Thursday, September 18, 2014

Orwell today

"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." - George Orwell, 1984

Such were the slogans which adorned the outside walls of the aptly named Ministry of Truth in the famous dystopian novel. To a large extent, we live in Orwell's world. True, there is not yet a boot stomping on the human face, forever. But when the peace prize winning President is off bombing another country the citizens cannot find on a map; when we pride ourselves on how free we are, as we dutifully submit to a groping at an airport; when the news ignores all complexity to hammer home a grossly simplified version of events: it's hard not to think of 1984.

Orwell feared that truth would be hidden by false narratives. Because speaking truthfully--and even thinking truthfully--was forbidden, man would be compelled to endure falsehood. Worse, he would depend on it, and, therefore, love it. In our society, no single organization possesses a monopoly on information, so it is always possible to seek out alternatives, usually on the Internet. Still, the mass media consistently upholds various Narratives, rendering slight the influence of alternative sources.

To take but one example, consider the topic of abortion. Ostensibly, the media presents two sides: the feminist left, which insists that women have the right to reproductive choice; on the other, the right, motivated by religious principles, which insists that abortion is murder and therefore should not be allowed.

Let's try to tease apart some of the terms used in the abortion debate between the pro-choice and the pro-life parties. Pro-choice is a neologism, though perhaps not quite an Orwellian one. The problem with the term is its ambiguity; choice implies an end chosen, but this end goes unmentioned. The pro-lifers are also pro-choice; they think the woman should have the right to choose whether the child is kept by his mother, or given up for adoption. Pro-choicers add another option, namely, abortion, but they refrain from using this term too readily because they do not wish to draw too much attention to their actual program. Choice is always good; abortion is on more dubious ground.

The pro-choicers would also insist that this is because they wish to emphasize that they want women to be given a choice as to the fate of their children. But so, too, do the pro-lifers. The distinction is not concerning choice per se but its accepted range. The debate concerns whether abortion ought to be legal in at least some circumstances. And that is the end of it. The media's Narrative only serves to obscure the matter.

I learned another neologism while listening to pro-life speaker Abby Johnson yesterday at a fundraiser for the Guiding Star Project. Some years ago, Abby ran one of Planned Parenthood's abortion clinics. She shared her story with us yesterday, but as it is explained in her book, Unplanned, I'll not recount it here.

Anyway, Abby told us that at her clinic, they referred to fetuses as products of conception. Pro-choicers usually use the term fetus, which is technically correct. But a fetus is an unborn human baby, so while the term conceals the connection, it remains hidden only insofar as we remain ignorant of the dictionary definition.

The term products of conception, however, is starkly Orwellian in the manner in which it seeks to hide the truth. The term is coldly clinical, like describing a tumor as a product of cancer, or a breast as a mammalian outgrowth. There are times when such terminology can be helpful; if it sheds light on an aspect of the item in question, a more precise term is often called for. But in this case, the verbosity only serves to obscure—as intended.

The following is left as an exercise for the reader: why would those who provide abortions wish to be less than truthful about the nature of the service they are providing?  

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A challenge

Over at a certain ubiquitous and intrusive social networking site, a good friend has laid down the gauntlet.  I am to provide a list of 10 books which are important to me/had an impact.

In no particular order.

1) Orthodoxy - G. K. Chesterton - This book was the catalyst for my reversion.  Too many years of Catholic education had left me unconvinced of the truth of the Faith I was too ignorant to comprehend.  Reading the book didn't bring me back, not completely, but it forever disabused be of the notion that the Church offered claims to be taken lightly.

2) The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - How does one praise the greatest poem ever written?  Dante offers us a complete education.  He is a great moralist, an aesthete, and a sage.  No matter how well we think we may know him, he is always there to offer us more.

3) A Mencken Chrestomathy - H. L. Mencken - As David Bentley Hart recently put it:
"My affection for H. L. Mencken verges on the idolatrous."  Except for Chesterton, no one has influenced my writing more than this joyful cynic. 

Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville - No one has ever described another country quite so well.  While Mencken lambasted democracy for its idiocies, Toqueville praised it for its virtues.  But he was also keenly aware of its vices.

5) Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh.  I read non-fiction primarily, but this novel comes close to perfection.  Describing the conversion of the head is accomplishment enough.  Here, Waugh captures the heart of the matter.

6) Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman - At long last, an explanation for why television, and now, the Internet, seem to make us so stupid.

The Closing of the American Mind - Allan Bloom - To many extents, a very frustrating read, but all the more so rewarding because of it.  The book is probably irredeemably political, but it would be better to see here a real professor wrestling with some of the world's greatest thinkers.

8) The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe - The style can be grating at times, but the novel is prophetic.  To quote Judge Richard Posner:
"American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even though the book was written before the intersection had come into view."

9) The Story of Civilization - Will and Ariel Durant - I'm cheating here, since this is a whole series, but these books provided me the liberal arts education I didn't receive while studying engineering.  Yes, they're long, but they'll cost much less than that math class you slept through.

10) The Everlasting Man - G. K. Chesterton - In many ways, Chesterton's best book.  Here is the Catholic account of history, the human drama in which we play but a small part.  Here is the Faith.

Concering the DHS

One of the many disappointing aspects of the Ferguson affair was the way in which the media insisted that this was only further evidence of the irredeemable racism of white America, just another example of a white cop gunning down a sainted black boy.

I say disappointing because there was another aspect of the story that was of considerable interest, but got less attention than it merited.  As Trevor Timm notes in the Guardian:

For three weeks and counting, America has raged against the appalling behavior of the local police in Ferguson, Missouri, and for good reason: automatic rifles pointed at protesters, tank-like armored trucks blocking marches, the teargassing and arresting of reporters, tactics unfit even for war zones – it was all enough to make you wonder whether this was America at all. But as Congress returns to Washington this week, the ire of a nation should also be focused on the federal government agency that has enabled the rise of military police, and so much more: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The 240,000-employee, Bush-invented bureaucratic behemoth that didn’t even exist 15 years ago has been the primary arms dealer for out-of-control local cops in Ferguson and beyond, handing out tens of billions of dollars in grants for military equipment in the last decade with little to no oversight and even less training on how to use it.

We might call this extraordinary but for the fact that this so often seems to be the nature of the beast.  The Department of Energy was created by Jimmy Carter.  It's budget is $30 billion a year and it employs over 100,000 people, most of them contractors.  It was created with the goal of reducing our dependency on foreign oil.  Having failed spectacularly, it continues to receive funding, in the meantime, arrogating to itself a slew of unrelated special projects.

Or consider the Department of Agriculture.  Its budget is $132 billion a year and it also employs roughly 100,000 people, 1 bureaucrat for every 22 farms

But the Department of Homeland Security is arguably the worst bureaucracy of them all.  September 11th, was, among other things, a stupendous failure of the national security apparatus.  In a sensible world, the President would have, at a minimum, ordered a review of the NSA to determine how such a colossal mistake could have been made.  Going further, failing to notice and properly classify such a security threat could be seen as evidence of the impossible nature of the tasks that agency is expected to accomplish.  As such, it should have been abolished.

Instead, Bush--a Republican President we hasten to remind the reader--worked to expand the Federal Government.  With the rubble still smoldering, a crisis was at hand, and it would do no good to let a crisis go to waste.  The Department of Homeland Security was created; its mission, to succeed where other agencies had failed.  In a decade and a half, it has grown until it employs almost as many citizens as live in the city of St. Paul.

The TSA, one of its many tentacles, does an admirable job fondling the citizenry, with reckless disregard for due process.  Meanwhile, if it fails to detect the plot of the Boston bombers, why, that only demonstrates, not how useless it is, but how badly we are in need of its many services. 

It has also, like any good bureaucracy, added to its powers.  It has militarized the police--against whom, it is not mentioned.  This, more so than the tired spectre of racism, was the truly ugly face of Ferguson.  The police do not see us as innocents they are to serve and protect.  They see us as the enemy, against whom they must be armed and vigilant.

One last point.  Every bureaucrat must be paid by the free citizens.  Often, this is innocuous enough.  We must be taxed so that the Post Office can do a middling job of delivering the mail.  These sorts of affairs are annoying, but they are hardly tyrannical.  A free republic can stomach an army of postmen.

This is not the case with the brown shirts of the DHS.  We are remunerating them, handsomely one suspects, to violate our right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of our peers.  When we fly, we must demonstrate that we are not terrorists by submitting to be patted down or else scanned with cancer machines so that a stranger may view us naked.  And we pay for this privilege. 

Ferguson says a lot about the Feds, but it says a good deal about us, too.