Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Patience, patience . . . .

Greetings, netizens. Sorry to be away so long once again. I know you've been anxiously awaiting another mile-long rant on antiquated subjects, but I have not come through. Things have been a bit messy for me of late -- I won't say more than this: never trust academics with money. They haven't got a clue what to do with it, nor are they particularly nice when you point out that, nonetheless, bills have to be paid. And don't ever think that just because they're Marxists, they will regard the five-star dining fund as superfluous compared to a fellow's survival. After all, responsibility for hardship lies with society as a whole, not them.

But I digress. What do I have to say to this world I live in? I fear sounding like a perpetual grump. I'm not, really. There are so many things that make me happy, from sunshine to late August breezes to friendship to reading great books to the Catholic Mass to my lovely wife . . . I often count my blessings. But what can I say about the men around me? Perhaps it is my own fault, but I think I see more of their bad side than their good -- or I see the bad overwhelming the good. In this I am no doubt reversing things. St. Augustine points out that there is good even in the devil -- he exists and existence is good. One might even say that the very devilishness of the devil consists in not realizing this about himself -- or not admitting it. For then he would have to admit that he owe's his existence -- and everything good -- to God. As Phil recently pointed out (before confining his theological instruction to his brother, may God bless their souls) evil is the deprivation of good and to exist it cannot fully realize itself -- full negation would mean non-existence. More to the point, there is not a living soul who is (to my dim knowledge) unredeemable. Socrates also points out the following: men in general are neither wholly virtuous nor wholly vicious. To rant against their vice presupposes extravagant hopes for their virtue which have (naturally) been dashed. Great virtue is a blessing and not something we can demand, thus it is only wise to have patience with our fellow men.

OK, with that off my chest let me complain a bit. There's one thing in the news that is driving me nuts lately. Its latest incarnation is the swift boat scandal. I'm not going to opine about Kerry's war record, though let me say the second ad (perhaps it should have been the only one) nailing him on his betrayal of his comrades upon his (early) return to the States is divine justice. Everyone should see it and know the man they would be endorsing if they voted for that creep.

But it's not Kerry-bashing I'm after here, as fun as that would be. What I can't stand -- what strikes me as positively Orwellian (OK, as the *most Orwellian thing to come along in the past couple months, not that there is any scarcity of them) -- is the whole idea that these "527s" (i.e., human beings and citizens who are being branded by the digits on some act of their Congressional Slave-Masters) don't have a right to express their opinions in public. I know this point has been made before, but it bears repeating over and over, at the risk of flagging one's unreasonable hopes for humanity: WHAT COUNTRY ARE WE LIVING IN AGAIN!?!?!? How could anyone in this nation think for one instant that the solution to our political malaise is to shut down political speech across the land? How many times must commentators commentate on the protections accorded lap dancing over against the increasing censorship of one of the two types of speech the Constitution was actually meant to protect? Is there any such thing as political liberty if elections must be held in dead silence except for approved propaganda organs? I am utterly flabbergasted that this debate is even taking place in these terms. All intelligent discussion should be about whether the accusations are true or false (and the second ad, let me remind you, is only a verbatim quote from Kerry) -- or, at the very worst, about what is motivating them. Instead we have a bunch of politicians and media acting like this is the Soviet Union and the proletariat is getting a little uppity.

The whiniest whiner is Kerry, who is actually calling upon Bush to stroke his ego for him as if this were required by law. After Kerry has made Vitenam -- so, so absurdly -- the central -- nay, the only! -- plank of his platform, and after he has arranged for Soros et al to bash Bush into oblivion (he thinks). Even worse is Bush's complicity in this. For he failed to veto this crack-addled bill and then found himself in a position where he "had to" call for its enforcement -- against Soros and even against Michael Moore. Are we a nation of pansies who cannot endure public disagreement about the most important choices we face? Apparently many of us think so, or this foolishness would not be allowed to move so deliberately toward the stifling of all public political speech.

But never fear, soon we will be able to choose just those cable channels we really want, and everything will be A-OK!

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Homeland Security

An interesting debate on NRO/New Republic page.

(Not sure how long that link will be good . . . .).

I enjoy this format a great deal -- I think NRO and TNR are both "reasonable" mags (though the latter is possessed of anti-clerical ire) and evidently are able to converse on important issues -- though one also sees the role of partisanship in arguments coming forth here, which is interesting in itself. For many "liberals", politics and morality are deontological or pre-ordained, and so they cling to what in reality are prudential judgments as if they were self-evident. In the matter of security, nothing is self-evident and this sort of debate among prudent citizens is a model of what should be taking place.

