24 February 2009
My Lenten commitments over the past few years have tended to involve reducing my use of some kind of technology. This year I'm going to cut back on blogging and reading blogs, in hopes of using the extra time to better purpose. If I post, I'll avoid my usual topics in favor of something appropriate to the season, probably theology. (Please don't say I'm “blogging my way through Lent”—nothing so gauche as that!)
Things will be back to normal here in forty days.
“Internet triumphalists tend to discount the value of cultural and scientific gatekeepers, and there’s some truth to their criticisms of filtering public discourse. But in a fragmented media environment, I’m genuinely disconcerted by the lack of visible authority figures. To add to the confusion, fringe individuals and institutions have become very adept at copying the aesthetics of mainstream organizations - witness the Discovery Institute’s glossy website, which lends an air of plausibility and scholarship to arguments that fall well outside the mainstream. To take a more extreme example, sophisticated Holocaust denialists are also very good at trotting out convincing facts and figures, styling themselves as legitimate historical revisionists rather than fringe cranks.
“So what do I do? How do I choose sides? I don’t have the scientific background to evaluate the Discovery Institute’s claims. I don’t have the time or resources to investigate the scope of Nazi genocide. In both cases, I defer to expert opinion, but now I’m less certain of my ability to distinguish between trustworthy figures and talented impostors. Instead of absolute deference to authority figures, I now rely on a vague sense of where the boundaries of acceptable discourse lie. So far, I’m not very happy with the results.”
I've believed for a while now that even though we protect freedom of speech, what we really want is moderated discourse. That's the only way that you can get anywhere. Mainstream science comprises an institution, the purpose of which is to systematically extend human knowledge of the natural world by moderating discourse between proponents of different hypotheses. As far as I can tell, the community of scientists is exemplary in its self-moderation of its internal discourse, almost always striking the right balance between giving a hearing to new ideas and deferring to established ones. It may make mistakes—it has in the past—but that is a peril of self-government. The balance doesn't always carry over to the outside world, where complex findings have to be reduced to blunt statements.
One suggestion for getting your bearings in any field: see if you can find a book by someone who is writing for sheer love of the subject rather than out of some desire to make an ideological point. Everybody's got an agenda, sure, but I think that a "disinterested" book can be a good way to get a decent impression of the state of the whole field. I can imagine that you could go wrong here, but it's probably a better place to start than the polemics. I'm thinking specifically of Richard Fortey's "Earth," which is the first and only full book about rocks that I've ever read. Fortey wrote it not out of any desire to prove the age of the earth, but to try to pass on his obvious joy in the history and practice of paleontology and geology. Could someone give a similarly “disinterested” account of creationism? It seems to me that creationism always has an axe to grind.
That a book is aloof from controversy doesn't guarantee that it is correct, but I think it's a start—it shows you where the gatekeepers are standing. As for challengers, I think one should give them an occasional hearing but not an equal platform. A “fair debate” for the Discovery Institute should be a panel of at least a dozen scientists, with laptops and reference materials, to the single DI rhetorician.
Want to challenge the gatekeepers? Let's slip back into MacIntyre-speak. You've either got to join the tradition and subvert it, or you've got to build an alternate tradition of discourse. In other words, you have to challenge the science from within the boundaries of an established discipline or you have to create a new discipline that earns its standing as a science. The latter option takes a significant amount of time. Despite some fitful attempts, creationists and Intelligent Design proponents haven't done this (and my guess is that they can't).
23 February 2009
He wants to think about politics as a big discussion group or something. I think he gets this from Jeffrey Stout, though he doesn't mention Stout in the post. The way William puts it, politics is a logical/rational endeavor. It takes a career undergraduate to get into an idea like this one. Politics, in real life, is far messier. There's rationality involved, sometimes, but people usually engage with politics because they want something to happen or they don't want it to happen. When you vote, you don't talk about your motivations. You just hit “yes” or “no.”
Politics exists because citizens have clashing desires, and someone needs to adjudicate between them. “Inferential projects” imply some kind of intellectual distance from the proceedings. That's not politics. That's philosophy.
I'd have to suggest that William consider the role of interest in political movements. He'd do best to get beneath class analysis to the smaller groups that really have concrete goals in the political realm. They bargain and compromise, but they don't necessarily philosophize. Nor should they have to. This is politics, after all.
WHO ENTERED THE WAR OF 1861-65
IN ANSWER TO THE CALL OF THEIR
COUNTRY AND WHOSE LIVES
TAUGHT THEM THE LESSON OF
THEIR GREAT COMMANDER THAT
DUTY IS THE SUBLIMEST WORD
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
Does anyone know any sublimer words?
22 February 2009
Reihan writes about a function of political parties:
“To recognize that our two parties represent two broad worldviews isn’t to suggest that one of both have always been faithful to them. Rather, it is a way that we negotiate a landscape that in fact includes as many worldviews as there are individuals. Andrew and I both have highly idiosyncratic takes on the world, and so we both bristle at the excesses of partisanship. But in my case, I tend to think that being part of an extended conversation among like-minded people has some value. At the same time, I think it’s very valuable to also have conversations with people who don’t share the same premises, which is why I strive to be careful and fair-minded and empathetic. Having known Yuval for a while, I think he operates in much the same way, though perhaps he has a little more faith than I do in the Republican leadership.
“There is also, I stress, a place for clear-eyed loners. We’d all be far worse off with Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan and other writers and thinkers who adhere closely to Orwell’s vision of the public intellectual. But there is also a place for movements, and those who seek to repair them and guide them.”
