Friday, August 5, 2022

Life, Death, and Freedom - Guest Post by Bernice Flower Frenchhouse

 Hail, all 3.7 readers still receiving notifications for this blog!  This is a bit unusual, but recently someone asked me about guest posting here and I said--why not?  I've known the author of this post for a long time, and while she is not me, Miss Frenchhouse has some interesting things to say.  Turning it over:


Shortly after the Dobbs v. Jackson opinion was leaked in May, I got into an argument on social media about slavery and abortion. Now, I know what you're thinking, arguing with people on social media is an exercise in futility and only increases anger and frustration on both sides, especially when you are talking about hot button issues. Sometimes I can't help myself. It's good for people to hear a dissenting opinion from time to time and in this case, I actually learned something.

It all started when I happened upon some individuals insisting that the Confederacy was as bad as, if not worse than, the Third Reich. I certainly don't condone slavery, but after a considerable amount of Southern bashing, I felt obliged to wade in and defend the CSA against the Nazi's. I pointed out that while slavery was bad, genocide was worse. This had predictable results. I brought up the criminal code and the fact that while murder is punishable by life imprisonment or death, human trafficking and slavery has a maximum penalty of 20 years. Under international law, holding captives or prisoners of war is permissible, but killing the people you captured would be a war crime. On a very basic level, I think most people you ask on the street would rather be enslaved than shot dead or gassed in an oven. This is not to say that slavery is not an evil, it is just a lesser evil.

All of this got me nowhere. What emerged over the course of our discussion was that these people found it impossible to admit that slavery was not the worst evil. Everyone I was speaking with claimed to be from the US and presumably spent some number of years in the American public school system and what became increasingly clear was that the Confederacy and slavery had been so demonized that even Hitler killing 11 million was considered a saint next to Jefferson Davis. I was accused of being un-American for not valuing freedom above everything else. In their minds slavery is the 9th circle of hell and killing people is somewhere up around gluttony and lust.

Eventually we reached a stalemate and moved on to the much less contentious topic of abortion. Unsurprisingly, everyone else was in favor of abortion and I found myself in the hot seat again. What was enlightening to me, however, was how closely they connected abortion to slavery. They didn't maintain that a baby was a clump of cells, or that conception did not begin at birth, or even that a baby prior to birth had less personhood than the mother. Instead the argument was that a baby holds the mother hostage for nine months. Some mothers would probably extend that term to 18 years. But if you believe that slavery is the worst evil, then it is permissible to commit murder to free yourself. Most of the people I was talking to accepted that abortion was murder (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) but also held that murder is allowable if the mother felt enslaved by her child. And there is a certain amount of logic to that if you haven't correctly ranked your evils.

The abortion argument ended in a stalemate as well, but it brought out a side of the pro-abortion position that I hadn't considered before. For some people it's not about proving that life begins at conception, but more basically about degrees of evil and how do you know what the worst evil is and when can you commit a lesser evil to prevent a worse evil. It has to do with what is true freedom and how do we achieve it. I think increasingly the prolife argument is shifting from proving that yes, there is a little human in there to educating people on basic morals, ethics, and logic. I didn't win this argument and I didn't really expect to, but maybe I planted a seed, maybe one of those people will start thinking that maybe there are worse things than being a slave.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Common Sense Versus the Experts

This is, in essence, a repost of a comment I made on Facebook during a conversation about pandemic related issues.  It has wider import, however, and not merely in the public sphere, but when it comes to private decision-making as well.

Do we trust our common sense, or do we trust the experts?

On the one hand, I've encountered plenty of "commonsense" arguments that are pretty clearly nonsense, arguments whose authors and advocates would be a lot better off listening to, say, CDC guidelines.  For example, "If masks stop a virus, they will also stop oxygen.  You will suffocate slowly over time if you wear a mask!"  Or, to take an example from a non-pandemic arena, "You realize believing in God is just like believing in Santa Claus, right?  Both imaginary paternal males who show up to make your life better--it's just common sense to see that one fantasy is the adult version of the other!"

There are--to be clear--decent arguments about the downsides of masks (e.g., they can make it harder to breathe), and decent arguments for atheism (e.g., the problem of pain).  But these two particular arguments, which strike some people as common sense, strike me as (je regrette), common nonsense.

On the other hand ... there must be some place for common sense in assessing what we are told by experts.  How else can anyone, whether a private citizen or a political leader, navigate among differing expert opinions on a given topic, or among differing priorities of various experts?  For instance, if I'm told by the expert doctor that X surgery will save my life, but by the expert theologian that the surgery is immoral, I, the non-expert, will have to use my common sense and principles to weigh which expert to listen to when I take the practical action of agreeing to or refusing the surgery.  And, in the COVID arena, a governor is going to have to weigh what the virologists vs. the epidemiologists are telling him or her--and that's just within the medical field!

So it seems that, although "use common sense" is an inadequate way of scrutinizing expert ideas, at the same time, it won't do to insist that people accept every expert idea uncritically.  There's got to be some middle ground.

What middle ground?  Well, as Rabbit says to Christopher Robin on their Expotition to the North Pole, "Now you're asking me!"

Monday, May 10, 2021

Know Your Medieval "State"

I'm always miffed to hear the libertarian-leaning conservatives talk about the problems of feudalism, etc., as if the main issue with medieval government were the power of the monarch.  And equally, Vermuelean, Josiasy, Catholic-Constitutionalism-Confessional-State talk makes me uneasy because (among other reasons) it assumes an easy synergy between the state and the papacy, which would, of course, rule the obedient civil rulers wisely and well at all times.

Both of these elements in conservative thought betray something of an ignorance of history (at least, when they make the picture as simple as I have just done for them).  For after all ...

“A further precondition for arriving at the modern concept of the State is that the supreme authority within each independent regnum should be recognized as having no rivals within its own territories as a law-making power and an object of allegiance.  Any such unitary image of political sovereignty was precluded in medieval Europe by the legal assumptions underpinning the feudal organization of society, and by the Church’s claims to act as a law-making power coeval with rather than subordinate to the secular authorities” (351).  --Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought.

In other words, the king must become more absolutist before the modern state can emerge.  And that says interesting things both about the birth of the classical liberal state, and about our desires to return to, or reject, the very different (and by now very dead) medieval world that preceded it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Unspeakable Monsters, I

This morning I was reading in a Catholic periodical when I encountered an off-handed and unironic reference to Ronald Reagan as a “monster.”  It was not surprising, in the sense that the periodical in question is not politically conservative (“mere Catholicity” might be a good description of its political outlook, to the extent that it has one); but it caught me off-guard nonetheless.  Was Reagan any more monstrous than, say, Kennedy or Nixon or Bill Clinton?  I had to spend a few minutes on Wikipedia just to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything.  Indeed, that arbiter of modern history gave me no particularly monstrous details, aside from the economic ones of which I was already aware; and since the sole elaboration on the “monster” reference was to “individualism,” I must assume that Reagan was monster for supply-side reasons.

