Thursday, August 28, 2014

Walker Percy, On Bourbon.

Not only should connoisseurs of Bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth--all real dangers. I, too, deplore these afflications. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking, that is, the use of Bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. ...

If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of Bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of C(2)H(5)OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime -- aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary. ...

The pleasure of knocking back Bourbon lies in the plain [sic; plane?] of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one's value system--that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of cultivating one's sensory end organs with the greatest discrimination and at least cost to one's health, against the virtue of evocation of time and memory and of the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, whereas connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded stimulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation.

Excerpt from Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies"

Interesting ... I did not realize this was published but have just come across its existence:
Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies

Encounter Books (September 27, 2011)

The intellectual and political elite of the West is nowadays taking for granted that religion, in particular Christianity, is a cultural vestige, a primitive form of knowledge, a consolation for the poor minded, an obstacle to coexistence. In all influential environments, the widespread watchword is “We are all secular” or “We are all post-religious.” As a consequence, we are told that states must be independent of religious creed, politics must take a neutral stance regarding religious values, and societies must hold together without any reference to religious bonds. Liberalism, which in some form or another is the prevailing view in the West, is considered to be “free-standing,” and the Western, liberal, open society is taken to be “self-sufficient.”

Not only is anti-Christian secularism wrong, it is also risky. It's wrong because the very ideas on which liberal societies are based and in terms of which they can be justified—the concept of the dignity of the human person, the moral priority of the individual, the view that man is a “crooked timber” inclined to prevarication, the limited confidence in the power of the state to render him virtuous—are typical Christian or, more precisely, Judeo-Christian ideas. Take them away and the open society will collapse. Anti-Christian secularism is risky because it jeopardizes the identity of the West, leaves it with no self-conscience, and deprives people of their sense of belonging. The Founding Fathers of America, as well as major intellectual European figures such as Locke, Kant, and Tocqueville, knew how much our civilization depends on Christianity. Today, American and European culture is shaking the pillars of that civilization.

Written from a secular and liberal, but not anti-Christian, point of view, this book explains why the Christian culture is still the best antidote to the crisis and decline of the West. Pera proposes that we should call ourselves Christians if we want to maintain our liberal freedoms, to embark on such projects as the political unification of Europe as well as the special relationship between Europe and America, and to avoid the relativistic trend that affects our public ethics. “The challenges of our particular historical moment”, as Pope Benedict XVI calls them in the Preface to the book, can be faced only if we stress the historical and conceptual link between Christianity and free society.

Marcello Pera is an Italian philosopher and politian, president of the Italian Senate from 2001-06. Readers may recall his co-authoring with Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, published a few years into his pontificate.

Reviews

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Vatican (re)discovers Humanitarian Intervention

In today's news, the Vatican seems to be entertaining the notion of condoning military force in Iraq to stem the tide of Christian persecution at the hands of "The Islamic State" ["IS"], (formerly known as "ISIS"). John Allen Jr. explains:
For anyone familiar with the Vatican’s recent history of bitter opposition to any US use of military force in the Middle East, Rome’s increasingly vocal support for the recent American airstrikes in Iraq may seem, to say the least, a little disorienting.

On Monday, the Vatican’s previously tacit approval for the American intervention turned explicit, as two senior officials offered what amounts to a blessing through official communications channels.

Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the pope’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Vatican radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.” ...

In a similar vein, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.

Coming from the Vatican's prior adoption of a functionally-pacifist and "abolitionist" stance on military action in modern times, this is huge. Compare the above with Cardinal Martino (of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace)'s declaration in the National Catholic Register, circa 2003:
Question: "Are you suggesting there is no such thing as a just war anymore?"

Archbishop Martino: "Absolutely. I think with modern weaponry, there is no proportionality between the offense and the reply. It makes much more damage. War is so destructive now. It is not just a fight between one person and another."

But what's the reason for this sudden "about face"? -- John Allen Jr. explains:
The face-value way to read Monday’s comments from Lingua and Tomasi, however, is as a recognition that there are times when the situation is sufficiently urgent that anyone who steps in, with or without a formal U.N. resolution, can claim the moral high ground.

Even if full legitimacy under international law remains the ideal, in other words, there’s now an exception on the record in favor of “unilateral” action.

Second, the emerging Vatican line clearly establishes a limit to pacifism as an option within Catholic social teaching. In effect, the take-away is that there are times when the use of force is the only option left to serve the greater good.

Third, and most basically, what’s different about 2014 with respect to 2003 isn’t so much the theory but the facts on the ground.

One core reason the Vatican opposed the two Gulf Wars, as well as any expansion of the conflict in Syria, was fear that the fall of a police state in the Middle East would lead to the rise of a radical Islamic theocracy in which Christians and other minorities would find themselves in the firing line.

That’s no longer a theoretical anxiety. It’s the lived reality of the new caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State ...

Hmmmmmmmmmmm. Where have I heard that before? -- seems to me the rationale for military action being posited by Allen (or rather, Lingua and Tomasi):
"there are times when the situation is sufficiently urgent that anyone who steps in, with or without a formal U.N. resolution, can claim the moral high ground";

"there’s now an exception on the record in favor of “unilateral” action";

"there are times when the use of force is the only option left to serve the greater good"

... sounds awfully similar to that bandied about by the dreaded neocons of yore.

And yet, while I can understand the reasoning for the Vatican's opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iraq in Gulf Wars I & II -- "fear that the fall of a police state in the Middle East would lead to the rise of a radical Islamic theocracy [contributing to the persecution of Christians]" -- I confess that I've also found this kind of reasoning a little too "tribal" (for lack of a better term) for my taste.

