Monday, August 14, 2017

Are Nazis entitled to the First Amendment? - Revisiting Skokie, IL

To permit or deny the right to speech? -- Appropos of recent events in Charlottesville, VA comes to mind a similar incident from years past:
In 1978, the ACLU took a controversial stand for free speech by defending a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The notoriety of the case caused some ACLU members to resign, but to many others the case has come to represent the ACLU's unwavering commitment to principle. In fact, many of the laws the ACLU cited to defend the group's right to free speech and assembly were the same laws it had invoked during the Civil Rights era, when Southern cities tried to shut down civil rights marches with similar claims about the violence and disruption the protests would cause. Although the ACLU prevailed in its free speech arguments, the neo-Nazi group never marched through Skokie, instead agreeing to stage a rally at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

"Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA"

The Article



Saturday, July 8, 2017

When I hear an exclusivist humanism waxing indignant about the crimes and errors of the church in history, I often partly agree. We all feel this today at some point; who defends the Inquisition? My feelings are divided, complex. But I also see a complexity in my interlocutor, who has an important moral point but is also resisting something: resisting the insight that the love of God is something bigger and more important and more powerful than all this human bumbling and evil. But then that makes us brothers under the skin. We all — believers and unbelievers alike — spend a lot of energy resisting God. It takes a lifetime of prayer to melt the resistances, and even then. . . . And one thing we can immediately see, from our own case as well, is that anger, righteous anger, is a great weapon of resistance. Our modern Western world is awash in righteous anger, reciting litanies of abuse and obloquy. The point is often well taken, in that the abuses are or have been real and crying.

Beyond this, what the anger is often doing for people is stopping their moral and spiritual growth because it's a tremendously effective resistance against it. For one thing, I feel good about myself because, whatever my minor imperfections, they pale into insignificance in face of the horrible deeds of those (communists or capitalists, white males or feminists, etc.). For another, I certainly don't need to bother about any insights I might gain from those unspeakable enemies of humanity, God, or whatever.

We have to be more aware of what anger is doing for us, as resisters — and therefore against us, as lovers of God.

Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture p 124 (Oxford UP, 1999)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Charles Taylor on Modern Humanism and Social Justice

... A third pattern of motivation, which we have seen repeatedly, this time occurs in the register of justice rather than benevolence.We have seen it with Jacobins and Bolsheviks and today with the politically correct left and the so-called Christian right. We fight against injustices that cry out to heaven for vengeance. We are moved by a flaming indignation against these: racism, oppression, sexism, or leftist attacks on the family or Christian faith. This indignation comes to be fueled by hatred for those who support and connive with these injustices, which, in turn, is fed by our sense of superiority that we are not like these instruments and accomplices of evil. Soon, we are blinded to the havoc we wreak around us. Our picture of the world has safely located all evil outside us. The very energy and hatred with which we combat evil prove its exteriority to us. We must never relent but, on the contrary, double our energy, vie with each other in indignation and denunciation.

Another tragic irony nests here. The stronger the sense of (often correctly identified) injustice, the more powerfully this pattern can become entrenched. We become centers of hatred, generators of new modes of injustice on a greater scale, but we started with the most exquisite sense of wrong, the greatest passion for justice and equality and peace. [...]

The blindness is typical of modern exclusive secular humanism. This modern humanism prides itself on having released energy for philanthropy and reform; by getting rid of "original sin," of a lowly and demeaning picture of human nature, it encourages us to reach high. Of course, there is some truth in this, but it is also terribly partial and terribly naive because it has never faced the questions I have been raising here: what can power this great effort at philanthropic reform? This humanism leaves us with our own high sense of self-worth to keep us from backsliding, a high notion of human worth to inspire us forward, and a flaming indignation against wrong and oppression to energize us. It cannot appreciate how problematic all of these are, how easily they can slide into something trivial, ugly, or downright dangerous and destructive.

A Nietzschean genealogist can have a field day here. Nothing gave Nietzsche greater satisfaction than showing how morality or spirituality is really powered by its direct opposite—for example, that the Christian aspiration to love is really motivated by the hatred of the weak for the strong. Whatever one thinks of this judgment on Christianity, it is clear that modern humanism is full of potential for such disconcerting reversals: from dedication to others to self-indulgent, feel-good responses, from a lofty sense of human dignity to control powered by contempt and hatred, from absolute freedom to absolute despotism, from a flaming desire to help the oppressed to an incandescent hatred for all those who stand in the way. And the higher the flight, the farther the potential fall.

Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture pp. 32-33 (Oxford UP, 1999)

Saturday, July 1, 2017

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, by Edward Feser

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment
by by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette.
Ignatius Press (May 29, 2017). 500 pages.

The Catholic Church has in recent decades been associated with political efforts to eliminate the death penalty. It was not always so. This timely work reviews and explains the Catholic Tradition regarding the death penalty, demonstrating that it is not inherently evil and that it can be reserved as a just form of punishment in certain cases.

Drawing upon a wealth of philosophical, scriptural, theological, and social scientific arguments, the authors explain the perennial teaching of the Church that capital punishment can in principle be legitimate—not only to protect society from immediate physical danger, but also to administer retributive justice and to deter capital crimes. The authors also show how some recent statements of Church leaders in opposition to the death penalty are prudential judgments rather than dogma. They reaffirm that Catholics may, in good conscience, disagree about the application of the death penalty.

Some arguments against the death penalty falsely suggest that there has been a rupture in the Church's traditional teaching and thereby inadvertently cast doubt on the reliability of the Magisterium. Yet, as the authors demonstrate, the Church's traditional teaching is a safeguard to society, because the just use of the death penalty can be used to protect the lives of the innocent, inculcate a horror of murder, and affirm the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures who must be held responsible for their actions.

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed challenges contemporary Catholics to engage with Scripture, Tradition, natural law, and the actual social scientific evidence in order to undertake a thoughtful analysis of the current debate about the death penalty.

"Based primarily on the natural law, this excellent and much-needed book will be valuable to Catholics and readers of any faith who ask why capital punishment is justified."
--J. Budziszewski, Ph.D., University of Texas

"At long last, we have a serious and intelligent look at all aspects of the death penalty its causes, its justification, its consequences for the victim, the criminal himself, and for civil society." --James V. Schall, S. J., Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University

"An illuminating study of a subject often clouded by emotions. An essential read for anyone who wants to understand this thorny subject."
-- Robert Royal,President, Faith and Reason Institute

"The arguments in this book have clarified many of the contentions of this critical issue in my mind."
--Fr. Robert A. Sirico, President, The Acton Institute


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.