That again brings me to other presidents.  I suppose, then, that Calvin Coolidge was a monster, although he is so nearly forgotten that perhaps he does not count.  Does Clinton’s welfare reform qualify him as a monster too?  But, without looking into the details, I doubt that bill was anything as sweeping as the tax cuts under Reagan.  Modified monstrosity, perhaps.

Now of course, I am being ironic myself; and, furthermore, I’m guilty of precisely the sin that irritated me with the author who took a potshot at Reagan: I am being snide about a public figure with whom I disagree, without actually presenting evidence or arguments that would sway anyone who did not already agree with me.  It’s actually a good measure of where you stand politically: does “Reagan was a monster” or “Clinton was a monster” raise your blood pressure?  Or both, or neither?

Friday, April 9, 2021

When the Bridegroom Is Taken Away

It is a feature of every organized religion to have seasons of fasting and feasting, mourning and rejoicing; and yet there can scarcely be a religious person, however faithful, who has not from time to time felt the whole cycle a bit odd. Christians rejoice at Christmas, naturally — but what about the Christian who has just lost a job or a loved one? Does not Christmas, that season of joy, become the most wretched of seasons for some, in part precisely due to the contrast between what one actually feels, and what one is supposed to feel?

Something like this occurs to me most Lents. Spring is a lovely time of year — a time of blooming trees, planting gardens, increased light. A time when things start over — and thank goodness for that! Yet in the middle of this delightful physical season bursts the liturgical season of Lent, a time when Catholics put on sackcloth and ashes (literally, at least the ashes part), when statues are draped in dark cloth, when we fast and abstain, and when we meditate on the sorrows of Our Lord and his Passion. It can feel psychologically artificial.

There is, however, an analogue to this sort of thing in ordinary life. Even outside of the context of religion, human beings rejoice and mourn on schedule. It may be arbitrary, but it is also natural, when the earth completes another revolution around the sun, to celebrate the day one was born. I defy sociologists to find a single society with a calendar that does not celebrate this event one way or another. And likewise — though it is in the modern world sadly a more private affair — there are few people who do not annually remember the day, indeed the month when someone close to them died — a parent, a child or a spouse. It takes a close relationship to produce the kind of melancholy memories that are retained for years and spread themselves into a season.

But if human beings feel naturally these seasonal depressions and elevations of spirit — if the memory of a death can shadow an otherwise joyous time, and the celebration of a life cast a light in a dark one — then one would expect this to hold for human relationships with the divine.

Read the rest at the Register:

Monday, April 5, 2021

Unpaid Labor

There’s a new phrase on the block—well, new as of the past few years.  (Whoever said this blog kept up with an instantaneous news cycle?)  Women who stay at home with their kids all or part of the time, watching them, reading to them, cooking, cleaning, washing, changing diapers, teaching manners, etc., are, in the new phrase, engaging in “unpaid labor.”  This (it is implied, and oftentimes explained as well) is deeply unfair.

As one of these women, I have thoughts.

My first thought is that it is interesting to see this coming from people of all sorts of political stripes.  By “interesting” I mean simply that.  Developing this observation into my second thought, it is downright odd that some of the people who complain the most about women’s unpaid labor are precisely the sort of people who don’t like capitalism as a system.  Social democrats, Christian socialists, and Catholic integralists (all different tribes, mind) are the sort of people who will complain about this phenomenon, and suggest that the fact that the Market does not remunerate such labor indicates something deeply wrong with society.  And yet the implication that all things of value have a market value seems to be precisely the sort of low economic thinking that capitalism is supposed to inculcate.  So it is odd to see the critics of unpaid labor insisting that it become paid, that is, capitalized, as if that would unequivocally make women’s lot better.  But that is still not really an argument against advocates of paying for unpaid labor; after all, the market may be evil but necessary for survival, n’est-ce pas?

My third thought is perhaps closer to an argument, though I cannot claim it is a very good one.  If anything of value deserves to be compensated for, where is the government program to remunerate me for this splendid blog?  Or, if you do not especially care for my wisdom and style, pick your own favorite underpaid artistic-cum-philosophical talent.  If we are going to insist that mothers, in return for their (indubitable) sacrifices and contribution to society deserve government support, then why not say the same for other people who sacrifice and contribute to society?

Again, that’s not a great argument; I can think of reasons why families are special.  (New people trump just about every other awesomeness out there, even if said awesomeness is as great as the Sistine Chapel; also, it can be harder to tell the difference between great art and kitsch, but it’s easy to tell the different between person and not-person.  Ahem.)

But here I think is a slightly better argument, in the form of a reductio ad absurdum.  I know one couple (out of the thousands of people I know) who from their early dates knew that the woman wanted to keep her career and the man wanted to be a stay-at-home dad.  Now, years later, they are married with (so far) one child; and the arrangement holds, and both are (to the best of my knowledge) happy.  This is not a common arrangement, but there are certainly other households like this one.  So should we agree to pay the stay-at-home dad for his unpaid bottle feeding, diapering, cooking, etc.?  Indubitably.

But let’s expand the instances.  I know several families where the man, despite being the sole or the main breadwinner, is also the cook and grocery shopper for the family.  This traditionally female work is part of what the unpaid labor folks would like to see compensated.  So in these households, can we agree that the man should receive that portion of the government check which in other households goes to the woman?  Well, probably.  But things are getting dicey now—after all, how exactly do you calculate what percentage of time goes to those chores versus all the rest?

Let’s take this up a notch.  Even in very patriarchal or traditional families it is usual for certain chores to be reserved to the men.  Mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, repairing broken fixtures and furnishings are traditionally male activities—and unpaid.  Also common in many highly traditional families of my acquaintance is the custom of Daddy Does Bedtime, whereby the man of the house (again, despite being the breadwinner) takes over the last hour of the children’s day, supervising toy cleanup, reading the bedtime story, changing the last round of diapers, brushing teeth, and putting on pajamas.  So again, if we’re going to start paying for unpaid labor, can we agree that dads who chop their family’s firewood and get young Rocky down for the night deserve a cut too?

Hoo boy, I can’t wait to fill out those tax returns.

Here’s the thing about marriage.  When two people get married, if they have any sense, they talk this stuff over beforehand.  They figure out pretty quickly who’s going to work, how much, what’s going to happen with children (if and when they come) and also what the plan is if no children come.  The couple becomes a team, and decides these things as a team, and lives them as a team.  Sometimes there will be adjustments along the way (indeed, there is always some adjusting for unforeseen circumstances); but the idea that in these modern times American women get shanghaied into loads of unpaid labor is ludicrous.  The man, in effect, by supporting the woman, pays her.  Lots of women whom I know, indeed, handle the family finances in whole or in part—and yes, I know being an unpaid CPA is also unpaid labor, but it means that IF the woman wants to treat herself, she can, easily.  We are not living in some weird 1950s dystopian simulation were most wives have to beg their husbands for pin money (which was something women have traditionally earned themselves anyway; but that’s another blog post).

