Saturday, May 16, 2015

Family and State

"We that are Christians believe that the family has a divine sanction.  But any reasonable pagan, if he will work it out, will discover that the family existed before the State and has prior rights; that the State only exists as a collection of families, and that its sole function is to safeguard the rights of each and all of them." - G. K. Chesterton, G. K.'s Weekly, Jan 3, 1935 (quoted in Joseph Pearce, Race with the Devil, p. 160)

It is said that we Christians must work to evangelize modern pagans, much like the early Christians evangelized the pagans of the Roman Empire.  In a sense this is true, but it is an error to conflate the modern secularist with the ancient pagan.  As Chesterton's quote demonstrates, there are things so obvious that only a thorough modern education could remove knowledge of them.

The family existed before the State.  It will exist after the State (in its present form) has withered away.  The family, like the State, is one of those permanent things that civilization must possess to some degree if it is to retain that distinction.  Even as we evolve beyond the nuclear family, its absence has already devastated aspects of our society, from the ghettos of Baltimore to the hills of Appalachia. 

But Chesterton's quote is insightful for another reason.  In a healthy society, the State works with the family; in an unhealthy one, it turns against it.  Once the State has ceased to be the safeguard of the family, the State begins to claim the family's rights and responsibilities for itself.

The State does not safeguard the rights of parents to educate their children.  It begrudgingly permits it in some cases, but in the vast majority, the State reserves this right to itself.  And this vital process must be started ever earlier, until, perhaps, on some great day, the new born baby will be whisked from the delivery room into the loving arms of a schoolmaster as in Plato's dystopia.

The State does not seek to ensure that at least one parent can stay at home with the children.  It prefers that both parents serve corporate masters while the children are taken care of by someone else.  One could as easily provide tax credits for stay at home mothers as for day care, but while the latter is politically practicable, the former is not.

Even when it comes to providing food and shelter, the State steps in when one parent is lacking.  It does not seek to provide compensation for a working parent; instead, it offers handouts.  Through this simple gesture, the State has ensured spectacular rates of illegitimacy among the underclass. 

The State has not attempted to do something about our high divorce rate.  In fact, its family courts have contributed to it.  The State would never dream of using its authority to compel a husband and wife to take their vows seriously.  Instead, it deprives the children of one parent, and generously insists that the deprived parent pays dearly.

These examples could be multiplied, for the logic is always the same.  When the family is struggling, the State does not try to build up that fledgling building block of civilization.  The State does not let a crisis go to waste and uses the opportunity to increase its power.

At first, the State provides education to orphans; a short time later, it provides education to everyone.  Perversely, those who insist on educating their own children are the weird ones.  The exception becomes the rule. 

In many ways, the State is now the enemy of the family. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Different worlds

I stumbled upon an older piece from Alan Jacobs, titled Lena Dunham’s Inviolable Self.  Jacobs contrasts the value system of the novelist Jane Austen with that of Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO's show Girls.  

In an essay called “Leading a Life,” the philosopher Charles Taylor points out that there are two distinct senses in which we may say that an idea or a belief or a moral account is incommensurable with some other idea or belief or moral system. “The first is where we have to make a choice with two different goods at stake” goods that are different enough that we have difficulty knowing how to weigh them together in the same deliberation.”  It could be argued that the difference between Austen’s world and the world of many fans of
Girls is of this kind: For instance, one might say that the good of protecting naive young people from catastrophic moral harm (Austen’s prime concern) conflicts with the good of freely pursuing erotic pleasure.

But the difference goes deeper than that. For Austen, “pursuing erotic pleasure” is simply not a good; and for many fans of
Girls, “catastrophic moral harm” is not a meaningful category.

This is the primary reason why the cultural war will not end.  If Austenians and Dunhamites (for lack of better descriptors) held similar values, but disagreed about how best to handle value conflicts, it would be possible to arrive at a resolution.  But no such compromise can be achieved when we are dealing with what Jacobs calls "radically alien models of the sacred."

