What’s Wrong with the World

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May 2008 Archives

May 1, 2008

Compare and Contrast

Compare and contrast, that is, two comics originating from opposite ends of the sociological and ideological spectra, that nonetheless manifest a curious dispositional similarity: Amanda Marcotte's It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Inhospitable Political Environments, a graphic novel detailing the exploits of Choice Girl (perhaps Mark Shea's coinage; I''ll not be purchasing a copy for verification...) against fundamentalists and other anti-abortion retrogrades, who are portrayed as stereotyped African natives (select images at Shea's blog), and this, er, classic of Protestant anti-Catholic bigotry, which lingers over the damnation of all those Christians who have not trusted in the proper verbal formulae.

Numerous are the ways in which these two specimens could be analogized and disanalogized to one another. I'll just mention their longing for a sort of Summing Up, a Great Reckoning, at which the reprobate will be requited with the damnation that is theirs - a will to eschatological finality, and the belief that one already possesses the understanding thereof. It is an atmosphere alien to fine literature of orthodox Christian extraction.

Symbol of Hubris

Five years ago this day, President Bush executed a landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, following the exploit with a speech delivered before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished". The speech proclaimed the end of combat operations.

In commemoration of this august occasion, Clark Stooksbury treats the reader to a selection of delectable quotes, which adjudge Bush to be one of our greatest Presidents, and express the hope that other similar deeds of world-historical greatness will be performed throughout the Near East. It wasn't, though, merely the Respectable Right which swooned that day, but the media much more generally, as Leon Hadar reminds us. Kool-Aid was an exceedingly popular commodity in those days, which demonstrates that the hubris and hegemonism the left would like to pin on Bush and the Republicans is a bipartisan phenomenon, the veritable world-image of the establishment.

Only the far left (and this perhaps incidentally; in politics, one can begin with dodgy premises and yet arrive at the correct conclusions) and the so-called unpatriotic conservatives possessed both conviction and prescience, the latter ridiculed at the time as the oldthought of those who could not grasp that Bush's bold policies created their own realities. Frum himself was shortly to retreat from the implications of his own malodorous effusion, effectively defining a lack of patriotism down into mere defeatism, a euphemism meaning 'skepticism concerning the wisdom and prudence of administration policies, and their prospects of success.' There was something inadvertently prophetic in that elision, something all too characteristic of what the Respectable Right became in the Bush years, when one's loyalty to, and love of, country could be deconstructed because one opposed government policy; government and country were identified; no, more than this, country and president were identified.

That carrier landing was profoundly symbolic, not only of the world-historical folly of an administration, but of the entire atmosphere of those times, in which support for the policies of one man (and the machiavels advisors behind him) could be made a synecdoche for the country. What is disquieting is the realization that present distempers may not be due to the recognition of the folly of such things, but rather to the dispelling of the illusion. We relish that Kool-Aid, and resent mornings-after for coming.

Insurance and Genetic Testing

The Senate has passed legislation ostensibly banning discrimination on the basis of genetic testing results. I suppose that the devil will lie in wait in the details, as always, but I must confess to some degree of bafflement at Richard Spencer's reaction:

The fact is, genes affect susceptibility to disease, and genetic testing can help pinpoint just how and to what degree and thus help insurance companies design specific regimes for specific clients. Washington’s banning of testing simply means that we’ll all be paying higher premiums in order to account for the added risk companies bear due to their taking on certain patients who could easily have been put on different plans.

Reihan Salam had an interesting discussion of the slowly-emerging crisis of genetic testing and the business models of contemporary health-insurance outfits some months ago, though I cannot recall where, precisely; but since risk-sharing is the fundamental premise of insurance, well people paying somewhat more to subsidize the costs of caring for the unwell, as a hedge against uncertainty in their own lives, is just part of the package. We're no longer debating the whether, but rather the how; and the increasing precision of genetic testing augurs a future in which this no longer obtains, in which the genetically blessed pay for risk-management they will not need, while many cannot afford insurance because they are not so blessed, genetically-speaking. Many people will not be placed on different plans, so much as priced out of the market, period. The market rations services by means of the price mechanism, and many of the sick, and those with chronic conditions, will be excluded.

As I've suggested, this will defeat the rationale of insurance in principle, and increasingly in practice; let's say that this shift will constitute an ideal which increasing precision will enable us to approach. Now, as I've also suggested in numerous discussions, we're not about to go all Dickensian, abolishing all forms of social provision and solidarity (at least, I won't bet on it), and if the 'private' insurance industry prices large percentages of the population out of its services (and there is no way that genetic testing will not do this), pressures for political provision will mount, as they are presently, even in the absence of widespread anxiety over genetic testing. This legislation may be horridly crafted, for all I know; I might even wager on that. However, something like it may be a bulwark against the eventual imposition of socialized medicine, in this case an explicit dual system, such as exists in Britain: private physicians for the well-to-do and well, public clinics for the poor and ill.

Genetics cannot be banned; neither will the advance of the science be halted. However, neither can every human good, and every aspect of human fate, be subjected to the unmediated discipline of market mechanisms, as Karl Polanyi would say. The attempt to do so would not only cause enormous suffering, but would actually increase pressures for overtly socialistic measures, which will... cause suffering. Some goods are at least partly public, in other words, and this reality cannot be expunged. It is only the sick who need a physician, and not the healthy.