That, fundamentally, is why I find the whole concept of unpaid labor weird.  It treats the woman as if she were an individual wholly separate from her husband, someone victimized by being forced into a position of serfdom, instead of as an adult who, together with her husband, made a decision—one might say formed a contract—about how they were going to divvy up their time and efforts.

In fact, unpaid labor folks, while they clearly want to restore some dignity to women and indeed to all parents, are (I do believe unintentionally) falling prey to the very sort of individualistic narratives that they deplore in other contexts.

None of this is to say that there shouldn’t be help for struggling families from the government.  Milton Friedman’s reverse income tax is a conservative version of this, EITCs are another; if you want more middle-of-the-road proposals there are things like the Romney family plan.  The progressive left has its own ideas.  Policy arguments are fun; this isn’t a policy argument.

This is an argument about your philosophy of the family, and what the family is, and what it isn’t.  And the bottom line is that if you are thinking about the family and its day-to-day functioning in terms of capital and labor, then—whether you love capitalism or you hate it or find yourself in a conflicted space between the two emotions—you might want to rethink your philosophy.

Rosie's linkup! :

Friday, March 12, 2021

Equality, Equity, and the Law

 It's been entertaining seeing progressives and conservatives battle over the term "equity" in recent weeks.  As used by progressives, it's an alternative to "equality"; roughly, it suggests that without "equality of outcome" assertions of of "equality of opportunity" are spurious.

Being a conservative, I find this doubtful as a blanket statement.  I am reluctant, for instance, to say that until the numbers of male and female professional mathematicians are equal (equality of outcome) men and women must not have equal opportunity to become mathematicians.  This sort of claim--a necessary corollary to the broad notion of "equity"--is risible.

But there is something that the progressives are getting at nonetheless.  It is this.  One can fall into the trap of assuming that because there are no overt legal barriers to achieving thing, the opportunities to achieve that thing are equal.  Thus, for instance, some people (generally on the right, generally on the more libertarian fringe of the right) are willing to stake out the claim that the young black man growing up in Ferguson, Missouri has the same opportunity of going to Harvard and becoming president as the young white man growing up in Great Falls, Virginia.  Such a claim is also risible.  So one can understand why progressives want to do something to address the problem.

I don't think the answer is equity, however, in part because it is being defined in an overly broad way--see the previous paragraph.

That being said, some of the conservative concern over the use of the term "equity" might be better deployed not towards scorning its use, but rather towards inquiring into what a better definition of the term might be.

*waves from DissertationLand*

Equity, in its early uses in English legal and political contexts, is derived in the main from a certain Greek word, epikeia.  One finds it in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas respectable folks like that.  The idea, as embraced by Aristotle and the early English legal thinkers who (some directly and many indirectly) influenced the American founding was roughly that the law being necessarily full of generalities, it will not always apply to particular cases very well.  To put it another way, human laws are meant as particularizations of natural law or natural justice or (if you insist upon using the cringe-worthy word) "fairness"; but sometimes (human language and so forth being what they are) a positive law will not in fact serve the natural law but conflict with it.  For instance: the laws of France may state that stealing is a crime punishable by hard labor; but if a man is starving and "steals" a loaf of bread to feed himself or his family, he may be in technical violation of the law (depending upon how the statute is worded) but is not in fact in violation of natural law, since taking what one needs in the case of hunger is not, in fact, stealing.

In Ye Goode Olde Dayes (which of course never quite existed, but of which we used at least to have a better theory than at present) this sort of case was supposed to come before the land's supreme justice, i.e., the King.  And the King, if he was a Good King, was supposed to hear the case of Jean Valjean and say that while in legal justice Jean might be guilty, EQUITY--that is, attentiveness to the higher and more divine law of nature, before which all human laws should bow--required that Jean go free.

That is the old meaning of equity.

Here is the hitch with the modern progressive adaptation.

The whole point of equity was that it was understood as an exception to the law.  Law itself aims at the general good; equity is an exception made when the law intended for the good does not in fact in this particular instance serve the good.

If you generalize equity into a system, you are no longer talking about equity in any meaningful sense.  You have simply created another law.  That may not be a bad thing; but it is not equity.  And the idea that equity could be universalized, so that there is no need for special occasional acts of super-equity (if you will) is (pardon my use of the term again) risible.  It is the whole fault of the progressive project, however, that they think such a system is feasible, much as it is the fault of the conservative project (one I would not exchange for the other side's best virtue) to pessimistically insist that no such system is possible.

Having poured so much cold water on the modern "equity" scheme, it seems only fair that I offer an alternative.  Frankly, my answer is simple: let there be more ancient equity.  Give judges more room to be lenient--but not to be stricter--when they consider the laws too harsh.  Give employers and college admissions boards legal protection for being more diverse.  Let private institutions practice equity as they see fit; and let government bodies make it a part of their proceedings.

I am none too certain we are all that far off from this state of affairs at the present moment.  The fact that we are nevertheless very far from equality of outcome, from the earthly paradise, may suggest to some that my proposal is insufficient.  Being a conservative, I am inclined to suggest in reply that we simply wait it out and see how things are in another fifty years.  But I am neither hopeful nor afraid of being taken seriously.

Friday, March 5, 2021

What the Mule Doesn't Prove

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoy Radiolab.  It's an interesting podcast (though to be fair, I haven't listened much in years).  That being said, quite a few of their priors are in pretty direct opposition to my own.

For instance, there is a certain tendency--exhibited in a recent episode--in the modern mind to argue that borderline cases prove that it is impossible to really distinguish between the ends of spectra.  Thus, for instance, the existence of intersex conditions proves that legal or cultural distinctions between men and woman are meaningless, or unfair, or impractical, or some such thing.

Now there is no doubt that intersex conditions are special cases, requiring (it is quite likely) special legal treatment.  But they do not in and of themselves render irrelevant existing distinctions between men and women.  The existence of the mule does not prove that the distinction between the horse and the donkey is useless.  It only proves that if the tax on a donkey is two sous, and the tax on a horse is three, the legislator must come up with some different way of assessing the tax on the mule, rather than trying to pretend it is either a horse or a donkey.

Mutatis mutandis, as they say.

Blog linkup here:

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Last Jot or Tittle

It's striking that after the revolutionary beatitudes, Our Lord sums up with some reactionary-sounding language, almost as if he wants to be sure no one gets the wrong idea.  He is not coming to abolish the law, but to fulfill it; indeed, Amen quippe dico vobis, donec transeat caelum et terra, jota unum aut unus apex non praeteribit a lege, donec omnia fiant.

A jot, or to use the Greek equivalent, an iota is the lowercase letter i.  A tittle (in the Vulgate, apex) is the dot on top of the i, or an equivalent diacritical mark.

It's easy to see why, given the alphabetic metaphor, interpretations of the statement tend to revolve around the written law of the Old Testament.  Catholic priests giving homilies will frequently assure their congregations that Jesus's words don't mean we need to (say) rid our fridges of bacon, perform the ritual purifications that Hassidic Jews still use before meals, observe Shabbat, etc., etc.  What Jesus means is that the sensible parts of the law, the real parts of Old Testament law, like the ten commandments, are not going to pass away.