Austenians like to point out the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution: higher rates of illegitimacy and divorce, lower rates of marriage among people who would prefer to be married, ubiquitous pornography, and on and on.  We are surprised that, when made aware of these unfortunate facts, our opponents remain steadfast in their support of what Jacobs dubs the "inviolable self." 

This might be infuriating, but it shouldn't be surprising.  If one believes that pursuing erotic pleasure is a good and catastrophic moral harm is not a meaningful category, the effects of the sexual revolution are unrelated ephemera. To us, it sounds insane to say the Dunhamite philosophy of sex has nothing to do with the divorce rate.  To them, it sounds equally insane to connect the two.

It's tempting to try to attack this belief straight on.  After all, the self is not inviolable, and very few of our actions have no impact on others.  But Jacobs cautions against this route.  He quotes Kierkegaard, who enjoins: “an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.”

In other words, to tell a Dunhamite that his promiscuous sexual pursuits cause harm will be seen as an attack.  Who are we to tell him what he can do in the privacy of his own home? 

So what can we do?  Like Austen, we can tell stories that reveal moral goodness and truth.  We can create, as Jacobs says, "better fictional worlds, by which I mean fictional worlds that rhyme with what is the case, with what is true yesterday, today, and forever." 

He closes his piece wonderfully:

At the end of After Virtue , Alasdair MacIntyre writes, "We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another "doubtless very different" St. Benedict." I wait, with all the patience I can muster, for another Jane Austen.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Silence dissenters

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol I, Chapter XV

I can think of no better example of Tocqueville's brilliant observation than what has taken place in this country regarding gay marriage.  Once a fringe issue, championed only by radicals, it has now all but become a plank in the platform of the Democratic party.  Moreover, all resistance to the tyrannical majority is... well, let Tocqueville explain:

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

Does that not describe the defenders of traditional marriage?  And will this not become truer still when the Supreme Court commands that gay marriage shall be the law of the land?

This is a real problem for conservatives.  The self-righteous majority does not recognize our opposition as legitimate, and our system of government grants power to that majority.  This is not to say that we should cease making our case, only that we should be realistic in not expecting a fair hearing.

I'll have more to say on the matter later.  But one last point: the best case for traditional marriage will be made by our families.  We do this not by putting on an act so as to convince the world that marriage is always easy and that children are unmitigated delights.  It is not and they are certainly not.  Instead, we ought to provide a quiet example by living virtuously.

Marriage, between a man and a woman, is the foundation of civilization.  Our marriages must produce good children, who will help us to shore up our fledging society.  In this manner, just as the early Church attracted converts, we can win back our post-Christian world. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

That next election

Over at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison explains why it makes little sense for Marco Rubio to run for president:

When [Rubio] was absurdly being touted as a “savior” of the party, he played at being like McCain and backed the Senate immigration bill, which angered many conservatives in the process and caused some of his previous supporters to feel that he had let them down. Alarmed by the backlash, he then ran away from the bill and started going out of his way to placate his conservative critics in a most Romney-like fashion. This has mostly earned him a loss of respect from both sides of the debate. As far as his conservative critics are concerned, he showed his true colors in supporting the bill, and in the eyes of “reform” supporters he caved immediately when he encountered the slightest resistance. In the end, the one big legislative effort Rubio was involved in produced no results, and he suffered political whiplash in the process.

Conservatives would be wise not to forget this episode. The National Question, as John Derbyshire has termed it, is too important to get wrong.  Politically speaking, creating millions of new voters, most of whom will support the Democratic party is sheer folly.  More importantly, it's insulting to unemployed and under-employed Americans.

But this incident is illustrative for another reason.  The immigration bill which Rubio sponsored was to be his signature legislative accomplishment; it was to demonstrate his readiness for higher office.  This would have set him apart in the field of candidates, for not a single one boasts a solitary success at the federal level.

