Thursday, November 5, 2009



Sunday, September 28, 2008

A History of Ideas

I recently finished reading Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism. Before actually opening the book, I was concerned that its content would be as politically charged and intellectually vapid as its title – you know, that it would spend 400 pages condemning an entire political party and an undefined, straw-man "liberalism" by insinuating that individual politicians are closet Nazis, based upon context-free quips by unrelated organizations and media outlets. This is the exaggerated impression that I got after reading certain other political books, and with a cover bearing such a provocative title written over a smiley face sporting Hitler’s mustache, Goldberg’s book offered people ignorant of its contents the impression that there was much left to be desired.

However, I soon recalled an interview with Goldberg on C-SPAN that I saw back in college. At the time, the book's publication was delayed over some editing details, but it was pretty much complete, and Goldberg defended its thesis to an interviewer and also to callers. Granted, he did not come off quite like a Harvard professor, but there is no question that he was interested first and foremost with recalling facts and figures, recounting historical anecdotes, making thoughtful connections between historical trends, and citing books and articles by professional historians – and not, I note, with smart-ass punditry that seeks only to spout superficial, irrelevant, half-true sound bites for the pathetic sake of bashing people, parties, and organizations. That tiresome nonsense, with which Americans are thoroughly inundated at the moment, was not on Goldberg’s agenda. (He does cite a couple of specific personas in the book – and even has an entire chapter on Hillary Clinton and her book It Takes a Village – but spends this time exploring objective claims about these people’s own words and ideas instead of playing partisan politics.)

Furthermore, I am very familiar with Goldberg’s other writing, which is of very high quality. So, I decided to give Goldberg the benefit of the doubt and read his book. I am very, very glad that I did.

First, let me get out of the way those qualities of a book that, though superficial, are of great import. The writing is superb. Goldberg's use of language makes Liberal Fascism pleasant to read. Humor appears less frequently than it does in his other writing, which is appropriate given the nature of the book, but it does pop up here and there, and is delightful as always. There is the rare occasion on which Goldberg supports a point with a passage that appears a bit misplaced, but most often even those seeming irrelevancies and non-sequiturs are tied together coherently by the end of the section.

The other notable feature of the writing is its academic quality. As I said, the title and cover are provocative, but terribly misleading. Goldberg claims in the introduction that his is "not an academic book", but I find that that is only true in the sense that it does not read like a graduate student’s thesis paper. But while the writing style is not stuffy and academic (thank goodness), the content betrays a scholar who is passionate about his topic and wants the rest of us to be so as well. The themes of the book include studies of philosophers and their philosophies, how those philosophies influenced each other and developed over time, how they influenced history and how history influenced them, how they influenced society and how society influenced them, and how their impact on politics and society back then affects the political and social landscape today. Goldberg offers a thoroughly researched platter of knowledge, objective in nature, complete in both broad scope and abundant detail, covering all angles, and with an appendix plus 58 pages of endnotes made up mostly of works cited. The title and cover image simply do not do the opus justice.

(To be fair, it turns out that "liberal fascism" is a phrase coined by H.G. Wells, who was trying to promote the idea. Still, given the context of the times, and the fact that most people have no idea that H.G. Wells coined that phrase, I would not have slapped it on the cover if I were trying to get intelligent people to read intelligent content.)

Goldberg wrote the book, he says in its pages and also in subsequent interviews, largely because he was tired of conservatives being called fascists. It is exceedingly clear that fascism, what with its emphasis on statism and economic populism, is a left-wing phenomenon. However, even if we are to cave to those who claim that fascism is a right-wing ideology that just so happens to include certain aspects of government intervention (a concession that Goldberg refuses to make, as do I), then American conservatism is still not the philosophy to approach when looking for fascism’s current descendant. When fascism was in its heyday in the early twentieth century, its American counterpart was Progressivism, which in turn is the ancestor of modern American liberalism. This is a fact to which Goldberg repeatedly lends intellectual support; indeed, it is the thesis of the entire book. Really, when the basic facts of the various left-wing philosophies (Communism, socialism, fascism, Progressivism, etc.) are considered objectively, it is preposterous to conflate fascism with modern American conservatism. It is almost as though someone with a political agenda intentionally set about to propagate the fallacy that fascism is of the right for the sake of his own brand of left-wing philosophy.

In fact, that is precisely what happened. Unsurprisingly, we have Stalin to blame.

Marxist philosophy, and socialism generally, had a much greater influence on Western politics in the early twentieth century than most people realize. Most of the people in most places loved the idea of eliminating capitalism and collectivizing the economy. The reason that more countries did not have Communist revolutions is that they were not inspired by that particular brand of socialism. One given group of revolutionaries may have been united in its cause, but around the world, within individual countries, and even within individual cities and provinces, the Left in general was fraught with infighting among various factions with competing visions of what a collective utopia should look like.

One major factor that turned people off to the Communist brand of socialism, defined largely as Leninism/Bolshevism at that point, was its international outlook. Communism defined people by economic class, which was thought to transcend national boundaries, and so Communists looked forward to national boundaries disappearing when their global utopia arrived. The average worker, meanwhile, was not quite the citizen of the world that the Leninists were. An average proletariat in Germany, for example, was all for economic populism, but he was quite proud of his German culture. He wanted regulation, a shorter workday, a minimum wage, mandatory benefits, a welfare state, universal healthcare, and so on (all essential planks on fascist platforms), but he was not interested in becoming a cog in Moscow's wheel, and he did not like the idea of his homeland losing all meaning. He wore German garb, ate German food, drank German drinks in German beer halls, spoke the German language with his German family and friends, read German newspapers and literature, flew the German flag, and called Germany home. Why should he have to give up all of that just to get an 8-hour work day and health coverage? Similar sentiments were very common in many other countries around the globe.

So, in opposition to international socialism, there arose movements promoting national socialism. And, of course, there was more than one incarnation of national socialism. In Italy, Benito Mussolini, a lifelong socialist activist by his own proud declaration, led such a movement and called it fascism, employing the political symbol of the fascio, meaning "bundle" or "union", which was widely associated with the trade unions and implied, generally, the concept of "strength through unity". Italian Fascism was focused mainly on economic syndicalism and national greatness generally. Race was not a big deal to Mussolini, and in fact, Jews were statistically overrepresented in the Italian Fascist Party until 1938 when Il Duce threw Hitler a bone and enacted anti-Semitic laws. In Germany, Hitler and his Nazi party promoted their own brand of national socialism, which incorporated collectivist economics and national greatness like Italian Fascism, but also included plans of world domination and, due to the Nazis' conflation of nation and race, racism. (Plans for world domination should not be confused with internationalism. The Nazis did not want to export Nazism to the rest of the world in the way that Communists wanted to make the rest of the world Communist. The Nazis wanted quite literally to destroy the rest of the world and its population so that Germany’s borders could expand and the German people could have more living space and use any natives that remained after the take-over as slave labor.)

In any event, these national socialisms were gaining major popularity in many parts of Europe and the world. Stalin, with good reason, worried that the number of Communists loyal to Moscow would dwindle and his power and influence would become negligible because of the success of this other form of socialism. So, there really was a competition for influence between Communists and fascists, but not as a battle of right-versus-left. It was really a battle between two sides of the same socialist, left-wing coin. So one day Stalin, true to form, decided to engage in a little deceptive propaganda: henceforth, all philosophies not in line with Communism were to be called "fascist". And since Communism is quintessentially left-wing, and fascism is defined as non-Communist, then fascism must naturally be right-wing. Thus the myth began that fascism is somehow right-wing and, subsequently, tied-in with American conservatism, a philosophy that would prove time and again to be an enormous threat to Communism.

