Apr. 21, 2006 (CNA) - On Thursday, a Denver Catholic Register journalist, and the respective editors of ‘New Advent’ and Catholic News Agency approached to the office of Joan Fitz-Gerald, president of the Colorado Senate, expecting to attend a scheduled luncheon with Detroit’s Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, who was in town to discuss two state bills which would lift the statutes of limitation on some cases of sexual abuse.

On Thursday however, Senator Fitz-Gerald told the Catholic journalists that the bishop wanted to “settle down, be calm and get together with the senators.”

Gumbledon, a retired auxiliary bishop of Detroit, has been a strong advocate for the Colorado legislation and others like it around the country. He admitted earlier this year to having been sexually abused by a priest as a young man, but has refused to name his abuser.

The small Catholic group, gathered at the state capital, proceeded to ask Fitz-Gerald to recall that under the Colorado Sunshine Law, any meeting involving more than one senator is public, and therefore, open to anyone willing to attend, including journalists.

She immediately responded: “Is this an intimidation?” The journalists explained that they only wanted to know if the scheduled luncheon was on, because if it was going to happen, it was a public meeting, and therefore, they had the right to attend.

“Well, you obviously know the law… now please step out of my office,” said Fitz-Gerald, requesting that the reporters wait outside, without giving any further information about the event.


Two other journalists who had been invited, one from the Associated Press and one from the Denver Post, were informed that because of the presence of the “Catholic troops” –referring to the three Catholic journalists present--it was impossible to keep the original plan.

Senator Fitz-Gerald announced to them--and not the Catholic journalists present, who were never addressed by either the senator or any of her assistants--that the meeting with Bishop Gumbleton would be private--with just with one senator at a time--as a way to prevent the Sunshine law from applying and keep the Catholic press out of the meeting.

The Denver Post story was obviously influenced by these journalists' presence:
Retired Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton met privately with about 30 Colorado lawmakers Thursday to promote bills aimed at helping childhood sex-crime victims file lawsuits.

Gumbleton met with each lawmaker one-on- one in Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald's office to avoid the state's public-meetings laws.

Fitz-Gerald said the meetings "allowed people to look into the eyes of a Catholic bishop who was a victim himself, and they could see that he was sincere and that he understood the ramifications of the legislation."

Fitz-Gerald is sponsoring Senate Bill 143, which would open a window in the statutes of limitations to let long-ago cases of sexual abuse of a child be pursued in court.

The Denver Post previously indicated the meeting would be private, though the Rocky Mountain News did not.

Kevin Knight, as usual, had a great riposte: "Kevin Knight, a well respected Catholic Colorado Native who came to attend the meeting said that "it was ironic to hear SNAP's lecture about bishops who won't meet with people -- as we stood outside their own bishop's locked door."

The legislation in question is itself questionable legislation lifting the statute of limitations on civil sex-abuse lawsuits. The attempt to spin the story by calling in an out-of-state bishop and then barring the local bishop's own reporter from the meeting is an unseemly extension of church politics into the civil legislature. Gumbleton's willingness to bypass the local bishop to lobby for a law in a state some thousand miles distant from his home is an obvious rebuff to Archbishop Chaput.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Turtle Legends and Lecture-Room Fables

In an otherwise unremarkable Daily Telegraph article against Intelligent Design an urban legend, or rather, science lecture fable, makes its appearance:

That, of course, means nothing to Intelligent Designers. Stephen Hawking tells the tale of an elderly lady who came to a talk on the origin of the Universe. Quivering with indignation, she insisted that it rested on the back of a giant turtle. What, the speaker asked, does that stand on? "Young man," she said, "you think you're very smart, but it's turtles all the way down!"

This is the first time I've seen the story attributed to Stephen Hawking. I first heard it attributed to Bertrand Russell, myself. The story of the Atlantean turtles and the old woman who loves them has a decades-long history of uncertain provenance. Such stories are unseemly in a scientist's opinion piece, especially when he's attempting to trash rubbish.

Another Argumentum Ad Hitlerum....

But it's so hard to resist recording this:

Personally, I stick to my idea that we are watching the birth, more than the death, of a World. Peace cannot mean anything but a HIGHER PROCESS OF CONQUEST. The world is bound to belong to its most active elements. Just now, the Germans deserve to win because, however bad or mixed is their spirit, they have more spirit than the rest of the world.
-Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, 1940
quoted in John Lukacks' The Duel

via Rich Leonardi

Chardin has been accused of multiple heresies, beginning the Piltdown man hoax, and now this. He's a favorite of many greyhaired Catholic progressives who would go apoplectic upon hearing these words.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

David S. Oderberg on Metaphysics and Natural Law

The Right Reason weblog points to the excellent, though lengthy video presentation of Dr. David S. Oderberg, a philosophy professor at the University of Reading. He discusses the metaphysical foundations of natural law theory, especially its neglect by the "new" Natural Law theorists: Germain Grisez, Robert P. George, John Finnis, and Joseph Boyle. A slip of the tongue led to his amusing shorthand, the "Grinnis" school of natural law.

The Grinnis school, as I understand it, formed in reaction to the rejection of natural law among Western thinkers. The rejection was typically justified by invoking Hume's alleged naturalistic fallacy, that one can't derive a moral imperative, an "ought," from a description of fact, an "is." Grinnis accepted the validity of Hume's criticism, but has tried to rescue natural law theory from Humean criticisms, even going so far as to claim that Thomas Aquinas himself accepted Hume's distinction.

Oderberg argues convincingly that this school severely neglects metaphysical concerns. His main points I summarize thusly:
-Normativity, "oughtness," is based in essence, "is-ness;" there is no fact-value distinction.

-Unmoored in ontology, NLT can acquire an excessively subjective character

-NLT is traditionally grounded in ontology, rather than in epistemology or methodology, and thus requires an extrinsic ordination of law coupled with the promulgation thereof in the hearts of all men. These are metaphysical questions, rooted in knowledge of human nature.

-Yet for the Grinnis school, knowledge of human goods is methodologically prior to knowledge of human nature. Nature doesn't inform methodology. Indeed, the Grinnis school disagrees among itself about whether there really is such a thing as human nature.

