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December 2008 Archives

December 1, 2008

A Neo-Scholastic revival?

Neo-Scholasticism was a movement within philosophy and theology which sought to revive, develop, and defend Scholastic thought in general and Thomism in particular as an alternative to the various schools of modern thought. It flourished from the years just prior to Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris to the close of Vatican II in 1965. As those temporal markers indicate, it was mostly a Catholic movement, but there were several prominent non-Catholic thinkers who sympathized with the Aristotelian themes emphasized by most Neo-Scholastics. Mortimer Adler, John Wild, and Henry Veatch would be three examples. (Adler did finally convert to Catholicism not long before his death.)

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December 2, 2008

Notes on the crisis, pt. II

The Wall Street Journal featured a fine piece of reporting some days ago aptly headlined, “Anatomy of the Morgan Stanley Panic.” It is well worth reading for anyone seeking insight into how the crisis was precipitated, with specific emphasis on the interaction of short-selling and derivatives.

The article details the panic of mid-September. Back then, like many banks, Morgan Stanley careened toward ruin, propelled by plunging stock value, rapid credit derivative inflation, and a flight of capital by hedge funds. It nearly fell off the cliff, and in the end required state assistance to survive.

Morgan Stanley can probably function as a metonym for investment banking in late modern America. The sector no longer exists on Wall Street, strictly speaking. It fell to the vicissitudes of human psychology, exaggerated and accelerated by the web of abstraction which had been its bread and butter for a decade.

Continue reading "Notes on the crisis, pt. II" »

December 3, 2008

Secular conservatism

Today Jonah Goldberg took Kathleen Parker and others to task here for some of the silly and ill-informed things they have been saying in defense of “secular conservatism.” Goldberg then posted some remarks of mine on this debate here, and a none-too-amused Heather MacDonald replied to me in turn here. Scroll through the comments on MacDonald’s post for my reply to her reply.

December 4, 2008

The burden of bad ideas

So, Heather MacDonald has replied to my reply to her. Take a look and then come back.

Welcome back.

Now, a little thought experiment. Suppose you were a professional physicist. Suppose further that that you came across the writings of someone whose knowledge of quantum mechanics derived entirely from discussions with high school science students. She had picked up from them some of the jargon – “collapse of the wave function,” “Schrödinger’s cat,” “wave-particle duality,” and so forth – but because their explanations were amateurish at best – always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off-base – they failed to convey to her anything close to an accurate picture of the subject. Bizarrely, though, she used the bad information she’d picked up from them as the basis for an attack on the intellectual respectability of quantum mechanics, presenting it as clear evidence of the irrationality of contemporary physicists. “These physics oddballs claim they have a cat in a lab somewhere that is both alive and dead at the same time! And they also believe in little magic particles floating on foamy cosmic waves, or some such thing. Oogedy-boogedy, as my friend Kathleen would say. Maybe we conservatives ought to stay away from them. Maybe start a blog too. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, we might look as foolish and clueless as they do!”

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The Christendom Review

Bill Luse, formerly a contributor here at What’s Wrong with the World, has launched a new project with some old friends: an online journal called The Christendom Review. High polemics, philosophy, literature, poetry, art — no aspect of the life of the mind will be forgotten on this site. The first number, for instance, features two wonderful short stories, and plenty of good poetry, including one of Bill’s own compositions. Here is a portion of the note he sent me:

A section of the first issue is devoted to Smith Kirkpatrick, the man who taught [editor Richard Barnett] and me how to write. Though he will be unfamiliar to many W4 readers, I still think they might enjoy some of the essays. Or, as I say in the editors’ note: “Many, perhaps most, readers did not know him, but we believe that if you give the reminiscences here collected a fair chance, you might wish that you had.” Mention should be made of the fact that you and Lydia have articles therein, and that there is also fiction, poetry and art to accomplish our desired goal, that “...all readers...find somewhere in these pages a place of rest, a point of insight or exhilaration, a sign of hope and grace, some encouragement that the life of letters, and of all art, still has a message to bear in the bloodstream of our society; and that, in the hands of good men and women, it might yet remain one of the higher gestures of love for our fellows.” And lastly, offer our deepest thanks to our webmaster, Todd McKimmey.