There were some Communists who truly believed, it must be noted, that fascism was the manifestation of the prophesied "last gasp" of capitalism in the face of the global Communist revolution. But that does not make it inherently right-wing, and the man whose idea it was to label fascism as right-wing was not so interested in the historical application of Marx’s prophesy as in the propagandistic value of his fabrication. Besides which, the true believers of Communism were wrong about everything else, and I am at a loss to come up with a good reason to trust them on this one.

So, if I may make such an assumption, the question remaining in many minds is: how, exactly, does American liberalism fit into this picture? Well, despite the book’s title and my favorable review, neither Goldberg nor I am calling liberals fascists. The point of the book is to point out a philosophical lineage that many people do not know exists.

Modern American liberalism is directly descended from the Progressivism of a century ago, which in turn was the American manifestation of the same national socialist temptation that formed capital-F Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany (and many other, less successful political parties in many other countries). My dear reader does not have to take my word for that, nor does he have to take Goldberg’s. The pages of Liberal Fascism teem with extensive quotes from newspapers, speeches, letters, books, articles, and general conversations of Progressives, Fascists, Nazis, and various unaffiliated national socialists. Furthermore, those quotes are cited, so the reader can do his own research if he would like.

Back then, Progressives were fairly open about their philosophical associations. After all, the Holocaust had not happened yet, and national socialism was a philosophy of hope and fulfillment just as much as the next left-wing philosophy. Of course, as I said, national socialisms came in different varieties, not least because different nations had different political cultures. American Progressivism never did produce a dictator, overthrow the Constitution, or turn a domestic society into a great big military machine – at least not permanently. A perusal of the practices that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt put into place, both in war and in peace, is quite likely to dumbfound any reader who was not alive to remember those days.

I imagine that there are still plenty of folks who remain skeptical as to the claim that we are not calling liberals fascists. One reason might be that they are conflating fascism in general with the worst elements of Nazism, an unfortunately common practice, which Goldberg and I are expressly not doing. Fascism was not the ideology of killing the Jews and taking over the world for Aryans' living space; those were part of the broader goals of Nazism specifically. Nazism was a unique political philosophy, rooted in one place and time, that based a lot of its core ideas around general fascist thought. But Nazism and fascism are not synonyms, and when we say that liberalism has philosophical roots related to fascism, that is not the same as saying that liberals are a bunch of Hitler-loving, genocidal maniacs. That would be absurd.

Fascism in general was in favor of economic regulation, an extensive welfare state, and mandatory worker benefits such as a defined work day, minimum wage, and so on. It did not oppose corporate entities quite as strongly as Communism, but it did oppose their operating within a free market, as capitalism was seen as an evil, and it insisted that businesses be good "corporate citizens". In fact, it made an especially big deal about the trouble that big department stores were causing, what with their economic clout and the subsequent disappearance of more traditional places of business. Fascists believed in allowing abortion. They promoted the idea of the people coming together, working in unity to promote the common good, and thereby making the country better and giving it a brighter future. Their vision of this brighter future included a more holistic society that shed its unnatural materialism and instead focused on "the people". Fascists liked the idea of getting "past the politics" of a given social ill, and just having the government do whatever was necessary to make things right. Very popular was the idea that the need to mend each of these social ills was "the moral equivalent of war". Fascists believed greatly in environmentalism, took a strong interest in public health, and were especially concerned about children.

Now, this does not make modern liberals fascists, and vice versa. A modern pro-choice American, for example, is clearly unlikely to have that position due to a fondness for eugenics. The point is only to provide a link and discuss its implications, not to name-call or cast suspicion.

Those who are still skeptical that we are not calling liberals fascists might consider this: The philosophical categorization of fascism might still be in dispute, but nobody denies that Communism has always been left-wing. And, liberalism is left-wing. In fact, a number of liberalism’s ideas here and there can be traced, without too much controversy, to Marxist ideas – perhaps watered down through interpretation and adaptation for an American political arena, but still ultimately stemming from that same source. However, despite all of that, it is plain that neither Goldberg nor I am calling liberals all Leninists. Well, the same principle applies to fascism. We may think that because liberalism can be traced back to Progressivism, it is therefore related just as much to fascism as to other forms of socialism, but we are not calling liberals Nazis, or Fascists, or even small-f fascists any more than we are calling them Stalinists, or Communists, or any such thing. We are just saying that there is a connection.

So then, why write a whole book about it? Well, it should not surprise anyone that a modern American conservative might be motivated to prove once and for all that conservatives are not in any way akin to fascists, what with such imbecilic name-calling by left-wing bloggers and pundits at an all-time high under President Bush. To write a book whose purpose is to reciprocate the name-calling would be pointless, and probably even counterproductive. However, an intelligent, academic work that makes plain exactly what fascism is and how it relates to the various philosophies that preside over the modern American political landscape ought to do a lot of good. And, that is precisely what Goldberg has done.

Monday, July 7, 2008

On Marriage

Though I try my best to avoid political discussions, at least with people outside of my politically inclined circle of friends, sometimes they prove themselves inescapable. I was at a barbecue with my best friend's family, which I know well and love very much, on July Fourth to mark both Independence Day and the fact that my friend’s cousin was married the previous day. There was much merriment, good people, good food, good fun, and good conversation about wholesome, pleasant topics. It was the last scene that I wanted to see sullied with such unsavory muck as modern political discourse. But, to my chagrin, the topics of abortion and, soon thereafter, gay marriage were brought up right in front of my face while I was innocently enjoying a nice merlot and a conversation about childhood.

At first, I felt the familiar stirrings of impatience as someone elaborated on a comment about gay marriage to which I not only disagreed but to which I already had a long, comprehensive response practically memorized because it was the sort of trite comment heard every five minutes at college and which I used to find myself refuting on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. But, after more than a year out of the "think clink", so to speak, I have learned to take a deep breath and just let it go. And so I did. But, the next day, as I shared breakfast with my friend, the topic arose again, and I could not contain myself. The poor guy found himself on the business end of a ten minute soliloquy of my ideas, and as anyone who knows me will tell you, that can be rough, especially if all you want to do is enjoy some eggs and have a pleasant conversation about the Yankees’ series against the Red Sox. (Which I myself initially set out to do that morning.)

In any event, it occurred to me that I have yet to discuss this conviction of mine on The Mench Times. So, here it is:

Marriage is probably the only major issue in which I am firmly in the libertarian camp to the exclusion of a position in the conservative camp. I say "marriage", and not "gay marriage", because to restrict the discussion to homosexual marriage is to miss the point. The problem is that we have made the government the arbiter of marriage in the first place.

Both conservatives and liberals make sense with their main arguments on the topic. Conservatives are correct when they say that the traditional definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman is what is best for society. After all, for obvious and naturally occurring reasons that go back to biology, differences between the sexes, and other such factors, heterosexual relationships are best suited to produce families, which are the most basic, most fundamental, and most important social unit in society. The liberals might say, in response, that the government should still allow gay marriage, because the above sentence is just one opinion, and it is not right for any members of government to decide that sort of thing for everyone else. That would make perfect sense, except that to call it "just one opinion" is not quite on the mark. It has been the overwhelming consensus for millennia, in a large variety of cultures and civilizations including ours, largely because it makes plain sense. Furthermore, it is the overwhelming consensus among Americans today. When the government accepts the above-described conservative conception of family, it is not deciding anything for everyone else; it is reflecting the opinion that most everyone else already formed on their own. And, as I once said in a Primary Source article and still believe, "If ancient tradition and the public definition of the basic building block of society are going to be suddenly overturned in order that a small minority may get what it wants for itself, then it ought to be with the support of at least half of the affected society." That support simply does not exist, and is not likely come about any time soon.

