Thursday, August 4, 2016

Gulpiness


Alternative title: When an English and a Philosophy Nerd Eat Dinner Together.

It’s actually not as frightening as it sounds.  Sometimes we do just end up talking about people and stuff.  But a lot of the time we end up analyzing whatever it is that we’re talking about, especially if it’s politics.  And this year there has been a lot of politics.

Last night the realization was that we need a new word to talk about politics (and everything else).  We already have “truthiness”, courtesy of Stephen Colbert, if I recall correctly.  Statements are “truthy” if they sound likely to be true.  Forty-one percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.  Over half of all Fords will be involved in an accident by the time they hit one hundred thousand miles.  Red grapefruits have more vitamins than yellow ones.  All the choices for president stink, including Gary Johnson.  That sort of thing.

But truthiness is meant to be a somewhat objective description of the qualities of a statement.  The speaker who acknowledges truthiness has the humility to say “I could be fooled by this truthy statement—in fact, I don’t presently know whether it’s true or false (though I certainly will after I’ve checked my Truth Machine)” (a.k.a. a smartphone).  Like being mellifluous, truthiness may be in the ear of the belistener, but only somewhat so.  There are statements that all human beings past the age of five or so would consider difficult to believe (“If you stand on your head, you will start to float upwards into the clouds”); these are not truthy, any more than fingernails on a chalkboard could be regarded as mellifluous by anyone but the most woolly-ear-drummed of persons.

But analysts (that is, anyone with a social media account) clearly need something that goes beyond the objectivity of “truthiness”.  They need something that describes not the general plausibility of a statement (“I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds true, and I’d have to check to know otherwise”) but the plausibility of a statement to a certain group of people (“I can tell that’s being spun, but I know a lot of [fill-in-the-blankers] will swallow it whole”).  We need a term, in other words, that indicates our recognition of a statement’s ability to gull.  Plausibility and believability won’t do any more than truthiness, because like truthiness they offer a generalized judgment of a word, as opposed to a differentiated one.  Not everyone can fall for every salesman’s gull (cf. Marian the Librarian).

Enter gullibiness, gulbiness, or gulpiness (which has the advantage of being easier to say and of sounding like “gulp” as well as “gull”): the quality, possessed by a video, a statement, an image, or any attempted communication of meaning, to trick a certain targeted audience into accepting it as true.

You’re welcome.

Friday, July 15, 2016

What Might Have Been



Historical counterfactuals are invariably entertaining, and occasionally instructive.  As a Catholic, I’ve become familiar with certain counterfactuals regarding the English Reformation—What if Catherine had been able to bear a healthy son?  What if Henry had died before his divorce?  What if Mary had conceived, or Elizabeth married a Catholic (a prospect which at times she did contemplate, to the alarm of certain hardliners in her court)?

But these are counterfactuals involving matters largely outside of human control; they ask, in essence, What if God had chosen to intervene here?  Perhaps a more interesting kind of historical counterfactual—more interesting, because it tells us something about the power and responsibility which human beings have in making history—arises in David Loades’s Tudor Government.

By 1536 there was no doubt that the Reformation parliament had trespassed upon hitherto forbidden ground.  Why so conservative a body should have leant itself to a revolutionary programme of action requires some explanation, because the whole subsequent course of English government was altered by the events of these years.  The habit of obedience was deeply engrained, and both Henry VIII and his father had made effective use of the fifteenth-century wars to discourage opposition.  It was also generally recognized that the king needed a male heir.  Anti-clericalism in the traditional sense, and disillusionment with a papacy which had consistently failed to provided [sic] the English church with a much-needed programme of reform, also made their contribution.  But the most important factor was probably a deeply rooted scepticism about the king’s intentions.  Once Catherine had gone and the succession issue had been resolved, no one really believed that Henry would persist with his ecclesiastical supremacy. … the rhetoric was not taken seriously, and neither individual lords nor members of the Commons were prepared to risk their lives and fortunes for a cause which would be restored by negotiation as soon as it suited Henry’s convenience.  That may even have been the king’s original intention, since his own cast of mind was a conservative as any.  However, by the summer of 1536 he had changed his opinion.  With a capacity for self-persuasion which was typical of him, he had become convinced that the royal supremacy did indeed represent the way in which God intended his church to be run, and when both Catherine and Anne were dead, he declined to renegotiate his relations with the pope.  By then it was also beginning to occur to his parliamentary accomplices that there were great possibilities for their own profit in the new situation, and by the time Cromwell had fallen in 1540 the king’s right to govern the church had been accepted by the vast majority of his subjects.  In doing that they sanctioned the new role which parliament had adopted in the affairs of the kingdom.

In 1565 Sir Thomas Smith summarized parliament’s functions in sweeping terms:

The Parliament abrogateth old laws, maketh newe, giveth orders for thinges past, and for thinges hereafter to be followed, changeth rights and possessions of private men, legitimateth bastards, establisheth forms of religion, altereth weights and measures, giveth forms of succession to the Crown, defineth of doubtful rights whereof is no law already made, appointeth subsidies, tallies, taxes and impositions, giveth most free pardons and absolutions, restoreth in blood and name as the highest court, condemneth or absolveth them whom the prince will put to that trial.  And, to be short, all that ever the people of Rome might do either in Centuriatis comitiis or tributis, the same may be done by the Parliament of England.

