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July 2012

David Gelernter on the Dismantling of Culture

I had thought I would write a brief post about this interview with Yale computer scientist and cultural critic David Gelernter, but have been too busy, and that's likely to continue through tomorrow, so I think I'll just throw it out for discussion. This is another of those things, like the Heather King piece I linked to last week, that I don't entirely agree with, but which has some striking points with which I do agree. For instance, this bit, which relates to what I was saying yesterday about the two religions in America--they are not Christianity and atheism, but two much vaguer things, one with roots in Christianity, the other with roots in the Enlightenment.

Post-religious thinkers don’t even live on the same spiritual planet as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Americans. Old-time atheists struggled with biblical religion and rejected it; modern post-religious thinkers struggled with nothing. Since the Bible and biblical religion underlie the invention of America, it’s hard (unsurprisingly) for post-religious people to understand America sympathetically.... Expecting post-religious, Bible-ignorant thinkers to grasp America is like expecting a gerbil to sing Pagliacci.

People keep struggling to find a single term for what generally gets crudely pigeonholed as "liberalism." Gelernter's contribution is not likely to catch on, but it's accurate: the "Post-Religious Globalist Intellectual" establishment. Well, here's the interview.

Sunday Night Journal — July 29, 2012

At Least It's Out In the Open Now

There are several immediately obvious things to say about the declarations this week by the mayors of Boston and Chicago that they would attempt to block the Chick-fil-a (what a silly name) fast food chain from opening restaurants in their cities. First and most obvious is their violation of their own self-professed love of tolerance. It’s not as if the head of Chick-fil-a had advocated some sort of active oppression of homosexuals, at least not according to any reasonable definition of that idea. Unfortunately it is now a well-established debating tactic on the part of homosexual activists and their sympathizers to insist that to fail to agree with them about the nature of marriage is to encourage their active oppression, if not in fact to oppress them, at least psychologically, by “hating” them.

Second was the pretty blatant illegality of the mayors’ professed intentions. Even if you believe that Chick-fil-a’s views are objectionable, you can’t deny a business the right to operate on those grounds, and you don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize that. Local governments have a lot of discretion in granting licenses for a business to operate in this or that location—zoning laws, noise ordinances, and the like. Here in my little town there has just been a flap over whether a tattoo artist should be allowed to open a shop downtown amongst the snooty boutiques etc. The city at first denied a license for the shop, but happily the tattoo artist won; I say “happily” not out of any liking for tattoo parlors but out of dislike for snooty people.

But I digress: governments do have room for reasonable judgment calls about where businesses may locate, but the political opinions of the business owner are certainly not among the factors that may be legally considered in the decision. Both mayors seemed to have recognized this, or been advised of it by their legal staff, and quickly issued “clarifications.” (There is a good bit of fun to be had with Rahm Emmanuel’s invocation of “Chicago values”: “basically a by-word for political corruption and insane levels of gun violence”.)

But there’s something deeper at work, and it’s the appeal by the mayors to the notion of “values” that points toward it. Throughout the decades of the culture wars the conservative side has been on the defensive, because in resisting any progressive idea they could always be painted as intolerant. The progressives could always say “We just want to be free to do what we like. Why should you care?” America is in many ways fundamentally libertarian and utilitarian, and the argument that anyone should be able to do as he pleases as long as he harms no one else is probably about as close to a commonly-held absolute as one can find here. Tolerance of what ever the progressives wanted could always be portrayed as tolerance, period, not tolerance of anything in particular.

Thus an appeal to any sort of “shared values” was deemed entirely inadmissible, and “harm” came to mean “demonstrable material harm.” People with traditional ideas about cultural matters such as pornography were required to show that some direct connection between, e.g., the easy availability of pornography and crimes such as rape. And if that connection couldn’t be proven, the objectors were ruled out of court.

This superficial approach allowed and still allows most people to avoid dealing with the more difficult and deeper questions about the nature of man as a social animal, about the way societies work and what makes them cohere. The truth is that societies are organic things, and an organic thing must possess unity at some deep inner level. Fingers are not toes, and nerves are not veins, but they are part of one thing. The thoughtless assumption that tolerance is without limits ignores this. The superficial mechanistic formulations of John Stuart Mill assume some level of fundamental agreement about right and wrong, and collapse where that is lacking. A society can only function, or at any rate only be stable, if there is some broad consensus about what man is and what is best for him. This is a fundamentally religious question. And what’s happening now is a struggle over what religion, in the sense of fundamental assumptions about the world and man’s place in it, our society will have.