But that is not the end of the story. Liberals, for their part, are correct that the government does not have a right to deny rights and privileges to one group of civilians just because of their sexual orientation. Of course, one can make the slippery argument that equal rights are maintained because, after all, any homosexual may marry an individual of the opposite sex, and no heterosexual may marry an individual of the same sex. But, the obvious response to that is a reminder of the fact that sexual orientation is not a choice, but a consequence of upbringing and, possibly, genetic predisposition. Therefore homosexuals, through no choice or fault (if fault is even relevant) of their own, necessarily can only love and cherish members of their own sex, and not those of the opposite sex. Furthermore, homosexuality and homosexual relationships, in and of themselves, are harmless. Many people think that they create problems for society by promoting lewdness, indecency, and other such things, but those phenomena exist among heterosexuals as well, and they are equally problematic in all cases. Thus, the conclusion is that it is irrational for the government to have an institution whereby individuals of only one sexual orientation may make legally official their mutual commitment to love and cherish each other, and possibly reap certain legal benefits by that, while individuals of another sexual orientation will never have that opportunity. That is not a legitimate form of discrimination.

So here we have a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the family and the individual, two paramount institutions, in the realm of public policy. One might reasonably expect conservatives’ heads to explode over the matter. Of course, conservatives can spare their heads here if only they would stop thinking like liberals. You see the problem, as usual, is the government. It is being asked to play a major role in people's private lives, and unsurprisingly, the outlook of the situation does not appear terribly pleasant whichever side gets its way. The liberals are doing what they always do: they start by unduly taking something for granted (usually wealth and progress, in this case the standing of marriage in society) and then they seek to improve society by making the government just give it away to anyone and everyone. The conservatives are seeking to use government influence to unfairly deny a minority equal rights and privileges. Despite liberal caricatures, this is terribly out of character for the conservatives. The consistency is in the conservatives' reliance on the teachings of religion and their insistence, which is not entirely unfounded, that it can and shall play as much of a role in voters' decision processes as they darn well please.

Anyhow, I have learned to expect this sort of thing from the liberals, but I am terribly surprised, and disappointed, that my fellow conservatives – people who on almost every other issue known to man believe in small, limited government – are asking for the government to maintain socialization of the most important existing private institution, structure it in a narrow way, and then decide whether or not to consent to validating every individual instance of it. Does it make sense that people who believe in the sanctity of religion, the sanctity of marriage, and the untrustworthiness of government would push hard for government to make its own rules about who can and cannot get married, require marriage licenses before a wedding can take place, and replace "by the power vested in me by G-d" with "by the power vested in me by the State of New York"? I can only hope that conservatives come around and adopt my solution to the issue, as its principles, if not its following, are not exclusively libertarian.

The solution, which is quite simple, is as follows: Keep the government's grubby, dirty tentacles away from holy matrimony. (I hate to keep harping on this, but why on Earth does this concept seem to continually escape conservatives? That makes no sense!) Here, let us make an important distinction between traditional marriage and legal union, taken from the Source article:

Marriage is more than a private arrangement between two individuals to live together under certain legal conditions. That is a civil union. A marriage is the joining of a man and a woman in holy matrimony, thereby creating a family.
If you want to get married, go to church, or synagogue, or any other private institution of your choosing. If you want to enter into a certain legal standing with someone else, draw up a contract. If you want both, as most couples will, then wonderful; get both. Accepting the distinction between the concepts of holy matrimony and a legal relationship does not make them mutually exclusive at all.

Meanwhile, the government should recognize as binding any civil union between any people, regardless of marital status. After all, as I said in my Source article, a civil union is "a legal agreement and falls under the right to contract and associate with whomever one pleases". What the government should not do is have the slightest interest in marriage between anyone, at all. A marriage is, by all rights, a personal, private affair. A civil union, as with any contract, is a matter of civil law which remains independent of any personal affiliations or religious standings unless the parties agree to a clause stating otherwise in the contract itself.

This way, the government does not discriminate against any individual based on sexual orientation, everyone can enjoy the legal benefits that we currently associate with marriage, and such things as love, commitment, and matrimony are not subject to government jurisdiction. As for the standing of the family in society, it will not really change; homosexual couples will still not be able to conceive children on their own, and the adoption issue (both the reality and the terms of the debate) will not really change much at all.

Basically, everyone wins. That makes sense now, does it not? We conservatives should not be pushing for the government to stick its right hand into marriage instead of its left – we should be pushing for it to take its hands off of the issue in the first place.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Conservative, Libertarian, or Both?

I have always identified as a conservative with libertarian leanings, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. After all, aside from my opposition to abortion, my political beliefs have very much in common with libertarian theory. In fact, even my reasons for being pro-life stem from a philosophy wholly compatible with libertarianism. Libertarianism is a purely political philosophy of individual liberty (as distinct from libertinism), and my opposition to abortion stems from an observance that the fertilized egg is biologically its own self distinct from the mother.

Really, the only views that I have that are more conservative than libertarian are my beliefs in a strong police force, a strong military, and secure borders. But even these can arguably be defended by libertarian principles. After all, libertarians, except for the extreme anarchist types, do find that government has a legitimate role in taking action against those who encroach upon the freedoms of its citizens. Therefore, the police force needs to be at least as strong as the criminals, and the military needs to be at least as strong as our external threats. In this day and age, that is mighty strong. In the short run, it might save Joe Citizen a buck and a half in tax dollars if the government skimps out on the latest missile defense systems, or the latest technology in bullet-proof vests. However, as any economist will tell you – and libertarians rightly put a lot of value in thinking economically – it is poor form to think only in the short run unless the short run contains an existential emergency. I am no fan of taxation, but what is the point of having the government save me a dollar in taxes if, as a result, it will then be unable to save me from al-Qaeda’s nuclear missile – that is, from an external attack on my fundamental right to life (which is surely as important as my right to that extra dollar from my taxes, if not more so)? I am not an interventionist or imperialist, and I know that government is not there to save its citizens from everything, but I do not mind giving it jurisdiction over foreign missiles aimed at me. I also do not mind giving it jurisdiction over our borders. Immigration is fine, but illegal immigration is dangerous. The possibility of hostile criminals or terrorists entering our country is very real. Citizens in towns near the border deserve as much protection as anyone else, and it does not make sense to leave to a local police force the task of making sure that al-Qaeda does not make war on, say, El Paso. We should have a military presence on the borders with Mexico and Canada, not to intimidate our neighbors or to keep everyone else out, but to make sure that no one and nothing harmful can unduly enter the country.

Those ideas may not be the main planks in the Libertarian Party platform, but they are reasonably defensible from a libertarian standpoint. However, they are also defensible from a conservative standpoint – in fact, if most Republicans had their way, they would be the main planks in the GOP’s platform. So, not to pigeon-hole myself, but am I conservative or libertarian, or both? And, how significant is the difference between the two, really? Are they perhaps the same thing; is the dichotomy a mere distinction without a difference? Or, are they two separate philosophies that, though perhaps capable of friendly relations in the political arena, are ultimately incompatible?

I suspect that most politically-conscious folk on the right have grappled with this conundrum at least once or twice. Indeed, it has been a topic of debate for decades, and remains unresolved even among the leading right-wing philosophers to this day. But it is nonetheless worthwhile to spend time deeply considering these questions, because pondering how two philosophies approach the same issue and contrast with one another goes a long way towards thoughtfully shaping one’s own views.

Enter Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate. Edited by George W. Carey, it is a collection of essays by many of the most prominent conservative and libertarian thinkers of the twentieth century, including M. Morton Auerbach, Doug Bandow, Walter Berns, L. Brent Bozell, John P. East, M. Stanton Evans, John Hospers, Russell Kirk, Paul Kurtz, Tibor R. Machan, Edward B. McLean, Frank S. Meyer, Robert Nisbet, Murray N. Rothbard, Richard M. Weaver, and Frederick D. Wilhelmsen. Unlike I do above, the authors do not spend much time discussing individual issues; rather, they remain philosophic. There are arguments both for and against the possibility of "fusionism" – that is, the belief that conservatism and libertarianism are at least compatible, if not two sides of the same coin – as well as libertarian critiques of conservatism and vice versa. (Needless to say, the latter types of essays were not terribly keen on fusionism.)

