Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sports and Catharsis

Is it possible to find catharsis through sport, as we do through art?

This question popped into my mind as I watched the Cubs-White Sox game on Saturday, and I felt compelled to consider some of the similarities between watching a sports game and going to the theater.

Both a good game and a good play (note even the similarity in language) draw the spectator into the action, making him forget about everything else around him. Both a game and a play are self-contained worlds, which allow us to reflect on our own lives. Interestingly enough, in ancient Greece both athletics and drama began as parts of religious festivals.

Moreover, as a life-long, long-suffering Cubs fan, I'm thoroughly convinced that baseball has taught me all I'll ever need to know about tragedy. What can you say about a team that has not won a championship in over 100 years, despite many excellent teams and many outstanding opportunities? The Cubs' woes easily compare with those of a Greek tragedy. Babe Ruth called his famous home run shot at Wrigley Field to defeat the Cubs in the 1932 World Series. Thebes suffered under the Sphinx, and Chicago has been cursed by the billy goat. (One important difference, though, is that while many Cubs fans unwind at the famous Billy Goat Tavern, Thebans probably didn't go out for drinks at the Taberna Sphinx.) Only just recently, it was revealed that the Cubs' most recent hero, Sammy Sosa, owed many of his home runs to performance-enhancing drugs. A great man's ambition becomes his tragic flaw. Clearly, the Cubs' history bears all the mark of a Greek tragedy.

If this all sounds a bit too fantastic, if you don't believe the Cubs deserve to be compared to Oedipus and Orestes, or Chicago to Thebes and Mycenae, you must still admit that the Cubs' misfortunes are at least worthy of an Old World folk tale. There's the black cat at Shea Stadium that caused the Cubs' promising 1969 season to fall apart in the last month. There's the story that it was Bill Buckner's old Cubs batting glove which caused him, even as a member of the Red Sox, to let a ground ball go through his legs in the World Series. There's no arguing--this is all empirically verifiable fact!

Well, to be a little more serious...My basic point is that I don't understand the snobbishness of people who look down on pro sports. After all, many of these self-appointed snobs, who think of theater, ballet, and classical music as the only serious arts, make the same objections to professional sports that many ancient philosophers (e.g., Plato in the Republic) made against theater-goers: rowdy, drunk, concerned only with images, etc. These accusations are not entirely unfounded, but they should not take away from the glory of sport.

Sport illuminates the experience of victory and defeat better than any play. The intense effort, the grand hopes, and the dejection of defeat--these are all things which we see most clearly in a closely-contested sporting match. That, I'm sure, is why St. Paul chose to compare life as a Christian to a race and a fight (2 Tim. 4:7).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Mother, a Young Wife Learns to Sew"

by Geraldine Connolly

Those were the days
she slipped a silver needle
neat as a minnow
through a piece of cloth.

It went swimming
up and out
of the river of fabric
guided by her hand.

Was that glance up
at the open window
a happy gaze, or a cry
to be outside, running, free

through carpets of garnet
vines or azalea blaze,
or pushing the steel point
of an instrument through linen,

not putting hooks and loops
and buttonholes in order,
staying to the task, keeping on,
baste and stitch, as the world burned
and glittered and she held on
to purpose and industry.

Special thanks to Ten Thousand Places and Spoon for bringing this poem to my attention.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Josef Pieper, Agnosticism & "The Sense for Mystery"

At the end of his post on the movie Pi, Aaron briefly mentions agnosticism, and suggests that most self-declared agnostics have simply never made any effort to ask the big questions about the meaning of the cosmos. Even if we will not reach conclusive answers, we need to ask the questions, and not take the easy way out by calling ourselves agnostics. This brought to mind a book I read recently, which made precisely this point: Josef Pieper's For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy.

