There are no culturally dominant, psychologically useful ways to purge the past or the unsavory present in our society. We do not build towering bonfires on Samhain or have witchcraft-excising fetish casting festivals as they do in Africa. Our typically Christian manner of turning a new page through confession has been lost to most Protestants on principle and to most Romans and Orthodox in practice. Suicide is the lot of cowards, perhaps, but a suicide of the soul possibly remains necessary. Liebestod of all sorts allures us mortals.
In place of ritualistic rebirth, we seek other narcotics. Substance abuse, pornography both of the published and experiential kinds, the meaningless menagerie of popular culture, and the idolatries of politics, art, and even charitable do-gooding become methods of escapism. As Pascal knew, dark thoughts come upon idle minds; we find some solace in busying our souls lest reflection come unwelcomed.
I, myself, take a more nihilistic approach to my disenchantment with reality. If, as some Greek thinkers believed, sleep is a form of temporary death, then my common escape plays itself out in not waking. When I find minor sedation inadequate, I destroy my writings, give away possessions, burn significant documents, erase contact lists, and throw out remnants of the past. If I refuse to pull a trigger, at least I can kill metaphorically. Perverse and irrational as it is, I find it quite satisfying—though, perhaps, demonically. The body is a harder thing of which to rid oneself—you know, with the human and divine laws, virtue and morality, commitments and responsibilities, and all those unpleasant claims upon the will. Moreover, the corpse would remain for the profane to touch and to mock with their primitive pieties and tangible second-guessing. An active volcano would be a better way. The nihilistic drive behind cremation would find its full actualization in volcanic suicide. There would be no trace left . . . how liberating!
If you have seen the film Gattaca, I think that this impulse informs the final scene. The character Jerome chooses his departure for spiritual as well as practical and charitable reasons. He and the character Vincent simultaneously find their freedom, though through very different escapes.
I read recently, though I cannot remember where, how poorly informed we are in a culture that finds happiness, peace, and prosperity to be the norms of human life. The writer, instead, emphasizes that misery and pain are what constitute earthly existence. We set ourselves up for disappointment and resentment when we delude ourselves that paradise is our right and privilege. Historical reasoning surely agrees with the writer; you might also think that personal experience would wake folks from their foolish reveries. Yet, error persists when the will would rather accept fantasy rather than reality.
Such an error serves as a poor basis for personal life. Needless to say, it also begs disaster when taken collectively as a political vision. As conservative thinkers endlessly but wisely repeat, utopianism, social engineering, and the revolutionary Left have their roots in this mistake about the human condition. If human life is supposed to be jolly and just, then our world is only shy of utopia because of established disorder that mucks up the natural paradise. We must therefore experiment in ever novel ways until we find the golden path. For Zion lies just beyond the next mountain pass. Traditionalists and their naysaying become obstacles to human happiness. They become counter-revolutionaries who hold the human race back from fulfillment. As such, they become evil—not just mistaken, but wicked enemies of the human race whose obstructionism must be removed. Widespread murder is not a significant price to pay when the glorious land of political perfection will bring countless generations the fruits of the good life.
We haven’t reached that goal so far? Attempts to do so have resulted in horrors undreamt before the modern age? Well, we shall do better. We know better. We must. Progress dictates that it must be so . . .
Yesterday, Lawrence Auster showcased a marvellous quotation from Voegelin’s The World of the Polis in his post, “If God is good, why is there so much evil?” Though I would not phrase Voegelin’s argument exactly as Auster does, for reasons of theological precision, the general argument is true, timely, and very applicable to us. Here is the passage that Auster supplies, from page 255 of Voegelin’s work:
The movement of philosophical speculation from the Milesians to Heraclitus, we may say, is a movement away from the experience of actual disorder in the direction of a principle of meaningful order. The discovery of the Solonic unseen measure, or the Parmenidean Being, or the orientation of the soul through love, hope, and faith toward the sophon, are truly great discoveries; in fact, they are the foundation of philosophical speculation as a critical exploration of the constitution of being. Nevertheless, this movement and its discoveries are beset by a grave danger. The occupation with transcendental being and with the orientation of the soul toward the unseen measure may become a preoccupation that lets man forget that he lives in a world of unoriented souls. The movement of a soul toward the truth of being does not abolish the demonic reality from which it moves away. The order of the soul is nothing on which one can sit down and be happy ever after. The discovery of truth by the mystic-philosophers, and still more the Christian revelation, can become a source of serious disorder if it is misunderstood as an ordering force that effectively governs society and history. From such misunderstandings result the psychologically understandable, but intellectual deplorable, “great” problems of theodicy, such as the reconciliation of the all-too-present evil in the world with the omnipotence and goodness of God. In problems of this kind there is implied the speculative fallacy that the transcendental order, which is sensed in the orienting movements of the soul, is a world-immanent order, realizing itself in society independent of the life of the soul. In brief: The discovery may produce an intoxication that lets man forget that the world is what it is.
It was the greatness of Aeschylus that he understood the order of Dike [justice or order] in society as a precarious incarnation of divine order, as a passing realization wrung from the forces of disorder through tragic action by sacrifices and risks, and—even if momentarily successful—under the shadow that ultimately will envelop it.
The philosopher finds such salvation in the contemplation of the divine, while the Christian hopes in God’s lifeboat through Christ. Decadent heirs of Platonism and Christianity’s mutant offspring hunger, like the Jews of old, for Eden restored here and now. I confess to share their desire, but I realize that God and I have irreconcilable differences. Part of me rationally notes that I must defer to higher wisdom. However, as a man, not all of me is rational. Hence, time is allotted for darker meanderings of the mind . . .
One of the things my good and wise friend Andrew taught me was the destructive influence of Kantian critical philosophy on societies where it gains a large following. Let me qualify the following criticism of Kant by noting that he is a fearsome intellectual opponent. While I hold Nietzsche to be the wisest of the modern philosophers because he more honestly and more perspicaciously understood the logical force of modernity’s self-destructive tendencies, I think that Kant is the Enlightenment’s greatest defender. No proponent of modern philosophy gave stronger or more insightful arguments than the professor from Königsberg. I find Kant difficult and at times frustrating, but his work remains, literally, awesome. Kant has immensely contributed to philosophy. Nonetheless, with fear and trembling, I dare to question Kant’s ideas not only as inadequate but also as corrosive.
My chief annoyance with Kant’s system concerns his epistemology. Though Kant excels Hume by far, he still renounces the mind’s ability to transcend what he sees as the limitations of reason. Kant magnificently proves the shortcomings of Hume’s skepticism, but he lays an intellectual trap for Western thought in proposing his limitations on reason. Kant’s antinomies claim to show that human reason cannot resolve certain metaphysical problems, at least without resorting to metaphysical distinctions that render the world unintelligible in itself. Hence, human reason cannot be trusted as an accurate guide once one passes a certain threshold of metaphysical questioning. While Kant’s arguments superficially appear as an admission of intellectual modesty, they are bold claims that state that Kant’s reasoning exhausts the capability of human reason to tackle these conundrums. When I find that my reasoning on a particular issue is inconclusive, my default conclusion is that I do not know enough about the issue or that my reasoning is inadequate. In short, I conclude that I am ignorant and that I have not thought long or well enough. With the antinomies, by contrast, Kant purports to show that all that can be done has been done in his speculative reasoning.