It's not exactly a philospohical discussion, but it does also point to the importance to our regime of Montesquieu, who said (to paraphrase) that liberty is the opinion one has of one's own security. . . . .

Gotta Love It!

Goldberg weighs in on the Keyes-Obama race in Illinois. He has some gripes -- by carpetbagging Keyes is contributing to a recent but steady erosion in the forms that regulate democratic voting. Fine. But look at the lusciousness of what results!

Keyes [is] one of the best rhetoricians in America. Off the cuff he can articulate very conservative positions on everything from abortion to the United Nations better than most politicians can in prepared speeches. Indeed, this may turn out to be a great race. Two hyper-educated, successful, and civil African-American men with very different philosophies vying for a Senate seat in the land of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. No matter who wins, Illinois will have the only black Senator in Washington. Even better, race won't be much of an issue between the two because, as Keyes puts it, "if you are racist you have no one to vote for." That's great stuff.

No kidding! And as icing on the cake:

Keyes wants to repeal the 17th Amendment, which empowers voters rather than state legislatures to elect senators.

For the wisdom of the original dispensation (Sec 3), see Tocqueville (Democracy in America):

There are certain laws of a democratic nature which contribute, nevertheless, to correct in some measure these dangerous tendencies of democracy. On entering the House of Representatives at Washington, one is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly. Often there is not a distinguished man in the whole number. Its members are almost all obscure individuals, whose names bring no associations to mind. They are mostly village lawyers, men in trade, or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society. In a country in which education is very general, it is said that the representatives of the people do not always know how to write correctly.

At a few yards' distance is the door of the Senate, which contains within a small space a large proportion of the celebrated men of America. Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.

How comes this strange contrast, and why are the ablest citizens found in one assembly rather than in the other? Why is the former body remarkable for its vulgar elements, while the latter seems to enjoy a monopoly of intelligence and talent? Both of these assemblies emanate from the people; both are chosen by universal suffrage; and no voice has hitherto been heard to assert in America that the Senate is hostile to the interests of the people. From what cause, then, does so startling a difference arise? The only reason which appears to me adequately to account for it is that the House of Representatives is elected by the people directly, while the Senate is elected by elected bodies. The whole body of the citizens name the legislature of each state, and the Federal Constitution converts these legislatures into so many electoral bodies, which return the members of the Senate. The Senators are elected by an indirect application of the popular vote; for the legislatures which appoint them are not aristocratic or privileged bodies, that elect in their own right, but they are chosen by the totality of the citizens; they are generally elected every year, and enough new members may be chosen every year to determine the senatorial appointments. But this transmission of the popular authority through an assembly of chosen men operates an important change in it by refining its discretion and improving its choice. Men who are chosen in this manner accurately represent the majority of the nation which governs them; but they represent only the elevated thoughts that are current in the community and the generous propensities that prompt its nobler actions rather than the petty passions that disturb or the vices that disgrace it.

The time must come when the American republics will be obliged more frequently to introduce the plan of election by an elected body into their system of representation or run the risk of perishing miserably among the shoals of democracy.

I do not hesitate to avow that I look upon this peculiar system of election as the only means of bringing the exercise of political power to the level of all classes of the people.


Let us pay heed! Elitists of the world, unite! Alan Keyes and his like must get our votes if this country is to endure much longer!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It Just Keeps Going and Going . . . .

This conversation about conversation, that is. And it's taking on an interesting rhythm. Why, just yesterday Phil complimented me with reference to the fine art of lovemaking. And the very same day he came out of the closet! Coincidence? I report, you decide!

Anyhow, thanks to Phil and Mallarme for some stimulating thoughts. Expect a continuation here soon . . . .

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Speaking of Leisure . . . .

Everyone (or perhaps I should say, "The one reading this . . . ") check out Otiosity. A great way, I think, to discuss important issues in an open manner among a small but not artificially constrained group of reflective individuals. I have not posted as much as I should (big shocker there!) but I intend on doing more.

How Many Metaphors in that Last Post?

Kudos to anyone who can count the similitudes.

Happy Talk

At the risk of rambling more than conversing, I'd like to jump into a discussion on discussing that's all the rage among bloggers of note (the great Terry Teachout included). In particular I'm responding to the latest in a series of thoughtful posts on this by my good buddy Phil.