Based on his introduction and choice of essays, I do not think that Carey intends to promote one point of view over another, although, interestingly, the book begins and ends with arguments directed against the feasibility of fusionism. First comes an anti-fusionist argument, "Do-It-Yourself Conservatism?" by Morton Auerbach, followed by three very brief essays by Stan Evans, Frank Meyer, and Russell Kirk (respectively) that were each written specifically to rebut the first essay. Next comes "The Twisted Tree of Liberty" by Meyer, who is famous for first coining the term "fusionism" and setting forth its arguments in this very essay (which was originally published in National Review in January 1962), and then later expanding upon it in his book In Defense of Freedom. Fusionism asserts that conservatism and libertarianism are vital complements and should band together not only because it was (and remains) politically expedient, but because the philosophies naturally merge in a way most beneficial for society. If I may strip the argument to its bare essentials for the sake of brevity:

The only real difference between conservatism and libertarianism is that conservatism contains a strong traditionalist belief in the primacy of virtue, while libertarianism is principally concerned with maximizing individual liberty. Both of these are important, but they are not mutually exclusive because a) no person or act is truly virtuous if people are coerced (i.e. by the state) to behave virtuously – in other words, an act only counts as virtuous if the actor freely makes the choice to be virtuous when he could have done otherwise – and b) liberty is an ultimate political end, but not an ultimate personal or social end, and is therefore pointless at best, and dangerous at worst, if the populace of a free society does not maintain a virtuous tradition. Conservatives and libertarians already agree about limited government and a free market economy, and while their social outlooks appear to be distinct, they are really the flip sides of the same coin. Therefore, conservatives and libertarians should put aside their differences, which are mostly illusory anyhow, and band together.

That was not necessarily an endorsement of fusionism, just a description of it. Really, it is key to the entire book; an argument for or against that notion is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in every essay.

Most of the arguments in favor of fusionism expand, in one manner or another, on the ideas described above, but the criticisms come from all corners. For example, following Meyer’s essay is an intelligent but tedious treatise by L. Brent Bozell, "Freedom or Virtue?", that attacks the notion that "virtue is only virtue if it is freely chosen" via a reductio ad absurdum. Assuming that I understood it correctly (it really was quite tedious), I do not quite buy Bozell’s argument. He uses divorce as an example – this was written back when divorce law was central to the social policy debate. Bozell interprets Meyer to believe that there should not be any legal restrictions on divorce just because we think that it is immoral. Meyer would argue by example: Is the Spanish man who is not free to divorce (again, written a long time ago) but hates his wife and stays with her only for selfish pragmatic reasons, equally virtuous as the American man who is free to divorce and would like to do so but decides to stay for the sake of the children and his own soul? No, Meyer would say, the Spaniard in this hypothetical scenario is not equally virtuous as the American, and in any event, very similar scenarios are very common in real life, thereby showing that it is harder for virtue to exist where people are not free to choose another path. Well, Bozell seems to say, by that reasoning, we might as well offer a tax incentive for divorce and increase the marriage penalty – that will really make clear who are truly virtuous and who are not! But Bozell misses the point by a mile (assuming, again, that I have not missed his). Meyer’s argument was not about singling people out as virtuous or not. It was about why it is misguided for the government to legislate in favor of one choice over another when it is nobody else’s business which choice an individual makes. Meyer would have been against incentives for divorce as much as he would have been against incentives against divorce, because divorces are not the government’s concern in the first place. His social outlook, which he projected into fusionism, was largely laissez-faire, which is to say, legally disinterested either way when it comes to the various social questions of ultimately individual concern. Bozell’s argument was, in the end, a straw-man argument.

This reminds me of Murray Rothbard’s essay, "Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manqué", which appeared later on in the book. Rothbard, a libertarian (of course), doubted fusionism for a peculiar reason. His key premise here, with which I agree, is that libertarianism is a strictly political philosophy and must be distinguished from libertinism, a social philosophy that is only one of many philosophical foundations from which one might come to support libertarianism in the political arena. Briefly stated, Rothbard says that according to Meyer’s definition of fusionism, there is really no such thing, because a fusionist is just a libertarian who believes in maintaining traditional values on the personal and familial levels. (Rothbard offers himself as an example of just such a person.) To break down the argument a little bit: a) there are already plenty of political libertarians who are not keen on legislating values but still believe in them personally, which seems to be precisely the same as Meyer's model fusionist; b) any conservative who would refrain from legislating his social values for the sake of individual liberty is really just a libertarian by another name, which is to say, the exact same person as described in (a) except that he happens to label himself with a different word; and c) any conservative who is willing to legislate his social values is either not a conservative at all or living proof that fusionism cannot work because of the unavoidable discrepancy between his statist social views and the libertarian emphasis on individual freedom of conscience. Self-serving as this argument is for Rothbard (fusionists and most conservatives are really closet libertarians, and everyone else is an evil statist), I must admit that I am very tempted by it. Not only do I find myself identifying very closely with Rothbard’s definition of a fusionist (a libertarian with a personal commitment to virtue), but it seems to make perfect sense. The only thing lacking in Rothbard’s argument, which seems strikingly lacking in the rest of the book as well, is a discussion of the discrepancies between the conservative and libertarian views on foreign policy, the intricacies and nuances of which are too great to allow for any sort of substantial fusionism in my opinion.

Despite the size of this post, it covers a mere minority of the ideas put forth in the various essays, so do not assume that my lengthy synopsis spares you from acquiring your own copy of the book if you are interested in the topic. I highly recommend Freedom and Virtue to anyone interested in political philosophy, and also to anyone on the right who has not yet resolved the details of his political identity or philosophy. The writing quality is mostly first-class, and the philosophy is interesting, intelligent, and relevant.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Religious Freedom

I forget the exact context, but it was sometime in college that I first heard the phrase that most perfectly encapsulates my interpretation of the Establishment Clause, with which I agree wholeheartedly: freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. In yesterday's edition of The New York Sun another worthy formulation comprised the headline of Section II: "Freedom for Religion".

Father Richard John Neuhaus, best known, perhaps, for being Editor-in-Chief of First Things magazine, wrote for the Sun an interesting review of Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum’s latest book, Liberty of Conscience. The title of her book notwithstanding, the good professor is decidedly on the side of allowing government to secularize whatever it pleases; good thing a sharp mind is there to rebut her.

Neuhaus begins by taking the reader on a concise history of the Establishment Clause, which is what liberals are usually referring to when they mention the "separation of church and state", a phrase absent from the Constitution (including the Amendments). After nearly two centuries of enjoying the Establishment Clause’s original intent, Americans were subjected to Justice Hugo Black's revisionism in the form of a 1947 Supreme Court decision (Everson). "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" was suddenly interpreted to mean, in Black’s words, that "neither a state nor the Federal Government ... can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another." Neuhaus's analysis here is most keen:

In discussions of the Religion Clause, it is common practice to speak of an Establishment Clause and a Free Exercise Clause. In fact, both grammatically and in intent, there is one clause with two provisions — no establishment and free exercise. The first provision is in the service of the second: The reason the government must not establish a religion is that having an established religion would prejudice free exercise by those who do not belong to it. As numerous scholars have pointed out, however, the end of the Religion Clause, i.e., free exercise, has been subordinated since Everson to the means, i.e., no establishment. The result is that "the separation of church and state" (a phrase of Jefferson's that is not in the Constitution) has come to mean that wherever government advances, religion must retreat.
Neuhaus is absolutely correct. Liberal interpretations of the Establishment Clause are based upon modern sensitivities towards religion. However, the Founders were not seeking to assuage the feelings of those skeptical of religion and its followers. In the Founders’ day, religious sensitivities centered around people who were upset about not being able to practice enough religion. The key here is to remember the context of the times. Americans had just won their independence from England, and, by default, from forced deference to the Anglican Church. Prior to the revolution, British subjects had to be a part of – and to subsidize – the Church of England. Those who preferred their own brand of religion (Catholics, Puritans, Quakers, Jews, etc.) were often treated as second class citizens. Not only were they pressured to conform to Anglicanism, they were harassed just for attending their own houses of worship. In other words, it was not just that the Catholic did not wish to tithe to the Anglican Church, it was also that he did make his way to a Catholic church on Sundays.

