Saturday, August 20, 2011

The politics of fear

Fear is all around us these days. It seems regardless of one's personality there is something to be afraid of. Fear of terrorists. Fear of economic collapse. Fear of losing one's livelihood. Fear of losing health and not being able to pay for care. Fear of immigrants. Fear of the future. Fear of the present.

I have been convinced for some time that our political philosophies (if one can call them that) that dominate the popular mind revolves around fear. It would seem that all sides are afraid of something. And this fear dictates how people wish the state to behave.

On the right I find that we are afraid of the external. Things we are not capable of controlling that are outside of us. This often is the foreigner, the government bureaucrat, and often our fellow citizens. This group wishes two be left alone, not to be bothered by others, and absolved from all obligations hence.

On the left we find fear of life. They are afraid of non-personal factors. they fear the health market. The consequences of their own actions, such as unrestrained appetites of the sexual nature. They fear what they cannot control internally, and feel that they must be protected from life itself and hardship.

Both sides fear things and thus are driven to embrace ideologies that would seem to alleviate that fear. Everything is a crisis. The health market crisis. The terrorist crisis. The economic crisis. The ADIS crisis. The welfare crisis. Every challenge that as a society must face as if the world would end if not treated now with drastic measures.

And so as a society we bounce back and forth between the two types of fears, the external and the internal. We exhibit all the signs of a directionless and insecure society. We have lost any sense of direction. In short, we do nothing but be afraid.

This to me is based on a false notion of control. We tell ourselves if only society would listen and control what we say should be controlled everything would be fine. It is others, are told, that are the problem. They do not listen to us. They are simply stubborn. They want to distort then country, etc.

We believe that we have a control that is actually false. We believe that we can fix the important things. That by ourselves we can simply beat those who disagree with us (and therefore are evil) and everything will be right with the world.

And when things do not go our way and our philosophical goals are not met we give in to fear all the more. We vent and fume at the those who think differently than we do. They stand in our way. Our fellow citizen is now an obstacle to overcome, rather than a partner in a solution. They are stupid, evil, and selfish.

And so we remain fearful and divided. Fearful of each other, of the outsider, of life itself. Hardship is feared like the plague. We demand quick solutions that cause us no pain, for we are afraid we cannot endure.

How does this notion of fear come about? Why are we so afraid?

And are our fellow citizens really evil? Stupid? Selfish? I believe the answer in a sense is yes. And why I the that we will discus next.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Man and ideology do not mix

When the economic crash of 2008 occurred I heard several politically conservative commentators cry out about the supposed failure of capitalism. Real capitalism hasn't been tried we were told. There is too much government interference was also said.

While my sympathies lie with this group I could not help but recall my professors in college lament the fall of the Soviet bloc. Not openly mind you. But the sense that real communism had not been tried was as much an argument for that ideology and it was deployed in much the same manner as real capitalism has not been tried is today.

This line of thinking came to me at work one day when a coworker commented, and I quote from memory, "Communism, on paper, looks great and should work. As soon as you throw the human element into it, communism falls apart.". This to me is one of the cases where my coworker is both right and wrong. He is right in the sense that the "human element" breaks communism.

But in another sense my coworker is wrong. In fact he has the problem completely backwards. It is not humanity that breaks communism. It is that communism, indeed all ideologies, are broken from the beginning.

The problem with ideology is that it attempts to reduce mankind to a particular aspect of who he is. If it is the collective social nature of communism (in a non-Marxist context) or the profit-centered nature of capitalism, ideologies reduce men from their complexities down to one aspect of human nature. This aspect is then emphasized beyond it's importance and all other aspects of men are seen though this lens.

Ideologies are attractive because they simplify the human condition in the mind. They allow us to believe that men can be predicted and therefore accounted for. Like cogs in a wheel or a specimen in a laboratory, ideologies lead us to think we can have some measure of control and predictability in life.

They also propose simple solutions to complex problems. This usually takes the form of righting a real injustice or two. It is believed that by eliminating the "real problem" (government, big business, Kinko's) we will usher in a New Age of mankind, with freedom/security/justice for all.

The problem is that when one reduces man to one's simplistic perception only harm can result. A solution borne out of a flawed misunderstanding of man's nature only leads to the suffocation of other aspects of man. In the worst cases, those who do not conform to this shallow and incomplete version of man are executed, and soon it turns into the situation that everyone is a potential victim.

