All Cases Make Bad Law

(Half-formed thoughts, subject to revision. More than usual, I mean.)

Two anecdotes:

As a  young man, worked briefly in the insurance industry, for a while as a personal lines (auto, home, that sort of thing) underwriting analyst. The particular company I worked for had a marketing strategy by which they would approach certain groups – the California Teacher’s Union being the biggest – and offer them some special deals if they’d agree that we were their official insurance company and let us market directly to their members that way. A very interesting business model, and how I came to have a small bit of personal contact with the uppity-ups in the Teacher’s Union. One part of the typical deal was an appeals board that included some actual union members, that people insured could make appeals to if they didn’t like how the insurance company treated them. (1)

One task we with the Underwriting Analyst job title would do is look over the more crazy, out there claims and issues, including stuff that had been appealed to these boards. One time, we were discussing a case where a dreaded Young Male Driver was appealing non-renewal (when the insurance company says ‘no thanks’ to another year of coverage). Over the previous year or so, he had multiple moving violations to the point where his licence was near being revoked, and had made a couple of claims (those things do go together). He was shocked and claimed it was totally unfair of us to not renew his policy – that his driving record was no worse than anybody else he knew. For all I know, he was completely sincere.

Now, an underwriting analyst has access to much accumulated insurance wisdom. Using this wisdom, I know I am a fairly typical driver: in 40 years of driving, I’ve had 2 at fault accidents (both in the first year of driving, when I was a dreaded Young Male Driver myself) and 1 moving violation. That averages out to 0.05 accidents and 0.025 tickets per year. Having more than one ticket in a year is very unusual, and raises a lot of red flags, because getting tickets and costing the insurance company a lot money do go together. This kid was a phenomenal outlier and probably a menace. But he was sure he was typical, and no amount of information could convince him otherwise.

Second anecdote:

Almost the last time I listened to NPR was years ago, a Terry Gross interview of some legal scholar. They were addressing the issue of how real life changes faster than laws can get written, so that judges are faced with cases laws never anticipated and for which there are not any really valid precedents. Their conclusion: of course judges must make the law! With a strongly implied ‘how could anybody seem so stupid as to imagine otherwise?’

Instead of discussing the need for balance – the need for the written law to be respected and weighed against the occasional need to rule on a situation that lies outside the written law – we just chuck the written law! What could be simpler?

A common thread in the above is how a a thing, a ‘this’ in Aristotle’s way of talking, presents itself for consideration. In insurance, a thing might be a claim; in law, it might be a case. As a claims adjuster or a judge, the units of interest to you arrive to your awareness prepackaged, as it were, by rules and laws, assumptions and theories – as facts, as things made, in a traditional configuration. Yet what’s missing, what is critical to making wise decisions, is the knowledge of the wide cultural and moral context within which the claim or case is made.

Such a moral and cultural context is not strictly objective, in the sense that it’s not something to be learned merely by looking at how things are at some time and place. It includes, at least in the West, recognition of imperfectly realized ideals. Without this cultural context taken in the widest possible sense, a sense that includes Jewish reverence for the law of God, Greek logic, and Christendom’s ancient sense of salvation history, not just hard cases, but all cases make bad law.

This is where case law gets tricky. If we look to precedent, what we are doing should not be just sussing out how other judges judged and seeing if their judgement applies to the facts in this case. We should also try to to understand that constellation of moral and cultural beliefs that made that judgement seem just to that judge.

Image result for oliver wendell holmes supreme court
Righteous mustache, I must admit. 

I’m not a lawyer, and have felt only the slightest attraction to that profession(2). But I love philosophy. I’ve read just enough (very little) of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr to be dangerous.  OWH Jr assures us that law is, in its essence, philosophy (3). Well, then! Here we go.

If I understand justice to be essentially something eternal and unchanging, along the lines of a Platonic form, more or less, I will look at case law as perhaps revealing something true about justice. At least potentially, all those decisions will reflect all the judges’ best cogitations on the same truth. Like science, it would be acknowledged up front that all such attempt are provisional, that something that comes along later might require reexamination of assumptions. But the basic shape of the process is also like science – it assumes the existence of an objective reality to which our best efforts are an approximation. Over time, we should hope that the approximation gets better. In the meantime, we get useful gadgets and useful rulings.

Hegel, whose influence, fell and dread, was strong on OWH Jr, teaches that the methods of science is not suitable for true philosophers. By this, he does not mean the (real and true) limitation of modern science to things that can be measured. Rather, he refers to the logical processes that underlie not only science but all prior philosophy. Science works by ‘propositional logic’, moving step by careful step from premises stated and restated to be as clear as possible, using logic as beloved by Aristotle and Thomas to reach valid conclusions. Hegel dismissed such efforts as something engaged in by the little people – not by true philosophers like himself.