May 2, 2008

At What Point Does This Slot Into a Larger Narrative?

Following up on the previous post, I should note that Morning's Minion of Vox Nova takes aim at John McCain's health-care proposals, and that on grounds virtually identical to those I cited in opposition to genetic screening as a condition of coverage:

As Ezra Klein notes, this is health insurance for people who don’t need health care. It relies on the idea that insurance should be based on actuarial principles, tying cost to individual risk. Therefore the private market (with products like health savings accounts) can be a very good deal to the young and the healthy, but does very little to those in most need of health care. It is a classic example of where the free market simply does not work, and can be highly unethical. Instead of actuarial insurance, we should strive for social insurance, which is basically risk pooling: the young and healthy subsidize the old and sick, secure in the knowledge that they will be taken care of in a similar situation.

There are, of course, complexities, and Zippy has reminded us, in the preceding thread, of the multivocality of the term "insurance":

Part of the reason genetic testing is controversial is because by providing greater information granularity it is detrimental to 'insurance' understood under one voice (that of providing low-cost health care to people who otherwise could not afford it) and yet beneficial to 'insurance' under other voices (that of providing on-average-more-expensive care but with protection from catastrophic loss, sometimes employing diagnostic/preventive measures).

The trouble with the majority of health-care reform proposals, as with the use of genetic testing as a screening mechanism (let's call it the medical gauntlet), is that, while both senses of 'insurance' are vital to a well-managed system, they end up downplaying or undermining the former sense as a profit-maximizing measure, and emphasizing the latter. And it is precisely the former sense in which health insurance and health provision are natural commons. The attempt to argue around this, to structure policies as though this were not so, and to extend the disciplines of the market into spheres not entirely suited for them, is where, I believe, this policy dispute meshes with a larger narrative.

May 5, 2008

Tax the Polluters

It is impossible not to be sympathetic to the idea that when someone does manifest damage to the commons, he ought to pay for that damage. Environmental regulations can of course be a subterfuge, a political tool used on false pretenses to sieze power for other purposes. But the fact that a thing can be misused does not dismiss it from public discourse tout court. When the damage to the commons is particularly acute and particularly manifest, it seems to me that it is not unreasonable to place the cost burden for that damage on those who, through their own deliberate and free choices in pursuit of their own benefit, do violence to what is not their own but rather belongs to us all.

For that reason, I suggest that divorced people should pay higher taxes - say a 5% kicker on top of their income taxes - than those who are childlessly single and those who are married to their first spouse. If fault is found in a particular divorce the higher tax rates could apply to the at-fault spouse. If the divorce is no-fault, the higher tax rates could apply to either or both spouses: to whomever chose to pursue the divorce.

How long should the higher tax rate last? Ideally it would last for as long as the damage inflicted on the commons lasted. But given the realities of life in this fallen and mortal world, we are unable to levy taxes on the dead.

May 6, 2008

Why I'm not Needed

It's because g-ddamn Charles Murray always seems to say all that needs saying about everything that really matters to me before I can get my posterior in gear to say it myself.

I'm looking for something to add to his essay on the utter insanity of "No Child Left Behind": "The age of educational romanticism" - and, perhaps, in due course, I'll come up with a relevant anecdote or two, since I was working in the trenches of the public schools, while he observed from on high.

But, in the meantime, all I can say is: read the whole thing.

Continue reading "Why I'm not Needed" »

May 8, 2008

Declinist Thoughts

It took a thousand years (give or take) for Western civilization to ascend from this:

to this:

Continue reading "Declinist Thoughts" »

May 9, 2008

The Cognitive Elite and the Legitimation Crisis

Back in March, in response to a discussion that unfolded here at W4, as well as a typically thoughtful essay written by Jim Manzi and published in the dead-tree and digital editions of National Review (though not NR Online), I postulated that the intersection of globalization and our cultural superstitions and taboos about intelligence and education was precipitating a legitimation crisis, in which the downward mobility of the below-average, average, and even many of the above-average would collide with fabulist visions of universal upward mobility in the New Economy. Among other things, I wrote that

As regards the new economy of services, high finance, and god-king CEOs, highly remunerative compensation ultimately correlates with cognitive ability - this was the primary thesis of The Bell Curve, for those who remember - and this fact, operating in tandem with deindustrialization and globalization, both increases the rewards accruing to the cognitive elite and decreases returns to the average, who increasingly find themselves in competition with the average masses of nations at much lower levels of economic development. Education can do nothing to alter this reality, inasmuch as cognitive ability is only marginally malleable under environmental influences, if at all. An emphasis upon educational reform in this connection could actually have perverse effects, such as the devaluation of credentials, leading to market demands for ever more credentialization as a condition of employment, and the erection of additional financial barriers to economic advancement, as the demand for higher education drives up the cost, relentlessly. (Snip)

In the end, the circle cannot be squared, and the dilemmas of globalization still hold. Structural factors dictate the exacerbation of the new inequality, with all that this entails, and this because those structural factors have essentially marketized heritable qualities not amenable to amelioration; simultaneously, those structural factors have developed concurrently with an increasing pursuit of efficiency through arbitrage and labour substitution.