As the progressives have pushed for more and more tolerance of what they want, they have inevitably, driven by an instinct they don’t recognize or acknowledge, begun to push for the withdrawal of tolerance for views in opposition to theirs, even though this is also in the name of tolerance: opposing views are deemed “hate speech” etc., and declared to be at least a potential source of harm, and therefore not to be tolerated. In the United States this does not yet often take the form of legal penalties, but some other countries are not so diffident, and the Chick-fil-a incident certainly indicates the desire to weild the power of the government against dissenters.  In advocating the punishment or restriction of views that do not reflect the “shared values” of their communities, progressives are unconsciously affirming the views of their long-time opponents that the deep inner unity of a society does, after all, matter a great deal, and that the virtue of tolerance has its limits. Ideas in opposition to that inner unity can be tolerated to a point, but only so far; they cannot be accorded equality with the governing ideas of the society.

A man cannot serve two masters; a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most societies have recognized this, explicitly or implicitly. Among modern industrialised societies, most no longer do. Communist societies, or at least governments, are an exception, making it perfectly clear that the state is the ultimate authority. They tolerate Christianity to some greater or lesser degree, but leave no doubt as to who is the master.

As things are going, that is the sort of future Christians can look forward to in the formerly Christian nations we generally refer to as “the West.” Having gained the upper hand culturally, the progressives are getting an idea of what they need to do to assert and maintain their mastery, and of how they need to organize their society. The contraception mandate in “Obamacare,” and these gestures by the mayors of two of our biggest cities, should be seen as early skirmishes in what promises to be a long and determined campaign to put Christians in a box where they can do whatever they want inside their churches, but are not allowed to act publicly in opposition to progressive doctrine.

"Because you really do love God," [Caryll] writes to one friend, "your suffering, bitter though it is, is healing the world's sorrow. Don't think of it in terms of what is unbearable to you, but when a specially bad hour ends, even in sheer weariness, think, 'That is a drink of water to someone dying of thirst,' or, 'That is a bar of chocolate for a hungry child.' It is mysterious, but true."

--from Maise Ward's biography of Caryll Houselander.

Two by Ivory Joe Hunter

Weekend Music

I debated with myself about the order of these. First I met her, then I lost her seemed more natural, but since it's the weekend let's suppose it's two different women and that there's a happy ending. Actually they're almost the same song with different lyrics, which I guess is appropriate.



St Pius X and the Olympic Games

(from the Vatican News Service)

Vatican City, 27 July 2012 (VIS) - It was 1908 when, in the wake of a serious economic crisis, Rome renounced hosting the Olympic Games which were eventually celebrated in London, England. In the same year Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, sought help from the Vatican to support the Games, and Pope St. Pius X in person offered him his support.

More than one hundred years later, the British capital is hosting the Olympic Games for the third time. The event is due to open this evening.

That moment at the beginning of the twentieth century is described in a book entitled "Pio X e lo sport" by Antonella Stelitano. At that time "less than one per cent of the population practised any sporting activity, ... and sport was used only as a form of military training or as a pastime for the upper classes", the author explained in an interview with Vatican Radio.

However "St. Pius X ... was aware of the educational potential of sport". He saw it as a way "to approach young people, and to bring them together while following certain rules and showing respect for adversaries. I believe", the author explained, "that he understood that it was possible to bring people together simply, without any problems of race, religion or differing political ideas".

At that time in history many people did not understand the importance of exercise, said Antonella Stelitano who concluded her interview by recalling an anecdote whereby Pius X told one of his cardinals: "All right, if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercise in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it".


I can't say I blame her

"Voula Papachristou 'bitter and upset' over Olympic ban." I don't see why her remark was "racist." Or rather I do, of course--it's because of the extreme-hyper-super sensitivity that so many people exercise about any reference to Africa--but I think it's pretty irrational. I can see objecting to it on the grounds that it was tactless when people are suffering from a disease known as the West Nile virus. But racist? Surely banning her from the Olympics was a serious over-reaction. Another news story mentioned that she's "right-wing." I suppose that probably had something to do with it, too.

The Archivist's Lot

I mentioned the other day that my wife is the archivist for the local archdiocese. She tells me that she spent the entire day today trying to find out what color the eyes of someone who died in 1921 were. The person was Fr. James Coyle, and someone wants to have a portrait of him painted, but all they have to work from is a few black-and-white photos. And if there is anyone still living who saw him while he was alive, he or she would have to be over 90, and would have been only a child at the time.

Want to take a guess at the color of his eyes?

Fr. Coyle and his sister, Marcella

In the archiving business, people like my wife, who are the sole person in charge of the archive, are referred to as Lone Arrangers.

