Monday, May 30, 2016

Numbskulls, Nitwits, and Dastardly Knaves

It has become a bit of a truism that the left and the right can’t fathom each other’s reasons for their respective positions: that someone on the left can’t imagine why any person of good will would oppose a higher minimum wage, while someone on the right can’t understand why a clear-sighted individual can’t grasp the value of the free market.  Arthur Brooks even has a TED talk devoted to solving this conversational impasse, one of many pieces of commentary the problem has spawned over the last few years.

In this situation, the Renaissance scholar has the moderate relief of knowing that the problem is not new.  The divide between papists or would-be papists in sixteenth-century England and between those Protestants who leaned towards Calvinism was a deep and seemingly unbridgeable gulf.  The difference was indeed so great that (not for the first or last time in history) people died over the issues; in a best case scenario, neighbors who chose not to report on nonconformity might ostracize the nonconforming family—itself a kind of slow death for anyone living in a small town or agrarian region.

We can take comfort, then, in the fact that the divisive nature of our modern intellectual differences is not unique, and that only our modern American distaste for bloodshed (and indeed for corporal punishment) prevents any stakes or ear-and-nose-loppings from cropping up (pardon the expression) in the near future.  Martyrdom has been replaced by Twitter assassination; and while the personal effects of such snowball-from-the-hilltop slaughter can be quite nearly as damaging now as then (Brendan Eich and the woman who tweeted about not catching AIDS in Africa come to mind), one does not simply starve these days (at least, not as far as I know).

And in any case, such cases of dramatic and headline-making social ostracism will probably remain relatively rare, because we live and interact chiefly with like-minded people: family, Facebook friends, and even coworkers are likely to share our beliefs … or else we keep silent about them, since social norms practically demand any response to doings of the other side involve an “I can’t even.”

“She feeds her children GMO cereal.”  “I can’t even.” 
“Last I heard, they were using Timeouts on Emma. 
That poor child is only two-and-a-half!”  “I can’t even!” 
“You haven’t finished your free-range, cage-free,
organic, vegan Cobb salad.”  “I can’t even …”

This sort of response to people who are ideologically “other” has existed for some time.  But over the past month or so I’ve been struck by how common it is to treat people on one’s own side of the fence with a degree of disbelieving disdain.  My Facebook feed is littered with posts whose opening sentences, the very reverse of click-bait, urge me to scroll on as fast as possible in embarrassed frustration.  On the right Trump and Hiroshima have become bête noires: either one is a numbskull for accepting that Trump might be better than Hillary, or a nitwit for not seeing that he’s far worse than she is; one is either a dastardly knave for saying that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were or might have been justified, or else one is practically a quisling for suggesting that they weren’t.

I naturally have opinions on these topics—moderately informed ones, albeit ones that could be changed by more persuasive arguments or facts of which I am currently in ignorance.  But why in heaven’s name would I bother to read an article which condemns my reasoned position in the first few lines as the fruit of either stupidity or moral decrepitude?

I wouldn’t!

On the left, there are comparable issues: the nest of problems that include microaggressions (a word my spell check does not even recognize, so new is its coinage), cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, and campus free speech is one example of a situation where liberals form two mutually incomprehensible sides; the emerging focus on transgenderism, and the opposition of certain feminists and gays to this new emphasis, is another.

But these divisions within parties or ideological coalitions are themselves nothing new.  Once again, the Renaissance affords an instructive comparison, inasmuch as it presents readers of history with heated debates between English Catholics about recusancy or conformity, and among English Protestants about just how far towards Calvinism or Puritanism the established Anglican Church ought to go.  Once again, history tells us that there’s nothing fresh or ingenious about dubbing one’s allies of yesterday the heretics today.  But it remains disquieting that we so often insist on pretending that not only the other side, but also certain subgroups within our own, are intellectually and morally decrepit.

I have a theory about why this happens.  It’s not a pretty one, and I myself may occasionally be guilty of the sin involved in it: namely, the sin of quietly selling a few of one’s own friends to purchase credence with the enemy.  The process goes something like this:

ENEMY: All you people are totally unreasonable, driven by your hatred of yellow grapefruits.