Continue reading "The Cognitive Elite and the Legitimation Crisis" »

May 10, 2008

The AP Gets a Thrill Going Up Its Leg

Yahoo "News" "reports":

Obama rises from political obscurity to verge of history

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer

"The amazement was on their faces. Hundreds waited for Barack Obama on that evening in South Carolina, 15 weeks ago, to claim victory — a surprising victory, surprisingly large.

"And amazing it was. It made it possible for him to stand today on the verge of being the first black person ever nominated for president by a major party.

Continue reading "The AP Gets a Thrill Going Up Its Leg" »

May 11, 2008

Happy Birthday to W4

Somehow I missed until today the fact that What's Wrong with the World has just passed its first birthday. We went official and public on May 1, 2007. One of our first posts, perhaps the first, as near as I can figure, was this very fine piece by our editor, Paul Cella. It was put up just before we invited everyone over. I think of it often.

I want to thank Paul for his leadership and my fellow contributors for all your work. And thanks to our readers, without whom, etc. And once again a hearty thanks and three cheers to Todd McKimmey, our generous site owner.

A happy Mother's Day to all the moms in sound of my cybervoice. And a blessed Pentecost to everyone, too.


The purpose of this notice is to announce that the comments feature of my earlier post, At What Point Does This Slot Into a Larger Narrative, has been disabled, not as a means of foreclosing upon discussion, but because, the discussion having arrived at first principles, it will be more fruitful for it to continue in a new thread. A new entry elaborating on that earlier discussion should be posted later today, although it will probably have to wait until I have prepared dinner for my wife and my mother - it being Mother's Day, after all.

An encomium to ziploc bags

Lest anyone should think that I've grown tepid in my enthusiasm for the free market from any of my recent comments or from any coming soon, here is a post at my own blog on the greatness of ziploc bags and of the "supply creates its own demand" phenomenon. Please feel free to leave comments on the post. I apologize for the moderation at the personal site and hope it will not be forever, but I do moderate quickly.

Health Care and Social Obligations

Somewhat astonishingly (though why I continue to find this astonishing, at my age, remains a mystery), recent discussions of health care as a type of social provision have precipitated impassioned declarations of (what certainly sounds like) libertarian ethical norms: the (allegedly - this is the locus of a begged question) mere fact that someone is suffering from a malady, the treatment for which he cannot afford out of his personal resources, does not imply, create, or impose, let alone entail, an obligation on the part of any other individual to remedy that want. So strong is this libertarian principle that it is not merely 'socialized medicine' that traduces it, but the very vaunted private health care system itself, which, through the mechanisms of mandated insurance coverages, risk-pooling, and the proscription of genetic screening, ensures the extension of coverage to many who would be excluded were risks to be individualized. The sick do not have a right to our money, in order to procure treatment, not even the comparative pittance factored into an insurance premium so that such higher risks might be adequately underwritten. Presumably, a starving man would not have a right to our bread, either.

Moreover, in accordance with such principles, those risks should be socialized on a purely voluntary basis, in and through families, churches, and other voluntary institutions established for charitable purposes; there obtain no enforceable claims upon such benefactions, which should alight upon the sick and infirm only insofar as those possessed of health and wealth will it, and only to that degree made possible by the gratuitous movements of their sovereign wills.

Much could be said of this, especially that a species of economistic dogmatism now impels some ranged along the right spectrum of our political culture to war against an inevitably flawed, but fundamentally decent, system, and this in the name of an ideological figment which cannot be translated into reality, and that this intransigence will eventually beget something far worse. The endeavour to fully marketize the domain of health provision, leaving the individual naked, with all of his weaknesses and frailties, before the utterly impersonal and unforgiving mechanisms of the market, petitioning those who clutch their wealth to their breasts like the misers of many a parable for relief, as a pious man might petition the Almighty, will shipwreck on the very structural foundations of modern society. Indeed, the argument has already been sketched:

...since the origin of any thing is, at a minimum, a clue to its nature or essence, we ought to attend to the fact that widespread health provision was originally a ministry of the Church, and founded as a charitable endeavour. Nevertheless, the Church or, more broadly, charitable institutions, can only assume such a tremendous burden - particularly in a more complex modern society - if they can command vastly more social authority than they do presently, exercise more overt social power on the basis of that authority, and command a greater percentage of adherents' resources than those adherents presently provide under our purely voluntaristic models of giving. One cannot recreate a social form without first recreating its conditions of existence.

The problem is amenable of simple restatement, yet the solution is difficult: yes, there was a time when the provision of health services was largely under the direction of the Church, when this was mainly a charitable work, and occurred under the auspices of few, if any, civil laws; and in those times, the Church wielded such authority and power and wealth as modernity has stripped from Her, and, not to mention, standards of care, and the technologies by which those standards were realized, were orders of magnitude more primitive. Libertarians, I can only assume, presuppose that the existence of any social institution is as arbitrary as the movements of will in the breast of the superman; that we have the health care and insurance systems we do is thus arbitrary, not in the loose sense of being artifactual, but in the strict sense of reflecting, and conforming to, no facts in the real world. We only have them because certain interest groups have foisted them upon us, and not because they answer to any aspect of reality - and those people are very bad for doing the foisting.