From being a specialized instrument, used for a limited number of purposes, statute had become the standard means of authorization for all types of business.  In 1536 statute abolished the ancient franchises of the Welsh marches, reduced Wales to shire ground, and conferred parliamentary representation upon the new counties.  In the same year all religious houses worth less than £200 per annum were delivered into the king’s hand, and in 1539 the Act of Six Articles laid down a standard of orthodoxy for the English church.  A decade earlier none of these things could have been done.  Had a Succession Act been a viable option in 1527, the king’s Great Matter might never have come about.  By the time he died Henry had rearranged the succession three times by that means, and in 1571 parliament was to declare it to be high treason to deny the authority of statue to determine the identity of the next ruler.  (Loades, 44-5).



What might have been here belongs clearly to the area of human choice and political determination.  Ironically, had England possessed a more centralized government to begin with, one that recognized the king’s power in parliament to do pretty much as he willed, Henry might well have been able simply to declare one of his illegitimate children, or a nephew or cousin, his heir (though his own considerable pride would perhaps have stood in the way of that recourse).  On the other hand, had Henry been less “self-persuasive”, or members of parliament more clear-sighted, it would have been possible at multiple points throughout Henry’s reign to set things right.  Henry II, after all, as well as John, had both run afoul of Rome before; and in the end both their cases were resolved without serious damage to the English church.  It should be no surprise, even with the benefit of hindsight, that English Catholics in those days largely shrugged, laid low, and assumed that everything would return to normal soon enough.

Friday, July 8, 2016

In the Beginning ... of Clothing



ADAM:  Look!

EVE: What IS that?

ADAM [with great pride]: I’m calling it clothing.

EVE: You’re always naming things.

ADAM: I have to.  You keep using up all the new words I make.

EVE [rolling eyes]: OK, so you’re calling it clothing.  What’s it for?

ADAM: I’m glad you asked!  So there are these three holes, you see, and the one [that one goes on top] is bigger than the other two, and then there’s this thing which—well, I haven’t got a name for it yet, but—

EVE: Hook-and-eye.

ADAM: What?

EVE: I’m calling it hook and eye.

ADAM: O … K.  Anyway, this thing is adjustable, so you can make the big hole bigger or smaller, you see?

EVE [reluctantly beginning to get absorbed]: That’s interesting.  So what’s this for, again?

ADAM: I’m glad you asked!  So I was thinking, since we’re naked [Eve makes a face], we needed to do something about it.  Clothes are the answer!  See, you put them one like this.  [He demonstrates.  Proudly:]  Pretty nifty, huh?

EVE [eyeing his figure dubiously]: What about me?

ADAM: I’m glad you—

[Eve glares.  In silence, Adam hands her a second outfit.  She puts it on, and fiddles with the “hook-and-eye.”  She goes over to the river, and looks at her reflection.  Adam begins to get nervous in the prolonged silence.]

ADAM: Do you like it?

EVE: Oh—yeah, yeah, no, its really nice.  Thank you, Adam.  [Coming over and kissing him.]  But, uh, Adam …

ADAM [much relieved and more cheerful now]: Yeah, what?

EVE: Do these—does this clothing

ADAM: Uh-huh?

EVE: Does it make me look fat?


Monday, July 4, 2016

Dear Ms. Mantel: But of Course the Church Isn’t Respectable!



A rather nice piece by George Weigel (HT/the husband) has reminded me why, despite my interest in all things Tudor English, we stopped watching Wolfe Hall after one episode (even though it’s free with Amazon Prime): my, that historical flimmery-flummery!  (Though to be fair, half of our reason for quitting was that it was terribly depressing.  Somehow even The Man in the High Castle, despite its rather more dystopian setting, managed to be less so.)

Weigel’s piece also sent me off to reading his links, including the rather sad one where Wolfe Hall’s author, Hilary Mantel, declares that “nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”  (She also calls herself “one of nature’s Protestants,” whatever that may mean.)  Mantel’s more specific criticisms of the Church are more on point, and certainly merit reply—which I will eschew, since they have been amply addressed elsewhere.  (For starters, on the clerical scandals, see Fr. Z and Bishop Barron.)  But the respectability point made me laugh because, however archetypically British such a lament may be, most Catholics (British and otherwise) are well aware that from the days of the Roman Empire on up into the present Catholics have never been respectable.  It is not one of our aspirations.

Chesterton, to be sure, asserted that Catholicism “is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man” (“Why I Am a Catholic”); but as that “even” suggests, respectable was hardly one of Chesterton’s favored terms—he tends to use it with a note of irony, e.g.: “How quickly revolutions grow old; and, worse still, respectable” (The Listener, 3-6-35); “Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem” (Orthodoxy, 7).

And of course, there is this:

… the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.  (Orthodoxy, 6, chapter conclusion.)

Even that would-be paragon of English country-gentlemanliness, Evelyn Waugh, knew better than to say that the church of his choice was respectable.

“… I wish I liked Catholics more.”
“They seem just like other people.”
“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they are notparticularly in this country, where theyre so few.  It’s not just that they’re a clique—as a matter of fact, they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time—but they’re got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.  They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time. …”  (Brideshead Revisited, ch. 4)

And then, of course, there is the famous line of Joyce’s from Finnegan’s Wake, “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’”

I could go on—Flannery O’Connor would no doubt have things to say on this subject, and even C.S. Lewis, Anglican though he was, could provide extensive remarks about the advisability (or otherwise) of worrying about the respectability of one’s religion—but you catch my drift.  No, I’m afraid Catholics and the Catholic Church are not respectable, and we never shall be.  It’s not that we’re exactly proud of this fact (well, perhaps some of us—nature’s hippies, to borrow a turn from Mantel—are proud of our unrespectability)—it’s just that there are other things are of deeper concern to most of us: truth in the first place, and ultimately happiness.

Chocolate, you know, has only recently become respectable (and who knows how long it will preserve its position in this regard), but it has always made people happy.  I leave it to the reader to determine whether its respectability or its deliciousness is the more salient concern.