Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Blosser Family during the American Civil War

Coming from Mennonite stock, the Blossers have maintained a family tradition of religiously-principled conscientious objection from the Revolutionary War onwards. Following in the footsteps of my father's genealogical research on the family name as well as my own interests in American history and the resources afforded by and our public library, I've conducted extensive reading and research into the experiences of several of our ancestors during the Civil War, who resided in Rockingham County, Virginia in the late 1800's.

Here, then, are some compiled Historical Notes on the Blosser Family during the Civil War.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Identity Politics and Academic Freedom.

Identity politics attempts to supplant material reality with an essentialist reading of the individual which relies upon denying the social constructions of these identities while conterminously building up the notion that this identity is inherent, felt. Identity politics is a discourse which functions precisely to reify subjectivity such that any questioning of this identity ends up being answered with claims that the question itself is “discursive violence.” Paradoxically the adherents to identity politics claim its ethos speaks for the oppressed group, but in reality it speaks for the individual. For instance, while racially-motivated and sex-based acts of violence are known phenomena, even discussions in the classroom when teaching rape law have come under fire by aspiring attorneys in law school because of individuals who hijack these discussions as “violence”. The bracketing of personal experience has made its mark in academia such that identity politics requires, much like religion, that the subject not question it, that she should just feel it and the truth will set the subject free.


The construction of identity politics relies specifically on the neoliberal experience of the individual whereby it is impermeable to change, it never shifts, and it is entirely blocked off to dialogue with competing discourses. This is what I call hypertrophic subjectivity—where each individual confers her own truth based on rigid notions of the singular identitied experience. Dare you question my experience, my right is to claim a violence that your words commit to me. These are times of faith-based unreason where disagreement is understood as an obstruction to one’s freedom. (I think to the tired phrasing of “Let’s agree to disagree” which merely contorts disagreement as agreement from the party who is uncomfortable to find herself before a person who refuses to be her mirror.) Surely, we might begin to consider that one can both be free and in a state of disagreement or challenge.

Speaking with my friend, Geneviève, a few years ago, we framed our experiences as women who come from families where one parent is “white” and one parent is brown within this troubling scene of identity politics. This conversation left us with several conclusions, one being that identity politics never could embrace us (or us it) because the very narrative which claimed to free the sexual or racial other, merely turned on its head the dynamic of who others and who is othered. And logically our lives and bodies were such that no intractible narrative of identity would ever capture our subjectivity simply because identity politics, by attempting to break down homogenous notions of race, gender, and sexuality, ended up reconstructing newer monoliths of the same. In reviewing the problems of callout culture, the bashing of those who make materialist readings of the social, and the general atmosphere of intolerance for divergent opinions within academia, we came to realise that these social behaviours were the result of a hermetically sealed notions of selfhood whereby nothing permeates the discursive membrane separating individuals.

Julian Vigo, Rebels Without a Cause: The Assault on Academic Freedom. Counterpunch 06/02/17.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Peter Augustine Lawler 1951—2017

Berry College professor and nationally renowned political scholar Peter Augustine Lawler died Tuesday, May 23rd

Peter Lawler was Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He served as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and was chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and served on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters. Lawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09.

The Funeral Mass was held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Rome, Georgia on Friday May 26.

In lieu of flowers, contributions would be appreciated to the Peter Augustine Lawler Scholarship at Berry College, DIGS, Inc. support organization for special needs, P.O. Box 1053, Rome, GA 30162, or the Network Day Service Center, 402 W. 10th Street, Rome, GA 30165.

Full Obituary

Some published works by Peter Lawler

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Desert of Forbidden Art (Documentary)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Happy Birthday Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Benedict XVI shares a 90th birthday beer with family and friends" target=_blank>Benedict XVI shares a 90th birthday beer with family and friends, by John Allen Jr. Crux News 04/17/17:

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 90th birthday on April 17. Among those present was Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, Benedict's 93-year-old brother, who flew in from Germany for the occasion, as well as a small delegation from Bavaria, his home region. They brought to the party two staples of Bavarian cuisine with which the 90-year-old emeritus pontiff was obviously delighted -- beer and pretzels.

(More news on Pope Benedict XVI at our Pope Benedict Roundup).

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Looking back across the years, I ask myself where in that murky darkness any light shines. Not among the Nazis, certainly, nor among the liberators, who as we now know, were to liberate no one and nothing. The rhetoric and the cant have mercifully been forgotten. What lives on is the memory of a man who died, not on behalf of freedom or democracy or a steadily rising Gross National Product, nor for an of the twentieth century's counterfeit hopes and desires, but on behalf of a Cross which another man died two thousand years before. As on hat previous occasion on Golgotha, so amidst the rubble and desolation of "liberated" Europe, the only victor is the man who died, as the only hope for the future lies in his triumph over death. There never can be any other victory or any other hope.

-- Malcolm Muggeridge (on Dietrich Bonhoeffer), A Third Testament

He is risen!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Here and There

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Shusaku Endo's "Silence"

The Film

  • Some thoughts on Silence Opus Publicum 01/17/17:
    ... Silence is not a movie for the immature, nor is it a work that can be comprehended by modern sensibilities. The Tridentine Catholicism that not only animates the plot but supplies the movie’s richest symbolisms is thoroughly alien to an era shot through with religious indifferentism and cultural relativism. Protestants, no less than secularists, are apt to misunderstand the film’s fusion of sign and substance, particularly the torment that surrounds the mere possibility of trampling upon an image of Christ. Moreover, by quietly pointing to the kenotic Christ, that is, the Savior who suffers not just for us but with us, Silence taps into a rich tradition of authentically Catholic spirituality, one that is infused not just with the history of Japanese Catholicism, but Eastern Slavic piety as well.
  • Some thoughts on the movie Silence by Dr. Philip Blosser 01/29/17:
    ... I think that not only the temptations but the consequences of apostasy were shown by both novel and film in a faithful light: the temptations were beyond ingenious, with the voice of Jesus seeming to come from His image on the fumie itself ("Step on me.") as if Christ Himself were counseling the mercy of apostasy as the path to redemption; and both apostate priests ended their lives by faded into oblivion, morphing into gollum-like shadows of themselves; and the Japanese Catholics (not all, but many) who witnessed their apostasy were significantly demoralized by it.