-The Grinnis school focuses on inclinations, rather than metaphysics, yet it is that prior order of the universe and the order of human nature itself which makes inclinational knowledge rational in the first place. We have knowledge of nature through inclination, not, contra Grinnis, knowledge of inclination simpliciter.

-Further, the neglect of ontology has practical consequences for ethical debate, such as when arguing whether a given creature, such as a comatose person, is a human being.

I believe the last point might be an overstatement, as Robert P. George has made some detailed ontological arguments in his writings despite his theoretical missteps. Oderberg, I think, echoes other critics of the Grinnis school such as Russell Hittinger.

Oderberg makes some interesting additional comments about science. First, he is not waiting for an empirical discovery of human nature, mainly because he thinks such a method tries to acquire knowledge about a higher ontological order from a lower ontological order. Likewise, natural law theory assumes we already have enough knowledge through the law written on our heart. It won't do the layman any good to wait for science, or even philosophers, to get around to hammering out basic ethical principles. (I add, this is especially so regarding science since scientific inquiry is permeated by the fact-value distinction.)

Oderberg also discusses teleology, a phenomenon considered illusory by most scientists today. He claims we can't just focus only on human teleology, but we must also account for other directed movements in nature while not falling into panpsychism. As an example which I can't quite fully comprehend, he cites the ice-water-vapor cycle evident in nature. Here Oderberg neglects a problem with teleology for Catholic natural lawyers, since there is no natural end for the human person. Rather, God is his end.

Altogether, a worthy lecture. Oderberg's web site will provide significant further reading, and at first glance it threatens to usurp Notre Dame professor Alfred Freddoso's page as my favorite philosopher's personal web site.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On Democrats as the Party of Self-Interest

By a series of unfortunate events, I found myself at the Daily Kos blog today. The post which provoked these ruminations is an article from the American Prospect, Michael Tomasky's Party in Search of a Notion. In light of GOP weakness, Tomasky attempts to write a story for a future Democratic party candidate, a story structured around the neglected theme of the common good.

I repeat key passages below:

"To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently -- to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era."

"...liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest."

"...this idea of citizens sacrificing for and participating in the creation of a common good has a name: civic republicanism."

"Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, until it washed up on the bone-strewn beaches of Vietnam and New Left–driven atomization, fit the paradigm, too."

"At bottom, today’s Democrats from Baucus to Waters are united in only two beliefs, and they demand that American citizens believe in only two things: diversity and rights."

His essay is an attempt to build a Fusionism of the Left, like the libertarian-fiscal-traditionalist conservative alliance which brought Reagan and Bush to power. Tomasky looks to the New Deal as the high watermark of his civic republicanism, but he claims this status quo was, for good reasons, overthrown by New Left activists. Nevertheless, he thinks it is time for the Democrats to sideline the graying New Lefties and revive the rhetoric of the old Democrat hegemony. Softening individualist habits while encouraging self-sacrifice for the common good, mixed with a hearty dash of national solidarity are his main ingredients in the recipe for a Democratic victory.

Mainly because of the power of the libertine wing of the Democrats, I doubt it the ingredients will even make it into the pot. One can't credibly diminish radical individualism while at the same time nursing the (unaborted) children of the Sexual Revolution. The party's main talking points in the marriage debate include the individualistic non-argument "what's it matter to you if two or more x's get hitched?" Abortion rights are justified by focusing upon the autonomy and immediate self-interest of the mother. Grafting the common good onto its party platform will likely result in a dead chimera.

Speaking of the House Republicans, Tomasky writes: "The time is right, they said; let’s scuttle these racial preferences... Corporate leaders said, well, we’ve spent a lot of time (and money) developing diversity policies, and they’re working rather nicely." Diversity itself is a tool of the corporate state, both as a marketing tool and as a symbol of forward-thinking social responsibilty. Even a would-be left-populist movement can't fulminate against corporations when they're backing the favorite causes of the grassroots left.

This is not to say that the Republicans win the common good promotional merit badge by default. The Libertarian wing, mouthing Hayek's caricature of the idea of the common good as the first step on the road to serfdom, has damaged the ability of the GOP to think, much less to speak, in terms of the common good. Then there are the fiscal Republicans, who lean towards an excessively economic ideal of the common good. Even the pro-life movement can speak fluently only in the debilitating dialect of rights-talk.

Should the common good become the unlikely topic of national debate, the neo-federalists among the Republicans might serve a purpose. Some common goods, especially those best secured at the state level, aren't themselves universal enough to make it onto the national scene. Encouraging a space for state-level action could provide a pathway to the lands of limited government, a land which is, like the domain of common good, quickly fading away into mythological regions.

Cross-referencing Addendum: William T. Cavanaugh argues the nation-state was never meant to secure the common good, and indeed was founded upon the rejection of that very concept.

Eros and Thanatos

Lovers scarcely know each other and are more in love with love than with each other. Death always intervenes before there is any significant chance for two people to know each other as they really are. Death, therefore, obscures the need for [the] self-giving kind of love (agape) to supplement and save this romantic love (eros) from its essential preoccupation with self and its idealized projections. The end or destiny of romantic love as a religion is always death, either of the love or of the lovers. Thus death obscures for its adherents the essential self-centeredness and flight that is characteristic of romantic love.
-FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy, quoted here

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

An Aphoristic Interlude

To state the obvious, reasoned discourse is rare on the internet, but a good one-liner can always provoke. Sometimes one garners a grimace, sometimes another sparks a peal of laughter. Few people bother to read paragraphs of frenetically-typed arguments, no matter how well-reasoned the prose or how vital the topic. Yet so many more people can spare the time to read just a sentence or two.

Like a palate-cleansing drink after a bad meal, a well-wrought aphorism is a welcome escape from tedium. So in service to light reading, I offer ten creations of my own:

Silence teaches much, and teaches badly.

Rights-language is a blunt instrument.

Idealists are marionettes for Machiavellians.

The ship of State runs on Fear.

Dreams are made to be destroyed.

Extremists are just moderates who are out of power.

Moderates are just extremists who are out of power.

The American abortion license is as safe as a babe in her mother's womb.

Liberty of indifference--that is, licentiousness--is all style and no content.

Living in the past is impossible; living in the present, even moreso.