All partisans of subjectivity after Kant employ similar—though inferior—arguments in touting the (selective) ignorance of man. What strikes me as insupportable about such a position is that it claims a transcendent knowledge of the limitations of human reason while simultaneously holding that such knowledge is an impermissible result of the transcendent temptation. In other words, to consider the limitations of reason is necessarily to transcend such limits. Kant argues that his system achieves the first but denies—for his philosophy and for any other—the second. Kantians presuppose a divine perspective in order to chastise ambitious reasoning, though such a divine perspective is contradictorily audacious.
I suspect that the other problems in Kant’s philosophy result from this epistemological issue. For Kant holds that we cannot know things in themselves. We cannot reason from noumenal knowledge. We are largely stuck inside the boundaries of our phenomenological experience. Thus, we cannot know the nature of things through reason; we can only know reason through reason. As such, Kant’s philosophical approaches to ethics, politics, and aesthetics are ingenious but inadequate attempts to treat justly their intended objects. For they must avoid the natural, and ignoring nature is a disastrous approach to constructing systems that must answer to nature. Denatured political theory, if enacted, necessarily becomes ruinous politics.
Therefore, I accuse Kantian philosophy not only of failing to portray the world accurately but also of having a deleterious effect on society, You may wonder how this applies to the contemporary world. Well, consider my letter to Lawrence Auster in response to his post, “You’ve got to be carefully taught—to commit racial suicide.” If you are not familiar with Auster’s View from the Right web site, he is chiefly interested in the cultural and ethnic survival of the West. He argues that the Leftist drift of modern society has effectively emasculated Western society through multiculturalism, universalism, and the undermining of traditional social values and behavior. I share many of his concerns and views, though I suspect that I have more toleration of and appreciation for the wayward ways against which he rails. Auster’s post shows his reaction to the movie, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Auster believes that the Left, through popular culture, instills in people an unnatural love for and trust of the alien. That popular culture does this is undeniable. I disagree with Auster, though, that the current myth makers do so due to a subversive racial agenda. Instead, I think that they simply reflect post-Kantian cultural values:
I wonder if the tendency in the West to promote unnatural reactions is largely due to Kant’s influence. For Kant, natural inclination and self-interest pollute rational endeavors, from morality to aesthetics. For example, we are unable to know if a woman who saves her baby in a fire has done a moral deed; for she necessarily acts through interest. To know whether her action is moral, she must work against her natural inclination. Hence, to be truly rational, we need to transcend inclination and self-interest. Acting against one’s natural impulses for the sake of some abstract principle is one of the highest, noblest actions available to man, for a Kantian.
I do not wish to insult Kant; he was a brilliant and profound thinker. Yet, I suspect that his followers in the West have adopted this position as a form of “noblesse oblige.” I know that you do not think highly of Sailer’s status theory, but I believe that he is onto something in the Western psyche. When the culture no longer holds up as an ideal the ascetic form of greatness (saintliness) or the heroic form of greatness (classical virtue in the magnanimous gentleman), it must find another model for the best life. The post-Kantian version is the life of enlightened man, where people bask in their own high-minded self-righteousness, defined and determined as that which goes against their natural interests. Multiculturalism, anti-racism, and religious relativism can be seen as species of this so-called enlightenment. It is an evolution, of sorts, of Christian charity, though mixed with a peculiar form of group-self-hatred coupled with individual-self-adulation. I believe that the social aspect of this sort of rejection of natural inclination is what Sailer analyzes in his status theory.
Your Grinch example belongs to this world view. To be enlightened, you must question and reject your natural inclinations. The Who girl who loves the Grinch is just such an enlightened being; she looks past the external and past the standards of the world to see the beauty inside the Grinch. Nietzsche considers Kant a bastardization of Christianity. The American cultural Left, with its insistence on valuing each person and making room at the table for everyone, is an heir, of sorts, to the Gospel. Good intentions, though, will not protect you from the evil for which your inclinations serve as warnings and defense. The Left only got the last part of the message in, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Auster replied that something much simpler is at work—our contemporarily prized value of non-discrimination. I responded so:
You suggest that a commitment to non-discrimination is at work. That is certainly true, with non-discrimination being an unwillingness to prefer one’s own to the other. Yet, it is not strong enough, I think, to explain the Left or our Kantian culture. Non-discrimination is a state of neutrality, while the enlightened man of the Left celebrates the other as other, pursues the other’s interests to the detriment of himself, and consciously works against his own natural inclination.
I believe that Nietzsche is correct to see modern morality as a decaying remnant of Christianity, as I have written elsewhere on this site and most recently in “Christianity’s Odd Place in the World.” The moral Left—[spasm of coughs and throat clearings]—consists of a Christianity robbed of all understanding of the world. Kant gives such folks intellectual respectability—and he is so much more dangerous for it. Again to invoke Nietzsche, to be dangerous is not the same as to be false. However, I believe several features of Kantian philosophy to be harmful because they are false—that is, they are destructive because they misunderstand the world and therefore misadvise human beings as to their beliefs and conduct.
In my “Christianity’s Odd Place in the World” entry last week, I commented upon Metropolitan Jonah’s talk at vespers that centered upon a discussion of the human person. Indeed, the metropolitan’s pastoral message for the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and address at the March for Life used similar language.
Being Jesuit educated and having swum in Roman Catholic intellectual waters for some time, I am very familiar with the language of “the human person.” You can smell its traces everywhere—from university mission statements to Orthodox hierarchs’ homilies. I suppose that the features of such talk originates in Personalism, taught by French thinkers such as Emmanuel Mounier and Gabriel Marcel and made globally popular by Pope John Paul II. Such language has entered Orthodoxy through the French-Russian Orthodox axis, epitomized by L’Institut Saint-Serge in Paris. Metropolitan Jonah’s remarks have their genealogy in that post-war cross-pollination that figures so prominently in the Orthodox Church in America.
I do not know how to assess all of this talk on “the human person.” I do not detect anything wrong or heretical in such teachings, but the novelty of the language troubles me. To my knowledge, one cannot find such a fixation on the human person per se before the twentieth century. I grant that Christianity has always been the religion of love, where God wants all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. We Orthodox Christians call Jesus Christ philanthropos—the lover of mankind. Moreover, all political and ethical thought obviously involves the human person. The ancient Greeks concerned themselves with the order of the soul. Christians some centuries later pondered the appropriate hierarchy of goods and loves, the disorder of which leads to lust and to all the trials of a fallen world. Early modern philosophers debated how best to deal with divergent wills in a human community. In all of these ages, the fundamental issues involved the question of man. Yet, one does not find therein an emphasis on each man’s being a man.
As I listened to the metropolitan’s talk at vespers, I wondered if the prophets and thinkers of our age were simply addressing the pressing problem of our time. For philosophy and theology are always largely reactive. Each age has its own set of necessary questions, and it is up to the minds of that age to provide the answers. Perhaps, with the advent of totalitarianism, mass culture, new technology, and the dehumanizing understanding of man in economics, biology, history, and art, what we have now is a veritable crisis of seeing man’s humanity. During the last two centuries, reductionist views of human beings with man as appetite, man as an economic being, man as the result of irrational chance, and man as will have become the air that we noetically breathe. Yet, to some extent, wasn’t it always so? Couldn’t we justly include Protagoras or Hobbes with Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche? Maybe the difference in the contemporary world is the widespread ascendancy of such reductionism in all domains of human life.
