August 2014 Archives
August 1, 2014
Scotland jumps the shark
You just can't make this stuff up. Scotland has passed and is beginning to implement a law which assigns every child in Scotland from birth to age eighteen a "named person," selected by the government, whose job it is to "promote, support, or safeguard the wellbeing" of the child. Parents will not have a choice about whether or not to accept the assignment of an outside government busybody to their children. Some proponents of the law claim that "Families are not required to accept advice" from the named person.
Pardon me if I consider that to be patently disingenuous. We are talking here about a massive invasion of privacy in which an outside person is assigned, without parents' consent, to monitor their child and make on-going recommendations for the child's "well-being." There is not the slightest doubt that parents who refuse to take the advice of these state social workers will face probable repercussions. The very assignment of the "named person" implies that someone else needs to be looking over the parents' shoulders, knowing all sorts of information about the family and the children's upbringing, and making recommendations. That the parents could simply blow these off without the slightest worry about further problems is a ludicrous idea. (Home education leaders in Scotland say that they are already seeing problems, though no details are given.)
August 6, 2014
The Messiness of freedom: The ugly tie test
There are two tendencies in talking about freedom that, it seems to me, need to be resisted. The first is an attempt to make absolutely sweeping pronouncements to the effect that people should be free to do everything of type x. Those always have to be qualified. Hence, it is simply false that people should be free to practice any religion, because the obvious examples of infant sacrifice, suicide bombing, and child temple prostitution come up. It won't work, either, to say that people should be free to do anything except to commit force and fraud, because "taking your baby home from the hospital and non-violently leaving him to starve in a closet" is a fairly easy counterexample, as are many others.
A tempting reaction to the first set of sweeping statements, however, is also incorrect, and that is to say that we should be free only to do what is right.
Now, that is wrong, too, and to show it, I present the ugly tie test: Suppose that my neighbor is standing in his driveway, minding his own business, drinking a mug of coffee before going to work. I happen to be outside doing a little gardening, and I notice that his tie seems to me to be the ugliest tie I have ever seen. Being an unpleasant person, I'm not content with merely thinking this privately. Instead, I call over to him, "Hey, Joe, that's the ugliest tie I have ever seen. Did you think you were gonna impress the boss with that tie?" And I laugh and go inside.
If I do that, am I pursuing the right? Of course not. I was being a jerk.
August 8, 2014
A new use of the Euthyphro dilemma
My specialty is not philosophy of religion but rather epistemology. No doubt the following argument has already been made by someone or other in the history of philosophy, but it may be useful to someone else precisely because it refrains from some of the more (to my mind) esoteric concepts in the philosophy of religion. This argument will make no use of phrases like "no distinction between essence and existence" or "metaphysically simple." Whether the concepts are there under some other guise I leave for the reader to judge, but the idea is that the argument will be accessible to those, including myself, who don't find some of those Thomistic notions helpful. It will become fairly clear that this argument owes a bit more to Platonism than to Aristotelianism.
So here goes:
August 10, 2014
Edmund Burke: teacher of mankind
“We are in a war of a peculiar nature. It is not with an ordinary community, which is hostile or friendly as passion or interest may veer about; not with a State which makes war through wantonness, and abandons it through lassitude. We are at war with a system, which, by its essence, is inimical to all other Governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace or war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war.”
So Edmund Burke wrote near the end of his days, describing the marching modern spirit that animated Jacobin France — a spirit which has plagued us ever since. Burke went on to identify the enemy with an energetic precision. First, it was Revolutionary France, the Regicide commonwealth, “which lays it down as a fixed law of nature, and fundamental right of man, that all government, not being a democracy, is an usurpation.” Second, it was Jacobinism, “the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property,” or “private men form[ing] themselves into associations for the purpose of destroying the pre-existing laws and institutions of their country.” Finally, it was Atheism, or irreligion.
These three forces, present throughout Christendom in isolation for centuries, had finally united under one power, and in one State. It was against this power that Burke set himself with all the power and subtlety of his ample mind.
This image of an armed doctrine appears as in contrast. It is not an armed clan, or an armed banditry, or an armed mob, though it will make use of all these. It is far less localized, and far less human. It combines the brute practicality of a guillotine with the ghostly abstraction of the loftiest Marxist conjectures. A good précis may be discerned in the career of John Reed.
