A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Few Odds and Ends With No Apparent Connection

While cleaning out a folder of various snips and such, I ran across several items that seemed to concatenate and thought I'd try to stitch them together.

Which is the nutcase?
Which is the nutcase?
The first, by movie critic John Bowman, regards the connection between Charlie Sheen and Moammar Ghadaffi.  Both, he says, rely on the persistence in legend of a long gone bogey-man.  In Ghadaffi's case (as for many others), it was long-vanished Italian (French, British,...) colonialism.  But there is a Genesis narrative supporting Mr. Sheen, as well. 

Both [Mr. Sheen and Mr. Ghadaffi] were based upon a founding narrative of the culture that each man shared with his less addlepated fellow countrymen. ... For the founding narrative of today’s popular culture also involves a noble rebellion of the oppressed. Without the success of the free, egalitarian, life-affirming unofficial culture of yesteryear against the "uptight" and "repressive" official culture, Charlie Sheen would be unimaginable, and he depends as much on the pretense of this long-defunct cultural regime’s continued existence as Colonel Gaddafi does. It’s what makes him an interesting, rebellious, "transgressive" pop culture hero and not just a poor, self-destructive, strung-out nutbag. In this sense, his claim to be a "total rock star from Mars" with "tiger blood" had a certain truth to it, since rock stars who come from nearer to home and whose blood is anthropoid have been waving the same bloody shirt for almost half a century, ever since the official culture pronounced its dying benediction upon the noble cause of removing the stigma of hypocrisy from youthful self-indulgence and quietly gave up the ghost.

Arch-rebel against
the Establishment
This in turn reminded me of an account I read of a history class in which the students were being shown a newsreel of the Spanish Civil War.  The all-caps headling plastered the screen and the narrator intoned (in those exceptionally grave newsreel tones of voice) THE REBELS ADVANCE ON MADRID!  The students burst into cheers.  They had been conditioned all their lives to equate "good" with "rebellious" and did not stop to recall that in the Spanish Civil War, Franco was the rebel. 

But speaking of rebelliousness and rejecting the trendoid bourgeois consumerism of post-modern life for the independent lifestyle, we have this comment from the website Art of Manliness
The indie identity is based on the idea of being independent from the mainstream. To this end, indie people buy clothes, CD’s, furniture, books, food, and concert and movie tickets that are not popular with the masses. Instead of going to Chili’s, they frequent their local Thai restaurant; instead of going to Wal-Mart, they go to Whole Foods; instead of picking up the new Coldplay CD, they buy an album from Blood Red Shoes; instead of shopping at the Gap, they buy from American Apparel; instead of buying a Dell they buy an Apple (sure they’re a big corporation, but they’re so cool). But what is the common denominator in all of those things? Spending money. Consumption. Indie people express their independence from the mainstream by doing the single most mainstream thing possible: basing their identity on what they consume.

...  It doesn’t matter that instead of buying things from big corporations you buy free trade coffee, organic apples, and handmade Guatemalan rugs, you’re still basing your personal identity on your identity as a consumer. You are driven by the desire to consume something first before it is consumed by the masses. It’s the new millennium’s take on “keeping up with the Jonses.” And it’s just as conformist as it was in the 50’s.
A useful point to keep in mind.  Especially by those of us who have no idea who Coldplay is, let alone Blood Red Shoes.  John Lukacs observed that when capitalism finally fell, it did not fall to socialism but to consumerism.  There is something a little desperate about the anxiousness not to be seen buying what Those Common People buy.  A Greek friend once coined a term: Vlachophobia.  The Vlachs are apparently the country bumpkins of Greece, and the term was intended to mean something like "fear of being hick."  Once everybody from Middle America started eating arugula in their salad, they had to go dig up goat cheese.  Probably from goats herded by Vlachs.  As this is now becoming ubiquitous, the trendoid masses and the Vanguard of the Trendoids will have much to answer for. 

Going off on a seemingly unrelated tangent, we ran across the following comment by physicist Stephen Barr in a review of E.O. Wilson's The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion.  As one might expect, Dr. Wilson knows much of the one, not so much of the other.  In the course of the review, Dr. Barr drew an interesting analogy. 