What I mean is this -- considering all that Iraqis had to endure under life under Saddam Hussein, just to hit a few high points:

  • The gas attacks by Saddam on the Kurdish town of Halabja (4,000-5,000 casualties);
  • The Al-Anfal campaign of Saddam against the Kurds in Northern Iraq 1988 (reported deaths of 50,000-182,000 people, many women and children);
  • Saddam's brutal crackdown on his own people in June 1994 following Bush Sr.'s pull-out of U.S. forces in Gulf War I with full scale massacres of Kurds (20,000-100,000) and (60,000-130,000) Shiites. (Perhaps it was his father's (perceived) abandonment of the Iraqis to their fate under Saddam through a policy of "non-intervention" -- a move that Bush Senior perpetually regretted -- that in part compelled Bush Jr. by conscience to desire to "finish the job"; as well as the development of "The Bush Doctrine").
  • Lastly, you have the persecution, rape and torture of his own people throughout the reign of Saddam and his two sons. See Michael Totten's account tour of Iraq's "genocide museum" in the old headquarters of the mukhabarat
    The hardest thing to see was the cell used to hold children before they were murdered. My translator read some of the messages carved into the wall.

    "I was ten years old. But they changed my age to 18 for execution."

    "Dear Mom and Dad. I am going to be executed by the Baath. I will not see you again."

There are testimonies of life under Saddam I could relay that are just as blood-curdling and noxious as any you would read today under ISIS. And yet, what comes to my mind with respect to the Church's predominant stance vis-a-vis Saddam is not one of clear moral condemnation of Hussein's regime at the time (did I miss it?), but rather the mental image of the smug, cigar-chomping Taraq Aziz, Saddam's Deputy Prime Minister -- shaking the elderly Pope John Paul II's hand after receiving "red carpet treatment"; the latter's resounding declaration of "NO TO WAR". No doubt the Holy Father was genuine in his intentions, but I couldn't help but think Saddam got the better of that particular photo-op, or what those persecuted Iraqis under him might have felt.

To clarify: I do not wish to absolve or dispute the United States' own complicity in the aftermath of Saddam's overthrow, its incompetency and mismanagement of affairs in the course of helping to establish the new Iraqi state; the collapse of military discipline that resulted in the human rights abuses of Abu Ghraib and elsewhere (thus challenging Bush's claim that "one thing is for certain … "there won't be any more torture rooms or rape rooms").

Nor am I opposed to the United States taking an armed response against IS[IS]. What is happening over there is horrible and forceful reaction on our part is merited. . . . in fact, I am very much in favor of a "you broke it, you fix it" policy with respect to Iraq, and am persuaded that the United States (perhaps at Obama's wish to have another item to tack onto his post-presidential resume), pulled our troops out of there much too soon.

But to those in Rome who are so emphatic about acting NOW, I am moved to inquire:

Yes, humanitarian intervention NOW . . . but what about THEN?

What I find especially disconcerting about the Vatican's sudden "about face" is the impression given that it's only due to Rome's identification of, and proclaimed solidarity with, the present victims of persecution (= Christians) that they are now urging military action for humanitarian reasons, when humanitarian reasons for intervening on behalf of persecuted minorities strike me to be just as pertinent when said minorities were other than Christian.

Related

  • Saddam Hussein massacres Shiite Muslims, and the Vatican looks away, by Sandro Magister. 11/27/02. "Deafening silence from the heads of the Catholic Church regarding religious persecution underway in Iraq. But it´s fully documented. Here are the complete links to the condemning evidence."

  • "No religion can justify such barbarity" - Statement of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue:
    the massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation; -the despicable practice of beheading, crucifying and hanging bodies in public places; -the choice imposed on Christians and Yezidis between conversion to Islam, payment of a tax (jizya) or forced exile; -the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people, including children, elderly, pregnant women and the sick; -the abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as spoils of war (sabaya); -the imposition of the barbaric practice of infibulation; -the destruction of places of worship and Christian and Muslim burial places; -the forced occupation or desecration of churches and monasteries; -the removal of crucifixes and other Christian religious symbols as well as those of other religious communities; -the destruction of a priceless Christian religious and cultural heritage; -indiscriminate violence aimed at terrorizing people to force them to surrender or flee. No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity.
  • DarwinCatholic on Vatican Middle Eastern Realpolitik? - Some questions for John Allen, Jr.:
    This certainly seems like a plausible ex post rationale, but is there any evidence that in 1991, 2003, and 2013 Vatican thinking was indeed driven by the idea that it was better to keep Middle Eastern police states in place in order to prevent radical Islamist regimes from coming to power? I remember vague discussion about violence never solving anything, but I don't recall anything specifically making this argument and in some ways it seems out of character. ...

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Islamic State and The End(?) of Christianity in Iraq -- 2007-2014: Timeline

Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future. I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive.

Please, try to understand us. Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. You must consider again our reality in the Middle East, because you are welcoming in your countries an ever growing number of Muslims. Also you are in danger. You must take strong and courageous decisions, even at the cost of contradicting your principles. You think all men are equal, but that is not true: Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home.

Archbishop Amel Nona
Chaldean Catholic Archeparch of Mosul, now exiled in Erbil
Corriere della Sera
August 14, 2014

Armenian Orthodox church in Raqqa, Syria, now an ISIS office

Statement of Fr Federico Lombardi SJ regarding the situation of Christians in Iraq Vatican Radio 08/08/14:

The Holy Father is following with deep concern the dramatic news reports coming from northern Iraq, which involve defenseless populations. Christian communities are particularly affected: a people fleeing from their villages because of the violence that rages in these days, wreaking havoc on the entire region.

At the Angelus prayer on July 20th, Pope Francis cried with pain: “[O]ur brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are pushed out, forced to leave their homes without the opportunity to take anything with them. To these families and to these people I would like to express my closeness and my steadfast prayer. Dearest brothers and sisters so persecuted, I know how much you suffer, I know that you are deprived of everything. I am with you in your faith in Him who conquered evil!”

In light of these terrible developments, the Holy Father renews his spiritual closeness to all those who are suffering through this painful trial, and makes the impassioned appeals of the local bishops his own, asking together with them in behalf of their sorely tried communities, that the whole Church and all the faithful raise up with one voice a ceaseless prayer, imploring the Holy Spirit to send the gift of peace.

His Holiness urgently calls on the international community to protect all those affected or threatened by the violence, and to guarantee all necessary assistance – especially the most urgently needed aid – to the great multitude of people who have been driven from their homes, whose fate depends entirely on the solidarity of others.

