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A Bit More On Impermissible Ideas

This piece by Stanley Kurtz at National Review is a commentary on the very rapid growth of the belief, and subsequent practice, of left-wing journalists that views which they despise should not be heard. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here's how Kurtz ends it:

Classical liberalism arose to prevent murderous civil strife between those who could not agree on ultimate things—and who questioned each other’s good faith as a consequence. Throw aside the marketplace of ideas, throw aside even the aspiration to neutral reporting, and throw aside, on this account, the basic rights of those with whom we disagree, and we are back in the soup, back to the wars, back to the days before liberty and civil peace, the crowning achievements of our history, the history we’ve stopped celebrating—or even remembering. Is that what we want? Because that is where we are headed.

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Impermissible Ideas

As it always had the potential to do, the philosophical and religious neutrality which is the ostensible framework of the American system is collapsing. See this post by Rod Dreher, one of many in which he describes the movement in big-time journalism to full-on advocacy for various left-wing causes. Here's an anecdote:

All this put me in mind of a conversation I had maybe 15 years ago, when I was a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, with a Millennial writer there. He knew that I was a conservative, and I knew that he wasn’t, but none of that mattered. I mentioned to him one day that I thought the paper’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided, and had become a matter of pro-LGBT advocacy journalism. He agreed that it was one-sided, but told me that he didn’t think there was a legitimate other side. I pointed out that we lived in a rather conservative part of the country, and that most of our readers took the opposite position on gay marriage (this was around 2005, I think). Were they all bigots who didn’t deserve to be consulted in our reporting? Yes, he said. If the paper was reporting on the Civil Rights movement, he said, would we feel morally and professionally obligated to seek the views of local KKK leaders?

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The Dangers of Being a Player

Perhaps you've heard of a little controversy involving First Things. It seems that the editor, R.R. Reno, issued a quarrelsome Twitter post or two in which he called people who wear the masks prescribed as COVID-19 preventatives "cowards." I was aware that he has been skeptical and even scornful about the way the pandemic has been handled, and that some people were pretty annoyed with him on that score. But there was apparently quite an outcry about the "cowards" business, resulting in a lot of discussion about the magazine, its history and future. 

Here's Rod Dreher on the matter. (And here is his account of the initial explosion, if you aren't already aware of it and want to know.) 

When First Things appeared in the '90s I read it occasionally and liked it. But I didn't subscribe because (1) many of its articles were too academic for me, by which I mean they assumed a level of education that I don't have, and (2) it seemed to have a sort of program which I did not entirely buy into. That program was generally identified as neoconservatism. And I had many points of agreement with it. After all, I was and am in some literal sense a neoconservative in the strict sense of being one who was on the political left and moved to the right. But of course the term in practice encompassed and implied much more than that, so I didn't apply it to myself.

But I was bothered by something deeper than that, something I was only vaguely aware of and never gave much thought to. A sentence in Dreher's post (the first one linked above) gave me an abrupt realization:

Neuhaus’s great triumph with First Things came from his aspiration to make it a political player. He succeeded.

Yes, and that was the problem. When you want to be a player, you have to cultivate alliances, flatter this one and shun that one, calculate your position, keep a close eye on what people are saying about you and whether or not they are people who matter...on and on. I don't say that it's an indefensible thing. Maybe you can advance good causes that way. Maybe you can't accomplish anything much in the world without doing at least some of that. But it's not for me, and I think the scent of it--the impression that Neuhaus and company enjoyed that game, took pleasure in hobnobbing with the high and mighty--always bothered me.

Well, it's easy for me to criticize; I couldn't do that stuff even if I wanted to. I'm just not made that way. But, my personal qualities or lack thereof aside, the effort to become a "player" as a means of advancing the Gospel, or, more mundanely, of advancing political causes that you see as advancing the Gospel, poses obvious dangers. Dreher points out (the first post I linked to above is very much worth reading), and I think he's probably right, that the identification of First Things and neoconservatism in general with the Republican party has really damaged the effectiveness of the magazine even within the scope of Christian politics. The identification of so many prominent "public" Christians, including many of those at First Things, with Donald Trump has done even more. 

I don't mean the simple act of voting for Trump. In 2016 you had a choice between Trump and Clinton. In 2020 you will probably have a choice between Trump and Biden. (Let's ignore the third-party option; anyone who takes that road understands that his candidate has no chance of winning.) Given that choice, there are plenty of good reasons to vote for Trump. What I mean, what's doing the damage, is not that, but the fanatical embrace of Trump as righteous prophet-savior ordained by God to lead his nation, and Christians in particular, out of the wilderness. This is just the right-wing counterpart of the left's Obama-worship. And both, as I keep saying, are symptoms of a very bad development in American politics: the elevation of the presidency into the role of god-king incarnating the soul and will of the nation. You can hardly get more un-American than that.