Andrew suggested that the recent genesis of Personalism may have to do with modernity’s obsession with individualism. If such is true, it would be highly ironic, as those who worry about the human person endlessly trouble themselves with the ills of individualism. Could it be that they are philosophical parricides?
Unfortunately, I followed a link this morning on Ann Coulter’s site to a video that showed her appearance on The View earlier this week. Horrified but not surprised, I was moved to dedicate a post to misogyny. Nothing incurs misogynistic thoughts like a coven of irrational wenches posing as if they had an insight—a sensible view—about the world.
Beforehand, though, I wish to explain the title. I refer to myself as having questionable misogyny—it is debatable whether or not I truly embrace a certain though refined hatred of women. I claim such misogyny for myself, but then I wonder if I am simply posing as something that I am not, like the women of The View posing as intellectuals.
I have a tendency quite opposite to that of Mormons when it comes to external relations in the realm of beliefs and ideas. Mormons seem to be bred or well trained to appear similar to whatever you espouse. They regularly exhibit an image quite akin to whatever you say so that you come to see their religion as recognizably familiar to your own. I have even coined the verb, “to mormon” someone, which means to trick others into thinking that one is similar to them when one is quite different. Perhaps, Mormons developed this behavior as a survival mechanism, which then became useful as a missionary tool. Besides a smile, a well-groomed Mormon kid’s chief artillery consists in, “We, too.” That is how the children of Lehi reel in the wary, and then they keep them in the tent with healthy family and community lifestyles: L.D.S. Strategy 101.
Unlike the genial Mormons, I prefer to present myself in the starkest contrast to potential intellectual interlocutors. I have found such a posture not only entertaining but also useful in sifting out folks on whom I do not wish to waste my time. For people of good taste and sensible ideas who are turned off, I could add nothing to them, anyway. For the thoughtless who cannot rise above what I described in another post as phrase thinking, there is no point to engaging them. They are invincibly ignorant. That leaves the open-minded or at least the oddly curious who might just be able to think past the script.
So, why do I describe myself as a misogynist—and why do I have reasons to doubt the accuracy of that label? As exhibit A, consider this post’s catalyst:
I would like to believe that The View causes anyone who watches it pain and disgust. Yet, it is popular with—you guessed it—estrogenized Americans. I have the good fortune to have only seen the show in a few online segments. Folks who believe in false propriety might argue that I have not had enough exposure to judge it. I believe that I have seen quite enough. Rational argument does not have a place on the program. Facts, syllogisms, and common sense must make way for fallacies and trendy stupidities. The bovine obtuseness of the female mind is on gruesome display with most of the panel “opiners.” The only person that I find interesting is Whoopi Goldberg—not because she defies the moronic mold of her colleagues but because she inconsistently escapes it. It is strange to listen to her; she makes sober, intelligent comments, but then she follows such with bizarre and ridiculous nonsense. A consistent twit like Joy Behar is intelligible—not in her opinions but as a fact of reality—but Whoopi Goldberg defies explanation. She is like an autistic version of a pundit—advanced enough in some areas, while inexplicably retarded in others.
Anyway, The View recapitulates everything that I find objectionable about women. Now, I know that an American television show is not an accurate depiction of all women. However, I do think that it approximates the bulk around the bell curve’s mean. Generalizations hold for most but not all. Nonetheless, they still hold for most. What, then, are these dislikable female tendencies?
I know that it seems trite, but the stereotype is rooted in truth: women generally are emotionally driven creatures. Most women seem capable of rational thought, but they pay little heed to it in their decision making. Logos does not drive their actions.
If reason does not command, then what leads in its place? I am not sure about this theory, but I believe that emotion itself is a human response to situations that are interpreted through our view of the world. A person with a Roman Catholic world view will have different emotional reactions and impulses to certain situations than a Wahhabist fundamentalist. Consider how a mother in the former set would react to her child’s going on a “suicide mission” as opposed to the reaction of a mother in the latter group. People who allow their emotions to direct their actions actually allow their conditioning to control them. Of course, some folks have no discernible world view or developed beliefs; they might float from one principle of action to another, depending on the day. However, most people do have influential, though not always consistent, world views. Therefore, to be emotionally driven means, for most people, to be driven by one’s conditioning. This conditioning is usually from one’s upbringing, but it also could be from a successful though irrationally caused supplanting of one’s inherited world view by other values. I suspect that women generally allow such world views to determine their actions in that they rarely submit such actions or their world views to critical reassessments.
If this is correct, women are inherently more conservative than men. They are more likely to stay with the status quo—they are the instinctual defenders of tradition. However, such an idea appears to contradict the Western political experience of recent generations. How can we explain the “feminist” movement, if women are naturally conservative? Was it simply the case that some bourgeois women traded one orthodoxy for another, and once adopted, proved (and prove) impervious to reason? Such an answer may work, but what caused the great initial shift? I have no idea; the counter-evidence to my proposal demands an answer that I cannot give.
Yet, it remains the case that women appear more temperamentally conservative as a whole. That stance toward the world is very useful in sensibly arranged societies, but it is maddening in a dysfunctional, decaying civilization. Babushkas’ regulating Russian life and maintaining order exemplify the former, while The View depicts the latter. For someone of a Socratic bent, I see such conservatism as good for a good society while always bad for potential philosophers. The thinker must rise above convention, and few women do—or possibly can.
Furthermore, most women have severe limitations on their sense of humor. I remember reading somewhere that women typically process humor in the part of the brain that handles social morés. Hence, socially unacceptable humor appeals to men generally while offending most women. We see therein yet another example of female conservatism. The exceptions to this general rule, though, are riotous exceptions—Lisa Lampanelli comes to mind. While entertaining wit and silliness seem to be in the domain of men, female comediennes—the women who are actually funny—are delightfully hilarious. No man could be funny in the same way as Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Dorothy Parker, or Ellen DeGeneres. Their humor is distinctive.
Ironically, the blogroll for this weblog features a sizable number of female voices. As with any bell curve and generalization, there will always be outliers. Among philosophers and writers, Elizabeth Anscombe, Simone Weil, George Eliot, Edith Stein, Flannery O’Connor, and Hannah Arendt are women who certainly hold their own intellectual ground. Among lesser but nonetheless impressive realms of discourse upon important matters, Camille Paglia, Peggy Noonan, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Ann Coulter, Florence King, and many others enrich the discussion as well as—or more than—their male peers. Even Martha Nussbaum, as wrong as she is, is wrong respectably—as an erring philosopher.
I wonder, then, why I—with my misogyny on trial here—particularly like female thinkers—when they are thinkers? When one of my professors was graduate student, her mentor told her that she thought like a man. She was not sure whether to be flattered or insulted. If by thinking like a man, one means logical, critical, and able to see the forest as well as the trees, perhaps a better expression would be thinking like a truly rational being. Indeed, most men fail at thinking like “men,” though not as many as women. So, given that few men and fewer women are capable of this level of thought, I wonder if those fewer women have something special to add. I suspect so.