The Pope also appeals to the conscience of all people, and to each and every believer he repeats: “May the God of peace create in all an authentic desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence is not conquered with violence. Violence is conquered with peace! Let us pray in silence, asking for peace; everyone, in silence.... Mary Queen of peace, pray for us! (Angelus, July 20, 2014)”

  • Islamic State Torches 1200 Rare Christian Manuscripts 08/10/14:
    Members of the Islamic State, the new “caliphate,” recently seized as many as 1,200 rare, Christian manuscripts, and set them aflame.

    The manuscripts were seized from the churches of Mosul, which are under the control of the Islamic State. Many of these churches have stood in Mosul since the times of the apostles of Christ. ...

    The Islamic State also took over and destroyed the Museum of Antiquities in Mosul, the second most important museum of ancient history in Iraq, which once housed some of the most important artifacts of early human history.

  • U.S. Approves Airstrikes on Iraq, Airdrops Aid Wall Street Journal 08/08/14.

  • Iraq's largest Christian town falls to Islamic State Long War Journal 08/07/14:
    "Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants," Joseph Thomas, the archbishop of the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP. Qaraqosh (or Bakhdida on the map) has a Chaldean Christian population estimated at 50,000. ...

    The Islamic State previously issued an ultimatum to Christians in Mosul that they convert to Islam, pay a tax, or be killed. Thousands of Christian families fled Iraq's second largest city after the Islamic State issued their directive. The Islamic State has also been destroying Christian, Jewish, and Muslim shrines, churches, and mosques in Mosul. Among the religious sites destroyed by the jihadist group are the tomb of Jonah and an accompanying mosque, and the tomb of George.

  • Islamic State pulls down church crosses in northern Iraq as 200,000 flee The Telegraph UK. 08/07/14. "Islamic State, the jihadist group formerly known as Isis, have occupied churches in Iraq, removing crosses and destroying manuscripts, witnesses report, having overrun Kurdish troops forcing 200,000 to flee."

  • World's top Muslim leaders condemn attacks on Iraqi Christians Vatican Radio / Reuters. 07/25/13:
    Two of the leading voices in the Muslim world denounced the persecution of Christians in Iraq, at the hands of extremists proclaiming a caliphate under the name Islamic State.

    The most explicit condemnation came from Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the group representing 57 countries, and 1.4 billion Muslims.

    In a statement, he officially denounced the "forced deportation under the threat of execution” of Christians, calling it a "crime that cannot be tolerated.” The Secretary General also distanced Islam from the actions of the militant group known as ISIS, saying they "have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence.”

  • Islamic State destroys tombs, mosques in Mosul Long War Journal 07/26/14:
    On July 24 the Islamic State destroyed the Nabi Yunus Mosque, which had housed the Tomb of Jonah, after destroying the tomb itself earlier this month. Islamic State fighters wired the mosque with explosives and detonated the religious site in broad daylight.

    Jonah is recognized as a prophet in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and his tomb was visited and revered by members of all three religions.

  • Muslims in Baghdad Express Solidarity With Christians Aleteia. 07/21/14:
    A group of about 200 Muslims joined Christians in solidarity in front of the Chaldean Church of St. George Sunday to condemn the attacks on the Christian community in Mosul carried out by the Islamic State.

    Some Muslims held up signs or wore shirts with the words "I am Iraqi, I am Christian," written on them. Others marked themselves with a “nun,” the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian, "Nasrani" or Nazarene. The Islamic State has been putting “nuns” on Christian property marked out for seizure.

    The Chaldean faithful who joined them after Mass sang the national anthem along with them, as Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans Louis Raphael I Sako thanked them.

  • Iraqi Police: Abu Risha, head of Ramadi Awakening Council, killed [by Islamic State of Iraq] CNN. 06/03/14.
    The head of the Ramadi Awakening Council was killed Tuesday in a suicide bombing in Iraq's Anbar province, police officials told CNN. Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha was on a joint patrol with Awakening Council members and Iraqi security forces when he was killed by a suicide bomber ...

    Abu Risha has been among those leading the fight in Ramadi against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a rogue al Qaeda group know by the acronym ISIS. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But ISIS has claimed to have carried out several failed assassination attempts against him in recent months.

    Abu Risha is the nephew of Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Anbar Awakening Council -- a group composed primarily of Sunni Arab fighters who turned on al Qaeda in Iraq in late 2006 and joined forces with the U.S.-led coalition.

    The sheikh took over as head of the province's Awakening Council after his brother Sheikh Abdul Sattar was assassinated [by Al Qaeda] in 2007.

  • Iraqi Sheik to Obama: We Miss You! The Daily Beast 09/06/12:
    A little more than four years ago in western Iraq, then-senator Barack Obama met for 90 minutes with a group of Arab sheiks, allies of the U.S. military in the war against al Qaeda. Known as the Anbar Awakening, the tribal leaders are credited by the Marine Corps’ own official historian with helping turn the tide of the Iraq War and creating the conditions on the ground for the country’s fragile government to survive. During the meeting the future president assured the group that there would be a long-term partnership between America and Iraq, according to two of the sheikhs who were there and a U.S. translator in the meeting. ... Four years later, one of those sheiks, Ahmad Abu-Risha, says he feels betrayed.
  • Leaving the Sunni Awakening in Limbo New York Times 12/14/11.
    Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha is seen as America’s staunchest ally in Iraq. An article in Wednesday’s Times reports on how the withdrawal of the United States will leave Mr. Abu Risha and the militia units he commands, known broadly as the Sunni Awakening, to navigate increasingly troublesome relations with the central Shiite-led government of Iraq.
  • Anbar Awakening Leader questions Obama's plan of withdrawal 07/22/08. "In the present, we do not have an army that can protect the country after the US forces leave. This army is not capable enough."