    Remarkably, however, when Catholic priests returned to Japan after the Meiji Restoration of the mid-nineteenth century, they encountered Kakure Kurishitan (hidden Christians) who came out of hiding once again to present rosaries and crucifixes and statues of Maria Kanon that doubled as secret images of the Madonna, showing that the Faith had not been entirely wiped out. The price of persecution as well as apostasy was high. Only something like one tenth of 1% of Japanese people are Christians, and of these, half (about 509,000) are Catholic.

  • Scorsese's 'Silence' is his most Catholic film, by Sr. Rose Pacatte. National Catholic Reporter 12/21/16:
    At the top of the thematic list are faith and doubt as partners in a dangerous dance from the moment the priests first find out about Ferriera's apostasy. They leave Portugal and Rome, their gaze focused on a land far away, bolstered by a faith yet untested. Rodrigues especially carries in his heart the image of Jesus so dear to him as a child and in the seminary. Once imprisoned it comes to him in the suffering of the people and in the night. It is this Jesus with whom he converses about his doubts, his questions and the choice he faces.

    The high-pitched whine of the highly intelligent and informed inquisitor Inoue, with his polite manners and saccharine but sinister smile, do not mask his intent to break the resolve of the Christians. He challenges Rodrigues, as does Ferriera when he and Rodrigues finally meet, saying that Christianity is too Western and cannot adapt to Japan. Rodrigues says that the church is the source of truth and is unable to move off the script he learned growing up in Catholic Portugal. His responses to Inoue are noble perhaps, but ineffective. The inculturation of the Gospel and adaptation, even today, remains a challenge to those who evangelize, at home or afar.

    Kichijiro, absolved again and again for his apostasy, is emblematic of sinners who are self-aware of their sin and just as cognizant of God's mercy. Kichijiro disgusts Rodrigues, and it takes the priest a long time to realize that he, too, is a weak human not so different from this dirty beggar of a sinner who cannot help himself.

The Novel

  • Reading Silence for the first time, by Amy Welborn. Catholic World Report 12/14/16:
    ... Endo was inspired to write Silence, not only by his own life experience of living as a Japanese Catholic, but specifically by visiting the shrine to the Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki. This memorial commemorates men, women, and children killed in 1597, and includes an exhibit of fumi—the images of Christ, and sometimes of Mary, upon which Japanese Catholics were ordered to trample and spit, not only once, but annually, an obligation that persisted until the mid-19th century.

    Endo based his novel on historical documents, including a 17th-century diary written by a clerk in a residence in which apostate Catholics, including Giuseppe Chiara, lived. This is especially important for the final chapter of the novel. ...

    Endo is posing that question, in a way, to all Japanese Christians, and even all Japanese people, who live today in a culture shaped by martyrdom and apostasy, of oppressor and victim. What does it mean to contemplate the well-worn fumie in the museum and know that your faith in the present day exists, not only because of the seeds sown by the martyrs’ blood, but also because it was passed down by those who for years trampled and betrayed in public, while preserving what they could in private?

    The dilemma of trampling on the fumie can be brought home in more universal terms, as Endo himself noted, and perhaps this is one reason why this novel about Catholic missionaries who lived and died centuries ago plants a persistent pebble in the shoe of so many readers’ consciences. As Fujimoro beautifully puts it,

    Endo saw fumi-e as emblems of a greater, universal impact. When in lectures he spoke of “having a personal fumi-e,” he was not speaking of a literal religious icon, but was acknowledging that each of us steps on and betrays the “face of ones that [we] love, even the ideals [we] cherish.” To step on one’s own fumi-e, in that sense, is to betray oneself out of desperation due to public or cultural pressure. … Silence is not a triumphant pilgrimage with clear outcomes, but a meandering pilgrimage of one wounded by life and confounded by faith, whose experience of faith has been punctuated by betrayals, his own and those of others. Endo notes repeatedly in his memoirs and through his characters that through his own struggles of faith God never let him go. Endo himself is like the fumi-e, a historical marker birthed of a traumatic time, finally worn smooth through many disappointments, failures, and betrayals, but whose surface reveals the indelible visage of a Savior.


  • Kirishitan - Excellent site summarizing the history of Catholicism in Japan (HT: Amy Welborn).

  • Italian priest imprisoned in 18th century may have been influential in Japan’s development :
    Historians say [Jesuit missionary Giovanni Battista] Sidotti helped shape Japan’s view of the Western world with his knowledge after he won over the nation’s leading scholar of the day. But he fell from grace after refusing to give up his faith and his final days and death have been shrouded in mystery. . .

    As part of his interrogations, Sidotti was questioned by Japan’s top Confucian scholar, who developed a deep respect for the Roman Catholic priest for his knowledge of geography, languages and global affairs, experts said.

    The scholar, the renowned Hakuseki Arai, is said to have tried to help Sidotti but the priest was later sent to the dungeon amid allegations he baptized the Japanese couple tending to his daily needs.

    The Italian died there, but it is not clear how, researchers said.