True philosophers use speculative reason, a phrase redefined away from its traditional meaning by Hegel to mean insights gained by whatever it is that Hegel does to get insights.

The most fundamental of all realities to Hegel are not immutable truths, but Progress. The Spirit reveals and comes to know itself through an endless series of revelations. Reason that relies on logic as an immutable foundation is thus never going to get it right – people wedded to logic, to the notion that true things need to make sense on some level, will reject the latest revelation on the grounds that it is irrational – that it is self-contradictory. To Hegel, this is both of the nature of revelation – it wouldn’t be a revelation if it made sense – and the reason to reject *logic*, at least in philosophic discourse.

Human beings struggle to come to grips with these revelations, struggle to shed the previous rigid thinking we’d settled into after we’d incorporated the last revelation into our consciousness. Those who cannot incorporate the new revelation – those unable to suspend the contradiction within a dialectic synthesis – are left behind, are on the wrong side of history, or, worse yet, are trying to turn the clock back.

Hegel has never been accused of being clear.

We see a meeting of soul-mates. This is not a coincidence. Hegel was a conventional Lutheran. For 300 years, Lutherans and Calvinists and Protestants in general had asserted the rational superiority of their beliefs to Catholicism. Yet both Calvin and Luther famously denigrated reason – ‘that whore’, as Luther called it. I suppose that’s one of those contradictions subsumed in a synthesis, a contradiction in creative tension.

If you define ‘rational’ as ‘falling under the purview of the methods of Aristotle and Thomas’ the teachings of Calvin and Luther will lose that argument (4). That’s why Philosophy since 1630 or so has been exclusively devoted to dismissing or ignoring Aristotle and Thomas. Just as Holmes’ inherited convictions from his Harvard crowd about how the good and holy Puritans Unitarians secularist progressives should be in charge survived his rejection of the God upon the understanding of Whom such claims of superiority were initially based, the efforts to find some other way – any other way! – to think about reality than using Aristotelian logic survived the Academy’s rejection of all things theological. The lust for power survives any particular justification for it.

To be continued.

  1. Aside: you’ll sometimes hear an insurance company tout its 97% customer satisfaction rate with its claims services. Duh. About 97% of the time, the claim is obvious and any half-way respectable insurance company will promptly pay it – reasonable people are pretty satisfied with that. The other 3% includes the very rare hard case,  where it’s not clear at all that the insurance company should pay, a few fraud cases, but mostly, I’d guess about 3% of the population simply does not want to be satisfied no matter what. I suspect we all know people like that, and thus suspect anything over a 97% satisfaction rate doesn’t include a representative sample of humanity.
  2. Taking my father’s oft-stated belief that education was for getting a better job, I couldn’t see law as anything but a job that claimed to be a vocation that has no justification outside of working for justice. In other words, a lawyer making money is a sell-out by definition. Of course, a couple of my college roommates became a judge and a worker’s rights lawyer, which kinda works…
  3. And, in the course of assuring us of this, dismisses the vast bulk of lawyers as just journeymen of a craft, with no real understanding. This goes back, I would think, to his bedrock Harvard/Boston/essentially Puritan roots, institutions founded on the belief that people like him – the smart, good people – should be in charge of the less smart, less good people. Even losing his faith in God didn’t damage his faith in his own Brahmin class’s meritocracy and fitness to rule.
  4. The Catholic Encyclopedia, whose side in this dispute should be obvious,  says of Robert Bellarmine: “In 1576 …the lectures thus delivered grew into the work “De Controversiis” which, amidst so much else of excellence, forms the chief title to his greatness. This monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe, the blow it dealt to Protestantism being so acutely felt in Germany and England that special chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it.” Thus began Catholic attempts to make sense of the mish-mash of Protestant claims and arguments. That there are so many conflicting claims and arguments has always testified against them – Does human will count for anything? Does a plowboy need any help understanding Scripture? Do we need baptism or not? Once, or more than once? What, if anything, does the Eucharist represent? And on and on and on. It is obvious that, if these claims represent superior rationality, that rationality cannot be based on the belief that the Truth is One. Thus, Aristotle and Thomas must be rejected.