Pieper was a 20th-century German Thomist whose work has been discussed on this site before, and who always deserves more attention. What made Pieper stand out from many of his fellow Thomists was that while he always maintained a realist outlook, he placed great emphasis on the limits of knowledge. For instance, in The Silence of St. Thomas, Pieper demonstrated how Aquinas incorporated the via negativa of Pseudo-Dionysius into the core of his own work. Pieper always placed in the foreground of his writing the paradox that things are intelligible in themselves because they have been created by God, but are not comprehensible by our intellect because God's intellect surpasses ours by so much. Here is a quotation from part VI of "A Plea for Philosophy" that explains this paradox:
The sentence "omne ens est verum" [everything that is is true]. . .has two aspects. The one enables us to recognize an ever deepening access to all existing things; the other, the impossibility of ever reaching rock bottom. Both aspects. . .are empirically verifiable facts. That, however, both may be traced back to the same origin; that they are even in a certain sense identical; that, more specifically, the things are, taken for themselves, knowable in their ultimate constitution because they originate in the infinite brightness of the divine logos and that they are at the same time unfathomable to us precisely because they originate in the infinite brightness of the divine logos--this is not empirically verifiable.
This paradox leads Pieper to the conclusion that, in the face of our inability to comprehend the meaning of the cosmos, agnosticism is not enough. This paradox should instead lead us to wonder, awe, and a "sense for mystery":
Now, what is meant here by mystery is not something exclusively negative and more than simply what is obscure. In fact, when understood more precisely, mystery does not imply obscurity at all. It connotes light, but a light of such plenitude that it remains "unquenchable" for a knowing faculty or a linguistic capacity that is merely human. The notion of mystery should not suggest that the effort involved in thinking runs up against a wall but rather that this effort exhausts itself in the unforeseeable, in the space--the unlimited breadth and depth--of creation.
We never will find all the right answers to the big questions. Nevertheless, that should not prevent us from setting out on the journey.

"A Symbol of My Theology"

One day I stumbled upon an image which was new to me, though no doubt familiar to many people: the Luther Rose (seen left). In a letter from 1530, Martin Luther explained the symbolism of his seal thus:

My seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. "For one who believes from the heart will be justified" (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matt. 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theologiae [summary of theology].

Though I had not previously seen the Luther Rose, a fairly common symbol of Lutheranism, the basic image struck me as oddly familiar: it looks like the Sacred Heart of Jesus (left and right). As Luther's description makes clear, the heart in his seal symbolizes the heart of the believer, not the heart of Jesus. Still, the visual similarity seems striking. I do not know when the contemporary style of depicting the Sacred Heart began; devotion to the Sacred Heart took off with the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), though earlier versions of the devotion can be found as early as the eleventh century, before the Reformation. Is it possible that the image of Luther's seal was inspired by the Sacred Heart, even if the meaning of the symbols was changed?

In any event, today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pi, etc.

We recently lost the internet at my house for several days. One realizes just how much it has become a part of everyday life when it is gone. Rather than listing all the things I could not do, suffice it to say I found something I could: watch movies. So I did.

Darren Aronofsky’s Pi is a story about the search for meaning in the universe. It tells the tale of Max Cohen, a mathematician obsessed with finding patterns to explain phenomena around him. More to the point, he is interested in finding the pattern which will explain, well, everything. In the course of the story we encounter Wall Street types who are interested in such patterns primarily for the ability to predict the stock market, but we also meet kabbalists who seek to decode the Torah and find the long-lost name of God which will help usher in the messianic age.

The film reminded me of Eric Foner’s Story of American Freedom, a text I had to teach this past semester. Foner’s objective seems simple enough: to explain the changing definition of freedom from the time of the American Founding to the present day. However, as I tried to point out to my students, implicit in his presentation was another message. To help them tease that out, I gave a (very, very, very!) quick-and-dirty history of western philosophy, since such courses are not required at A&M.

Plato argued that there were such things as forms, things in heaven which embody ideas. Or rather, more to the point, are ideas, which are imperfectly embodied in particular occurrences. There is the form of the Tree, in which all trees participate, and by that participation they have something in common. There is the form of the Cat as well, along with abstract – but no less real – concepts such as Justice, Truth and Freedom.

Aristotle, though he spoke of substance and accidents, rather than forms, broadly agreed with Plato that there are fundamental categories at work in the cosmos, categories which transcend physical characteristics and abide in the very fiber of a thing’s being. But in the Middle Ages a fellow named William of Ockham denied that there were categories at all. Yes, he said, we can point to this fuzzy thing with whiskers and that fuzzy thing with whiskers, and we can call them both cats, because that would be a very useful thing to say. But in the end, Ockham argued, each is a unique object without anything fundamentally in common with the other. We apply labels for our convenience, but they do not correspond to any deeper meaning in reality.