YOU: But wait!  I sort of agree with you that yellow grapefruits can be edible at times.  At least, I have an aunt who used to put them in fruit salad, and I really liked her fruit salads.

ENEMY: That’s nice.  But most people on your side …

YOU [quickly]: Yeah, I know.  Really dumb, huh?  [Addressing your own people:] You salad-hating idiots!

And then, of course, one can compliment oneself on having brought the world closer to peace, because this is how coalition building works.  And besides, it does make one very superior not to fit the stereotype of liberal or conservative or what-have-you on all counts.  It’s almost as if one made up one’s mind on one’s own …

There’s also a whole Catholic stereotype of
which carries its own flavor of righteousness.

In any case, regardless of the unconscious motives which may taint shouts of heresy against one’s own party, such shouts are profoundly unproductive, for the same reason that it is unproductive to assume that everyone on the enemy’s side is a fool or a knave.  I am reminded, for the third time, of the Renaissance.  Littered with polemics, it was also littered with dialogues purporting by the nature of their genre to give a fair hearing to two sides.  In point of fact, that was rarely the case; the enemy within a dialogue, if initially resistant, was generally reduced in short order to a “Surely, O Socrates,” stance.  Spenser’s diatribe against the Irish is a fine case in point.

Irish have some sort of local civilization worth preserving? 
was wrong!  Death to all their leaders!!!

The nervous reader will be relieved to learn that I don’t anticipate any movement today comparable to the English attempts at Irish genocide.  Perhaps some portion of the losers in out modern debates may find themselves, like Huxley’s savages, living life on a happy reservation in the Midwest—an extreme form of the Benedict option, mutually agreeable to all parties concerned.  Or perhaps, unable to deintegrate from mainstream society, the losers may find themselves increasingly in the position of recusants, forced to equivocate about religion, politics, the raising of children, and other such minor details of life.

Or perhaps (since I’ve never liked dystopian endings, only reconciling myself to Hamlet when I decided that it hadn’t got one after all) we may manage to actually reach some sort of understanding amongst ourselves on each side, and each side with the other: converts will be made, not forcibly but intellectually, and we will live, as some sixties ballad whose name I can’t recall promised, in perfect harmony.

But there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening as long as we continue pretending to ourselves that all these debates are as simple as they look, and as long as we persist in treating enemies and friends alike with equal indignity, as numbskulls, nitwits, and dastardly knaves, with the occasional nincompoop thrown in for good measure.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

There Are Musical Easters

... and then there are Easters when we get to sing this.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Tale of Three Appetites

What I am about to write is, like much of what appears on this blog, hardly original.  The basic points have been made before; all I am doing is repeating them in the light in which they strike me.  But there can be a value in reiterating certain ideas, especially when those ideas strike at one of the particular blindnesses of a given age.

Provided that he or she is somewhere in or above the middle class, the modern American—probably the modern European as well—is practically obsessed with excellence of goods and of bodily health.  Perhaps because it has been so long since the struggle to eat, to live, and to find shelter has been an urgent and time-consuming pursuit for them—for us—we tend to focus, sometimes a little too intensely, on the importance of choosing our goods, our foods, and our exercise routines well.

The actual dangers inherent in this tendency are matter for another time.  Here I will only note that, if one’s life actually enables an abundance of lifestyle choices, there is certainly something to be said for making those choices matter.  Living intentionally, while it can (like all other things) become a jealous god, is no bad answer to being saddled with an overabundance of worldly blessings.

Intentional living becomes particularly admirable when it takes the form of a choice to limit consumption.  I have made fun elsewhere of Simple Livers, but the joke is a joke at the expense of those who abuse the concept.  To declare that one will not buy more food or furniture than is necessary, and that one will be attentive to one’s own sense of “necessary,” constitutes a laudable decision.