In order to ensure that such persecution did not take place in the new Republic, the Founders included the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. Its object, which was clear and uncontroversial at that time and for over 150 years thereafter, was to preempt the creation of a Church of America that would have similar authority as the Church of England. As usual, the Founders’ ultimate goal was freedom; in this case, freedom to practice religion. Hence, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Now that there was no Church of America to impose any religious norms on anyone, people were free to worship as they pleased. Catholics could go to Mass right down the road from a gathering of Quakers, which could in turn take place right around the corner from a synagogue, and nobody would be in any danger or trouble for it, or under any pressure to do otherwise. People could practice religion however they wanted, as often as they wanted. Is this not how it should be?

How did we get from there to government prohibiting a student from praying in school of his own volition?

The astute reader will note that nowhere does secularism play a role in the reasoning behind, or methodology of, the Establishment Clause. This is because it was never meant to do so. The modern secularist gets his interpretation of the Clause via faulty logic. First he takes as premise the leftist fallacy that religion is, in one sense or another, a restrictive force and a net negative in society, and so people have a reasonable interest in avoiding it. Then the secularist goes on to reason that since the Establishment Clause is meant to be the government's promise of protecting people from religious influences that obstruct their liberty, the government, while unable to do anything on the level of banning religion outright, can reasonably take measures to secularize anything under the public domain, which is ever-expanding.

First of all, the premise that there is something wrong with religion is itself wrong. Of course, that is a matter of opinion. However, so is the notion that there is something right with secularism. So, the question arises: whose side should the government take – or, at least, on whose side should it err? Of course, the question is somewhat moot, because it is not the government's business to take a side and start legislating accordingly. However, sometimes an issue cannot help but come to the government’s attention, especially in the courts. So, the question stands.

Secularists believe that it is most fair for the government to err on the side of secularism, and traditionalists believe that it is most fair for the government to err on the side of allowing free exercise of religion. The reasoning behind this – on both sides – is central to the entire debate. Some traditionalists believe that the government should err on the side of religion because they think that religion (that is, their religion) is right. But among traditionalists, that is uncommon reasoning, mostly because it is narrow and clearly untenable in a pluralistic society such as ours. Actually, most traditionalists believe that the government should err on the side of free exercise for objective reasons, namely that freedom is preferable to having the government decide when and where people may express their beliefs, and that the spirit of the Establishment Clause is firmly on the side of restricting government for the sake of increasing individual liberty. The secularists’ logic is different. Here, it is important to remember the premises from which they base their arguments. They believe that the spirit of the Establishment Clause prohibits government from taking the side of any religion, or of religion in general. Secularism, on the other hand, is not a religious philosophy, and so therefore it is fair for the government to side with it, or at least err on the side of it.

Of course, the traditionalist argument (the latter one, that is) is correct. A main problem with the secularists’ thinking is that they have a very narrow, misguided conception of what religion is. A religion is just a philosophy. What separates religions from other philosophies is that religions incorporate concepts of the supernatural. It is true that one naturally thinks of Catholicism or Hinduism in a different sense than one thinks of libertarianism or existentialism. However, there is a reason for that. Philosophy exists to pick up where science leaves off when it comes to answering life’s questions. Of course, science as we know it is barely a few centuries old, while mankind has been asking questions for considerably longer. So, philosophies that incorporate the supernatural have had one heck of a head start in forming a status-quo in societies, and in making themselves integral parts of society’s institutions. That is why we think of religions differently than we do other philosophies. However, when we get right down to it, a religion really is just a philosophy.

So, it is true that the government has no business crusading for Christianity, or Shintoism, or Scientology, or even religion in general – but only in the sense that it also has no business crusading for existentialism, or empiricism, or pragmatism, or secularism. Frankly, the government has no business crusading for any philosophy that is rightly left for individuals to consider for themselves. However, it is the government’s business to protect the individual’s rights and freedoms, and justly included in that spectrum is freedom of worship, freedom of expression, and overall freedom of religion.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008




Requiescat In Pace

Sunday, February 3, 2008

This Just In...


And now back to the less important things in life...

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

On the Right to Vote

When the results of this year’s Iowa caucus initially came in, my first thought was that the worst of both sides had won. My second thought was that if the two main contenders in November are Obama and Huckabee, then most likely I will either vote Libertarian or just not vote. My third thought was to wonder what the "Get out the vote!" people would think of that.

It has always been odd to me that many people see voting as more of a duty than a right. Surely it is not rational to revere the freedom to vote on the premise that the taller the stack of completed ballots, the greater the inherent good of the situation. Rather, the liberty to vote is sacred because it ranks among the most essential means to a sacred end: political liberty in general. The way in which this works is simple: every individual citizen of age has the right to affect the outcome of an election by one vote. If that individual would prefer to affect the outcome of an election by withholding that one vote instead of by giving it to this or that candidate, then that is his prerogative, and there should be no moral imperative to cast the vote anyhow.

What if a voter dislikes all of the candidates in an election, and is not interested in voting for any of them? Are we to look down upon him for refraining from giving his vote to a politician that he dislikes? What about the person who finds that he has better things to do than vote; the person who would prefer to spend his time working, or playing with his children, or sitting at home reading a book, because he is not terribly animated about an election for one reason or another? Some people see a person who does not care about the fate of his country. All else being equal, I see an individual who is content to mind his own business, and who might reasonably wish that everyone else would return the favor. Besides which, the people who are so anxious about the fate of the country can cast their own votes.

It comes down to the fact that the institution of voting, and all of its political implications, exist to serve the individual citizen, not vice versa. Just as with freedom of speech and the right to bear arms, the right to vote necessarily implies the right to refrain from engaging in the activity. In the end, the right to vote is something that is there for the individual citizen’s sake, and therefore there is nothing wrong with each citizen deciding for himself whether or not to employ it in a given election.

It is tempting for someone making my argument to bring up the fact that most "Get out the vote!" types are not so anxious to see people vote as they are anxious to see people vote for their preferred candidates. For example, a Democrat, no matter now incredulous or indignant he may become upon hearing that a fellow citizen does not care about politics enough to vote, is more likely to prefer that that fellow citizen refrain from voting than that he vote Republican. There is nothing wrong with this; it is just a reflection of the Democrat’s own concern for the fate of the country, and his desire to make it right according to his own moral compass. But the point is that most "Get out the vote!" activists are actually targeting one group or another in the hopes that their respective preferred candidates will receive the extra votes that are cast.

However, while the above point remains true, it is not intellectually honest to base my own argument around it, because there are indeed a few people who sincerely believe that a vote for anyone is better than a withheld vote; that is, there is the occasional Democrat who would rather see his fellow citizen vote Republican than not vote at all. So, let us consider the rational intellectual reasons why it might be objectively true that the more votes there are cast, the better the inherent good of the situation, period. Actually, I can think of only one such reason: perhaps some people believe that a high voter turnout is necessary for the preservation of the liberty. In other words, if voter turnout is consistently low, then it will be all the easier for that right to disappear, and vice versa. I do not think that all people who think that voting is so important are also conspiracy theorists convinced that there is a plot to cancel elections and install an oligarchy or despot. However, it is true that in a modern democracy the size of the USA, in this day and age, it is not unheard of for certain freedoms and liberties to be slowly and surely watered down and washed away. It is one thing to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but in general being vigilant about our rights as Americans is not unwarranted.