Free Speech


Started another long winded post, decided to cut to the chase: Opposition to free speech is a necessary and standard position of Marxists, for 3 main reasons:

  1. Marxism relies for its truth claims on enlightenment, not argument. No one becomes a Marxist because a carefully-constructed string of logically valid and compelling arguments have convinced him it is true. Rather, one merely has one’s consciousness raised – gets woke – which really is a lot less trouble.
  2. Marxists believe there is no such thing as human nature. (1)  This is the bedrock belief that lies under modern feminism and gender theory, but is present in all critical theory.
  3. Thus, Marxists do not believe in inalienable rights. Individual rights, insofar as they can be said to exist at all, accrue to a person only insofar as that person has attained enlightenment, which enlightenment is measured solely by how well their beliefs agree with mine, so long as I’m a Marxist. Not a Marxist? Then you have no rights.

The first point is nothing more than Hegel viewed through Marx’s prism. Hegel, after surveying the logical wreckage of the line of philosophies beginning with Descartes (2) and ending with Kant, concluded that no philosophical progress could be made going down that road. He did admit that logic continued to be very fruitful as applied to science and math, for example, but thought it doomed to failure when applied to philosophy.  Thus, human knowledge was bifurcated: the little people, who were not capable of true philosophy, would continue to use logic to make the sort of real progress seen in applied science and math, while true philosophers would engage in a dialectic wherein logical contradictions are subsumed in the synthesis. In English, that means true philosophers are freed from the requirement of making any sense, but can just blithely plow ahead with their work, counting on the Spirit to validate the greater truth in which the contradictions of thesis and antithesis are held creative tension in the synthesis. Again, in English, the positions of true philosophers cannot be attacked for being unreasonable. That a true philosopher’s positions are self-contradictory is a feature, not a bug.

Marxists merely took this whatchamacallit – insight? Self-delusion? – and ran with it.  You can see this rejection of logic most clearly in the refusal of Marxists to consider any science that contradicts their positions. Instead, science, when it contradicts Marxism, is branded a social construct and a tool of patriarchal oppression, no more valid in its conclusions than any other social construct of oppression. The irony of making such statements over the internet, for example, is lost on them.

The idea of free speech, as in talking things over or even, goodness forbid, arguing out positions, is utterly incompatible with Marxist ideals. On a theoretical basis, it will not move the ball forward on the right side of History to let the unenlightened yammer on about the ideas they hold due to their false consciousness. More important, on a practical level, encouraging people to consider alternative points of view, even merely as an exercise in shooting them down, is far, far too dangerous for Marxists, who rely for their power on vast numbers of people accepting their premises without understanding them in the least. They need useful idiots, and rational discussion will only make them less idiotic – and therefore, less useful. Sure, most of those people will need to be purged once the glorious revolution is complete. But for now, they are indispensable.

The second point falls out naturally from the first. Human nature is the name we give to that collection of characteristics that define what a human being is. This includes both physical and behavioural characteristics. Thus, science concludes that Man is a bipedal, omnivorous mammal exhibiting strong sexual dimorphism. This dimorphism is necessarily both physical and behavioral: men and women, as observed in the real world, both look and behave differently in many important respects.

A feature of human nature as defined by observation of actual human being in the real world is that there is a very wide range of physical and behavioral characteristics found in any sizeable population of people. Nonetheless, generalizations are possible, both globally and in particular sub populations. There are, for example, roles and tasks across all cultures that are typically performed by either men or women, and for which physiologically, men or women are better suited. This observation remains non controversial in practice to this day – except to Marxists.

To appeal to human nature is to appeal to a shared reality against which one can measure one’s ideas. That is a path down which no Marxist will willingly go, as it requires logic and moves away from the primacy of enlightenment.

Finally, given the above, there’s no way a Marxist will support and believe in a right to free speech. The only necessary and allowed speech is speech required for the promulgation of dogmatic Marxism. Everything else is useless and worse than useless.

So Marxist are striving now to label any attempts at open discussion hate speech, and are desperate to keep it off the college campuses which are their strongholds. The useful idiots – and I, at age 19 or 20, was as much an idiot as today’s college students – must be kept useful. Letting them get into the habit of hearing out non-Marxist, let alone anti-Marxist ideas expressed logically is about the worst thing that could happen, as it tends to make them less idiotic and thus less useful.

As is so often the case with Marxism, the vehemence of their reaction to challenges is wildly out of proportion to what they claim to believe. The revolt of the masses and the coming of the Worker Paradise are supposed by Marx to be the inevitable result of the turning of the wheels of capital ‘H’ History. So, what’s to get all worked up about? Don’t Marxists trust their own dogma? I suppose that’s just another contradiction subsumed in a synthesis.

With their rejection of reason and their lightning-quick resort to violence both verbal and physical, Marxist reveal that what they’ve really embraced is not a coherent philosophy – Marxism is hardly that – but a childish revenge fantasy. The possibility that other people are not outraged not because they are not paying attention, but because they have better things to do is, itself, something they find outrageous.  There is also a very strong daddy issues aspect to every Marxist I’ve ever known personally. Still waiting to meet my first pleasant, happy-go-lucky Marxist.