In reality, total expenditures on health care exceed the wealth commanded by all churches combined; moreover, a perusal of the budgetary statements of the average church - say, a parish like my own - will confirm that there exists no fiscal fat that could be trimmed to pay for 'routine' cancer treatment, let alone every medical necessity that would portend the bankruptcy of a family. The counsel that 'we cannot know unless it has been tried' is not merely an exercise in ideological anachronism, but a declaration that folly is not folly until it has been performed.

Continue reading "Health Care and Social Obligations" »

May 12, 2008

Gaseous Clouds of Self-Deception

It is not a frequent occurrence for me to find myself in agreement with David Frum. Nevertheless, when Frum writes of Doug Kmeic, a pro-life supporter of Obama, that he has descended into sheer foggy unintelligibility, I am compelled to agree. Consider this exercise in tumescent obfuscation:

Thus, as I see it, it is a choice between two less than sufficient courses:

(a) the continuation of an effort to appoint men and women to the Court who are thought willing to overturn Roe through divisive confirmation proceedings that undermine respect for law and understate the significance of non-abortion issues in a judicial candidate’s evaluation; or

(b) working with a new president who honestly concedes the abortion decision poses serious moral issues which he argues can only be fully and successfully resolved by the mother facing it with the primary obligation of the community seeing to it that she is as well informed as possible in the making of it.

It is a prudential judgment which course is more protective of life.

As I recall, Hegel, renowned and reviled for the turgidity of his prose, was more lucid than this.

Frum observes:

Here's what's really going on: Doug Kmiec, a former dean at the Catholic University of America, has decided that quitting Iraq is more important to him than stopping abortion. Fine! His call! It's a free country!

And that is quite right. Kmiec is entitled to his conviction that the war in Iraq is an unjust boondoggle, and that the capture-the-courts strategy of the pro-life movement isn't all it's cracked up to be. I agree with the first conviction, and have some degree of sympathy for the second, as I indicated in a post expressing my irreconcilable opposition to John McCain's candidacy. But that great gust of verbal vapor is doing more than merely veiling the Iraq issue behind the abortion question; it's also fudging that question itself. Consider Kmiec's (b), which, being translated, means that abortion raises serious moral issues which can only be resolved by an informed choice, underwritten by the community. That could mean that abortion instantiates a conflict of value-judgments, which is only resolved by a choice, but that is to say no more than what orthodox cultural liberalism says in its more sober moods: yes, there's a conflict there, but it's her body, so she decides. It could also mean that a moral dilemma is resolved by a content-neutral choice, but that is to say that moral controversies are resolved non-morally, which is utterly unintelligible. Further, it could mean that abortion presents a moral dilemma, which can only be resolved by an informed choice, 'informed' implying all of the substantive facts about the human sacrifice act; however, Kmiec is attributing the view to Obama, and Obama doesn't believe that. Hence, we must be dealing with one of the first two options, options that are not only utterly conventional, politically-speaking - meaning that there really is no reason to associate with Obama, uniquely, on their basis - and rather unusual for pro-lifers, at least so far as I can determine.

Just say it, man: you oppose the war, and Obama is more likely to end it than McCain (not much more, in my judgment, but there you are). Please, though, abstain from acts of self-deception where abortion is concerned; at least let us be clear about that.

May 15, 2008

Islam and Free Speech.

[Note: I posted this last week at Redstate. It provoked a considerable debate, which can be perused (with some amusement, I think) in the comments.]

We must allow for the possibility that Islam as such is a threat to this country. Even more bluntly: The question of the character of Islamic doctrine — whether it can be tolerated without fatal exposure to its war-making titles — must remain an open question if we are to remain a free people.

Here is the enigma with this whole business. Most Americans, Right and Left, will profess belief in a very robust principle of Free Speech. Thus the idea of curbing discussion on an important topic will arouse their repugnance. I have argued in the past for legislation embracing certain aspects of Islamic doctrine — the dogmas, specifically, of Holy War (jihad), Holy Subjugation (dhimma) and perhaps Sharia law itself — into our current sedition law: in other words, outlawing the promulgation of these dogmas. Even among people favorably deposed toward an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Islam, this is met with suspicion and hostility.

Fair enough — but why abandon this Free Speech principle when it comes to the character of the Islamic religion? There is the perplexity and the frustration. People jealous to preserve a “marketplace of ideas,” where true ideas will “out-compete” false ones in the end, while understandably hostile toward my proposal to proscribe certain forms of Islamic speech, yet exhibit an apparent insouciance about proposals (less overt than mine, to be sure) to proscribe certain forms of speech about Islam.

Continue reading "Islam and Free Speech." »

May 16, 2008

Irena Sendlerowa, R.I.P.

Irena Sendlerowa has died, at the age of 98. Though she was nominated last year for the Nobel Peace Prize (won, absurdly enough, by Al Gore, for his global warming scare-mongering) few have ever heard of her.