  • FLASHBACK: The Vatican, The Anbar Awakening, and the "Protector of the Chaldean Catholics" 05/01/08.
    After hearing Sheikh Iyad's account of the suffering that the Chaldean Catholics have endured in Iraq, Sheikh Ahmad publicly declared that from this time forward they would be under his protection, that anyone who killed a Chaldean will be regarded as one who has killed in a member of his tribe (under the medieval Islamic concept of qisas this is a capital offense), and money will be provided from the Sahawa al-Iraq treasury to rebuild the churches and cemeteries that al-Qaeda destroyed. He justified this by quoting from the Qu'ran and stating that there should be no compulsion in matters of religion because truth stands free from error.
  • FLASHBACK: Reunion of Iraqi Christians and Muslims 12/15/07:
    On November 19, 2007, Most Reverend Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Diocese for Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq officiated at a mass in St. John’s Church in Baghdad. He was welcomed home by a crowd of locals and American soldiers, who had fought hard to cleanse the streets of Al Qaeda. ... According to [reporter] Michael Yon, the front pews of the Mass were filled with Muslims, to express their solidarity with their Christian neighbors and invite them back to Iraq.
  • FLASHBACK: "Thanks and Praise": The rebuilding of St. John's Church in Baghdad 11/08/07:
    "I photographed men and women, both Christians and Muslims, placing a cross atop the St. John's Church in Baghdad. They had taken the cross from storage and a man washed it before carrying it up to the dome. A Muslim man had invited the American soldiers from 'Chosen' Company 2-12 Cavalry to the church, where I videotaped as Muslims and Christians worked and rejoiced at the reopening of St John's, an occasion all viewed as a sign of hope. The Iraqis asked me to convey a message of thanks to the American people. 'Thank you, thank you,' the people were saying. One man said, 'Thank you for peace.' Another man, a Muslim, said 'All the people, all the people in Iraq, Muslim and Christian, is brother.' The men and women were holding bells, and for the first time in memory freedom rang over the ravaged land between two rivers.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Edward Feser: Scholastic Metaphysics

Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction
By Edward Feser.

Editions Scholasticae (April 1, 2014). 290 pgs.

Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction provides an overview of Scholastic approaches to causation, substance, essence, modality, identity, persistence, teleology, and other issues in fundamental metaphysics. The book interacts heavily with the literature on these issues in contemporary analytic metaphysics, so as to facilitate the analytic reader’s understanding of Scholastic ideas and the Scholastic reader’s understanding of contemporary analytic philosophy. The Aristotelian theory of actuality and potentiality provides the organizing theme, and the crucial dependence of Scholastic metaphysics on this theory is demonstrated. The book is written from a Thomistic point of view, but Scotist and Suarezian positions are treated as well where they diverge from the Thomistic position.

Reviews

NOTE: This post will be updated with further reviews and information as it becomes available on the web.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stratford Caldecott, R.I.P.

From Kathy Schiffer comes the news that Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott died July 17, at 60 years old, after a long battle with cancer.

“Strat” Caldecott, FRSA, was the editor of the international journal Second Spring, co-director of Second Spring Oxford Ltd., co-editor of the UK and Ireland edition of Magnificat, and editor of the online book review journal of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, HumanumReview.com. He was a commissioning editor for the Catholic Truth Society in London and served on the editorial boards of Communio, The Chesterton Review, and Oasis.

His many books include, most recently, Not As the World Gives: The Way of Creative Justice (Second Spring Books, 2014); a two-part study of the meaning and purpose of the Liberal Arts: Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Brazos, 2009) and Beauty in the Word (Angelico Press, 2012); The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity (Angelico Press, 2013) and All Things Made New: The Mysteries of the World in Christ (Angelico Press, 2011).

Besides his other online projects, Stratford also maintained the blog The Economy Project (a blog dedicated to Catholic Social Teaching). He also contributed to the Imaginative Conservative, and on May 21, 2014, left us with is last post, "Search for the Secret of Life and Death".

I never had the opportunity to meet him in person, but we would correspond on occasion regarding the writings of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and the Christian-Muslim dialogue. He was, as so many have attested, a true Catholic gentleman. He will be sorely missed.

For those in the UK, the funeral requiem Mass will be at the Oxford Oratory Thursday 31st at 10.00 am.

Tributes and Remembrances

Friday, July 4, 2014

July 4, 2014.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hobby Lobby - A Roundup

Required Reading

  • What Hobby Lobby Means: How We Got Here, Where We're Headed, by Robert P. George. First Things 07/01/14:
    Hobby Lobby and the Greens, represented by attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued that the abortifacient mandates (1) substantially burden the practice of their faith; (2) are not supported by a compelling interest; and (3) do not represent the least restrictive means of pursuing the government’s objective of supplying these products to women. The Obama administration contested these claims and denied that RFRA protections apply at all to for-profit businesses (as opposed to religious organizations).

    The decision’s most important feature is its rejection of that contention. The five justices in the majority—Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy—explicitly reject it, thus establishing as a matter of law the proposition that RFRA protections can apply to for-profit businesses, and do apply to closely held corporations. It leaves open the question, which is probably purely theoretical, whether RFRA protections apply to large, publicly traded companies. Two of the four dissenting justices—Breyer and Kagan—decline to reach or opine on the question of whether RFRA protects for-profit businesses—pointedly refusing to join this aspect of the dissent filed by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor who, alone, contend that for-profit businesses do not enjoy RFRA protections.

  • Ashley Macguire on Five False Perceptions About The Hobby Lobby Case (The Federalist 07/01/14).

  • The Republic of Gilead is Not Nigh, by Julian Sanchez. Cato.org. 06/30/14 -- offering a libertarian perspective on the ruling, and the possible motives of those disappointed in it:
    In light of this, the outraged reaction to the ruling ought to seem a bit puzzling. If what you are fundamentally concerned about is whether women have access to no-copay contraception, then there’s no obvious reason to invest such deep significance in the precise accounting details of the mechanism by which it is provided. [Cut the hysterics already]. You might even be heartened by a ruling that so centrally turns on the premise that accomodation for religious objectors is required when no women will lack such coverage who would have enjoyed it under a mandate.