Those who hold federal office and are seeking the Republican nomination are newcomers: in addition to Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are running.  None of these have accomplished anything substantial; their candidacies all hinge on the fact that they have won federal elections, but are seen as too fresh to be held accountable for the paucity of their congressional records.

The other groups are former governors, notably Jeb Bush, but also Scott Walker; and those who claim success outside of the realm of politics, such as Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Doctor Ben Carson.  There will always be something appealing about non-politicians, for any sensible conservative or libertarian is thoroughly sick of the political class.  But the nature of the race is such that these candidates lack the resources, acumen and name recognition to be successful.

It is of some interest that, from the Republican side of things, there is nothing I say here that could not have been said about any recent campaign.  Such has been the utter irrelevance of Republican achievement in Washington, that, dating back to Reagan, and excepting the single-term of the elder Bush, all the Republican Presidents had previously been governors.  Based solely on this, I would predict that Jeb Bush becomes the nominee, with Scott Walker as his only real threat. 

It occurs to me, however, that what is true of the Republicans is equally true of the Democrats.  Certainly, Obama had served part of his term as an Illinois Senator before becoming President, but this brief tenure was bereft of achievement.  It's hardly surprising that Republican senators cannot run on a record of futile resistance to government largesse, but it's not clear why Democrats cannot run on the perceived success of any federal program.

This may be the signature feature of the upcoming election.  The Republicans will nominate someone they suspect will fail to enact any significant piece of legislation; but so will the Democrats.  The latter may be uninterested in repealing Obamacare, but we will not see Nancy Pelosi swept into power on the waves of its passage.  We will not see this any more than we have seen any Republican capture the presidency due to his elimination of a government program--if, indeed, a Republican has ever eliminated a government program.

From that standpoint, I can't see how this next election is of a concern to anyone at all, save for this.  The more inept and idiotic our government appears, the more the people clamour for it to do something substantial and sensible.  It is a noble hope.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

On journalism

Those of us who are conservative by temperament do have the tendency to view the past through rose colored glasses.  But if the good old days were seldom quite so good as we remember, that does not mean that decline does not exist.  It is a mistake to believe that another era was better in all respects, for civilization is an amalgam of sundry aspects of humanity.  The Renaissance was a great age for art, but a bad age for morals. 

Three recent stories highlight the decline of journalism in our time, and its replacement with something entirely different: advocacy.

First, the hullabaloo over the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the state of Indiana, which I have already written about.  Note the manner in which the law was characterized by the press, not only in editorials, but in what passed for news. 

Second, the revelation that the story at the heart of Rolling Stone's much vaunted article about rape on college campus was a fabrication.  A writer--I will not say journalist--named Sabrina Rubin Erdely shopped around until she found the perfect story to fit her narrative: the preponderance of rape at American universities. 

A modicum of journalistic integrity would have demonstrated that this story was fabulous, and a good editor would have prevented its publication.  For starters, the lead rapist didn't even exist.  But, like the Duke lacrosse non-rape, the story was too good not to publish. Richard Bradley, who helped uncover the hoax, has the details at his site. 

Third, the reporting surrounding the controversy over the Hugo awards.  For those who are unfamiliar, the Hugos are awarded to science-fiction and fantasy writers.  Last year, Larry Correia, of Monster Hunter fame, put up a slate of nominees for the Hugos.  His purpose was twofold: 1) to demonstrate that the primary test for the Hugos was not literary, but political, namely, that which accorded with leftist identity politics; and 2) to end puppy related sadness, the leading cause of which is reading dull social justice warrior propaganda disguised as fiction.

Correia was nominated, the rabble was roused, and denounced him for being hateful, racist, other progressive pejoratives.  Many insisted they would not read his work, but would vote against him.  Correia failed to win, which demonstrated his point, but no matter.

Since the puppies were still sad, Correia offered another slate this year.  Brad Torgersen and others jumped in, and Sad Puppies 3 managed to sweep the nominations. 