According to this informative BBC profile from 2005, she was a Polish Catholic nurse working for the health and care department of the city of Warsaw in 1940 when its German Governor ordered the confinement of the city's jews to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. The story continues:

Continue reading "Irena Sendlerowa, R.I.P." »

One Should Understand Talking Points Before Parroting Them

Simply astonishing:

Were it not for the manner in which such facile sloganeering has been employed to stifle the deliberative business of a republican people, to identify support for specific (dubious) policies and the men who formulate them with a patriotic love of country, to obfuscate the distinctions between appeasement and ordinary diplomacy, to mutilate history for ideological purposes, and to imply that geopolitical realities are always malleable by the omnipotence of the Indispensable Nation, I'd almost feel some pity for the man. As matters stand, however, he has rendered an ironic public service, disclosing to the nation and the world (were it to require a further superabundance of proofs) the intellectual corruption and penury of our public discourse. James' performance should serve as a symbol of our era in American political culture. Laugh, to conceal the pain.

May 18, 2008

All Things Wise and Wonderful

My relative lack of inspiration for new blog posts in the last weeks is to be blamed on the glorious weather here, which has taken me outdoors and away from the computer screen. (I'll think of a different excuse next month when it's hot and unpleasant.)

Meanwhile, here is another post more or less in this series (see also here) about things that are themselves and have value for their own sake.

Seeking to rise above politics, I commend to my readers a moment of appreciation and thanks to God for human activities that involve skill and/or knowledge, that are endlessly interesting and have justly endured for many years. I'll start the list, hoping not to duplicate too much from earlier posts. Readers are warmly invited to add to it.

Continue reading "All Things Wise and Wonderful" »

May 20, 2008

China's Ascendancy is Not Inevitable, Only Probable

The most recent estimates of the casualties of the magnitude 7.9 earthquake centered in Sichuan Province suggest that upwards of 30,000 persons have been confirmed dead, and that as many as 100,000 may be unaccounted for. The tragedy, as Rod Dreher has observed, is more profound than even the enormous loss of life itself; owing to the inhumanity of China's one-child policy, many families have lost their only children, and with them, the possibility that their lineages will continue on this earth. The death of a child is an incomparable loss, for which there can exist but one terrestrial consolation, that a family will nonetheless continue, and honour the memory of its departed members. For many of these families, this loss, however, represents the prolepsis of the end, the blotting out of their memory from among the children of men.

Compounding this unutterable tragedy is the knowledge among the locals that it was largely unnecessary, that it might have been averted, but for the kleptocratic ways of local government officials, who appropriated for their own employments funds allocated for construction projects, skimping on materials as compensation:

Continue reading "China's Ascendancy is Not Inevitable, Only Probable" »


Barack Obama, speaking on the stump in Oregon over the weekend, and arguing that America must "lead by example" on environmental questions, stated that "We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK." To do so would represent a failure of leadership.

The response of the conservative commentariat was as predictable as the rising of the sun, death, and taxation. Jim Geraghty, writing at NRO's Campaign Spot, delivered himself of the following:

Would an Obama Administration really mean an end to "eating as much as we want?"

I want to jokingly ask if that includes airstrikes on buffet tables, or John Kerry's "global test" being followed up by Barack Obama's "global diet," but I'm semi-serious — Obama apparently feels Americans eating as much as they want is something that cannot continue, or at least with other countries' approval. What will his administration do to change that? If he isn't going to act as president on this matter, why bring it up?

Radio and TV talk-show host Glenn Beck was still more substantive than Geraghty, playing the old Soviet National anthem and declaiming that the counsels of Obama portended the imminent imposition of socialism and the demise of capitalism, and therewith the abrogation of the American way of life.

Frankly speaking, were any government, let alone our own, to establish a Quantitative Dietary Commission, for the purpose of promulgating and enforcing dietary moderation, it would be an abomination, not to mention utterly unfeasible. Nonetheless, I'm dubious that any such thing lies in prospect, and find this characteristic combination of mockery and fearmongering to be hyperbolic and overwrought. It seems manifest that, in context, Obama was not so much isolating three discrete instances of American crapulence, each of which he proposes to moderate by coercive regulation, as associating the three under a general rubric of excess and indifference, desire and entitlement, and were conservatives interested in reckoning with reality instead of scoring political points and stoking fears, they might relate Obama's utterance to recent news. For example, interpreted in connection with ongoing price inflation in foodstuffs, driven in part by the American insistence on converting food into fuel for the Happy Motoring Paradise, which has occasioned shortages and hunger abroad, Obama is essentially stating that Americans cannot a) consume all of the motor fuels they want by driving as much as they want, even transforming food into fuel in order to do so, b) eat as much food as they want, further pressuring world supplies, and c) consume yet more energy pretending that our homes can all possess, at all times, the internal climate of San Diego on a fine Spring day, and then, d) expect the remainder of the world to accept our actions as legitimate. In what alternative universe would the rest of the world, particularly the poorer parts thereof, deliver the verdict that, in a globalized economy, American profligacy is legitimate, even when it adversely impacts them? No one reasons in such a fashion: what that other party does demonstrably harms me, but it's all OK, because they possess the right to do the things that indirectly, though logically, cause those harms.

I reiterate that I oppose the creation of a Quantitative Dietary Commission, the legal regulation of thermostat settings, and the proscription of the SUV. Not that my opposition is of any consequence, as none of these things is really in view. It appears to me that 'market incentives' are addressing these questions, at least to some extent. Nonetheless, there is something more at work here.

