What’s Wrong with the World

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August 2019 Archives

August 4, 2019

JPII Institute on Marriage and the Family: RIP

The current papacy has been flexing its muscles and baring its teeth in ever more profoundly effective and visible ways in the last year or two. This can be seen in moves that are taken with abruptness, without “dialogue” or consultation, and right out in front of the public view. For example, In August of 2017, Dr. Joseph Siefert, a professor of a Catholic university in Spain, published a statement that included the comment that the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is an “theological atomic bomb”. He was fired from his position only a couple weeks later, apparently (so far as I have seen) without any folderol like a charge of misconduct, a hearing, or even notice to him beforehand that his position was being considered. The 2018 Synod on Youth was prepared and railroaded right from the beginning, with major names excluded from the invitation list because they were orthodox, and known heretics invited. The upcoming Amazonian Synod is just the same, only much more so.

All along the same lines: for the Apostolic John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family, Francis announced in 2017 that it would be abolished and that a new institute would succeed it. He at least bothered to give lip service to the idea that “the original inspiration that gave life to the former Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family continue to bear fruit in the broader field of activity of the new Theological Institute

Lip service indeed, but not any deeper. In fact, the Pope could have easily corrected any deficiencies in the old institute with ease by simply directing changes be made to it, and keeping its fundamental being and essence intact. But such was not the purpose. Francis, legally speaking, eradicated the old institute and created a brand new entity with almost but not quite the same name: the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science.

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August 12, 2019

Social sadism

Someone on Facebook recently used the phrase "social sadism" for the use of coercion to make people affirm things that are manifestly absurd as a means of social control and never-ending revolution. This move is, of course, familiar to readers of 1984 in the famous, "How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?" scene.

I had, however, never heard that particular phrase, and it struck me as profound. In 2009 my small city passed an early version of a "sexual orientation and gender identity" law, with some of us die-hards fighting against it. Not long after it passed, the following story made the rounds: Two men visited a local department store and went to the women's clothing section, where a young lady was working. Taking a skirt off the rack, one of the men went into the women's changing room and tried on the skirt. As the story went, that wasn't all. He then came out, wearing the skirt, approached the young, female employee and asked her, "How does it look on me?"

That, my friends, is social sadism.

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August 16, 2019

Finding that strange balance

The current political situation in the United States has created a climate that makes it difficult for someone who takes my positions to say much.

On the one hand, if I speak up about the severe evils of social and political leftism, if I emphasize the union of the social and the political "on the ground" in daily American life, everyone will assume that I am (not to put too fine a point on it) saying, "Vote Trump!" in not-so-subtly-coded language. Which I am not saying.

On the other hand, if I make it clear that, yes, even now in 2019 I call myself "Never Trump" and do not intend ever to vote for this particular candidate, if I make it clear that I still consider the current President to have no character and little knowledge and that I think that whatever good he has done has come from taking the advice of others, I invite all the utter, endless weariness of getting harangued about how not voting is "giving a vote" or "giving half a vote" to the Democrats, and so on, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. Which I refuse to get involved in debating. (Fun fact: I was arguing against all of that phony mathematics about "giving a vote to the other side" more than ten years ago, before it entered anyone's dreams that Donald Trump would ever run for President, much less that he would do so as a Republican.)

And unfortunately, back on the other hand, a phrase like "I'm Never Trump" has now come in some circles to mean, "I have a lot of sympathy with progressives" or "I'm not a really hard-line social conservative" or "I have contempt for anyone who voted for Trump or will do so in 2020," all of which are untrue of me, by a large margin. Notice to progressives and progressive fellow travelers: I'm probably just about as "deplorable" or more so on the policy issues you care about as the people you think you get to despise because they vote for Trump. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Either way, someone is likely to think that I'm signaling something I'm not signaling. And such accidental signaling can occur so easily. For example, my post about the "scale of not-so-niceness" might be taken to be a coded "Vote Trump!" post, since "not being too nice" is supposed to be part of what people are in favor of when they harangue you about how you have to Vote Trump. But that post wasn't saying that at all. This possibility of false signaling produces a curious kind of paralysis. It is tempting never to say anything again about any issue that could be deemed "political," but that would be a mistake as well.

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August 18, 2019

Government by algorithm

Matthew B. Crawford’s lengthy essay in the latest number of American Affairs, “Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy,” imposes heavy demands on the reader — it may require several cups of coffee, and it will certainly require setting aside your phone — but the slog is worth it.

The writer, a motorcycle mechanic who moonlights as a philosopher (or maybe it’s the other way around), unfolds a profound theory to explain, and to a certain degree defend, the populist revolts that have roiled politics around the world in recent years. He draws on many sources, but the most salient are interrelated developments in the technology sector and government. The argument, though very complex, might be summarized thusly: the technocratic effort to replace government by natural persuasion and consent, with government by rationalistic algorithm and nudge, has introduced a crisis of legitimacy, the resolution of which we cannot yet foresee.

Government by persuasion and consent, you see, results in an ineradicable untidiness. Persuasion may be conditional, consent may be refused; ornery men will stoneface the most perfect logical syllogism; the indecisive may withdraw consent at the most perfectly inopportune moment. The whole thing presents to the rationalistic mind an excruciating muddle. One does not often find deliberative assemblies — school boards, city councils, parliaments — filled up with trained engineers. One finds them filled up with lawyers; engineers often regard them as akin to torture.

The engineering mind, meanwhile, produced the algorithm. Therefore, government by algorithm is mechanistic, indeed automated. Its edicts emerge from behind an impenetrable veil of high-end mathematics backed by supreme computing power. As Crawford puts it, with sly understatement: “One reason why algorithms have become attractive to elites is that they can be used to install the automated enforcement of cut­ting‑edge social norms.”

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