But surely we are more capable than this. Is it nots the case that humans are intelligent to see when their views need correcting? This we will cover in our next post.

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Called to preach, not convince

When I first began to study my faith from the perspective of defending it logically, I found myself frustrated at not being able to convince people of what I felt was my well reasoned and right opinions. I found my opponents to be curiously stubborn.

For a time I felt that my missing was to convince the world of the Truth of the Church. That I must win over the world though argumentation and logic. As our age claims we are the most rational age of mankind. Surely then logic and reason would simply carry the day.

Over time I became frustrated with what I felt was a fruitless enterprise. If people are not only irrational at times, why should I even bother? Why spend time arguing if my intellectual opponents couldn't even understand the train of logic, or refused to, then why attempt to reason with the unreasonable?

I have learned many lessons since then. In time we will discuss others. But to me the main lesson I learned when I realized that Faith was a gift from God. In my own life I often found that what led me to God was not my own intellectual steam but a number of events and a lot of grace. As such to say that I could convince others is to some extent simply folly on my part.

Another aspect came to me when reading Holy Scripture. What I discovered was that as Christians we are called to preach and to baptize. Yet I noticed something for the first time. We are not called to convince. Shockingly we are not able to force someone to come to Christ. And if Our Lord is content to allow us to disregard His word, who am I to say that someone else MUST come to the Faith?

This to me was actually quite freeing. To me it meant that as long as I attempted to share the Faith with others the rest was in God's hands. As long as I acted in Faith with the Church what I write may not be the best in Catholic writing, but it fulfills my duty to preach the Word.

As such while I attempt to write to the best of my ability I no longer become frustrated when I fail to win over converts. Ultimately it is God who wins hearts and minds. We are simply His instruments. And I am free to make music without having to fret if there is no one willing to hear. My job is simply to preach and hope for the best.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On purgatory

In my own experience on the subject of purgatory I have often find I spend more time explaining what purgatory is not rather than what it is. I heard comparison's to "God's easy bake oven for underdone saints", that it is a "second chance" to get into heaven, etc.

It is important to understand that the Church has only taught three things about purgatory:

1. It exists.
2. It is a temporary place for souls destined for heaven but require a further purification due to sins on earth.
3. There is pain involved.

The customs that surround purgatory are the results of pious speculation, error, and sometimes flat out false information. It is a sad state of affairs that today most Catholics don't seem to know the basics of purgatory (and a lot of other doctrines).

But the concept of purgatory is not hard to understand. We know of many people who are faithful to Christ but are far from perfect, (your humble author has a membership in this club). As such they do not deserve Hell but are not pure. Hence there must be a chastisement, a 'purgation' so to speak. In certain Evangelical circles this was referred to as the "chastisement". This cleansing is necessary as nothing impure can enter Heaven.

When the black legends and misunderstandings are removed Purgatory becomes a most logical place. It fills the gap between Heaven and Hell, and is a great blessing to those of us who are far from the perfection needed to enter into God's kingdom. It is such a shame that we misunderstand so much about it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

History X

In our final post on history we ask ourselves a final question. If it is the case that a human being can be wrong about objective truth and therefore we cannot be sure of our perception of truth, then it must also be true that a society can err on the subject as well.

This is true to some extent. In every society, like in every person, we find both good and bad. We find things to admire about a culture and things to abhor.

The problem of this though is that like a person a society is not the source of truth. A thing is true regardless of our perception. And as such it is not the case that truth is determined by our perception, but our quality is perceived by how well we conform to the truth.

Thus truth stands beyond us. It exists outside our perception and independent of us. We are not the that which determines truth. In fact truth determines us in some sense.

In order to see this truth we must look beyond ourselves. We must focus our attention beyond ourselves and look above us to see. We must look beyond even our homes and those around us.

We must look at that which transcends people and societies. That which has seen empires rise and fall. That which throughout time has pointed to something above and beyond ourselves. That which points to the truth that lies beyond our senses. Something in this world but not of it.

That is why mankind needs the Church.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

In defense of the baby boomers

It is a common theme among those who considers themselves orthodox Catholics that the baby boomer generation, those who were born post World War II are responsible for the collapse of society. I do not believe this is a fair assessment.