Continue reading "Unserious" »

May 21, 2008

Viva la revolucion!

Via Jeff Culbreath I found this marvelous essay on the hope, the joy, the true liberty in gardening with your own hands. It contains numerous little gems like this: “The planting of seeds in my garden, by hand, on my knees, is a simple action of rebellion against the modern order. It is an act of wisdom and significance in the midst of a foolish and vacuous world. It is voluntary submission to an older, higher calling.”

I do not yet have a garden to speak of. The house we bought last year sits on a considerable acreage, but it is massively overgrown. Right now, however, I am enjoying the fruits of the hard work I put in over the past year, clearing out a section of that overgrowth. In late March, to my surprised delight, a mass of rye grass (presumably with good shade tolerance) sprouted up in the section I had cleared. I did not plant the stuff. As a more knowledgeable friend remarked, you never know what will turn up when you clear out the weeds.

The appearance of the rye grass accelerated my timetable. I had planned on another year of clearing and tilling, followed by seeding early next spring. But with the rye coming up on its own, I decided to seed some fescue out there with it. That was six weeks ago. On Sunday I mowed the section for the first time. Thankfully, the drought in north Georgia has abated this spring, so it looks like I’ll have a good solid section of lawn by mid-summer. And I am already at work, clearing a different section in preparation for the garden.

So indeed I know something of the joy of this small “rebellion against the modern order.”

Now this post could hardly be complete without a quotation from our patron saint:

The man who makes an orchard where there has been a field, who owns the orchard and decides to whom it shall descend, does also enjoy the taste of apples; and let us hope, also, the taste of cider. But he is doing something very much grander, and ultimately more gratifying, than merely eating an apple. He is imposing his will upon the world in the manner of the charter given him by the will of God; he is asserting that his soul is his own, and does not belong to the Orchard Survey Department, or the chief Trust in the Apple Trade. But he is also doing something which was implicit in all the most ancient religions of the earth; in those great panoramas of pageantry and ritual that followed the order of the seasons in China or Babylonia; he is worshipping the fruitfulness of the world.

— Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows, 1935.

May 22, 2008

Why Might That Be?

George Neumayr, discussing the seeming abdication of the Republican and conservative establishment from the cultural conflicts of the age, particularly in the wake of the California marriage ruling, observes:

Mush, not real substance, is all that's on offer in the Big Tent. Even the California Supreme Court's ruling in favor of gay marriage, which supposedly represents a great political opportunity for Republicans, underscores the GOP's identity problem: the ruling's author, Justice Ron George, is a liberal Republican, as is the governor who promises to back it. (Snip)

Meanwhile, John McCain's stance on this issue is about as galvanizing as his opposition to "amnesty." What exactly is the major difference between his position and Obama's? They both technically oppose gay marriage, and they both support the right of states to enact gay marriage. Perhaps the only difference in the end will be that McCain also supports the right of states to reject it (though presumably Obama, if only for political reasons, holds this view at the moment too).

ON SUCH SLENDER reeds hangs the GOP's agenda. Commentators predict a coming "culture war" between the Democrats and Republicans on this issue. I doubt it. A culture war presupposes two fighting sides. Only the Democrats are fighting on this one, and prominent Republicans long ago surrendered one of the principles upon which opposition to gay marriage rests: it is bad for children.

Democrats are full of passionate certainty, but Republicans grow ever more vague, opposing gay marriage merely on democratic, not moral, grounds. The media still clings to the culture-war model, but it looks more and more anachronistic.

Now, I do declare that I cannot discern a single reason for the conservative/Republican capitulation on this issue. It is unfathomable, defying comprehension to the last.

May 23, 2008

Passing quotas

Via VFR comes this story of a teacher who did not get tenure because he failed too many students at a remedial college.

Steven Aird enforced a written policy at Nofolk State University according to which students can be failed if they do not attend at least 80% of the class sessions for a course. The policy was set up because Norfolk, a traditionally black school, accepts many students from difficult backgrounds. Coming to class is therefore especially important for the students. This sounds reasonable enough, but when Aird took the policy literally and began giving D's and F's to about 90% of his students, the administration gave him the old heave-ho.

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May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

From the Book of Common Prayer:

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead; We give thee thanks for all those thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence, that the good work which thou hast begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord. Amen.


Image courtesy Arlington National Cemetery.

May 28, 2008

Marital Simulacrae and Commodification

Rod Dreher has been posting a veritable cornucopia of resigned commentaries, tinged perhaps with a measure of despair, on the apparently inexorable societal death march towards the dissolution of marriage since the California Supreme Court's issuance of its egalitarian diktat. In the most recent of these commentaries, each of which has broached numerous substantive issues meriting further comment, and relied upon the MacIntyrean judgment that moral disagreements in late modernity are incommensurable (late modern 'ethics' being essentially emotivist, its valorized ideals of selfhood, autonomy, and desire regarded by classical and Christian ethics as the collective fons et origo of those problems moral theory is supposed to solve), Dreher references Margaret Liu McConnell's recent essay on marriage in the American Conservative, en route to a citation of Scalia's typically prescient dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, averring that he found her argument wanting:

But we must recognize that insisting that traditional marriage is best for raising children is not effective. A better approach is to emphasize that traditional marriage promotes the ideal that no parent should abandon his child. Who would argue against that? It’s consistent with other governmental policies in the area of child welfare. It’s in accord with human nature. But making the argument requires the courage, honesty, and humility to say that some ways of procreating are not as good for the general welfare as others, whether the parents are of the same sex or are married heterosexuals.

