Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Pains of Liberties

The quintessential object of the orator of liberty of enjoyment is to make the listener feel that his home is threatened; the quintessential object of the other is to make him feel that his rights are oppressed. With the first, he is called to a duty of defense and protection; called as a citizen, a father, an inheritor of a tradition worth preserving. With the second, he is called to an adventure of progress or advancement; and called as an individual, or called as a member of a collective abstraction, i.e., the People. In a crisis the former aims at reformation, restoration, repair; the latter, revolution.
-Paul Cella, The Two Freedoms

Maybe I am a killjoy, but Paul Cella's "liberty of enjoyment" sounds too hedonistic to me. As he frames it, the pleasures of liberty are tempered and restrained by community and duty, which is certainly not hedonism. Perhaps I am merely sick of pleasure and all things redolent of it.

Yet it is no great observation to say that liberty hurts. Perhaps the small and good liberties of life do not hurt as much as the power-obsessed capitalized Liberty of the ideologue, but they often rest uneasy on the shoulders of men. Freedom pains those enslaved, like even a small virtue pains the habitually vicious; but freedom also pains the free. There is a hint of this grief in Cella's line about the orator making a man feel his home is threatened. (Must all orators be petty tyrants reliant on threats?)

Preserving one's self self-rule is laborious. Eternal vigilance, and all that. Chesterton compares the work inherent in this conservatism to a post in need of regular whitewashing. There seem to be pleasures even in a life of slavery, where one's needs are met by someone else in exchange for avoiding free labors. Acknowledging and debunking that perverse enjoyment must be a part of any discussion of liberty.

Local Art

I've been informed that an acquaintance of mine, Ron Zito, has a website displaying his paintings. Though I was not impressed by the first images I saw on his site, I dug a bit deeper. There are some stunningly good prints. As Plato says, at the sight of beauty the soul sprouts wings.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Nuke in a Box Scare-a-thon

Right Reason asks its readers: how likely is a nuke-attack?

Another probability must be considered: What is the likelihood a prospective nuclear attack will be used as a scare-tactic by irrational, though (for argument's sake) well-meaning political and journalistic actors? Can we any longer tell a fearmongerer from a prudent man?

As I have been over-fond of asking: Is it safe to panic?

The hypothetical of a nuke cloud over DC was used to short-circuit argument all the time in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Jack Bauer situations are even now used to try to silence rational objections to torture. The abusive effect of such hypotheticals is lasting, grave, and certain.

The panic-button potential of the question is at least as weighty a matter as an actual attack.

My own opinion, as ill-formed as anyone's: an attack using nothing more than box cutters, a few hours of flight training, and surprise is an operation on a totally different scale than that required to acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon. I gauge it more likely that my panic-button will be pressed for evil ends than that a nuclear incident will take place.
Religious faith is always personal, but it’s never private. It always has social consequences, or it isn’t real. And this is why any definition of “tolerance” that tries to turn religious faith into a private idiosyncrasy, or a set of personal opinions that we can have at home but that we need to be quiet about in public, is doomed to fail.


I think the word tolerance itself is a kind of problem. Tolerance comes from the Latin words tolerare, which means to bear or sustain, and tollere, which means to lift up. It implies bearing other people and their beliefs the way we bear a burden or a really nasty migraine headache. It’s a negative. And it’s not a Christian virtue.
-Archbishop Charles Chaput, On the Square

I am particularly partial to that last paragraph, for it backs my side of a cheerful argument I have had with my pastor. The first selection touches on an important distinction.

One of the severest mistakes of modern political life is to equate everything public with the governmental. Public works, public office, public goods, all connote opposition between the private and the governmental, rather than make distinctions between varieties of public life. The same failure goes for the word social; witness "social work" and high school "social studies." Even the fading industry of publicity in the Old Media has been a de facto secular institutions.

Perhaps this secularization is a side-effect of no single religious confession having numerical dominance. In our base quantitative age the public is assumed to be the most general, which means the most non-confessional is the true public. That this enables the chirping sectaries of secularism is yet another unhappy accident.

At times, one will find remnants of the public life in the liturgy of the church: public professions of faith, or public vows in a marriage ceremony, or public sinners who ought not present themselves to receive communion. Yet these uses of the word are almost vestigal in their current relation to the Public. The word "Liturgy" itself does not mean the "people's work," as the poor catechist's saw would have it. but--in a curious parallel to modern phraseology--it instead means a public work or service. Would that the Divine Liturgy were again more Public!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Brownback not pro-torture after all?

Perhaps I was too hasty reading an endorsement of torture in Brownback's remarks. A little clarity would have been nice. Brownback combines the oddest sort of aggression with the demeanor of a pushover. It's hard to gauge someone who entertains thoughts of compassionately bombing Darfur.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Single-Issue Voters" Imperiled

Debating in Ronald Reagan’s shadow in Simi Valley, there were plenty of Republican presidential hopefuls willing to deviate on social issues like embryo-destructive stem-cell research, but only one dissenter on the Iraq War—ten-term Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.
W. James Antle

Some of my friends and acquaintances, who are otherwise pro-life, have suggested they'd vote for a pro-choice GOP hawk over an anti-war Democrat. They fear the wars going awry that much. Will war be both the "health of the State" and the death of the pro-life movement? Wartime has a persistent way of demanding domestic surrenders for the sake of victory on the battlefield, and such voters are already tying their white handkerchiefs to their sticks.

Now to the debates.

Senator Brownback, for whom I have a slight inclination to vote, received a question on torture and compromised himself:
You've described a situation where American lives have been lost and we think more are pending to lose. And I think your real question you have to have here as the chief executive, as the leader of the country, what are you measuring here? Is your primary concern U.S. lives or is it how you're going to be perceived in the world? And my standard is U.S. lives, and I'm going to do everything within my power to protect U.S. lives, period.