If the Abrahamic religions are correct, then we should expect some sort of complementarity between men and women beyond the division of labor that evolution and millennia of experience produced. Traditional and contemporary Christian thought on sexuality, from Augustine to John Paul II, stresses the wonderful, complementary differences between men and women. In my fits of misogyny, I scoff at such complementarity as I ponder how unfit women tend to be for mankind’s most noblest activity. However, when I behold rational women, I stand somewhat in awe. For they do offer something that seems alien but true—I do not mean pink stained syllogisms but rather a certain sensibility to universally accessible truth that nonetheless is perceived only by them. I am not endorsing any crazy notion of menstrual logic or Gaia wisdom as exists in “Womyn’s Studies” departments, but I do think that there is a truth that such nonsense attempts to reach. I cannot explain it except to say that it radiates an intelligible otherness. The French love to exclaim, “vive la différence,” but here is where such an expression applies to that which is highest in human beings. To speak in images, one sees therein the mark of Eve upon the path to wisdom.
So, it is unclear to me whether I truly am a misogynist. Regardless, I shall probably continue to embrace the word, perhaps doing violence to the language comparable to the so-called feminists’ misuse of their own word. For how does it make sense that a supporter of femina—woman—should busy herself with celebrating sterility, child killing, and the cult of ugliness? Such “feminists” do not deserve their word. Maybe, I do not deserve mine.
Roman Catholic priest, thinker, writer, speaker, and editor and founder of First Things journal Richard John Neuhaus died yesterday. In his honor, First Things reposted his essay “Born Toward Dying” that you may wish to read. It is a mix between near-death autobiography and a somewhat Christian version of the Phaedo. I was fortunate enough to have met him once after a talk that he gave at the John Paul II Cultural Center a few years ago. May his memory be eternal!
I commented upon the passing of Neuhaus in a letter to a friend yesterday in which I marvelled at the lights in the darkness of our inane times. We should be ceaselessly grateful for such luminaries:
When I consider how unworthy our era is of any blessings, it is humbling to think of how many shimmers of truth and sanity have manifested in the world during the past century. Considering just mainly English and French speakers, the list is impressive—to name just a small sample: Gilson, Lewis, Maritain, de Lubac, Popovich, Elliot, Orwell, Chesterton, Danielou, Voegelin, Lossky, Aron, Berry, Kirk, Anscombe, Tolkien, Plantinga, MacIntyre, Strauss, Findlay, F. O’Connor, von Balthasar, Bozell, Schmeeman—not to mention several hierarchs, including the present and preceding Roman pontiffs. Anyway, it is probable that the culture and population at large are the worst that they have ever been in the history of civilization. Never before have so many believed in so much that was so wrong. Nonetheless, it is also possible that we have not had the same level of insightful and wise thinking and discourse in the West, on the part of a growing minority, since the Renaissance. Several centuries of diseased modern ideas have given us both sets of facts. Perhaps, there is hope for the West.
Whenever you get caught up in a fit of desperation, wondering where are our Cappadocians, our Ciceros, and our Thomas Mores today, just consider those names and the thousands like them who have maintained nous in an anoetic age.
In the “anthropology” category, I post entries that have to do with man considered generally—the broad meaning of anthropology. The academic discipline may be about Pacific island cultures and the enlarged gourds that they wear on their genitals, but I am more concerned with the big picture.
Beginning with the phrase “big picture” allows me to qualify what follows. Catchy phrases, slogans, scriptural passages, pithy witticisms, and clichés provide a useful tool in communicating ideas. If two speakers are already on the same page, they provide shorthand ways to convey what otherwise would necessitate several sentences, arguments, and perhaps even entire conversations. I do not wish to criticize these phrases as such; they provide a useful service to mankind.
However, I propose that “phrase thinking” is an intellectual disease that affects most if not all people when they evaluate arguments and make judgments.
In the dialogues, Plato’s characters sometimes discuss and criticize image thinking, which is the mode of thinking, or lack thereof, where one cannot rise above the faculty of the imagination. The human tendency towards image thinking is deeply entrenched; questions that require rational thought that cannot be imagined prove too difficult for most people most of the time—and I fear that it is really most people all of the time. Mathematics, contemporary physics, and metaphysics are disciplines where one has to free the mind from image thinking, and they are not intellectual terrains conducive to most wayfarers. Images and imagined models serve as useful analytical and educational tools—they offer our minds, not accustomed to the heights of pure reason, some earthy rest—but they cannot reach non-imaginable truths on their own. Plato, after all, was a master craftsman of images, and, in the midst of a full-scale attack on image-making, Socrates in the Republic enthusiastically proclaims himself a lover of images. However, such images can only serve as pointers to that which cannot be reduced to images. The task of philosophy is to be able to follow such signs to the signified.
Materialism is a fine example of how image thinking reduces even intelligent and insightful minds to inanity. “Scientific materialists”—at least the ones who are actually scientists—are no stupid lot. Yet, they hold to stupid ideas that are obviously incoherent because they refuse to rise above image thinking when analyzing their own non-image thinking. If everything that is real is merely material, the undiscovered atoms (since what we customarily call atoms are in fact not atoms, or indivisible things, but rather divide into “subatomic” particles) are the only thing that really exist. Atoms in combination, as the materialists tell us, account for all reality. However, what are these combinations—the very combinations that make the universe what it is? Are these combinations, as combinations, material? For the order—the structure—of the combinations allows for the plenitude of diversity in observed phenomena. Yet, we cannot conjure such an order from the material itself. The formal principle of observed matter is not reducible to matter itself. It is immaterial. Similarly, we could not even speak of the atoms (or whatever subatomic particle you will) without acknowledging that they are atoms, and we could not differentiate between the various types of atoms (or subatomic particles) without noting their relative structures. Knowing that XYZ are all atoms and knowing that the peculiar characteristics of X differ from Y that also differ from Z are examples of knowledge of non-material things. Moreover, this does not even begin to deal with the foolishness of materialist epistemology; for isn’t all knowledge, as knowledge, immaterial? Aristotle states all of this in his lecture notes from twenty-three centuries ago, and, yet, our best and brightest do not consider the idiocy of their own ideas. Materialist metaphysics cannot account for itself or anything else; it is an absurdity that exists only because the tendency towards image thinking—even among educated men who habitually transcend image thinking in mathematics—is so prevalent among human beings. I attribute this tendency toward the fall of man, but such is merely a personal theologoumenon.
I think that phrase thinking is even worse and less human than image thinking. At least in image thinking, a person is actively processing information, though sometimes at an intellectual level inappropriate to the object. With phrase thinking, the mind refuses to work beyond a switching on of what my friend Andrew calls the script. The script is an internal set of arguments, perhaps never even understood by the person who has absorbed the script into his soul, that resurfaces once something triggers it. Andrew gives as an example the common occurrence of two people’s arguing past each other in a discussion. Neither one is truly arguing because neither one is even listening to the arguments of the other. Rather than hearing, considering, and judging the other person’s arguments, each man simply plays out a script of how he thinks that the argument on a given subject must go. If you pay attention to people’s arguments on matters where they already would have an opinion, you will likely see the script in action. Andrew, therefore, encourages script interruptions . . . you have to find a way to approach a person’s reason without triggering the script response. Then, real dialogue can occur. Otherwise, you simply appear as the straw man of your interlocutor’s script.
Phrase thinking is somewhat like an argument from authority without ever bothering to consider or to assert why such an authority should matter, but it is worse than even that. When serious people argue from authority, they refer to those whom they consider wise, experienced, divinely instructed, or some such qualification, and then such authority adds weight, for them, to the positions or opinions that the authority favors. Yet, these folks still understand what they mean when they discuss the arguments. Authority is not a substitute for the argument but rather additional “evidence” in the argument.