Adoptive parents do God’s work when they provide homes to children, and those homes can be as loving and stable as the home of any natural mother and father. But adoption is a humane response to what is already a tragedy in a child’s life, the loss of a parent. Those adorable adoptees from China, for example, are the byproduct of a cruel policy of child restriction that has lead to the deaths of thousands of children.

Reproductive technology, like adoption, without doubt can produce children who are loved by their new parents in homes as stable as those of any biological parents. But the various techniques, when employed by same-sex couples, always require that at least one of the child’s natural parents give up the child. This tempting world of sperm banks and egg brokers is the domain of the affluent and easily verges toward eugenics.

Adoption and reproductive technology as methods of forming our next generation are no foundation for a stable society. Social order doesn’t depend on parents being forced to give up their children for adoption because of poverty, illness, supposed unfitness, or the brutal policies of a foreign country—nor on parents giving up their children in advance of birth in sterile, scientific transactions. Those historical Supreme Court cases declaring marriage a fundamental right lauded the stability-promoting aspects of marriage, emphasizing the good that radiates throughout the broader society from the promise the man and woman make on their wedding day: “Marriage … creat[es] the most important relation in life … having more to do with the morals and civilization of a people than any other institution.” “Upon it society may be said to be built, and out of its fruits spring social relations and social obligations and duties.” The promise of the married couple to keep and care for one another and for their children engenders a respect for unconditional responsibility that serves us all.

Extending marriage to same-sex couples would leave no other institution to promote the ideal that every parent promises to care for his child. It’s easier for fathers to walk away from their responsibilities when society no longer promotes the simple norm that a child belongs to both parents equally, and each has a duty to care for the child—the norm encompassed in traditional marriage. As the NAACP, La Raza Centro Legal, and the National Association of Social Workers know, the pain and deprivation caused by the erosion of this norm fall hardest on the poor.

Now, I suppose that one ought to distinguish between two senses of persuasion: will such an argument be, in actuality, persuasive to our juristocracy, steeped as it is in the doctrine that each individual is entitled to define for himself the meaning of life and the universe? and should such an argument carry persuasive rational force for those concerned for the ontological integrity of the involved states, categories, and classes? As regards the former question, it cannot be gainsaid that our legal caste will not find the argument persuasive, not in the least measure. A series of legal precedents have bestowed upon the sovereign individual the right to conjure from the nothingness of his passions some fictive meaning of the universe, and, pursuant thereto, decreed that discrimination between such fictions is invidious, motivated solely by animus. The Court has already adjudged that there obtains no rational basis for such discrimination, and any argument concerning the status of children will be regarded as an attempt to clothe in the garb of rationality more of the same old irrational prejudices.

Nonetheless, aside from the hackneyed conceits of late modernity and its increasingly strident nominalism, such an argument ought to be persuasive, though the matter is considerably more grave than McConnell expresses. It is not merely that emotivist-nominalist marriage, extended to homosexuals, will enshrine in law the principle that some parents must abandon their children for the sake of the rights-regime, but that such a marital regime entails the commodification of children. Children, in Christian thought, are a supervenient grace; upon the intrinsic good of the conjugal, self-giving love of husband and wife, the gift of new life supervenes, both ratifying and expanding the good of marital love. More than this, a marriage open to children instantiates the great cosmo-theological principle that through self-giving, self-sacrifice, and abnegation (marriage is regarded as both loving and martyric), the world is reborn; by dying to ourselves, we instead receive life more abundantly. Such an order also renders our origins concrete and particular; we are rooted in particular histories and places and lineages. The deformation of marriage to accommodate homosexuals* will definitively ratify and cement in place a contrary principle, once children are factored into the 'marital' equation: children, desired by many such couples, will become objects of felt entitlement, and claim-rights upon their 'inclusion' in such marital units will be asserted; but because such unions are intrinsically infecund, the claim will thus be that adoption and reproductive technologies be enshrined as rights, so that all can claim their 'rights' to produce or possess a child. The child will no longer be a gift, a living symbol of a love which precedes him and envelopes him, but something something acquired or created, to the end that someone might 'fulfill himself' or realize his private conception of the meaning of the universe; this will entail the apotheosis of the consumerist mentality of us moderns: as we consume - according to the logic of advertising & etc. - in order to create our very selves, the things we acquire being instrumentalized towards the satisfaction of transient desire, so even children, sundered from natural biological origins, will be instruments of lifestyle preference-satisfaction. This is the gateway to the final frontier of commodification. When once we admit into law and culture the idea that some persons exist, or may be brought under the discipline of existing, so as to complete the world-images of others, conjured from the nothingness of their desires, a fathomless abyss of evils will lie before us.