The Christendom Review. Long may it prosper.

December 5, 2008

FOCA forcing with federal funds

I had a brief discussion with commentator msb in an earlier thread about the question of how, exactly, the so-called Freedom of Choice Act could be used to force hospitals and doctors to be complicit in abortion. My only question has been how that coercion would work, legally. What, exactly, would the removal of special conscience protection for abortion mean? Are doctors usually required to provide or refer for any procedure if the state they are in does not have an explicit conscience provision allowing them not to provide or refer for that procedure? What would the mechanism of coercion be if explicit state conscience protections for abortion were removed?

Now, via (of all places) Slate, by way of Secondhand Smoke, comes the plausible answer: Threat of withdrawal of federal funds.

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December 6, 2008

A Note on Political Correctness and the Rule of Law

I did not read any of the articles announcing that Tory shadow minister Damian Green had been arrested, on the grounds that he had been the recipient of 'leaked' documents containing 'state secrets'. Instead, I heard on numerous BBC radio broadcasts that he had been so arrested, whereupon the reporters and panelists descended into an increasingly tedious discussion of whether any procedural violations occurred, and, if so, what were the ramifications for democratic government in the UK.

Cynically, and knowing the character of the Labour government which has held the reins of power since 1997 - that it is in thrall to the worst of politically-correct nostrums, and prefers to implement them administratively wherever possible, so as to foreclose upon any actual discussion - it was my intuition that Mr. Green had not disclosed any genuine state secrets of the sort that impact sensitive matters of security or diplomacy, but rather that he had disclosed the connivance of the Labour regime in some politically-correct scheme contrary to the interests of native Britons, which Labour wanted concealed for that very reason - that it would be embarrassing.

And so it was.

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December 7, 2008

An open letter to Heather MacDonald

Over at Secular Right, Heather MacDonald has added a reply of her own to John Derbyshire’s reply to my previous reply to her. Dizzy yet?

Anyway, here’s a response that I hope will bring this exchange, if not to a close, then at least into greater focus:

Hello again Ms. MacDonald,

If you’ll forgive me for saying so, it seems to me that you keep missing my point. On top of that, you are now trying to change the subject. If you will indulge me for a few minutes – and it seems that a more in-depth reply is, after all, what you are requesting of me – let me try to explain how.

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December 9, 2008

The Homintern Strikes Back

Frank's new post on Lisa Miller's eisegetical follies, and the numerous responses thereto, also makes mention of Jon Meacham's equally atrocious foray into biblical (mis)interpretation. Daniel Larison offers what is to my mind a compelling rejoinder:

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December 13, 2008

Telling children about evil

(Hurray! After three days or so, Charter finally fixed the connection, so now I can be on-line for more than five minutes at a time!)

At View from the Right, Lawrence Auster raises the interesting subject of how to talk to your children about evil. He does it by highlighting a column by a liberal mother (The New York Times's Judith Warner) who prevaricates with her eight-year-old daughter about the trampling at the Wal-Mart store on Black Friday: "I'm not sure that they knew that they'd done it." Yeah, right.

And yet Warner is rightly concerned about her child's seeing gruesome things that don't belong in her mind--blood-spattered pictures of the Mumbai terrorist attack, for example, or (of all things) a Scholastic novel narrated by a member of the Hitler Youth.

I believe in sheltering children. I just don't think she's approaching it the right way.

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On Blagojevich

The nation's attention has been riveted by two spectacles this week, one a tragedy - the impending collapse of the domestic automobile industry, and with it much of America's remaining manufacturing capacity and expertise, and therewith as well any hope of America rectifying its chronic trade imbalances and avoiding an ultimate reduction to the status of economic colony - and the other, l'affair Blagojevich, a rousing farce. No, make that a burlesque. Most of the commentary has focused on the corrupt dealings at the heart of the scandal, and the question of whether and how Blago will be removed from office. The remainder of the commentary has dwelt upon his profanity-laden tirades.