Some Thoughts on Religion in the USA

It is a great embarrassment to me that it's now been over two years since I moved this blog from Blogger to TypePad, and I still haven't converted everything from my old site to this one. I moved the blog itself, which was not difficult. I started the blog in June 2006, and of the few people who read it probably only a small number of those are aware that the Sunday Night Journal actually began two and a half years earlier, in January 2004, as a hand-built non-blog website. For various reasons I want to turn those old items into blog posts here, and have still not finished doing it. Lately I've been making more of an effort, and I'm now up to the end of October 2005. 

Some of these pieces seem to me to be pretty good, if I do say so myself. Here's one I thought was relevant to some of the political and religious matters that have been in the news lately: Hitchens, Franklin, and Our Sundered America. I hope you'll find it interesting, too.

Sunday Night Journal — July 22, 2012

Sympathy for the Truth

I almost felt sorry for President Obama for a little while this week, because of the “you didn’t build that” controversy. In case you managed to miss all the fuss (which actually I think got relatively little attention from the pro-Obama press), he included the following words in a speech:

If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

The right leapt on this with the wildest enthusiasm, repeating it as often as possible as proof that Obama believes that individual effort and achievement mean little or nothing, with the further suggestion that the owner of a business has no real title to it.

In its rawest and simplest form, the charge is unfair. My reading of the entire context indicates that this is almost certainly a case of a clumsy ambiguity in the use of the pronoun “that.” Here are the statements with a bit more context:

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

It seems pretty clear to me that the antecedent of “that” is meant to be “roads and bridges,” not “business.” And this is a more plausible reading because no politician in his right mind would say that a person who built a business did not build it, even if he believed it. This is the sort of verbal misstep that anyone could make when speaking extemporaneously, which I’ve been assuming was the case although I haven’t seen anything definite to that effect. (If it was a written speech, it was an inexcusable blunder and would serve as further  support for the view that Obama is not nearly as smart as he and many others seem to think he is.)

In a reasonable and fair discussion in which the object is to find and propound the truth, Obama’s opponents would grant, at least for the sake of argument, that he meant to say that the person who builds a business makes use of resources that he did not create, and go on to demonstrate that the speech as a whole, or at least this passage, nevertheless was a conglomeration of straw men, banalities, and falsehoods. A number of  conservative commentators did this, more or less. Here is just one example, from Neo-neocon (I laughed out loud at “great teachers all the way down.”) Just to note a few important points: no one outside a few extreme libertarians really believes that the individual stands or falls purely on his own, or that the government should not be involved in building roads and putting out fires. And the person who builds a business paid taxes to support those things just like everyone else. And Obama, along with almost everyone on the liberal side of this debate, persistently, insistently, and falsely equates “society” or “community” with “the federal government.”

But Obama gets no sympathy from me, because liberals and their allies in the media, now so outraged by the treatment of Obama’s remarks, generally practice exactly the same sort of willful distortion against Republicans at every opportunity. Consider two examples from Mitt Romney over the past months, which I still hear repeated by the left, and no doubt will continue to hear until the election, and afterwards if Romney wins.

“Romney says he’s not concerned about the poor.”

Yes, he did say the words “I’m not concerned about the poor,” and they were ill-chosen. But they had a context which gives them a quite different meaning. He was talking about the need to help the middle-class, and saying that there are measures already in place for the poor:

I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney told CNN. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”(link)

“Romney says corporations are people.”

Yes, he said that, too, but he was not talking about the legal construct which treats corporations as persons for some purposes. He meant only that corporations are composed of people, and that a tax on a corporation is in fact a tax on those people. It’s nice to see a fair-minded liberal, Jonathan Chait, grant this.

If truth is the first casualty of war, the frequency in politics of attempts to kill it would suggest that politics is now a form of warfare, which it certainly seems to be. Democrats, in the long-established habit of showing no mercy in situations like this, should expect none. But if I have no sympathy for them, I do have it for the truth. We’re all losers when the truth–or the justice, or the logic—of what is said matters much less than whether it is politically effective or not. That’s a sin against the word, and the Word, which Christians fighting these battles ought to remember.

Wife gets her name in the paper

For the help she provided to someone writing a history of the Mobile Archdiocese. Only a brief mention, but no mention at all would have been very unjust:

Noland called Mobile's Catholic archives "absolutely wonderful," and praised the archivist, Karen Horton.

As well he might. She downplays her contribution, but I'm pretty sure it was essential. I know she certainly spent a huge amount of time on it, digging up the raw material that Dr. Nolan (the name is misspelled in the story) turned into a book, and doing a lot of the computer-related work.