What’s Wrong with the World

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The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

August 18, 2019

Government by algorithm

Matthew B. Crawford’s lengthy essay in the latest number of American Affairs, “Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy,” imposes heavy demands on the reader — it may require several cups of coffee, and it will certainly require setting aside your phone — but the slog is worth it.

The writer, a motorcycle mechanic who moonlights as a philosopher (or maybe it’s the other way around), unfolds a profound theory to explain, and to a certain degree defend, the populist revolts that have roiled politics around the world in recent years. He draws on many sources, but the most salient are interrelated developments in the technology sector and government. The argument, though very complex, might be summarized thusly: the technocratic effort to replace government by natural persuasion and consent, with government by rationalistic algorithm and nudge, has introduced a crisis of legitimacy, the resolution of which we cannot yet foresee.

Government by persuasion and consent, you see, results in an ineradicable untidiness. Persuasion may be conditional, consent may be refused; ornery men will stoneface the most perfect logical syllogism; the indecisive may withdraw consent at the most perfectly inopportune moment. The whole thing presents to the rationalistic mind an excruciating muddle. One does not often find deliberative assemblies — school boards, city councils, parliaments — filled up with trained engineers. One finds them filled up with lawyers; engineers often regard them as akin to torture.

The engineering mind, meanwhile, produced the algorithm. Therefore, government by algorithm is mechanistic, indeed automated. Its edicts emerge from behind an impenetrable veil of high-end mathematics backed by supreme computing power. As Crawford puts it, with sly understatement: “One reason why algorithms have become attractive to elites is that they can be used to install the automated enforcement of cut­ting‑edge social norms.”

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August 16, 2019

Finding that strange balance

The current political situation in the United States has created a climate that makes it difficult for someone who takes my positions to say much.

On the one hand, if I speak up about the severe evils of social and political leftism, if I emphasize the union of the social and the political "on the ground" in daily American life, everyone will assume that I am (not to put too fine a point on it) saying, "Vote Trump!" in not-so-subtly-coded language. Which I am not saying.

On the other hand, if I make it clear that, yes, even now in 2019 I call myself "Never Trump" and do not intend ever to vote for this particular candidate, if I make it clear that I still consider the current President to have no character and little knowledge and that I think that whatever good he has done has come from taking the advice of others, I invite all the utter, endless weariness of getting harangued about how not voting is "giving a vote" or "giving half a vote" to the Democrats, and so on, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. Which I refuse to get involved in debating. (Fun fact: I was arguing against all of that phony mathematics about "giving a vote to the other side" more than ten years ago, before it entered anyone's dreams that Donald Trump would ever run for President, much less that he would do so as a Republican.)

And unfortunately, back on the other hand, a phrase like "I'm Never Trump" has now come in some circles to mean, "I have a lot of sympathy with progressives" or "I'm not a really hard-line social conservative" or "I have contempt for anyone who voted for Trump or will do so in 2020," all of which are untrue of me, by a large margin. Notice to progressives and progressive fellow travelers: I'm probably just about as "deplorable" or more so on the policy issues you care about as the people you think you get to despise because they vote for Trump. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Either way, someone is likely to think that I'm signaling something I'm not signaling. And such accidental signaling can occur so easily. For example, my post about the "scale of not-so-niceness" might be taken to be a coded "Vote Trump!" post, since "not being too nice" is supposed to be part of what people are in favor of when they harangue you about how you have to Vote Trump. But that post wasn't saying that at all. This possibility of false signaling produces a curious kind of paralysis. It is tempting never to say anything again about any issue that could be deemed "political," but that would be a mistake as well.

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August 12, 2019

Social sadism

Someone on Facebook recently used the phrase "social sadism" for the use of coercion to make people affirm things that are manifestly absurd as a means of social control and never-ending revolution. This move is, of course, familiar to readers of 1984 in the famous, "How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?" scene.

I had, however, never heard that particular phrase, and it struck me as profound. In 2009 my small city passed an early version of a "sexual orientation and gender identity" law, with some of us die-hards fighting against it. Not long after it passed, the following story made the rounds: Two men visited a local department store and went to the women's clothing section, where a young lady was working. Taking a skirt off the rack, one of the men went into the women's changing room and tried on the skirt. As the story went, that wasn't all. He then came out, wearing the skirt, approached the young, female employee and asked her, "How does it look on me?"