Some centuries later Immanuel Kant tried to steer a middle course between these two positions, contending that there may be categories to the cosmos, but we cannot know them. Thus, in practice, he was an Ockhamite, arguing that the labels we affix may be handy, but may not actually correspond to the fundamental being of things. Finally, the nihilists – most famous among them being Friedrich Nietzsche – contended that there is no meaning to the cosmos at all, categorical or otherwise, a far cry from the ancients.

How did all this connect to Eric Foner and American history? While charting the changing meanings of “freedom” over the years, I would submit that Foner assumes – and implicitly argues – that there is no meaning to the term “freedom”; it does not really exist. Yes, Foner is willing to talk about it as a label we place on things, even a very convenient label, but in the end, does it correspond to anything in reality? Is there a right answer to the question, “What is freedom?” Foner demurs and – I would argue – ultimately denies.

Returning then to Mr. Aronofsky’s film and the pressing question it asks: Is there meaning to the cosmos? And if there is, what is it, and what does that meaning demand of me?

Agnosticism, exceedingly vogue in the ivory tower of academia, seeks to avoid these questions. Perhaps the answers simply are unknowable, though I doubt most have ever truly sought them. And if the point of all our academic endeavors is to know the truth, what does it say about us that we have abdicated any responsibility for knowing the highest truths?

This post first appeared yesterday on True. Good. Beautiful., a forum about entertainment and the film industry.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Can You Choose Heritage?

Last week I wrote about Alasdair Mac Colla and some of the complications of heritage. This week I would like to address in a slightly more systematic way some of the issues which received a more narrative treatment last week.

Put simply, can you choose your heritage? I suggested this was the case, though I hope my suggestion was received with the bit of whimsy with which it was offered. Distinctions may be in order.

My father is from Nebraska and my mother from Kansas. He went to school for two years at LeTourneau College and then joined the Navy. She attended Wichita State before moving out to Arizona State University in Tempe. These are facts, and not simply in the historical sense of having happened or being verifiable. These are facts which shaped my life in concrete ways: I grew up seeing slides of my father's various deployments in the Pacific, I have visited my relatives in Kansas and Nebraska an uncounted number of times, and I would not have grown up in Arizona if my mother had not transferred schools. These things affect me in immediate ways.

Much of my family came from Germany. The evidence is in our last name, my grandmother can recite snatches of phrases her forebears use to say, and I have heard a few stories relating to this ancestry. In World War I a church my family attended was vandalized because of a German inscription over the door. Great-great grandma Anna Baer grew up on a large farm in Germany and as a child sometimes had to rise very early before dawn to begin helping the laborers. (No, we're not quite sure what they were doing this early, but they were eating "lunch" around sunrise. Our best theory is that they were mowing hay, which apparently cuts better when it is wet.) Great-great-great (?) grandpa August Weinert fled Prussia and eventually became a barn-builder in Nebraska, and served in the Union Army. These stories can be connected directly to my family through a living memory and are definitely fun to recite. But they represent considerably less impact on my life than do the details of my parents' lives.

Jacob von Lindemann came to America in 1710 and settled in Pennsylvania with other German immigrants. Having arrived prior to the Great War for Empire (known locally as the French & Indian War) and the American Revolution, their participation in either conflict is possible, though my family's Mennonite history makes that unlikely. One in six Hessian soldiers hired by the British deserted during the Revolution, and most went on to settle in German communities Pennsylvania; are their Hessians in my family tree? Several of my relations were leading figures in the town of Leipzig at the time when their cousin, Martin Luther, debated Johann Eck; were any of them present for these famed debates? Reaching several centuries earlier, and to another branch of the family, were my Swedish ancestors running roughshod over Russia in the 9th and 10th centuries, like all good Swedish Vikings? At a certain point the documentary evidence dries up and the family stories peter out. Personal history gives way to general history and certitude becomes legend, rumor or speculation.

With this distinction between intimate fact, the stories of living memory and the rumors of speculation, let us turn again to the question, Can you choose your heritage? With regards to the most immediate concerns, the answer is clearly no. These facts are too embedded in my life for me to deny or alter. With regards to the intermediate category of family stories, it seems there is more latitude. For starters, selection takes on a great role: I can choose to tell this story or that, emphasis these ancestors or those. The stories may still be documented, but interpretation becomes more important. One can choose to emphasize the elements of his heritage which fit present circumstances, satisfy particular needs or answer contemporary questions. With the final category of legends, rumors and bald speculation, interpretation begins to eclipse (though not totally supplant) historical evidence.