I won't pretend to summarize the nuanced (please let's not cede this word to John Kerry) arguments in play here. The basic question I think is what is the condition of the mind here and now in relation to its potential for excellence? The observations tend in the direction of pessimism although hope is held out that amidst the superficiality of TV (including supposedly smart TV) and the fever swamp of blogland, etc. etc., that there must be some chance for intellects to ascend toward the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Amen to that! When I hear this dozens of thoughts and emotions bubble within me -- and preferring a dry red to a sweet sparkling wine any day, I am wary to let loose this swirl of internal phenomena on the world (or all four and a half of its members to whose bemusement this page somehow showed up on their computer screen).

But Alas! if I don't say something now I will never get the discipline I want to think clearly. So let me begin with the first question I (in my better moments) pose to everything: who cares? What is the importance of the mind anyhow? Who cares if it is permitted to flower in refined discourse among like luminaries, or consigned to sound bytes (sp?) and O'Reillian "thanks for coming on the show" condescension?

As it usually happens, this question leads to the essence of the problem. For it is possible that the cultivation of the mind is a mere pretention of those with nothing better to do, a vanity on the part of men too weak to glut their vain-glory through more widely appreciated means such as prowess in war or spectator sports. Here I think of Socrates' demand in Plato's Apology that he be "punished" for philosophizing by being hosted in the manner of an Olympic champion. If nothing else proves the knee-slapping humor of the ancient authors, that does. (The alternative to the Athenian people's putting him to death was their sleeping through his harangues, which bore no resemblance in their minds to a javalin toss.)

To Socrates and his companions, however, philosophy was like hunting: an activity requiring great skill, engaging all of one's energies, one in which success was by no means guaranteed, and in which no one path could be pointed out beforehand, though key aspects of the terrain could be learned through experience and useful strategies gained by practice. Also, a leisured activity requiring great investments of time (for preparation and execution) and resources (the companions, animals, and equipment all of which must also be dedicated to the purpose). And let's not forget an activity done for its own sake and a tremendous pleasure in itself.

What is my point? I am actually setting up a few things here, if I am competent to unpack them coherently. For one thing, I am going to agree with Mallarme that "serious, deep conversations are inherently private affairs between a handful of people". They will never be appreciated by hoi polloi, to put it bluntly. But since they require so much they are on thin ice to begin with -- the conditions in which a band of capable men more serious about thinking than about anything else can come together are rare enough; add to this the indifference or hostility of the public and the situation is precarious indeed. It has always been so and, I suspect, always will be so.

So am I dismissing Phil's complaints? Hardly. Let's get back to the question of whether serious discussion (which as you can see I equate with philosophy) is mere vanity. Why persist in this leisured sport that no one else understands? The answer has to be what Strauss called "natural right" -- that this activity is the (or, conceivably, a) fulfillment of our nature as human beings. For Socrates, I think, one was simply not a man unless one was a philosoper: "The unexamined life is not livable for a human being"; dwellers in the metaphorical cave of the Republic appear to the man above-ground to be shades of the dead. We have to do this because it is what we are meant to do; our happiness (in the strong sense) depends on it.

No wonder this is in tension with society. What arrogance, what presumption! It is not hard to see why the picture had to change a bit if philospophy were to become a respected or even admired member of the polity. The idea of having it survive in "schools" -- a word that means "leisure" in ancient Greek -- led as far as I know to intellectual partisanship and social decay -- though in my ignorance of history I may be slighting the academic period so anyone who knows better correct me! The next manifestation was the adoption of philosophy by Christianity as preperatio Evangelium (if I'm getting that even close to right) or what became known as philosophy being the handmaiden to theology. Now the hubris of philosophy is deflated with refence to an end or happiness that all can and many may achieve (eternal salvation) while at the same time the ground of reason -- the rationality of the cosmos itself -- is guaranteed and the dignity of thinking reaffirmed by referring it all to the Being who simultaneously humbles and elevates the philosopher.

A neat solution, and one some of us look back to with a great deal of nostalgia. In such a society, one imagines, enclaves of profound conversation extending over lifetimes shared by philospohic friends must have had everything going for them. Again, my historical knowledge being squat, I leave it to others to comment on that.

But it was not a seamless garment, and it would have required constant mending so as not to break by being tugged in all directions. For the simply devout it is not abundantly clear why divine revelation is in significant need of supplementation by (what is bound to look like) human speculation. For the simply philosohic it perhaps dampens the enjoyment of the hunt to have the prey fenced in before the hounds are even loosed. And, last but not least, for the masses it may seem a bit hard to be subject to the constraints of a demanding morality the fruits of which are promised mainly in the next life.