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May 29, 2008

Cash Value of the Playboy Philosophy

Via Rod Dreher comes this GQ article on Hugh Hefner's son Marston, who is preparing for his first semester at college. The article bears reading, I suppose, as a cultural artifact; there is, after all, a frozen-in-amber quality to the atmosphere at the Playboy Mansion, one that goes beyond the decor and special features, which have passed unchanged from hip to dated to retro. Decadence is rather monotonous. The real reason to read it, however, is the revelation of just how pathetic the lifestyle turns out to be in the end: Hugh cannot recall the age of his children in a photo, and requires talking points about Marston in order to get through the interview, and sounds a mighty blast from the trumpet upon rising from his couch, wearied by the effort of having to talk about his own son:

Sounding the trumpet valedictory for the Playboy philosophy, ah reckon.

About what it's worth, too. Things of inestimable importance fell by the wayside, and so the entire thing amounts to so much noxious vapor. What a loser.

What is a vote?

Zippy has raised the above question in a post on his blog. Over a year ago I had firmly intended to write a post on this topic to convince conservatives not to vote for Rudy Giuliani. As the Giuliani issue has become moot, I had thought that I would not write it after all. Now I learn to my horror that (as Maximos reported here) some pro-lifers who are strongly anti-war are talking about voting for, of all people, Barak Obama.

Now, to my mind, this idea is beneath contempt. That is, if we are talking about a voter who is truly pro-life as opposed to someone who makes sad noises about abortion while really thinking in his heart that war is at least as bad as or worse than the continual, deliberate, legal slaughter of the innocent. And because I think a "pro-life" argument for voting for the likes of Obama is beneath contempt, I've hesitated to write a post on the topic of voting lest it give unwarranted attention or support to such an idea.

However, I have to admit that the question of what a vote is is an interesting one, and since Zippy has brought it up in so many words, I am inclined to give my answer here and some arguments and intuition pumps to support that answer. So, as a first approximation...

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May 30, 2008

Beyond Belief

Or, almost beyond belief, given what we know about the degradation of the humanities under the ministrations of 'cultural studies' vandals:

And you thought that the Middle Ages was all about jousting knights and damsels in distress. That's because you have never attended the medievalists' congress, the annual first-weekend-in-May ritual at Western Michigan where Persels read his wine-bottle theorizing and where it is definitely not your grandfather's Middle Ages. Persels's paper was part of a Thursday morning panel titled "Waste Studies: Excrement in the Middle Ages" and devoting a full hour and a half to human effluvia. The other two scholars that morning read papers dealing with excrement in Icelandic sagas and the theology of latrines.

Waste studies is a brand new academic discipline invented by Susan Signe Morrison, a dark-haired, extroverted 49-year-old professor of English at Texas State University's San Marcos campus and mother of two (her husband is also an English professor) who organized the session and admitted with good-humored candor in an email that her new field's disgust-provoking subject matter might be a "challenge" to scholars thinking about specializing in it. Morrison's own specialty as a medievalist used to be women on pilgrimages, but then she got the idea for her latest book, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics, forthcoming this September. In her email she explained that the idea for the fecal book came to her partly because she noticed that dung and privies played a role in the works of Chaucer, Dante, and other medieval authors, and partly because her "son was potty-training." And so a new scholarly industry was born.

Initially, I believed, or was greatly desirous of believing, that Charlotte Allen's essay in the Weekly Standard was an elaborate satire. This because, in spite of myself, and perhaps against my better knowledge, I do not wish to be that cynical. Alas, satire it was not, but a Boschean vision of horror translated to this plane of being. Fecopoetics. The very notion raises the serious question of whether the night of simple ignorance might be preferable to such willful endarkenment. Is it time?

Slick Marketing and Packaging

Daniel Larison offers the following commentary on this NPR opinion poll:

Put simply: when voters are considering the policy substance offered by the competing parties, the Republican position scarcely wins a majority of its own partisans and loses badly with everyone else. (Concerning Iraq - ed. note) (snip)

More striking, and also of interest to readers of TAC, is the difference among Republican respondents to positions on trade. When told that it was the Republican “free trade” position, Republicans agreed with it 63-33. Without partisan cues, Republicans agreed with a less “free trade”-oriented Democratic statement that included a call to renegotiate NAFTA 54-43. That’s a forty-one point swing that apparently hinges entirely on partisanship. All that cognitive dissonance has to give these people a headache. (snip) The Republicans have a policy problem.

So, when not conditioned to respond ritualistically to the invocation of GOP shibboleths, Republican respondents actually opposed the established GOP orthodoxy on trade, and approached an even split on the signature GOP policy of eternal war fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them here. While Ross Douthat suggests, facetiously, that the GOP might have to elect a new American people in order to deal with this policy crisis, my take isn't quite so tongue-in-cheek. I think that these figures, if replicated, would set in sociological and political context the perverse opposition of GOP elites to the base on the matter of immigration, not to mention the slapping-down administered to the base this winter, when Huckabee captured the affections of the largest GOP contingent: they really might prefer to elect a new people, though in the meantime they will attempt to bamboozle their voters with slick marketing and packaging, aka. agitprop, to induce them to vote against their own interests. The GOP deserves an electoral bloodbath, just as the Democrats deserved one in the Seventies. And they may well get it. Or not. Perhaps the womb of illusion is preferable, for their average voters, to the coldness and harsh light of reality, which is that they have been played for suckers, in more ways than one.