However, in this instance, I would not be concerned about the right to vote disappearing as voter turnout decreases. First of all, even people who do not vote appreciate the importance of the right to vote. Second of all, it would be impossible to sneak such an outrageous act past the American citizens. You see, with speech, it can be done slowly: first, a few words are banned from the airwaves, then certain topics become "unfair" around election time, and so on. It is the same with the right to bear arms: first, you have to be licensed, then you have to have a background check, then you have to wait extra time, then you can only have certain kinds of firearms, then you have to store them a certain way, then you can have the gun but not actually use it, etc. And even with these examples, plenty of Americans have raised their voices in opposition to the encroachment on their freedoms. Given that the right to vote is a zero-sum game – either you have it completely or you have not even a hint of it – it would be blatant and overt if the government did anything to remove it, and the outcry would come from all sectors, not just the folks who actually participate in elections.

Besides which, I do not find any reason to believe that there is any movement to restrict the right to vote, or that there will be any such movement in the foreseeable future. There is no political reason for it, after all. And, should the day come when the government does try to work such mischief, then our problems as a republic will be greater than anything that a "Get out the vote!" campaign could ever solve. (Something along the lines of a "Get out the firearms!" campaign would more likely be warranted.)

In addition to having my reservations about the motives of those who profess voting to be more of a duty than a right, I am in fact convinced of a few reasons why certain people should not vote. Not that I would ever recommend any moral or legal imperative against voting – that is, I withhold ad hominem judgment on the matter – but I think that objectively speaking, it is in some cases better for a citizen to refrain from voting.

Let us consider the large percentage of non-voters whose reason for not voting is indecision or apathy. Most members of that group are probably not very educated about politics. Therefore, it is best if they refrain from affecting the outcome of an election in which the educated, engaged, involved, active citizens have cast their ballots. After all, elections are not about the assuaging of people’s feelings. (Nor are they, as the media would have us believe, about the careers of the politicians.) No, the elections are fundamentally about the fate of the nation and the affect that subsequent policies will have on people and society. Therefore, every indifferent Joe should not be dragged to the polls just to cast a random ballot and perhaps radically alter the outcome of an election from the way it would have gone had only the politically informed people voted. In other words, quality is better than quantity.

Again, I am not recommending that there be some ordinance requiring a certain level of political savvy in order to acquire voting eligibility, not least because no American should have the authority to decide how every other American must answer certain questions before he is allowed to vote. That is a power best left out of any mortal’s hands. All I am saying is that the less politically educated the citizen, the more likely he is to decide on his own to stay home on Election Day, and this naturally occurring system happens to be a good one that no one need tinker with. There is nothing wrong with it just because the vote counter will have one less ballot to go through.

In fact, I wonder if I should not turn that accusation around and direct it at my opponents in this argument. Surely, if voting is a civic duty, then as with every other civic duty, the citizen has a responsibility to be diligent about it. In other words, if someone must vote, then he must not only cast a ballot, but he must take good care to do so in such a way as to affect society in the best way possible. After all, what other civic duty, or anything else for that matter, will have such a major effect on not only the citizen himself, but on all 300 million of his fellow citizens?

So, if my opponents are so inclined to make voting a responsibility, would they also require people to be educated about it? Would they have people spend their precious free time reading a certain amount of newspaper articles per week so that they vote in an informed manner? (This is not even to touch upon the question of who gets to decide which newspapers and articles count as sufficiently informative and unbiased, and which are not worth the paper on which they are printed.) Perhaps, on the contrary, my opponents would overlook even the most remarkable ignorance just to collect another ballot with a random, uninformed, guess-caliber hole cast in it, and damn the consequences to the country. Either way, my opponents are presented with a problem: do they take the duty to vote seriously enough to require the logically corresponding responsibilities, which necessarily include intrusions into citizens’ lives, or do they profess that voting is a duty only in a superficial sense?

The solution, no doubt, is to recognize voting for what it actually is: not a duty at all, but a right, sacred only for the more general political liberty that its existence implies, and justly given entirely to the discretion of each individual citizen.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Science and Religion

"Couldn't evolution be the answer to how and not the answer to why?"

Were it not for the occasional glimpse of intelligent commentary strewn about the average episode of South Park, it would be a real disconcertion that such an astute, insightful question must be attributed to a show so generally foul. But the wit that the show's creators manage to display at least once per episode make it easier to admit that I first heard that line from the character Stan Marsh, and that I immediately understood the evolution/creation debate much more clearly at that moment.

In a recent article ("The Origin of Species, and Everything Else", National Review, 10/8/07), Jim Manzi points out, "Scientific atheists put forward two propositions as logically deducible from science: that evolution eliminates the need for a Creator, and that evolution has no ultimate goal or purpose." The mistake that such atheists make is to consider evolution an end in and of itself. On the contrary, evolution is a mere tool of Creation.

The first of the atheists' propositions is easily disproven by applying Aristotle's realization that "any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause," as Manzi puts it. Ironically, it was my college philosophy professor, Daniel Dennett, a world-famous proponent of atheism, who first got me thinking about this topic when, on the first day of lecture, he dismissed the class with the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Every time that we come up with an answer of what caused something to come about, we would be remiss not to then wonder what, in turn, was the cause of that cause. Even if we identify a chain of events going back to the Big Bang, we have to consider: Who put that ball of mass there, and what caused it to adhere to what we recognize as the laws of physics? And even if scientists could discern the exact force that created the mass that "Banged Big", so to speak, the question would remain: Whence came that exact force? I am convinced, therefore, that there must necessarily be an Immortal Power that has always been and will always be, and from which the rest of Creation comes about. That is G-d.

Whatever the case, the question of ultimate origins is not one that science is meant to answer, as per the very definition of the scientific method itself. (Manzi says it well: "A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect.") A scientist would therefore be out of order in claiming that any scientific theory, including evolution, "eliminates the need for a Creator".

The second proposition that Manzi identifies is not disproven quite as easily as the first, but it is necessary to address the point. Manzi himself refers to a very keen but very complex and fairly boring analogy involving computer software known as Genetic Algorithms in order to make his point. Those who are interested in reading his explanation in full are encouraged to do so, but I would rather speak more generally here.

In short, evolution must have a goal in the same way that any applied algorithm must have a goal: it takes a large number of possible genetic combinations and, even as new combinations join the mix, weeds out less fit combinations so that over time, the collective gene pool becomes fitter and fitter. It would be astoundingly difficult for us to determine what the genetic goal of evolution is, but that does not mean that the goal does not exist, or even that figuring it out is literally impossible. It just means that as human beings, we do not have the lifespan or brainpower to do it on our own, and we have not come up with the correct technology to accomplish that goal for us.

The way to determine evolution's genetic goal would be to take all possible gene combinations (in other words, all possible organisms), compare their abilities to survive and reproduce over time, and see which one has the most fitness. Of course, as I said, we humans rather lack the ability to do that, but the fact that we cannot figure it out does not mean that the conclusion does not exist. After all, the algorithm known as evolution is literally performing that task for us as we speak. If, rather than waiting until the end of time, we would like to know the answer a bit quicker, then perhaps we might collect the genetic information of every species on Earth and re-create the world in a computer model that we can "fast-forward", so to speak.

Here, I am going to hear some protests that say something to the effect of: "But you are not taking into account the fact that the physical environment of Earth is always randomly changing, so the evolution of species, far from being the tool of some ultimate goal of Creation, is really just a reflection of the fact that some species do better in certain environments than others." But that argument does not hold water.