So there was room for decay here, and decay the arrangement did I'm afraid. Since I did not indend to present the history of the world according to yours-historically-illiterate-truly, I will make this quick. The modern solution to the problem of philosophy was to make reason the instrument for more important things -- not of explaining divine revelation, but of conquering fortune or mastering nature. This is something everyone can appreciate as we discuss the decay of modern society through computers plugged into a world spanning web, typing with fingers powered by abundant calories for which we hardly have to sweat, in safe and ergonmicial surroundings preserved by governments that look to our every material need, etc. And no one is going to put to death the philosopher (i.e., scientist) who makes all this possible

But note the presupposition of this solution. Reason has become a mere tool -- a weapon against fortune (Machiavelli) or instrument for subduing nature (Descartes) -- and not an end, or even the end's indispensible maidservant. Profound, sustained thought gains easy acceptance by society at large precisely by humbling itself further and becoming the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none; it adopts a role vital to everyone whomsover by becoming everyone's lackey.

In doing so philosophy perhaps seeks the proverbial job in which the pay is low, but the work is steady. No hemlock for the modern day Socrates; no excommunication for the contemporary heretic. But this work is bound to have diminishing wages over time. At least I think so.

Why? Because society becomes focused on the effectual truth, or to put it most clearly on the power that can be accumulated and utilized to serve its every desire. Being what we are, we cannot resist the temptation to exploit every opportunity that technology gives us. Increasingly, thought seems like an obstacle to progress unless it is directly aimed at producing measurable results.

I still recall the response of a former high school classmate I ran into on a Boston sidewalk years back when I told her I was studying philosopy. (She was studying medicine at Harvard.) WHAT?!?! Don't you know philosophy is useless! She was downright angry. Had I told her I was working on embryonic stem cell research, in the hopes of curing Alzheimers etc., chances are she would have hugged me right then and there. If she by chance were against the harvesting and slaughter of little human beings for research, apparently she would not have had philospohic grounds for this. But I was the one guilty of waste in her opinion.

Add to this the decline of the political and religious "elite" as we like to call them. We have no Ciceros, Burkes -- or St. Augustines I would add -- today in part because we have no leisured class (recall that serious thought is a leisure, i.e., an intense sport) whose authority is respected (or feared) by the bulk of society. We may have potential statesmen and intellectual saints, but who is their audience going to be today? There are no social structures to support them. And it is sobering at the very least to contemplate that the institutions that made their existence possible in the past were founded on slavery -- something no sane or moral person would advocate in light of viable alternatives (such as technology coupled with constitutional democracy).

But where does this leave us? Piecing together a constituency through blogs? Or forgetting about society at large and using the privatized leisure that modernity bestows upon us to cultivate our own intellectual gardens?

Something like this is probably the best immediate thing we have going for us. But it is not unproblematic. In the end, it depends on our being able to buck society at large on the basis of our atomically isolated existence. This is a hard thing to do. For one thing, in the face of near-universal contempt or disapproval, one must constantly ask oneself, Who am I to disagree? Not that it's bad to question oneself -- so long as the correct answer does not seem beforehand to require estrangement from the visible universe.

On the other hand, one may be driven to "fight back" in a futile and self-destructive manner. Rebels are almost never rational and virtuous, no matter how noble the cause for which they fight. Since the fundamental nature of the struggle is simply to live well or as one ought, one cannot sacrifice reason and charity in this manner without defeating oneself.

Then there is the simple problem of how one is going to secure the basic provisions of existence. Yes, we live amidst material abundance, but it is mainly available to those who work a lot at jobs that require increasing amounts of training. (Most people's survival has always preculded liberal education, but today the very distinction between liberal and practical education is disappearing as there is no class that requires or desires a liberal education to grace its leisured existence.) We are all equal so each can aspire to whatever he wants in life, including profundity; but we are each obliged to make our way in the world by "earning" our bread by learning and performing the arts that please our fellows. If profundity is not among those arts, we must cultivate it in our spare time, or as an acciental feature of some other job. (Given the condition of the academy, I'm afraid it barely falls outside of these categories even if one succeeds in it; and, putting profundity above all else, one is bound to find many doors closed even there, poossibly cutting off one's only access to decent food shelter and clothing.)

