Friday, December 8, 2017

The Triumph of the Idiot

Thomas Hobbes. (Image source: totallyhistory.com)
The word idiot, I am reliably informed, comes from the ancient Greek ἰδιώτης idiōtēs, via the Latin transliteration idiota. On the face of it, an idiōtēs was merely a private individual, as opposed to a government minister or military officer. However, among the Athenians, it was a derisive term applied to anyone who declined to take an active role in civic affairs, or who cut themselves off from the community in pursuit of their own interests. This pejorative application became associated with a person of low intelligence or skill, who could contribute little to the polis.

Res Idiotica

America is becoming (or has become) a nation of idiots, according to writers and thinkers who deliberately reference this half-forgotten sense of idiōtēs. That’s to say, we are becoming increasingly self-absorbed and disconnected, isolated not only from each other but from any sense of community or history. Their critique of millennials has gone beyond sneering at “snowflakes” and hooting over participation trophies. Instead, their concern is for the disturbing number of twenty-somethings checking out of adult social interaction and the burgeoning industry of “self-care” products.

Writes philosopher Michael Liccione, “It’s as if real relationships and real community engagement are all just too much for many people, who prefer to define and live in their own little worlds, insulated as much as possible from the pain and inconvenience of regular involvement with the big bad world.” Another philosopher, Reilly Smethurst, reminds us that St. Augustine “famously associated idiocy with ostentatious self-authorization. In his Confessions, Augustine referred critically to his younger self as ‘a prisoner, trying to simulate a crippled sort of freedom.’ The specter comforting America is that of the juvenile Augustine — free to enjoy its own vacuity, empowered ironically by crippledom.”

The best use of this equation between self-absorption and idiocy came from Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen’s critique of the education system:

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference. Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. ... Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica — a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first res idiotica .... Our education system excels at producing solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Uncivil Discourse 2: Kathy Griffin and the “New Normal” of Obscenity

Kathy Griffin, desperate attention-seeker.
(Photo: Getty Images.)
I absolutely cannot stand Scotch whiskey. People tell me that Scotch is an “acquired taste.” To which I always respond with some bewilderment, “Why would anyone want to acquire a taste for it?” Why would anyone, having found something vile and disgusting, deliberately take in more and more of it until it becomes their go-to consumable? This is just one of many questions we should ask ourselves while we’re all in a flutter over the picture of “comedian” Kathy Griffin holding up a bloodied mock-up of Donald Trump’s head.

The Massacre in Arizona

Before we go further, I’d like to cast your memories back to January 2011, to the mass shooting in Tucson in which six people died and thirteen others were wounded. As I wrote at the time, “The smoke from Jared Lee Loughner’s weapon had hardly a chance to dissipate when liberal hate-mongers in the MSM started to accuse Sarah Palin and the Tea Party as accessories before the fact to mass murder. The grounds? One of the victims, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is a Democrat ‘targeted’ by the Tea Party for unseating in her next re-election bid.” And among the accusers was Kathy Griffin.

Palin had posted an online map that had Giffords’ and other Democrat incumbents’ pictures with cross-hairs drawn on them. Had Loughner never fired his weapon, no one would ever have thought it unusual; it would have been like the Sunday-morning mailman in Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery. False cause fallacy, folks; nothing to see here. The accusation was baseless and stupid, and the conservative chatterati tore the most visible offenders, Keith Olbermann and Paul Krugman, to tiny little shreds. Even some liberals participated in the beatdown.

Other conservatives, however, went the tu quoque route, serving up some violent talk from liberal thought leaders from then-Pres. Barack Obama to also-unfunny comedian Sandra Bernhardt and queen emeritus of pop Madonna. At the time, Michelle Malkin had been collecting such examples for ten years; she posted them with the admonition, “... [Don’t] let the media whitewash the sins of the hypocritical Left in their naked attempt to suppress the law-abiding, constitutionally-protected, peaceful, vigorous political speech of the Right.” Peaceful and vigorous, I assume, includes the various lynchings and burnings of Obama, as well as rocker Ted Nugent’s later invitation to the president to “suck on my machine gun.”