Whereupon the social justice warriors became rather angry.  For instance, here's one headline: "Hugo Award nominations fall victim to misogynistic, racist voting campaign" courtesy of one, Isabella Biedenharn.  Note that the headline and link were subsequently changed, but there was no excuse in publishing such an outlandish calumny in the first place.

There are other examples, but these should suffice to demonstrate my point.  In the cases outlined above, the facts of the story were viewed as inessential.  Journalism exists, not to tell what happened, but to tell a story, to fit the facts into the narrative, like animals are corralled into a pen. 

Once one knows that social conservatives are bigots who hate homosexuals, it's not necessary to familiarize oneself with the particulars of a bill.  Its mere passage is confirmation of the pre-determined intent.  Similarly, whether or not a particular girl was raped by a particular man at a particular fraternity isn't important.  What matters is that college girls are being raped all the time, and anything which reinforces this narrative is useful.

If the narrative is sound, it shouldn't be too difficult to find facts which fit.  That so many of our stories are riddled with falsehood doesn't disprove the larger explanation, but it does suggest that we proceed with scepticism.  It may turn out that the narrative is as false as the fabricated story.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Beating the Left

Rod Dreher has an excellent write-up on the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the state of Indiana, as well as the hysterical reaction thereto.  Most of his analysis is spot on, though I think his strategy in the fight for religious liberty is wildly inadequate.  But before I get to that, I'll offer a brief summary.

The bill would establish a general legal standard, the “compelling interest” test, for evaluating laws and governmental practices that impose substantial burdens on the exercise of religion. This same test already governs federal law under the federal RFRA, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. And some 30 states have adopted the same standard, either under state-law RFRAs or as a matter of state constitutional law.

The leftist press has, shockingly, failed to report the dull truth, instead castigating the law as a "license to discriminate", which it most assuredly is not.  So much of what passes for journalism today is simply rank propaganda.  What matters is not the truth, only The Narrative. 

It's also of interest that a bill that Clinton signed into law roughly two decades ago is now evidence of rank bigotry of the worst sort.  Dreher later quotes Hillary Clinton as saying: "Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn't discriminate against [people because] of who they love." 

Such is the way of things in our Age of the Mob.  What is bipartisan common sense will be, sooner or later, intolerance.  And so the masses gravitate to the next big thing, eager to establish their progressive bonafides as against the retrograde reactionaries. 

Dreher has been voicing concerns about religious liberty for some time.  He summarizes the situation like this:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

This is true, but where he errs, I think, is in his suggestion to oppose the leftist onslaught. 

Voting Republican is no guarantee that religious liberty would be strengthened in SCOTUS rulings in the future, but there is some hope that a GOP president would nominate justices sympathetic to religious liberty concerns. With President Hillary Clinton, or any conceivable Democrat, there is no hope at all...

Religious conservative voters must be focused like a laser on religious liberty, right now. It’s that important.


This puts too much faith in the Left.  There's simply no evidence that the Left has any intention of playing fair.  Consider this very instance.  Did the Left portray the law accurately, or did they condemn Indiana as a bastion of religious zealotry? 

Conservatives have played by the rules before.  We have passed amendments reiterating the definition of marriage, only to see such amendments struck down as unconstitutional.  Against this, what can we say?  It would take a more brilliant satirist than Swift to direct proper scorn at such malfeasance.

The right can vote and plead all it wants and the Left will remain unmoved.  If we are reasonable, that only proves our irrational hatred.  If we are modest, it demonstrates that we are totalitarians who would impose a Christian theocracy, whatever that may mean.

There is a better way.  The Left hates the religious right because it is Christian.  Meanwhile, it adores any non-Christian faith.  But other religious people, like Christians, do care about religious liberty. 

Thus, we can split their hatred of us with their supposed love of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and so forth.  And we can do so with ease.  We can insist that Muslim photographers work, not only at gay weddings, but those between Christians and Muslims.  We can insist that Rabbis marry Christians.  And on and on.