That, my friends, is social sadism.

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August 4, 2019

JPII Institute on Marriage and the Family: RIP

The current papacy has been flexing its muscles and baring its teeth in ever more profoundly effective and visible ways in the last year or two. This can be seen in moves that are taken with abruptness, without “dialogue” or consultation, and right out in front of the public view. For example, In August of 2017, Dr. Joseph Siefert, a professor of a Catholic university in Spain, published a statement that included the comment that the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is an “theological atomic bomb”. He was fired from his position only a couple weeks later, apparently (so far as I have seen) without any folderol like a charge of misconduct, a hearing, or even notice to him beforehand that his position was being considered. The 2018 Synod on Youth was prepared and railroaded right from the beginning, with major names excluded from the invitation list because they were orthodox, and known heretics invited. The upcoming Amazonian Synod is just the same, only much more so.

All along the same lines: for the Apostolic John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family, Francis announced in 2017 that it would be abolished and that a new institute would succeed it. He at least bothered to give lip service to the idea that “the original inspiration that gave life to the former Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family continue to bear fruit in the broader field of activity of the new Theological Institute

Lip service indeed, but not any deeper. In fact, the Pope could have easily corrected any deficiencies in the old institute with ease by simply directing changes be made to it, and keeping its fundamental being and essence intact. But such was not the purpose. Francis, legally speaking, eradicated the old institute and created a brand new entity with almost but not quite the same name: the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science.

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July 30, 2019

Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson

Alright, this British PM is going to be fun to watch. How much of his persona as the Oxford don who’ll be happy to drink pints with you at 1am, is reality or an act, I cannot say. What I can say is that his off-the-cuff analysis of Churchill’s rhetorical strategies is brilliant. Have a look:



July 10, 2019

Is this the end for Vincent Lambert?

There has been yet another reversal by the French courts, this time in the direction of Vincent Lambert's death. He is now, according to news stories, being dehydrated to death, and his parents have given up hope. May God have mercy upon him and his parents, and may divine justice eventually overtake those who have sought his death.

On a more mundane note, I wish someone with the relevant knowledge would write about the precise legal situation in France and about what sort of precedent this is likely to set. How will Vincent's death be likely to change things? What would it take legislatively in France to prevent future killings of this kind? I have been impressed by the amount of support for Vincent's life among the French and would like to know more about where things are at both legally and culturally in the areas of euthanasia, death by dehydration for the disabled, and related issues.

July 8, 2019

The prophecy dilemma for literary device theorists

Recently Esteemed Husband and our friend Tom Gilson did a webinar for Apologetics Academy. I watched some of the livestream on Youtube. During such livestreams there is always some chat going on "on the side" in the comments, and this time a skeptic commentator was throwing in various questions, many of them irrelevant to what Tim and Tom were actually saying. One of his comments was something to this effect: Since the Gospel authors believed that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, wouldn't this have motivated them to invent things that never happened in order to be able to say that prophecy was fulfilled?

Since he is an outright skeptic, presumably he would have no qualms about saying that a Gospel author who did that was simply lying and was motivated by the desire to serve a religious cause by deceiving his audience. Still, one might ask him in that case why the evangelists believed in Jesus themselves, and in particular in his fulfillment of prophecy, if they knew that they had to invent things in order to "make" him fulfill prophecy. The skeptic would, one guesses, at that point have to fall back upon some generic statement to the effect that people, especially religious people, don't always think rationally about these things and may simultaneously believe in their religion and also believe that they are morally justified in lying to further it. Bart Ehrman has said this in so many words about early Christians. To my mind it is an unconvincing answer, particularly about the evangelists who were writing the very first memoirs of Jesus and claimed to have known him. At the founding of a religious movement, the distinction between "charlatan" and "sucker who listens to charlatan" is more stark and obvious, even to not-always-rational human beings. And if the evangelists were charlatans, their motivation is extremely difficult to figure out, given the initially low status and persecution of Christianity and the fact that they could have avoided much trouble for themselves had they not accepted and promoted Christianity.

But matters are difficult in a different way for the Christian literary device theorists whose work I am critiquing in my forthcoming books, The Mirror or the Mask and The Eye of the Beholder.