Curt scribblers thrive on the aphorism. Those who mistake mere brevity for profundity happily repeat such phrases, especially if they are cynical. In the cacaphonous echo-chamber of the Internet one short line is magnified a thousandfold, given a rhetorical weight far exceeding its meager capacities. This being so, it is always good to keep in mind a one-liner Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote in response to the aphoristic writings of Frederich Nietszche:

"An aphorism is not an argument."

April Miscellany

via A Conservative Blog for Peace come two noteworthy stories:

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin famously remarked that he had been to heaven, and did not see God. A new interview suggests these words were not even spoken by him but rather were invented by Soviet propagandists. Gagarin himself, it is claimed, was in fact a man of faith.

Katolik Shinja notes that the New York Times has cited Hillaire Belloc as a prescient thinker who anticipated the current explosion of the one-man press:
There are whole paragraphs in Belloc's essay where, if you substitute "blogs" for "the Free Press," you will be struck by the parallels. He notes that the journals of the free press seldom pay their way and that they often suffer from the impediment of "imperfect information," simply because it is not in the politicians' interests to speak to them. They tend to preach to the converted. And they are limited by the founder's vision. "It is difficult," Belloc writes, "to see how any of the papers I have named would long survive a loss of their present editorship."

Belloc's point is not to expose the limitations of bloggers — excuse me, the Free Press. It is to show how, imperfect as they are, they can contribute enormously to our ability to learn what's going on. Anyone who spends much time reading political blogs will hear a familiar note — in far greater prose — among Belloc's certainties. He writes, in short, as a blogger of his own time.

I have an unread hard-copy of Belloc's essay on the Free Press. It is prefaced by a paranoiac introduction from a man who ranted about government cover-ups on 9/11. Perhaps that is why it has remained unread. Its publisher, IHS Press, was itself exposed for its fringe connections a few months back. Belloc in particular attracts the most unsavory of people, perhaps because he held a few most unsavory opinions himself. Sad to say, a sizable portion of his present-day admirers scare off those who are otherwise attracted to this most lively writer. At least his reputation did not scare off the easily-spooked employees of the New York Times.

Monday, April 17, 2006

An Encomium for Manzoni

He cannot have had a very happy youth. To avoid the constant family quarrels at home, he was sent to school very young. He was nervous and timid, and the experience gave him a sickener of schools, like that of many of the the young peoples now forced to study his works too early. To this may be due the constant nervous troubles which haunted him all his life. For he had an almost psychopathic sensibility, as has been noted by Lombroso. He hated meeting new people, was terrified of crowds, had great difficulty in writing, and would break off at any excuse, sometimes for months at a time. He could never go out alone, and felt voids opening up before him when he had to cross a street. Stories are told of his ordering servants to drive away birds in the trees under his windows, of his weighing his clothes several times a day. At the news of Waterloo he collapsed into convulsions. Abnormally modest and retiring(he was always running down his own works), he was silent except among a few intimate friends or the family circle, dubious and sceptical even about the most apparently obvious facts, and so forgetful that he would quote his own writings, thinking he was quoting others.

Archibald Colquhoun's description of Alessandro Manzoni does not inspire confidence in this man's artistic abilities. Yet Manzoni's only complete novel, The Betrothed, is a true masterpiece which skyrocketed onto my favorite books list within its first hundred pages. The plot is simple: in early 17th century Italy a wicked Spanish duke sets his eyes on the innocent betrothed maiden Lucia. His goons intimidate the cowardly parish priest into postponing her wedding to the poor tailor, Renzo. After the duke's violent acts force the engaged couple out of their home village, they are separated, and Manzoni spends the rest of the novel getting them back together.

Manzoni provides flesh to elements only traced in our modern epic films: a lawless aristocracy, riots, famine, war and plague all make their appearances. His characters include a saintly Capuchin monk with a murder in his past, a corrupt abbess forced into the convent by her princely father, a mercenary-assassin leader known only by the fearsome title "The Unnamed," the nephew of St. Charles Cardinal Frederigo Borromeo, and a man so learned he disproves the existence of the plague which is killing him and his family.

The scenes and descriptions of the Milanese plague are horrific, and the shadows of terror and freak mutations lurk behind every dead body, reminding us that we are only newly-protected from mass death. Manzoni's discussions of plague control provide a cautionary tale for any government official planning for a pandemic: "The sick were not reported, undertakers and their superiors were bribed, and junior officials of the Tribunal itself, deputed by it to visit the corpses, issued false certificates, at a price." Undertakers deliberately spread plague to ensure further business, while the sick, sometimes after being robbed of all their valuables, were taken to the Lazaretto. The Lazaretto itself provokes comparisons to New Orleans' Superdome, and indeed the entire city during Katrina: nobody wanted to go where they were ordered to go, while paranoid rumor and mob violence walked hand in hand in a city out of control.

The book is suffused with Christian imagery and themes: sin, redemption, and grace are never unnoticable features. Colquhoun, the translator of the Everyman edition which I read with delight, suggests the work is in some ways a response to Voltaire's Candide. Unlike Panglossian optimism, Manzoni's Christians do not deny the cross but embrace it.

I have quoted Manzoni's novel previously, but he deserves a further collection for his expert phrases and visceral insights:

Laws came down like hail; crimes were recounted and particularized with minute prolixity; penalties were absurdly exorbitant; and if that were not enough, capable of augmentation in almost every case, at the will of the legislator himself and of a hundred executives; the forms of procedure studied only how to liberate the judge from every impediment in the way of passing a sentence of condemnation; the sketches we have given of the proclamations against the bravoes are a feeble but true index of this. Notwithstanding, or rather in great measure for this reason, these proclamations, republished and reenforced by one government after another, served only to attest most magniloquently the impotence of their authors; or if they produced any immediate effect, it was for the most part to add new vexations to those already suffered by the peaceable and helpless at the hands of the turbulent, and to increase the violence and cunning of the latter. Impunity was organized and implanted so deeply that its roots were untouched, or at least unmoved, by these proclamations.