Returning to the distinction between sign and signified, which I mentioned last week: it seems to me that the most immediate elements of one's heritage are also those in which the sign is most clearly bound up with the signified. My father is a very clever man, but I cannot choose to signify that by saying he graduated from Harvard; I must instead point to his ability to jury-rig most any kind of mechanical device. But in the misty depths of the past, both the signs and the things signified become more malleable. New signs are adopted to signify old ideas, and new significations are given to old signs. It is in such a climate that I am willing to assert that, yes, you can choose your heritage.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Must Culture Have Momentum?

Peter Aspden of the Financial Times recently wrote an article titled "Of Classicists and Carbuncles", about the Prince of Wales' ongoing crusade against modern architecture. I see little need to write about the topic; others have done so. But what interested me was a particular passage in Aspden's article. He writes:

Can we really not move forward? This is the element of modernism that the prince most misunderstands. Culture must have momentum. It has to look ahead. That is its point. By definition, culture acts as a commentary on its own time, but occasionally it has to look beyond it, to anticipate what is to come.
Thus, Aspden is making the argument that culture should be progressive. Not because there is some teleological goal of goodness toward which it must strive, but simply because it needs to be going somewhere.

So I ask of our readers: First, must culture really always be going somewhere? And second, if that is the case, is going "backward" an acceptable option, or is antiquarianism antithetical to the future-oriented movement of culture?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Of Scotland and Its Heritage

I was recently reading about Alasdair Mac Colla (c. 1610–1647) a Scotch-Irish solider from Clan Donald. One of the largest clans in Scotland, the Norse-Gaelic MacDonalds at this time held territory in Scotland, the Hebrides and Ulster. Notably, the MacDonalds were also Catholic, unlike their arch-rivals, the Campbells, who were Presbyterian. Alasdair Mac Colla and the MacDonalds fought alongside the Royalists and the Irish Confederation in a series of conflicts including the English Civil War, known collectively as the Wars of Three Kingdoms (ie, England, Scotland and Ireland).

Mac Colla was a man of great violence, and involved in atrocities against the Campbells, but though it does not excuse his actions, it would at least seem he was on the right side. Moreover, he is credited with inventing the 'highland charge,' a nifty tactic whereby Scottish armies, facing English opponents, would fire a volley, then throw down their muskets (and often hit the ground while the English fired a return volley), and then charge the English position with claymores and dirks while the poor English chaps were trying to reload their muskets for a second volley. It was a devastating tactic, particularly prior to the use of the bayonet, and it won the Scots a string of victories for roughly a century.

Duntulm Castle, a ruined MacDonald castle located on the Isle of Skye.

Well, such a dashing figure got me wondering, even hoping, if I might not be related to the fellow. And there is just a grain of possibility. You see, my great-great-great-grandfather, Alonzo Timothy Johnson Sr. was of Scottish ancestry (or so my grandmother told me, God rest her). A quick search of the Scottish clans, however, will reveal that there is no Clan Johnson. There is, however, a sept - a family division - named Johnson, belonging to Clan MacDonald of Ardnamurchan. You see, the MacDonalds are so large and sprawling that there are several branches of them. The MacDonalds of Ardnamurchan are descended from John (Iain) Sprangach MacDonald (d.1340), the third son of Angus Mor MacDonald (d.1292), the 4th chief of the Clan Donald. On his account, they are thus sometimes known as the MacIaians or MacIans (which simply means "son of John"). Some time when Alasdair Mac Colla was a boy, the MacIaians lost their lands through the duplicity of the Campbells, and thus the clan declined in significance. The Johnsons, one particular sept of the MacIaians, threw themselves upon the mercy of the the broader MacDonald community and Clan Gunn, another Norse-Gaelic clan in Scotland's western isles. So it is just possible that my ancestors, if not including Alasdair Mac Colla, at least knew him.

This is, however, a stretch. For one thing, MacDonald of Ardnamurchan is not the only clan to include a sept named Johnson; both Gunn and MacDonald of Glencoe have one as well. But there is another problem: what if my Scottish ancestors changed the spelling of their name at some point? What it if it was once "Johnstone," not "Johnson"? Because that, you see, is quite a different story.