One would not need to go through with any of these instances to make one's point.  A few viral videos should suffice, and if they do not, one could proceed with lawsuits, though one hopes it would not come to that.

It's true that there is something low about this sort of approach.  But to beat a Leftist, you must fight like one.  Conservatives have taken the high road too often.  It is honourable, perhaps, but utterly futile. 

When you keep getting pummelled, it's time to change tactics.

Monday, March 23, 2015

On the common good

One of the characteristics of our time is the exaltation of individual rights to  the exclusion of consideration for the common good.  Actually, this explanation is a bit misleading, for today we make no account for the common good at all.  We simply assume that it will be secured along with our ever-expanding set of rights.

There are two reasons for this hesitation to speak of the common good.  In the first place, if the starting point is that our rights are limitless, the common good can only serve as a restriction.  This makes us wary.  Implicit in this is the assumption that unbridled autonomy leads to happiness, while anything that opposes it causes us unhappiness.

This is a mistake.  Traffic lights do impede our ability to drive wherever we may please, but only superficially.  In reality, the lights provide the modicum of order necessary for drivers (and cyclists and walkers) to thrive. 

Secondly, we cannot speak of a common good because that idea has been obliterated by secularism and the failure of the enlightenment project.  We do not have a single common good based on a shared understanding of what our humanity means.  We have wildly divergent and incompatible views of man that lead to incompatible notions of the common good.

Consider the debate surrounding the current hot topic of the culture wars: gay marriage.  Proponents insist that the right to marriage is self-evident.  As heterosexuals may marry, so too may homosexuals.  Failure to grant this is to deny gays their rights.  The common good is secured when both heterosexuals and homosexuals have the right to be married.

Opponents maintain that not only is this at odds with the institution of marriage, it is inconsistent with the common good.  For the family is the foundation of society.  One of the principle reasons the state concerns itself with marriage at all is because of consideration of the child, who has a right to his mother and his father.  Allowing gays to marry obscures this essential point, while permitting them to adopt obliterates it.  For the children raised by gays, however lovingly and however successfully, cannot meet this essential obligation.

My point here is not so much that gay marriage is a mistake, though I think that it is.  Rather, it is that we come no closer to achieving that common good by creating additional rights which must be granted.  Every additional right only serves to increase the confusion, for as long as competing ethical frameworks exist, there will be disputes over whether a right is consistent with the common good provided by that framework.

The solution would seem to be secession of some sort: this Catholic community has these particular rules, while this Mormon one has others; and the hipsters in Brooklyn espouse different mores to achieve their good while Silicon Valley posits another.  From a practical point of view, this would present some challenges, but it seems a workable and peaceable solution.

What prevents us, I won't say from taking this step, but from even giving it consideration, is that we fail to recognize the limitations in our own framework.  However passionately we believe in it, we will not be living in a culture either wholly secular or wholly religious any time soon.  Nor will we reduce the amount of infighting between the various secular philosophies or religious ones.  (And I suspect that the latter only appear to more intractable than the former.) 

Both the right and the left seem to have missed something rather substantial.  Electing a Republican President won't return the country to its Christian roots any more than electing a Democratic one caused all Christians to apostatize.  Politics is not completely ineffective--as proponents of gay marriage are well aware--but neither is it deterministic.  Culture, what's left of it, remains.  And it will prove, as it always does, a most influential factor.

From this standpoint, our energy should be devoted towards preserving and rebuilding our culture.  Politically, where we can we should hope for a truce.  If our nation cannot be so governed as to be ordered towards the common good as we understand it, it might at least be possible to be left free to work out that common good on a smaller scale. 

What will convert the culture isn't politicians passing the right laws but families living moral lives in the midst of decadence.  If we can't talk about the good, perhaps others will recognize it when they see it lived.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Identity as Everything

From the sordid xojane, a creature called K. T. Bradford throws down a challenge:

What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.

(Editorial note: cis is a nonsense term meant to identify, and thereby disparage, those who are not confused about their sex.) 