    Historical accounts, including those written by Japanese scholar Kotonobu Mamiya about a century later, however, mention that Sidotti was accorded a certain respect and treated far better than other prisoners — even in death.

    The buried remains of what archeologists believe to be those of Sidotti were recently discovered. Evidence indicates he was given a burial "in the Christian way" out of respect.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Perhaps the single best example of the common lack of high standards in question of honesty is our tendency to think in labels. Terms like "existentialism", "pragmatism, and "empiricism", "liberalism" and "conservatism" ae, more often than not, so many excuses for not considering individual ideas on their merits and for not exposing one's self to the bite of thought. For less educated people, words like "Jew", and "Catholic", "Democrat", "Republican" and "Communist" do much the same job. These labels have some uses that are perfectly legitimate, but frequently they function as an aid to thoughtlessness and permit people to appear to think when they are merely talking.

The practice of seizing on a label instead of considering a man's ideas is common, if often unconscious.

Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic

Friday, February 17, 2017

Michael Novak, Requiescat in pace.

From his daughter, Jana Novak:

As many of you may have heard by now, dad aka Michael Novak, died peacefully early this morning from complications from colon cancer, at his apartment in DC surrounded by family.

Before he died ... Michael Novak was heard to say, repeatedly, to everyone who came to say goodbye, "God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters." - Robert Royal

Reflections on Novak’s passing

[This post will be continually updated in the weeks to come]

Monday, January 23, 2017

On Punching Nazis

[What follows is an exchange with an acquaintance on my Facebook page, prompted by the celebration (which has gone viral on social media) of the sucker-punching of "alternative right" and white nationalist spokeperson Richard Spencer], thus prompting the recent debate on whether it is now socially acceptable to resolve political differences in civil society with displays of brute force. In short, whether or not it's acceptable to go around "punching nazis", as emotionally gratifying as it might be to many of us].
* * *
First, let's get this out of the way:

Irrespective of what a person is saying or the person’s age — be he 6 years old or 60 — “sucker punching” a person without warning is the tactic of a bully and a coward, and made even more cowardly by somebody being masked and refusing to disclose his identity.

I’d have a great deal more respect for the assailant if he revealed his identity and challenged Spencer to a proper fistfight.

“If you portray a Nazi as simply having different political views, you legitimize genocide as a political position. … Once you advocate genocide, you lose your seat at the table for civil society.”
In terms of law, it’s generally understood that “hate speech”, including racially or religiously offensive statements, still fall under the constitutional protection of the United States (such as a picket sign, a blog or even in the context of a televised interview; genuine threats and the incitement to imminent illegal conduct is another matter entirely).

The right to free speech — including political expression — is especially hard to defend if you find those views particularly odious and morally reprehensible, but I believe it should be upheld nonetheless.

That’s not to say I think Richard Spencer should be actively ASSISTED in expressing his position by way of a platform, podium or as much free press as he’s been given lately.

By all means, let him enjoy his right to speak, but you’re not bound to have to stand there and listen. I often question whether we are doing the alt.right a favor by giving them as much attention, discussion and free mainstream media publicity as we currently do.

If anything, suckerpunching Richard Spencer has just made him that much more intriguing — up until the time of the Trump campaign and the alt.right's rise he could barely command an audience of a few hundred people. At this point in time, his videotaped reaction to being physically assaulted has now garnered 133,000+ views (and counting) on Twitter, courtesy of mainstream media coverage of the incident. (Congrats on that, BTW if you think that punch was something to be lauded).

“If you think violence against Nazis is bad, don't read about World War Two. It will upset you.”

There is acceptable criteria for legitimately going to war against an enemy that has arisen in society over time -- you might have heard of the “just war” ethic determining when to go to war, and how conduct during war should be governed.

As a society we also distinguish between laws governing war and laws governing civil society — with respect to the latter, being Americans, we turn to the constitution and a bill of rights to which we are all held accountable (at least we should be). And as far as the settling of political disagreements go, the consensus among most people in civil society is that the expression of ideas, however noxious it may be judged at times, does not justify suppression by physical violence.

The embrace of violence as an acceptable means of responding to ideas we find morally objectionable is a slippery slope that historically culminates in vigilantism, lynch mobs, “secret police” and yes, the institution of fascism.

“thanks for stating that I'm pretty much equal to a Nazi.”

If you study the history of political movements, the far “right” and “left”, over time becomes indistinguishable once they adopt violence as a means of suppressing / dispensing with political opposition.

In this respect the KGB is no different from the Gestapo, and if self-styled “anti-fascists” want to behave like jack-booted thugs administering street-level justice by beating down political opponents, whatever verbal qualifications they may wish to make about their respective “political positions” are lost in the language of brute force.

Our current President is now infamous for having expressed the sentiment that his supporters should “knock the crap out of” protestors, to “rough [them] up”; he nostalgically longs for the “good old days” when people settled [political] disagreements with blows.

There are those on the left who emulate Trump in physically beating down their opponents, but I prefer to think (hope, rather) that we’ve progressed beyond that level of interaction, at least in civil society.

* * *

As unpopular as the stance is nowadays, especially in academia or on the street ... I'm still in agreement with Robert P. George:

Recommended Reading

Monday, January 9, 2017

As a reporter, I started to cover "Baby Doe" cases from a civil libertarian perspective. These infants, being born, were entitled to the full constitutional rights that every one else in this country, of whatever age, is guaranteed. Often forgotten was the constitutional fact that these infants had independent rights - independent of what parents wanted to happen to them.