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June 29, 2019

The Lydia McGrew scale of Not-So-Niceness

We're bedeviled in every area of life by ambiguity. It seems as though everybody from the scholar to the pundit to the guy at the corner deli is unable or unwilling to make distinctions. One area out of innumerable areas where such ambiguity reigns is that of niceness. What does it mean to say that civility is optional, that someone is too nice, or that someone is not nice enough? You'd think that context would make it clear, but sometimes that's just what context doesn't do. When I hear someone saying chest-thumping things like, "We've been civil long enough. Civility is optional. So-and-so [some general] was not a nice guy! We need to stop being nice, because the other side is not nice," I can't help wondering if he means to endorse the vile things that are being done by those who self-identify with his political side and who use the very same rhetoric. Or does he really mean to say that moral failings in a leader such as cruelty, sexual promiscuity, or lack of conscience provide an inherent advantage in effective leadership? Sneering, "Nice guys finish last" is not very informative, and it does not inspire confidence in the good judgement of the speaker.

But on the other hand, when someone accuses (say) me of being mean in scholarly dispute and of personally attacking those I disagree with, I know that this isn't true. Sometimes the person making that complaint is using some conveniently hyper-sensitive definition of meanness and personal attack, engaging in grievance-mongering, and distracting attention from my scholarly arguments. Others have "caught" an unfortunate difficulty in handling straightforward language in analytical debate, so that they think that even saying, "This argument is completely wrong" is in and of itself unkind.

So I propose that we develop a scale of "not-so-niceness" and rank either our advocacy or accusations of not-niceness accordingly so that people know what we are talking about. Some of these categories shade into each other, and my examples are made up more or less off the top of my head, but some (particularly the two ends of the scale) are quite clearly distinct from each other.

Although I present this scale light-heartedly, I do seriously suggest that we shouldn't just go around either recommending or condemning vague categories like not-niceness but should use more specific terms and examples to be clearer.

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June 25, 2019

Choice (almost) devours itself--UK version

If you are on social media and pro-life, you have probably by now heard of the case in the UK in which an 11th-hour appeal has (for now) prevented a forced abortion. The pregnant mother is a mentally disabled African woman of the Nigerian Igbo tribe. Some news reports say that she has the mental capacity of a 6-9-year-old. Her mother cares for her and strenuously opposed the abortion, stating that she (the grandmother of the unborn child) is willing to care for the baby.

Apparently some "do-gooders" from the NHS, upon discovering the pregnancy, went to court for permission to carry out an abortion. Their rationale was that the pregnant woman's mother has her hands full caring for the woman herself and that it was plausible that the baby might be "taken into care" after birth--forcibly removed from the home to be placed into the foster system. The idea was that this would be more psychologically traumatic for the mentally disabled woman than having an abortion now. (She is 22 weeks along.) Hence, they alleged, an abortion was needed for her "psychological health."

Judge Nathalie Lieven agreed, ordering an abortion as in the mother's "best interests." The grandmother of the unborn baby immediately appealed, and a three-judge appeals panel has reversed the decision. Since abortion is legally harder to obtain in the UK after 24 weeks, it seems plausible that the baby's life has been saved.

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June 18, 2019

What if Jesus wants you to die?

On my drives to and fro around town I listen to a fundamentalist Christian radio station broadcast from Pensacola, FL. Long-time readers know that I love Southern Gospel music and hymns. The news at the heads of the hours is pretty objective and, at most, tends to report more on religious liberty trends worldwide. And the extremely conservative talk show I occasionally run into is actually rather interesting, if occasionally weird. (Like there was the time when they spent an entire show explaining that the earth is not flat. Good to know, but...) It certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of conservative talk radio as crude and abusive.

The dramatizations vary. I confess to a liking for Adventures in Odyssey, made by Focus on the Family. Some of the other children's drama shows are more than a bit cloying and mostly serve as a source of (unintentional) entertainment. My imitation of faithful Frisky's water lapping noises when he recovered after nearly dying for the children had my entire family in stitches.