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Scarcity No Excuse For Avoiding Health Care Reform

Image Source: Center for American Progress.
Plenty of people have written ad nauseam about liberal smugness. Heck, even liberals have written about liberal smugness. I’ve already pointed out that liberals’ supposed intellectual superiority is oversold. But for sheer condescension, try reading a conservative on economic issues. It’s hard to find a conservative talking head who doesn’t assume liberals know nothing about economics, who doesn’t treat liberals like third-graders in need of a stern talking-to about grown-up stuff. Case in point: Kevin D. Williamson, whose National Review piece, “Health Care, from the Top”, can serve as a model for How to Write Like a Patronizing Ass.

“Those Poor, Simple Liberals”

“Our ongoing troubles with health care,” Williamson begins, “stem from an unwillingness to deal with certain facts. One of those facts is scarcity.” Just from the way Williamson tees up the ball you can see where he’s aiming: “Those poor, simple liberals think everything is available in mind-dazzling abundance and shouldn’t have to be paid for (except by other people).” Apparently, to Williamson liberals are all college-age kids going to school on Mommy and Daddy’s nickel, who don’t have to pay for anything except Jell-O shots and the occasional reefer (thanks to Obamacare, the Trojans are covered).

To give Williamson his due, his attitude never verges into a Scroogean desire for the unfortunate to die and decrease the surplus population. “There is a certain libertarian tendency,” he writes,  “to … throw up one’s hands, exclaiming: ‘Just let markets work!’ We should certainly let markets work, but not ‘just.’ We aren’t going to let children with congenital birth defects suffer just because they might have stupid and irresponsible parents [people are poor because they’re stupid and irresponsible, don’cha know], and we are not going to let old people who have outlived their retirement savings die of pneumonia because we don’t want to spend a couple of thousand bucks treating them.” He even writes approvingly of “giving poor people money and money analogues (such as food stamps) to pay for food,” which makes him a rarity among conservatives.

However, these heartwarming glimpses of Williamson’s humanity aren’t enough to dispel the irritation produced by his ham-handed belaboring of the obvious. It might distress him to learn that not all liberals are spoiled-brat millennials mindlessly parroting Bernie Sanders’ Facebook memes. Indeed, it might cause him consternation to know that liberals are fairly evenly distributed among income strata and that college graduates are a bit more likely to lean left than right. I can’t imagine what would happen to Williamson if it were revealed to him that there are even a few liberal economists still around.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Day Melania Trump Became a Real Person

First Lady Melania Trump, just before meeting Pope Francis.
(Photo credit: Gregorio Borgia, AP)
I’ve felt some pity for Melania Trump for some time now. It’s hard not to.

In the Shadow

For one thing, for all the money they make — and it’s not necessarily as much as you’d think — supermodels don’t get much more respect than ordinary models, who rate more respect than fast-food workers but less than nursing assistants. To the average person, being a model requires only three attributes: height, skinniness, and photogenic looks. No one expects you to have a brain, let alone opinions worth listening to; after all, if you had a brain, you’d have pursued some socially useful career, like (fill in the blank), instead of trading on such an ephemeral quality as beauty.

For another thing, Melania’s married to the shamelessly self-promoting Donald Trump. As such, to the public eye, she’s been little more than an accessory to The Donald, a gold-electroplated accouterment. Nobody actually knows the dynamic of their relationship, which has never stopped anyone from treating speculation as fact (“trophy wife!”). Being Trump’s wife has made her a target of spite. Melania recently settled a libel lawsuit with the British tabloid the Daily Mail, who had asserted that at one point she supplemented her modeling income with prostitution. And her delivery of the Lord’s Prayer at a rally in Melbourne, Florida garnered both howls of outrage from secularists and sneers from bigots who made fun of her accented English.

All told, however, most of Melania’s time is spent in the shadow of the lurching, bellowing PR ogre that is Pres. Donald Trump. For the press and for a large proportion of the Trump-hating public, she is little more than a cardboard cutout, or a pretty face posted on a punching bag — the First Bimbo. Even her son Barron gets more positive attention than she does.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dreher’s “Benedict Option” Not THAT Hard to Understand

Monday, while perusing Big Pulpit, I came across a link to Deirdre Mundy’s Aleteia post, “Where [Rod] Dreher lost me on the ‘Benedict Option’”. I recently bought the book The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel Books) but hadn’t got around to reading it yet. I’d read a couple of his columns on the concept two years ago (and wrote a post about them); the basic idea seemed pretty clear to me at the time. However, intelligent people like Dr. John Zmirak and Austin Ruse showed quite clearly that they didn’t get it. Nevertheless, I read the book before reading Mundy’s piece.