Moreover, there is a certain broad degree of acceptance, among moderately thoughtful people at least, that such a decision is laudable.  Despite the continued glorification of consumption across various media (which depend, after all, on consumption for their survival), most people if pressed will admit that there is something good about turning down a second piece of cake, or continuing to drive that used car a little bit longer.  They might not make the same restrained decision themselves, but they can admire those who do (as well as those who don’t).

This is all the more striking when one considers the fact that both the desire to eat and the desire to possess are essential to human life. Without any food at all, you will die; without some goods (shelter from the weather, a few rags to cover one’s nakedness) personal long-term survival will not be possible either.  Nevertheless, despite the necessity of food and goods for survival, we admire those who choose less food and fewer goods than they could easily obtain.  The person who buys only what they need at the grocery store, who never throws food away, who always takes home a doggie bag, is admitted more than the person who is constantly having to throw away spoiled food, or who chooses to glut himself on restaurant meals.

What is still more striking: we admire those who make a voluntary choice not just to moderate but to drastically limit their consumption of food and goods.  The person who fasts for a political cause, who chooses to limit their calorie intake to lose weight or sustain their long-term mental health, who eschews a car, who owns only fifty items—this person is regarded as practically a secular saint, one to be admired and emulated to the best of our weak ability.

Once again, to reiterate: I do not mean to (excessively) mock the secular saint of restrained consumption.  His habits are essentially Christian, or rather, are those to which Christians should aspire, though he does not have Christian reasons for the aspiration.  His habit of restraint and moderation is, in its Christian form, the virtue of temperance; and his most drastic limitations will be associated by the Christian with the special call of the Evangelical Counsels to holy poverty.  Today we are perhaps more likely to encounter the abstemious urban professional than his equally moderate foreuncle, the abstemious monk.  But the overall human attitude towards restraint in the areas of food and goods remains the same for us as it was for the early Christians or the medievals: respect and admiration.

In one third area, however, previous ages and our own part company dramatically.  On one third appetite we stand in profound disagreement.  That appetite of course is the appetite for reproduction.

I’ve chosen to use the term “reproductive appetite” in part because at bottom, that is what the appetite in question is directed towards.  Take the most hardened evolutionary biologist aside and he will tell you that, while he enjoys his wife’s company for a variety of reasons, the basic reason for his enjoyment lies in the fact that it tends to perpetuate the species.  On this, he and the pagan Aristotle and the Christian Aquinas and Pope Francis are all in agreement.

We tend, however, not to think of the reproductive appetite as being about reproduction.  There has been a profound disjunction in modern American society between the desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another human being, and the species-oriented purpose of that desire.  Of course, people have always had a tendency to pursue intimacy while attempting to avoid its sometimes inconvenient by-products.

I.e., children.

But this tendency seems to have become in recent years the accepted norm. The attitude which was once the special province of adulterers has become the standard perspective of your average healthy American boy and girl: It feels good, so why not?

Meanwhile, while our respect for the actual necessity of the reproductive appetite has decreased (“Children?  Pshaw.  We’re overpopulated anyway”), our sense of the importance of the appetite—which I had better rename “the appetite for intimacy”—has increased.  In fact, our respect for the appetite for intimacy has grown so great that we can no longer imagine moderating it, much less limiting it in a drastic way.  In fact, we tend to view anyone who dares to do so as sick.

Think about it for a moment.  Food and goods are necessary for life.  The appetites for these things are not only good but individually necessary.  Nevertheless, we recognize the moderation of these appetites as an important matter, and give great respect to those who achieve it.  But the appetite for intimacy?  Certainly it makes life more pleasant if indulged, but it is hardly necessary for individual survival; literally billions of people who have practiced abstinence or chastity have lived to tell the tale, and hundreds of millions have died at ripe old ages without having broken their fast.

And yet for some—dare I say it—perverse reason, the modern American persists in thinking of this appetite as the one which may not under any circumstances be moderated or questioned.  Nay, he considers those who do moderate it as being themselves somehow distorted, ill, or perverted.

Meanwhile, he eats only sustainably raised goods, donates to the fight against world hunger, lives car-less in a city loft, and prefers open windows to air-conditioning.