On the parish priest:
Don Abbondio, continually absorbed in thoughts about his own security, cared not at all for those advantages which risked a little to secure a great deal. His system was to escape all opposition, and to yield where he could not escape. In all the frequent contests carried on around him between the clergy and laity, in the perpetual collision between officials and the nobility, between the nobility and magistrates, between bravoes and soldiers, down to the pitched battle between two rustics, arising from a word, and decided with fists or poniards, an unarmed neutrality was his chosen position. If he were absolutely obliged to take a part, he favoured the stronger, always, however, with a reserve, and an endeavour to show the other that he was not willingly his enemy. It seemed as if he would say, �Why did you not manage to be stronger? I would have taken your side then.� Keeping a respectful distance from the powerful; silently bearing their scorn, when capriciously shown in passing instances; answering with submission when it assumed a more serious and decided form; obliging, by his profound bows and respectful salutations, the most surly and haughty to return him a smile, when he met them by the way; the poor man had performed the voyage of sixty years without experiencing any very violent tempests.

On mankind:
I leave it to the reader to think how the journey was enjoyed by those poor creatures[chickens], so bound together, and held by the feet with their heads downwards, in the hand of a man who, agitated by so many passions, accompanied with appropriate gesture the thoughts which rushed tumultuously through his mind; and in moments of anger or determination, suddenly extending his arm, inflicted terrible shocks upon them, and caused those four pendent heads to bob violently, if we may be allowed the expression; they, meanwhile, vigorously applying themselves to peck each other, as too often happens among friends in adversity.

Here are the words of a lawyer kowtowing to his criminal employer:
"For, you see, if you know how to manipulate proclamations properly, no one's guilty and no one's innocent."

Here is a description of an aristocrat, resembling many an internet blogger:
"The words of a strong and wicked man sting, but not for long. He can grow angry at your suspicions of him and yet make you feel at the same time that they are justified; he can insult you and make himself out to be the injured party, jeer at you and pretend he is in the right, bully and yet complain, flaunt his vices, and yet be irreproachable."

Manzoni saw through all governmental price-fixing schemes, describing one price-regulating government official thusly:
"He acted like a woman past her first youth who thinks she will grow younger by altering her birth certificate."

Manzoni also captures in words a phenomenon I have long seen in crowds, yet never noticed:
"and everyone rose up on tiptoe and turned to look in the direction where this unexpected arrival had been announced. As they all rose up, they saw exactly the same as if they had kept their heels on the ground; but so it was, they all rose."

So, too, does the author keenly attack those who routinely invoke prudence as a justification for inactivity:
"they may have been the kind of prudent folk who shrink from virtue as from vice, and are for ever preaching that perfection lies in the middle--and fix the middle just at the exact point where they have arrived themselves and are comfortably settled."

On governmental excess, again:
"Anyone who can imagine such an edict being executed must have a pretty good imagination; and certainly, if all the edicts issued at that time had been executed, the duchy of Milan would have had as many of its citizens on the high seas as England has today."

And on human nature:
"we mortals are generally like that: we rebel furiously and violently against mediocre evils, and bow down in silence under extreme ones; we endure, not from resignation but from stupidity, the very extremes of what we had at first called quite unendurable."

Yet again on useless laws:
it was a common thing in those days, as various parts of this story show, for decrees both general and particular to remain a dead-letter unless they had been put into effect in the first place, or unless there was some powerful private animosity to keep them alive--they were rather like bullets which once they have missed their target lie on the ground where they worry no one any longer. This was a necessary consequence of the great facility with which such decrees were scattered about. Man's activity is limited; and the more of it is put into giving orders, the less goes into carrying them out. What goes into the sleeves cannot go into the gussets."

And a few remarks upon the obvious:
"This was the beginning also of Don Ferrante's troubles. As long as he did nothing but jeer at the opinion that there was a plague, he found ready and willing ears everywhere; for it is amazing how great the authority of a learned man is when he wants to prove to others things of which they are already convinced."

Finally, the words of Manzoni's peasant Renzo, who had been abused by knowledgable obscurantists like myself:
"That's not the Latin that frightens me: that's an honest sacrosanct Latin, that of the Mass; and you have to read what's in the book, too. I mean that rascally Latin outside church, that comes at one unawares in the middle of a conversation."

Wit and wisdom abound in this most rewarding and commendable book.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Christus Resurrexit!

Kristos anesti ek nekrwn
Thanatoi thanatwn patisas,
kai tois in tois mnemasi
Zoen karisamenos

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Famine of Humility

The most detailed survey of Christianity to be published in recent years is Mircea Eliade’s sixteen-volume The Encyclopedia of Religion. This work seeks to provide a comprehensive summary of current knowledge of religion, but it contains no entries for “humility” and “pride.” In the course of the last three centuries the central moral teaching of Christianity concerning humility seems to have faded away so completely that entries for this virtue of Christ and the sin of the devil are not found in an encyclopedia of religion. The editorial team of The Encyclopedia of Religion also deemed it unnecessary to have entries for “vice,” “virtue,” “envy,” “hypocrisy” or "flesh."

A more recent example of what appears to be an impressive change in the meaning of Christian morality can be found in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (2000). The editors of this 750-page collection described their purpose as “to provide a lively introduction, at once authoritative and accessible, to a living tradition of thought central to the western world.” The editors believed that the articles “pr
ovide a pretty fair impression of Christian thought as it flourishes today.” The introduction has no entries for “humility” and “pride.” A careful search uncovered a brief discussion of pride under “sin,” but there was no trace of the specifics of humility. In contrast, there were entries for “sexuality” and “chastity.” In modern religion, silence about humility and pride coexists with an intense interest in Christianity’s teachings about sexual morals.

The most recent summary of Christianity to be published in the United States is the Encyclopedia of Christian Theology edited by Jean-Yves Lacoste. This three-volume work follows the path laid out by Eliade and The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. There are no entries for humility and pride. Furthermore, a survey of the volumes uncovered no “hidden” discussions of this virtue and its cognate vice; humility and pride simply are not aspects of the “Christianity” described in this encyclopedia.

-Kari Konkola, Have We Lost Humility? (PDF)

Surfeits of Certification

Collins, for instance, marvels at the common notion that producing more degree-holders will help more people achieve the American Dream, claiming the concept “has a kind of dog-chasing-its-tail quality to it.” Increasing the number of credentialed people competing for a finite number of jobs tends to ratchet up the educational requirements for those jobs without increasing anyone’s income. “Imagine if we said we want every school in the country to have a championship football team, that every team should win 90 percent of its games,” he says. “People would recognize the flaw in that thinking. But we say that about education all the time.”

