Thursday, January 21, 2016

Who Should Be in Politics, part 2

In my last, I said that advocating for a particular person or purpose on grounds which are irrelevant or, worse still, false, is one of the more damaging mistakes those engaged in political discourse can make.  Specifically, I suggested that attempts to portray Trump as unconservative due to his belief in outsiders’ ability to govern involve a mistaken understanding of conservatism.

But there is a deeper problem lurking in the definition of conservatism presented by my honorable opponent, the pundit.  He observes that

Conservatism regards politics as a craft similar to carpentry and farming. Skill and success depend on personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation. Effective statesmen absorb and act on the embedded knowledge and practices of the people they represent, in the nation they belong to, and in the daily flux of its political system. Political experience is specific to the moment and the place …

There is considerable appeal in the idea of “politics as a craft similar to carpentry and farming”; it conjures up images of honest, hard-working, homespun types skilled at their handiwork.  And, appealing imagery aside, it is true that in general, as their name suggests, conservatives appreciate “personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation”; true, also, that conservatives expect or at least wish for a kind of cultural milieu where they can be unified to the people around them: where a politician can be truly a man of the people, one who shares their interests and tendencies, and not merely someone who represents them accidentally.

But in our country’s current state, do we really wish for a politician who represents the interests and tendencies of the average American?  If so, I doubt that Trump is very far off.  That’s not intended as a snark or a slam against either Trump or Americans; it is a simple statement of fact.

But if one does (as I do) wish for a more thoughtful political world, and if one is also conservative, it would seem that conservatives in politics really do have to—temporarily at least—abandon the fiction that they are exactly like those they represent.  They are in fact probably better able to understand the nuances of the law and of political negotiation.

Many conservatives, of course, have already realized this.  But in deciding that they know politics better than their constituents, they have also decided (1) that this makes them morally superior, and (2) that this absolves them from any need to really explain what they are doing the hoi poloi.

In fact, the realization that he knows more than ordinary people ought to profoundly disconcert a politician; and he ought to take it gnostically, as a sign of his own greatness, but humbly, as a sign that he is called to serve people not just by legislating, but also precisely by bridging the gap between himself and them.  He should, in other words, be more than an advocate: he should be a teacher.  He should be Atticus Finch with Boo Radley, not Atticus Finch with Tom Robinson.  Rrather than fishing for his constituents he should teach them how to fish—how to think—for themselves.

The measure of the good a politician can do for his country is not how much he can get done while in office, but how much his people will be able to do once he is out of it.

But all of this, of course, required humility, which is antithetical to fallen human nature in the first place, and especially difficult to cultivate when one’s profession involves being in front of or in charge of anybody.

Says the teacher.

But the fundamental lack of humility is not the only problem lurking in the claim that “Conservatism regards politics as a craft.”  There is a factual issue with the claims as well.  The metaphor, taken strictly, implies that outsiders do not belong in politics: that “[e]ffective statesmen” should be men of political experience, even of familial experience: that we should in fact have a political class (Quincys, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons) who will, through their “personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation,” guide us safely through the troubled waters of whatever it is that we are sailing perpetually through.

But this vision is antithetical to the vision my honorable opponent the pundit recognizes in his final lines, when he says that “the conservative idea of politics” is “to always strive towards the unattainable ideal of making [politics] redundant.”  That is a fine idea, and one perfectly in line with my claim that conservatives should teach the electorate mental fishery.  It is also congruent with the idea often attributed to the American founders that statesmen should be citizens first and statesmen second: that they should, if at all possible, serve temporarily and then get the thunder out of the Capitol.

Fish and guests, my grandfather says, start to stink after three days.
And we give politicians three years?

The ideal politician, according to every conservative from de Tocqueville down to my honorable opponent, himself, is one who—though seeing politics as a craft—does not see political experience as being critical to that craft.

Which is why it is ridiculous, for my honorable opponent at least, to argue that Trump cannot be conservative because he thinks, or purports to think, that political experience is worse than useless.  That is, by many conservatives own admission—and apparently by popular conservative consent—a very conservative position to take.

Attacking the man with arguments as misleading as his own is to become guilt of the very thing for which he could actually be criticized: for failing to teach us local yokels fishing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Who Should Be in Politics, part 1

One of the most debilitating errors those on any side of a position can make is—to mangle a phrase from T.S. Eliot—espousing the right thing for the wrong reason; that is, advocating for a particular person or purpose on grounds which are irrelevant or, worse still, false.  In political argument it is common, for example, to advocate for one’s policies based on what some individual or party did in the past.  This would be a perfectly acceptable way of beginning a cause and effect argument, which would involve tracing all the numerous historical details connected with the old case in question, which would allow us to legitimately apply it to our present case.  But in the (perhaps justified) judgment of our leaders this country is not capable of following so sustained as discourse; and so they resort to mere associations.