As I got more into the story, I discovered something else. I had not paid much attention to the debate on abortion. I had never written in favor of abortion because I was vaguely troubled by it, but then I had never written in opposition to abortion. I had heard various pro-life advocates speak of "the slippery slope," but I hadn't paid much attention to that metaphor.

However, while interviewing physicians, parents, congressional aides, members of Congress, ACLU lawyers. and fellow reporters about the Baby Does, I was often told: "Why are you getting so excited about these defective infants? If the parents had known what they were going to get, they would have had it aborted. Why don't you - like the parents and doctors - simply consider this a late abortion?"

Well, as a civil libertarian, I couldn't do that. (More)

Nat Hentoff, Feb. 28, 1988. Philadelphia Enquirer

Monday, December 5, 2016

J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy"

J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is an engrossing memoir from a hillbilly of Kentucky, born in abject poverty and a host of unfortunate, even toxic childhood circumstances (abandoned by an absentee father, raised by a drug-addicted mother with a-perpetual-revolving door of stepdads and step-siblings), who manages to elevate and make a better life for himself -- thanks in large part to his grandparents (providing a source of familial stability that his own parents could never afford); the cultivation of discipline and self-reliance through a four-year stint in the Marine Corps and the subsequent pursuit of a degree at a state college and eventual acquisition of critical but elusive "social capital", mentors and connections afforded by Yale Law School.

To his credit, while mediating the diverse worlds of his "hillbilly heritage" and the social elite (to which he now immerses himself with some degree of success, howbeit without its challenges) he never repudiates or abandons the former, regarding them with sympathy and understanding and loving them in spite of their flaws. He is cognizant of how many fortunate variables fell into place to give him a chance to transcend his environment:

There was my grandparent's constant presence, even when my mother and stepfather moved far away in an effort to shut them out. Despite the revolving door of would-be father figures, I was ofen surrounded by caring and kind men. Even with her faults, Mom instilled in me a lifelong love of education and learning. My sister always protected me ... Dan and Aunt Wee opened their home when I was too afraid to ask. Long before that, they were my first real exemplars of a happy and loving marriage. There were teachers, distant relatives, and friends. Remove any of these people from the equation, and I'm probably screwed.

Vance's analysis of his white working-poor class and upbringing offers much food for thought and, I think, offers provocative reading for liberal and conservative alike.

For example he is sharply critical of the lack of agency ("a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself") that charactizes so many of his kind and sets them back; a propensity for blaming the government for their ills and succumbing to Internet-born conspiracy-theorizing ("this isn't some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy; this is deep skepticism of the institutions of our society"). However, the right itself is complicit in this evasion of self-scrutiny and responsibility with the increasing suggestion that "it's not your fault you're a loser; it's the government's fault."

Conversely, without ever mentioning Donald Trump by name, J.D. Vance's book also received reknown for offering a sympathetic-yet-critical glimpse into the minds of those who cast their vote for the populist candidate. And now, in the wake of the 2016 election, those inclined to (foolishly, I believe) blanket-label and dismiss "middle America" as a bunch of racists will hopefully be challenged by Vance's account. Consider, for example, his penetrating analysis of his people's perceptions of Obama and the root of antipathy towards him:

The President feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor -- which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent - clean, perfect, neutral - is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they're frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis, and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his won right -- adversity familiar to many of us -- but that was long before any of us knew him.

President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we're not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for our teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose); in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we're lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it -- not because we think she's wrong, but because we know she's right. [...]

I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the "Obama economy" and how it had affected his life. I don't doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he's made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

In the end, while the content of this book does makes it timely reading in the wake of the 2016 election, there is also plenty of wisdom afforded by Vance's biography that I believe it would engage any open-minded reader, regardles of political affiliation.

Further Reading and Discussion

Monday, November 28, 2016

Pope Benedict XVI's "Last Testament"

Pope Benedict's Last Testament: In His Own Words is a fascinating retrospective and summation of the life of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, a welcome ending to Peter Seewald's prior book-length interviews, Salt of The Earth (1997), God and The World (2002) and Light of The World (2010).

Of particular interest to me was the Pope Emeritus' recollections of his intellectual interactions with fellow academics in philosophy and theology, his experience as a peritus at Vatican II, and his appraisals of political figures he encountered in the course of his pontificate.

Throughout the interview his character shines through as a man of genuine faith, conviction and humility -- who regardless of his impressive theological stature and academic legacy is nonetheless capable of receiving criticism and correction from colleagues ("he reproached me many times, which is possible and proper among friends"), appreciative of those instances in life in where one is "made small" as opportunities for Christlike self-mortification ("That does someone good: to recognize once again one's utter poverty").

Likewise as Pope, cognizant of very clear ethical disagreements with political leaders (Obama, Castro, Putin), was able to see their humanity as well:

"I got to know these people, and not only from their political and tactical sides. What was generally impressive about these encounters was discerning that -- although these people indeed think very differently to us on many issues -- they certainly try to see what is right."
And so with respect to agnostics, professed atheists and left-wingers, "if they think and speak honestly. Of course there are fanatics, who are only functionaries and just dispense their working slogans. But if they are human beings, one can see that they are somehow restless inside..."

Above all, and as with prior interviews, he comes across as one whose life -- and pontificate -- "put God and faith at the center [and] Holy Scripture in the foreground"; sought "to discover God again, to discover Christ again, and so find the centrality of faith again" -- and for whom "the important thing is that the faith endures today. I see this as the central task. All the rest is just administrative issues..."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

How did you find the meeting with Fidel Castro?

It was touching, somehow. He is of course old and unwell, but certainly very with it and he has vitality. I don’t think he has, on the whole, yet come out of the thought-structures by which he became powerful. But he sees that through the convulsions in world history, the religious question is being posed afresh. He even asked me to send him some literature.