First of all, that argument does not take into account the evolution of species that takes place within a constant environment. Once a new species comes onto the scene in a certain environment, if it is more fit than the species that were there before it, then the older species might become much fewer in number, or perhaps die out altogether. Within a few years, the exact same spot on Earth – without a changing landscape or climate – may have a very different gene pool that can only be altered if a new species, fitter still, comes onto the scene. Evolution really does imply a gene pool that is destined to approach (in the mathematical sense of the word) ultimate fitness over time.

Second of all, and more substantially, the changes that take place in the Earth's environment are not necessarily random. People tend to forget that the Earth, and all of its natural phenomena, are just another small part of the workings of the universe as a whole. The natural environment changes according to physical forces that have been present in the universe since long before the first life form appeared on Earth. Here, I cannot help but defer to Jim Manzi, who explains that "the [changing] fitness landscape, after all, is only the product of the interaction of other physical processes". He continues:

The scientific atheists sweep a lot of philosophical baggage into the term "random": It is often used loosely to imply a senselessness, a basic lack of understandability, in natural occurrences. But in fact, even the "random" elements of evolution that influence the path it takes toward its goal — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws. Human uncertainty in describing evolution, which as a practical matter we refer to as randomness, is reducible entirely to the impracticality of building a model that comprehensively considers things such as the idiosyncratic path of every photon in the universe compounded by the quantum-mechanistic uncertainty present in fundamental physical laws that govern the motion of such particles. As a practical matter, we lack the capability to compute either the goal or the path of evolution, but that is a comment about our limitations as observers, not about the process itself.
In other words, if I may apply that concept back to the world's changing environment, meteorologists may have a difficult job with a poor track record, but it is technically possible to predict those patterns for all time because they are the result of interactions of finite amounts of matter and energy that are as old as the universe and that continue to follow set laws of physics.

As a side note: Perhaps one day, humans will have perfected that technology, and we will be able to predict environmental changes of all sorts for the rest of time. We would then, of course, adjust our behavior accordingly in order to better survive and reproduce. The fact that the brainpower that would enable us to do that would be an evolutionary advantage in and of itself is further proof that the changing environment is not random according to the evolutionary process.

Here, my dear reader will kindly note that nothing that I have said above challenges the general veracity of the theory of evolution; indeed, I accepted it as true from the very beginning of this post. I bring this up because it is of interest, given that I am a political conservative and a believing Jew. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the clash that we see in our political arena between proponents of evolution and proponents of religion is rather unique to our society. Nothing illustrates this better, in my opinion, than the following excerpt from Stephen Jay Gould's wonderful 1997 essay "Nonoverlapping Magisteria":

In early 1984, I spent several nights at the Vatican housed in a hotel built for itinerant priests. ... Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Jesuit priests who were also professional scientists.

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about "scientific creationism"? One asked me: "Is evolution really in some kind of trouble, and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?"

A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history - a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean. We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.
The thesis, and, indeed, the very title of Gould's essay express what in my own humble opinion is the correct approach to the two disciplines of science and religion. A magisterium is a "domain of teaching authority", as Gould explains it, and indeed, the domains of science and religion, properly understood, do not overlap and can in fact be complimentary.

Science's domain is that of the physical realm. It is meant to perfect techniques of observation and analysis. What is here? How does it work? How long has it been here? What was here ten billion years ago? How did that work? How can we even know that? What can we create to be here in the future in order to make our lives better? How will that work? These are questions that science is meant to answer.

Proponents of scientism need to learn the natural limits of mankind's capacity for comprehension and the existence of questions upon which no physical force has any bearing. So you have proven evolution to be a fact; how could that possibly mean that G-d does not exist? How could any aspect of science prove what is right and what is wrong? Those are, at the very least, opinion questions. Most people treat them as religious or philosophical questions. Only someone who has the debased notion of science as a "side" to be "taken" against anything that is not science (i.e. another category for identity politics to corrupt) would consider them scientific questions.

Religion's domain is the spirit, the soul, and the supernatural – including arguments against the existence of such things. It is philosophical in nature, and it is meant to guide human beings as they wander through life. What is Good, and what is Bad? What makes Right, and what makes Wrong? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Why should I care about what happens to others? What happens to my consciousness when I die? Why is there something instead of nothing? These are questions for religion.

Religionists need to learn the purposes of religion itself. Religion teaches many wonderful, priceless things, but history, for example, is not one of them. In other words, if sound science proves that a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis is incorrect, then it is misguided to presume that science is wrong. Our faith is best reserved for more worthy notions, such as the existence of G-d and the truth of His morality. Theologists, just like scientists, need to be wary of the temptation to disgrace their magisterium by failing to recogize its proper boundaries and making it an object of identity politics.

Perhaps if we accept the genius of science to explain "how", and encourage it to continue, we will have an easier time understanding "why".

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Wrinkle in Time

When I heard a few weeks ago that author Madeleine L'Engle had passed away, I was surprised, and then saddened. Surprised, because I thought that she had already passed on; saddened, because I remembered enjoying her writing very much as a youth.

The news story about her passing mentioned that her writing highlighted her Christian faith. This peaked my interest, because I had read perhaps her two most well-known books, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, and I did not remember any sort of religious message in either. I then decided that it was because so many years had gone by since reading those books that I did not remember such an important aspect of them, and that I ought to re-read them to see if I could learn something new from them the second time around.

Quickly finishing the book that I was already reading, I sat down and read A Wrinkle in Time. Being more of a children's novel than anything else, it took me just one evening to finish. There was no doubt about it: It was meant to frame the universal struggle between Good and Evil on a religious note.

The designation of the book as being of a 5.8 reading level almost surely stems from the novel's simple sentence structure, basic plot, and mostly transparent characters. Very few fifth graders now-a-days could understand the educated diction of some of the characters; the science that forms the premise for some of the more fantastic aspects of the fiction; the frequent references by one of the characters to proverbs from around the globe and lines by Shakespeare, Pascal, Seneca, Dante, Perez, Cervantes, Delille, Euripides, Horace, and others; or the relatively advanced vocabulary that L'Engle scatters throughout her book, such as "ephemeral", "belligerent", "inadvertently", "omnipotent", "precipitously", and others. Also advanced are the morals and lessons presented in various stages of the novel, some more subtly than others.

When I first read the book as a child, I thought that the point was to tout the scientific notions that form the basis for much of the plot, such as the "tesseract". The tesseract is the employment of the fifth dimension to move about space with ease. The best way to explain it is like this: We all know the three dimensions - a line, a square, a cube. In the novel, time comprises the fourth dimension. The fifth dimension is a little more complicated. We all know that, at least in terrestrial reality, the shortest distance between two points is the first dimension, a straight line. However, if those two points could be brought together for a moment, then no travel would be necessary. Imagine an ant walking from one end of a piece of string to the other; though a straight line would get him there more quickly than if he swerved about, wouldn't it be faster still to join the two ends of the string so that with one step the ant could go from one end to the other? Well, imagine the joining of any two points of the entire universe so that travel through it could be done with ease. The condition of having two points of the universe joined as one comprises the fifth dimension.

When I first read A Wrinkle in Time, I was fascinated by this and other scientific concepts in the book. My young mind's interest in them, and their novelty to me, blinded me to the very possibility that there was another point to the book. The fact that I was relatively uneducated in my own religion, let alone in Christianity, did not help any in this regard. However, upon re-reading the book, I could see that the science, though important to the plot and to the enjoyment of the novel, was clearly not as important as the morals. There are a variety of themes upon which L'Engle touches, ranging from religious to political; the evil society in this novel has an eerie similarity to the totalitarian one that Lois Lowry depicts in her masterpiece, The Giver. However, the main theme that the author seeks to emphasize is that the importance of a just faith in G-d, and the struggle between Good and Evil, are truly universal. Mankind has been caught in the thick of this struggle since our arrival on the scene, and L'Engle stresses the importance of remaining vigilantly on the side of Good, even when it seems futile, because the struggle is very real, ever ongoing, and never hopeless.