The most delectable of his utterances, however, was free of profanity, and perhaps for that reason, much more revealing, ultimately, of both the character of the man and the nature of the system in which he, like most professional politicians, operates. His statement was that he wished to monetize the relationships he had established as governor. Ah, there's the hard kernel of the thing, so redolent of so much in our society, from the way the meritocracy really functions to the self-dealing of the establishment, in which pols transition seamlessly from "public" service to lucrative employments in lobbying and the private sector, monetizing the relationships they established while in office, or, in which financial masters of the universe "serve" the public and then return to the financial firms from whence they came, all to benefit from the policies formulated during their "terms of service". Where, then, is the sin of Blagojevich, and why the clucking of tongues?

The sin of Blago is quite simple, in reality, so simple that it deserves its own formulation as 'law'. Mine is the law of temporal separation, though you may wish to coin your own. According to this law, then, Blago's sin was to have attempted the monetization of his relationships and contacts during his gubernatorial term. It is perfectly legitimate, according to the system of self-dealing we have in this country, to monetize such relationships and expertise, with, that is, a wink and a nod and a handshake, or some other equivalent, during one's tenure in a specific office or role, to be realized, like capital gains, once one has transitioned to the next office or role. This artifice respects the letter of the integrity of each office, while adhering to the LoTS, and it is this, and only this - and the greater ingenuity and sophistication it requires and instantiates - that differentiates our American system from vulgar kleptocracy, be it African, Latin American, or Russian.

That is the sin of Blagojevich - that he was so very vulgar in his self-dealing.

December 14, 2008

What's Wrong With Meritocracy

The subject of meritocracy is one that has flitted around in the back of my mind for at least a dozen years, ever since a series of conversations with an acquaintance during my undergraduate years. He was studying international business and finance, and frequently expressed his bafflement that I would choose philosophy over the programme he had chosen, this bafflement receiving concrete form in the questions he posed to me - of why, if I had the ability to study philosophy, and could with equal ease, therefore, study what he studied, I would elect to study philosophy and forswear all of the lucrative opportunities that awaited the ambitious would-be master of the economic universe.

[Update: We've closed comments on this one, before things degenerate further -- Ed.]

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December 16, 2008

Custody of the Mind

My post on teaching children about evil contained a passing comment about adults and graphic images or descriptions of horrors. That comment garnered some mild and understandable dissent and question both from Paul Cella and from commentator Brad.

I do believe that we Christian (and all morally sensible) adults should be a lot more careful than I suspect most adults are about putting horrors into our minds. As far as I'm concerned, watching direct simulations of torture or rape merely as part of entertaining ourselves ought to be completely out. I realize that this may sound like a radical proposal to some, but I think it's important to realize that we are in a sense giving ourselves an emotional and spiritual whack when we watch such things. And we are engraving things on our minds that cannot be erased. Therefore, we shouldn't do so lightly.

But we may still ask under what circumstances viewing or reading about horrors in detail might be valuable or necessary. Brad raises the excellent examples of movies like The Silent Scream and photographs of emaciated victims of concentration camps. Since such images have value in bringing home the reality of evil actions, the humanity of victims, and so forth, they obviously are not wrong either to produce or to view. In fact, those who record such things are documenting truths that should not be forgotten. How and when, then, should we view them?

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December 17, 2008

CDS and human hubris.

Learning of the kinds of exotic instruments used by Wall Street in the years before the crash can be a mind-boggling experience. First, of course, because of the complexity of these things; but also because of the staggering sums of "paper wealth" they produced. AIG and other firms sold credit default swaps in such massive numbers that there was at one point insurance on $60 trillion in credit. In other words, they wrote so many CDS contracts that on paper they were insuring a credit market that exceeded, several times over, the GDP of the whole country. Try to wrap your mind around that.