More significantly for the fortunes of Christianity in America, though: when idols fall, those who have embraced them fall with them.


Trump Didn't Say That

The title would be applicable at least once a week. In a comment on some current-event-related post a while back, Janet said "Don't make me defend Trump." I find myself in that position a lot. So do enough people, I guess, that the Babylon Bee did a post about it

It's maddening. I really haven't changed my negative view of Trump. But the unrelenting effort by Democrats to destroy him by, apparently, any means necessary, makes me at least a little sympathetic toward him. Or at least toward the truth which is such a frequent casualty in this war.

I'm thinking right now of the insane bit of controversy that's happened over the past few days. Trump wondered out loud whether disinfectants should be studied as possible measures against COVID-19. That was immediately turned into "Crazy Trump Tells People to Drink Disinfectant." And then they warned people not to do it. As if the idea would ever have occurred to anyone without the help of the press.

If you want to read a careful account of what Trump actually said and the way it was handled, read this piece by Andrew McCarthy: The Times Inflates Trump's Foolishness Into Monstrousness

How depressing is the erosion of the principle that when the president of the United States speaks, it means something, that it’s not just stream-of-consciousness that willy-nilly gets revised or reversed or treated like he never really said it. Just as depressing, though, is the media’s abandonment of straightforward fact reporting, in favor of unabashed alliance with Trump’s political opposition.

Why do blind partisans and demagogues have such sway these days? Because no one can trust the reporting of institutions we used to expect would give us an accurate rendition of the facts being debated....

When the president speaks publicly, he should stick to what he is in a position to convey factually, not hypothetically. Especially when it comes to scientific and medical information, as to which he is quickly out of his depth.

At the same time, no matter how much the press abhors Trump, no matter how sincerely believed its conviction that he is a dangerous man who will induce people to do dangerous things, reporters worthy of the name do not have license to portray Trump as living down to their worst fears when he has not. If he says dumb things, they should report that he said dumb things. That’s bad enough (and since they’re clearly hoping to hurt him politically, nothing stings like the truth). The press destroys its own credibility, however, by reporting the president’s ill-advised remarks as if they were culpably, recklessly irresponsible remarks.

I don't care much about Trump's political fortunes for Trump's sake, but I do care about the transformation of most of the national press into a weapon for his enemies, because it means that the institutions which are supposed to inform us, and are always eager to preen themselves upon their own importance, have more or less abandoned that duty where domestic politics is concerned. When I said "Democrats" earlier, I meant the word to include most of the media. As McCarthy says, "No one can trust the reporting." And as a journalist of another time used to say, "That's the way it is." 

TrumpSaysEatYourGrassAnd by the way Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet.


My Contribution to KOVID Konfusion

...is this article at a health and science site called Stat: A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data

The site seems sane and credible, and most of the stories about COVID-19 are fairly typical; that is, it's not some dodgy sensationalist site. And the author has credentials: "John P.A. Ioannidis is professor of medicine, of epidemiology and population health, of biomedical data science, and of statistics at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center."

He believes the evidence on which decisions are being made is "a fiasco." And if it's seriously overestimating the danger, then

...locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

You can read it for yourself at the link above and make up your own mind. Well, no, I guess it won't work that way, because the author doesn't know, either, and one can still say "Better to do too much than too little."

Up to a point.


Words and Numbers

As you may have seen, people have been having a lot of fun with this:

The actual number of dollars per citizen, of course is not 1,000,000, but 1 (sticking with whole numbers). It is a ludicrous mistake, and I had my laugh. And I wouldn't bother to comment on it, but I got to thinking about it, and I think I can see the mental mechanism that probably led to the mistake. I suspect it has to do with the use of the word "millions" instead of numerals. You see this:

Mike spent 500 [million]. There are 327 [million] people in this country. If he had distributed his 500 [millions] equally among the people, how many [millions] would each have received?

Since both numbers are a count of "millions," the mind tends to drop the words and focus only on the numbers:

Mike spent 500. There are 327 . If he had distributed his 500 equally....

Any third grader can see that 327 goes into 500 once, but not twice. So the answer is "one each, with something left over," right? 