No, I am not going to write about Ronald Reagan and the VAT tax.

It was not always so.  Perhaps it need not be so today.  But it is indubitably true that if one treats a Democracy like a many-headed beast instead of a body of reasonable members, it will begin behaving as such.  This is simple psychology.  Offer people easily consumed junk—whether it be in the form of food, movies, memes, or political discourse—and they will not only lap it up, but gradually come to lose their appreciation for whatever finer things they might once have enjoyed—and worse still, their ability to refine their physical, aesthetic, moral, and intellectual palates further will be degraded.  Listen to enough political hectoring, and you will be desensitized to genuine political debate.  The next person who takes it upon himself to offer you a real argument will have to work that much harder to make it intelligible, because your habit of responding to the simplest and most obvious level of associations, tones, and expressions will be that much more firmly rooted, thanks to the ongoing fertilization of bad rhetoric.

In the current campaign season, there has been the usual and perhaps more than the usual share of bad rhetoric, to the detriment of the country.  A good deal of it centers around one particular candidate on the Republican side of the aisle.

Notice that I don’t say this candidate emits simplistic rhetoric himself; there is no point in making such a point.  The problem is not his rhetoric, but the response to it—not just on the part of prospective voters, but on the part of politicos, journalists, back-bench wiseacres like myself, and (of course) the other candidates.  Rather than providing an articulate response to what they dislike about Trump, too many of the aforementioned have criticized his hair, his gestures, his sentence structure, his disorganized campaign.  Those things may all deserve criticism, from an aesthetic standpoint; but until Americans actually learn to appreciate Dante again, attacks on the déclassé are worse than ridiculous.

But yes, this IS an invitation to play the where-would-Dante-place-Trump game.

Nor is it sufficient to say that Donald Trump is not a True Conservative, our current version of the old but lively No True Scotsman fallacy.  Once again, this is certainly true under many meanings of the word conservative (including meanings that I would accept) but it is pointless unless (1) the accuser also carefully and consistently defines “conservative” as he intends to use it, and (2) the accuser offers an alternative candidate, while articulating how said candidate more closely matches his ideas of what the word means.  But I, having wasted far too many hours on a matter that is not likely to change my mind in any case, can affirm that I have yet to see anyone do this convincingly.

The worst failures to attack Trump’s conservative credentials are those which aim at achieving the first goal (define “conservative”) but fail badly.  For example, this:

Conservatism regards politics as a craft similar to carpentry and farming. Skill and success depend on personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation. Effective statesmen absorb and act on the embedded knowledge and practices of the people they represent, in the nation they belong to, and in the daily flux of its political system. Political experience is specific to the moment and the place; it is not readily exported to nations other than where it was formed; it is not timeless (as countless “out of touch” politicians have discovered). In the setting of the here and now, political experience is invaluable and irreplaceable.

Liberals and socialists believe differently. To them, legislation and governing are universal practices, the application of theories that have been constructed by scholars far removed from the political arena. It follows that a novice can enter parliament or government and know what to do—it’s all in the textbooks. Indeed, a strong interpretation of the liberal or socialist view implies that this is the only way to be properly prepared for politics. Trump’s supporters share this delusion.

Now, aside from cringing whenever anyone uses “scholars” as a smear word …

It’s like using “dentist” as a smear word.  I know you’ve seen several bad dentists.   
I know a bad dentist can really mess up a lot of people for life.  I know they are 
expensive and don’t really add much to the economy.  I know they’re kind 
of weird—why would anyone want to spend all day looking into THAT?!!   
But really, this doesn’t make us—erm, them—bad people.

… as I was saying: aside from using “scholars” as a smear word, the author here paints a portrait of the liberal vs. conservative divide which is dangerously oversimplified.  It is quite true that liberal academics (of which there are many more than conservative academics) enjoy crafting plans to make the world a better place, according to their lights; it is also quite true that they often pass these ideas successfully on to their students and embed them in their writings.  But does it really follow from this that “a novice can enter parliament or government and know what to do”?  Both liberals and conservatives already in politics tend, I think to insist that—textbook learning aside—no novice can successfully enter their world.  This has been true at least since Joseph Paine tried to tell Jefferson Smith how Washington works.

