Sunday, January 27, 2013

Equality or bust

Sometimes a news story is more noteworthy when it comes and goes without drawing a significant reaction.  In a small town, murder is huge news; in Chicago, a single murder is a sign of a good day.  This was the case with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision to lift the ban on women in combat.  Sure, there were some pieces celebrating such an historic step, but on the whole, this incident passed without much notice.  The forces of reaction, of which I am a proud member, were mostly silent, as if this formality is just something we will have to accept--which, I suppose, it is.

But that doesn't mean it's a good idea.  Sending women into combat isn't just questionable desirable, it's manifestly stupid.  Let us count the ways.

1) We've already seen what happens when we place men and women in close quarters.  The women get pregnant--or sexually assaulted--and the men fight over the women.  The Army's reaction has been to create this helpful website.

It's interesting that while this has been going on for years, our rejoinder is to simply insist that it shouldn't happen, and leave it at that.  In the eponymous children's television program, Dora the Explorer tells Swiper: "No swiping."  Whereupon, he stops.  This is, so far as I can tell, our plan to prevent sexual indiscretions in the military.  We must not be saying it loudly enough.

Yes, men shouldn't rape women; but men ought not kill people either.  The civilizing force that prevents a man from raping a woman is very similar to that which prevents him from killing a man.  But the latter is required in war, and... not without reason are war and rape close companions in the annals of conquest.

It might occur to our utopians that if we can wish away all rape, we can probably do away with war, too.

2) The same things might happen at the hands of enemy forces.  If we could get Al-Qaeda to read Jezebel, I'm sure the terrorists would promise to play nice with any women soldiers they happen to capture.  On the other hand, if the terrorists rape enough of our soldiers, the feminists who comprise part of Obama's base might stop fantasizing about free birth control long enough to remember that President Peace Prize is still fighting Bush's War on Terror.

3) Standards will be lowered to compensate for the physical discrepancies between male and female soldiers.  Oh wait, we already did that.  In civilian life, standards are often just convenient ways to weed out undesirable candidates, but in combat, it can be important to be able to carry one's pack, or help lift a wounded soldier to safety.  Soon we'll be hearing all sorts of heroic stories about our G.I. Janes.  And this time the stories won't be complete fabrications.

One could easily satirize women's ineffectualness in combat, but this would require Oscar Wilde's proverbial heart of stone.  It might work better if a female firefighter proved unable to rescue a corpulent cat lady.  Okay, so that's not much kinder, but it's certainly more humorous.

Actually, the more practical result, comes courtesy of Steve Sailer:

If more co-ed combat degrades American military performance, it's not like the Axis is going to win WWII, it's that a few more brave Americans will get killed in some inconclusive puttering around in Mali or wherever.

One last point.  The reason societies don't allow their women to fight in wars--except in desperate circumstances--isn't just because men are stronger than women; it's because women are more valuable.  If you send off your men to die, the women will have to have more children to replace those the tribe has lost.  If you send your women off to die, it's very difficult to conjure new family members from the remaining bachelors.  Of course, a nation, such as ours, that cannot even be bothered to reproduce at levels sufficient to sustain itself isn't likely to appreciate this point.  But I like to think that, somewhere, the ancients are laughing at us.

Monday, January 21, 2013

On not thinking clearly

When we stake out a position on a particular issue, we would like to believe that we are drawn to it by the logic that supports the side on which we come down.  This is seldom the case, and not simply because humans can be led against reason by emotion.  Instead, it is because the positions we take stem from the values we hold.  This sounds tautological, but an example should illustrate what I mean.

Recent debates about gun control aren't really about gun control.  No appeal to statistics is likely to move minds because people are really arguing about something else.  Nor do the sides even really disagree about the final end: a reduction in violence is sought by all.  Disagreement concerns the means by which this end will be acheived.  So one side believes government can be trusted to regulate firearms, while the other puts its trust in a well-armed populace. 

These positions are ultimately derived from first principles, but, more importantly, within a tradition that tries to examine the ramifications of such principles.

As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out in his excellent book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

It is a Cartesian error, fostered by a misunderstanding of Euclidean geometry, to suppose that first by an initial act of apprehension we can comprehend the full meaning of the premises of a deductive system and then only secondly proceed to enquire what follows from them.  In fact it is only insofar as we understand what follows from those premises that we understand the premises themselves.  If and as we begin from the premises, our initial apprehension will characteristically be partial and incomplete, increasing as we understand what it is that these premises do and do not entail. pp. 174-5

With this in mind, let's switch topics; instead of gun control, we're going to focus on the existence of God.  These discussions tend to be pretty fruitless; with MacIntrye's insight, we can see why this is the case.  After defining his terms, a well-informed theist might pull out his Summa and begin to cover Aquinas's fivefold proof for God's existence.  This isn't a terrible way to go about it, but it tends to fall short as the rejoinder to a discussion of an unmoved mover is: "Who moved God?"  It's not a ridiculous question, but it is rather unhelpful, in that we're thrust back upon the definitions of terms.