Why do scientists always
look so nerdy?
Just as the events of a play unfold according to an internal logic and have among themselves causal relationships, and nevertheless the whole play with all its parts has its being from the mind of the playwright, so too in the universe there are natural causes, processes, and laws, and yet the whole depends for its reality upon God. Did this insect evolve or is it created by God? To ask that is as silly as to ask whether Polonius died because Hamlet stabbed him or because Shakespeare wrote the play that way. For Wilson, nature is a play that somehow wrote itself, and, since he cannot find the author among its dramatis personae, he concludes that he must not exist.

It is best not to push the analogy too far, since it is an analogy, not an equivalence.  Yet any writer is familiar with the phenomenon in which his characters "come alive" and start doing things not consciously in the plot.  So it may not be far-fetched, only middling-fetched.  But this segues naturally into another essay regarding Christianity and we find the unexpected tie-in to the earlier passages on youth rebellion and the derogation of the "hypocrisy" of their elders. 

It is part of an exchange of letters between Christopher Hitchens and a theologian named Douglas Wilson, about whom TOF is uninformed.  Douglas Wilson writes:
Among many other reasons, Christianity is good for the world because it makes hypocrisy a coherent concept. The Christian faith certainly condemns hypocrisy as such, but because there is a fixed standard, this makes it possible for sinners to fail to meet it or for flaming hypocrites to pretend that they are meeting it when they have no intention of doing so. Now my question for you is this: Is there such a thing as atheist hypocrisy? When another atheist makes different ethical choices than you do (as Stalin and Mao certainly did), is there an overarching common standard for all atheists that you are obeying and which they are not obeying? If so, what is that standard and what book did it come from? Why is it binding on them if they differ with you? And if there is not a common objective standard which binds all atheists, then would it not appear that the supernatural is necessary in order to have a standard of morality that can be reasonably articulated and defended?
Well, this is a question that we have dealt with before, but it relates to Charlie Sheen, youth rebellion against hypocrisy, and the students cheering Franco (however inadvertently they did so).  What exactly was the standard to which the youth believe their elders hypocritical?  And is it an excuse for bad behavior to say that since we have no standards, we cannot behave hypocritically? 

Somewhere TOF marked, then lost, an essay they gist of which was that in the post-modern world, hypocrisy has become the only sin.  If you preach faithfulness and then cheat on your spouse, then you are a vile hypocrite.  But if you do not hold faithfulness a virtue, then you may cheat with gay abandon and own no guilt. 

Which returns us to critic Bowman.  In reviewing a production of Moliere's Don Juan, he writes:
Don Johnny.  Was he acting
out due to his cross-dressing?
Crazy Fred
Throughout this long speech, as delivered by Jeremy Webb in the role of the Don, the audience laughed and clapped and cheered. Hooray for the libertine! Bravo the murderer! So long as he is assailing the hypocrisy of more respectable folk, we’re meant to be on his side, apparently.

I know there is a fashionable view, derived from the existentialist philosophers, that Don Juan is an admirable character because he is the only one in the play, or in Mozart’s opera, with the guts to be who he really is and not to dissemble and make a virtue of his weakness like the bourgeois prigs and hypocrites he defies. But somehow that point of view, like the belief in the Nietzschean superman, depends on his being unique, or at least in the minority. If the bourgeoisie is united in finding bourgeois respectability merely hypocritical then it’s not really respectable anymore, is it? Once everybody is defiant, then there’s no one left to defy. Once vice becomes universally admirable, then it is virtue which is the quality of the rarer and higher sort of fellow. Once everybody worships at the shrine of the Übermensch, then the Übermensch becomes a bit of a joke.
But all this is part and parcel of the post-modern 'tude, by which "all virtue and piety are hypocrisy."  Our post-modern poser can no longer even imagine, let alone conceive, that another person might be sincerely virtuous.  What has been the fate of every TV character openly virginal but that she must lose her virginity in a meaningless act of plumbing?  That'll teach her her place.  If a TV mystery involves overtly religious (or at least overtly Christian) characters, it's even money that the father is having an affair, the mother is a drunk, and one of them is the perp.  Because, like, you know, no one can actually believe that stuff, so they MUST be hypocrites; and hypocrites are capable of anything.