What is the value in conversations with those who think like we do and in conversations with those who don't?
So let's say we're all usually engaged in making inferences from positions to which we're already committed. Sometimes we will have to examine some of those basic positions, but, short of a complete epistemological crisis, we'll have to do it on the basis of inferences from other basic positions.
People who reject your basic premises will help you by questioning your inferences at or near the root level. They don't usually have an interest in following your project to its outer bounds. On the other hand, people who share your commitment to some basic principle will be interested in those limits, though they will be much less likely to challenge you on a basic level. Engaging with both groups leaves you most likely to emerge from the process with only the strongest inferences left standing. If you stick with only one group, you'll end up with shoddy commitments.
That's how I would initially translate Reihan's paragraph. But then I have to move a little bit further, since I don't think all of our inferential projects should be individual endeavors (and Reihan isn't saying this either). A group with a common project—a tradition of enquiry, let's call it—should expect to see some returns from a division of labor. Furthermore, a tradition doesn't have to die like people do.
What am I talking about, anyway? This, like so much of what I write, is so abstract as to be nearly meaningless. I've wandered far from what Reihan was talking about. And I've slipped into MacIntyre-speak again. Alas, my fallen nature.
Anyhow, I guess I like the idea of “inferential projects” because they don't require anything but “secular reason,” whatever that is. You don't have to buy the premises to criticize or investigate someone else's arguments, though you might have to invest a good deal of time figuring out how those argument really work, particularly if the premises to which that person is committed are complex.
We'll see how all of this looks in the morning. If you know of a thinker who's been over all of this long before I have—and I'm sure there's tens of thousands—let me know in the comments.
And now, off to see Jandek.
21 February 2009
Also: can someone please make a commercial for Milliner's product?
It's not fair of me to quote from the review only the two good things Adam Gopnik says about conservatism to the exclusion of his criticisms of it, but since I've provided you with the link and I can't see how my action causes Gopnik any harm, I am going to go ahead and do it.
“[Mill's] love of poetry and music and art also led him toward conservative thought. Aesthetes always bend to the right, in part because the best music and the best buildings were made in the past, and become an argument for its qualities. Someone entering Chartres becomes, for a moment, a medieval Catholic, and a person looking at Bellini or Titian has to admit that an unequal society can make unequalled pictures. To love old art is to honor old arrangements. But even new and progressive art is, as Mill knew, a product of imagination and inspiration, not of fair dealing and transparent processes; the central concerns of liberalism—fairness, equity, individual rights—really don’t enter into it. Mozart, whom Mill loved, would have benefitted as a person had he lived in a world that gave him the right to vote for his congressman, collect an old-age pension, and write letters to the editor on general subjects, and that gave his older sister her chance at composing, too. But not a note of his music would have been any better. Art is a product of eccentric genius, which we can protect, but which no theory of utility can explain.”
“There is a non-stupid conservative reproach to Mill. It is that his great success at changing minds has made a world in which there is not much of a role for people like him. Mill and Harriet, to a degree that they could hardly recognize, flourished within a whole set of social assumptions and shared beliefs. Respect for the mind, space for argument, the dispersal of that respect throughout the population, even the existence of a rentier class who could spend their time with ideas—all of these things were possible only in a society that was far more hierarchical and élitist than the society they dreamed of and helped to bring about.
“You can also fault Mill for not grasping something that a crazy reactionary like his friend Carlyle recognized: the depths of violence and rage and hatred beneath the thin shell of civilization. Mill is like a man who has spent his life on one of those moving walkways you find in airports. He takes the forward movement so much for granted that he never makes it his subject. ‘Most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits,’ he wrote, a little too assuredly.”
Want the other side of the story? I'd suggest reading the whole review, which is interesting and well-written.
The conservatism that liberalism needs and can't do well without is not a conservatism of tax cuts and militarism. Liberalism projects its hopes on the future; it needs the kind of conservatism that will not overlook the costs and the limits of progress. Whether conservatives with questions about liberalism should be content with playing this role in a liberal society is another question.
20 February 2009
“The identity of one of Europe’s most notorious drivers, who racked up dozens of speeding and parking offences in a crime spree across Ireland while continuing to elude the courts, has been uncovered by police - with the help of a dictionary.
“Prawo Jazdy, presumed to be one of the hundreds of thousands of Poles lured to Ireland during its economic boom, was the Scarlet Pimpernel of motoring, leaving a trail of multiple identities and vehicles across the data base of the Republic’s Garda Siochana.
“With not a single conviction by 2007 and more than fifty offences recorded, the police decided to take a closer look at Mr Jazdy, according to the Irish Times and Irish Independent.
“The result was unexpected and embarrassing: in a letter that is now doing the rounds of Garda e-mail inboxes, a traffic division official wrote that it had come to his attention that officers inspecting Polish driving licences were recording Prawo Jazdy as the licence holder’s name. ‘Prawo Jazdy is actually Polish for 'driving licence' and not the first and surname on the licence,’ he wrote.Who wants to bet that “Prawo Jazdy” starts showing up on fake IDs sometime soon?
19 February 2009
18 February 2009
What's easier to determine, as a matter of history and institutional continuity, is the degree to which someone is an orthodox Christian. As I've argued before, orthodoxy has to do with the history of the church you're a part of, not the objective, eternal correctness of your beliefs:
"To put it simply, your denomination's relationship to the Nicene Creed will tell you a great deal about the sense in which you can call yourself an orthodox Christian. If your denomination rejects it entirely, then you probably can't claim orthodoxy. This is not necessarily a matter of eternal salvation, just a matter of the sensible application of a label. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. He attended church, but he never joined one as an adult. So I think it's safe to say that there's not much of a positive case for calling him an orthodox Christian. Am I 'casting him out'? Not at all. I really have no way of knowing whether or not Lincoln was 'actually a Christian,' and it's probably fruitless to try and pin it down.