    The outrage does make sense, of course, if what one fundamentally cares about—or at least, additionally cares about—is the symbolic speech act embedded in the compulsion itself. In other words, if the purpose of the mandate is not merely to achieve a certain practical result, but to declare the qualms of believers with religious objections so utterly underserving of respect that they may be forced to act against their convictions regardless of whether this makes any real difference to the outcome. And something like that does indeed seem to be lurking just beneath—if not at—the surface of many reactions. The ruling seems to provoke anger, not because it will result in women having to pay more for birth control (as it won’t), but at least in part because it fails to send the appropriate cultural signal. Or, at any rate, because it allows religious employers to continue sending the wrong cultural signal—disapproval of certain forms of contraception—when sending that signal does not impede the achievement of the government’s ends in any way.

  • About that matter of companies "denying contraception" to their employees... There has been plenty a-wailing and gnashing of teeth about companies "denying contraception", but it ain't necessarily so. Even Hobby Lobby "lavishes contraception coverage on its employees", covering 16 different types in its health plan.

    (Catholics may object to the offering of contraceptives in principle, but this is a Protestant organization -- and Protestants have generally been open to a wide range of contraception since the 1930's). What (some) Protestant and Catholic Christians share is the belief that life is sacred, and life begins at conception (the latter being not so much a "belief" as sound biological fact).

    So what Hobby Lobby (and seventy one other companies are actually objecting to paying for four specific contraceptives that are deemed abortifacients due to their capacity to either kill human beings when they are fertilized eggs, or prevent them from implanting themselves in utero, whereupon they die. This is what they deem morally objectionable on religious grounds.

    Functionally speaking, no employee of Hobby Lobby would be denied the normal range of contraceptives under their health plan, and Hobby Lobby employees are free to purchase emergency contraception of their own accord, just not on the company's dime.

  • Yes, but isn't it hypocritical that Hobby Lobby "invests millions in companies that manufacture the very products they want to be exempt from covering in their employee health plans–products they believe cause abortions?" -- This is the counterargument advanced by Rick Ungar (Forbes.com), Grant Gallicho (Commonweal) and Molly Redden (Mother Jones). To this it may be rightfully objected that . Ryan Ellis (Forbes.com) makes short work of Ungar and Redden's criticism here, by pointing out that 401k plans are made by employees, not employers:
    Plan administrators contract with select mutual fund companies to provide basic investment products diversified by sector, asset class, duration, risk, etc. This is the primary goal of diversification of fund choices, not socially-conscious investing. Besides, it’s the employees who call the shots. They may not share the same values as the Hobby Lobby owners, and might have a very different idea of what a “socially responsible” fund would invest in…

    What does Mother Jones’ or Mercury Public Affairs’ 401(k) plan look like? Those are the employers of Redden and Ungar, respectively. Surely those 401(k) plans invest in stocks of oil and gas companies, defense contractors, private equity firms, and other evil conservative power bastions. Have Redden and/or Ungar done a forensic investigation of the mutual funds they are invested in? Should I call them hypocrites for daring to invest in a 401(k) which invests in a mutual fund which invests in a multinational company which happens to own an oil company? If not, consider that the Hobby Lobby employers have one more degree of separation even from Redden and Ungar. Our two intrepid reporters affirmatively chose to invest in merchants of death when they picked out their 401(k) choices. All Hobby Lobby is doing is providing the platform for employees to make those same choices themselves in partnership with plan administrators.

    Ben Domenech, The Federalist poses the challenge:
    The secular left needs to think bigger than just driving Christians out of the ability to practice their faith as business owners or allow their employees to invest in the stock market. They should start by noting it’s impossible for those who claim to be “pro-life” to live and work in certain states without being a hypocrite. Since the Hyde Amendment applies only to federal funds, states like New York, New Jersey, and California use state taxpayer dollars – a not insignificant amount of them – to pay directly for abortions. What this effectively means is that any of Ungar’s colleagues at Fox News who live in New York are thorough hypocrites if they pay their taxes. And yet they continue to do so! It is almost as if they are willing to render unto Caesar, even as they fight in courts and in the public square to change Caesar’s policies. Heck, Hobby Lobby itself even pays taxes in these states, where it does business! How stunning that these people are even allowed to be Americans, a country which was built by slaveowners and racists.
  • Lastly, I concur with Bonchamps (The American Catholic), that this decision is something of a pyrrhic victory:
    [In the event of a Hobby Lobby win] my celebration will be muted and limited, however, because a legal victory will not address the underlying philosophical and cultural divide that brought this case before the court to begin with. Contrary to what some may believe, law is not the foundation upon which society rests; it is rather the adhesive we use to patch up broken pieces of society. The more laws, precedents, mandates, rulings and decisions we require to defend our basic interests and assert our rights, the greater indication we have of a society that is almost literally tearing itself apart.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Here and There

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and "No Place to Hide"

After watching the recent PBS Frontline investigation "The United States of Secrets" and Brian Williams' subsequent interview with Edward Snowden on NBC, I was moved to pick up a few books on the subject of the NSA contractor's revelations of the NSA's mass surveillance program: Luke Harding's The Snowden Files (February 2014), James Bamford's The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (July 2009), and Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (May 2013). The latter is the topic of this post, and it's a disturbing but imperative read for all American citizens.

Meeting Snowden

Chapters 1 ("Contact") chronicles Greenwald's initial meetings with Edward Snowden (tentatively reaching out using the monicker "Cincinnatus", after the Roman statesman and exemplar of civic virtue). Greenwald, at one time a constitutional lawyer and civil rights litigator, journalist and blogger, was selected by Snowden due to his interest in the ongoing violations of privacy by the CIA / NSA. (Curiously, he admits to nearly missing the "scoop of the century" due to his initial neglect to honor Snowden's request to install PGP encryption before initiating the email exchanges. Their subsequent meeting (Chapter 2, "Ten Days in Hong Kong") was actually facilitated by journalist and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitrus, to whom Snowden had also revealed his identity.

It was in Hong Kong that Snowden disclosed the news of mass-surveillance programs conducted by the NSA and the GHCQ (The UK's equivalent intelligence agency) -- "aimed at Americans and non-Americans alike" -- via an interception of communication: tapping Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems and personal computers, the scope of which is unprecedented in American history.