We might say that the French Revolution was the culmination of a brewing revolt: the break-up of Christian Europe and the dawn of the Modern Age. When we look backwards across history through the prism of the twentieth century — in particular through the prism of Revolution, so central to the twentieth century — we begin to see this previous revolution in France, to which the Communists and a hundred other mad malcontents harkened back, in a more sinister light. The armed doctrines were indeed on the march, and we have not heard the last of them.
August 17, 2014
Is Patriarchal Authority The Same Thing As Political Authority?
There is proposed here and there and pretty much all over in conservative circles an analogy between the authority of the patriarch of a family and the authority of the leader of a polity. I think it is easy to show that there are points of connection, points of similarity. What I am asking here is whether the similarity is more than just that of analogy, that it is in fact the SAME thing at root. Is the top leader of a polity, (the executive, assuming there is one) actually the same thing as patriarch-writ-large?
I don’t have an off-the-shelf answer that is complete and developed. I know that I tend to doubt it. My initial inclination is to fuss and pick at that analogy and test it for points of difference. Maybe, upon doing so, we could establish that the possible points of difference are not differences in kind, just degree. Or maybe not.
Some obvious things that look like points of difference: the history of western civilization as a distinct civilization is deeply bound up in the rise of the Greek city-state and Greek culture. The Greeks viewed their city, their civilization, their superiority over the barbarians as being found PRECISELY in having a polity rather than a clan / tribal nature. The very thing that they named as what distinguished them from others was their polity. So, from at least 2600 years ago and forward, to be political meant to be different from familial. The very society that gave us the word and concept of the polis and politics distinguished them from family connections. And one conclusion that one might draw from this is that either they were right, or the very notion of the polity and the political as distinct is wrong – we shouldn’t even have a different word or concept for the political.
August 18, 2014
Songs spilling out off of every page
We observed last year a fine country song, made popular by other artists, but written originally by Bob Dylan; and we further observed that this pattern is discernible across the latter’s entire career as a troubadour. His generosity with the dispersion of his songs, for arrangement and rearrangement by other singers and bands, contributes to the greatness of his art.
Well, he’s at again this year. NPR has the full story: Dylan’s representatives contacted the Nashville country act Old Crow Medicine Show (who first arranged, with noteworthy success, an obscure Dylan tune called “Wagon Wheel”) and offered them another piece of raw material for reworking.
Of the cryptic contact, says OCMS frontman Ketch Secor, the main thrust was clear: “Bob would like you to have this song; maybe you can do something with it.” The song was called, “Sweet Amarillo.”
With more than a little trepidation, he went to work. He didn’t even notify the other members of the band. “I tried to get to the heart of what Amarillo and Bob could be about; where those two iconic names meet. And so we set a young Bob, thumbin’ his way to Amarillo to rendezvous with a Mexican girl.”
Presently they had a workable demo, and sent the track to Dylan for review. The response was very positive: only a few adjustments necessary. “And so, we did exactly what Bob said, and the song just opened up.”
Despite two very impressive rearrangements, they have never actually spoken to Dylan himself. “It just makes sense: the enigma, the mercurial figure that is Bob Dylan; that’s how Bob co-writes.”
The opening stanza exudes the Dylanesque, but the feel of the song is all OCMS:
Well the world’s greatest wonder, from what I can tell
Is how a cowgirl like you would ever look my way.
I was blinded by glory with a half-written story
And the songs spilling out off of every page.
There are many things to lament in this country. The fecundity and richness of our folk music, from the Appalachians to the Rockies and beyond, is not one them.
August 20, 2014
Kindness to animals and cruelty to humans
I've recently been re-reading Richard Adams's 1977 novel The Plague Dogs. My considered literary conclusion is that it is weak. The political agenda is too strident, and the book's insistence on telling much of the tale from the perspective of a dog character who suffers hallucinations and general mental confusion due to a laboratory experiment makes it often disconnected and unclear. Even the narrator indulges in liturgical, biblical, and literary free association to the point of babbling, which should have been squelched ruthlessly by an editor. If you want to read something by Adams, read Watership Down, which is excellent, or even Shardik, which has serious literary flaws but demonstrates talent and power. Adams's collection of folk tales, cum frame stories, The Unbroken Web, is also top-notch.