"Unfortunately, and as usual, there is grey area. One can be a member of an orthodox denomination and yet be publically heterodox in one's beliefs, or one can adhere to a different theological tradition than that of one's church."
Does anyone object to the claim that we can look at church history and figure out some loose boundaries for orthodox Christianity, and that Mormonism falls outside those boundaries?
For a fuller discussion of Mormon theology and its differences with orthodox Christian theology, see the articles by Bruce Porter and Gerald McDermott in the October 2008 First Things.
17 February 2009
“No ethical community could sustain a discursive practice without imposing on each of its members the necessity of keeping track of the normative attitudes and entitlements of their interlocutors, because without this there would be no communication—and therefore no exchange of reasons—among them. But, as we have seen, ethical communities have different ways of going about their discursive business. […] Where the default position in a given community is that the ethical judgments of those in ecclesial or political office are correct, we have a pattern of deference to one kind of authority. The authoritarian extreme is reached whenever such a position is treated as indefeasible and the authority is treated as self-interpreting. As one approaches this extreme, ethical truth is reduced in practice to what the highest authority says. When the reduction is total, it no longer makes sense to claim that the highest authority says P, but P might not be true.
“One should not assume, however, that all religious communities are huddled near the authoritarian extreme of the spectrum. Many religious traditions and movements have developed relatively flexible structures of authority, and even those best known for their official rigidity are rarely able in practice to stamp out critical questioning of allegedly indefeasible authorities. […] Many Protestants, Jews, and Muslims who begin by attributing indefeasible and unique authority to a revealed law end up interpreting that law in a highly flexible way. All of these traditions have been more pluralistic and less authoritarian in practice than some of their officials and intellectuals have wanted them to be.”
-Jeffrey Stout. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2004. (280)
I ellipse'd out his brief discussion of the Roman Catholic church. Of course, “papal infallability” is one of the rare explicit cases in Christianity where a religious authority literally maintains that if the highest human authority “says” P, then it cannot be the case that P is false. But I've learned that what it means for the Pope to invoke the doctrine is kind of complicated. Furthermore, infallability is only invoked rarely. And I'm a Presbyterian, so I'm under no obligation to defend it Roman Catholic doctrine. So I think we can skip the RC wrinkles for now.
Now, I believe most Christians would hold that if God says P, then we shouldn't suspect that P is false. But we can always suspect that we didn't understand what God was saying. Interpretation is difficult. (But nothing worth doing is easy.)
I'm trying to imagine how you could plausibly level a charge of authoritarianism towards Presbyterians. We've got a General Assembly, so issues are decided by committees, representatives, and votes. Perhaps a current general assembly could start acting unilaterally—but it would only be a matter of time before their replacements arrived.
The same thing is true for denominations with stronger ecclesiologies. The turnaround just takes longer. The channels for change aren't as speedy (on paper, at least) as those of a democracy, but they exist. This keeps most religious traditions of any size from approaching the authoritarian extreme. A group that closes off these channels will eventually find itself an isolated sect, or even a cult.
To be authoritarian in Stout's sense requires the necessary force to stamp out opposition. And whatever power the Religious Right has in the United States, it doesn't have that. It's far from having it. And I suspect that almost nobody wants them to have it.
16 February 2009
“Let me conclude by stating just how radical I will go in talking about American politics. Before the Civil War, I would have been a Garrisonian, advocating the secession of the Northern States. ‘No union with slaveholders!’ The South was filled with evil scum, and a slave rebellion, spurred on by northern instigators and open borders all along the north, would have led the south finally to wise up and phase out slavery before the 20th century dawned. I’m pretty sure of that. If only the North would have loved liberty more than The Union.
“But isn’t that the usual problem, people loving government more than freedom?”
I'll have to accept the “evil scum” remark because it's true.
I need to do some more reading about pre-Civil War intellectual movements to decide what I would have been attracted to. Where would someone with my temperament have landed in the late 1840s and early 1850s? It's hard for me to say. I think I would have subscribed to Brownson's Quarterly Review (assuming that I was not a dirt-poor farmer in western Virginia), although perhaps that would not have been appropriate for a Presbyterian of the time.
I'm finally getting around to Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power, only half a year after everybody else read it. I think that Bacevich's biggest virtue might be the degree to which he eschews “metaphysical” speculation in his Niebuhr-inspired realism. His case for self-restraint doesn't rest on a natural law argument. You can take his arguments to be entirely consequentialist if you want. Global power projection isn't going to work because we can't afford it. Massive consumer and government debt isn't going to work because it will ruin us in the future.
Take the traditionalist syllogism from the other day:
- Premise 1: Democratic values displace the older virtues of self-restraint and self-government.
- Premise 2: The older virtues of self-restraint and self-government are necessary to human flourishing.
- Conclusion: Therefore a democratic culture is inimical to human flourishing.
What's important is that we take a clear view of the consequences of our actions and decide what kind of freedom is worth the price that we won't be able to escape paying when the creditors come calling.