With all the tension of a Robert Ludlum novel, Greenwald tells of the significant effort taken by Snowden, Poitrus and Greenwald to publicize some of Snowden's revelations in The Guardian (See: The NSA Files) and to disclose the identity of Snowden himself (on his own terms), in a race against time with the NSA.

The Capacity and Scope of NSA's Surveillance

Chapter III ("Collect It All") provides an extensive tour of some of the key Snowden documents (reprinted in the book and available for download from Greenwald's website) which, once deciphering the terminology, detail a variety of intelligence programs, among them: BOUNDLESS INFORMANT (collecting telephone calls from around the world), PRISM (collecting data directly from the servers of the world's biggest Internet companies); PROJECT BULLRUN (a joint NSA-GCHQ to defeat the most common forms of encryption safeguarding online transactions); MUSCULAR (seeking means to invade the private networks of Yahoo and Google), and X-KEYSCORE (surveilling the activity of online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, providing "insight into the personal lives of targets").

The conclusion reached by Greenwald's survey of such programs, their capacity and scope, is disturbing:

"... The US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe."
The information collected is then shared by the NSA with the rest of the intelligence community, including the FBI and he CIA -- and beyond that, a group of nations labeled the "Five Eyes" -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom -- those whom the United States spies with, but rarely on). According to Greenwald, "the Five Eyes relationship is so close that member governments place the NSA's desires above the privacy of its own citizens."

It is of course objected by both the Bush and Obama administrations that the United States respects the privacy of its citizens, and cannot eavesdrop without legal warrant. Besides being an odd line of defense ("in effect, it told the rest of the world that the NSA does assault the privacy of non-Americans"), the claim is also patently false, as the 2008 FISA law permits the "incidental" collection of American communications with a targeted foreign national. As the ACLU noted, "the principal purpose of the law was to make it possible to collect Americans' international communications -- and to collect those communications without reference to whether any party to those communications was doing anything illegal. . . . the government doesn't need to "target" Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communication."

Generally speaking, the NSA collects two types of data -- "content" (the actual content of a person's phone calls, emails, online chats, browsing history or search activities) or "metadata" (the amassment of data about such communications (ex. who emailed whom, when the email was sent, the location of the persons sending / receiving it). It is likewise insisted that the surveillance revealed by Snowden largely involves the collection of the latter and hence, is not intrusive. Greenwald explains why this too is questionable:

When the government knows everyone you call and everyone who calls you, plus the exact length of those phone conversations; when it can list every single one of your email correspondents and every location from where your emails were sent, it can create a remarkably comprehensive picture of your life, your associations, your activities, including some of your most intimate and private information.
Or as Columbia University's computer science professor Ed Felton notes
Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the sabbath, or makes a large number of calls on Christmas day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have, and even our civil and political affiliations.
A number of Greenwald's critics maintain that "privacy is for those who have something to hide" -- perhaps not so surprisingly, not one of them are willing to relinquish the passwords to their email accounts, or allow video cameras into their homes.

What the loss of privacy means for us

In Chapter 4, "The Harm of Surveillance", Greenwald explains what the loss of privacy at the hands of a surveillance state can mean for our freedoms as American citizens, and for the future of democracy in general. The right to privacy -- to be let alone -- "is an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human."

Even while the NSA with its capacity "could not read every email, listen to every phone call, or track the actions of each individual ... [w]hat makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behavior is the knowledge that one's words and actions are susceptible to monitoring." Greenwald explores this principle of oppression-by-surveillance in the work of Jeremy Bentham's 18th century conception of the Panopticon, the psychological studies of Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo ("The Chilling Effects of Surveillance"), and philosopher Michael Foucault's Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, a study of how pervasive surveillance can ensure the automatic functioning of power, causing those who are subject to internalize the repression: "[choosing] to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing they are being controlled.

While Chapter III is perhaps the most beneficial part of the book (in terms of obtaining knowledge of the Snowden documents that have been disclosed to date), I found Greenwald's discussion of privacy and why it matters to be the most interesting. The "internalization" of governmental and societal controls under universal surveillance is disturbing to think about. To put a philosophical spin on it, one might ask: What is our motivation of citizens? What does it mean to practice "good citizenship"? To be a moral and law abiding citizen? . . . It seems to me that in such circumstances where law enforcement extends their reach into areas of our lives that were formerly considered private and protected, the functional obedience and cooperation of its citizens is achieved not by their willingness to cooperate and assume moral responsibility ("I want to be a good citizen") -- but rather by compliance with surveillance, whether external or suppressed ("I have to be good"). 

There is always some give and take in functional society, a compromise of freedom with security. As citizens, we consent to relinquish certain freedoms in compliance with the law and for the sake of the common good. We obey traffic laws, we recognize curfews or noise limits in urban areas . . . we don't read each other's mail. But this is carried out with the mutual understanding that both the state and its citizens abide by the rule of law, and that the state will comply with and be subservient to the law. But with every revelation, it seems that this no longer seems to be the case. Just to cite some recent examples from the news:

The "Fourth Estate"

The idea of a "fourth estate", says Greenwald, is that:

those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistance on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself.
In Chapter 5, Greenwald castigates the mainstream press for having abdicated this responsibility -- with some going even further to willfully carry out the government's "dirty work" instead (especially when it comes to the character assassination of whistleblowers). Greenwald also takes note of the remarkable fluidity between journalists and political life (ex. Obama White House spokesperson Jay Carney was former Washington Bureau Chief for Time magazine, and David Axelrod is now a commentator on MSNBC / NBC News). We have reached a point where "US establishment journalism is anything but an outsider force. It is wholly integrated into the nation's dominant political power."

For an administration that frequently bills itself as being "the most transparent" Administration ever, Greenwald wryly observes that Obama "has done exactly the opposite": prosecuting more whistleblowers than all previous administrations in US history combined.

The revival of the "fourth estate" would appear to be a motivation for Greenwald's launching of The Intercept, a new journalistic website with the short-term mission "to provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden", and the long-term objective:

to produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues. The editorial independence of our journalists will be guaranteed. They will be encouraged to pursue their passions, cultivate a unique voice, and publish stories without regard to whom they might anger or alienate. We believe the prime value of journalism is its power to impose transparency, and thus accountability, on the most powerful governmental and corporate bodies, and our journalists will be provided the full resources and support required to do this.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Catholic Libertarianism"

Chronicling an exchange brought on by Mark Shea's latest rampage against the heresy of "libertarian Catholicism" (to which I think Rick Garnett offers a sound rebuttal).