Build an Ark? Right!

Reading the book was kind of a let-down. I agreed with everything Dreher wrote. In fact, I had written about many of the things he discusses and drawn pretty much the same conclusions. It was like I had paid $16.00 for the privilege of reading my opinions in someone else’s book. (Mind you, I’m not accusing Dreher of plagiarism!) The difference is, Dreher is a more experienced writer who uses fewer twenty-dollar words than I do, so his style is more accessible to the average reader. So it was like reading my opinions the way I should have written them. The Benedict Option concept is just not that hard to understand; it’s not Plato’s Republic or Cicero’s On Public Duties.

Having forearmed myself with the assurance that I indeed knew what Dreher was talking about, I then plunged into Mundy’s article to see where Dreher lost her. It turns out that her problem is with a simile Dreher conjured up in passing: “I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.”

Rebuts Mundy: “Here’s the problem: from a Catholic point of view, we already have a metaphorical Ark: The Church. We don’t need to build a new, more isolated ark to ride out what Dreher sees as a coming dark age. We can continue to live in the Ark we already have, as members of the body of Christ.” The rest of the article discusses ideas that Dreher covers in his book, but they’re written as if she’s contradicting him instead of agreeing with him. Sigh; some more hay litters the pavement of the public square as another straw man has the stuffing beaten out of it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

NYT: Trump Stole the Left’s License to BS

I must apologize — I thought I’d written my last political commentary. But when I read Casey William’s April 17 New York Times think piece, “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?”, my first impression was, “This is either very subtle satire or the most blatant exposition of cognitive dissonance ever.” The problem: Williams desperately wants to call Pres. Donald Trump a liar.

We’re used to this pattern by now: The president dresses up useful lies as “alternative facts” and decries uncomfortable realities as “fake news.” Stoking conservative passion and liberal fury, Trump stirs up confusion about the veracity of settled knowledge and, through sheer assertion, elevates belief to the status of truth.

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

However, the very critical tools upon which the academic left has become dependent for intellectual life-support forbids appealing to objective reality to back the claim that Trump lies. After all, if there is such a thing as an objective reality, we can’t know it for certain. The left has their facts, and Trump has his. Under postmodern critique, pace Daniel P. Moynihan,[*] the right to one’s own opinion is the right to one’s own facts.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

La Civiltà Cattolica and the “Spirit of the Age”

Rev. Antonio Spadaro, SJ. (Photo: Magyar Kurír.)
Brace yourselves. Once again, someone in the Vatican has challenged Church doctrine in a way that implicates Pope Francis, on an issue about which he has already spoken — women’s ordination to the priesthood. (Surprise, surprise, the culprit is a Jesuit.) Arguably, the last pope to have total control over his staff was St. Gregory the Great. Certainly, it’s dubious whether any pope since Pius XII has had a curia and bureaucracy that were all striving to the same end. But even the most doughty of papal defenders must occasionally find himself irritated by Francis’ seeming unwillingness to ride herd on the Vatican administration.

This is Where We Came In …

On Tuesday, February 7, Sandro Magister reported on an article published in the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, written by Fr. Giancarlo Pani, SJ. Titled “La Donna e il Diacono,” Magister claims that in the article, “Fr. Pani calmly rips to shreds the ‘last clear word’ — meaning the flat no — that John Paul II spoke against women’s priesthood.”

Yawn, you say; haven’t we seen this movie before, during the reigns of Benedict XVI and St. John Paul himself? Ah, says Magister, but this is different! You see, the Holy See inspects and authorizes every line it publishes! Plus, the editor is none other than papal confidant Fr. Antonio Spadaro, and Fr. Pani is not only a deputy editor but his closest colleague!

And Francis is the first “not to limit himself to what is already known, but wants to delve into a complex and relevant field, so that it may be the Spirit who guides the Church,” concludes La Civiltà Cattolica, evidently with the pope’s imprimatur.