Did you do it?

i sent him Introduction to Christianity, and one or two other things too. He is not a person with whom one must expect a major conversion, but a man who sees that things have gone differently, that he has to think and ask questions about the whole again.

Excerpt From: Pope Benedict XVI. “Last Testament: In His Own Words”.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

In 2010, the French sociologist Frederic Martel published Mainstream, on the global exportation and supremacy of the entertainment culture -- in which the notion of success (that which sells and reaches the public is good; that which fails to do so is bad) has rendered absolete any other historical conceptions of value. A study to which Mario Vargas Llosa remarks:
Martel's study does not talk about books ... instead it talks exclusively about films, television programmes, videogames, manga, rock, pop and rap concerts, videos and tablets and the "creative industries" that produce and promote them: that is, the entertainment enjoyed by the vast majority of people that has been replacing (and will end up finishing off) the culture of the past. ...

The accounts and the interviews collected by Martel, along with his own analysis, are instructive and quite representative of a reality that, until now, sociological and philosophical studies have not dared to address. The great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture is now dead, although it still survives in small social enclaves, without any influence on the mainstream.

The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn. Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, still more Joyce and Faulkner, wrote books that looked to defeat death, outlive their authors and continue attracting and fascinating readers in the future. Brazilian soaps, Bollywood movies and Shakira concerts do not look to exist any longer than the duration of their performance. They disappear and leave space for other equally successful and ephemeral products. Culture is entertainment and what is not entertaining is not culture.

Excerpt, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa pp. 19-21.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy" (with philosopher Charles Taylor)

[Canadian philosopher Charles] Taylor’s calm, scholarly empathy is reassuring; his three-point program for engaging with one’s political opponents—“Try to listen; find out what’s troubling them; stop condemning”—is deeply humane. At times, speaking about Trump’s racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric, his voice would rise in anger. Then he would pause, take a breath, and remind me that enthusiasm for Trump could be seen as a genuine and ardent, if misguided, expression of the democratic ethos. “The belief that democracy is supposed to be a system in which non-élites have a say—that principle is built right into the nature of democracy,” he said. “But there are constructive ways of asserting it and destructive ways.” Where Bernie Sanders had proposed a program that might have actually given non-élites more power, Trump proposed to consolidate power among a subset of non-élites by, as Taylor put it, “excising some populations from his definition of 'the people.'"


Plato proposed a republic run by enlightened philosophers, and Taylor has some ideas about what he might do if he were in charge. In big cities, he told me, it’s easy for people to feel engaged in the project of democracy; they’re surrounded by the drama of inclusion. But in the countryside, where jobs are disappearing, main streets are empty, and church attendance is down, democracy seems like a fantasy, and people end up “sitting at home, watching television. Their only contact with the country’s problems is a sense that everything’s going absolutely crazy. They have no sense of control.” He advocates raising taxes and giving the money to small towns, so that they can rebuild. He is in favor of localism and “subsidiarity”—the principle, cited by Alexis de Tocqueville and originating in Catholicism, that problems should be solved by people who are nearby. Perhaps, instead of questing for political meaning on Facebook and YouTube, we could begin finding it in projects located near to us. By that means, we could get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale. (It would help if there were less gerrymandering and money in politics, too.)

One imagines what this sort of rooted, meaningful democracy might look like. A political life centered on local schools, town governments, voluntary associations, and churches; a house in the woods with the television turned off. Inside, family members aren’t glued to their phones. They talk, over dinner, about politics, history, and faith, about national movements and local ones; they feel, all the time, that they’re doing something. It’s a pastoral vision, miles away from the media-driven election we’ve just concluded. But it’s not a fantasy.

-- How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy, by Joshua Rothman. New Yorker 11/11/16.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Robert P. George on "earning your right to an opinion"

I sometimes open my courses by saying to my students, we’re Americans, right? They all say, right. As Americans, we have the right to our opinion, right? They say, right. And I say, wrong. And they’re taken aback. They say, Professor George, you’re saying we don’t have a right to our opinions? Are you going to ram your reactionary opinions down our throats? And, of course, that’s not what I mean at all.

Now that I’ve got their attention, I’ve got something to say to them. Well, in this classroom, you have a right to an opinion when you earn the right to an opinion. And you earn the right to an opinion not by emoting your way to what you hold or think, but by thinking your way to the conclusions that you’re going to have. (Applause.)

And I say, now, I can tell you from experience — long experience, sometimes hard experience — that on all of the issues we’re going to be covering in this course — and I teach courses in constitutional law, civil liberties, moral and political philosophies, so we touch on all the hot-button issues — I can tell you from long experience, on every issue we discuss in this course, we’re going to have reasonable disagreement. On all of these issues, reasonable people of good will disagree about what the right answer is or what position should be held. That’s just a fact. That’s just reality.

Now, that’s not to embrace moral relativism. It’s certainly not to say that I myself don’t have an opinion. I hold the opinion because I think it’s true. But because reasonable people of good will can and do disagree about these things, to earn your right to an opinion, you have to understand — and I mean understand, not just be able to parrot it back. You have to understand why someone as intelligent, as well-informed and as well-motivated as you may have reached a different conclusion.

When you know why, when you can reproduce their argument and nevertheless give me your reasons for rejecting it in favor of the opinion that you hold, God bless you, you’ve earned your right to that opinion.

-- Robert P. George, AEI Annual Dinner 2016: A Conversation with Irving Kristol.