But universally agreed on as it is, few “truisms” are more debilitating to civic spirit than this one.  If it is in any sense a conservative idea (a doubtful proposition), it is an idea that conservatives would do better to lose.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Historical Fallacy

I cringe slightly when a homilist begins to talk about the Early Church—not that, as a Catholic, I feel there’s anything to fear from them; au contraire.  I cringe because too often the reason for raising the specter of The Early Church seems to be a way of discrediting it—not exactly as a bogeyman, but as a harmless ghost or gnome: a little old fashioned, but really quite gemütlich in its own preserve.

The most recent case in point involved that curious series of Gospels read in the weekdays between Mary, the Mother of God and the Baptism of the Lord.  Despite the intervention of the Three Kings at Epiphany and the proximity of Christmas, these Gospels mostly seem to deal with standard healings and sermons from various points in Jesus’s career.  In contrast to the Gospels for much of the remaining year, they are not chronologically arranged (as far as a listener can tell), nor do they have an obvious bearing on the feasts occurring nearby.

The explanation for this oddity, homiletically provided (by the one priest who, to his credit, thought it interesting to offer an explanation), was that The Early Church was full of Early Christians who were generally very poor and very poorly educated.  They had heard the Gospel in its simplest form, and their understanding of the life of Christ and indeed of Christology was apt to be fuzzy.  Consequently, in the days following the great feast of Christmas, the coming of the Child, the Church took it upon herself to catechize listeners concerning “Who this Child was.”

Such an explanation does present a minor problem of liturgical history.  While the Mass itself is ancient, I would be surprised to hear that scholars have been able to determine, with any certainty beyond that generally attaching to the wildest academic conjecture, that we know exactly what Scripture readings were read during what parts of the calendar year.  But take it as possible, at least, that Early Christians may have heard something like what we hear during these weeks after Christmas; and take it is probable (if not certain) that many of them were indeed poor and illiterate and in need of catechizing.

Nevertheless, I take umbrage.  For as true as all those statements can be, they do not answer the question of why we continue to hear these readings in our current and by implication more enlightened age.  Moreover, the introduction of such reasoning concerning the rationale behind the gospels tacitly begs the question: Why do we not change the readings?  If these apparently untopical and disorganized snippets were intended to meet a catechetical need which is absent today, then why have they not been reformed?  Vatican II reformed enough other things, goodness knows.

The unstated implication of the homily was that these readings were simply outdated.  Unstated—because it was in fact never said that they were, any more than Those Early Heretics who spoke of “Mary the Mother of Jesus” made a habit of saying loudly “Mary, NOT the Mother of God.”  But the implication there, and here, is clear enough.  And in the case of the post-Christmas homily, the idea that the readings are outdated—not in itself an impossibility—was the particularization of a rather more pernicious unstated idea: the principle that when previous ages differ from ours, it is because of their ignorance or bias.

It is a common historical fallacy: this idea that because a thing is old and belongs to people manifestly different from ourselves, it cannot be useful or true.  The Early Church needed to hear these stories because they were unlettered and untaught.  The medievals believed in astrology because they were superstitious.  The Crusaders fought because they were barbaric.  Monarchs insisted on religious unity because they were unenlightened despots.

The fallacy is common not only in casual use—amongst homilists, journalists, and men on the street—but even and perhaps especially amongst academics in the humanities, who ought by their profession to know better.  But somehow the very depth of an academic’s historical knowledge can lead them deeper into this fallacy than mere casual historical chauvinism does.  For the academic knows not just that monarchs insisted on religious unity, and were unenlightened despots, but also knows in great detail what circumstances exactly prompted the desire to preserve religious unity, and what measures were taken to do so: knows, in other words, the rationale behind the despotism.  But rather than taking using this knowledge with a measure of understanding and humility, the Academic tends to use it to explain away the actions of earlier individuals and nations.  But of course the Tudors insisted on religious conformity: you see, they had inherited a dubious title from Henry VII, were plagued with political dissent and disconcerted by the terrible Wars of Religion taking place right across the channel … But of course their natural bias would be towards having their people conform!  And in the midst of it all, the Academic—who has read, but not digested, the words of the Tudor writers themselves—forgets to inquire whether perhaps, under the circumstances, the Tudors were politically wise, and perhaps not wholly evil, in doing what they did.  The Academic forgets, in other words, that in such a situation he might have done a similar thing himself.

But of course Montaigne believed in cultural humility …

More perniciously still, the Academic forgets that he probably does do similar things today.  He does, in other words, probably do things that would look inexcusable when judged by the standards of another age (past or future) but which, taking our times into consideration, are “politically wise, and perhaps not wholly evil.”  Very few of us are good enough and wise enough—in the full sense of that word “wise”—to see and act beyond were we are now.  And indeed, that prudence which governs particular situations is so great a virtue that ahistorical actions and judgments such as academics often think themselves capable of are perhaps not to be desired so greatly.  Perhaps the Academic not only does but should be a little bit bound by the standards of his own age.