Now they did this because each one of those swaps generated a steady revenue stream. Let's say I hold a mass of Lehman Brothers corporate bonds, and I start to get wind the Lehman Brothers may not be in the best shape. So I call the AIG Financial Products office in London and place an order for swaps protecting $10 million in Lehman debt. For this I agree to pay AIG, say, 150 grand in premiums every year for five years. I feel good because my Lehman debt is now insured. AIG feels good because they have another revenue stream -- my yearly premiums. Of course, I don't even have to actually hold any Lehman debt to buy the swaps. Maybe I just think Lehman's in deep trouble, and suspect that there could be a nice profit to turn if the poor company defaults. The CDS become a speculative instrument for me.

Continue reading "CDS and human hubris." »

Thanks to Mere Comments

Many thanks to Anthony Esolen of Mere Comments for a kind review of my article "The Irrational Faith of the Naked Public Square," which recently appeared in The Christendom Review.

In it I work with what I call a "Generic Naked Public Square" thesis concerning the use of religious reasons in the formation of public policy. I first discuss various attempts to define the term 'religious' using something other than the content of a proposition or argument--e.g., calling an argument "religious" because of a person's motivation for making it, calling an argument or proposition "religious" because of the causal story that lies behind a person's coming to accept it, and so forth. Most (though not quite all) of these uses of 'religious' come from the well-known Christian philosopher Robert Audi, author of Religious Commitment and Secular Reason. Having rejected all but the most ordinary definition of 'religious', I pursue the question of why anyone would think that the role of religious reasons in the public square should be restricted, even voluntarily. And beyond that I'll let the article speak for itself.

December 18, 2008


Ars Technica reports the following development in neuroscience (Hat tip: The Corner):

The advent of techniques like PET scans and functional MRI has enabled researchers to observe the brain in action with a precision that is unprecedented. One of the interesting aspects of these studies is that we can now actually perform a limited version of what might be called mind reading: identifying what's going on in the brain without having the owner of said brain describe it. In the latest development in the field of neuroimaging, researchers have watched the brain of someone watching an image, and were actually able to perform reasonable reconstructions of the image.

Pretty impressive. But does it amount to a kind of “mindreading,” as the author says? Does it show (what the author does not say, but which many readers will no doubt infer) that the having of a mental image can be identified with a certain kind of brain process? Not so fast. Here is a good example of how empirical discoveries which might seem to provide answers to philosophical questions actually presuppose such answers.

Continue reading "Mindreading?" »

December 19, 2008

Implicit Categorical Claims

So often I encounter an implicit categorical claim where one is unwarranted. As an abstract matter X's are good, the narrative goes; x is an X; therefore x is good, and attacks on x are bad.

Unions, the capacity of workers to bargain collectively, are essential. An army is also essential: indeed, according to the Catechism every person has an obligation to defend his country.

From neither of these abstract facts does it follow that a particular war or particular union or particular union contracts are inherently good and just, and insulated from criticism. People should not argue as if it did follow.

Setting aside the anti-South anti-white bigotry, an unstated assumption in this post seems to be that it would not be good to kill the UAW off completely. I don’t have a position on whether it would or would not be good to kill the UAW off completely; but it cannot be taken as a simple given that the UAW is a good concrete and particular institution, worthy of support and survival, just because it happens to be a union.


December 20, 2008

The Power of the Word

For our nominalism files, we discover the reason for the decline in the rate of black illegitimacy: redefinition of the term 'parent'.

“The Census Bureau attributed an indeterminate amount of the increase to revised definitions adopted in 2007, which identify as parents any man and woman living together, whether or not they are married or the child's biological parents.”
(HT: The Corner, via Lawrence Auster) (Cross-posted)

December 24, 2008

Lunar Christmas.

From NASA:

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts; Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders did a live television broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and Moon seen from Apollo 8. Lovell said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis.

William Anders:

"For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you".

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

Jim Lovell:

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Frank Borman:

"And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good."

Borman then added, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth."

Video of this — it’s a bit grainy, but must have been astounding in its day, and anyway the audio is what matters — is below the fold. Merry Christmas to all.