Monday, September 5, 2016

If from all the varied analyses I have put before you I may venture to extract a conclusion from their respective conclusions, I should say that the essential result of Christian philosophy is a deeply considered affirmation of a reality and goodness intrinsic to nature, such as the Greeks, lacking knowledge of its source and end, only dimly forshadowed. ...

In the first centuries of the Church, [...] to be a Christian was essentially to hold a middle position between Mani who denied the goodness of nature, and Pelagius who denied its wounds, and therewish the need of grace to heal the wounds.

-- Etienne Gilson, p. 419-420. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.

Man's state, indeed, is neither that of God nor that of things. He is not simply carried forward on an ordered stream of becoming like the rest of the physical world; he is aware that he stands in the midst of it and grasps in thought the flux of becoming itself. Successive instants, that would otherwise simply arrive and pass away into the void, are gathered up and held in his memory, which thus constructs a duration, just as the sense of sight gathers up dispersed matter into a framework of space. By the mere fact that he remembers, man partially redeems the world from the steam of becoming that sweeps it along and redeems himself along with it. In thinking the universe, and in thinking ourselves, we give birth to an order of being which is a kind of intermediary between the mere instantaneity of the being of bodies and the eternal permanence of God. But beneath the frail stability of his memory, which would founder into nothingness in its turn did not God support and stabilize it, man himself passes away. Wherefore, far from ignoring the fact that all things change, Christian thought felt almost to anguish the tragic character of the instant.

For the instant alone is real; here it is that thought gathers up the debris saved from the shipwreck of the past, herein live all of its anticipations of the future, so that this precarious image of a true permanence that memory extends over the flux of matter, is itself borne on by that flux, and with it all that it would save from collapse into pure nought. Thus the past escapes death only in an instant of a thought that endures, but the in-stans is something that at once stands in the present and presses on toward the future where likewise it will find no resting-place; and at last an abrupt interruption will close a history and fix a destiny forever.

-- Etienne Gilson, p. 386. Spirit of Medieval Philosophy

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jamie Blosser: "Positively Medieval"

Forthcoming book from one of the real academics in the Blosser family (yes, I'm only a hack) -- Dr. Jamie Blosser -- third of the four Blosser brothers and currently Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine College, KS: Positively Medieval: The Surprising, Dynamic, Heroic Church of the Middle Ages.

From the author's preface:

In my ten years of teaching Church history I have witnessed time and time again -- and these times are among my favorite moments as a teacher -- that my students, after picking up and reading medieval literature firsthand, are captivated by its relevance. Contrary to the typical narrative peddled by contemporary secular culture, sources reveal medieval Christianity to be intellectually inquisitive, spiritually vibrant, dynamic and world-affirming, sincerely held and culturally diverse. …

Even more, I have found that history works best when its focus is on concrete individuals, real personalities, rather than a broad survey of dates, events and vague generalizations. This is why I have chosen to structure this book not so much chronologically or thematically, but around the lives of real persons -- the lives of the saints.

The faithful men and women of the Middle Ages -- those who passed on the Faith so heroically and at such great cost -- still retain their power to inspire, to capture imaginations, and to teach those willing to learn.

Dr. Jamie Blosser teaches courses in church history, ecclesiology and New Testament. He received his Ph.D. in Historical Theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and wrote his dissertation on the theological anthropology of Origen of Alexandria: Become Like the Angels: Origen's Doctrine of the Soul. Before teaching at Benedictine College he worked at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC. His main interest is in the study of patristics or early church studies, in particular Origen and Augustine of Hippo. He and his wife Danielle have five boys: Augustine, Ambrose, Cyprian, Basil and Cyril.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Studia Gilsoniana

"Studia Gilsoniana is an open access international philosophical quarterly focused on the philosophical thought of Étienne Gilson and classical philosophy. The journal is published by the International Étienne Gilson Society. Submissions are welcomed in English, French, Polish and Spanish.

Etienne Gilson on Medieval Realism contra Greek Realism

Medieval realism thus became the heir to Greek realism for quite another motive than that which inspired the philosophy of Aristotle; and it is this that gives it its own peculiar character. Aristotle turned away from Platonic idealism because man's kingdom is a kingdom of this world, and because above all else we need to know something of the world in which our lot is cast. Christians turned away more and more resolutely from Platonic idealism because the kingdom of God is not of this world, but because the world on the other hand, is necessary as a starting point from which to rise to the kingdom of God. To dissolve it into a flux of inconsistent appearances is to snatch from us our best means of rising to the knowledge of God. If the work of creation were not intelligible what could we ever know of its Author? Were we presented with nought but an Heraclitean flux, would a work of creation be even imaginable? It is ust because all is number, weight and measure that nature proclaims the wisdom of God. It is precisely in its fecundity that it attests to His creative power. Because things are of being, and no mere quasi-nought, we know that He is Being. Thus what we learn concerning God from revelation the face of the universe confirms: "The creatures of this visible world signify the invisible attributes of God, because God is the source, model and end of every creeature, and because every effect points to its cause, every image to its model, every road to its goal." Suppress all knowledge of the effect, the image, and the road, and we shall know nothing of the cause, the model, and the goal. The philosophical realism of the Middle Ages was nourished on Christian motives, and a realism there will always be as long as the influence of Christianity continues to make itself felt.
Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy p. 244.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Jeffrey St. Clair on the DNC Convention

Jeffrey St. Clair -- socialist, political journalist and muckraker -- provides an acerbic, crotchety, yet occasionally insightful and at times deliciously comical observations of the DNC Convention ...

Notes From the Democratic Convention

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Throw the Bums Out.