The genius of the Summa is not the fivefold proof, but the systematic way in which St. Thomas builds his system.  We shouldn't cede ground to the agnostics and atheists and admit that Thomas's proofs are mere formalities, quick jots to move us along to meatier matters.  And yet, if we pretend that this is the case, how many other things become apparent?  We can't get to God's simplicity if we don't get past His existence, just as we can't get to the Secundae Partis until we finish the Prima Pars; for one part of his masterpiece depends on another, and Thomas is nothing if not thorough.  His thought must be evaluated as a whole, which might not require that one read the entirety of the Summa, but it does require that one do more than reject his proofs and move on to something else.

Back to God's existence.  If Thomas--and others; I am a dedicated if hopelessly amateur Thomist, but there are other theistic systems of thought, most notably that of St. Augustine--if theistic philosophers have examined the ramifications of there positions, it's far from clear that atheists and agnostics have done the same.  Certainly there were philosophers who tried to do so, most famously Kant, who was not an agnostic, but philosophized like one.  He rejected tradition in favor of an attempt to concoct a moral system derived from unaided reason.  Yet Kant, for all his brilliance, failed, as MacIntyre pointed out:

In moral philosophy the central question which the participants in those debates had hoped to answer was: What are those principles governing action to which no rational human being can deny his or her assent?  Hume's appeal to rational consensus concerning the passions, Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative and the principle of utility were all attempts to supply an answer to this question. Yet each one of these answers turned out to be susceptible of rejection by the adherents of rival answers, whose claims to rational justification were as much and as little contestable as those of its opponents. p. 176

Even more frustrating than the cavalier dismissal of theism is the arrogance of many modern atheists.  Richard Dawkins is their pope, but he seems just as oblivious to the failure of the Enlightenment.  Granted, they do not like what the Church has to say about sex--and here at least Freud may have a point; it is usually about sex--God must not exist.  But they have not explains how we shall be moral--or what being moral will entail.  It is unlikely that Dawkins will succeed where Kant failed; in fact, as MacIntrye makes clear, it's impossible.  But they seem to have simply glanced over this dilemma, blithely confident that we can just take the good parts of an ethical code without all that awful shame over mild indiscretions.  Unfortunately for them, that's not how traditions work.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Following Rome again

Most of the stories which bemoan the declining birthrate are from thoroughly disreputable sources, Catholics and other subversive traditionalists.  But occasionally one will find a secular source that will, in the midst of a piece which celebrates the lack of fertility, note that there may possibly be some problems with a declining birth rate.  I shall leave, as an exercise for the reader, the task of coming up with a list of such. 

The proof of the thesis, however, lies in the fact that governments often pay married couples to have children.  Such policies have not, alas, been successful.  It was with great amusement that in this, as in so many other matters, we have followed the Romans:

It was next proposed to relax the Papia Poppaea law, which Augustus in his old age had passed subsequently to the Julian statutes, for yet further enforcing the penalties on celibacy and for enriching the exchequer. And yet, marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent, so powerful were the attractions of a childless state. - Tacitus, The Annals, 3.25

Pat Buchanan insists that historians will one day call the birth control pill the suicide tablet of the west.  In this, as in so many other matters, he is probably correct, but the simple fact is that those who do not wish to procreate, will find means to avoid it.  The Romans did not need fancy pills to be overrun by the German barbarians. 

On the other hand, knowledge of the means of contraception used by the Romans did not prevent the early Church from being fertile and multiplying.  So there is a definite bright side here, only, it probably comes on the other side of the decline and fall of our present civilization. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013 Reading List

