Friday, November 30, 2007

You lose, Khrushchev

Treasure Chest was a monthly comic book published by the Catholic Guild from 1946 to 1972. Each issue featured several different stories intended to inspire citizenship, morality, and patriotism. In the 1961, volume 17 number 2 issue, the story "This Godless Communism" began. It continued in the even numbered issues through number 20. The entire story is presented here.

The first comic in the series, which I spent far too much time skimming, imagines what a communist America would look like. The series then plunges into a brief illustrated history of communism.

According to another site, the comics were distributed to parochial school students.

I especially enjoyed the last pages of the series, which include counsels to pray to Our Lady of Fatima. The above panel is taken from this page, which also has a special message from J. Edgar Hoover.

via The American Scene

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tryfon Tolides makes it big

Oh dear.

The author of the laughably bad mouse poem chosen for praise by America magazine now has published a collection of his poetry. The soporific title? An Almost Pure Empty Walking.

Mencius Moldbug at Unqualified Reservations writes the necessary critique. Mencius, too, finds the vacuity of Tolides remarkable. He connects Tolides to Universalism of the Unitarian variety, depicting him as a vehicle for Bobo aspiration like NPR or Starbucks coffee.

He informs us that Tolides has benefited considerably from his teacher, Mary Karr. Ms. Karr generously awarded her own student the first place in the National Poetry Series.

Incest creates poetic abnormalities. Who knew?

Echoing Dr. Frankenstein's rapturous description of the monster he created, Mary Karr endorses her student's poetry:

"Tryfon Tolides has followed the territory set out in his native Greece by C. P. Cavafy and later followed (in geography and sensibility) by Jack Gilbert. But Tolides trades the darkness of those poets for a more illuminated grandeur. Tolides is the shaman of epiphany. He makes for his reader keen and particular moments of revelation seized from his fierce and fleshly occupancy on the planet. In the wide-eyed consolation these poems offer up, the starlight they emit, he conjures Tomas Tranströmer and other poets of profound spiritual power. At a time when the planet is in flames, he gives being human a good name."

It's alive!

Individualistic religion dodges the anti-establishment clause

Over at the Immanent Frame, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan outlines an intriguing shift in First Amendment jurisprudence. She cites the 2006 Supreme Court case Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Nicholson in a dispute about a VA hospital chaplain service. The military chaplaincy was once categorized under non-mandatory military services and activities, such as recreation.

Yet as religion becomes part of a revised therapeutic regimen, Sullivan sees a change:
The new “clinical” chaplaincy, on the other hand, has a different role and a different purpose. The Wisconsin court states that in order “to effectively implement its clinical chaplaincy program, the VA Chaplain Service was recently reorganized under the Medicine and Surgery Strategic Healthcare Group. The purpose of this reorganization was to recognize VA’s chaplaincy as a clinical, direct patient care discipline.” No longer akin to recreation and athletics.

While VA chaplains continue to recognize an explicit duty to protect the patient’s constitutional religious free exercise rights and protect the patient “from having religion imposed on them,” they are now fully integrated into the medical team in a new way. As a patient you must opt out of religion, rather than opting in. We might call this the post-pluralist model, if you like. Religion, in the words of the complaining plaintiff, has become a “health benefit.” Every patient must be given an initial spiritual assessment upon admission and recommendations must be made concerning his spiritual care.

This shift is possible, Sullivan thinks, because once-corporate religious practice has been so individualized. It no longer appears that a religious body is being established when government agencies are merely addressing individual needs.

Sullivan's post touches on other issues, such as the judiciary's skepticism about its ability to define religion. This echoes her earlier book, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dostoevsky and Theodicy