We need to insist on and fight for free speech rights now, while the bulk of people have only unconsciously absorbed Marxist analysis and prescriptions. College student, who are not even aware that they have only heard one side of the story – and that their self-proclaimed betters are desperate to keep it that way – think the problems of the world are entirely the result of oppression, and that the solution to all the world’s problems is to simply remove the oppressors. They think this is a reasonable position held by all reasonable people. Free speech truly practiced stands a fighting chance of disabusing them of this nonsense. That’s why it is hated by Marxists, and why we have to fight for it now more than ever.

  1. This is why one so often finds Marxists flapping their arms and flying to the moon, holding their breath for months on end, and engaged in other activities that demonstrate the non-existence of human nature.
  2. Or maybe William of Ockham. I have not read him, but I hear he’s an anti-Realist or even Nominalist of some sort. Or with Luther and Calvin, who, while hardly philosophers, did start movements that people like Hegel felt a deep need to justify. Since the positions held by the great reformers cannot survive logical analysis, logical analysis has to go. Hegel just formalized the process.



Music & Ceremony at Mass: 5/14/2017

In accordance with long established practice, for Mother’s day, we drove up to Petaluma to visit Anne-Martine’s mom, who, as a result of some as yet undetermined illness, was hospitalized last week and is now in a nursing home for at least a while. Prayers appreciated.

We attended Mass at St. Vincent’s, a beautiful church and the church in which we were married coming up on 30 years ago. What we did not know going in was that this particular Sunday, the 10:30 Mass was to be said in Portuguese, and that a procession of an image of the Suffering Christ was to follow:

Seems that several centuries ago in the Azores, a beloved image of the Suffering Christ was feared destroyed in the collapse of a church caused by an earthquake. The weeping locals dug through the rubble and discovered the statue undamaged, and so, in typical Catholic fashion, had a procession and a party!

There is a large Portuguese population in California, clustered in places where fishing and agriculture were early established – Monterey, Pescadero and San Francisco for fishing, and, among other places, Petaluma for farming. So my wife grew up among several large Portuguese farming families, and St. Vincent’s as the local parish incorporated any number of Portuguese devotional practices. Including this procession and party.

I could hardly be more down with all this – rock on, Portuguese Catholics! Party down!

The Mass itself was full of pomp. And noise. I don’t know if the Portuguese are traditionally noisy people in church, or if the spirit of V-II had a disproportionate (or perhaps merely delayed) effect on them. They yak up a storm. But hey, I’ve seen worse. They all showed up for Mass in their Sunday best, which is way cool and to be commended wholeheartedly.

The exception was the music – when the band played on, any singing by anybody in the congregation fell below the sensitivity of my instruments – ears and eyes – to detect. The music itself was all some sort of modern-ish guitar tunes in Portuguese, so I have no idea what they were all about. More melodramatic than modern Mexican liturgical music; much less musically sophisticated than modern Filipino mass songs.

The thought I could not escape: what is now Portugal has been Catholic for about 1,500 years, and, while largely on the periphery of Christendom due to geography, nevertheless was a part of the Church’s general artistic and liturgical traditions for all that time. It a sure bet that there are vast amounts of perfectly wonderful liturgical music used and loved over the centuries in Portugal, some of which was no doubt even produced by locals. In any event, Portugal could not have escaped the effects of centuries of chant, polyphony, and other beautiful liturgical music.

Yet, here we sit in church, listening to music that cannot be more than 50 years old, performed well after the manner of its kind, by people who were pretty decent musicians. But this music is being performed in place of music that would actually have something to do with the events being celebrated in the procession and party! One can’t even use the feeble excuse of active participation – the people are going to sit there and listen, more or less, no matter what the musicians play.

Instead of lavishing the same sort of care on the musical traditions that they obviously lavished on the procession itself, they let die all the art and power that uplifted their ancestors in favor of music that the congregation, as far as I could tell, ignored any way.

The death of a musical tradition is just as sad as if the overall traditions of a people were to die. The Portuguese, and all of us, really, are poorer for it.


Late, as usual…

Saturday, the three members of the Moore clan still in Concord attended a very sweet wedding at our church. Helen, and Les got married after finding each other 50 years after being high school sweethearts.  After getting to know each other in band (Les: trombone; Helen: clarinet) and sitting next to each other on the band bus and otherwise become an ‘item’,  Les joined the army upon graduation and went away. Helen waited 6 years, then got married; Les also got married somewhere thousands of miles from Helen. All this happened about 50 years ago.