So Trump's wife, claiming she wrote her speech "with as little help as possible", fabricated portions of it from Michelle Obama's DNC Convention speech 8 years ago:

Of course it's a big deal at the present moment, but then how quickly we forget …

Obama's 2008 plagiarization of Deval Patrick's 2006 speech, without rightful attribution:

Addendum: points out:

Obama later acknowledged it would have been better to provide attribution to Patrick in his speech when the Clinton campaign called him out on it in 2008, but deflected the blame onto her, saying: "I noticed Senator Clinton, on occasion, has used words of mine as well."

Patrick attempted to exonerate Obama by saying "he shared language from his campaign with Mr. Obama's speechwriters" in the previous summer, but ABC News pointed out at the time that Obama used the "Just Words" passage before the summer of 2007.

Biden's much-more-serious plagiarism scandal from the late 80's, for which he had to drop out of the race (I even remember that, being a little tike at the time):

And hell, we are in all likelihood about to elect, as "the lesser evil" (I use that term loosely), a candidate that has repeatedly demonstrated her capacity to fabricate, with a straight face, "recollections from memory" that bear little or no relation to reality whatsoever -- but for which the media, as well as her supporters, demonstrate a remarkable and to my mind, outstanding, capacity to forgive and forget:

And the potential "First Man"? -- well, one has only to resort to Google to plumb the depths of his falsehoods.

Meanwhile, Hillary's leading GOP contender demonstrates a no less tenuous relationship with the truth:

So by all means, let's get all up in arms about Melania Trump for the moment, but methinks if we're still getting hysterical about this 2-3 days from now, it's a case of overkill.

Face it. They're all quite capable of plagiarism -- and committing worse crimes against the truth, and we're all falling for it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gordon S. Wood on "Revolutionary Character" (and the rise of Donald Trump)

I'm reading a book by revolutionary war scholar Gordon S. Wood (Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different). It is a collection of essays (some previously published and expanded upon) on the lives of our founding fathers, and an attempt to explain in part why for all of our celebration of them, we'll likely never see the likes of their calibre again. It also touches, at least in my mind, on the rise of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.

According to Wood, there was a time in American history where qualities of the ideal man were vigorously pursued -- "politeness, taste, sociability, learning, compassion, benevolence" were marks of civilization, just as "virtue, disinterestedness, an aversion to corruption and courtierlike behavior" were marks of good political leadership. The pursuit of being a "gentleman" (displayed by classical conceptions of virtue and self-sacrifice) was given a moral meaning. One's public reputation actually mattered, and they took great lengths to preserve that honor by what they said and did.

"Disinterestednesss" at that time was understood to be "superior to regard of private advantage; not to be interested by private profit", especially in the conduct of public service. (Of course, wealth was a factor in cultivating such in that its advantages diminished the motivation for personal advancement; men of leisure were naturally expected to participate in governance because they could afford to -- public office was considered an obligation). Unfortunately, this meaning of the ancient ideal of "disinterestedness" has changed over millennia and has come to acquire negative connotations, now being characterized as "ambivalence".

However, being a gentlemen was not necessary rooted to bloodline or heredity -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Paine -- the first generations were all considered "self-made men". Of those who signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, only eight are known to have fathers who attended college. And yet despite being "sons of reputable mechanics or farmers" (Benjamin Rush, 1790), it was thought possible that men of low birth could attend college, acquire a liberal arts education and through self-cultivation could become true gentleman as well.

The aristocracy of virtuous public character, such as it was being pursued by the founding fathers, is what distinguished themselves from later generations -- and as the years progressed, Woods contends that what we now value most in American society, democracy and egalitarianism, has proven to be the recipe for our undoing. "The founding fathers had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people, indeed they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves." America continues to celebrate the ideal of being a "self-made man" -- but the original understanding of such as the classical cultivation of moral character has faded into obscurity. Now we have Kanye West and the Kardashians,

(Drawing from Woods' line of thought) Trump, you might say, is the thoroughly contemporary American -- the cultivation of moral virtue, honor and "reputation" in the highest sense of the term, has no concern and seems utterly lost on him. He displays no sense of moral character, exemplified in part by his behavior and conduct towards women and vulgarity of speech. He is of course concerned about his own "reputation" -- but this extends only as far as the material advancement of his ego, especially as it consists in turning himself into a commodity to be foisted on the masses for personal gain. In other words, he is the furthest thing from the 1700's ideal of a "gentleman", but Woods might argue that he is the President we deserve.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

In a bid to "de-colonize" the English major, students at Yale have apparently come to the conclusion that anything written in the 1800's/1900's or prior should be struck from the required reading list:
It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color. ... We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity. [Click here for the full petition]

"I don't agree with these people; they offend me; therefore, I should not have to read them." In retrospect, I think it must be an act of mercy that most of my former English literature professors are now deceased. I can only imagine their utter disappointment if they were to bear witness to this latest display of narcissistic whining.

Now, I'm not necessarily opposed to the inclusion of other voices and perspectives and those that came later in history. My Shakespeare prof at my alma mater WELCOMED diverse viewpoints -- I recall one classroom experiment where we had to each adopt a critical hermeneutic and "read the play" through the lens of various critical perspectives (feminist, Marxist, etc.). It was challenging and intellectually-stimulating -- and perhaps while an indulgence in the literary criticisms of the day, did not see any need to expunge the Bard wholesale by virtue of his being a DWM ["Dead White Male"].

Used to be the case that acquiring a "liberal education" involved exposure to a vast array of "dead white people" -- you weren't necessarily expected to agree with them, but perhaps those who set up such a curriculum hoped that you would, at minimum, engage critically with them, reason with them, and digest their works; or even further: cultivate an appreciation, however minimal, for WHY they came to be regarded as "Classics" in whatever field they occupied (philosophy, literature, art, music etc.