One really enjoyable thing about The Plague Dogs, besides the fact that it has a happy ending (I like happy endings), is Adams's detailed and affectionate portrayal of the people, places, and dialect of the Lake District of England. There is also one truly well-drawn character--the tod (fox).
August 22, 2014
On Paul Copan's attempted solution to the Canaanite slaughters
I have a new post up at my personal blog on a currently popular attempted solution to the Canaanite slaughters based upon alleged hyperbole and Ancient Near Eastern idiom. The short version is that I don't think it works at all. I am not going to do the whole cut-and-paste to cross-post, but here is the link. Please feel free to comment in either location--either here or at Extra Thoughts. As so often happens, the post is already generating much discussion on Facebook after being up only a few hours. (Insert wry face symbol here.)
As I say there, I take no pleasure in knocking down someone else's argument meant to help fellow Christians, but I think in this case a little "friendly fire" is better than letting people go out thinking they have a solution, based on specialized scholarly knowledge, when in fact it does not work.
August 27, 2014
What is Murder?
It is relatively easy to answer this question in a loose way, and we all know it pretty readily. If you want to be very loose in defining, you might just say “killing a person”. But we also all know that this isn’t really enough, that there is more needed to distinguish the act of murder from killing a person, because we all know that some instances of killing a person are not murder, and others are.
But before drawing out the details for that (or, according to some, obfuscating them), let’s take 2 moments to ask a prior question: what do we mean by “definition”?
Going all the way back to the beginnings of western philosophy, with Socrates and Plato in the “Meno”, we realize that when you define a general term, it isn’t just a matter of enumerating instances that fall in that category. The meaning of “virtue” is not “justice, and prudence, and courage, and honesty…” as Meno’s slave comes to see. The definition states the conceptual relationships of that notion “virtue”. If I come home and see a box of stuff in the hallway, I might say “what’s this”. The answer “it’s a collection of a knife, a stuffed animal, a yo-yo, a teapot, and 5 cloth napkins” might be true but not particularly helpful, for it doesn’t tell me what I want to understand. The answer “it’s the box of stuff going to the white elephant sale” provides the ratio under which the collection becomes intelligible as a collection. This is more what we mean by a definition.
August 30, 2014
The shame of PBS
Speaking of the horrific slaughter of infants, and the depravity of mind necessary to tolerate it, it appears that PBS will go ahead with broadcasting fiendish propaganda designed to “humanize” late-term abortionists.
Now “late-term abortionist” is just a feeble, unmanly euphemism for “legally-sanctioned serial killer.” His wicked business consists in nothing less than this: by direct impalement, precision throttling, dismemberment, or poisoning, to snuff out the life of wholly viable, and often fully mature, infant human beings. It is an undisguised assault upon all innocence superadded to an exploitation of the vulnerable, easily-led, and desperate. Torments and agonies that we would hardly countenance for the most pitiless sociopaths, convicted of ghastly murders and rotting on death row, we suffer to be inflicted on helpless babes maturing in the womb.
The want of moral seriousness, from which arises public indifference to these crimes, is a sorrowful matter to compass. One is inclined, with Dostoevsky, to sigh aloud that man, the beast, gets used to everything. But indifference is one thing and active support is another. PBS has thrown in with the latter.
Supposing this vile film is indeed broadcast, a morally sound Republic would, without the slightest delay, disband the Public Broadcasting Corporation, retrieving every last available dollar of funding, and dismissing every last employee. A morally sound Republic would consider very carefully, and with deadly seriousness, whether a film produced to bring sympathy and fellow-feeling to the likes of these wicked “doctors” of baby-killing, can possibly be tolerated among a people dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Perhaps the weight of prudence, in the end, tells against outright censorship, and the film’s existence would be permitted. But let us have no illusions that there is any good in it. No one should watch it, no one should distribute it, no one should utter a word of qualification against righteous hatred of it. It is altogether evil.
Alas, we do not live in a morally sound Republic. But neither do we live in one where the power of public opinion is impotent. Raise what voice you can against this outrage; declare to PBS your implacable hostility to the lying filth they propose to broadcast; inform your representatives in government of your indignation.
We will not name this snuff film, but its title refers to a late-term abortionist who was shot dead five years ago. Now the only thing bad about that is its lawless vigilantism. Only the duly-constituted public authority may undertake lethal violence to restrain wickedness. These killers should be executed by the state for premeditated homicide.
— The Editors