Then, a few years ago, Helen’s husband died. More recently, Les’s wife died. His mind turned to Helen, and, with the help of his children, he tracked her down on Facebook and asked if he could come see her. She said yes. (I can only imagine what went through her mind! She must have a very forgiving soul!) Next thing you know, Helen sells her house in Florida and moves to Concord to be with Les, enters the Church to better share his life (which is how we got to know them) and marries the guy! They are a cuuuute couple.

I don’t really know them all that well – my beloved got to know them better. Les has some children, but Helen was childless. Everything in my limited knowledge of her suggests she’ll step right into the mother role for Les’s grown children and the grandmother role for her new grandchildren.

Which is a very good thing, essential, even. The role of mother may be created by biology, but is much more than that. Human beings are not solitary animals, nor even family-group animals. As Aristotle says,  man is a political animal. The smallest unit in which a man can act politically is the polis, the city. To state the obvious: no city, no society can exist for more than a generation without mothers, and biology is only part of it. Something that has slowly dawned on me over the 30 years I’ve been married and the 25 years I’ve been a father: the roles of mother and father only begin in the family, but are truly expressed and deeply needed in the community at large.

This is why the church blesses and recognizes as a sacrament even a wedding between two elderly people who are far past the age for producing children. As wonderful as conceiving and raising children is, it remains just a part of the picture, and not, ultimately, a required part. A marriage is a marriage even if no children are produced; a woman can be a wife and even a mother without bearing children of her own. C. S. Lewis makes this point in That Hideous Strength in the characters of the Dimbles – a childless couple who nonetheless serve an indispensable role as mother and father to many children of all ages.

I watch my wife and other mothers who have embraced the fullness of their vocation, and see them mothering EVERYBODY. Just as fathers will gather to be patriots – fathers to their country – mothers act as mothers to their society and culture. In this rich moral universe – the real world – there is no either/or for mothers – acting as a mother to her own children by its very nature moves her to be a mother at large. Just as being a father means sacrificing for the culture and society in general, being mother means nurturing not only her own children, but nurturing the children of all ages who embody the culture in which her biological children live. Mother love is in this way the opposite of loving mankind – she loves exactly those real people in her life, and in the lives of her children and family, that make up the relationship among friends that is the ideal of society.  No mere abstractions.

I love my wife more for being the mother of our children, just as I suspect she loves me more for being their father. Like all mothers to the degree they embrace their vocations as such, she is moved by her natures, by her loves for me and our children, to try to do good for our friends and neighbors. It is the sum of all these little actions by all the selfless mothers out there that create the emotional backbone of a culture, that enable us to see in others somebody’s son or daughter, and to love them at least a little for that alone.

For these reasons, Mother’s Day is not just the celebration of the blessing a mother is to her own children – although it is certainly that – but a day to recognize the essential role motherhood plays in any society worth living in. In this days where everything about mothers from their basic biological role to their honored and noble place in society are viciously attacked, let us celebrate mothers in their full glory.

Chesterton: Two Essays

In last night’s Bay Area Chesterton Society’s Reading Group meeting (at Mimi’s in San Jose, if you’re interested) we discussed If I Had Only One Sermon To Preach and Scipio and the Children, both of which are evidently later essays published posthumously in 1950 and 1964, respectively.  Both are available in In Defense of Sanity.

Chesterton’s one sermon would be on Pride.  Usually, G.K. is astoundingly prescient. This one time, did he miss the turning tide? A couple of the opening paragraphs, very much classic G.K.C.:

Now the first fact to note about this notion is a rather curious one. Of all such notions, it is the one most generally dismissed in theory and most universally accepted in practice. Modern men imagine that such a theological idea is quite remote from them; and, stated as a theological idea, it probably is remote from them. But, as a matter of fact, it is too close to them to be recognised. It is so completely a part of their minds and morals and instincts, I might almost say of their bodies, that they take it for granted and act on it even before they think of it. It is actually the most popular of all moral ideas; and yet it is almost entirely unknown as a moral idea. No truth is now so unfamiliar as a truth, or so familiar as a fact.