Only of course it's massively, massively wrong. The first "million" is not a single object, but 1,000,000 objects. If you saw the problem presented with numbers instead of words, the string of zeroes would keep you from making that mental slip: 

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 = 1 and some remainder

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 obviously ≠ 1,000,000

Unless of course you're the sort of person who tends to skip numbers, but in that case you wouldn't make the mistake, either, because you wouldn't think about it.

That no one caught this before it was discussed on MSNBC, that both the host and the guest (a member of the New York Times editorial board!) sat there exchanging amazed remarks about the riches that could have been everyone's if Bloomberg had not squandered it on his political campaign, is pretty astonishing. 

I was about to say that what they lacked was what people who deal with data and calculations of various sorts call a "sanity check": asking whether a result is even within the bounds of reason and possibility. If a policeman's radar tells him that a car is going 1,000 mph, something is wrong with the radar or his reading of it. But anyone ought to have questioned that number. How many people behind the scenes saw that same tweet and assisted in getting it on the air, but never noticed that it was nuts? Why did no one think "A million per person, 327 million people...hang on, that's got to be way more than 500 million." (It's actually in the trillions, 327 of them.)

"It all became clear." "It's an incredible way of putting it." Yes, it is incredible, but not in the way you mean it.

As many have noted, this does provide some insight into those who believe that we can fund all sorts of massively expensive social programs--universal health care and the like--simply by "taxing the rich." Charles Cooke at National Review has filled in some of the details about that fallacy.


"In fact, you will not be saved."

That's a line from Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Nightmare, With Angels." I first read it long ago, but I'm not sure when or where. I had thought it was freshman English, in the Sound and Sense textbook/anthology. But I've just looked, and it's not there. Could it have been in high school? That seems unlikely, but it's possible. Anyway, it made an impression on me, and I think of it from time to time. Here is a link to it.

It's been on my mind especially in recent weeks and months, as the American republic seems to be having some kind of breakdown. So is the Catholic Church, at least large segments of it. A few days ago, in a Facebook group devoted to the renewal of the Church, someone posted a list of proposed responses, basically theological, to a recent survey indicating a serious decline in the number of American Christians (of any and all denominations). It included things like reviving a genuinely Christian philosophy, getting rid of hyper-political partisanship within the community, and so forth. It was all perfectly sound, but very unlikely to have any discernible effect anytime soon--and by "soon" I mean within the next several decades. I guess I was feeling grumpy that day, because I responded with the Benet poem, among other helpful observations:

Fine, good things in response to bad errors. But as far as Western Formerly Christian civilization is concerned, Stephen Vincent Benet had the general idea right: "In fact you will not be saved." This train is not going to be stopped until it goes off a cliff or, best case, runs out of fuel. Either way it looks to be a long time.

Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. And I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. But I don't see how any any theological adjustment can possibly turn things around, or even slow them down. [This program] is a good thing but a project for generations, maybe centuries.

I mean--pardon my crudeness, but: we live in a society which has decreed that as a matter of law and custom there is no ontological or teleological difference between a vagina and a rectum. How do you even converse with that? Unless we're in the final apostasy of the end times, which is certainly a possibility but not one to which I've ever committed myself, the Church will be renewed, and a new culture will arise around it. But I can't see a turnaround in our present trajectory. I think we'll have to hit a wall of some kind.

This may sound like despair, but it really isn't. The ship of the Church will eventually right itself, at least to the degree that it is ever really righted. The ship of state is a different story; perhaps it will be righted, but perhaps it will slowly turn into something else, something that may or may not preserve the form but definitely does not preserve the substance of the constitutional order.

It's a rejection of the belief, so beloved of those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and talking, that if we can only formulate and propagate the correct set of ideas things will be put right. It's a recognition that we are riding extremely powerful waves generated by the uncontrollable movement of great masses far below the surface of the sea. It's true that ideas have consequences. But this doesn't mean, as those who traffic in ideas are tempted to think, that ideas determine events. 

I find that I've lost interest almost entirely in that kind of talk, especially talk that involves proposals for the reform of society, sometimes the construction of societies in the air, according to distributist, or Christian democrat, or Christian liberal, or integralist, or whatever, principles. It's a sort of hobby for which I've lost my taste. 

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Addendum: in putting forth the Benet poem, I don't mean to be saying that we in the U.S.A. and Europe are headed for cataclysmic violence. I don't in fact think we are. The poem was written in the 1930s, when the fact that war was coming was pretty clear to perceptive people. I think we are, rather, in a decline the outcome of which I don't claim to foresee. But the first angel's lament for all the unfulfilled hopes and promises of history is poignant, and the second angel's brutal crushing of such hopes applicable enough in general.