(Hat tip on the NASA link to Sean Curnyn at Right Wing Bob.)

Continue reading "Lunar Christmas." »

Merry Christmas


Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of the unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.

G. K. Chesterton, from The Everlasting Man

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jeuss Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

To all our readers at What's Wrong with the World, we wish a blessed Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Merry Christmas!

(Interested readers can see also my personal blog Merry Christmas post with additional Christmas images here.)

December 26, 2008

Technicals and the modern error.

Keynes (right) with Harry Dexter White

I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity.

I hope one day to be able to say that truthfully. Because right now the Keynesian economic prescriptions I hear everywhere, since they issue from the fundamental materialism of modern Liberalism, look like a renewed attempt to enforce insanity.

In the Financial Times, though surrounded by some useful advice, we get a restatement of it: “Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system not as a morality play but as a technical challenge.”

Technical challenge drastically underestimates the character of what we face. It underestimates the character of what is called the economic system. It underestimates the nature of man.

It is a common modern error to assume that the technical characteristics of a thing amount to the whole. But this is obviously wrong.

There is so much more to it than that. The Keynesian may think he has captured “demand” or “consumer confidence” or any other of a thousand elements — captured and bound it to a number in a statistical model. But even he, if pressed, would acknowledge the reality of things like psychology, fear, exuberance, etc — things outside the competence of statistical models, or at least incompletely assayed by models. So there is human psychology, which is not technical.

Continue reading "Technicals and the modern error." »

December 26--Pray for the persecuted church

Today happens to be the Feast of Stephen, immortalized in "Good King Wenceslas."

Stephen was the first martyr, and it seems appropriate for us to remember the persecuted church today. It's all the more appropriate as I haven't put up anything about Islam here on W4 for a while. Especially on my mind today are the members of a Christian family who are victims of Islamic persecution in Egypt. According to the story, they have been stopped from leaving the country and are all in prison, including the two little boys, ages 2 and 4, who are being starved (partially starved?) to pressure their Christian mother, Martha Samuel, to re-convert to Islam. The story states that she has also been raped and tortured to try to secure the same result. The father is in prison, too. Their crimes are simply that Martha converted to Christianity five years ago and that the family recently tried to leave the country to escape persecution. I never knew Egypt was a Soviet-style prison country. Perhaps only to people who have had the temerity to leave Islam.

We should pray for them.


December 29, 2008

Standing Athwart Child Sexploitation Yelling "Wait Until They Are A Little Older"

It is hard to know where to start when commenting on something as whoreifying as this article by Deborah Swaney. In keeping with the observations in Paul Cella's latest post here, as well as his excellent piece on Christendom Review, we note that modern man seems perfectly capable of observing what is going on around him, yet utterly incapable of processing it and knowing what to do about it. I propose that this incapacity is rooted in his view of himself as a member of a group of free and equal modern supermen, self-created through reason and will, emancipated from history and nature. Indeed our beloved Supreme Court has told us that this kind of nihilistic emancipation is the heart of liberty.

It is no surprise, then, that modern man is perfectly capable of seeing the disaster before his eyes but remains castrated and impotent in its face; castrated by his own conception of himself as a god.

Continue reading "Standing Athwart Child Sexploitation Yelling "Wait Until They Are A Little Older"" »

December 31, 2008

Does Silence Give Consent? or Why the Blogosphere Separates Natural Allies

I was reflecting the other day on the fact that the blogosphere tends to draw attention to every difference of opinion among people--I was thinking of conservatives, specifically--who are naturally close allies and who in person would either not know about these differences or brush them off. And I was wondering why this happens.

The obvious answer, and probably the true one, is just simply that the blogosphere is all about opinions; one of the main things bloggers do is to write opinion pieces, and the main thing commentators do is to comment on them, so naturally we find out everybody's opinions on every topic under the sun, including those that sub-divide the world of political and even theological conservatives.

But at the risk of sounding like a softie, I sometimes think this is a bit of a shame.

Continue reading "Does Silence Give Consent? or Why the Blogosphere Separates Natural Allies" »