One can forgive both Jews and atheists for finding such convenient and seemingly ad hoc divisions between "real" and "unreal" parts of Old Testament practice unconvincing!

After all, while the ten commandments have a unique role in Judeo-Christian tradition, Jesus never actually refers to them--though he does refer to the two great commandments to love God and neighbor.  Why not assume that those two are the "real" law, the law that doesn't pass away?  Or, on the other hand, if the ten commandments are critical, why should we not assume that the penalties for violating them (such as the death penalty for blasphemy--a penalty which, unlike the one for adultery, Jesus's actions never seem to abrogate) are still parts of the real law, the law that matters from a Divine perspective?

One can of course sort these things out.  But a sorting out of which parts of the Old Testament are key and which are not, from a Christian perspective, inevitably ends in appeals to what pre-modern and early-modern English thinkers called "the law of reason," or "the natural law."

And since that is the case, I wonder whether one might not cut to the chase and assume that Our Lord, when we speaks of the law which alters not one jot or tittle, is indeed speaking of the law of nature in its broad sense, the one that includes human nature and the moral codes that can be deduced from it.

This coheres of his otherwise arbitrary and seemingly hyperbolic statement that "until heaven and earth pass away" the smallest parts of the law will remain.  Nature's law remains as long as nature remains; when earth passes away, and earthly natures are changed or ended, then indeed the natural law will pass away.  The natural law will not pass away until, as is suggested in those even more puzzling words, omnia fiant, until "all be fulfilled," or, perhaps more literally, until "all is done."  Until--to steal language from another part of the New Testament--it is finished.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

If the Salt Loses Its Flavor

Part of my Lent entails going back to the New Testament, and since Matthew practically leads with the Sermon on the Mount, I’m already reading about how to be blessed and how not to be.

Vos estis sal terrae. Quod si sal evanuerit, in quo salietur? ad nihilum valet ultra, nisi ut mittatur foras, et conculcetur ab hominibus.

I’ve always thought the bit about throwing the salt out was oddly harsh.  Not oddly harsh for the New Testament—there is fire and brimstone in there too—but harsh in the context.  After all, Jesus says nothing about, oh, pouring unused lamp oil into the gutter, or breaking a lamp hidden under a bushel  into potshards.  Then it hit me today: he doesn’t really say the salt is useless.  He says it is tasteless (evanuerit); but that doesn’t as far as I know imply (at least not to a premodern mind) that it loses its other chemical properties.

Salt in the ancient (and not so ancient) world was scattered over the land of one’s enemies or of condemned traitors; it was more difficult to farm the salted area, and thus symbolized the complete rejection of the persons who had inhabited it.  Given that background, it’s not hard to imagine the fate of the tasteless salt as being to serve in precisely this purificatory way: to be cast on the ground, and trodden on (mittatur foras, et conculcetur), that is, to be worked into the soil by those who pass over it, until both the bad salt and the bad soil have worked themselves out (as it were).

If this is the right way to understand the lines, then it has interesting implications for the salt-and-light metaphor.  When a Christian loses their “flavor,” it’s not as if God just says, “Oh, well, there goes Molly.  Time to try another one.”  God is nothing if not a recycler.  When a Molly the Christian becomes tasteless, he puts her to another use: she becomes, in some sense, a fertilizer for in hospitable soils.  Nor does this need to be a mutually punitive exercise: both Tasteless Molly and the people she rubs up against can still find their redemption in the unpleasant process.

But it is so much more pleasant to cooperate in an artistic project than to be used for one unwittingly!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Tribes, Traitors, and “A Bargain for Francis” (III)

One of the highlights of the Platonic dialogues is the Socratic distinction (in the Meno) between right opinion and knowledge.  It’s easy to hold a true opinion about something; it’s less easy to know why what you hold is true, and to be able to defend it.  But it is crucial, because only the habit of wanting to know why a thing is true enables you to actually guard against false but attractive opinions masquerading as “right.”

(The irony is that Socrates, who claims to give himself wholly to truth and good arguments, can be remarkably shifty in the actual logical structure of his argumentation.  But that is another topic for another day.)

If we all approached our potential “friends” in the world of internet content as if our primary identity were “truth seeker,” rather than this or that other value that we hold, I suspect we’d all be a lot happier.  We might even discover a renewed tolerance for our real life friends who, being human, will occasionally disagree with us, and still deserve our trust for all that.

I am, of course, proposing—seemingly against the moral of “A Bargain for Francis”—that it is sometimes better to be careful than to be friends.  But since the proposal concerns not real human beings, but what passes for them on the internet, I am not sure that the author of this urtext of human wisdom would actually disapprove.

Linkup here:

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Tribes, Traitors, and “A Bargain for Francis” (II)

But the choice to be friends is not the antidote to tribalism; it can, of course, be implicated in tribalism as well.  When we become friends with someone in real life—a spouse, a family member, a kindred spirit—that friendship means trusting them.  But such friendships inevitably go through a period of vetting.  Adults know that every potential friend is also a potential Thelma (a lesson Francis learns to her grief), and so it rightly takes a while to figure out how reliable another person is.  In romance, this is called courtship; but of course there are equivalents in platonic friendships and work situations as well.

But for whatever reason, this slow process rarely takes place in extrapersonal contexts.  If, for instance, I encounter an opinion maker, or a website, or a news outlet, or a social media page—in other words, a thing which is primarily spewing content, however much it may be dominated by a given personality—I am liable to latch in and trust rather quickly.  It starts when the content agrees with me; and as the content agrees and thereby flatters me, I am apt to spend more and more time with it.  And since content providers make their money and/or get their good feels from getting more clicks, they continue to turn out content that flatters me more and more.  They become, in essence, my best friend.

Except, of course, they haven’t really proven themselves trustworthy.  When a person you know shows signs of being false, it’s rarely a one-off.  There are repeated signals and, eventually, even if you ignored some of the signals (usually because they also involved flattering, i.e., agreeing with you) you will eventually pick up the scent of falsity, and the incipient friendship will wear thin.  But when a content provider shows signs of being false, we rarely recognize it, because, well, they are in agreement with us all the time, unlike a real human being.  They are permanently comforting.  They are better than our best friend.

It’s almost unavoidable that this should happen, to all of us.  We’re all drawn to agreement with ourselves; a source that provides constantly agreeable content will therefore be constantly agreeable.  The only way I know to deal with this is to be very careful about what we hold and value, such that what we find agreeable is limited.

For instance: I hold a good many things to be true, but I have varied degrees of certainty about them.  I hold my religious beliefs, for instance, more firmly than my political ones.  But this by itself only means that I am less likely to be seduced by political friendtraps than by religious friendtraps.  Real resistance to being freindtrapped comes with being deeply committed to the pursuit of truth.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Tribes, Traitors, and “A Bargain for Francis” (I)

My kids love the books “Bread and Jam for Francis” and “A Bargain for Francis”—part of a series about a young female badger and her humanoid life.  Lately the latter book has been on request multiple times a day, allowing yours truly ample opportunity to perfect my Oscar-nominated voice performance as the scurrilous friend/villain Thelma.