“My question: how does knowing the biological origins of our desires help us decide how whether to act on them? I don't see how this knowledge can do anything to help me order my own life, though I suppose it could help you if you were trying to control other people. From my subjective perspective, how can I know whether a particular desire is maladaptive? Trust the scientists? And even if it is maladaptive, what if I decide to do something with my life besides doing my utmost to ensure the continued existence of my own genetic material?
“The problem I have with pop-Darwinism, then, is that it takes a worthwhile field of human knowledge—the study of our genes and how they came to be—and tells us that understanding the origins of our desires is enough to make good decisions about them. But this understanding isn't enough.”
Confused? I know I am. But Will Wilkinson posted some good stuff from T.H. Huxley on the very same problem:
“The propounders of what are called the ‘ethics of evolution,’ when the ‘evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, th’ere is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.
“As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.”
Here's Wilkinson himself, bringing things up to date:
“One thing I think some ev psych fans have a hard time getting their heads around is that morality–the system of norms that regulates individual behavior and enables social coordination–is variable by ‘design,’ and that our evolved moral capacities are largely norm-acquisition devices which must wait to be calibrated by enculturation. We’re ‘fill-in-the-blanks slates’ not blank slates. There are what you might consider ‘factory default’ settings. (Which involves a lot of out-group slaughter, I’m afraid.) So, yes, certain configurations of moral sentiments, certain systems of norms, are more ‘natural’ than others. But they lead to relatively terrible societies–nasty, brutish, short, etc. The norms that undergird the peaceful liberal order of impersonal, extended, massively positive-sum exchange are the result of generations of often self-conscious resistance to the ‘factory defaults.’ Which is just to say, T.H. Huxley knew what he was talking about.”
It seems so obvious when Huxley and Wilkinson say it.
13 February 2009
-Thomas Disch, “The Roaches,” in Fun With Your New Head. New York: Doubleday, 1968. (7-8)
“ ‘It's just as well that God is dead at last. He was such a prig. Some scholars have professed to find it odd that Milton's sympathies were with his fiend and not with God, but there's nothing remarkable in that. Even the Evangelist more often purloins his fires from hell than heaven. He certainly gives it much closer attention. It's simply so much more interesting, not to say relevant. Hell is closer to the facts that we know.
“ ‘Let's carry our honesty even a little further. Hell is not merely preferable to heaven—it's the only clear notion of an afterlife—of a goal worth striving toward—that human imagination has been able to devise. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans originated our civilization, populated it with their gods, and formed, in their chthonic wisdom, a heaven underfoot. Some heretical Jews inherited that civilization, changed its gods to demons, and called heaven hell. Oh, they tried to pretend there was a new heaven somewhere up in the attic, but it was a most unconvincing deceit. Now that we've found the stairs to the attic, now that we can zoom about anywhere we choose in that unpopulated and infinite void, the game is up, absolutely, for heaven. I doubt the Vatican will survive to the end of the century, though one should never underestimate the power of ignorance. Oh, not the Vatican's ignorance, for heaven's sake! They've always known which way the deck was stacked.’
“They left the room together, followed by the guards, but Skilliman couldn't resist coming back for yet one more Parthian shot. ‘Don't be downcast, Louis. I was bound to get the better of you. Because, you know, I have the universe on my side.’
“Schipansky was not there to be made distraught, and I allowed myself a riposte. ‘That's just what I find so vulgar.’ ”
-Thomas Disch, Camp Concentration. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988. (152-5)
As a follow-up, Linker has commendably decided to rethink his position:
“On Tuesday of this week, I posted an item in which I drew connections between an essay by Andrew Bacevich and political authoritarianism. Two days later, I posted a follow-up in which I expanded on the argument. In retrospect -- and in light of some online reaction to the posts -- I've concluded that the connections I made in the original item were overdrawn, and that I made things even worse in the second post. Ideas and arguments can take on a logic of their own, and I foolishly followed the logic of mine into a position several steps more radical than one I really want to defend. I trust that future online disputation and debate will provide many opportunities for me to address these and related issues again -- and so also to stake out and develop a more moderate, nuanced, and genuinely liberal position.”
I'm glad to see this, because I think it's great for people like Bacevich to have moderate, nuanced, and genuinely liberal conversation partners. And I certainly understand how easy it is to overreach when blogging, though I doubt that I'm likely to get called out by Daniel Larison or the Atlantic bloggers for my mistakes.
12 February 2009
“For quite a while I have raised objections to trying to read specific political messages into film and TV, and more generally I have always been skeptical of the sub-set of conservative arguments dedicated to appropriating elements of pop culture. On the whole, I think the exercise is mostly futile, and to the extent that these assessments of pop culture products are at all accurate they tend to dissuade conservatives from their own non-kitschy cultural production. “We don’t need to go into cinema or television–look at all the conservative movies and shows we already have!” These efforts tend to reinforce the “this is a center-right nation” complacency that assumes that some core cultural conservatism exists as a given in America and does not need to be actively cultivated. Worse than that, it causes conservatives to start to define what makes a film or television show ‘conservative’ largely by how much it is loathed or criticized by their opponents, such that 24 receives embarrassing praise when it depicts a near-omnicompetent security state that breaks the law at will so long as the targets of its violence and lawlessness are terrorists.”
The posts I've looked at in the series tell their readers how they should go about interpreting the films so as to get a specific conservative moral at the end. They do this by ignoring thematic complexity where it exists and often praising banality where complexity is absent.
Larison's right about the frightening militarism of the list.
I'd rather watch good movies than conservative ones.
UPDATE: How could I not post this comment whole?