The Well at the World's End examines The Brothers Karamazov:
And yet Dostoevsky reveals the complications of such a (literally) demonic utopian vision. When "The Grand Inquisitor" is contextualized within the larger narrative of The Brothers Karamazov, the shortcomings of Ivan's vision become apparent. In rejecting God, Ivan rejects the eschatological dimension to morality and earthly comfort becomes the only narrow moral standard. The grand inquisitor sees moral freedom as a burden and as long as the minimum service required to achieve comfort is paid, one is actually encouraged to sin; that is, a number of acts no longer have ethical value and are thus permitted. Similarly, in rejecting God, Ivan explicitly rejects the immortality of the soul. In doing so, he seems to jettison the only thing that grounds the enduring value of humanity. One can see quite clearly how these features of the atheist answer lead rather seamlessly to the complete evacuation of moral value and responsibility: the "everything is permitted" of a practical nihilism. "Everything is permitted" is a maxim that Ivan explicitly accepts. In this sense, the atheist position undermines itself: its attempt to deal with evil and suffering does not end with a solution to theodicy, but rather a failed attempt to minimize suffering in this life. In doing so it only succeeds in creating a world of valueless morality, one that is ultimately as indifferent to suffering as the god that it rejected in the first place."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Pragmatists and Peirce

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club provides a valuable introduction to a uniquely American school of philosophy. The book is an intellectual history of postbellum New England thinkers like William James, John Dewey, C.S. Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The ,amy breakthroughs of the nineteenth century, such as statistical analysis or Darwinism, when combined with the disillusionment caused by a bloody Civil War seemingly driven by abolitionist fanaticism, led to a thoroughgoing suspicion of grand ideas among some Yankee elites. Intellectual focus shifted from objects and ideas to the processes and relations that created and sustained them.

In the nineteenth century the study of society was assimilated into the mechanist paradigm. Statistical analysis of government records made human behavior seem an inevitable consequence of social conditions. Marriages increased in times when wages were high. Crimes began to seem like the mere fulfillment of an annual quota. Society as a whole began to appear responsible for the discrete activities of criminals.

Society took on the conceptual characteristics of a machine. Predictability and efficient response to social pressures became more important standards than notions of rights or public morals.

Society was an idea-producing machine. For thinkers like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., liberty of speech was not good in itself, but merely a means to provide new ideas that in aggregate would lead to better living, a more responsive government, and political stability.

Menand points out that "tolerance," among its many interpretations, also has mechanical connotations.

Though the influence of Dewey, James, and Holmes is immeasurable, the less well-known thought of Charles Sanders Peirce has always attracted me. While reading The Metaphysical Club I was particularly interested in Peirce's approach to the nominalist-realist debate. Menand summarizes:
The idea [of pragmatism] contained a doctrine, though, which Peirce was concerned to refute. This was nominalism--the belief that since concepts are generalizations about things that, taken individually, are singular and unreproducible, they do not refer to anything real Nominalism is the doctrine that reality is just one unique thing after another, and that general truths about those things are simply conventions of language, simply names. Peirce balked at this conclusion. He believed what his father had taught him to believe: that the world is made to be known by the mind--that, (in Benjamin Peirce's words) "the two are wonderfully matched." We think in generalizations; that is what inferences are--general truths drawn from the observation of particular events. Therefore, there must be things in the universe to which our generalizations correspond.

The nominalist's mistake, Peirce argued, is the definition of belief as individual belief. Of course the beliefs of individuals are flawed; no individual mind is capable of an accurate and objective knowledge of reality. But the aggregate beliefs of many individual minds is another matter; and here Peirce invoked the astronomer's law of errors. "No two observers can make the same observation," he wrote in one of the drafts of his book on logic. "The observations which I made yesterday are not the same which I make today. Nor are simultaneous observations at different observatories the same, however close together the observatories are placed. Every man's senses are his observatory." But just as a star exists independently of the observations made by individual astronomers, "reality is independent of the individual element of thought." The real star is the object around which repeated observations ineluctably converge. The purpose of all scientific investigations is therefore to push our collective opinions about the world closer and closer to agreement with each other, adn thus closer and closer to the limit represented by reality itself.

"The personal prejudices or other peculiarities of generations of men may postpone indefinitely an agreement in this opinion," Peirce wrote, "but no human will or limitation can make the final result of an investigation to be anything else than that which it is destined to be. The reality, then, must be identified with what is thought in the ultimate true opinion." "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real."

Peirce's social conception of knowledge, seeing inquiry as extended across generations, is quite amenable to a traditionalist approach. In respects it is significantly different from the realism of the scholastics, or perhaps it is only different in emphasis. Escaping the epistemological morass of Hume and supporting the methodological concerns of science were both aims of his realism.

According to Menand, Peirce also opposed nominalism because it was a philosophy in the aid of selfishness. Nominalism denies not just the social character of knowledge, but its focus on individuals denies the social altogether. Menand quotes a Peirce essay from the North American Review in 1871.
The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is the question whether there is anything of more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have the power of influence.