I was listening to one of these latter in the car yesterday. We had gotten to the point where an escaped convict was said (by an announcer on one boy's transistor radio) to be in the vicinity of the boys' campground, the sort of thing that seems to happen all the time in these shows. The protagonist, a boy named Alfie, had recently become a committed Christian. When the others asked him if he was afraid of the possibility that the convict would show up at their camp, he said, "A little." Asked why only a little, he took the opportunity to tell them about his recent decision to ask Jesus into his heart. (I really have no problem with this language of asking Jesus into your heart. I gather some theological sticklers of a Reformed persuasion deplore it because it isn't found in the Bible. But we'd never get anywhere in theology without metaphors and analogies, and we'd get nowhere even faster in describing the phenomenology of religious experience and conscious religious commitment without inexact metaphors, and this particular one has been serviceable to generations of truly good and pious evangelicals whose shoes the young sticklers are probably not worthy to unlatch. So I'm inclined not to knock it. End of digression.)

I was more or less in agreement with Alfie's theology concerning forgiveness of sins and accepting Jesus, but here's the odd part: It had very little to do with the question at issue, which was, "Why are you only a little bit afraid of the escaped convict?"

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June 13, 2019

Missionary syndrome

One hears occasionally about closed-minded people who say that one should never interact with seriously incorrect ideas lest one come to hold those ideas oneself. These warnings sound, on the face of it, hysterical and wrong-headed. How can we possibly counteract bad ideas if we don't understand them and present rational arguments against them?

And of course there is important truth in that reaction to obscurantism. As a philosopher I'm not going to downplay the importance of answering bad ideas. But in reflecting lately I've come to understand better why someone might be concerned about potential ill effects of trying to "go out to" those who hold bad ideas and "reach them."

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June 4, 2019

Philip Zodhiates update

I have ended up (through an indirect process that I can't now reconstruct) signed up for e-mail updates on the status of Philip Zodhiates in prison. Zodhiates is one of our U.S. true prisoners of conscience, as was Kenneth Miller. These men, and Timothy Miller (not related to Kenneth) have all spent time in federal prison for the "crime" of helping Lisa Miller (also not related) to escape with her daughter Isabella from having to turn Isabella over to Lisa's former lesbian lover, Janet Jenkins. I have written extensively about the case over the years. See the tag here. Not all posts have been tagged, but the earlier posts link to yet earlier posts. Lisa and Isabella remain "at large" in Nicaragua. I believe Isabella is now almost sixteen years old. Some conjecture that Lisa may come back and serve prison time when Isabella is eighteen and can no longer be forced to live with Jenkins. I hope that Lisa does not do that, but the idea is that she will do so because she would not want the men who helped her to "do time" while she goes free.

Zodhiates sends updates on how he and his wife are doing to be sent out via e-mail list, but my understanding is that there is no objection to the posting of these updates more widely. The most recent one is particularly informative, in the form of a Q & A, so I thought I would post it here. (Since I'm blogging less these days, I try to post things that readers are unlikely to see elsewhere.)

If you want to sign up for e-mail updates on this case, e-mail info@419fund.com and ask to be added to the e-mail list on Philip Zodhiates.

Philip also posts Scriptural and other musings from prison at a blog here.

The crowdfunding site for the case is here.

Note the mention of the civil case. I don't know why it has been at a standstill for so long, but Philip believes that that aspect of the persecution will start back up again in December.

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May 20, 2019

Blaming the losers

It is a common though unfortunate characteristic of human nature to want to blame the losers in any war for their loss. What did they do wrong? They must have done something wrong, or they would not have lost.

A different approach is much more open to seeing losses as glorious and heroic. Small bands of patriots or heroes fight to the best of their ability, in the face of overwhelming odds, and are overcome at the last by sheer force or even by treachery. They are to be praised, not blamed. Their names go down in history as an inspiration to those who come later and serve what they served, bringing life out of the ashes once more. To quote Mr. Smith, lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.

Of course, in any given real historical struggle, these two options are not mutually exclusive. The losing side may have made strategic mistakes, seen in hindsight, at any point along the way, but they may still be praiseworthy, and treachery or overwhelming force may still be the main cause of the loss.