The hypocrite does have one redeeming virtue.  He at least acknowledges that his behavior is wrong and holds himself to shame and guilt.  And when we lift the curtain a wee bit more, we realize that because someone says one thing but does another, he need not be a hypocrite.  He may be weak, or overcome by temptation or by circumstances, or driven by a compulsion or habit (genetic or otherwise) and still sincerely hold that what he has done was wrong.  A man who rails against smoking, but is caught puffing a ciggy, may sincerely believe smoking is bad and sincerely believe that he himself has been bad.  Those who have smoked tell TOF that it is habituating (some say addictive) and is correspondingly hard to quit, even with the best of intentions.  It is not hypocritical for the fallen to admit to falling.  Quite the contrary.  Doctrine tells us that everyone is a sinner, and it is just a matter of when and where and for what matter.  And it also tells us that guilt is mitigated to some degree by such things as habit and compulsion. It is up to the post-modern standardless Puritan to hold sternly to non-forgiveness and to rake over peccadilloes decades old, recognizing no mitigating circumstances. 

The hypocricy comes in when the doer really does not believe what he has done is bad, but claims he does anyway, paying the tax that vice owes to virtue.  He smokes or cheats or steals because he doesn't really believe these things are wrong, but he gives lip service to the old "social norms" and comforts himself that "everyone else" smokes or cheats or steals, too.  So it must be all those "virtuous people" over there who are the real hypocrites.

(Side thought: Maybe that's how to get people upset over North Korea.  They call their state a "democratic republic" when it clearly is not.  Those hypocrites!  OTOH, there are people who believe that you are what you call yourself; so....) 

Oh well.  If only them hypocritical Christians had not suppressed the innate rationalism of Greco-Roman paganism!  This contention led one atheist, Tim O'Neill of Armarium Magnus, to make the following sardonic observation fairly deep into a reply to well-known polemicist Charles Freeman, who had objected to a review of one of his (Freeman's) books
As a humanist with a fondness for most aspects of the ancient and Medieval past, I'd certainly lament the destruction of pretty buildings. And the oppression of pagans by Christians is about the same as the oppression of Christians by pagans to me, since (i) I'm a non-believer and (ii) I avoid value judgements about the supposed sins of the distant past. But how "mounting evidence" that Christians closed down the irrational, superstituous cults of their religious rivals and no longer allowed painted priests to shake rattles and intone chants at incense-wreathed statues of Olympian gods somehow supports your thesis I really can't fathom. The fact that the Flamen Dialis in Rome could no longer wear his magical hat, no longer observed his strange taboos against touching raw meat or beans and no longer had to carefully guard against sleeping in a bed whose legs were smeared with clay (?!) may be sad if you're into that kind of thing, but I can't see what the death of such weird superstitions have to do with any argument about rationality.
Yes, they do seem to be cutting
his head off
We tend to think of the Classical world as being more rational than it was.  This is because the medievals preferentially copied books of logic, reason, mathematics, medicine, and natural philosophy.  This does not mean, as one correspondent unacquainted with elementary set theory put it, that they copied most of the Greco-Roman rationalistic corpus.  It means that most of what they copied were the rational works.  They did not bother with the other stuff until the Renaissance rolled around and people wanted to party more.  Then we got the plays and poems and sacerdotal texts and the works of Hermes Trismagestis. 

So what did the medievals do with all that logic and natural philosophy stuff?  They used it as text books for their new-fangled universities.  There have always been schools, and have always been masters who lectured to their disciples; but never before were there machines for learning a standard curriculum staffed by professional licenced teachers with degrees of attainment and funny hats.  Let's turn to Michael H. Shank, "Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science," in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science, ed. Ronald L. Numbers, an uneven collection of essays on the topic of science and religion.
The proliferation of universities between 1200 and 1500 meant that hundreds of thousands of students - a quarter million in the German universities alone from 1350 on - were exposed to science in the Greco-Arabic tradition. 
These individuals benefited from the considerable freedom of thought allowed by the university disputation, which required that arguments pro and contra various propositions be advanced and defended on rational grounds alone.  It was the scholars' fellow disputants who regularly sought to give them grief; most of the time, "the Church" did not.

Between 1150 and 1500, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth, and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities.  If the medieval church had intended to suppress the inquiry into nature, it must have been completely powerless...
Bobby Grosseteste formulated
the scientific method
Here is an example of that repression:  Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), rector of Oxford and Bishop of Lincoln, in his ‘Treatise on Light’ (De luce), wrote that out of nothing pre-existing, God had created a single point from which the entire physical order emerged by way of extension or expansion. The first dimensionless point was light which was one and simple, "containing matter implicitly in the form of light."  If only he had known of the singularity, the big bang, and the convertability of mass and energy, poor dude.  Oh, wait...