Phrase thinking, by contrast, is an unthinking invocation of a phrase that counts as an argument for those inclined. I find it disturbingly widespread. Socrates is right when he condemns the many as opiners rather than knowers, but their opining is worse than image thinking. They do not even think. They merely repeat stock phrases that have somehow become fixtures for them of inviolable truth. The herd can do no more than belch up some lines from the poets as their offering to public discourse.
Besides the young, I wonder if the most egregious offenders of phrase thinking in our society are so-called fundamentalist Christians. Perhaps, cultic Leftists may be worse. With both groups, it is difficult to move beyond phrase thinking, as if their religious or political indoctrination consisted only of the continual repetition of their respective slogans. Like Bacon’s idols of the tribe, these phrases serve as beacons in the dark to such beasts, though they offer no real light. To return to images, they simply portray flickering shadows to men enchained in a cave.
As you may know, I am rather fond of National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. I am quite happy to see a conservative rabbinical Jew “on the team”—and I am not even a neo-con. Yet, as I wrote before, I generally fancy Jews. Folks with a high intelligence quotient are quite useful in most human endeavors. Anyway, I recently defended him before Lawrence Auster, but my case did not impress Mr. Auster, who refers to Goldberg as an “Animal House conservative” for his sophomoric tendencies and for his love of popular culture. I, however, usually find him insightful and refreshingly honest. As I wrote to Auster, I met Goldberg once and was impressed by his warmth and decency.
Goldberg’s article today, by contrast, is neither insightful nor honest, though Goldberg himself might actually believe what he wrote, which would make it all the more depressing. His article—“O.J., Obama, and Race in America”—notes that the black and white racial divide evident in the reaction to the first Simpson trial was not evident in the most recent one. Therein, Goldberg sees progress and unity in America, under the banner of an Obamasque post-racial presidency:
Those who saw Simpson as a symbol of permanent division and the impossibility of progress were wrong. What better proof of that is there than that Obama, the nation’s first black president, will be figuring out the floor plan at the White House at almost exactly the same moment Simpson will be figuring out how the toilet works in his cell?
Is Goldberg serious, or could I hope that, as a good conservative Jew, he writes esoterically for the good of the city? I am not sure. For Jonah is no Spinoza. Still, I have never encountered such a negligent piece by him before.
As Goldberg notes, when Simpson was first on trial, everyone knew that he was guilty. That certainty unraveled, though, among white Leftists who had black colleagues (and, later, among all Leftists everywhere, once they learnt the official Party position). For these Leftists encountered their black friends and co-workers, who steadfastly maintained Simpson’s innocence, despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt. For the blacks so inclined (most black Americans, but obviously not all), the trial was never about the actions of a particular man accused of a crime. Who would imagine such an idea about a criminal case? Rather, as Goldberg’s article also mentions, the case was transformed in black Americans’ minds into a trial of our racist criminal justice system. Never mind that two people were butchered; never mind that two families and many friends and acquaintances lost loved ones due to a man’s homicidal rage; never mind that children lost their mother—the O.J. Simpson trial was about how black men are victims of American injustice. Hence, when the murderer was acquitted, blacks celebrated—and white Leftists went along, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to atone for their special and unique ancestral sin by indulging the unjust and irrational passions of their black friends.
For normal white Americans, such a sight was a precursor to the Palestinians’ dancing in the streets after September 11, but much worse. Those folks are over there. Ken from Accounting is someone in daily life, and you never knew how different he was until his celebration of the acquittal. Social cohesion breaks down when one party learns that another member of his team (or so he thought) relishes the fact that a man can pick off another team member with impunity. One of Auster’s readers offers his story of this, but you may have your own memories, as well.
My experience of this racial insanity occurred when D.C.—a far worse local governmental system than you can possibly imagine—drafted me as a juror in a trial. That I was not a resident of the District was not important—I had a pulse and I was too young to stand up for myself. For D.C. drafts everyone on all of its contact lists, including university students, to serve jury duty every two years—a necessity for a city with such rampant criminality. Anyway, though an Ohioan, I thought that jury duty would be interesting, and, besides, I could not get into trouble for doing what the court clerk told me to do after I explained that I was not a D.C. resident. Having already long abandoned belief in democracy, I still clung to my Anglo-Saxon trust in trial by jury . . . but reality likes to dash illusions.
The criminal case was a simple one involving a young black man who worked in the men’s department at Nieman Marcus, an upscale store if you are not part of the clientele. He was accused of seventeen counts of theft and one count of fraud. The jury was half white and half black, with slightly more men. There was a wide ranges of ages, and I was the youngest. We were instructed not to talk to one another about the case until the prosecution and the defense both presented their sides. I thought that the prosecution clearly proved sixteen of the theft counts. I was sure that the accused was guilty of the seventeenth, as well, but the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of that last charge of theft. The prosecution had footage from the store, paperwork, and even a signed confession from the employee. The man had all of the stolen merchandise in his house. The case could not have been more settled.
Or so I thought. I was like those poor crackers mentioned earlier before they witnessed their black co-workers celebrate the Juice’s acquittal. For when we began to discuss the case, the fault lines came down along racial lines, with white jurors thinking that he was guilty and black jurors maintaing his innocence. I did not know before that black men were incapable of vice and that all bad things issue from The Man. Day after day passed, and the sheer stupidity and unreason of the folks were a devastating indictment of jury trials peopled by idiots. Race was never mentioned, but it was the glaringly obvious factor in our differences. Three days of deliberation passed. Finally, we worked out a compromise, where we would find the man innocent of the seventeen theft charges and guilty of fraud. I feel somewhat tainted for my part in this injustice, but, otherwise, a hung jury would have resulted. Some tarnish on his record was all that as was possible, given the circumstances, for this man to experience justice. Perhaps, some future employer was saved from his stealing by that fraud count on his criminal record.
During the trial, the defense attorney exploited the racial divide on the jury. He even demanded that each juror individually voice approval of the fraud charge once we rendered the verdict. It was clear to me that he knew his juries—though all of us kept to the compromise and found the man guilty of fraud.
Had I any naive noble sentiments about the commitment to justice among black Americans before, I had them no longer. With the Nieman Marcus fellow, with O.J., and with Obama’s election, nothing trumps the tribe when it comes to most blacks. As I have written before, such a tribal reflex seems universal, save when it has been educated out of folks, as has been the case in white America. The higher virtues do not come easily to mankind.
Why would one take joy in a criminal’s acquittal, though? Friends have tried to explain this celebration of injustice to me in the sense that two wrongs cancel each other out. I do not understand how or why anyone would hold such an illogical view, but evil is, after all, unintelligible.
Moreover, I am not convinced that black men get the shaft in the American justice system. If anything, our court system is absurdly stacked in favor of the defendant. If anyone complains about public counsel and its quality, then he should consider the even more meager resources of prosecutors’ offices. Statistically speaking, crime does pay in America. We are as Nietzsche predicted—a society too soft, rich, and powerful to care any more about justice, where we express our society’s stability by the toleration that we show to those who would subvert it. More crudely, letting the savages go free is democratic society’s attempt to ape the aristocratic “noblesse oblige.”
The evidence that those who would indict the American justice system put forth is the disproportionate number of blacks who are accused and convicted of crimes. That, perhaps, such is due to a disproportionate number of blacks among American criminals is not considered, though it is the obvious starting point to see whether there is such a problem. As with the Simpson trial, folks who are not caught up in racial hysteria conclude that the system is not the problem—unless it is one of indulgence toward criminals—but that black Americans do indeed proportionally commit more crimes than other demographic groups.