Let us put the fact to a trifling but not unpleasing test. Let us suppose that the reader, or (preferably) the writer, is going into a public-house or some public place of social intercourse; a public tube or tram might do as well, except that it seldom allows of such long and philosophical intercourse as did the old public house. Anyhow, let us suppose any place where men of motley but ordinary types assemble; mostly poor because the majority is poor; some moderately comfortable but rather what is snobbishly called common; an average handful of human beings. Let us suppose that the enquirer, politely approaching this group, opens the conversation in a chatty way by saying, “Theologians are of opinion that it was one of the superior angelic intelligences seeking to become the supreme object of worship, instead of finding his natural joy in worshipping, which dislocated the providential design and frustrated the full joy and completion of the cosmos”. After making these remarks the enquirer will gaze round brightly and expectantly at the company for corroboration, at the same time ordering such refreshments as may be ritually fitted to the place or time, or perhaps merely offering cigarettes or cigars to the whole company, to fortify them against the strain. In any case, we may well admit that such a company will find it something of a strain to accept the formula in the above form. Their comments will probably be disjointed and detached; whether they take the form of “Lorlumme” (a beautiful thought slurred somewhat in pronunciation), or even “Gorblimme” (an image more sombre but fortunately more obscure), or merely the unaffected form of “Garn”; a statement quite free from doctrinal and denominational teaching, like our State compulsory education. In short, he who shall attempt to state this theory as a theory to the average crowd of the populace will doubtless find that he is talking in an unfamiliar language. Even if he states the matter in the simplified form, that Pride is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, he will only produce a vague and rather unfavourable impression that he is preaching. But he is only preaching what everybody else is practising; or at least is wanting everybody else to practise.

Let the scientific enquirer continue to cultivate the patience of science. Let him linger — at any rate let me linger — in the place of popular entertainment whatever it may be, and take very careful note (if necessary in a note-book) of the way in which ordinary human beings do really talk about each other. As he is a scientific enquirer with a note-book, it is very likely that he never saw any ordinary human beings before. But if he will listen carefully, he will observe a certain tone taken towards friends, foes and acquaintances; a tone which is, on the whole, creditably genial and considerate, though not without strong likes and dislikes. He will hear abundant if sometimes bewildering allusion to the well-known weaknesses of Old George; but many excuses also, and a certain generous pride in conceding that Old George is quite the gentleman when drunk, or that he told the policeman off proper. Some celebrated idiot, who is always spotting winners that never win, will be treated with almost tender derision; and, especially among the poorest, there will be a true Christian pathos in the reference to those who have been “in trouble” for habits like burglary and petty larceny. And as all these queer types are called up like ghosts by the incantation of gossip, the enquirer will gradually form the impression that there is one kind of man, probably only one kind of man, perhaps, only one man, who is really disliked. The voices take on quite a different tone in speaking of him; there is a hardening and solidification of disapproval and a new coldness in the air. And this will be all the more curious because, by the current modern theories of social or anti-social action, it will not be at all easy to say why he should be such a monster; or what exactly is the matter with him. It will be hinted at only in singular figures of speech, about a gentleman who is mistakenly convinced that he owns the street; or sometimes that be owns the earth. Then one of the social critics will say, “’E comes in ’ere and ’e thinks ’e’s Gawd Almighty.” Then the scientific enquirer will shut his note-book with a snap and retire from the scene, possibly after paying for any drinks he may have consumed in the cause of social science. He has got what he wanted. He has been intellectually justified. The man in the pub has precisely repeated, word for word, the theological formula about Satan.

Go read the whole thing, it’s not long.

Two issues here that make his insights less easy to apply in this case than in many others: England is not America, and the 1930s are not the 2010s. The English have legendary reserve, and so may be supposed to react more strongly to braggarts and bumptious fools than we less reserved Americans. Maybe.

Be that as it may, even 50 years ago in America when I was a child, puffing yourself up and putting on airs was pretty sternly frowned upon. There is a difference over time in how Americans view pride, even if the cultural differences turn out to be negligible.

I grew up in a world where, in sports, you were very careful not to show up your opponent. Part of being a good sport was taking success and failure, winning and losing, in an even, generous way. My, times have changed.  Rules have been passed to reign in taunting at all levels of sports, merely meaning you have to taunt more quietly and subtly. Guys who act like they just single-handedly won WWII when they sack a quarterback or hit a homerun are not viewed as pompous jerks, but as men for children to imitate.

Later, Chesterton mentions the Lady Killer as a particularly despised man, that the common man can understand and sympathize with weakness in sexual matters, but cannot tolerate a man who flaunts his successes in indulging in such weakness. As discussed in the comments to my review of Guardians of the Galaxy II, that is ancient history as well. Only *literally* killing the mothers you impregnate and the children that issue therefrom is bad. The slaughter of hearts and the strangling of love is a-ok, as long as you’re up front about it.