I will do it. I'll move aggressively forward on it. If we have to later ask and say, "Well, it shouldn't quite have been done this way or that way," that's the way it is. But the standard must be protection of U.S. lives. That's the job of president of the United States, and I would take it seriously, and I would do it.

The art of being compromised sure isn't pretty. Brownback did not respond to the torture question explicitly, but his meaning is clear enough. We are to flee death, which runs faster than unrighteousness.

Colorado's Rep. Tancredo also did not acquit himself well:

Well, let me just say that it's almost unbelievable to listen to this in a way. We're talking about -- we're talking about it in such a theoretical fashion. You say that -- that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States, more are planned, and we're wondering about whether waterboarding would be a -- a bad thing to do? I'm looking for "Jack Bauer" at that time, let me tell you. (Laughter, applause.)

And -- and there is -- there is nothing -- if you are talking about -- I mean, we are the last best hope of Western civilization. And so all of the theories that go behind our activities subsequent to these nuclear attacks going off in the United States, they go out the window because when -- when we go under, Western civilization goes under. So you better take that into account, and you better do every single thing you can as president of the United States to make sure, number one, it doesn't happen -- that's right -- but number two, you better respond in a way that makes them fearful of you because otherwise you guarantee something like this will happen.

If torture is a necessary practice of Western civilization, I sure hope America is not one of its few hopes. Notice the abandonment of the one true Hope who is Christ?

When faced with a choice between nationalism and piety, even Theocons go for the secular messiah and the ideology of antichrist.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ever-present Qualia as an Object of Study

Try sitting outdoors in a natural landscape for half an hour. After quieting yourself and becoming as receptive as possible to the surrounding world, consider this: Is there any content here beside the purely qualitative? From the sky and the distant hill to the grass, pine needles, or soil beneath your feet, do you not have to say, “The world I am experiencing simply is its qualities”? How many of us, during years or decades of creative work, will put such a problem to ourselves in this direct, observational, scientifically sanctioned way, as opposed to thinking about the problem in our studies or laboratories, with our thought mediated by a vast network of mental abstractions?

Now try subtracting from the content of your observation everything qualitative. In the case of the tree over there, remove the green of the foliage, the gray of the bark, the smell of sap, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, the felt hardness of the trunk...and what do you have left? Nothing at all. You do not even have geometric form, since without light and color there is no visible form, and without the different qualities of touch there is no felt form. Form is not something independent that we proceed to flesh out with qualities; it subsists in nothing but the qualities themselves.

-Steve Talbott, The Language of Nature

Talbott's piece is a defense of qualities against the all-quantifying intellectual devices of popular scientific inquiry. Though I have ceased to practice with zeal the wordplay of the amateur philosopher, I've long wondered how such a hard distinction between qualities and quantities endures. The quantifiable shares that very quality, after all.

Talbott goes on to emphasize the epistemological priority of qualia:

Objects changing their positions in space may give us certain mathematically describable relationships, but so, too, can points on a piece of graph paper. No one takes these points to be exerting a physical force upon each other. Neither could we think of planets as exerting a force upon each other unless we had an independent concept of force. As the graph paper illustrates, the mathematical relationships alone do not give us such a concept. Think about it all you wish, but a force is something real in the world, and you will never find a concept for it except through your own experience of the world.

Or as another quotation puts it, "You use the word 'force' and, when queried, you define it by law, field, and vector; but what you really have in mind is the force you feel in commanding your muscles." Science piggybacks upon metaphors analogically understood.

Scientific Historical Fiction

Via Mark Shea, an enjoyable story of historical fiction that fleshes out the medieval predecessors of modern science:
If you stand on the mountain peak of any great age and gaze toward the past, you may spy in the purpled west the jagged range of another great age. And make no mistake: those distant peaks mark as great an age as any, and there were giants on the earth, men whose names ought never be forgotten:

Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux; Blanche of Castile and Good King Louis; Hildegarde of Bingen, “the Sybil of the Rhine.” Robert of Chester, Adelard of Bath, Peter of Cluny. They are all “of” somewhere, but they go everywhere. Abelard has returned to teaching and at his aged feet sit Arnold of Brescia and John of Salisbury. Young Eleanor of Aquitaine is the Queen of France and patroness of the troubadours. Oh, those were names to conjure with!

Michael Flynn's Quaestiones Super Caelo Et Mundo

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Old Irish Literature, in Brief

There's a nice little site with short quotations from Irish literature.

Some time back I noted a description of the virtues of Cuchulain, as well as St. Brigid's prayer. Both would fit well with this site.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Conservatives: No-Shows in Education

...consider the attitude Will’s shot at academia represents. If anyone wants an explanation for why the academy is dominated by the left and why the youngest cohort of voters has gone even more overwhelmingly for the Democrats than usual, you need look no further than precisely this sort of professional cop-out, giving up on educating the next generation for the sake of the easy, cheap and ephemeral victories of politics. Every conservative out there complains about the declining standards of education, the ruin of the academy, the politicisation of the classroom and on and on, but what happens when it comes time to step up and do some of the educating themselves? They go to law school to get a "useful" degree, or go into politics or some other field where the "prospects" for the future are better, and then wonder how the media, academia, the arts and cinema have all been taken over by people who loathe everything they believe.
-Daniel Larison

Yep. It sometimes seems that the only prominent people who fight liberalism in the academy use the impotent weapons of bias accusations. Instead of doing the hard work that the left did to acquire dominance in their current strongholds, they wish for a government committee to sweep down and make conservatives--or, rather, Republican party members--eligible for affirmative action.