Says Berg, “More and more lower-income people are attending college at higher rates than they ever did before. And they are taking jobs way below what college degrees would have gotten them years ago.” Graduates burdened by student loans discover that the job market is so glutted that they can’t find work that pays well enough to discharge their debts. “It’s a real menace,” he adds. “These kids are mortgaged to the hilt.”
* * *

The dirty secret in the article title is Collins’ observation that credential inflation keeps universities flush with tuition dollars, which help to finance the livelihoods of senior faculty such as himself. “Most intellectuals in liberal society, we take it pretty much as an article of faith that we need to expand education,” he says. “It’s also for us a rather self-serving argument. It provides our positions.”
Failing Grades

via Stuart Buck

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"One of the surprising and unique faculties of the Christian religion is its ability to guide and console anyone who has recourse to it in any juncture on no matter what terms. If there is any remedy for the past, it prescribes and supplies it, gives the light and strength to apply it, at whatever cost; if there is none, it provides the means of carrying it out in reality the proverb about making a virtue of necessity. It teaches people to pursue steadily what they have begun lightly; it inclines the mind to accept willingly what has been imposed by force, and gives to a rash but irrevocable choice all the sanctity, all the wisdom and, let us even say boldly, all the joys of a vocation. It is a path so made that by whatever labyrinth or precipice man may reach it, once he takes the first step, he can thenceforward walk safely and cheerfully along it and arrive happily at a happy end."
-Allesandro Manzoni, The Betrothed

This translation from Archibald Colquhoun was the edition I read. I find it superior to the Bartleby version:

It is one of the peculiar and incommunicable properties of the Christian religion, that she can afford guidance and repose to all who, under whatever circumstances, or in whatever exigence, have recourse to her. If there is a remedy for the past, she prescribes it, administers it, and lends light and energy to put it in force, at whatever cost; if there is none, she teaches how to do that effectually and in reality, which the world prescribes proverbially, — make a virtue of necessity. She teaches how to continue with discretion what is thoughtlessly undertaken; she inclines the mind to cleave steadfastly to what was imposed upon it by authority; and imparts to a choice which, though rash at the time, is now irrevocable, all the sanctity, all the advisedness, and, let us say it boldly, all the cheerfulness of a lawful calling. Here is a path so constructed that, let a man approach it by what labyrinth or precipice he may, he sets himself, from that moment, to walk in it with security and readiness, and at once begins to draw towards a joyful end.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Leftist-Islamic Alliance

Bruce Bawer has put together an overview of the more reasoned anti-Islamic polemicists in his Hudson Review essay Crisis in Europe. Some select quotations:

One of the highlights of Warraq’s book is his fascinating discussion of European authors and scholars whose less than fully informed infatuation with Islam yielded benign images that helped shape modern Western perceptions of Muslim culture and belief. Both Voltaire and Gibbon, for example, admired Islam’s lack of a priestly class and its supposed rationalism and enlightenment; Carlyle, who had a soft spot for tyrants, admired the Muslim predilection for strong leaders. These and others found Islam a useful stick with which to beat Christianity. Warraq, in short, strongly rejects Western “orientalism”—but unlike Edward Said, who rejected it on the grounds that outsiders’ interpretations of Arab and Islamic culture are by their very nature culturally biased and thus illegitimate, Warraq rejects it for its romantic refusal to look squarely at uncomfortable realities.


Fallaci followed this book with La Forza del Raggione (The Force of Reason), in which she charged that the left, like Islam, “regards itself as kissed by a god of Goodness and Truth. Like Islam it never admits guilt or error. . . . It is no coincidence that ninety-five percent of the Italians who convert to Islam come from the left. . . .”


At the center of her[Bat Ye'or's] story is something called the Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD), a joint initiative of the EU and Arab governments whose meetings are closed, proceedings unpublished, and activities thus “shielded from scrutiny and democratic control.” One result of the EAD’s efforts has been the institutionalization, in European media, schools, and universities, of a strict political correctness that has bred a reflexive antagonism toward the U.S. and Israel and that brooks no criticism of Arab governments or immigrants. Europeans, writes Ye’or, have unwittingly endured “thirty years of constant indoctrination,” and while most of them “harbor no hate,” a culture of animosity toward America, Jews, and Israel has indeed been thrust upon them and has, despite “the enormous gap between Eurocrat theorists and the European population,” had an inevitable effect, as manifested, for example, in the massive anti-American demonstrations that have taken place in European cities in recent years.

Leo Strauss as an Anti-Incarnational Thinker

That so many Christian intellectuals, particularly Roman Catholics, have incorporated Straussian anti-historicism into their thinking is indicative of philosophical poverty as well as gullibility, not to say suicidal tendencies. These Christians appear not to take very seriously that, in addition to Scripture and reason, mainstream Christianity has cited tradition as one of its pillars. Or perhaps these intellectuals simply have not understood that Strauss’s attack upon “historicism” is, among other things, an attack upon tradition. Many Thomistically inclined thinkers seem not even to have noticed that Strauss’s disparagement of convention as incompatible with philosophy runs counter to the close connection seen
by Aquinas between natural law and custom. Aquinas writes that “if something is done a number of times it seems to be the result of a deliberate rational decision.” He senses that the authority of long-standing custom has something to do with its both contributing to and being informed by reason. Though Thomas is far from having Burke’s more consciously historical awareness, his notion of natural law is quite different from Strauss’s ahistorical conception of natural right, which helps explain Strauss’s barely concealed disdain for Thomas as a philosopher in Natural Right
and History
. Thomas is not so much a philosopher, Strauss says, as one codifying Christian belief and practice. Thomas’s notion of natural law, says Strauss, is “practically inseparable not only from natural theology—i.e., from a natural theology which is, in fact, based on belief in biblical revelation—but even from revealed theology.”