In the second essay, Chesterton tells a charming story about a trip he took to the Spanish town of Tarragona:

I was sitting at a cafe table with another English traveller, and I was looking at a little boy with a bow and arrows, who discharged very random shafts in all directions, and periodically turned in triumph and flung himself into the arms of his father, who was a waiter.  That part of the scene was repeated all over the place, with fathers of every social type and trade.  And it is no good to tell me that such humanities must be peculiar to the progressive and enlightened Catalans, in that this incident happened in a Catalan town, for I happen to remember that I first noticed the fact in Toledo and afterwards even more obviously in Madrid.  And it is no good to tell me that Spaniards are all gloomy and harsh and cruel, for I have seen the children; I have also seen the parents.  I might be inclined to call them spoilt children; except that it seems as if they could not be spoilt.  I may also remark that one element which specially haunts me, in the Spanish Peninsula, is the very elusive element called Liberty.  Nobody seems to have the itch of interference; nobody is moved by that great motto of so much social legislation; “Go and see what Tommy is doing, and tell him he mustn’t.” Considering what this Tommy was doing, I am fairly sure that in most progressive countries, somebody would tell him he mustn’t. He shot an arrow that hit his father; probably because he was aiming at something else.  He shot an arrow that hit me; but I am a BROAD target.  His bow and his archery were quite inadequate; and would not have been tolerated in the scientific Archery School into which he would no doubt have been instantly drafted in any state in which sport is taken as seriously as it should be.

I was reminded of a trip I took to Italy when in art school. We were in Fiesole near Florence on Easter. I had attended the Vigil Mass at the Cathedral in Fiesole, being warned that getting into the Duomo in Florence would be involved. So, the next morning I headed down to see about the noon Mass, as I’d been told about the Explosion of the Cart, and wanted to see it.

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The soon-to-be-exploding cart, being pulled by two very lovely white oxen with gilded horns.

(I suspect this is one of those ‘Only in Italy’ things: a beautifully-decorated metal cart is pulled into the plaza between the Duomo and the Baptistry by two lovely white oxen with gilded horns. The oxen are lead away, a door in the cart is opened and a wire running back into the Duomo is hooked inside.

At the conclusion of the last mass of Easter Sunday, a paper mache white dove with a small fireworks rocket inside is ignited near the high altar and launched down the wire into the cart – which slowly explodes into a fireworks/sparkler display, the the cheers and applause of the assembled throng.

The Holy Spirit is going out into the world to set it on fire, you see. Very fun and cool.)

So, I get to the plaza plenty early, and find a spot where I, a tallish man, can see. Gradually, the plaza fills up behind the safety barriers, with many dads with their children.

I got the see the wagon come in and the oxen lead away. I had a nice view. Then, at some signal i didn’t catch, the Dove was ignited inside – and a thousand small children were lifted up upon the shoulders of their dads, completely blocking my view.  The dove flew, the cart ‘exploded’. All in all, seeing all that father-child bonding was as good a show as sparklers on a cart!

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Explosion of the Cart, in front of the Baptistry. This more recent picture seems to show a more complicated and dramatic ‘explosion’ and a fancier cart than what I remember from 35 years ago.  But you get the drift. 

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Brief status: I’m done with Star Trek and Star Wars. Probably done with Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and whatever other Marvel properties I’ve never heard of that they’re making movies out of. Haven’t seen a Bond movie in decades. I was done with Harry Potter & Pirates of the Caribbean after a couple movies. We shall not speak of the abomination that is the Jackson Hobbit.

Now, a really good trailer and especially really good reviews and word of mouth might move me – but I doubt it.

I don’t like to be talked down to, I don’t feel loyalty to a franchise, I don’t like seeing a beloved book bloated and mauled for a buck.

But mostly, I don’t like being bored.  I like being entertained. Movies are entertainment. Since I read a lot of history, I don’t find slaughter, mayhem and misery entertaining. I’ll go read about communists if I for any reason need a dose of that.

So: went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II with the family, for the simple reason that I found the first movie quite entertaining. Mindless fun, but pretty to look at, witty in places and well-paced. So, I gave II a shot.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy 2It was good. Not great, not perfect, but I didn’t get the urge to walk out at any point, which has happened a lot with movies recently. So, yea, good.

GG II somewhat avoided the main issue with sequels, which is the gravitational pull of BIGGER. While one might imagine that, having saved the galaxy, they’d next need to save the universe, or at least a couple galaxies. But no, they merely save the same galaxy again.

Instead, they went bigger on the emotional stakes, in all sorts of surprising, twisty ways.




Unlike many sequels, most egregiously in the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean follow-ons, the main focus, the main thing made bigger, is the relationships between the characters. Between the usual ridiculous yet entertaining cartoon action sequences, which were kicked up a little, we get all sorts of moments where the characters come into emotional conflict, ratchet it up, and resolve them to a greater or lesser degree. The script is meant to be tear-jerking at many points – a pretty major departure from the usual tragic backstory/cartoon validation-revenge sort of plot characteristic of just about all comic book movies.  We’re supposed to feel sorry for Yondu – and it works. We’re supposed to buy Yondu and Rocket bonding and heroically willing to sacrifice themselves for the team – and we buy it. The sister issues set up in GG I between Gamora and Nebula need to get worked out satisfactorily – and, again, it works.