After Thelma tricks Francis into a one-sided “bargain,” Francis cleverly pulls the wool over Thelma’s eyes in turn, winning her own back, leading Thelma to remark that she will “have to be careful” when she plays with Francis from now on.  (The author is fully cognizant of the irony and hypocrisy involved, even if not all child readers fully grasp them.)  Francis replies to the effect that it is not as fun being careful as being friends, and poses the book’s central question: “Would you rather be careful, or would you rather be friends?”

Of course, we’d all rather be friends.  To be able to trust those we meet and whose posts and blogs and editorials we read, whose radio shows and podcasts we hear—is pleasant.  And that, I think, is one of the reasons why human beings end up behaving in tribal ways.  Explanations for tribalism usually are negative, running the gamut from religious remarks about original sin to Machiavellian realpolitik observations regarding safety in ideological sameness to scientific accounts about the evolutionary origins of mistrust for the Other.  Most accounts explain tribalism as bad; and tribalism, as usually defined, is certainly pernicious, if also (again, as usually defined) ineradicable.

But there is something bigger than tribalism—I won’t call it the light side of tribalism; that gives tribalism too much credit—which is simply the desire for human connection, the desire to be able to trust and be at ease with others—the desire that the other be not Other but rather (to steal a page from Martin Buber) Thou.

So we make the choice to be friends.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

To Ash or Not to Ash

It's entertaining, in ordinary times (not to be confused with "Ordinary Time") to listen to the Ash Wednesday Gospel, where Our Lord talks about not letting your fasting appear before men, and then get a big ole' prominent cross smeared on one's forehead.

Then again, the first and second readings are about public professions of faith.  The first reading, Joel 2:12-18, talks about repentance and a fast, but one that is to be proclaimed to "the multitude" by trumpets; the second reading (from 2 Corinthians) is about Christians being "ambassadors for Christ."

So which is it?  Are we to be public about our religious practices, as the readings suggest, or private, as Jesus's words might seem to imply?

The obvious answer is that it depends.  What Jesus warns against is making one's religious practices a point of pride, a way of suggesting to those who witness them that one is, in fact, better than they.  If you're getting your ashes to look good to your coworkers, Catholic or otherwise, you run afoul of his admonition.  The same goes for any religious version of virtue signaling (and indeed, for virtue signaling itself!).

In fact, to use a religious practice as a way of showing off one's virtue is precisely not the right way to be an ambassador for Christ.  Fasting, almsgiving, and praying so everyone can see how observant you are is ... not Christlike.

Yet neither is it Christlike to act as if Christ has no part in our lives.  If his relationship with us really is the most important part of our lives, we'd expect it to show to others: both in terms of our being a kind person, and in terms of our having about us from time to time the physical paraphernalia of religion.  One would expect a Christian to, for instance, sometimes read from a Bible or other religious book; expect them to take some time off around Easter and Christmas to worship; one would expect a Catholic to make it to daily Mass sometimes, or have a rosary or crucifix in their pockets or at their place of work, or, well, have ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday.  Not because these things prove our holiness, but because part of being an ambassador for Christ means not hiding the fact that you belong to him.

Blog linkup:

Sunday, February 14, 2021

This Is Another Bad Argument, or, Uninformed and Unfiltered Thoughts about Child Tax Credits

The Romney plan has been critiqued by (if memory serves) AEI, and Romney's fellow senator Mike Lee, but praised by Lyman Stone.  The reasons are complicated, and the internet will no doubt yield up its details to you (translation: I am too time-pressed to look for good links right now, and too scrupulous to tack in subpar ones).  But to prepare you for your own research, and your duty of forming a personal opinion on the matter--and I do think, unlike many things, it is worth your time to consider this sort of issue, so as to better decide what sort of candidates to support--let me point out one really bad argument.

AEI (and others) have raised skeptical brows at the plan for its potential to reduce employment, via subsidizing parents with young children.  Translation: if you give people who have children more money, they are likely to work less, and spend more time with said children.

Now I quite understand that we don't want a world in which having children is so lucrative that people have more children--children they may even proceed to neglect--just so that they can sit back and live the good life on government checks.  I am quite aware of the potential pitfalls of welfare--as I am of the necessity for some sort of welfare system.  (Hello, Catholic Church and others ...)

But criminitly, folks, is it really so terrible if our GDP goes down because parents are spending more time with their kids?  Really???  If, I dunno, dad and mom are both making 20K each, and neither can afford to stop working, so their three wee tots end up in cheap after-school activities year-round ... is it really so bad if an extra 10K from the government enables one of them to quit work, cancel those activities, and spend the after-school time going on long walks as a family?

"Reduce employment," forsooth!

That, my friends, is a Bad Argument.

Unless, of course, you have another argument prepared for why, exactly, Employment As High As Possible is the best thing since sliced bread.  You'd still be wrong, of course; but your argument would be a darn sight better.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Halloween Option

 N.B. The title of this post is the one I originally gave the piece, and not the one the editor chose for it (see link).  As all writers know, editors have this privilege!  Usually I would simply go with what an editor gives me, even on my personal blog; but in this case, since the title chosen made (unintentionally) nearly the opposite point to what I was trying to make ... well, here you are.  You can decide for yourself whose title was better.

Over the last few years there has been an acceleration of a trend dating back at least to the late 1700s: a liberal concern with a perceived illiberal tendency in religion. From Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published 1776–1789) to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea that religion is peculiarly likely to promote oppression has remained a regular contributor to debates about the nature of a good society.

Certainly religion has colored many a military conflict; there are also myriad conflicts involving people fervently devoted to the same religion. Which of these two facts is the more scandalous to religion itself is a fair question. Yet even without religion, the world has consistently managed to upset itself, as the 20th century proved.

Nevertheless, the specter of fundamentalist government haunts some opinion makers. Recently Katherine Stewart explored Josh Hawley’s religiosity in a New York Times article, “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage.” Stewart, who has made an extensive study of the religious right, worries that “Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.” She draws this conclusion from Hawley’s critique of Pelagius, who held (in her characterization of Hawley’s analysis) “that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.” This Pelagianism redux is found (Stewart reports Hawley as arguing) in Anthony Kennedy’s suggestion that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992).

According to Hawley, the idea that human beings have complete power of choice over their own lives is dangerous; according to Stewart, Hawley’s is the truly dangerous idea.

Both ideas are dangerous, of course. But of the two, it is Hawley’s which (whatever its latent link to fundamentalist tyranny) has more purchase in reality.