“The Dark Knight deserves to be considered a political film in the broader sense of what politics is, but I wouldn’t say it falls under the severely constricted political understanding portrayed by NRO. Through the movie I couldn’t help but see the major themes of Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue come to light on the screen. The Neitzschean (the Joker) has come to demonstrate the ineptitude of the Weberian bureaucrats (Commissioner Gordon, the prosecutor) with his will to power. In fact the Joker’s Neitzschean power is strong enough to turn some Weberians like the prosecutor into a Neitzschean Two-face. The only tangible response to the Neitzschean is the Aristotlean citizen who seeks to live a life of virtue and engagement in the polis (the Dark Knight, who makes a decent hero as one who struggles with virtue). So, The Dark Knight deserves the label as a political movie, however, it is not ‘conservative’ but Macintyrian.”
Well done, Casey Khan. Well done. I'll definitely watch MacIntyrean movies.
In his short article, at The New Republic, Bacevich argues that any conservatism with a future will have to address the inability of Americans to restrain themselves, saying:
“When it comes to the culture, conservatives should promote an awareness of the costs of unchecked individual autonomy, while challenging conceptions of freedom that deny the need for self-restraint and self-denial.”
So Bacevich believes that unchecked autonomy can have costs and that some measure self-restraint and self-denial are components of any true freedom. This is not exactly a new idea. But because Bacevich uses the phrase “culture of choice,” Linker reads his argument as—I am not kidding—a call for theocracy, a call for “fixed limits on human choice are set by absolute political, spiritual, and moral authorities.” Linker concludes with this:
“Does a culture founded on choice lead to problems of its own? Of course it does. But an authoritarian culture is no solution to those problems, which flow from the depravity of human nature itself. And that's why the paleocon critique of modern America is so troubling and radical: The object of its enmity is not this or that aspect of our society or culture but rather the human condition itself. ”
Patrick Deneen tries to sort out the difference between Republican self-restraint and masochistic slavish servitude to religious authority, but it is to no avail.
“A culture that would seek to reign in our propensity to depravity would not rest either on private liberation nor "authoritarianism," but the inculcation of the faculties and abilities of self-government. Only one who seeks private liberty in all respects would regard such cultivation of self-government as oppressive, and would ultimately have to face the reality that such thoroughgoing private liberty is purchased by means of the expansion of public power and a truly frightening prospect of authoritarianism. Already we can see that much of the American public would be willing to sacrifice liberties in the name of sustaining a growth economy that encourages near-infinite, but never fulfilled, personal satiation. This, however, is not liberty.”
Deneen's definition of freedom, by the way, is “self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.”
Linker comes back with this:
“…let's begin by returning to Bacevich's first criticism of the United States, which Deneen tacitly endorses. Among their many other sins, Americans affirm the ‘right to choose’ above all other social and moral principles, producing a nation in which individuals freely ‘fornicate, marry, breed, abort, divorce, and abandon.’ To take the first item on this list, Bacevich and Deneen would clearly prefer that their fellow citizens not "fornicate" as much as they currently do. How might this goal be achieved? One possibility is that we pass and enforce laws upholding sexual chastity. That sounds pretty authoritarian to me. But of course, Bacevich and Deneen deny that they're advocating any such thing. Okay, then, let's take them at their word: What they want is for Americans to restrain themselves, to resist their sexual appetites, to repress their desires, to rein them in. And that's not authoritarianism; it's ‘self-government.’
“Except for one thing: It now appears that Bacevich and Deneen aren't really opposed to a ‘culture of choice’ at all. Rather, they're opposed to a culture in which people make the wrong choices -- in this case, the choice to fornicate instead of the choice to resist their sexual appetites. But here's what I don't understand: Why would a free man or woman choose to resist rather than act on his or her sexual appetites? I mean, we've invented birth control. Sex is very pleasurable. It's a way to enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with another human being. Why not choose for fornication? Why, in other words, is it wrong, in itself, to fornicate? Can we even imagine a response to this question that does not make reference to the authoritative teachings of an orthodox religious tradition?” [emphasis mine - wbr]
I guess Plato's Republic doesn't count as imaginable? Nor the Nicomachean Ethics? It's not like those works have had a major influence on Western thought or anything. Or was Plato a secret Catholic or something?
Now that I'm in the last chapter of Jeffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition, I'm pretty sure that Stout's pragmatism can justify a culture of self-restraint. In fact, it's instructive to see how Stout and Linker differ in their responses to traditionalist critics. The traditionalists (Milbank, MacIntyre, and Hauerwas, in Stout's case) challenge modern democracy with a syllogism:
- Premise 1: Democratic values displace the older virtues of self-restraint and self-government.
- Premise 2: The older virtues of self-restraint and self-government are necessary to human flourishing.
- Conclusion: Therefore a democratic culture is inimical to human flourishing.
To sum up: Read Andrew Bacevich. Read Patrick Deneen. Read Jeffrey Stout.
Exercise democratic self-restraint, and don't read Damon Linker.
UPDATE: Somehow I missed John Schwenkler's post, which goes into more detail on why Linker's reading of Bacevich is so misguided. Read that one too.
11 February 2009
Julian Sanchez has an interesting quick history of the phrase “grow the economy.” Turns out that Clinton introduced the phrase to our political parlance. Think it's inconsequential whether “grow” is transitive or intransitive? Think again:
“This is subtly but importantly different from arguing about whether a particular piece of legislation will, say, ‘promote economic growth.’ In the one case, ‘growth’ is fundamentally something economies do (or don’t do), and policy can be seen as helping or hindering matters. In the other, the economy is basically cast as inert—growth is something governments do to them.”