A point of wider philosophical interest is that many Christians seem not to realize that to accept the Straussian ahistorical notions of philosophy and right is to accept the proposition that synthesis between the universal and the historical is impossible. But to accept such an idea is, among other things, to reject the central
Christian idea of incarnation, the possibility of the “Word” becoming “flesh.” Only lack of philosophical sophistication and discernment could have made so many Christians receptive to a doctrine that strikes at the heart of their own professed beliefs. Some Christian thinkers, including Thomists who are today slowly awakening
to Straussianism’s being in some ways problematic, seem to imagine that as long as they hold to their traditional religious beliefs and practices their Straussian intellectual habits will not do any harm. But to retain the habits of ahistoricism is to contribute to the erosion of Christian intellectual culture as well as to close
off access to some of the most important philosophical advances in human history.
-Claes Ryn, Leo Strauss and History: The Philosopher as Conspirator (PDF)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

More on "Doctor Doom" Pianka

A detailed follow-up to the professor who allegedly exhibited enthusiasm for a plague which would wipe out humanity. The evidence favors the conclusion that he perversely enjoys the thought of mass death, but he isn't taking any particular steps to further the die-off. Not particularly reassuring.

On further reflection, I remembered that at one time I had a lot in common with Pianka. I remember making similarly stupid remarks about how the cockroach was superior to mankind, and would survive long after we were wiped out. I think I had picked up the idea from a pop-science magazine, or maybe OMNI. I revelled in stories about ebola, like The Hot Zone or The Coming Plague. I read and re-read the first few hundred pages of Stephen King's The Stand, in which 99.7% of humanity dies after a bioweapon accident.

But I did this in my mid-teens.

There is a curious phenomenon about accusations of bias. It is considered bigotry to have a special loathing for one or two forms of religion, but to loathe them all, curiously, is often reckoned to be Enlightened. To contemn certain sections of the human species is prejudiced, but to belittle the entire human species as a cancer upon the earth is to state a disinterested point of view. To know how such unbiased observers avoid self-loathing would be to know a deep paradox of human psychology.

Sad to say, the day seems fast approaching when oaths declaring one's loyalty to the human species will be suspect and "speciesist," to use a barbaric neologism. Charges of obscurantism and censoriousness are already flying against the journalist who exposed this death-wisher.

One has to be rather cracked to devote oneself to the study of reptiles, but we should prefer eccentrics like P.G. Wodehouse's newt-obsessed bachelor to schadenfreude-addicts like Pianka.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Bill Ritter Surrenders to the Pro-Aborts

I figured it was too good to be true. I had just plugged a putatively pro-life Democratic gubernatorial candidate here in Colorado, former Denver DA Bill Ritter, and then I learn he's just like the rest of them. Addressing a Boulder Dem women's group, the abortion question came up. Ritter sez:

"I don't think we have a conversation in this day about abortion that involves criminalizing it where doctors or women are concerned.

"Because it makes it a crime, we oppose it. I'd veto this bill."
Rocky Mountain News

Well, Mr. Ritter, maybe it's your duty to start this conversation in the Democratic party? Especially since your earlier remarks gave the impression you would support criminalizing abortion.

Ritter's also jumped on the "emergency contraception" bandwagon, endorsing a proposed law to make it available without a prescription. So now there's even less of a reason for already lusty teenagers to keep their pants on, and one less argument for any girl who resists her boyfriend. The drug's significant abortifacient effects compound the problem, and any pharmacists with moral reservations will face even more hurdles in their profession.

I'm especially disappointed because I once saw Bill Ritter speak at Theology on Tap on Catholic faith in public life. At that time, he said were he faced with prosecuting an obviously unjust law, the only ethical way out would be to resign. This gave him an air of conscientiousness in my mind. I have since heard rumors that as District Attorney he made an executive decision not to investigate credible reports of statutory rapists escorting their underage victims into the local abortuary, despite mandatory sex abuse reporting laws. Seeing his ethical flexibility here, I'm more inclined to believe such rumors.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

-G.K. Chesterton, for Palm Sunday

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Gospel of Judas According to Jorge Luis Borges

The tiresome and hidebound traditions of Easter are upon us again. I speak not of Easter Bunnies, jellybeans, and dyed eggs, nor joyous Christians proclaiming that "Christ is Risen, Indeed!" but rather I refer to the obligatory trashing of Christian orthodoxy arising as if automatically from the Anything But Christianity factions of the American media. The upcoming release of The Da Vinci Code has brought out the worst in this sector.

National Geographic, once an institution of deserved admiration, has cashed in its reputation to sensationalize a new collection of papyri called the Gospel of Judas, mimicking Dan Brown's contention that orthodox Christianity covered up "what really happened." Many other competent efforts have already been written to deride and to debunk the dismal tabloid-quality "true histories" appearing in the national press, and some of these writings have been ably collected in one location by the enviable Amy Welborn.

Therefore to avoid redundant whippings of those tiresome irreverent hipsters who are denouncing orthodox Christianity as squaresville, I'll simply excerpt an acknowledged work of fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. His story titled "Three Versions of Judas" has the style of a thinly-disguised imaginary scholarly article. Borges creates a theologian by the name of Nils Runeberg, who through the course of his research develops several different understandings of Judas Iscariot. To the excerpt:

The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears the following categorical epigraph, whose meaning, years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously expand: "Not one, but all of the things attributed by tradition to Judas Iscariot are false." Preceded by a German, De Quincey speculated that Judas reported Jesus to the authorities in order to force him to reveal his divinity and thus ignite a vast rebellion against the tyranny of Rome...

These fictional thelogians' ruminations resemble a recent controversy over the role of Judas, which focused upon the proper translation of the Greek word "paradidomi." Judas, the argument held, actually just "handed over" instead of "betrayed" Christ, for reasons described in words similar to those of Borges. This controversy was likewise reported in an utterly predicatable fit of anti-orthodox media frenzy. It would be very amusing to think that this artificial news story could have begun with a lazy theologian paging through the stories of the magical realist Borges.

Another later development in the thought of Borges' "Runeberg" begins with Isaiah 52:2-3: "For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." Borges describes the eccentric's exegesis as follows:

...for Runeberg, the punctual prophesy not of a moment but of the whole atrocious future, in time and in eternity, of the Word made flesh. God made Himself totally a man but a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of reprobation and the abyss.