Personally, I could no more imagine pursuing a major in English WITHOUT the exposure to Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, et al. than to pursue a major in philosophy with the assumption that I needn't bother myself with the old, dead philosophers that came prior to the 20th century. Or study American history and dismiss the obligation of learning about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution because hey, they were also written by dead white males. … I'd consider such a deprival rather stunting and malnourished, impeding one's ability to engage and appreciate the cultural riches of the past.

Demanding the wholesale expungement of "The Classics" from the curriculum, or the obligation to engage it, is tantamount to sticking your head in the sand, putting on rose-colored glasses, and immersing yourself in a safe little cocoon of sameness. This kind of cowardly, small-minded, self-segregation and censorship seems to be the mirror image of Christian fundamentalist book-burning.

I am reminded of Camille Paglia's observation, as relayed to Rod Dreher:

I remain concerned about the compulsive denigration of the West and the reductiveness so many leading academics in the humanities have toward their own tradition,” she tells me. “They reduce it all to the lowest common denominator of racism, imperialism, sexism and homophobia. That’s an extremely small-minded way of looking at culture and a betrayal of the career mission of these educators, whose job is to educate students in our culture."

(Camille Paglia, Defender of the West Dallas Morning News 04/25/07)

Or further, from this Catholic blogger's favorite feminist, atheist and critic of post-structuralism, two more revealing anecdotes illustrative of this impetus to bury our heads in the sand and forsake our heritage:

... When it came time to cover the Renaissance, Paglia decided to introduce her students to Michelangelo’s two-part panel from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, “Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden,” a memorable work that she nearly included in Glittering Images. After Paglia’s lecture on this surreal scene from the book of Genesis, a woman student approached the professor. In Paglia’s telling, this student “cheerfully said that she was so happy to learn about that because she had always heard about Adam and Eve but never knew what they referred to!”

More recently, in the early 2000s, Paglia was teaching a course that she founded in the eighties, Art of Song Lyrics, which was directed at musicians. The course covered arias, blues, lieder, and “negro spirituals.” For the spirituals, she taught a song called "Go Down, Moses." It describes the scene from Exodus 7:16: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.” The song, once an anthem for fugitive slaves who fought for the Union in the Civil War, has gone on to have a life of its own in the popular culture. Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson both covered the song, William Faulkner named his 1942 novel after it, and it was featured twice in Will Smith’s comedy from the nineties, the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air".

Paglia played the song and distributed the lyric sheet for her students to review…

"When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,

Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down in Egypt’s land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go."

But as the students read these words, and as Paglia talked them through the spiritual, there was something wrong. The students were not connecting with the song. “It was hard going,” she explains. “There was a disconnect as I kept talking and talking. I felt I was struggling, and I didn’t know why. And then it struck me with horror that of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’ and understand what I was saying—and they were African-American students." A few others had heard the name "Moses" before, but it was clear that they did not know his story of bondage in Egypt or anything about his role as the liberator of the Jews.

"They did not know who he was," she tells me in disbelief. "If you are an artist and you don’t recognize the name of ‘Moses,’ then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide." (My Camille Paglia Interview: The Outtakes, by Emily Esfahani Smith).

I remember the first time I heard Johnny Cash's song "The Man Comes Around", one of the last songs he wrote before his death (and incidentally, the opening theme to a really great remake of the classic horror film 'Dawn of the Dead). It also happens to be replete with apocalyptic biblical imagery, and I found myself thinking just how sad it is that most people these days, upon hearing it, would most likely lack the biblical knowledge to recognize, understand or appreciate its lyrical depth and scriptural references?.

Hell, even Andrew Eldritch of the goth-rock group Sisters of Mercy gets it to some degree -- musing in an interview as far back as 1997 -- on the loss of the bible as a locus of cultural references:

Leonard Cohen tells me he would no longer bother to write a song about Isaac, because people wouldn't know what he was on about. That doesn't only diminish the vocabulary of songs, it has wider implications. If the reference points for our whole belief system are forgotten, we find it that much harder to understand a shared belief system, or even to disagree coherently with a shared belief system. We end up in a vicious circle of incoherent, half-baked individual utlitarianism where nobody has any belief system at all and we lose the ability to communicate with each other. I think that's one reason why football is so popular again - it's a game which the citizen can focus on, where the rules are defined. Unlike his life. The citizen is becoming a pawn in a game where nobody knows the rules, where everybody consequently doubts that there are rules at all, and where the vocabulary has been diminished to such an extent that nobody is even sure what the game is all about. Hence the concomitant rise of fads like astrology, spiritualism, and generic "I want to believe"-ism. I'm a humanist. I believe people should be able to sort themselves out, as does the Judeo-Christian tradition, obviously, but for rather different reasons. Even for Western-European humanists, it's helpful to know about Isaac and Abraham for any discussion of belief/hope/obligation, especially if we wish to join a discussion which has been developed over two thousand years. It's a bit tedious to have to start the discussion from scratch every time by mulling over yesterday's soap-opera with the few people who actually watched it. ...

It's nevertheless hard to talk to Thatcher's Children. Apart from anything else, they have no concept of right and wrong beyond an apathetic and half-baked utilitarianism. I was recently asked if we are "relevant to them". Probably not. Proust is probably not "relevant to them". He's clever and funny and useful, but they haven't got the faintest idea what he's on about. I've been described (by myself, of course) as "Kierkegaard meets Elvis". They may have heard of Elvis, but he didn't wear adidas, and they probably think that Kierkegaard is about as much use as a dead Danish philosopher. Which he is. Is he relevant to them? I think so. Would they agree? I doubt it.