When countering highly atomistic habits of individualism, such a communitarian approach is commendable. But Peirce went on seemingly to endorse a most radical form of altruism, saying reasoning "inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited. They must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community... He who would not sacrifice his soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle."

Edward T. Oakes cites another Peircean slam on individualism, "individualism and falsity are one." Oakes connects this disdain for individualism to Peirce's extreme and painful isolation from his peers, induced by the man's own ethical falsities but also by the hostility of the academic establishment. Oakes wrote on Peirce in his essay Discovering the American Aristotle. The essay is a concise summation of Peircean aesthetics, ethics, and logic, with special attention to his religious philosophy.

Menand's book will inspire a few more blog posts here in the near future. Watch this space.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Neighborhood Pornucopia

An essay of mine is now posted over at Inside Catholic. The topic is pretty obvious from the title, The Neighborhood Pornucopia.

This essay was in the works when National Review's Mike Potemra was complaining about the "sex police of the blogosphere," whose chief is apparently Mark Shea. Where's my badge?

My thanks to the Inside Catholic crew, especially editor Brian St. Paul for inviting me to write. I hope this essay will be the first of many more.


It looks like I'm part of a local trend. On Sunday The Denver Post reported on libraries being used by child pornographers.

The local trashy alternative newspaper, Westword, also had a piece on library connoisseurs in its Oct. 11 issue. I feel dirty linking to it, but I'll happily hypocritically quote from it:
I happened to catch the reaction of a librarian, who looked over at E, frowned in disgust, then turned and began some busy work. No reprimand, no admonishments, nothing. And that librarian's silent defeat said it all: It's disgusting that this man can do this, but until porn filters catch up with the needs of earnest researchers — aka never — scenes like this are going to take place.

I think he underrates what a measured application of "chilling effects" can do to drive this behavior out of public buildings.

Editorial constraints cut a few passages from my essay. Most of this editing was for the good, but there was one passage quite relevant to the librarian's position.

In the letter from the librarian I quoted, her unease was such that she invoked some self-defense training course advice to trust her "internal radar." She lamented that library regulations required her to suppress her natural warnings when she interacted with lewd patrons.

No sane person wants to come between an onanist and his porn, but the art of public rebuke is sure in need of a revival.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Medieval Slavery Existed, Alas

The University Bookman once examined a new edition of Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths. While sympathetic to Pernoud's popular history written against popular legends, Glenn W. Olsen rebuts her belief that slavery had disappeared in medieval times:
Cornelius Buckley’s poorly informed and imprecise preface to this book accepts at face value what Pernoud has to say about slavery; but Pernoud has clearly been left behind by research on this subject over the last twenty-five years. Perhaps it is sufficient to refer to the work of Steven Epstein, past and forthcoming. In brief, according to Pernoud slavery disappeared over the course of the Middle Ages. (Buckley speaks of it being abolished.) This used to be a common view, and there is some truth to it. Manumission was an act of piety, and many were indeed manumitted. The ancient slave gradually became the medieval serf. But slavery never disappeared. We find internal slave markets in France itself in the early Middle Ages, and slaving on the edges of Europe in every century. In recent scholarship, the English have finally received full recognition for the slaving they practiced all through the Middle Ages in Ireland (see Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe). Slaving flourished across the frontiers between Islam and Christendom, and we are beginning to understand how common late-medieval domestic slavery was, especially in the cities of the Mediterranean.

I'm glad Irish history still preserves us from taking anglophilic mythmaking too seriously.

You'll often find this disbelief in medieval slavery in Chesterton's and Belloc's work. They depict the low state of the English commoner as a novelty introduced by the landowners' near-monopoly engendered by Henry VIII's confiscation of monastic lands.

It's really too bad the story of Christendom's free peasants is overstated. If Merrie England didn't exist, it should have.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Garry Wills Misrepresents the Pro-Life Tradition

Mirror of Justice and Gerald Augustinus have weighed in on an LA Times opinion piece by Garry Wills. The op-ed is adapted from his book Head and Heart: American Christianities.

Wills writes:
Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person, which would require baptism and a Christian burial. That was never the practice. And no wonder. The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.