I applaud his self-restraint, but I question his consistency.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

If I Were Writing the History of This Year’s Presidential Election

If I had the novelist’s privilege and somewhat more than the novelist’s usual power, I would be inclined to look to history for writing the story of this year’s coming election.

Specifically, I would look to 1852, when, on the fifty-third ballot, the Whig Party—passing over incumbent President Fillmore and the fiery, principled Daniel Webster—nominated General Winfield Scott, a showy, fussy military man whose platform ended up being virtually indistinguishable from that of the Democrats.  It didn’t help that Scott himself was known for being quite antislavery, while the party platform was pro-slavery, which meant that neither the anti-slavery northern Whigs nor the pro-slavery southern Whigs could feel happy voting for Scott.

The similarity of platforms led to a personality-based campaign, low voter turnout, and a landslide win for the Democratic nominee, Franklin Pierce.  Scott won only four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont.  Daniel Webster, who had run as the Union Party candidate when the Whigs failed to nominate him, had died during the campaign, but nevertheless won significant votes in Georgia and Massachusetts … which says something about how the voters were feeling about their choice of Pierce vs. Scott.

For Scott, read Trump; for Pierce read Clinton; for the Whigs, read the Republicans.

(Personally, in a Trump/Hillary campaign, I’d feel
strongly tempted to write in Antonin Scalia.
Heck, what harm could it do?)
By the next presidential election, in 1856, the dying Whig party held its last convention, where they unanimously endorsed not a candidate of their own, but the American Party candidate, Fillmore.  The Whig party never regained its former political clout, and dissolved a few years later—some Whigs from both geographical sectors had joined the nativist American “Know-Nothing” Party , while many of the anti-slavery northern Whigs had been instrumental in creating the new Republican Party.

The Republican Party in 1856 nominated Frémont, with the slogan “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont, and victory!”  The Democrats, having nominated Buchanan, threatened that a Republican victory might lead to civil war.  Buchanan won, perhaps in part due to a rumor, started by the American Party and capitalized on by the Democrats, that Frémont was—horrors!—a closeted Roman Catholic.  Significantly, however, Frémont beat Buchanan in free states, while in the South the campaign became a contest between Buchanan (D) and Fillmore (A).

In my fantasy world, after the Republican Party dies in the Trump/Hillary contest, Paul Ryan and a Few Good Men (and Ladies) would found the Good Young Party (ahem), while the remaining Republicans would be free to endorse whatever spoiler candidate best represents their emptiness (Mitt Romney? or is that too unfair, even to Mitt Romney?).  The GYP would probably lose the 2020 election, but it would be a glorious defeat.

In 1860, of course, the Republicans famously came back with Lincoln, who was seen at the convention as a moderate, compromise candidate: the front runner, William Seward, was considered too radical, while Salmon Chase and Edward Bates had made choices which alienated various segments of the Republican coalition.  The party platform notably did not call for the abolition of slavery, but opposed its extension; abolitionists were angered by the decisions, and general did not trust Lincoln.

Meanwhile, the Democratic convention in Charleston was so contested that, after Douglas still failed to gain the necessary votes for nomination on the fifty-seventh ballot, the party adjourned without a nominee.  Reconvening a month later, they managed to nominate Douglas—but only after a substantial number of the most radically pro-slavery delegates had walked out due to disagreements over the party platform.

Ultimately, of course, Lincoln won, firmly establishing the Republican Party as the successor to the Whigs; the South seceded; and the progress of the Civil War led to the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually to the freeing of all slaves.

Once again in my fantasy world, the GYP party candidate wins in 2024, and ends up sends a resounding number of federal programs back to the states during his term (though his campaign promise was limited to a humble vow to balance the budget).

A part of me (probably the part Treebeard would label “hasty”) enjoys imagining this all happen.  It’s tempting to see, in the current Republican Party, one that—as the Whigs were—is made up of unsustainable coalitions which need to be realigned.  But even if today’s Republican coalition is unsustainable (and that diagnosis may be more of a wish than a fact) there is no guarantee that the results of its dissolution for the country would be anywhere near as salutary as they (eventually) were in the nineteenth century.  There is no reason, in other words, to think that a better party might rise out of the ashes.  And in fact, there are reasons to assume the contrary.