When I put the book down after re-reading it, and while thinking about it soon afterwards, I was less-than-impressed. Though a wonderful thinker, L'Engle was hardly a great writer - not bad, not too good. However, as I think about it more and more, and as I write this review, I realize that there is something striking about A Wrinkle in Time. It is no Narnia, but it definitely deserves a place next to Maestro Lewis on the shelf. The writing may not have been terribly sophisticated, but it was good enough that this discerning and capricious reader did not put it down until the book had been finished from cover to cover. Furthermore, the writing hardly did L'Engle's ideas justice. In considering this, I am reminded of a favorite concept of mine, that language is the dress of thought. Sometimes, a woman's beauty is obscured by awkward make-up and ill-fitting clothing. Similarly, the philosophy and concepts that L'Engle seeks to expound are of high caliber, but she dresses them in the simplest language, making it all the more difficult to appreciate their importance and complexity.

All in all, I would recommend this book to parents who wish to offer their children (ages 12-14, in my estimation) good, wholesome reading. It is the sort of book that a child can read alone or together with a parent. Also, I would recommend this book to older or more sophisticated readers who would like a break from adult writing, if not from adult topics - in other words, if you would like a good book that will not put you to sleep with its academic language, then A Wrinkle in Time will provide you with a good couple of days of reading. Finally, given the universality of its messages, I would recommend the book to anyone of any age who enjoys an intelligent exploration of moral and/or religious themes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thought Criminalization

I learned to expect this kind of thing from some of my more extreme classmates at college, but even though I am not a fan of the current Congress, I never imagined that this could become federal law. The House has actually passed, and the Senate is close to passing, hate-crime legislation, thereby making certain opinions grounds for punishment. Let me repeat that: Certain opinions will be grounds for punishment.

If this legislation passes, then when a person finds himself declared guilty of a crime in a court of law, the very fact that he has certain opinions will mandate increased sentencing. This is not about using certain biases that he has in order to establish a motive. It is about taking whatever sentence he gets for committing the act of a crime, and then increasing that sentence for the sole reason that he had held certain opinions while committing that crime.

The New York Sun recently published an op-ed by Kenneth Blackwell opposing this bill. It is worth the read, although, while I agree with him, I would have chosen a different angle. Anyhow, today the Sun published a letter to the editor by Joel Levy of the Anti-Defamation League defending the bill.

Levy's letter is key because it illustrates how flimsy the arguments in favor of the bill really are. For example, he argues, "Hate crime laws... do not punish thought. They punish actions..." If that's true, then why do we need the law? We already have a plethora of laws on the books that allow for punishment of the "actions" that Levy has in mind, including all sorts of assault, battery, and so on. Isn't the whole point of hate crime legislation to require the justice system to be harsher on people who have hateful thoughts when they committ actions that would otherwise get them a somewhat lesser punishment (but still a punishment)? Levy himself betrays this point in the rest of the second sentence quoted above: "...and are triggered only when an individual commits a hate crime that is motivated by bias or prejudice."

Let's step back for a moment. "[M]otivated by bias or prejudice"? Presumably, Levy means bias or prejudice against race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, and probably even age, disability, and so on. To be sure, it is wrong to attack someone because of his race, religion, or whatever. Nobody is arguing against that point. But who picks what aspects of the victim it is forbidden to dislike? What if someone gets beaten up for wearing a shirt of a certain color? Surely that is "prejudice," and one could even argue that it is "bias." There is no question that it is discrimination - in fact, it is as arbitrary and stupid a discrimination as racial or sexual discrimination. Why shouldn't the law punish that sort of opinion? Here, I am going to hear that it is because people don't choose their race or sex, but they choose what shirt to wear. That is terrible reasoning for two reasons: 1) A person chooses his shirt based upon his own personal preferences, which he does not consciously acquire, and 2) It doesn't matter, because a person is as entitled to wear a black shirt as he is to have black skin. But I'm getting off topic: The point is that the bill begs the question of who will pick what aspects of the victim it is forbidden to dislike (which, ironically, will entail a great deal of "bias" and "prejudice"). How on Earth do they plan on answering that question fairly?

People get attacked for a variety of reasons. Most of them involve "hate" of some sort or another. Racial hate is not any more special than any other sort of hate, and should not be treated as such. In any case, the hate is not the problem any more than some other motive is the problem. The problem is the action, and the action is what should be punished. This is true even on a basic legal level: It is considered a basic right that when a defendant is brought into court, he is being tried only for specific charges that have been brought against him. If he is seen attacking someone, and is charged with assault and battery, prosecution cannot throw in a robbery charge in the middle of the trial because someone comes forth claiming that the defendant held up a convenience store the year before. That is a separate charge, and if the DA thinks that there is a case, then the defendant will be tried separately for it. Similarly, if someone is convicted of assault and battery, an addition to his sentence because of his beliefs amounts to throwing on another charge of illegal opinions (on top of the assault and battery) for which he should receive further punishment. In other words, one's opinions have become something with which the authorities can charge that person. In other words, there will be such a thing as "illegal opinions." How disgraceful is that?

Levy ends his letter to the Sun with the following simple-minded paragraph: "Hate violence deserves priority attention. When enacted into law, this legislation will improve the criminal justice system's ability to respond to these devastating crimes." He misses the point by a mile. The criminal justice system already "respond[s] to these devasting crimes," as witnessed by every example of people getting locked up for assault, battery, rape, murder, etc. The legislation would just require it to "respond" to the criminal's personal beliefs as well.

In "responding" to the criminal's personal beliefs, the bill would validate the criminalization of certain thoughts. I think that I've explained that enough. But there is another consequence: With thought crimes there necessarily come thought police. Along these lines, Blackwell asks an important question in his op-ed: "As a country, do we want to be in the business of 'proving' what someone thinks?" Indeed, are we comfortable with people's beliefs and opinions being tried in a courtroom, with people testifying against their fellow citizens' thoughts, with defendants brought to tears as they plead for people to believe that they don't actually hate minorities, with a policeman patiently explaining to a jury the mechanics of how the latest law-enforcement technology can be used to show that the defendant does, indeed, have a politically incorrect opinion about some hot-button issue? By G-d, I hope not.

If we as a nation have become so pathetic as to not get frightened at and react swiftly against the prospect of routine thought policing, then we should be more ashamed than any people on Earth have ever been, because it would mean that after achieving unprecedented liberty, we have become too lazy and disinterested to even think about defending it, making us unworthy of our freedoms and of the countless lives that have been lost protecting them. I, for one, cannot abide such a disgrace, and I dare not presume that many of my countrymen can either.

So, why was this bill ever put forth? Do the Democrats, who spearheaded the bill, like the idea of thought policing? Probably not. Personally, I give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they never even thought of it that way. The Democrats just think that they are helping minorities and other people who might plausibly be considered disadvantaged based upon how they can be categorized. (Remember exactly which views will be prohibited.) But lurking in the shadows of the naive idiots who pushed this bill in Congress are the people who came up with the idea in the first place. These are the dangerous people whose hierarchy of values puts their agenda above freedom. They are the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world, who benefit every time a member of some superficially constructed minority is given an opportunity to blame others for his outrage.

In a commentary for The Primary Source, I once mentioned that my fellow Tufts students "should ask themselves whether they care about the bias itself, or whether they have really just been working to encourage the sensitivities of certain groups whose identity politics they support." I think that we need to apply that same question to this context, and wonder how we could ever live with ourselves if we sacrifice our children's freedom to have any beliefs, opinions, and preferences that they please just to avoid bothering to oppose a dangerous, moronic bill that won't accomplish anything anyway.