Mirror of Justice helpfully provides an opinion from Joseph Dellapenna, who has written a magisterial legal history called Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History( see the First Things review).

Dellapenna writes:
Why this neglect of abortion in the ancient sources? The answer, which is mostly forgotten today, is that abortion until fairly well along into the nineteenth century was tantamount to suicide. Women rarely, if ever, underwent a voluntary abortion. We in fact have a significant number of legal cases from as far back as 1200 in England and even earlier in Roman law, in all of which the abortion was forced upon an unwilling woman. This simple fact is reason enough why the Bible and most other legal and religious sources from that time treated as an abstract, a hypothetical idea. I have elaborately documented the evidence for the techniques of abortion in chapter 1 of my book. The real social problem, which was addressed in detail and repeatedly in legal and religious sources, was infanticide—a social problem that only receded in importance with the development of abortion techniques in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that were safe enough for women wanting to be rid of an unwanted child to be able to choose abortion in preference to infanticide.

Furthermore, Wills' assertion that there was no practice of baptizing miscarriages looks doubtful. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Baptism actually has a section titled "Baptism of Unborn Infants." It states:
In case of the death of the mother, the fetus is to be immediately extracted and baptized, should there be any life in it. Infants have been taken alive from the womb well after the mother's death. After the Cæsarean incision has been performed, the fetus may be conditionally baptized before extraction if possible; if the sacrament is administered after its removal from the womb the baptism is to be absolute, provided it is certain that life remains. If after extraction it is doubtful whether it be still alive, it is to be baptized under the condition: "If thou art alive". Physicians, mothers, and midwives ought to be reminded of the grave obligation of administering baptism under these circumstances. It is to be borne in mind that according to the prevailing opinion among the learned[In 1907 -kjj], the fetus is animated by a human soul from the very beginning of its conception. In cases of delivery where the issue is a mass that is not certainly animated by human life, it is to be baptized conditionally: "If thou art a man."

I would hope these instructions are still given to Catholic doctors and nurses, though considering present indifference towards baptism, I am not sure that instruction is likely.

Commonweal Doesn't Get the Joke

Diogenes recently dolloped more cynicism upon the Jesuits' magazine America:

America Magazine is editorially enraptured by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Brown seems guided by a moral vision that sees it as the government's duty to help the less fortunate.

Translation: he's pro-abortion.

A writer at the Commonweal blog sniffs: "You'll notice that none of the editorial's 253 words endorses Brown's views on abortion." That rather misses the joke. The elevated language conceals a significant lapse in Mr. Brown's duties towards the less fortunate. The praise given to such public figures is as uniform as it is ubiquitous, which makes the "translation" all the more biting.

Commonweal blogger Grant Gallicho seems obtuse to this shade, preferring to blast Diogenes as a bitter tendentious commentator. But this little joke can function in all sorts of other contexts where diplomatic happy talk overshadows the real crimes in which prominent men are complicit. Just imagine the potential for a quote praising to the heavens some Republican, followed by the line

"Translation: he's pro-torture."

This satire blindness seems uncharacteristic of Commonweal. They like Stephen Colbert, don't they?

More discouraging is their attempts to unmask the pseudonym. They claim the CWNews scribe is Paul Mankowski, SJ. While the pseudonym can mask all sorts of unmerited asperities, of which Diogenes has sometimes been guilty, how else other than pseudonymously could a cleric talk frankly without soiling the dignity of his office and his ministry?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Iraq WMD intelligence from poor chemistry student?

If this story is true, we're already living in Mike Judge's Idiocracy.
A US TV network has revealed the name of "Curveball" - an Iraqi man whose information was central to the US government's argument to invade Iraq.


The programme says he arrived in a German refugee centre in 1999 where he lied to win asylum and was not the chemical expert he said he was.

His claims of mobile bio-weapons labs in Saddam Hussein's Iraq were backed until well after the 2003 invasion.


The CBS 60 Minutes programme airs on Sunday but material released on its web site says Curveball was "not only a liar, but also a thief and a poor student instead of the chemical engineering whiz he claimed to be".

"It was a guy trying to get his green card essentially, in Germany, and playing the system for what it was worth"

The CIA and French intelligence had turned the Iraqi foreign minister, yet instead we relied upon somebody lying for his green card.