Every society restricts how people can live their lives. Asserting a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is one such restriction — when the Declaration of Independence claims these rights for my neighbor, they deny me the right to define my own concept of ideal existence as piratical. Now of course, laws against murder, slavery and theft do seem at first blush to be reasonable exceptions to the absolute freedom desired by Pelagius, Kennedy and Stewart — after all, it is only fair that my freedom to choose how to live my life should not infringe upon my neighbor’s equivalent freedom.

But we hardly stop at this libertarian ideal. Depending on where in America you live, you may find yourself in a neighborhood that bans smoking, littering, public drunkenness, public indecency, threatening language, driving on the wrong side of the road, jaywalking, making too much noise, having a house of the wrong colors, certain types of yard displays (political, seasonal or religious) and failing to wear a mask. In fact, as a society we are constantly infringing upon each other’s liberties.

Read the rest at the Register:

Saturday, February 6, 2021

"A Pirate, Horror!"

These days my children have become fascinated by Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.  This follows a previous fascination with The Mikado, only suspended temporarily because their parents had a severe case of earworm.  But I can only recommend: nothing is more hilarious than hearing one's small children trot around humming "Defer to the Lord High Executioner" or rollicking like a band of, well, pirates.

Which brings me to my point.  The version of The Mikado that we use is the excellent Stratford production referred to on these pages before.  I have yet to find a version of Pirates (including Stratford's) that quite does the same trick.  The Papp version, while hilarious in its way, is far too screechy (particularly the women's choruses) to be the sort of soundtrack that I want on a daily basis; as much to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the kids found the mugging and singing a bit much.  (Good for them, I say!  The time for gross parody will come soon enough.)

So we've tried out a number of Pirates, and settled on one by a minor company that's good "in the usual way, if you know what I mean, Pooh," but not great.  And so it struck me the other day, hearing those "Rough men" declare that they lead a "Rough, rough" life--I've been exposed to a number of productions of the operetta now, and seen a whole range of talents, from the exceedingly amateurish to the highly polished.  I've seen good and bad Mabels, Fredericks, Major Generals, Policemen, and choristers.  What I have never seen, however, is a bad pirate.  The pirates are always excellent.  There's just something about playing a pirate that makes even a college freshman, not really interested in choir, but urged on by heaven knows what incipient girlfriend, mother, or sainted aunt, to--put on his best effort?

Or is it be himself?

Men: the by-nature-piratical sex.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Regulation of Social Networks Qua Public Utilities (IV)

Or, a cadenza on section 230. 

One of my other friends commented on the original series post to the effect that section 230 (specifically, the Wikipedia entry thereon) is an illuminating commentary on the social media speech situation.  He’s right.

Essentially, section 230 says that internet service providers (ISPs) are not publishers, and thus cannot be sued for some of the things for which publishers are liable.  As I understand it, however, this in no way prevents ISPs from in fact acting like publishers.  Facebook doesn’t have to remove libelous information that a random user posts about a random citizen—so section 230 says—because Facebook isn’t a publisher.  But Facebook also can, if it wants to, remove that libelous information, if it decides “in good faith” that doing so is the right move from a business standpoint, a moral standpoint, whatever.

Perhaps that’s an overly naïve reading of the law; perhaps I am missing something.  Certainly it is a bit rich that some of the same companies that started out by protesting that they can’t possible regulate everything posted through them are now hands-on about regulating certain things.  (But are they actually the same companies?  Was Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube instrumental in passing section 230 initially?  Were those companies around in 1996/7?)

Regardless, however, I fear I don’t see how section 230 protects users from rule-happy social media bureaucrats.

And I say this as someone who posted (in what context made clear was jest) something derogatory about “men,” and got censored by Facebook as a result (and lost the appeal, no less).  So … here we are on my *cough* Google-hosted blog.

I wish I had a happier ending to this series but, baring more interesting remarks from my wonderful gallery, that’s all, folks.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Regulation of Social Networks Qua Public Utilities (III)

But that brings back the first point: why should anyone care whether I, or anyone else, has a voice on social media at all?  As my friend puts it …

Even if every media company cancelled you and I, it would not be an abridgment of our freedom of speech, because some interested person (or some company acting as a juridic person, as we might say) has a right not to associate with us.

The media of the 19th century was scandalous, in its manifest bias, slander, and disregard of truth, as such. It is not as though the government acting as arbiter began to change that. It was the people's own desire for truth, and competition among news providers, which brought accountability. Why would we need a public social media company? Do we have a need for a publicly-controlled free-for-all forum?

I don’t know if we *need* a publicly-controlled free-for-all forum, but in point of fact we (sort of) have one: literally, there are public squares.  There are city parks and street corner were people can (and do) get up on soapboxes and speak about the end of the world and the next presidential election, and give out tickets to the Philharmonic concert series starting next spring.  And while these forums are largely free-for-all (I’ve heard some pretty crazy things on street corners!) they are to a certain extent controlled: the usual limits on public speech and dress and behavior apply.

I’m actually not sure that free speech laws would have a whole lot of meaning if there weren’t public places in which we can freely speak.  If (say) the whole country were privately owned, like in Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and various yakuzas and mafiosi could determine who was allowed to say what on their respective and, collectively, all-encompassing territories, I’m not sure that situation would actually involve a first amendment right anymore, whatever technically remained on the books.  (It is ironic that this libertarian paradise—well, a paradise for a certain brand of libertarian—would actually end up rendering moot one of the libertarian’s favorite bits of constitutional law.)

Right now, we aren’t exactly in that situation with the internet.  It isn’t a limited bandwidth situation; anyone with the requisite money to host a website and the requisite skills to set one up can do so.  But it’s quite a bit harder (and more costly) than walking out to the corner of 10th and Main used to be.  And yet, these days—at least where I live—walking out to the corner of 10th and Main is somewhat frowned upon; and no one will listen, since everyone else is indoors (except for the indefatigable dogwalkers who, however, just keep on going and going).  And so one is relegated to one’s little blog, with its 3.7 readers, for saying anything interesting—or else to those social media companies, which offer soapboxes widely, but have the right indeed to withdraw them at any time.

Tl:dr, I do not think there is any reason that social media companies are obliged to give me a soapbox, much less that the government is obliged to make them give me one; I have no rights in the matter.  But I do think the situation of a regulated social media realm is a bit closer to a private square than might at first blush appear.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Regulation of Social Networks Qua Public Utilities (II)

A friend remarked on the last post (The Girl Who Was Saturday: An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Regulation of Social Networks Qua Public Utilities (I)) as follows:

I'm not sure how at all a media company of any sort is like a public utility. It's not as though what they provide is a finite resource, that might be considered necessary for living (under certain conditions). Even if every media company cancelled you and I, it would not be an abridgment of our freedom of speech, because some interested person (or some company acting as a juridic person, as we might say) has a right not to associate with us.

Taking the second part of the first paragraph first, it’s quite true that a person’s cancellation by every media company on earth would not be an abridgment of freedom of speech.  It would be irritating, inconvenient, and (if we had done nothing wrong) a violation (I think) of natural justice; but certainly it would not violate the Constitution.  This, indeed, is part of why I dubbed my proposal immodest: because I don’t believe it’s actually necessary.  Then again, very little legislation *is* necessary.

