I recommend that you add Cassandra Goldman’s relatively new site, A Letter to the Times, to the blogs that you read. While Goldman does not post as frequently as her readers would like, she is quite insightful and sensible. I have become a fan.
My mother tends to send those annoying, melodramatic “forwards” to her friends and family. You know them—they always include some morality lesson such as count your blessings, live each day to the fullest, and cherish your loved ones. They always end with some saccharine prayer to Jesus and the command / threat to forward the e-mail to everyone that you know lest He be ashamed to acknowledge you before the Throne of God. Yes—those forwards . . .
Anyway, I received one e-mail that told such a sad story in pictures that I had to check it on Snopes. It involves a beautiful young woman named Katie Kirkpatrick who develops cancer but perseveres through school, gets married to her high school sweetheart at the age of twenty-one, and then dies five days after her wedding. Snopes confirms its accuracy. The Snopes page also links to a photograph essay about Mrs. Katie Kirkpatrick Godwin, titled “The Bride Was Beautiful.”
I do not think that sentimentality offers much assistance in our attempt to understand the world or our place in it, but such stories do force us to concretize our abstractions about matters human.
Last autumn, Bill Whittle wrote a hearty piece in the National Review titled “The Undefended City.” It deals with the interior rot of a culture that no longer believes itself worthy to survive. Here is a delightful passage:
I live a few miles from Santa Monica High School, in California. There, young men and women are taught that America is “a terrorist nation,” “one of the worst regimes in history,” that its twice-elected leader is “the son of the devil,” and dictator of this “fascist” country. Further, “patriotism” is taught by dragging an American flag across the classroom floor, because the nation’s truest patriots, as we should know by now, are those who are most able to despise it.
This is only high school, remember: in college things get much, much worse.
Two generations, now, are being raised on this poison, and the reason for that is this: the enemies of this city cannot come out and simply say, “Do not defend the city.” Even the smartest among us can see that is simple treason. But they can say, “The City is not worth defending.” So they say that, and they say that all the time and in as many different ways as they are able.
If you step far enough back to look at the whole of human history, you will begin to see a very plain rhythm: a heartbeat of civilization. Steep climbs out of disease and ignorance into the light of medicine and learning — and then a sudden collapse back into darkness. And it is in that darkness that most humans have lived their lives: poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
The pattern is always the same: at the height of a civilization’s powers something catastrophic seems to occur — a loss of will, a failure of nerve, and above all an unwillingness to identify with the values and customs that have produced such wonders.
The Russians say a fish rots from the head down. They ought to know. It may not be factually true that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, the saying has passed into common usage because the image as the ring of truth to it: time and time again, the good and decent common people have manned the walls of the city, and have been ready to give their lives in its defense, only to discover too late that some silk-robed son of a bitch has snuck out of the palace at midnight and thrown open the gates to the barbarians outside.
While I support aristocracy on principle, I harbor many populist leanings—perhaps gained by having the same sorts of experiences of which Mr. Whittel writes. We have indeed a great many silk-robed sons of bitches.
On this April Fools’ Day, I do not offer a hoax, joke, or parody, but my post does involve a species of foolery—namely, bullshit. One of Lawrence Auster’s readers and commentators recently discussed an essay, On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt from Princeton University. Clearly, Frankfurt had fun with the article, but his phenomenological examination of bullshit is still pretty insightful. Written in A.D. 1986, his treatment remains quite timely today, given the omnipresence of bullshit in public and private discourse.
Frankfurt examines the difference between a lie and bullshit, and he finds bullshit to be the more corrosive of our respect of truth. Both the honest man and the liar are concerned with the truth of a situation; the first conforms his words to the truth, while the second intentionally distorts the truth. Yet, they both seek to know how things really are. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not appear to be interested in objective reality at all. On page 21, we read:
One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.