Thus, when the final boss is battled, all these emotional traps are sprung, so that we’re cheering and gripping the seat arms, wanting things to work out.  Yondu’s heroic death was a surprising and surprisingly effective resolution.

The effects were as dazzling as we’ve come to take for granted. The pacing was pretty solid, after the opening sequence, which frankly dragged a bit. And the conclusion was suitably epic and satisfying.

Now onto the less than good, starting with a relatively minor complaint. I was reminded during the movie of a story told of Groucho Marx. The Marx Brothers would take their shows on the road prior to filming. As old school vaudevillians, they wanted to work out the timing and test the material. Groucho most often got the zingers and put-downs, and he was legendarily good at them. But, as a pro, he knew there was no substitute for delivering those lines in front of a live audience to see if they really worked.

Groucho also had a whole bag of tricks to get a laugh: the eyebrow raise, the funny walks, the incredulous looks. So, when testing material, he left those out. If the audience still laughed, he knew the material was good.

I wish somebody would have run the GG II script through the same process, chiefly to field-test the body and sex humor. With a few exceptions, it would not have made it. It got the sort of cheap laughs hammed up things tend to get, but left me wondering why it was there in the first place. The exceptions, of course, are the couple times Drax the Destroyer waxed poetical about sex in his faux-Shakespearean-ish language. That worked a couple times. In general, it just wasn’t fun enough to warrant the distraction. Having goofy characters deliver the lines tended to get laughs the material itself didn’t warrant.

The greatest issue isn’t a problem so much as a modern foundational myth. The plot hinges on Peter’s biological father abandoning him, finding him, explaining why he abandoned him, courting him – and then using him for evil. His father killed his mother after he begat a child on her, for his own completely selfish reasons.

Such a plot would have horrified the ancient Greeks, who were no softies. A god seduces and impregnates women solely to create little demigod Herculeses only so that he may use them to do his bidding, which is the destruction of the world. He kills off the mothers, and child after child who fails him.

Finally a human woman, who he later kills with a horrible illness, bears the son he wanted. But a highwayman, hired to retrieve this final useful son, betrays the god and hides him,  and makes him into a highwayman after his own heart. The son later escapes the highwayman, gathers a band of stalwart companions and, after many adventures, becomes a great hero by defeating yet another god.

After years of searching, the god finds the son, and whisks him and his stalwart companions away to his realm, where they discover the remains of all the previous children slaughtered by their own father. An epic battle ensues, during which the evil father-god is killed and the world saved, but only at the cost of the life of the highwayman who saved the son.

Now, that’s not a bad story, at least not when sanitized as myth. But putting it in this world, even by means of a comic book story, invites comparisons. This is not a unique horror, but a common occurrence, metaphorically speaking. It rings true not as a cathartic myth, but rather as something we see every day: men using women, discarding them, arranging for the deaths of offspring they don’t desire. Then, if any child is found useful, he is loved exactly insofar as he is useful.

The fantasy of millions of children today it some combination of finding their loving father, and killing the monster who abandoned them.  GG II does the trick by having Yondu turn out to be that loving father, albeit not the biological father, and sacrificing himself to save the son and kill the biological father. Also, the years of abuse and mistreatment of Peter by Yondu are explained away: Yondu was trying to save Peter the only way he knew how, and, besides, Yondu had a tragic backstory of his own.  That makes it all better.

I’m no comic book nerd, but no superhero I can think of came from a happy, intact family. GG II takes the concept down further: a Batman or a Spiderman may lose parents (or stand in parents in the case of the web slinger) tragically, but they were good parents it was a tragedy to lose. Star Lord finds a father it is a tragedy to find. Gamora and Nebula had their parents killed before their eyes by – their stepdad, who is a monster they now want to kill.

If only this were just make-believe. Every child of divorce I’ve ever known fits into at least one of these slots. That a plot built on such disastrous and tragic relationships seems instantly believable is a frightening thing.

I left the movie having thoughts that were not entertaining. This is not a good thing for a popcorn movie.



Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument.  The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.

First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.

I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.

But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.

Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.

Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable.  One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.

A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.

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Horse sense? 

Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.

Tevye: You know… you are also right.

My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.

And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says

The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.

This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.

“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”

It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)

We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.


Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.

This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.

Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.

Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.

The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.

It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that

In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.

“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”

That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.

The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.

On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.

It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication  by their nature.

Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of  logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.