Back to the piece: Bradford is to be cheered for the frankness of her bigotry.  For while she identifies the privileged victim groups, she also
notes the object of her odium: straight white males.  It is evidently easier to simply come out and name the object of her hatred, rather than enumerate each and every oppressed class--and risk the ire of anyone who has been left off of this ever growing list.

(As an exercise to the reader, it is easy to replace "straight white males" with any other group and reveal the screed as racist and sexist twaddle.  For instance: "Essentially: no gay, black males"; "Essentially, no Jewesses"; "Essentially: no short fat Democrats", etc. etc.  Fish in a barrel.)

But this article is instructive for another reason.  It illustrates the narrowness of what passes for the leftist mind.  Here's Bradford:

Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn't enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

The poor thing is such a delicate flower.  Exposure to crime think causes her to all but wilt; she is scarcely capable of turning even one more page.

Now, I read widely.  And unlike Bradford, I consider it important to challenge myself by reading new things, even books with which I might not agree.  In the same way, I try new foods; but I also compel myself to eat vegetables.  Such discipline is an indispensable part of growth.  Just as eating well keeps one healthy, reading well prevents one's mind from atrophying.

Of course, one may also read for pleasure.  There's nothing wrong with doing so, any more than it is objectionable to eat dessert.  But a sense of proportion must be maintained, for while physical nourishment is necessary, so too is knowledge. 

There is a narrowness in Bradford's reading habits.  But the narrowness also explains her imbecilic recommendation.  To Bradford, every book is a manifestation of its author's identity and is entertaining according to the manner in which the reader relates to that identity. 

Consider: books that push her out of her comfort zone cause her to rage-quit.  And as she notes: "Cutting that one demographic [Jews--I kid--straight white males, obviously] out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories." 

Now, this only makes sense if the identity of an author correlates strongly with the sort of story that author tells.  And for the stories Bradford likes to read--those as inextricably tied up with identity as she is obsessed with it--no doubt that correlation is strong.   But that's not the case for good literature, which is always more than a mere reflection of the author's viewpoints.

H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling were straight white males--worse, they were both Englishmen.  Yet the former wrote science fiction, while the latter wrote adventure stories.  This was no doubt because Wells spent most of his childhood in space, whereas Kipling was raised by a kindly, if talkative, panther.

Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.  Beatrix Potter wrote wonderful children's stories, though it is a pity that she is always injecting her identity into the goings on of Peter Cottontail.  Likewise A. A. Milne, who was clearly--quickly checks Wikipedia--a man. 

One is tempted to pity people like Bradford.  But they do too much damage to be left to their own misery.  It is one thing to read narcissistic nonsense or to write rubbish which no one reads, but she dares to tell us to judge a book based on her silly ideological litmus test.  Life is too short to prevent oneself from reading good books, especially on such a ridiculous pretext.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Political realism

Maisie Ward holds the distinction of being the official biographer of G. K. Chesterton.  In her book, she recounts the epochal meeting between her subject and the great Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc. 

From this tryst, in Chesterton's words, "emerged the quadruped, the twiformed monstor Mr. Shaw has nicknamed the Chesterbelloc."  (From Chesterton's Autobiography, quoted in Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Maisie Ward, p. 128)

Ward then offers an explanation of the manner in which Belloc influenced Chesterton:

"Belloc himself told me he thought the chief thing he had done for Chesterton when they first met was to open his eyes to reality... [Chesterton] was in fact the young man he himself was later to describe as knowing all about politics and nothing about politicians... Belloc then could teach Chesterton a certain realism about politics--which meant a certain cynicism about politicians."  (Ward, p. 129)

Interestingly enough, despite this realism, Belloc served four years in Parliament from 1906 to 1910.  This experience did little more than confirm his contempt for cynical politicians.  As he wrote to a friend during 1907, "I cannot stand the House... the incapacity of the country is incredible!  I can see little object in the House of Commons except to advertise work.  It does not govern; it does not even discuss.  It is completely futile." (Old Thunder, Joseph Pearce, p. 109)

One has little doubt how either Chesterton or Belloc would view the American political system of today.  In fact, on a trip to the StatesAmerica, the former observed: "It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged."