Frankfurt admits that bullshit probably always exists in society, but if there is more bullshit in our civilization today than in the past, it might be due to two general phenomena. First, in our society, so many people have to talk about so many things about which they are ignorant. Concerning political matters alone, a democratic regime cultivates a habit of bullshit in its populace because any democracy will require the ignorant to govern and to pontificate on all sorts of matters about which they know little or nothing. Second, the loss of confidence in reason and in the ability to attain truth has contributed to the pervasive spread of bullshit. One simply has to look into the publications of the contemporary university system to see how deeply bullshit seeps into the halls of learning. What is postmodernism, in the end, if not bullshit?
In A.D. 1978, the venerable Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address for Harvard University’s graduating students. I do not know if he titled his speech then or later, but it has come to be known as A World Split Apart. I highly recommend that you read it; it is a diagnosis of the modern West’s affliction. Solzhenitsyn offered the twentieth century one of its most profound voices. Memory eternal!
Oddly enough, it was a young Jesuit who introduced me to Solzhenitsyn—through this very speech. I suppose that I owe my conversion to Orthodoxy to the Jesuits in an odd way; so, perhaps, a Jesuit’s preaching Solzhenitsyn remains strange—but in a manner consistent with my experience.
You may also wish to see the list of Harvard’s commencement speakers; they are an illustrious lot on the whole. I harbor a suspicion that the Ivy bastion would not invite someone like Solzhenitsyn today, but they did invite Václav Havel in A.D. 1995. So, who knows? I have not found this year’s speaker, yet, but I hope that old Crimson picks someone fitting for my Harvard pals. Somehow, I do not think that Roger Scruton will be speaking there anytime soon.
Present circumstances force me to interact with many folks who think little but say much about the human condition. Spending so much time in Gomorrah—I mean Washington, D.C.—entails such suffering. One of these folks endlessly harps about cultural conditioning. For her, everything is relative—everything is conventional. By everything, I mean statements made by other people. Her sensitivities to the Leftist Zeitgeist must be exempted from this conscientious intellectual modesty.
I readily grant that culture “conditions” human endeavors. An individual’s peculiar personal experience colors his understanding and interaction with the world. Similarly, a collective human group’s shared experience of life—culture—determines how members of that group approach and interpret the phenomena of existence. Nonetheless, human beings, as individuals and in communities, have certain natures and encounter the same world. Each particular man or group of men has limited experience, and this limitation both emphasizes certain knowledge and values and precludes others. Being a human being means living with such limitations; all human experience with the world is a sort of tunnel vision. However, it is the same world that is being experienced, and men, though quite diverse, have to deal with the same joys and pains of imperfect human nature.
When I explain these arguments to the aforementioned person, she blindly holds that everything is relative because she has traveled around the world and now realizes that everyone does everything differently. I suppose that she has not picked up on some universal patterns. When I attempt to convey recent findings in the human sciences, such as universal human preferences in a variety of areas, she dismisses them. Even number crunching has no effect.
Her most obviously egregious errors involve human sexuality. She holds that the differences in men and women are all culturally based. Studies about the differences in brain function in men and women hold no water for her. She is, in fact, a militant tabula rasist.
I have given up trying to reason with this person; she is invincibly ignorant. It occurs to me, though, that extreme cultural relativists incur the wrath of the retortion argument. The man who claims that there is no truth undoes his own statement because he affirms a truth—namely, that there is no truth. Reductionists who hold that human opinions have no truth value but are merely successful memes that give their holders a reproductive advantage likewise destroy their own credibility as speakers. If they are correct, they cannot be correct—their position has no truth value but merely gives them a Darwinian edge. (Moreover, fertility rates over the past century disprove the thesis, as well. Reductionists have less children, though one could object that they still pass on their ideological genes in educating the offspring of the breeders. Eventually, however, such an arrangement would not sustain itself.) Similarly, cultural relativists argue that everything is mere convention. If so, their insistence on cultural relativism would apply to them, as well. They should dismiss their own relativism with the same cavalier attitude with which they treat all other statements about mankind.
It strikes me as fantastic that people do not realize the glaring inconsistency in their fundamental ideas. The contradiction in these cases is not obscure or hidden in removed logical consequences. Rather, the contradiction cries out from their initial stance. Yet, they have no ears to hear.
Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly delivers some of the truest lines ever spoken on the stage:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
From The Cocktail Party by Thomas Stearns Eliot
I regularly find political discourse tiresome, if not outright irritating. Partisans of various “sides” and views argue past each other over this or that policy proposal. Yet, they approach these proposals with radically different visions of the world. Needless to say, such folks rarely come to an agreement. Their discord even engenders in them seeds of misology; men of worldly experience begin to distrust reason’s ability to assist both in theoretical matters and in practical affairs. As Socrates warns in Plato’s Republic, men who come unworthily to philosophy risk becoming haters of what they previously found attractive. These jaded folks then become either indifferent to the world or willing participants in the war of wills. You may ask how relativists maintain the energy to fight their battles when they do not believe in truth or in morality. Some are simply intellectually inconsistent, but others have bought into the idea that human life, individually and collectively, is nothing but the exercise and imposition of some will (preferably their own) over others.
Rather than ceding ground to the misologues, I think that rational engagement must deal with the roots of an issue rather than the leaves. Fundamental questions about nature, the human being’s place in and with the world, and existence generally precede, even if subconsciously, all posterior ethical and political concerns. I am not claiming, of course, that we are metaphysicists before we develop ideas about the world. Rather, our inherited or absorbed views and values contain thousands of assumptions about reality of which we might not even be consciously aware. One of the endless goals of intellectual growth is to become aware of such assumptions and, when possible, to assess them critically.
Of great assistance in this endeavor is the encounter of other world views—other horizons of knowledge and experience. We have such encounters in our human relations, in travels, and in reading works from other cultures and ages. In such encounters, we become aware of our implicit beliefs and unexamined opinions. We glimpse other perspectives, and we can begin to think through a dialectical process in consideration of the divergent visions of the world. I recommend interested readers to consider the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, one of Heidegger’s many brilliant students. Gadamer, as his Heraclitean mentor and all the pessimistic Germans after Kant, appears to insist that we never transcend the limitations of our horizon, but perhaps we can, in Simpsonian language, “embiggen” our understanding of the world through such reflection.
If there is any value in “diversity” as the multiculturalists intend, it surely lies in this sort of activity. Yet, it benefits only a certain kind of person at a certain level of maturity. The temptation to simplistic relativism accompanies the initial philosophical discovery that nature and convention differ. This jarring realization can be the first conception of higher wisdom, but few human beings seem capable of such gestation. The average embryo of the spirit mutates and degenerates after such trauma. Received wisdom, discovered, collected, winnowed, and preserved by the ancients and past down in tradition, best preserves the sanity of the many. Mindless conformity for the masses makes for secure, well adjusted societies, where the bovine herd can live out its days of grazing in peace.
The Left, like the Enlightenment in general, has many insights, but then it misses their significance and couples them with inexcusable stupidity. Stifling dogmatic convention distorts truth and hinders the ability to discover truth. Yet, it is politically necessary. Human communities need their noble lies; even the most fortunate situation must involve the most truthful deceptions and simplifications possible. In Leftists’ commitment to their fantasies of equality and universal enlightenment, they fatally err. Our dying civilization is their bequeathed gift.
Here is a delicious quotation from Lev Shestov in Potestas Clavium:
“Scratch” any European, even if he be a positivist or a materialist, and you will quickly discover a medieval Catholic who holds frantically to his exclusive and inalienable right to open for himself and his neighbor the gates of the kingdom of heaven. The materialists and atheists claim this right quite as much as do the faithful sheep of the great herd of St. Peter’s followers.
Keep this quotation in mind when you visit various web sites. It is remarkably true.
Yesterday, I posted some sites of interest that focus on religion, while today’s post features sites that I read that focus more on politics, ethics, metaphysics, human society and culture generally, and the rest of the handmaiden’s areas.
Lawrence Auster’s View from the Right
Cassandra Goldman’s A Letter to the Times
Moshea bat Abraham’s American Monarchist
National Review Online
The New Criterion
Spengler on the Asia Times
The Volokh Conspiracy
What’s Wrong with the World