The first rule in dealing with news from the Vatican: Not everybody in the Vatican is on the same page. In fact, going off-script is almost an intramural sport. Most bureaucracies have functionaries whose agendas differ from the person supposedly in charge of the mess. The Vatican differs only in that the subversion is more rampant and sometimes more blatant. Since Pius XII, the popes have as often had to work against the bureaucracy as with it. Nobody should assume that anybody in the Holy See does anything unusual with the full knowledge of the Pope, or even with the minimum knowledge of the next person up the food chain.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Chittister Challenge 2: Supply, Demand, and the “Culture of Life”

On Saturday, January 28, Joe Heschmeyer published an essay, “Seven Answers to the ‘Pro-Lifers are just Pro-Birth’ Argument,” in his blog Shameless Popery. The essay offers rebuttals to a meme featuring the quote from Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, that I wrote of a couple of years ago. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Joe, who is a student at the Pontifical American College in Vatican City (and, I believe, should be coming up on his transitional diaconate this year). I earnestly commend the essay to your attention; it’s very well balanced in its treatment of the argument.

Supply and Demand

However, Joe’s essay did prompt me to do a little more drilling on the subject, to embrace a little more of the political context in which the argument arises. The recent elections brought to the surface a long-standing tension between two different camps within the pro-life movement, camps which I will for brevity’s sake call the supply-side and demand-side branches. While the meme Joe dissects arose in a pro-abortion context, the quote has also had currency among demand-side pro-lifers.

The supply-side pro-life camp, which we could also call the first-wave movement, is mostly concerned with the legality of abortion and euthanasia, along with some related issues such as assisted suicide, cloning, IVF, and contraception. Politically, they tend to be older and more conservative or right-wing libertarian. As Joe rightly points out, conservatives are more likely to donate time and money to support charitable causes than are liberals, so it’s not like they’re stingy. However, precisely because their politics are more conservative, their view of the scope of “pro-life” is, for want of a more charitable word, narrower. They highly resist the importation of other issues, such as Syrian refugees or undocumented immigrants, into the pro-life purview and refuse the creation of government intervention programs. Because their concern is mostly with the legal and political mechanisms permitting the “death industry” to exist, one can say they seek to shut off the supply.

By contrast, the demand-side camp or second-wave movement tends to be younger, as well as more moderate to liberal in their politics though less willing to affiliate with either party or identify with either ideology. The demand-siders recognize that economic and social issues often drive the choice for death; by addressing those issues, they seek to reduce the demand. For this reason, they’re more likely to support government intervention and more willing to pay the taxes required to support the efforts. The pro-life movement as a whole is concerned with what Vice-President Mike Pence called “[society’s] most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn.” The second-wave movement, influenced by the consistent life ethic articulated most notably by Cdl. Joseph Bernardin and in St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, extends its recognition of vulnerability to immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and other socially marginalized people.[*]

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Absurdity of “Values-Free” Economics

Image source: marketoracle.co.uk.
While reading John C. Médaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Healthcare, Deficits, and More (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2010), I couldn’t help thinking of Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s admission three years ago that “economists actually know very, very little, and that a lot of what we thought we knew [prior to the last recession] turned out to be wrong.” Yet the defenders of what Gobry calls “the Washington consensus” still talk and think as though their economic dicta were enshrouded in papal infallibility. Toward a Truly Free Market helped me to realize that the economists were wrong because the entire discipline is not (and never could be) “values-free”; the very notion is inherently absurd. And the values enshrined in modern economic theory not only blind economists to impending market failures but make them inevitable.

What is Distributism?

Distributism holds that a community’s economic health is better secured when the ownership of capital — the means of production, including everything from office ball-point pens to factories, especially land — is spread out (distributed) widely among the population. It champions smaller, more localized businesses, especially cooperatives and employee-owned corporations, and considers globalism and the huge multinational conglomerates positive evils.

Distributism is not, however, a form of socialism. It rejects state ownership of property and demands a reordering of government power to prioritize the community over the nation. Nor does distributism necessarily require a forced redistribution of capital by the government, though Médaille doesn’t rule it out (see pp. 243-245).