The world had quite a few problems before the post WWII generation. Specifically there was...well, World War II. The world had know death on a scale never before encountered I human history before the first baby boomer took their first breath.

Before then was the Great Depression, World War I, the suffering of unchecked capitalism and the subsequent horror of Communism. And let us not forget the seeds of the sexual revolution were planted by Alfred Kinsey and his ilk. Margaret Sanger was not of that generation either.

The point is that it was not the case that the moral order was not one day overturned without any warning. The moral order had been chipped at for some time by previous generations. If anything one could say that the baby boomer generation was too stupid to understand why the ideas were so bad. But then again one could just as easily blame their parents for that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

History IX

When we last discussed history we encountered the difficulty of discerning the truth that can be drawn from history. At every turn we seem to encounter difficulty. I then proposed that in order to understand history we must discern what our ancestors wanted to pass down to future generations.

To illustrate the pointed we must turn to those who until recently were revered as wise and great men. I refer to those we call the Founding Fathers. Those wise and noble statesmen who risked life, fortunes, and sacred honor to bring freedom to the colonies of North America.

There is no doubt in my mind that that those who founded this country are counted among the brightest statesmen that humanity has produced. One only needs to read the Federalist Papers to see that the intellect that was at their command was vast, and the ability to apply such intellect in the foundation of a nation are unique to history.

Yet they were also men. Human. Fallible. They did not design a perfect nation nor were they perfect themselves. They experienced weakness. They compromised on principles. There are even times when such principles were violated in the most horrific manner.

But until very recently they were honored for their greatness. The people of the nation recognized what made them great. The country that they founded espoused the notion that freedom was given to all men by nature of being human. And on July 4, 1776 they signed a document that meant their deaths had not the war turned in their favor.

Thus Americans were raised honoring those men who founded a nation. They were taught why the Founders were great and to look up to them. They were giants whose shoulders we stood on, and we have much to be thankful for because of them.

This is why sane societies have heroes. They embody what a society should strive for. We remember the best parts of them as we try to guide the future. We teach what was good and just in them, and try to impart those good aspects on the next generation.

But one may ask, is this not a whitewash of history? Should we not learn about their faults and failings to get the complete picture? While it is true that a more complete picture might be helpful to understand the greats we must be very careful and clear about what we are trying to accomplish. For looking at a man's faults may shed light on him it can also obscure him in darkness. We can lose sight of what the great man has to teach us if we preoccupy ourselves with his faults.

There is also one other point that must be made. The reason why the great ones are so is not because they were not weak but that they did great things. We are all weak and fallible. The greats had weaknesses as do we. But they were more than their weakness. They moved above and beyond their weakness to inspire others. We remember what makes them exceptional, not ordinary.

But now one final exception is raised. Just as a individual is fallible in what is right and should be passed on, so can a society err in what should be passed on to the next generation. How does one address this difficulty? We will attempt to answer this in our final examination of history.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

On intellecutals

Recalling a few years ago that during the rule of King George (now supplanted by King Obama) I remember the fretting over how "anti-intellectual" the country had become. That is, by virtue of the election of Bush that the country had no use for intellectuals and was openly hostile to them. While some may write this off as simply partisan slander I believe there is some truth to this.

An intellectual in the traditional sense was a learned man who pursued the truth through study. He was devoted to all sciences (including the liberal arts, considered sciences back in the day). His education was diverse and varied, and at his command was a variety of information from philosophy to history to physical sciences.

The ultimate goal of the intellectual was pursuit of the truth in all forms. Indeed society treated the pursuit of truth as a noble calling. He was considered a sage, imparting wisdom and truth to all who would hear it. It was a respected and noble role.

The problem with such noble callings is that they relied on this notion of truth. Truth that was universal and constant in nature. His studies reflected this as philosophy and history were subjects that he would be most familiar with. Attempting to find truth in any and all fields, the intellectual would attempt to be at least proficient in all relevant subjects.

But without the notion of universal truth the notion of an intellectual collapses. The main purpose, that which defined the calling and the use to society evaporates when the concept of universal truth is denied. And with it the reason for the intellectual to exist.

It is not surprising then that when those who inherit the tradition of intellectualism deny the foundation of that tradition those who fund and support those traditions feel cheated. By denying the fundamental nature of the calling they also sever the reasons for supporting the field.