Judging from what little I have read of Hans Urs von Balthasar's more elaborate and probably heretical ruminations on Good Friday and the descent into hell. Balthasar pushed the idea of Christ's self-emptying kenosis up to, if not past, the breaking point seeming at times to separate the person of Christ from the Trinity itself. Paradoxically, there is a prima facie similarity between Borges' heretic and one of the most prominent and least disobedient Catholic theologians of the twentieth century! But Borges continues:

To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all: He was Judas.

Unlike von Balthasar, who died a cardinal-elect, The fictonal theologian's life did not end well:

Drunk with insomnia and vertiginous dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered through the streets of Malmo, begging at the top of his voice that he be granted the grace of joining his Redeemer in Hell.

Like Runeberg, all the faddish heresies on display this year end up calling hell the true Heaven. This revolutionary(!) secret has been improbably but effectively hidden by the unthinking dogmatists of the Christian church for two millennia, until courageous journalists and free-thinking professors bring the truth to light in their writings--now in paperback and coming soon to the big screen! By some trick of logic, this ancient church is supposed to have been simultaneously entirely corrupt and obscurantist, yet also omnicompetent in its suppression of this heresy, which was of course the real orthodoxy. To expand a Chestertonian aphorism: if the Catholic Church was not founded by Christ, it was indubitably founded by Antichrist.

And so polemics have come full-circle, and elite media is once again voicing the anti-papal polemics of the Reformation, this time combining such harsh words with a luciferian antipathy towards God Himself.

Lord, have mercy on our human folly!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Paradoxes of War

In this, Stout sidesteps the central paradox of the conflict and of many conflicts since — namely, that the more moral a war seems to be at the outset, the greater the moral compromise it may eventually require. A war entered for limited, national-interest aims can be fought in a limited fashion and brought to an end once certain objectives have been attained. But when you heighten the moral purpose of a war, you raise the stakes as well, to the point where any conclusion short of victory feels a failure and any means appears to justify a triumphant end.

Upon the Altar of the Nation repeatedly founders on this contradiction. Stout wants to praise Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, while blistering the North for its refusal to abandon the “central cultural principle of white supremacy and the politics of apartheid.” Yet this fine-sounding moralism is in tension with his eagerness to criticize Lincoln for allowing the old West Point code to be suspended, to blame Grant for never blinking at the cost in blood of his “if it takes all summer” strategy, to condemn Sherman for the suffering sown by his March to the Sea. What Stout never seems to consider is that it was precisely because the war changed in the Northern imagination from a limited struggle to a moral crusade — for emancipation, at least, if not equality — that it eventually seemed necessary not only to defeat the South but to conquer it, to end not only a government but a way of life. The more noble the war’s purposes, the greater the necessity to carry on to victory, no matter the cost — and the greater the necessity, too, that the South should not only lose but howl. The excesses of Sherman’s March to the Sea were implicit in the logic of the Emancipation Proclamation and the noble phrases of the Second Inaugural.
Ross Douthat, "The North, the South, and God"
via MercatorNet

Douthat explains at greater length my fear that America's wars are almost always revolutionary, even neo-Jacobinical. The idea of fighting simply for self-interest seems bourgeois and banal, not a sufficient motive for spilling the blood of our young men. (The exsanguination of our enemies' fighting youth is hardly ever a debated concern.) To this mindset, an ultimate sacrifice requires ultimate principles, and from there the utter vindication of such principles. Hence ideological hawks are incredibly resistant to any jus ad bellum and sometimes even jus in bello ethical constraints. Revolutionaries dismiss such limitations as barriers to total victory. "Limited war" is perceived to be an oxymoron; we must sin, so let us "sin boldly" in battle. Douthat continues:

This paradox extends beyond the battlefields of the Civil War to any conflict that seeks a kind of cosmic justice or takes on the flavor of a crusade. The ends don’t justify the means, but if your ends seem important enough — the end of slavery in the nineteenth century, the defeat of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the twentieth — well, which leader is prepared to sacrifice jus ad bello for the sake of jus in bello and lose a greater justice for a smaller one? If you’re fighting to “end all wars” or to “end evil” — to borrow one of the more sweeping definitions of our present conflict — then doesn’t every weapon need to be considered, every measure allowed?

He ends with a remark on the tensions between Christian just war ethics and warfare, though without much comment. It is an opinion that would require another essay to explain. My own great concern is that, while our military men are taught Just War Theory by professional soldiers and chaplains with earnest concern, politicians and diplomats are taught about Just War by cynical "Realist" professors with sneering contempt. David B. Hart described one of the former earnest teachers being placed in the unhappy position of arguing: "Christians must both obey the principles of just war and also resign themselves to fighting at the behest of a political order that has not necessarily placed itself under the sway of those principles." This is a tension that is not going to abate any time soon.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On the Fiction of the New Edition of "Dappled Things"

I can't help but complain about the quality of the fiction in the journal Dappled Things. The stories suffer from flimsy characterization and saccharine plots. Two of the stories are little more than authors attempting to write autobiographies of fictional people, these people being mostly narcissistic. I blame the first person perspective and excessive concern for psychological descriptions.

The final story pretends to be set in the Great Depression, but the author makes several anachronistic howlers like calling a parish priest by his first name. The author also lifts his shallow group of church-ladies straight from Polyanna, WASPiness and all. In Polyanna such women were minor characters, yet they have not shed their extraneous character despite having been placed at center-stage. The story's own minor characters leave an even fainter impression.

Fortunately, Dappled Things is an amateur magazine. I might throw together something for it so that my own writing might become the object of criticism or even derision.

Monday, April 03, 2006

H.G. Wells: Precursor to "Dr. Doom" Pianka

To follow up on yesterday's post, I'll highlight a few "gotcha" quotes from H.G. Wells' lesser-known political writings. The first is from the forward to a book called The Pivot of Civilization, written by one of Wells' lovers:

The New Civilization is saying to the Old now: "We cannot go on making power for you to spend upon international conflict. You must stop waving flags and bandying insults. You must organize the Peace of the World; you must subdue yourselves to the Federation of all mankind. And we cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny. We want fewer and better children who can be reared up to their full possibilities in unencumbered homes, and we cannot make the social life and the world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict upon us."
Pivot of Civilization, Introduction

The Pivot of Civilization was a book agitating for Birth Control, written by the foundress of Planned Parenthood herself, Margaret Sanger.