But he should at least know that he is so bound, and use himself accordingly with humility towards those whom he studies.  Indeed, it is only by so humbling himself that he might come to understand not only that which he studies, but that wherein he lives and breathes—and ultimately, that which he is.  Only the humble academic, humble enough to understand the real attractiveness of religious unity, or the real plausibility of the governance of the stars, has a chance of seeing how his own personal and cultural predilections may mislead—or after all, rightly lead—him.  And only a humble Christian, humble enough to appreciate following certain seemingly outdated customs, has a chance of realizing how not only the Ancient Christians but also the Modern would do well to take certain days after Christmas, certain days to reflect on a seemingly eclectic series of readings designed to illuminate the thing we never fully forget, but are perpetually in mortal danger of ignoring: Who this Child Is.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wumpick and the Simple Christmas


y dear Wumpick,

Your patient is preparing for Christmas.  Ah, Christmas!  The season of joy.  The season of giving.  The season of soul-rotting pop music and holiday specials which inculcate principles leading to a whole generation of failed marriages and overly-indulged children.  If the humans (and especially the American humans) had not created Christmas, we would have had to invent it.

Your patient is unfortunately already too well-educated in what the Enemy’s servants call “the True Meaning of Christmas” to fall into the usual consumerist traps.  Indeed, of late even certain branches of the secular world have taken to deriding the spectacle of economic excess which the two months from Our Hallows Eve to year’s end have become.  Regifting was a fad, and green gifts and minimalist Christmases will be as well, but they are fads which effectively (if temporarily) inoculate a small but significant portion of our pupils against one of our most useful variations on the old temptation to gluttony.

If we were not careful to stay on top of affairs, this kind of impulse to “simple living” would quickly become a scourge: in the poverty of three gifts to a person, parents, children, friends, and siblings would discover the real supremacy of familial love over material indulgence, and our power over their expending selves (which we teach them to consider equivalent to expanding selves) would be permanently reduced.  And once the family is rediscovered, the jig is up for us: church-going soon follows, along with increased appreciation for a variety of damaging good habits and, in general, commitment (a weak and ugly word that we have given them to use instead “vow” or “oath”, which they regard as being too, too old-fashioned for daily use, if vaguely attractive in the cinema).

Because this tendency to the “simple life” can take so pernicious a direction, it is therefore important, as much as possible, to take preemptive steps to ensure that those living “simple lives” associate religion with the very sort of excess which they are fleeing.  Let them forget that the Child himself had only three gifts, all of which arrived late (no postal service in those days, even a bad one); and was delivered in a stable—really, as if he had been born in the back room of a bakery in a modern grocery store: not the most romantic of places, though the Enemy’s humans have made rather a pretty story of it since.  Let the Simple Livers, then, remember not the real story, but the pictures they have seen (the more schematized and less realistic, the better) in which the Child looks less like an infant than a plastic doll, the shepherds have all been freshly coiffed a lá Sassoon, and the three kings look like tinsel-covered trees from Emma’s Christmas pageant two years ago.

Make Christmas, in other words, look wasteful.  It is not difficult to do, when the Simple Livers have already turned their hearts against waste, and the manufacturers are encouraging Christmas sales.  And because Christmas is still, despite those sales and our own best efforts, associated with religion, it will also not be difficult to make the Simple Livers associate religion with waste.

Some forays in this direction have already been made.  (You will recall the Hollywood blockbuster, The Shoes of the Fisherman?  Under the guise of anti-communism, we were able to introduce so many more subtle forms of disaffection to the West.)  Unfortunately, the current pope—despite the many excellent things which we have been able to persuade people of his having said—has not actually said anything that can be construed to help us in this area (yet).  In fact, the one time he was directly asked about the goods of the Church, he came out with some nonsense about the poor appreciating beauty.  I admit, I staggered.  For a moment it seemed as if nothing had changed in the Chair for the past three generations!

He has been no help on this matter.  So focus the Simple Livers on the collage cards and the cheap, heavy decorations, on the endless piping of music over-saturated with emotion and the fact that everything must now be reissued in two new colors; and make sure that they also remember—without really thinking about—what some fool of an Evangelical once called “The Reason for the Season.”  Nothing could be more perfectly calibrated than the sight of a mall at Christmas to ensure that no investigation whatsoever of that Reason occurs. 

Your ever affectionate uncle,