Nor, indeed, is social media a finite resource.  And if regulation of it were not in the offing, I would say: let a thousand flowers bloom.  Let a thousand websites arise, and let them be as scandalous as you please.  It’s the looming specter of regulation, which risks helping the incipient monopolies become precisely that, which makes me suggest government buy out as an alternative that might be actually *less* likely to allow them to become monopolies.  Nor am I under the illusion that such a buyout would protect my speech on the bought forum: I am quite as likely to be cancelled by the putative Office of Social Media Services as by a Zuckerbergette.  But the chance that an alternative forum, where I could “speak,” might then flourish would be greater, I think, if the government owned the primary forum.  It’s a crackpot, half-baked idea, admittedly.

To be continued.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Facing the Right Direction

 Monsignor at Mass yesterday told an entertaining story: while he was in Rome, he was nearly involved in a vehicular collision in a narrow alley.  The road was clearly marked one way, and the driver of the other car was attempting to satisfy this requirement by backing up.  "But my car was pointed in the right direction!" he insisted.

Monsignor's moral of course was that we Mass-goers are generally pointed in the right direction--we are at Mass, after all, and therefore in some sense paying attention to Jesus--but we are oftentimes in our lives headed backward, or so we find when we examine ourselves.

That's true enough, but I find myself too often facing a slightly different problem.  I become so focused on how to move forward that I forget to place the right value on facing the right direction--a devastating error, especially since it can be rather hard, on a day-to-day basis, to tell whether this direction is the right one at all.  But of course, all directions are right in the end, provided that one does, in fact, stay facing forward.

Not that Monsignor was wrong, but I think the lesson to take away from his tale is that in order to drive in the right direction, one must care much less about the direction and much more about facing forward.  (After all, that Roman driver, though his car might have made it look as if he were facing forward, no doubt had his head screwed right over his shoulder!)

Just Because linkup:

Saturday, January 23, 2021

On Pilgrimage With a New Catholic Poet

It is not every day that a new poetry collection is published — the bar is high enough, in the contracting publishing world, for nonfiction authors to break out. Poetry, deemed less accessible and with a smaller readership, is in a little league all of its own.

So it is a bit shocking to see Andrew Calis’ Pilgrimages lying on my desk: because new poetry does have that high bar to pass. This particular volume is more startling because I know the author. He and I belonged to a group of English graduate students at The Catholic University of America who workshopped each other’s writing. My praise should, under the circumstances, be taken with a grain of salt; but I think it is no exaggeration to say that Andrew’s work deserves to be read, even in a time when poetry in general is not.

It is almost hard to recall why anyone ever did read poetry. Most generally, poetry shares with the other arts the ability to evoke strong feelings, and that mysterious, perhaps transcendental quality called beauty. But the sort of feelings that used to be evoked by the strongest poetry are found today, if anywhere, in popular music. One does not seek sonnets to lament a broken friendship, but rap.

As for beauty — beautiful songs are still written — but those who speak most persistently about the beautiful are also, frequently, those who seem to find it chiefly in the old. Beauty, after all, depends in part upon the form, and that most modern of “forms,” free verse, is supposed to have no form at all.

But there is a school of modern poetry that has not in fact abandoned form altogether. One does not need to go to Shakespeare for a sonnet, or Tennyson for rhyme:

A fight was in the air before the first

fist, when knife-sharp words were flying. We hunted

for predators, tooth-bared faces, cursing

in their heads, their unstained skin youth-stunted.

Read the rest at the Register:

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Righting the Wrongs of Josh Hawley (II)

I realize that yesterday I did something that drives me crazy when other writers do it: namely, I dug into the overly simple solutions that other people offer (e.g., embrace modern, liberal, pluralistic secularism; yearn for a confessional state) and decreed them lacking, elaborated further upon the complicated situation in which we find ourselves, and said nothing, much less anything concrete, about a solution to the problem.  Sound and fury, indeed!

A longer explore of my answer is forthcoming, but since it may take some time to appear, here is the seed of a solution to our civic conundrum: we need more Halloweens.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Righting the Wrongs of Josh Hawley

I’ve been thinking about this NY Times piece on Josh Hawley ( ever since it was called to my attention last week.  I’ve mulled it over and round and again and again, and it tells me very little more about Hawley than I already knew.

But it does tell me a good deal about were religion is in America today: namely, poised between two pretty terrible fates.

On the one hand, there is the caricaturish fate of religion in the hands of those who want to anoint public leaders as Messiahs.  Some who see this happening (generally of the left) fear (or feared) that this will all come too true: that we’d end up living in a veritable handmaid’s tale of biblically-inspired tyranny.  Yet to any person with much religiosity in them, it was evident that this was never a likely fate.  The Christianity being preached by those in public office was hardly deep enough for that.  Religion was in danger of becoming empty of content.

On the other hand, there is the opposite fate, when all meaningful moral content is seen as religious.  That indeed is what happens in Stewart’s piece on Hawley.  While taking sure aim at Hawley for brushing everything with religious strokes, she also indicates—via her attack on Hawley’s attack on Pelagius and Kennedy—that any judgement of another’s freedom to choose their way of life, or define their own concept of existence, is detrimental to a “modern, liberal, pluralistic societ[y].”

Now I admit, as a Catholic, a modern minority that has at various times and places enjoyed hegemony and persecution, I do enjoy many things about living in said modern, liberal, pluralistic society.  However, if Stewart is right that such societies are endangered every time we judge one another’s freedom to choose a way of life, or define another’s concept of existence, then they are not ultimately sustainable.  Fundamentally, every society involves certain basic rules: don’t infringe on other’s life and property, for example.  And if I choose a way of life that involves murder, robbery, and pillage, then my modern, liberal, pluralistic society has ever right (and indeed a duty) to clap me in irons (or at any rate, flexicuffs).

There are going to be some moral absolutes in any society, however liberal and pluralistic.  The trick is to getting everyone in society to agree on what those are.  And a lot of it can be trickier than we’re willing to acknowledge.  If my neighbor lights up on his porch every day, so that my kids are exposed to the smoke when the wind blows over our fence, do I have a claim against him?  Does it matter if it’s pot or tobacco?  We can all agree that people have a right to wear whatever they want in their house—but what about their front yard?  Are laws against “indecent exposure” legitimate in a modern, liberal, pluralistic society?  What about public drunkenness?  What about dressing in drag, then?  What about wearing a swimsuit to the grocery store?  What about going armed to the grocery store?  What about stalking?  What about verbal harassment?  What if I want to put a ten-foot-tall Jesus, or Santa, or Buddha, or Thomas Jefferson in my front yard?  Or toll church bells every hour on the hour, or have a Muslim-style call to prayer that can be heard down the block?  And who gets to define all of these things?