Whether we like it or not, the political system if of immense importance.  It is not trivial whether the Federal Reserve decides to debase the currency so as to bailout the banks.  It is a matter of some significance with which countries we decide to go to war--or what might be a shorter list, with which countries we decide to remain at peace.  When the Government decides to create a new department--like Homeland Security--or overhaul some significant aspect of the economy--such as healthcare, education, or what passes for immigration policy--this will have an impact. 

Sadly, our influence on the powers that be are slim.  If this is cynicism, it is one grounded in reality.  We may hope and pray that the Republican Party, despite its brave hesitation, may finally do something about abortion, but we should temper our expectations.  Time and money spent on national causes yields a very poor return.


But there is room for some optimism as government becomes more local, a point Chesterton and Belloc understood well.  In this, abortion is instructive, for two reasons.  First, because if the Republicans won't even try to limit an abomination like abortion, they're not going to lift a finger to mitigate smaller evils.  Second, because all the progress being made to eliminate abortion has taken place locally.  We're winning.  It's getting so bad that soon even the Senate might notice.

We should never surrender to evil, but we should remember the lesson Belloc imparted to Chesterton: "a certain realism about politics--which meant a certain cynicism about politicians." 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

On Facebook

I recently made the decision to delete my Facebook account.  Deactivate, I should say, because the company keeps one's records should one decide to reactivate one's account--or should it decide to sell the information about their users to advertisers. 

When deactivating one's account, they ask for the reason.  I told them Facebook is inimical to civilization.  Although this explanation does have about it a whiff of the hyperbolic, it's not far from the truth.

As G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy:

For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea "it is not well for man to be alone." The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent.

The brilliance of Facebook is in the way it taps into this basic human need while simultaneously leaving that need unsatisfied.  We don't feel more connected with someone after viewing a picture on his wall or reading a post of his, even while Facebook pretends to grant this wish.  And since we remain unfulfilled, we eagerly look for another picture or post.  Ad infinitum, ad nauseum. 

There is another way in which Facebook is devilish, though in this respect its far from unique: it feeds our drive for novelty.  Our age is obsessed with what is new, and our media reflect this obsession.  Listen to people discuss their favorite things.  Whether the topic is movies or television shows, restaurants or beers, the bulk of the conversation will be devoted to the newest thing.  And the praise of that thing will involve little more than a confirmation of its newness.

The Internet is powered by novelty, and Facebook is no exception.  The news feed carries with it endless streams of triviality.  The very term news feed reveals its purpose: we return to find out what else is new.  Even if the last few stories have been dull, that which has yet to appear will be novel and could be of interest.  No matter how many times we have been disappointed, we scroll or click to see that next new thing.

There is nothing wrong with novelty, so long as it properly proportioned.  But our age worships this false idol and forgets that upon which our, indeed all, civilization is based: what T.S. Eliot--and Russell Kirk--called the permanent things: "the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations". 

Understand that here Facebook is not the villain.  Nor, for that matter, is the Internet.  There is nothing to prevent people from posting worthy things on the Internet--like chapters from Orthodoxy for instance.  People may even link to these sorts of things from Facebook.  But given the relationship between our age and novelty, it is imprudent to hope that the technology will work against the Zeitgeist.  Rather the opposite, as the thirst for novelty can never really be quenched. 

If we wish to keep what is left of our civilization, we must set aside the novel and rekindle our affection for the permanent things.  Though not salvific, they are indispensable. 

They're also more rewarding.  Reading one of Plato's dialogues and discussing it with a close friend is far more satisfying than shouting at an Internet companion over his position regarding something some fool politician said.  Anyway, it's worth a try.