And so it begins--again.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality? - Alasdair MacIntyre
The Illustrated London News - 1917-1919 - G. K. Chesterton
The Annals - Tacitus
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower - Professor X
David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
Ugly as Sin - Michael S. Rose
Men at Arms - Evelyn Waugh
Officers and Gentlemen - Evelyn Waugh
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture - Christopher Dawson
Plutarch - Lives (Vol. I of II)
Eichmann in Jerusalem - Hannah Arendt
Unconditional Surrender - Evelyn Waugh
The Agony and the Ecstasy - Irving Stone
God's Revolution - Benedict XVI
Carry On, Jeeves - P. G. Wodehouse
What's Wrong With the World - G. K. Chesterton
The Superstition of Divorce - G. K. Chesterton
Plutarch - Lives (Vol. II of II)
A Secular Age - Charles Taylor
Eugenics and Other Evils - G. K. Chesterton
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Folkways and Mores - William Graham Sumner
The Great Deformation - David Stockman
Literary Converts - Joseph Pearce
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming - Rod Dreher
The Painted Word - Tom Wolfe
The Corrections - Johnathan Franzen
Unknown Quantity - John Derbyshire
The Stripping of the Altars - Eamon Duffy
Peer Gynt - Henrik Ibsen
The Idea of Progress - J. B. Bury
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction - Alan Jacobs
Parliament of Whores - P. J. O'Rourke
Men on Strike - Helen Smith
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
The Rise of American Civilization (Vol I of II) - Charles and Mary Beard
Ireland - Paul Johnson
The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
Salt of the Earth - Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling
Summa Theologica - Thomas Aquinas (Vol. IV of V)
The Rise of American Civilization (Vol II of II) - Charles and Mary Beard
Aquinas - Frederick Copleston
Gates of Fire - Steven Pressfield
Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile - Joseph Pearce
The Gulag Archipelago (Vol. II of III) - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The Fourth Turning -  William Strauss and Neil Howe
The Cambridge Medieval History Series (Vol. III of VIII)
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man - Brett and Kate McKay
The Gulag Archipelago (Vol. III of III) - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Why Read? - Mark Edmundson
The Quest for Shakespeare - Joseph Pearce
The Inimitable Jeeves - P. G. Wodehouse
Henry IV Part I - Shakespeare
Henry IV Part II - Shakespeare
Henry V - Shakespeare
Henry VI Part I - Shakespeare
Henry VI Part II - Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Kings - John Julius Norwich
Henry VI Part III - Shakespeare
The History of Music - Cecil Gray
Through Shakespeare's Eyes - Joseph Pearce
The Merchant of Venice - Shakespeare
Travels in Hyperreality - Umberto Eco
Lost in the Cosmos - Walker Percy
For Men Only - Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn
For Women Only - Shaunti Feldhahn
The Five People You Meet in Heaven - Mitch Albom
A Jacques Barzun Reader
War in European History - Michael Howard
Lepanto - G. K. Chesterton (edited by Dale Ahlquist)
The Descent of Man - Charles Darwin

2012 book breakdown

Last year was the first year I kept track of all the books I read.  I was curious to know how many I managed to read.  If I did my math correctly, I read 75 books this past year, or about 1.5 a week.  It's not a bad pace, but considering how little time I devote to writing or socializing, I could probably do better.  Or else I could try to write and socialize more, though the latter especially strikes me as a desperate measure.

Only fifteen of these books were novels; a full third of that total came courtesy of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.  I should probably read more fiction, but if given a choice between a classic novel and a history book, I reliably choose the latter.  There's nothing especially wrong with this, but fiction, at least the good stuff, stimulates the imagination.

I thought about giving the breakdown by ratings like Vox does, but I don't feel competent to rate the classics, of which I read a fair amount.  Even if a Platonic dialogue strikes me as middling, it's still Plato, which makes it rather better than middling and me a moron.  So instead, here are some of my favorites that aren't already part of the western canon.

The first three come courtesy of Will and Ariel Durant's lifetime reading list:

Renaissance in Italy - John Addington Symonds - Seven volumes, about 2000 pages of small type in my version, but worth every page.  Symonds prose is strikingly beautiful.

A History of Ancient Greek Literature - Gilbert Murray - A short book that covers its subject rather completely.  I can see this being a valuable reference guide for many years to come.

Napoleon - Emil Ludwig - I'm loathe to sympathize with someone like Napoleon, but Ludwig manages to evoke this sentiment in the reader without denigrating to sycophancy.

Three mostly contemporary pieces of non-fiction:

Bad Religion - Ross Douthat - As Chesterton is said to have said, "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything."  American apostasy has not ushered in a new enlightenment, but has shed religion for nonsense which is worse in every conceivable way. 

The Revolt of the Elites - Christopher Lasch - He points out that our meritocrats have all of the vices of the aristocrats they have replaced, with none of the virtues.  Alas, Lasch passed away some years ago, as he would have had much to contribute to the current crisis caused by the meritocrats.

Family and Civilization - Carle Zimmerman - This book was actually first published in the 40's, but I read a recently republished abridgement.  Zimmerman draws on Greek and Roman history to demonstrate that, far from progressing towards a more enlightened way of (not) marrying, we're following in the decadent footsteps of our deceased predecessors.

And one novel, because I do so read fiction: 

Reamde - Neal Stephenson - I think the Baroque Cycle is still his best, but this is expertly planned and executed.  Stephenson is still very much at the top of his game, which is good, because if he loses his fastball, I'm going to need to find a new favorite living novelist.