Why this is is quite unanswered, though there are many theories. There is the Leftist proposal that poverty causes crime—a questionable thesis, though some link between them seems definite. There are other accounts that hold that black America’s dysfunctionality is an ongoing consequence of slavery. Conservatives suggest that the welfare state has destroyed the black family and crippled blacks by facilitating destructive behavior. (Theodore Dalrymple thinks that the same is true of poor whites in Britain, which would make the issue one of bad public policy—with good intentions, of course—rather than a racial problem, though we should ask why there isn’t the same type of defunct white underclass in America.) Politically taboo explanations note that most crimes are committed by people in a certain intelligence range, regardless of their ethnic background, but that the proportion of blacks in that range is much higher than whites. (For more information, Steve Sailer has many fascinating articles about race, crime, and IQ.) I do not think that anyone knows for sure—human affairs make for sloppy science. Yet, any clear-headed person not under the spell of debilitating white guilt (Leftist whites), bilious anti-white hatred (racist blacks), or group shame (normal blacks) acknowledges the facts as they force themselves onto us every day of our lives.
Yet, men have a knack for delusion, and it is possible that even Goldberg has entered into the racial fantasy land. The presidential campaign and the racial factor therein showed that America has not transcended its racial problems. Dishonestly and willful blindness are as widespread as ever. That no one cared about Simpson’s conviction is because the demagogic cowboys were not corralling the herd in that direction—they were too busy orchestrating Obama’s election. Simpson as a symbol was so “90’s”—even Jesse Jackson has moved on. The thirst for the novel had more to do with the lack of black outrage over Simpson’s comviction than a consensus that the state should not allow murderous thugs to behave as they wish with no adverse consequences. Had the media decided to showcase Simpson, tabloid circus style, as they did in the 1990’s, we would have witnessed the same tribal impulses. National post-racial unanimity has nothing to do with it.
I remember some classroom arguments in a medieval scholastic philosophy course that involved divine foreknowledge. The issue was whether human beings are actually free if God knows what they are going to do. The distinction between necessary and contingent truth known necessarily or contingently bubbled to the discussion’s surface, and my peers’ opinions seemed to coalesce into accepting that God can know future contingent things necessarily but that mortals cannot. Were human beings—contingent temporally bound creatures—to know the future, then our freedom would be questionable.
I cannot reconstruct the argument well because it never made much sense to me. I am not even sure what contingent really means. Necessary truth is easy—things are necessarily so if they cannot be otherwise, due to their nature and to the nature of the universe. Mathematical relations are necessarily true. Historical facts are often offered as examples of contingent truths—it is conceivable that Caesar would have not crossed the Rubicon. A parallel universe would be intelligible to us in which Caesar instead decided to retire in Gaul and sip Gallic wine unto the end of his days. As Hume would say, matters of fact—contingent truths—have no contradiction. They do not repulse our minds but rather appear as possibilities.
Yet, I wonder if things are contingent only in their intelligibility to us. I confess that I have pondered the issues of freedom, determinism, and the rest of those webs for many years with little success. I frankly do not understand reality. Yet, I stagger along and try to make sense of things as I can. I am more comfortable—to use an irrational word—with determinism because it seems more intelligible. What does it mean for something to be undetermined? What does free choice really entail? I don’t know.
Regardless, I never understood why it mattered whether God or human beings had knowledge of necessary and contingent things. God must know all things, and I suppose that God’s knowledge of them is truth in the highest meaning of truth. Divine truth is truth simply, whereas truth as perceived by limited creatures would seem to be limited and, hence, distorted, as well. If there is a natural difference—beyond our means of understanding—between necessary and contingent truth, God surely would know it. Yet, human knowledge is a limited knowledge of God’s knowledge—it is an image of real knowledge as known by the divine mind. If that is true, then what difference does it make whether God or man perceives some truth? For all cognition seems to be a participation in the Logos.
Maybe, Platonists just have an easier time with these matters. Past, present, and future are merely causal directions in Platonism. Our “now” is not a privileged present moment. From eternity’s perspective, our now is no more now than the moment when Caesar crossed the Rubicon or the moment when human beings will land on Mars. We tend think with an attitude of temporal chauvinism—that our framework of past, present, and future is the true one simply—true for God. However, it is only relatively true for us. What is really true, absolutely, in our temporal framework is the causal relationships. That X precedes Y, or that Y precedes Z (not in the alphabet but as variables for events) is true for everyone at all times. Yet, whatever event that is happening in our now is no more present to God than any moment in creation. For God transcends time and is its creator. That is what eternal means . . . Aristotelianism has muddied the West’s theological waters by reducing eternity to everlastingness.
So, from a Platonic perspective, that God knows “the future” is simply a matter of God knowing one part of the historical continuum of created time and space that happens to be in our future, though such a future is not God’s future. The other medieval arguments for God’s knowledge of contingents may be fine—that God knows all things by being their creator, that God knows all the consequences of his movement as the perfect prime mover in knowing himself—yet, these are unnecessary arguments to salvage human freedom with divine foreknowledge. For God has no “foreknowledge”—it is simply that God’s knowledge can appear as foreknowledge to temporal beings such as ourselves.
As such, it does not seem that revelations of such knowledge to human beings would affect the status of freedom at all. However revelation works—if there is a distinction between revelation from above (such as to the prophets) and revelation from below (through natural reason), as Avery Dulles suggests, or if there is no such distinction and all knowledge is the result of the human mind’s being open and purified to the world as it is—it seems that revelation offers the human mind a glimpse of reality through the work of God . . . by creation or providential grace. Is it so different to have a vision of historical events in one’s future than to realize the truth of the Pythagorean theorem? If one accepts the fundamental ideas of Christian theology—that there is an omniscient and benevolent God who cares for his created mankind—then, such truths do not appear so radically dissimilar. They are both instances of God’s sharing of truth with minds created in his image.
However, what if one did not accept Christian theology? What if one were a materialist, instead?
It is not my intention to offer an apology for Christianity in this post. My reasons for being a Christian exceed this particular topic greatly. However, as human knowledge of future contingents is the subject at hand, I cannot ignore my own personal experience, for which I do not see how materialism could account.
Since I was a small child, I have had dreams of events that subsequently occurred. I do not like the term “prophetic dream” to describe my dreams because prophesy has much more to do with relaying God’s will than with the degenerate common English meaning of fortune telling. I do not know what term would be better, though. After looking around on the internet, I read “precognitive dream” on several sites, but that terminology also does violence to our language. It does not make sense. “Predictive dreaming” is ambiguous, as we could all say that a thirteen year old boy has predictive dreams—ones that we could predict, knowing about thirteen year old boys. Prescient dreaming may be a good choice, but it lacks the sexiness of “prophetic” in an entry title. So, I’ll stick with prophetic dreams, with the caveat that we should suffer no prelest in thinking too highly of ourselves as especially appointed messengers from God.
Well, some of these dreams can be explained away as coincidence. Human life is predictable in that most things are expected and follow patterns. If I dreamt of eating pancakes and then woke up to my mother’s serving pancakes, I should not be surprised. Yet, I sometimes dream of things that cannot be easily dismissed.