The simple libertarian answer to these questions usually goes something like, “owners of businesses get to make their own business rules, and everyone else gets to move if they don’t like the neighborhood.”  But as anyone who’s bought or sold a property knows, moving is much easier said than done; and for many people it may not be economically feasible to live in a neighborhood that manages to avoid, say, litter and tramps.  So we have laws about littering, and we build homeless shelters; and suddenly we’re living in a modern, liberal, pluralistic welfare state.

The point is simply this: the whole question of how I choose to live is not, never has been, and never will be simply based on my own ability to choose my own way of life and define my own concept of existence.  Simply by living I rub elbows with my neighbors; and indeed, the more pluralistic my society, the more questions are going to arise as to how much of a right I have to live my life the way I want to, because the more different my neighbors and I are—the more pluralistic my neighborhood is—the more likely it is that we will rub each other the wrong way.

(Disclaimer: In actuality, I have nice neighbors.  We all happen to be fairly quiet.  But it could easily have been otherwise.  A few blocks down the street, for instance …)

So Stewart’s shade on Hawley—whatever its justification in his specific case—is actually rather dangerous.  It suggests that the easy solution to the problems of the republic is for everyone to live and let live.  Maybe, if life is kept tamped down to a few very basic details.  But as soon as you think about the things we crazy human beings actually want to do, it becomes apparent that the problem is not that we all might be too religious.  It’s that we might not be religious enough to love our neighbors, and treat them well, despite the fact that we all have different definitions of existence and different modes of life.

Blog linkup here!:

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Regulation of Social Networks Qua Public Utilities (I)

Once again the prospect of regulating Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, et al. is being floated.  Are the companies best regarded as privately held entities like newspapers, whose curtailment and/or boosting of speech is protected ultimately by the first amendment?  Or are they, in essence, public utilities, and as such obliged to provide a neutral platform for all users, in much the same way that water, telephone, and electric companies are not supposed to discriminate amongst their customers?

It seems clear as mud to me that social media companies are a relatively new thing under the sun, and lie somewhere between those two characterizations.  It is by no means obvious to me that government regulation will improve the atmosphere on these sites, regardless of whether the perspective of a conservative, a liberal, or a progressive is sought in assessment.

This I do know, however: regulation tends to economically favor the big businesses that are regulated.  Call it crony capitalism, call it regulatory capture—it’s a very real historical problem.

Take an instance from the (sort of) non-profit world of higher education.  Let us say that a big Ivy League school like Schmarvard is not offering to its disabled students the premier software available to give them a good college experience.  And let us say that some advocacy group, with noble intentions, persuades congressmen to create a bill, which is in time duly passed, requiring that private colleges offer disabled students software of such-and-such a level and specifications.  Schmarvard does not really oppose this regulation; and some might suspect it simply does not want to be seen publicly doing something so cold-hearted.  But the fact is that Schmarvard knows that this regulation will make it easier to compete with (say) the small regional school Ptomas Smore—because Ptomas Smore College doesn’t have the deep pockets that Schmarvard has, and will have to shell out considerably more percentagewise of its budget, to fulfill this new regulation.  And furthermore, the regulation will have a dampening effect on any new college considering opening: it will mean one more item to raise money for, one more logistical detail to smooth out, one more software contractor to employ, half an office person in HR to oversee, etc., etc., and so forth.  Schmarvard one, small schools zero.  (Also a win for disabled students—except perhaps those disabled students who would have preferred to go to the small schools which won’t open up now due to the regulatory capture.)

In the same way, while it is tempting to demand that Facebook et al. be punished for their sins, I suspect that overall the regulation of social media companies will actually end up making it harder, not easier, for smaller and newer sites like MeWe, Parler, Gab, Rumble, etc.—or for anything better that might be coming down the pike.

So here is my immodest proposal.  Rather than regulating social media, the government should simply buy a few of the big guys and have done with it.

We have a government-controlled post office—and also the privately run FedEx and DHS.

We have government health care (Medicare, Medicaid)—and also private companies like Kaiser and BlueCross BlueShield.

We have PBS and NPR—and lots of privately owned radio and TV stations as well.

So why not just let the government have a big social media company to play with, to regulate, to make fair and balanced (*cough*), to have its own HHS-style agency in D.C., to stimulate talking points for the presidential primaries every four years—

—and leave room for private companies to grow and do as they please?

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Have Courage and Be Kind

Branagh's Cinderella (2015) was underrated at the time, and I have not rewatched it yet; but I suspect strongly that it holds up well to a second viewing.  The line I remember most vividly is the advice Cinderella's mother gives her, the line that Cinderella hangs on to through everything that happens afterwards: "Have courage and be kind."

That's a tough pair of commands to grasp, especially both together.  It's especially hard when one is afraid of what may happen next--politically, socially, culturally, medically, religiously ...

Nearly everyone I know who pays attention to current events is afraid right now.  It feels a bit like that scene in the Aeneid where the Trojans and Latins stand facing each other, ready for battle, but no one wants to start--and then some random goddess incites a random act of violence; and here we go.

There's not a whole lot one can do to ensure that such a thing won't happen: that we won't see a Selma, or a Tiananmen Square, or whatever your particular nightmare is.

Nonetheless, it's a bit facile to suggest that you stop having your nightmare (though cognitive behavioral therapy, or what one of my spiritual directors liked to call "spiritual jujitsu," works a lot better than some people give it credit for).

So, because it applies no matter how objectively horrible one thinks the present is and fears the future may be, the phrase I keep returning to is the one from Cinderella: "Have courage and be kind."

That pretty much covers it, from a human perspective.  Add in the divine motivation, and you're good to go.

Let the games begin; throw open the gates to the Coliseum.

Have courage, and be kind.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

What If This Were Real (II)

But let me take that up a notch.  I think in a deeper sense, the semi-pros in that Princess Ida production aren't actually doing what they would really do.  The entire premise of musical theater relies on the absurd idea that people break into song and dance at moments of high emotion, or really any emotion at all.  That's not our normal universe--that's a fantasy world.  Fantasy worlds operate by different rules.  In a fantasy world like that, people don't sing awesome music while staring at the audience or nodding casually to each other; when they're choristers, they don't pair or trio up at random as people do at parties.  They are always doing what the music does.

Age quod agis.

Breaking news: it may look to you as if you are living an ordinary life, but if you accept--really accept--the Christian message, you're actually in a fantasy land where every single mote and moment is choreographed by a masterful director.  You can, of course, ignore that, and end up getting moved around like a piece of scenery.  Or you could, you know, act.  You could work with the director.  You could actually pay attention to the music of the spheres.

It's tempting to say, "But I am doing what I would do if this were real--see, I gave up X for Lent, and said a nice thing to Y, and refrained from this habitual temptation."

That's fine, mon frères.  But all that is actually still just level one whispers and nods.  If you were really listening to the music, if you really thought this were real--all those little, isolated instances of reality would actually be connected and coordinated and, yes, choreographed (not be you, but obviously with your cooperation, consent, and input) into something much more tremendous.

In other words, if you really believed in God, you would be a saint.

Also, we'd have far more excellent Gilbert and Sullivan productions with which to educate our children.