Perhaps a true philosopher can endure poverty for his love; but let's not forget that Socrates hung out with a bunch of rich young men who paid his most necessary bills in exchange for the sublimity he brought to what appears to us as their aristocratic leisure. What are we to expect in the harried crowd of people who have plenty of hours for luxurious entertainment so long as they devote themselves to finding a niche (and niche-swapping as the volatile market changes every few years) within the hurly-burly of a materially obsessed world?

Phil asks, "Do our rules of conduct in conversation today allow for real conversation? Or do we rather chit-chat nicely, reaching no end (or at best, to agree to disagree without strenuous effort)?" I think there are many forces impelling us toward the quick, easy, conciliatory, practical, etc. and which therefore obscure the kind of talk that can make us truly happy.

But let's not forget that precisely insofar as this matters -- precisely insofar as the mind is our end or penultimate goal -- we can always expect it to right itself whenever the winds that have kept it down abate.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Blood, Football, Vatican II, Ice Cream and the Like

Hello, fellow mortals. It may appear I dropped off the planet here. Actually, I was at the family ranch, in a rural town which some may regard as the same thing. It was immensely refreshing to say the least! Since I rarely see them, I basically followed my family around and did what they did. One day bright and early (read: around 9 am when I could drag my sorry carcass out of bed) I threw a football, swam and threw a water-football, went back to the regular football, and so on until supper. Then I drove around one side of town in my dad's antique pickup; then through the back woods in my mother's mini-van to get ice cream from a country orchard. By that time I could barely lift my spoon. Especially considering that on the previous day I had been to give blood with my dad and brother who are regulars at it. They time how long it takes to get the gallon or whatever out of you; the average is ten minutes; my brother clocked in at six minutes fifty-something seconds; I knew I had to beat him, so I pumped the heck out of that little grippy thing they give you until I had arrived at the finish line, four minutes forty seconds. But I did not rest on my laurels, no sirree. The very next day was the most athletic of my life, culminating in (appropriately enough) a Nutty Professor.

Then I was able to visit a dear friend whose seriousness and insight always renew my love of truth, and make me regret being stuck in the academy in order to procure food for my thoughts (rather than food for thought). All hail the indolent blogger! I return to my current residence with mixed feelings as ever before.

So now I am back to my usual routine, more or less. I am a bit stalled out in my writing due to moving offices and other drudgery I will not burden you (all three of you, I suppose) with. This has not inspired me with grandiose thoughts to share with that part of the universe plugged into the world wide web, who happen to stumble on this page. However I am in the midst of some discussions on Catholicism, to be found on the web site of the above mentioned blogger (http://otiosity.org/forum/).

I am referring to the discussion on "Vatican II", an issue that concerns me a great deal. I should probably say a word to introduce that discussion since it begins in media res, and my statements may not appear appropriately moderate taken out of their full context. The discussion began about an article in Crisis Magazine (http://www.crisismagazine.com/feature1.htm) which in my opinion trivializes the issues surrounding the changes outlined by the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s and implemented thereafter. The article and a couple others appearing in recent issues of Crisis commit two major crimes: a) they whitewash the radicals who were contemplating the Church's capitulation to modernity all along; b) they slander the pre-V2 Church in order to make it appear that the answer to all the problems of the present-day Church (lack of discipline, of orthodoxy, of catechesis, bad liturgy, etc.) is a nearly exclusive adherence to the V2 documents and certain of their subsequent interpreters (especially Pope John Paul II).

I am by no means one of those who argues that the Council was invalid and needs to be repealed. Nor do I want to appear disrespectful of it or the Pope. But I think it is imperative in these crazy times that Catholics take their bearings from the Church's Tradition as a whole and not exclusively by recent directives; also given the fruits of the leadership post-V2 I think we have a responsibility to look soberly at what is wrong with the Church including its present strategy for engaging the world, which is obviously too permissive and conciliatory.

I also don't want to give the impression that I think I have all the answers -- I have a great deal to learn about these things, having grown up Catholic-lite and having had to piece together everything I know about my faith in the past few years . . . . But some things seem clear to me so I'd rather state them frankly and accept rebuttal if such is forthcoming.

Lastly, my invective in these posts is directed solely against the sycophancy and slander in those Crisis articles (and because I generally love Crisis I am all the harder on it when it publishes such swill). The Holy Father recently said (I hear) that he has not exerted enough discipline during his reign. If he can admit it, his flatterers might want to take a hint and consider some of the harder stances we will have to take in the future if we want the renewal of Catholicism to happen in our lifetime.
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