And yet -- no one really thinks that "the market" should be entirely unregulated. And, in fact, it is pervasively, thoroughly, comprehensively (and sometimes stupidly) regulated. Everyone agrees – that is, everyone who is in the conversation agrees – that “the market” is not and should not be entirely “free.” Or, put differently, a “free market” – in order to be meaningfully free – is a (reasonably and intelligently) regulated one. We enforce contracts. We impose liability for harms caused. We regulate all the time and everywhere. The real debate (among people who concede the basic point, which Catholic teaching firmly and unambiguously affirms, that ordered-freedom, not statist command-and-control, should characterize “the economy”) is about how to locate the point at which regulations begin to stifle, rather than to promote, human flourishing and the common good, properly understood.

It is not, in my view, helpful to label as “idolatry” the unremarkable view that we can and should evaluate policies with respect to their effectiveness and that the effectiveness of policies is related to, and perhaps depends on, a number of things that the economists like to remind us about. No one thinks that government should do nothing. But, some of us think – and there is absolutely nothing not-Catholic about thinking – that there are limits to (a) what governments are morally authorized to do and (b) what governments, practically speaking, do well. To say this is not to make an “idol” of the market (though it is to avoid the error of making an “idol” of populism or statism).

-- "Laissez-Faire libertarism" as a straw man (Mirror of Justice)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The NSA and Edward Snowden: Patriot or Traitor?

The following two-part series from PBS Frontline is worth watching as preface to this blog post, for education as to the extensive mesures the National Security Agency has taken to gather intelligence on its own citizens and the history of how we arrived at where we are today:

It can be argued that intelligence has always been vital to the security of our nation, or of any nation. And we've always had covert operatives gathering intelligence, beginning with the Culper Spy Ring of 1778 (tangential note: anybody else a fan of the AMC TV series 'Turn'?). I'm not necessarily opposed to the core responsibilities of the CIA or the NSA, for that matter, which had its start in World War II. The role of such agencies in military history is something I'm quite fascinated by. The history of espionage is a dirty and sordid business but there are also moments of moral courage and heroism. I have a great deal of respect for those in both organizations, unrecognized and having forfeited public recognition and honor, who gave their lives in defense of this country against its enemies.

But there is also the reporting of Frontline ("A Nation of Secrets"), and NBC's Brian Williams' interview with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which -- if accurate -- is very troubling.

He comes across as somebody who respects the business of intelligence, the validity of the profession -- but likewise recognizes that the agencies he has worked for have vastly overstepped its bounds. In Snowden's own words:

"The definition of a security state is any nation that prioritizes security over all other considerations ... I don't believe the United States is or ever should be a security state."
And as to what he is concerned about, in detail (taken from another, earlier interview with German television network ARD):
"Every time you pick up the phone, dial a number, write an email, make a purchase, travel on the bus carrying a cell phone, swipe a card somewhere, you leave a trace. And, the government has decided that it’s a good idea to collect it all. Everything. Even if you’ve never been suspected of any crime. Traditionally the government would identify a suspect, they would go to a judge, they would say we suspect he’s committed this crime, they would get a warrant and then they would be able to use the totality of their powers in pursuit of the investigation. Nowadays what we see is they want to apply the totality of their powers in advance, prior to an investigation."
Something is seriously amiss when the nation's most powerful intelligence agency is going well beyond the law, intercepting and data-mining our email correspondence and phone calls of American citizens and treating us as suspect. Trouble enough to have Facebook and Google invading your privacy for the benefit of advertising without the prying eyes of Big Brother looking over their shoulder.

And to suggest that Obama is going to curb the power of such agencies -- he has waffled so many times on this matter of intelligence-gathering that whatever he currently promises I have to take with a heavy dose of salt.

* * *

Responding to Snowden's first television interview (with a U.S. network), Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: "Edward Snowden is a coward ... He is a traitor. And he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so."

And some closing thoughts from Snowden himself, excerpted from the interview with Brian Williams:

"I think it's really disingenuous for — for the government to invoke — and sort of scandalize our memories, to sort of exploit the — the national trauma that we all suffered together and worked so hard to come through to justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe, but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don't need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up."

[...]

"I think patriot is a word that’s — that’s thrown around so much that it can be devalued nowadays. But being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the — the violations of an — and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies. They can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of government and — and simple overreach and — and things that — that should never have been tried, or — or that went wrong.”

Are those the words of somebody who loves his country or somebody who is sickened by what he's witnessing? Judged solely on the basis of the interview, it seems to me this is a man compelled to do what he did on the basis of his conscience.

The irony, to me at least, is to hear John Kerry -- "WInter Soldier" gone rogue in the 1960's, who spoke out against what he perceived as atrocities committed by troops in Vietnam -- denounce Snowden as a traitor.

Related Links and Reading

  • Readings & Links: NSA Secrets Frontline (PBS). In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the NSA launched what would become known as “the program” — a massive domestic surveillance operation designed to prevent terrorist attacks by collecting the communications of millions of Americans. “The program” was once among the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, but leaks by insiders like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have since exposed the operation to the world. Here are some highlights of those leaks, as well as a series of government reports on the NSA programs.
  • Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security. James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald. The Guardian 09/05/13.
  • Obama on Mass Government Surveillance, Then and Now PBS Frontline. 05/13/14.
  • A history of the NSA (pictorial). Washington Post
  • The Sickening Snowden Backlash, by Kirsten Powers. The Daily Beast 06/14/13. "It's appalling to hear the Washington bureaucrats and their media allies trash Edward Snowden as a traitor, when it's our leaders and the NSA who have betrayed us."
  • Noonan: Privacy Isn't All We're Losing, by Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal 06/14/13:
    If—again, if—what Mr. Snowden says is substantially true, the surveillance state will in time encourage an air of subtle oppression, and encourage too a sense of paranoia that may in time—not next week, but in time, as the years unfold—loosen and disrupt the ties the people of America feel to our country.