But let us not be whiggish.  Grosseteste was doing philosophy, not experimental science.  To be fair, many post-modern scientists do the same thing, the difference being that they don't know how to do philosophy.  Still, it is interesting to see empiricism catch up with Grosseteste's reasoning. 

Speaking of those universities, we learn the following from an essay written by George Weigel on a new college in Wyoming.  In the course of it he mentions:
In 1970, Washington’s largesse led the University of Kansas to create a pilot project in classic liberal arts education called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, or IHP. The program was led by John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick, three brilliant teachers who believed passionately that higher education meant immersion in the classic texts of western civilization and civilized conversation about them. Many IHP students soon discovered that wrestling with the literary and philosophical classics of western civilization meant encountering, and thinking seriously about, the Catholic Church.

Conversions, intellectual and religious, followed. Those conversions later produced numerous vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and two bishops. Authoritarian liberals on the KU faculty killed the IHP in 1979.
Can't have too much of that Western Civilization thingie running around.  Who knows where that might lead?  Parliaments and natural science, and who knows what else?  People might fall into double-plus ungood badthink.  Or save the world.  Or something. 

Well, we don't need any of that stuff, do we.  What if we simply abandoned that Old Time Morality.  James Taranto writes on Wall Street Journal's The Best of the Web.  (Scroll down to  the whimsically-titled "Great Moments in Socialized Medicine".)  
Physicians working for Britain's National Health Service "are failing to inform up to half of families that their loved ones have been put on a scheme to help end their lives, the Royal College of Physicians has found," reports London's Daily Telegraph:
    Tens of thousands of patients with terminal illnesses are being placed on a "death pathway", almost double the number just two years ago, a study published today shows.

    Health service guidance states that doctors should discuss with relations whether or not their loved one is placed on the scheme which allows medical staff to withdraw fluid and drugs in a patient's final days. In many cases this is not happening, an audit has found. As many as 2,500 families were not told that their loved ones had been put on the so-called Liverpool Care Pathway, the study disclosed.
If you want to be philosophical about it, every living thing is on the death pathway. But the idea of government employees pushing human beings down it faster is chilling, to say the least.
Let's not have any
rooster-synonym jokes, please. 
It's a fowl practice.
Of course, it's also interesting that the wickedness being reported was not snuffing granny with the "injections of inheritance" or anything like that.  It was snuffing granny without telling the family first.  Why, the next thing you know Scientists™ will be worrying that men having sex with animals are at higher risk for penile cancer and recommend, not that men should not have sex with animals (how judgmental!) but that they should wear a condom when they do.   Not that there's any such thing as a "slippery slope" or nothing.

Well, as long as they aren't hypocrites knuckling under to bourgeois notions and antiquated Catholic dogmas, then it is OK.  The rebel Don Juan is marching on Madrid.


  1. Great piece.

    One thing - Stephen Barr's analogy of God's creative process via nature is lifted straight from C.S. Lewis. I hope he acknowledges this!

  2. ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

    But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

  3. Re: Bp. Grosseteste, a quick perusal of De Luce contains this sentence: "When the first body, which is the firmament, has in this way been completely actualized, it diffuses its light from every part of itself to the center of the universe." Which looks suspiciously like a reference to cosmic background radiation.

  4. If you read Warren Carrols "the last crusade". Franco is a catholic superhero.

  5. RE: the primal light, it removes the difficulty some (including Fr Jaki) felt about the Genesis 1 line about the creation of Sun coming after the creation of light.

    It was an odd objection to make since even in standard cosmology the photons precede the creation of stars.

  6. Fr. Jaki was not concerned about the Sun coming before light. His position was that creation happened all at once.

    A propos Grosseteste, it was Buridan who first formulated the law of inertia [Newton's first law].

  7. @Gabriel Austin:
    Possem enit dici quod quando deus creavit sphaeras coelestes, ipse incepit movere unamquamque earum sicut voluit; et tunc ab impetus quam dedit eis, moventur adhuc, quia ille impetus non corrumpitur nec diminuitur, cum non habent resistentiam.
    -- Jean Buridan de Bethune
    Quaestiones super caelo et mundo

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. If I were in that class I'd have definitely cheered Franco. The Second Republic was no sort of government for a civilized country. From its history we learn (among other things) the important lesson that exempting members of Parliament from prosecution is a really bad idea and leads directly to anarchy.

    I've noticed just now that this post is several years old. Oh well, I hope nobody minds.


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