In politics and history, the desire to blame the losers strongly is for some people almost irresistible, a tendency that I find puzzling. It seems to flow from a desire to have a gigantic Story (with a capital S) to tell about What Went Wrong and how we got where we are. It may also arise from a desire to appear even-handed in hindsight. If one blames one's own side (as it existed decades ago or even centuries ago), this shows one's sapient open-mindedness. The desire to blame the losers also sometimes arises from frustration: "We lost. We were suckers. How can we be sure not to be suckers again now?" It can also arise from some ideological agenda. For example, if one really does believe that the American founding was ill-done and ideologically wrong-headed, then one may try to trace a direct line from, "All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights," etc., to the present abortion holocaust, despite the fact that that is a very hard sell, both logically and historically. On this view, America has fallen morally because America as such was fatally flawed from the beginning. The desire to recast history in literary terms, so that nations become like tragic characters with a fatal flaw, is hard for some to resist.

All of this musing is the lead-up to my rejecting (or at least very greatly qualifying) a certain narrative concerning what has happened to American conservatives in the last one hundred years or so. It looks like we have lost the culture wars, and the temptation to blame "us," or some historical version of "us," is for some people apparently irresistible.

The blame narrative that I want to respond to goes approximately like this:

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May 12, 2019

Vincent Lambert case update

Things are looking grim again for Vincent Lambert, the Frenchman whose wife and some other relatives have been trying to have him dehydrated to death for approximately six years. Thanks to the persistence of Vincent's mother Viviane and her lawyers, Vincent has been rescued from more than one attempt at killing him and is still being fed and dehydrated years after others would have given up.

But now the Supreme Court of France (as I understand it) has ratified the decision of doctors to dehydrate Vincent to death. It's important to understand that the legal situation is somewhat different from that of Terri Schiavo. As I understand it, the matter is left in the hands of the doctors. This is why the Committee to Support Vincent Lambert has tried to get him transferred, but those attempts have been unsuccessful. (A transfer might also have resulted in Vincent's receiving some physical therapy in order to renew or maintain his ability to swallow and be fed by mouth. Expert opinions differ on whether he is in a minimally conscious state or a so-called "vegetative" state, but it is not implausible that he could have profited from some therapy which he has not received while his wife has been attempting to have him killed all these years.) In Terri's case, a court actually ordered the nursing home to withdraw Terri's food and water. The French court apparently has merely allowed this. Doctors could still quite legally make a different decision.

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May 7, 2019

D-Town sports mania

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For twelve straight days now, teams from my beloved hometown have competed in playoff contests: many of them, what with overtimes, interminable commercial breaks and whatnot, extending into the wee hours of the Eastern Time Zone morning. I guess I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

The Denver Nuggets feature the Serbian Doughboy, Nicola Jokić, a singular big man with fantastic touch and court vision; Jamal Murray, a tough Canadian kid with a sweet shot; Gary Harris, a classic Michigan State product who does everything well, especially perimeter defense; the aged veteran Paul Millsap, steady defender with great rebounding intuition who has added an impressive offensive game; alongside a lengthy roster of appealing players who have, all of them, inspired us with their effort and resilience.

The Colorado Avalanche feature one of the best top lines in the National Hockey League. Swedes, Finns and a blue-color Canadian kid named MacKinnon whose extraordinary speed on the ice can be observed easily by even the most novice fans of hockey. Two of the Avs’ best defenders, meanwhile, are only twenty years old, one of whom, Cale Makar, having just finished his UMass collegiate career, showed up in Denver for his first NHL game in the middle of a playoff series. He recorded a goal and an assist.

Last night, at just after 1am Eastern, Gabriel Landeskog redirected a puck into the net for an overtime win against the San Jose Sharks. Picture me, with my whole household catching peaceful zzzzs, silent-screaming into my fists and leaping around in the loudest quiet celebration dance this side of the Mississippi River. That series goes to Game 7 tomorrow night (9pm Eastern start).

Nuggets and Trailblazers go tonight, in a huge Game 5 back in Denver. This game starts at 10:30p Eastern. Sweet soupspoons.

I’m loving every minute of it. Go Nuggs! Go Avs!

May 1, 2019

Antarctic France

April 21, 2019

Easter 2019: Some Personal Reflections

April 19, 2019

The Mental Sufferings of Our Lord

April 16, 2019

The saved and the lost

April 4, 2019

The denial of reality must be totalitarian