I'm with my dictionary on this one: grow should be transitive only in the context of hair and farm crops, e.g., “grow a beard” or “grow some corn.” And I'm a little bit iffy on the farming use. Claiming to “grow” the economy, or church membership, or a business's profits, implies that one is claiming to be the principle of growth for that thing. In the case of facial hair, this is very nearly true, and with crops the farmer works so closely with the land that it's a great metaphor.
But when the representatives of the government say they are “growing the economy,” such a claim isn't just hubris. It's simply false.
10 February 2009
Jack Betts blogs that North Carolina voters are split on the big economy bill, mostly by party lines. Quoting Tom Jensen:
“The demographics that launched Barack Obama to a surprise victory in North Carolina last fall- African Americans, young voters, and women- are all in strong support of the bill. The ones that almost allowed John McCain to keep the state Republican- white voters and men- are considerably less supportive.
“What does that all add up to? Public opinion on the stimulus in North Carolina is probably more a referendum on the President than anything else.”
If this is true, it has to be the worst way of making a decision that could very well define the nation's domestic stability for the next few generations.
“When I hear politicians say that ‘we’re borrowing this money from our kids’ or whatever, this can seem abstract. It turns out that it’s not a metaphor. If we enact the stimulus legislation, there will people from Beijing to Dubuque who will hold pieces of paper saying, roughly, that on a specified date they can show up at the door of the United States government and demand trillions of dollars.
“…We are making decisions in a sea of ignorance, and shouldn’t kid ourselves about this.
“The strongest argument for the stimulus (and the one that I think, in their heart-of-hearts, most supporters actually hold) is what could be called the Costanza-Hoover Principle: do the opposite of whatever Herbert Hoover did. In a world of limited knowledge, this isn’t as crazy as it might seem, at least as a starting point. It sure seems like Hoover screwed up; and hopefully we can avoid his mistakes. This pretty much boils down to: avoid a tariff war; don’t try to balance the budget right now; don’t restrict the money supply (that gold standard thing is right out); and, most importantly, prevent a collapse of the banking system.”
It's times like these that make me glad I'm not a politician who has to make decisions. $1.1 trillion is an unfathomable amount of “stimulus, ”and just as much, if not more, debt. Personally, I'd be willing to try to ride out a severe recession with the skills I've gathered, but I've got a weird relationship with my own mortality and a yen for post-apocalyptic scenarios. But I wouldn't want to choose that for anyone else.
So it appears that my generation is going to have to take one for the team. As Manzi puts it:
“This makes the incredible support of this age cohort for Obama seem pretty ironic, at least on this issue. You know all those rallies you went to, and how excited you were on election night? It turns out that the most important result of that, so far at least, is that you get work much, much harder over the next 40 years so that the overweight guy in the khaki pants down the hall from you at work who does nothing of much observable value doesn’t have to move to a smaller house or trade in his car.”
Maybe we like being asked to make a sacrifice? Ever think of that? But it's not exactly noble, since I'm sure we'll do everything in our power to pass whatever debt we can on to our kids.
Besides, if we don't take the stimulus money drugs and things go really badly, we'll have to endure the pain longer than our parents will.
Anyhow, I feel really weird talking about spending more money than I can imagine, and what's done is probably done.
PS: I cannot stand the word “stimulus” for much longer.
09 February 2009
Even better, the relatively small audience gave the performance the same kind of intimacy that I love to find at the barely-attended rock shows I see every now and then, where the performers and the audience create some kind of actual relationship during the performance. With the symphony, I think it came between the movements—the musicians were attuned to the special qualities of the audience's silence, and played their next movement accordingly. So that's why you don't clap between movements…
07 February 2009
Tushnet wants to start with Burke:
“It's just about impossible to talk about the sublime without reference to Edmund Burke's rakish essay, ‘A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,’ although we shouldn't end there . . . Beauty, in this understanding, is found in those objects and people we can cherish; and therefore in those we can master. The sublime, by contrast, inheres in what masters us.”
She rightly goes on to distinguish the Christian sublime from the Burkean sublime. For Tushnet, the most important difference is that, for the Christian with eyes to see, sublimity is to be found in what is humble, even ridiculous. Saintly foolishness is sublime.
But is this really the best way to parse out beauty and sublimity? Well, David Bentley Hart managed to write a whole book about beauty, with a large section on various postmodern sublimities, without mentioning Burke, except perhaps by including him in a broad allusion:
“As it happens, beauty has fallen into considerable disfavor in modern philosophical discourse, having all but disappeared as a term in philosophical aesthetics. In part this is attributable to the eighteenth-century infatuation with Longinus's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, one of whose unfortunate effects was to reduce the scope of the beautiful to that of the pretty, the merely decorative, or the inoffensively pleasant; in the climate of postmodern thought, whose humors are congenial to the sublime but generally corrosive of the beautiful, beauty's estate has diminished to one of mere negation, a spasm of illusory calm in the midst of being's sublimity, its ‘infinite speed.’ ” (15)
It could be that that Hart and Tushnet don't have much more than a terminological disagreement; they may be working within roughly the same conceptual scheme. For Hart, “beauty is the true form of distance,” (18) which means that it includes what we master and what masters us as part of the same right order of creation.
I can't help but think of Sam Gamgee and the Elves in Tolkien: the Elves mastered the hobbits and were therefore Burkean-sublime to Sam, whereas the simplicity and courage of the hobbits was Burkean-beautiful to the Elves. Yet Sam's Burkean-beautiful dedication to Frodo becomes nothing if not Christian-sublime by the time they arrive in Mordor. For Hart, this would all be Christian beauty, all covered in this single term.