For one thing, there were no less than seven parties in 1852, and the American Party did remarkably well in the 1856 campaign, suggesting that there was already a willingness among Americans to experiment with voting outside of a two party system.  We are not so norm-defiant today: not even Ross Perot’s spoiler in the 1990s quite reached the epic proportions of the American Party’s success in the South in the 1850s.

It also doubtless helped the burgeoning Republican party of 1856 and 1860 that the Democrats, as the Whigs had been, were increasingly divided over slavery.  But the Democratic party of today—despite punishing “front-runner” candidates like Hillary with insurgents like Bernie—seems to have no great difficulty in coming to compromise at the end of the day.

More importantly, whereas the Whigs were specifically divided over slavery, today the Republican Party is divided on multiple issues—making it more difficult to create a new emergent coalition if the party were to break down.  It may be that the cry for a smaller federal government could perform a similar function to the cry to stop the spread of slavery; but I suspect that such negative messages, while they can work, tend to fly better when there is a clear human rights aspect.  “Stop spreading slavery!” is (and should be!) a more effective message than “Stop federal encroachment!”

Moreover, the Democratic Party of today is not so clearly the enemy when it comes to federal encroachment as Democratic Party of the 1850s was when it came to slavery.  While it is true that most Democrats have hardly seen a government expansion that they don’t like, it is also true that they don’t advertise this fact as one of their good qualities.  The Democratic Party of the 1850s, however, were proudly and adamantly pro-slavery.  It’s much easier to critique one’s opponents on the basis of a flaw which they own than on the basis of a flaw to which they occasionally coyly admit.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there does not seem to be any degree of willingness among the Republican Party leadership to part ways over the issues that divide the party’s constituents.  Republican voters may be exercised about immigration, abortion, regulation, failures in education, economic malaise, the collapse of the family, or what have you; but Republican Party leaders have shown no interest in leaving the party, as Whig leaders were once willing to do.  The “Tea Party,” while a valiant effort to start the debate on tired political doctrines afresh, has largely remained subsumed under the Republican banner (though both the “establishment” Republicans and the “Tea Party” types remain uncomfortable with the alliance).

Overall, I think our problem is that there are so many problems—not just in American government but in American society—that hoping for them to be altered by a political realignment—as opposed to good old-fashioned one-on-one proselytizing by individual citizens amongst their neighbors—is futile.  The society of the 1850s was sick when it came to slavery, and the glaring nature of that abuse is so great that it is almost impossible to compare to any other matter.  But our society is sick on a whole range of things, most of which (with the possible exception of abortion) are less obviously evil to many than slavery was. 

As I suggested above, there might be hope for a party or a candidate who, consolidating the various issues facing the party into what seems to be a major concern of many voters—the excessive expansion of government power—could simultaneously show that the real and potential abuses produced by a large federal government are in fact problems on the order of a grave moral evil.  But to convincingly make such a case to the public at large would demand a level of rhetorical and dialectical eloquence which no candidate in recent years (no, not even the Great Communicator) has achieved.

And even if a politician were to make such a case as well as such a case could possibly be made, it still might fall on deaf ears.  For to argue that the government is taking away your liberty presupposes that you have some appreciation of and desire for that liberty; and the love of liberty—as opposed to the love of license—cannot exist in a soul that does not also possess certain other qualities.  Civic virtue is based on one’s broader moral health; civic virtues cannot exist in a soul that does not possess moral virtues.

And our culture has lost the moral virtues.  We lack, rather obviously, the virtues understood as being “religious” or “theological”: faith, hope, and charity.  But we also lack the virtues that Nature herself cries out to us that we need: the cardinal moral virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude.  And we not only lack these virtues: we do not always even admire them anymore.  Until that admiration, at least, is restored, I see no particular reason to look forward to a change in our political structure, in the vain hope that it might prove more salutary for our societal health than current arrangements.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.
It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”—John Adams.