I bring this up because of a recent event. One of my brothers works at a local pharmacy. On the telephone, he told me a few weeks ago that his store was robbed. I remember thinking how terrible it was that he had been at the store twice in the past year during a robbery—you know, what is our society coming to and all that woe mongering. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, I brought it up again to him. He said that the robbery was the first time that the store had been robbed. I asked him about the robbery from several months ago, perhaps in the spring, and he said that there was no earlier robbery. However, I have distinct memories of his telling me, in person, of the robbery. I also remember relaying the story to other friends and family members. He said that he never told me of a robbery until two weeks ago—on the phone.
So, it is possible that I had a dream about the robbery and of the subsequent conversations concerning the robbery and that I remembered the dream as fact. It is also possible that I simply dreamt of an event that, while not likely, could result from some strange subconscious anxieties that I have about my brother’s working at the pharmacy. I am not aware of any such anxieties, but I would not be of subconscious ones. It could be mere coincidence.
Yet, this sort of thing has happened many times, and one such occasion cannot be reduced to generalities because of its peculiarity. Last year, one of my co-workers started looking for another job. Around the summer of A.D. 2007, I remember her, clear as day, telling me about one of her interviews. She told me that during the interview, a delivery man entered the office where the interview was being conducted and interrupted it. He had a shipment of many boxes of paper, and he did not know where they should go. The interviewing panel explained that the delivery was a mistake, either in its timing or in its goods. They then asked my co-worker what she would do in such a situation. I remember laughing when she told me this, as she emphasized the “Can you believe it” factor and the bizarre unfairness of the episode. Throughout the story, I imagined the event in my mind, as I do when I hear people talk. So, I had a memory of the interview as I imagined it in my mind, along with the sense perception memory of her telling me it.
Well, last autumn, at least three months after I remembered this conversation’s taking place, I walked in on the same co-worker’s telling another co-worker about her latest interview, where a shipment arrived, chaos ensued, and the woman who was interviewing her asked her what she would do in that situation. I then asked, in amazement, how such a thing could happen to her again. She looked up at me quite puzzled. Then, I told her about what she had said earlier in the year, and she was astounded. There had been no earlier interview, though I remembered it. Rather, I foresaw something before it came to pass.
I do not accept any dismissals of this story as coincidence. I do not witness job interviews or hear about them. I certainly do not know of any other interview interruptions so as to have a generalized view of interviews that would make me dream up something like this coincidentally. I do not see how any such explanation makes sense. Yet, what does make sense? How can I dream about the future?
Yet, I am not sure that the two events recounted above were even dreams. I have had prophetic or prescient dreams that I remember as having dreamt, but I simply remember these two events as if they had happened. This bothers me, naturally, as I could start a chain of unproductive worrying about all that I know that may not have yet occurred. It is almost Truman Show-esque—there is no need to question one’s knowledge of reality until one finds it repeatedly unreliable. I suppose that I am still some time away from interrogating people whether ABC about their lives is true.
Dream or inexplicable memory, how could one explain away such experience from a materialist perspective? Of course, a materialist might accuse me of lying, but I am asking how I could hold to materialism with such personal experience. I find the materialist world view quite unable to explain a multitude of phenomena and human experience, but as our topic is this particular sort of knowledge, how could it be so? For that matter, how could any consciousness be so? It astounds me that so many rational, intelligent people have such opinions about the world . . . Why? For if all is atoms swirling in the void, what does intelligence or intellection mean?
Prescient dreaming or knowledge seems to be rather common. From passing “déjà vu"experiences to detailed knowledge of peculiar and detailed events, it seems that our temporal minds frequently glimpse a sight beyond the horizons of our time frame. Should this even surprise us? For we can understand the Pythagorean theorem.
Ninety years ago, the horrifying and disastrous First World War came to an end. Prophets and philosophers in the West knew that the modern industrial age was not the utopian world for which progressive men hoped, but the “Great War” showed everyone the frightful possibilities of man’s new power, arrogance, and forgetfulness of past wisdom. Our collective memory of the war fades, but flickers remain in commemorations of Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and, here in the United States, Veterans Day, when we remember all those who served in the armed forces.
The seeds to the First World War go back to Adam, of course, and the war itself lies at a particularly dark nexus in world history. For the war set in motion the apocalyptic nightmare of the twentieth century wherein monarchies were overthrown, aristocracies and ancient traditions were repudiated, cities were destroyed, empires crumbled, totalitarianism began its dreadful march, theomachy was unleashed, and the West chose death over life in its greed for world domination. The fallout of the damned war continues to plague us . . . as the last embers of Western civilization currently fade into history. If only Europe’s leaders ninety-four years ago could have foreseen what they have wrought—Europe weeping for her children, because they are not.
War is hell, but it strangely allows us to see some of the best aspects of human nature. There is nothing nobler or more iconic of God than self-sacrificial love, and war provides ample opportunities for such heroic actions.
Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
This aspect of war as a challenge for greatness supplies the opinion of war’s glory. What justifies man’s existence—that greatness in certain human beings—flourishes in adversity, but slothful and lazy men become perversely ugly in times of comfort and peace. Hobbes and Nietzsche are correct when they praise war for its positive effects on human beings; suffering often prunes human beings into better specimens. As Aristotle noted millennia ago, war provides the ultimate test for human excellence, wherein men learn of their own and of their fellows’ virtue, where valor, courage, and self-sacrifice remind human beings that perhaps they do deserve to survive and that they have the power to do so. Not just soldiers but the civilian population grows in its worth if it survives a struggle nobly. A seiged city that comes through conflict victorious and without shame is a better city for the pain and suffering that it overcame. Nietzsche noted well that man learns through pain.
Yet, consider the demonic cost of such spiritual growth—a generation lost and more marred. Some survivors are better with their scars, but others are broken and many are dead. It would be somewhat comforting to think that only the weak and the cowardly die in war—that war acts in some Darwinian manner to cull the herd of its less desirable stock. Yet, this is not so . . . artillery rains down upon the best and the bravest as upon the wicked and the cowardly. I think of Rhett Butler’s response to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind: “I’m angry. Waste always makes me angry, and that’s what all this is, sheer waste,” or Sherman’s “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” So many lost—and so many young, promising ones lost, often the kind of people that you want to constitute a society—who perished before their time. Or so it seems to the ones who remain. The glory of virtue is its own reward; a moment worth a lifetime is for the one who conquers his lesser self and shines forth in noble acts; the songs sung of the dead and heroic deeds recounted for generations may gain a certain type of immortality for the valiant—these are considerable goods, but they do not fall to the grieving families except as bittersweet consolation in pride. How many widows of the men in Arlington would rather have their husbands back alive and victorious rather than dead and heroically commemorated. The Spartan women may have said to their husbands to return with their shields or on them, but I suspect that even the most Spartan wife’s heart hoped for the former.
So, this is quite an irony of human existence—war makes us better and worse. I suppose that the ideal situation would be where a society cultivates the virtues that the dangers of war make necessary for human affairs but then never actually has to use them. Of course, human beings come to ignore the perceived needless, and reminders have to come from time to time for our own good. Regardless, I do not think that war itself is avoidable, given the wickedness, vulnerability, misunderstanding, and greed of men. Sometimes, violence must answer violence. Nonetheless, even given its salubrious effects, war is always tragic—good men die fighting and innocent civilians always suffer collateral damage. Not least among their sufferings is their beloved dead who never make it home.
For a bleak depiction of World War I, I recommend the Australian film Gallipoli. If you have never seen it, do not watch this closing scene but borrow the whole movie:
What a lot that we have made for ourselves, both to our shame and to our credit.