The modern intellectual defines his position not with the pursuit of the truth but the size of his brain. The more data accumulated, the most his worth is. Thus a modern intellectual does not use his brain but simply worships it.

Now the common man sees this shift. Initially then idea was that the intellectual would learn and impart truth to the rest of mankind, and mankind in turn would support the endeavor. But the modern intellectual is turned in on himself. It is no longer about the truth but how smart he is. And the intellectual looks down with scorn on those who do not share his knowledge as one looks at a cockroach.

Our common fellow resents this (and rightly so). Why should I pay for someone to sneer at me? He should be just as willing to shovel dirt as I am. These things he asks himself. And he comes to the conclusion that the intellectual is not worth keeping around.

But now there are two errors. The first is the intellectual who worships his intellect. The second is those who think the intellect is not worth keeping around. Both assume the doctrine of the lack of objective truth. And thus both arrive at different conclusions about what tondo with the intellect.

Until we relearn the notion of objective truth neither side will have much use for each other. One will continue to worship himself, the other will attempt to figure out how to kill the self appointed god. It is not surprising then that we now find ourselves between those who worship the intellect and those who have no use for it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

History VIII

When we last talked about history we discussed the difficulty of drawing truth from history. That is, history presents to us a mired and confused picture if we simply look at the surface data. And yet all societies would seem to believe that there is something to history. That studying history is worth the time and effort.

In order to make sense of the mess we must turn back to legends. As we discussed before, stories and legends were used to communicate the truths that a culture wanted to impart to future generations. Woven into stories and legends were ideas about human nature, the heavens, and evil.

With this notion of legends we turn to history with a new focus. We are not so much interested in what the data is but what people choose to remember. When a person of particular import accomplishes something great or a notorious person does something horrible, that event or events define that person in the memory of the people. Other details, such as the mistress of the hero or the darling family of the serial killer, are shorn over time as society relates what was important and forgets what was not.

This principle is found in the purest form with the concept of the hero. A hero to a people embodies what that people aspires to. He serves as a guide to our children and a reminder to ourselves what it means to be human and what a human should strive for.

To me this example is readily apparent with how America remembers World War II. Countless movies have been made regarding the bravery and heroism of that generation's young men in defense of liberty and country. It is not surprising that we remember American efforts to vanquish the Nazi regime and liberate the Jews, rather than the Japanese campaign that ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But flesh and blood human beings, unlike the legends and superheroes, have moral weakness. No one is perfect, and thus even with the greatest of heroes we find weakness. While sometimes the truth in the historical hero's story is to overcome weakness, at times the weakness cannot be salvaged in such a fashion.

Does this mean that the venture to find heroes is hopeless? Or that we simply whitewash the past? This we will discuss next.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On sophistry and modern variations

One of the more unfortunate aspects of modern debates is the fascination with 'meta.' In particular 'meta' discussions I have found to be particularly distracting and at other times those who employ such tactics are simply dishonest.

My feelings about 'meta' are aptly described by Jeff Atwood:
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the meta. It's seductive in a way that is subtly but deeply dangerous. It's far easier to introspect and write about the process of, say .. blogging .. than it is to think up, research, and write about an interesting new topic on your blog. Meta-work becomes a reflex, a habit, an addiction, and ultimately a replacement for real productive work.
In particular meta-argument and meta-discussion I find to be particularly odious. While at times it may be useful to reflect on style of argumentation, it can quickly become a substitute for actual thinking, as well as a dishonest form of argumentation.

But such people are not new to the world. The ancient Greeks struggled with what are called 'sophists.' Sophists studied rhetoric solely for the purpose of learning how to convince people. What they convinced people of what irrelevant, only that they got paid.

The Greek philosophers reviled the Sophists for good reason. The Sophist offered nothing save for the power to convince. There was no truth, no purpose in such thinking. Only the perversion of language and discussion to manipulate people. It was an anti-philosophy.

The modern inheritors of sophistry are the meta-discussion and meta-argument types. Like their predecessors they propose nothing and advance nothing save their own entertainment. Far from advancing knowledge it hinders because truth is not what is sought, but a side effect at best. In another post we will examine why sophistry and its modern permutations are so dangerous to actual thought.