H.G. Wells' book The New Republic also has some curt words for most of the world's population:

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? . . . the yellow man? . . . the Jew? . . . those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. . . . And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favor the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds. . . . And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness . . . is death. . . . The men of the New Republic . . . will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.
Quoted by Stephen Barr, The Devil's Chaplain Confounded

The parallel between Wells and Pianka is clear. Their juvenile endorsement of mass death belongs in the comic books, not in awards ceremonies. The modern scientific project was in many ways a charitable endeavor, founded "for the relief of man's estate," to use the words of Francis Bacon. The post-modern scientific project could very well relieve the estate of mankind's burden out of a diabolic sense of charity.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Mad Scientist Endorses Pandemic, Mass-Death

Every so often a story comes along where numerous lines of one's own thought intersect. This is such a story.

Forrest M. Mims III attended the most recent meeting of the Texas Academy of the Sciences. He was in the audience for a lecture by one Dr. Eric R. Pianka, an ecologist of some repute. Pianka's speech is the event occasioning this posting. In his story "Meeting Doctor Doom" (FR Mirror) Mims writes:
Something curious occurred a minute before Pianka began speaking. An official of the Academy approached a video camera operator at the front of the auditorium and engaged him in animated conversation. The camera operator did not look pleased as he pointed the lens of the big camera to the ceiling and slowly walked away. [...] Pianka began his speech by explaining that the general public is not yet ready to hear what he was about to tell us.

According to Mr. Mims, Pianka is a devotee of an ideology which, to use the phrase of David B. Hart, also deserves the moniker "almost comically vile."

One of Pianka's earliest points was a condemnation of anthropocentrism, or the idea that humankind occupies a privileged position in the Universe. He told a story about how a neighbor asked him what good the lizards are that he studies. He answered, “What good are you?”

Pianka hammered his point home by exclaiming, “We're no better than bacteria!”

Pianka then began laying out his concerns about how human overpopulation is ruining the Earth. He presented a doomsday scenario in which he claimed that the sharp increase in human population since the beginning of the industrial age is devastating the planet. He warned that quick steps must be taken to restore the planet before it's too late.

Chillingly, Professor Pianka went on to endorse mass death as a way of culling 90% of the human population. He voiced kind words for the Ebola Virus--a vicious hemmhoragic fever--and Avian Flu. Mims' description continues, with a scene from the Q & A period:

After noting that the audience did not represent the general population, a questioner asked, "What kind of reception have you received as you have presented these ideas to other audiences that are not representative of us?"

Pianka replied, "I speak to the converted!"

Pianka also noted the Return of Patriarchy thesis, which posits that conservatives make more babies than liberals. He describes it this way:

He spoke glowingly of the police state in China that enforces their one-child policy. He said, "Smarter people have fewer kids." He said those who don't have a conscience about the Earth will inherit the Earth, "...because those who care make fewer babies and those that didn't care made more babies." He said we will evolve as uncaring people, and "I think IQs are falling for the same reason, too."

The reaction of the audience, supposedly reasonable men and women of a scientific temperament, is even more disturbing:
With this, the questioning was over. Immediately almost every scientist, professor and college student present stood to their feet and vigorously applauded the man who had enthusiastically endorsed the elimination of 90 percent of the human population. Some even cheered. Dozens then mobbed the professor at the lectern to extend greetings and ask questions.

Fortunately such adulation was not unanimouis. Mims continues:

I was assigned to judge a paper in a grad student competition after the speech. On the way, three professors dismissed Pianka as a crank. While waiting to enter the competition room, a group of a dozen Lamar University students expressed outrage over the Pianka speech.

I hope Mims has misrepresented these presumedly prestigious scientists. But Dr. Pianka has a student who blogged the same lecture confirming Mims' account of the event:

Dr. Pianka's talk at the TAS meeting was mostly of the problems humans are causing as we rapidly proliferate around the globe. While what he had to say is way too vast to remember it all, moreover to relay it here in this blog, the bulk of his talk was that he's waiting for the virus that will eventually arise and kill off 90% of human population. In fact, his hope, if you can call it that, is that the ebola virus which attacks humans currently (but only through blood transmission) will mutate with the ebola virus that attacks monkeys airborne to create an airborne ebola virus that attacks humans. He's a radical thinker, that one! I mean, he's basically advocating for the death of all but 10% of the current population! And at the risk of sounding just as radical, I think he's right. [Bold mine. -kjj]

At this same meeting of the Texas Academy of the Sciences conference, Dr. Pianka was named 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist. If a significant number of TAS members share Pianka's views, I shudder for both the future of science and of humanity. Mims himself worries a zealous disciple of this man learned in the sciences of communicable diseases could trigger a scenario of mass murder so far reserved only for Science Fiction tales.

I suspect Pianka's ideas parallel the National Security Study Memorandum 200, composed in 1974 under the supervision of none other than Henry Kissinger. If so, this man is representative of our very own ruling class. Further reading may yield more commentary in the future.

For the present, I'll just wrap this up. Denunciations of anthropocentrism inevitably descend into misanthropy. Give me that old time humanism, please.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

On Beauty in the Catholic Liturgy

My constant complaint is that "aesthetic" has come to mean only one thing, "superficial." Fortunately I'm not the only one who has noticed this shift in connotation:

One commonly hears criticisms of those who prefer the classical Rite along the lines that such persons are "mere aesthetes", as if a love of beauty[Philokalia! -kjj] has nothing to do with being a Catholic. After 30 years of "accommodationist" practices, even Catholics who are loyal to the magisterium are starting to think like Calvinists. The general attitude is: form and substance are two different things, and we only care about substance. Anyone who cares about form is labelled an "aesthete" and "aesthetes" should be contained in places like Oxbridge common rooms and Anglican country vicarages. The logic of this position is that Catholics must be, by definition, tone deaf philistines whose levels of intellectual life are sufficiently low to exclude the ability to see a relationship between form and substance.
Tracey Rowland, "The Pastoral Relevance of Beauty"