Further Reading

God, Nietzsche.


Nietzesche says to God: "I too can create a man."

God says: "Try."

Nietzsche takes a fistful of dust and begins to mold it.

God says: "Disqualified. Get your own dust."

____________________________________________
(As relayed by J. Budziszewski).

Monday, May 19, 2014

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the Philosophers

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, dubbed "Science's Televangelist" by Rod Dreher, made some rather disparaging remarks about philosophy in a podcast exchange last week [transcript available here]. Responding to the host's admission that he majored in philosophy, NdGT quipped, "that can really mess you up". The host added, "I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?" -- prompting a wave of ridicule from Tyson:
dGT: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

[insert predictable joke by one interviewer, imitating the clapping of one hand]

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.

interviewer [not one to put too fine a point on things, apparently]: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what crap is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper?

dGT [laughing]: Of course I think we all agree you turned out okay.

interviewer: Philosophy was a good Major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

dGT: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

What is striking to the observant reader is how, in adopting a pragmatic stance towards the value of philosophy, which Tyson seemingly views as beneficial chiefly in relation to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Tyson himself is adopting a philosophical position. Tyson can only denigrate philosophy by committing himself to a specific philosophical viewpoint, and what seems to be an incredibly myopic one at that.

A roundup of responses:

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Piglucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Piglucci's blog
  • Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine, by Damon Linker. The Week 05/06/14:
    ... behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with "asking deep questions" that lead to a "pointless delay in your progress" in tackling "this whole big world of unknowns out there." When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, "I'm moving on, I'm leaving you behind, and you can't even cross the street because you're distracted by deep questions you've asked of yourself. I don't have time for that."

    "I don't have time for that."

    With these words, Tyson shows he's very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don't waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don't be left behind! Progress awaits!

  • An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, by Lewis Powell (Professor of Philosophy, University of Buffalo):
    The study of ethics or morality—inquiry into the nature of value—is a core area of philosophy, and has been since its inception. And while scientific discoveries can reveal to us things like, how to build bridges, the methods for transplanting organs, or the psychological mechanisms of human persuasion, a practicing scientist implicitly takes stands on the normative questions of which bridges are worth building, which patients ought to get the organs that are in short supply, or which means of persuasion are morally permissible to use when trying to convince people of important truths.
    NDGT deigns to reply in the author's combox, leading to an extended discussion.

  • No, Neil deGrasse Tyson Does Not Hate Philosophy, He Just Doesn’t Get Why It’s Relevant, by Gina O'Neill Santiago. Thoughts on Liberty

  • Neil de Grasse's Scientism, by William M. Briggs:
    The other day on Twitter, I saw somebody quote approvingly these words by Neil deGrasse Tyson: "The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it."

    This received many favorites, re-tweets, and various (coarse) approbations. Evidently, this phrase produces a visceral glow in its fans, or perhaps the feeling of belonging to a group advanced beyond the benighted masses who, wallowing in their ignorance, dare to doubt Science.

    Only here’s the thing. The phrase doesn’t mean anything. It’s emptier than our federal coffers. ...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Thomas Aquinas' "Summa theologiae": A Biography - Bernard McGinn

On my "to read" list: Thomas Aquinas's "Summa theologiae": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), by Bernard McGinn.
Princeton University Press (May 25, 2014). 272 pgs.

In full disclosure, I promised that I would give it mention on my blog while the review was forthcoming. McGinn is distinguished for his extensive scholarship of Christian mysticism and does not identify himself as "a card carrying member of any Thomist party." Nevertheless:

"... I'd been reading Thomas for almost sixty years and teaching him for over forty. When I was studying a dry-as-dust version of neo-Thomist philosophy from 1957 to 1959, I was rescued from despair by reading the works of Etienne Gilson, especially his Being and some Philosophers. . . . between 1959 and 1963, I was privileged to work with two great modern investigators of Thomas, Joseph de Finance and Bernard Lonergan. It was then I realized that no matter what kind of theology one elects to pursue in life, there is no getting away from Thomas. So the opportunity to come back to Thomas and the Summa was both a challenge and a delight." [From the Preface]
Suffice to say I am intrigued, and will have more to report once I get into it.

From the Publisher

This concise book tells the story of the most important theological work of the Middle Ages, the vast Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, the Summa was conceived by Aquinas as an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church. It synthesizes an astonishing range of scholarship, covering hundreds of topics and containing more than a million and a half words--and was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas's death.

Here, Bernard McGinn, one of today's most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity, vividly describes the world that shaped Aquinas, then turns to the Dominican friar's life and career, examining Aquinas's reasons for writing his masterpiece, its subject matter, and the novel way he organized it. McGinn gives readers a brief tour of the Summa itself, and then discusses its reception over the past seven hundred years. He looks at the influence of the Summa on such giants of medieval Christendom as Meister Eckhart, its ridicule during the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of Neothomism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of the Summa in the post-Vatican II church, and the book's enduring relevance today.

Tracing the remarkable life of this iconic work, McGinn's wide-ranging account provides insight into Aquinas's own understanding of the Summa as a communication of the theological wisdom that has been given to humanity in revelation.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Francis' tweet: "Inequality is the Root of Social Evil"

When the Pope tweeted:

it was met with what have become the most predictable of reactions: liberals (both secular and religious) burst out into enthusiastic applause and retweets, absolutely delighted at the papal vindication of class-warfare (or more properly, class-envy). meanwhile, free-market friendly Catholics defaulted into the now-familiar "circle the wagons" mode, while still other Catholics -- papal apologists for "all things Francis" -- sought rather to explain the quote away away, insisting that Francis did not mean what the majority of the world inferred.

A sampling of reactions below ...

Any social media device which puts a 140 character cap on whatever you're expressing seems (to me, at least) a recipe for confusion. And for a Pope whose remark frequently warrant further clarification, I personally wish he would simply stay away from Twitter. And the phone. And off-the-cuff interviews.

Well, one can at least hope.