Memory eternal to the dead of war! It is meet and right to honor them, to miss them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice.
One criticism leveled at democratic societies is that their people have neither memory nor foresight; ignoring Burke’s admonitions, they are populated with men who care not for those before or after. I am not completely convinced that a democratic regime necessarily silences its ancestors and neglects the care of its progeny, but from classical Athens to the present, these characteristics tend to appear alongside democracy.
What, then, are we to make of the American fascination with genealogy? Perhaps one could say that merely a small eccentric group of antiquarian souls immerse themselves in dusty records due to their own psychological disposition. Perchance enthusiasm for family trees might be due to the deracinated condition of a colonial people who thereby obsess over their roots, having been sown so far from their indigenous soil. Colonial populations tend to be more conservative linguistically; maybe an inter-generational interest grows from displacement, as well. It could also just be the Mormons in our midst.
I wonder if some academic has studied the level of Americans’ genealogical interest and research over the last two centuries. For I have another explanation, and such research could support or refute it.
I suspect that the level of genealogical interest and activity rises as Americans perceive the weakening of American nationality. I do not use “nationality” in the strictly political way to refer to the residents of a state but rather in the more tribal understanding of nation. From the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, it seems that there was an effort by many Americans to forge a new American nation from the diverse populations in the country. From anti-immigration nativist movements to the assimilation projects of the late nineteenth century, it appears that many Americans considered American nationhood a desired goal—such that one could be American, eventually, in the same sense that another is Irish or Mongolian. I remember reading that Jefferson thought that the American Indian and European peoples would blend into a cohesive nation, but he had misgivings about the ability of blacks to be incorporated so.
From the Latin American examples, we see mixed results in nation forming. After five centuries of miscegenation, one still sees a racially stratified society south of the Rio Grande, with the folks of more European ancestry generally higher on the social ladder. When there is a chance at capitalist enterprise, an ambitious fellow of pre-Columbian stock may amass wealth, move up the social hierarchy, and marry a girl from a respectable Spanish colonial dynasty. This has created a hierarchical system with some possible class mobility, but social unrest, liberation theology, and Marxism have found a permanent home in Latin America’s browner strata. Social cohesion only occurs when most accept their lot, and the revolutionary Left is quite determined to force the plantation landowning plutocrats to “spread the wealth around.” Unfortunately but unavoidably, that wealth usually makes its way into the coffers of a new political elite rather than in the manos of coffee and banana pickers. ¡Qué lástima!
Anyway, according to my proposed theory, whenever there are great demographic pressures on the project of forming an American nation—as when there is a significant influx of foreigners—confidence in the possibility of an American nation wanes and folks resort to their ancestral tribal affiliations or to an earlier American presence of one’s ancestors. When the Irish and Germans came in large numbers, there was an anti-immigrant outcry. I wonder, too, if there was a surge in genealogical interest. Did Plymouth and Jamestown receive renewed attention at that time? Certainly, when the waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came during the industrial era, there was such a movement. In my own travels around the United States, I have noticed a large number of memorials that date from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The Daughters of the American Revolution seem to have been in their heyday then. Rockefeller’s investment in Williamsburg, Virginia is another example from that era of American interest in the past. Could it be that the hordes of immigrants from very different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds caused an existential panic among Americans, thereby causing them to get in touch with their roots?
It is difficult to say, as industrialization itself, without any immigration concerns, would have been enough to spur an interest in the pre-industrial. The Romantic movement does not seem to have any immigration-induced causes; the nineteenth century appears as a fading ode to the disappearing ancient regime. For radical social change is enough to make people look back to the past. Disruptive demographic transformation is just another momentous change that would trigger mass nostalgia.
From the restrictions put in place in the 1920’s until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States began to homogenize its white population. Social cohesion, even during a frightful economic and wartime era, appeared at an all time high among the majority population. According to my theory, then, we would expect a decline in genealogical interest and activity during this period, though we would obviously have to account for other factors such as wealth (and leisure) fluctuations as well as the war period. Given the wars and the Red scare, it would not be surprising to see people fixate on the immediate present as survival, in people’s perception, at least, was at stake.
After Ted Kennedy’s 1965 immigration act, the population of the United States drastically changed. In A.D. 1960, 84.7% of the American population was white. Now in A.D. 2008, 66% of the population is white. The percentage of whites is expected to fall as current immigration and population policies continue. There seems to be no hope left for American nationhood; we have become a multiethnic, multicultural society where the possibility of nationhood is not only seen as impossible but even offensive to many Americans. That there could be a “standard” American clashes with the ideal of relativistic multiculturalism and with the facts of an ever more diverse population. Recent nativists cries, as you can see on VDARE, warn that the United States is headed toward Balkanization. I fear that they may be correct, but I’ll save those thoughts for other posts.
Anyway, I wonder if the current surge in genealogical interest is due to this “Balkanization.” It could simply be that when differences in ancestry are more apparent, as would happen with Laotians and Swedes living next to each other, people think about origins more. This increase of ethnic awareness could result in more folks’ looking up their ancestors. The ease of researching family history has obviously influenced genealogical interest, as well. With Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, you do not even have to leave your house to access information that would have been inaccessible two decades ago without months of global travel and significant archival research. Just about anyone can be Alex Haley now. Speaking of whom, the multicultural drift of American education has increased interest among minority groups to reconnect with their ancestral traditions, and it is possible that such activity has interested white Americans in their heritage, as well. In the flyover America that the Michelle Obamas of the world despise, only so many “X History Months” can occur until some folks start to ask, “Why not us?” If the prospect of an American nation has ended, ethnic hyphenation among whites will surely increase. The leafy base of the American salad bowl wishes to reclaim its romaine, iceberg, arugula, radicchio, and butterhead distinctions.
For one cannot be proud to be lettuce simply—that would incur charges of racism. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial, “The ‘Real’ America, Really,” in which the writer accuses the McCain campaign of portraying the United States as an America of small towns and old fashioned values . . . in other words, a white America. The writer correctly notes that this is a dying America . . . and the campaign is channeling a nostalgia for a past that is slipping away with each passing year. The writer condemns McCain’s plea to “real America” as “divisive rhetoric,” presumably because she does not value the diminishing old way and thinks that the American cultural values of the past have no place in today’s progessive cosmopolitan society. She is, however, compassionately concerned about the anxieties felt by the displaced white people, but she reiterates the multicultural mantra that our diversity is our strength.
I have yet to see any evidence that such is true. Consider Leftist Robert Putnam’s recent work: here are the Boston Globe article, “The Downside of Diversity,” on Putnam’s study, along with John Leo’s “Bowling with Our Own” in the City Journal. Similarly, John Derbyshire frequently points out (for example, here, here, and here) that diversity often destroys the political community, which you can see in the nation carving of the modern democratic age, as I wrote earlier this week. A loss of unity in the political body is its worst condition; it sets the stage for what the Greeks called stasis, or civil war. The diversity of contemporary Palestine, Yugoslavia, and Parisian banlieux tell a very different story . . . What common sense, personal experience, and even a cursory look at human history tell us mean nothing, I suppose, when they blaspheme one of sacred doctrines of current American ideology. As with Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s Bell Curve, some questions are not pious to ask; for the fruit plucked may lead to knowledge unbearable for men who prefer to dwell in the cave of their tribe’s taboos.