I have to admit that I have a preference for Hart's definitions. Take the music of Bach (whom Hart terms “the greatest of Christian theologians” (282) ). In the biggest works, there is plenty that is pretty and comforting, but there is also much that is awesome in the old sense. Or in the fugues, where the “beautiful” upper voices are so often set in play with the strong, even fearsome bass counterpoints. These sorts of beauty and sublimity do not seem to me to be ultimately separable.
But not all that is sublime is beautiful in this sense. For Kant, Hart says, sublimity was a rupture in the scheme of beauty, and contains within itself a violence. European philosophers developed this sublimity of violence and rupture in four relevant ways. I'll attempt to sum them up based on my reading of Hart, but I'm far out of my depth here. We have the differential sublime, as described by Derrida, in which difference continually escapes from metaphysics; the cosmological sublime of Deleuze, where a chaotic violence is the order of things and representation is but another manifestation of that violence; a Heideggerian ontological sublime, which I simply don't understand at all; and the ethical sublime of Levinas, in which duty and obligation to the Other take on a staggering, stupefying dimension. These sublimities—they clearly are not beauties—oppose theological beauty.
I wonder where Tushnet and Hart would really disagree. Hart seems to be much more committed to Christian beauty as an expression of the primordial peace of the Christian creation and the inner peace and harmony of the Trinity. And Hart argues for the ancient doctrine of divine apatheia, which holds that God does not suffer in his divine nature because the Trinity is, has always been, always will be, infinitely peaceful and infinitely complete. I wouldn't presume to read a position on apatheia into Tushnet's article. (Lee from A Thinking Reed had an informative post on apatheia last week.)
I suppose my basic point is this: isn't the “Christian sublime” just the sublime that is covered by a robust Christian definition of beauty? Failed beauty—saccharine kitsch, for example—is just not beautiful enough. It would be better if it were more deeply beautiful. But human cruelty can be as fully sublime and incomprehensible as any frozen waterfall: no additional amount of sublimity will fix the problem. Indeed, it seems to me that no true beauty is without a place in Christian thinking, whereas many kinds of sublimes fail to make the cut. Can I go so far as to say “Christian sublimity” is only Christian insofar as it is also beautiful?
UPDATE: Eve asks, “Can there be a peaceful rapture?”
Which is a great question, and I'm going to leave it at that for the time being.
06 February 2009
John connects education debt with the wave of foreclosures by tracing them to the same root: the desire to get easy money now and figure out how to pay it back later—with interest, of course. Freddie emphasizes again the degree to which universities depend on the cheap labor of the graduate students who are stuck in and depend on the system. He says:
“In a perfect world, more potential grad students would self-select themselves out of the grad school chase. But the fact that it takes so long to get your doctorate acts as a kind of buffer for looking at the reality; I think a lot of people just say ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.’ And they are following their passion, after all. People really do care about contemporary Portugeuse novelists and the effect of absentee fathers on child literacy rates and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s politics and allelic variation as evidence of sexual reproduction in the opportunistic human parasite ‘Candida Albicans’. God bless them for it. I think academic interest is a wonderful thing. The problem is that often the passion for those things seems like a small solace when people have emerged from six or seven years of school and work and can’t get employed. And now they’ve got a wife and kids, and they’re behind on the mortgage, and contemplating getting a job at the mall….”
I've got a pile of interests; I picked mathematics out of the bunch because it had a certain practical value that I was looking for. I'm thankful that something I'm interested in has that kind of value.
I've heard it said that, if you choose not to take the grad school route, it might take more than a decade longer to read the stuff you would have to read in grad school (or at least the part of it that you want to read), so it's a better value to pursue it on the side if you're not absolutely dedicated to the career or absolutely assured of your own talent. But then there's the fear that you won't really be able to test your ideas without fellow students and teachers.
So you become a blogger instead. (But it's just not the same.)
I'd like to know whether the university system ate up independent or amateur scholarship after the big post-WWII college boom. I know that most “professional poets” are teachers in creative writing programs, and that many novelists support themselves in the same way. Before widespread college attendance, was this even possible? That is, was there a time when intellectual culture was not so closely tied to institutions of higher education as it is now?
Not anymore, because I'm not alone. A closing sentence from Millinerd led to a quick Google search, which yielded this from George Weigel:
“Yet [Richard John Neuhaus] could spend the late evenings howling with laughter over DVDs of Talladega Nights, Best in Show, or A Mighty Wind.”
I would not have guessed that Neuhaus liked Apatow comedies. I wonder what he thought of Pineapple Express…
04 February 2009
I had it before I had torn off the previous page, without even really thinking. Is this puzzle Mensa-worthy? I thought Mensa was for extremely smart people. Which leaves me with three possible conclusions:
- Mensans are not as smart as they think they are.
- Mensans are trying to lull us into a false feeling of intellectual adequacy… and then they strike.
- Mensans don't write their own calendars.
(Also: Candidate = candid + ate? THEY HAVE THE SAME ROOT! Interrobang.)
- Freddie questioned the efficacy of The Atheism's methods, asking why The Atheists are so often unwilling to have good-faith discussions with believers, resorting instead to mockery and ridicule.
- Scott wants to situate both science and religion as methods of personal inquiry that give meaning to individual lives, while relying more on social critiques of institutional religion than metaphysical arguments.
- Chris says that both sides in the current debate usually miss the point, since the Christian God is not some kind of chap. Besides: you've got to serve somebody. And questions of divine existence aren't the right questions anyway.
- E.D. Kain also argues that the existence of God is the wrong question. Try some empathy and humility instead.
- Mark tells us that the non-decidability of the God hypothesis should lead to separation of church and state.
To Freddie, I would say that much of the audience for the work of The Atheists gobbles up their polemical work for one of two reasons. First, there is a kind of pleasure that comes from seeing someone who is smarter or more clever than you eviscerate (or appear to eviscerate) arguments you despise. Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter appeal to their political readers for the same reasons. Second, there's a slightly more perverse pleasure to be had for believers in reading polemics you disagree with, slapping your head, and saying, “Dear me! This fellow is stupid!”
But there is another group of readers that finds intellectual liberation in reading these books. They find that their doubts can be expressed out loud and forcefully, and even supported by arguments, even if the arguments are not precisely original. They finally have something to say to their pushy religious friends. Testemonials to this experience are not hard to find. I think that The Atheists very much hope to reach such people, and to help them be happier. I have known people who found in Dawkins' work a key to a larger, richer world than they ever imagined possible. That they no longer needed the key after passing through the portal does not diminish the key's value.
That's what I have to say to Freddie. As to the claim from the others that the proper response to the question of God is Who cares?…
Well, that's certainly the right response when the question comes up on The Internet. But in real life, I care, and so do many others, and we care deeply. It is an article of faith for Christians that God exists and that He acts in history. If this is not true—if the only justification for Christianity is psychological-instrumental—if we Christians are just fowarding chain mail ad infinitum—then I would prefer not to be a Christian. The pure-reason undecidability of the question of God does not reduce its import.
What is needed for this discussion—more than a neuroscience of belief or a biology of belief—is a human psychology of belief. And until someone shows me a better starting point, I will begin with William James's essay “The Will to Believe”. If there are real truths that cannot be objectively decided—and the entire point of the avian fettuccine avatar is that science has nothing to say about such putative truths—then we can either cut ourselves off from such truths and remain secure in the fully justifiable, or we can leave safety behind, daring to know. James's contribution is the idea of the live option: that for any particular person, some ideas will be plausable and some ideas will not. The avian fettucine avatar is not a live option for anyone, as far as I know. For cultural and historical reasons, the Christian God is much more likely to be one in our place and time.
This language, of course, does not even begin to resolve things in one way or another, but I think it gives us a better vocabulary for why we believe than the language of logic and justification alone, which implicitly assumes that the best decision is to decline to take a chance on undecidable truths.
A final maxim: A person's fundamental beliefs have less to do with the questions she can answer and much more to do with the questions she can afford to leave unanswered.
Remember, this is the man who led his party—the opposition party—in the United States Senate during the instigation of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. For his noble work during that time, we need to forgive and forget his “failure to pay $128,000 in federal taxes.”
Do you remember how nobly he led his party? How he gently laid down his own considerable reputation in order to challenge the Bush administration's plans—not to sabotage them, but to make sure that they were as sound as could be? How he carefully pored over the now-infamous PATRIOT act to make sure that the party in power was not stepping out of its constitutional bounds? In short, how he served as a sterling example of what an opposition leader should be: a man who did not waver in the winds of public opinion?
Let us look upon his time-worn South Dakotan visage with a civilized admixture of pity, love, and honor, as is due to a leading statesman of a great republic, and forgive him his pecuniary indiscretions, secure in the knowledge that Tom Daschle probably just has too much money to keep track of.
03 February 2009
“At those rare moments when the skin of the world is peeled away and its substance laid bare before us, the world may assume either of two aspects—benign or malignant. There are the sublime, Wordsworthian moments when Nature apparels herself in celestial light; but there are other moments, too, when with the same trembling sensibility and the same incontrovertible sureness, we see that the fair surface of things—all flesh, these white and scentless blossoms, the rippled surface of the reflecting pool, even the proud sun itself—are but the whiting on the sepulchre within which . . . it were best not to look.”
Nietzschean, I suppose.
In The Genocides, which is Joseph Bottum's favorite Disch novel, Disch peeks into the sepulchre. It's a dark, dark book, and I'm glad that the editors put it between the lighter novels. The only hope that Disch allows in The Genocides is that the more human kinds of evil may be overcome—but not other, deeper darknesses.
Here's the thing, though: all the Disch I've read so far—all from his early period—is solidly and recognizably twentieth-century science fiction in plot and basic style, even though he stretches it. Which is to say: I love it, but you might not.
“It can be painful, but it is better that undergraduates considering graduate school in the humanities should know the truth now, instead of when they are 30 and unemployed, or worse, working as adjuncts at less than the minimum wage under the misguided belief that more teaching experience and more glowing recommendations will somehow open the door to a real position.
“Most undergraduates don't realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training). They don't know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don't make any fallback plans until it is too late.”
“…during the three years that I searched for positions outside of academe, I found that humanities Ph.D.'s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees. If you take that path, you will be starting at the bottom in your 30s, a decade behind your age cohort, with no savings (and probably a lot of debt).”
Oh, the poor humanites. I wonder if these disciplines should start doing everything in their power to be less insular—to encourage lateral movement between academia and the outside world. I hate to think that large groups of PhD candidates are just grist for the academic labor mill, but that conclusion is hard to avoid, considering the amount of extra work the grad students usually put in for their schools and how few of them will end up in tenured positions. On the other hand, if the system is stable, why shouldn't it just keep going the way it is?
(via The Gadfly)