Clan Johnstone is a lowland clan located on the Scottish-English border. For some time they resisted English incursions - and won the friendship of William Wallace for it. All the border clans were a wild bunch, bandit-types who enjoyed having blood feuds with one another. In the case of Clan Johnstone, the primary objects of these feuds were Clan Maxwell, put in its place in 1593, and Clan Moffat, more or less destroyed in 1557. However, like the MacDonalds, the Johnstones supported the Royalists in the English Civil War.

So which one is it? Did my family come from the Lowlands of southern Scotland, or the Isles of the West? Are my sworn enemies the Campbells or the Maxwells? Should I be wearing the tartan of the MacDonalds of the Isles (above left) or of the Johnstones (below right)? Well, funny you should ask about tartans...

The most authoritative work on Scottish tartans is the Vestiarium Scoticum, published in 1842. The only problem is that the Vestiarium is probably a fraud. The story goes that the tartans depicted in the Vestiarium are the ancient patterns used by the clans since time immemorial. The manuscript that helped produce this document passed through the hands of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and had now allowed his grandsons, John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, to share this authoritative knowledge with the world. However, the "Stuart brothers" were exposed as John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen and their tartans as bogus. But by the time that had happened, a funny thing had occurred: the Vestiarium Scoticum had caught on. Today, many of the clans still use the tartans given them by the Vestiarium, in spite of considerable evidence that these are not the ancient tartans of their clans.

Does this matter? Should Scots be outraged? Probably not. Let me submit two reasons for that. First, things like tartans are signs, and should not be confused with the things they signify. So long as it is understood that a particular tartan - or flag, or coat of arms, or song, or holiday - indicates a given clan, its history and its values, the sign itself is of little importance. Second, it seems to me that the stories surrounding the adoption of symbols become part of a heritage themselves. For good or ill, the Vestiarium is now part of Scottish lore, one of those strange quirks of history. To throw it out would be to get ride of part of the story.

So is my family from Clan Johnstone or MacDonald of Ardnamurchan? I am going to answer, "both". This is not to say that I believe this to be the case, in a biological sense. Rather, I accept stories and histories of each as my own. And the very means by which I came to that conclusion - and the fact that I did, when I am sure many others would not - says something about me as well. Call me crazy, but I intend to regale my children and my children's children with stories of Alasdair Mac Colla and the Highland charge.


At the very beginning of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), Goethe describes the house he grew up in, with special emphasis on one room in particular. It was a large, open room located on the ground floor. It had a sitting area for the household staff with a partial opening on to the street, so that visitors and passers-by could come and go easily. Goethe and his sister could play in this room, and could also easily communicate with their friends and neighbors. This room brought work and play together, as well as the public and the private. Goethe concludes his description with this sentence: “One felt free insofar as one was comfortable with the public.”

This room exemplifies the proper integration of different aspects of our lives we must seek to achieve in our own lives, and which we as a society must strive to achieve. The nuclear family did not feel under siege from the outside world, nor were recreation and labor mutually exclusive. Family life was important, but it did not need an oppressive shelter to flourish. This older arrangement of the household is at odds with our modern approach. Today, Goethe's father (a wealthy, influential citizen of Frankfurt) probably would have lived in a suburb with restrictive zoning laws not allowing stores or businesses anywhere near homes. Furthermore, no extended household (including servants) would be allowed on the property, or at the very least would be strongly discouraged. If Goethe and his sister wanted to play, their mother would probably have to drive them to a park. Goethe’s last sentence today would have been: “One did not feel free unless one’s private (non-economic) life was completely separated from one's public (economic) life.” However, family life today is weaker despite the efforts we make to protect it from the outside.

This separation of the public from the private, of the economic from the non-economic, is present in other areas of society, and I will give three specific examples below: art, exercise, and nature. What unites all three examples is that in each case we attempt to protect a particular good from the encroachments of the economic by assigning it a separate compartment. Yet we fail precisely because each good, once it has been restricted to a distinct sphere, is less able to influence the economic realm and everyday life.

First, consider art museums. Many philosophers and artists in the 19th and 20th century established a strict dichotomy between work and art, in order to glorify art all the more, with some even elevating it to the status of a religion. Accordingly, many shrines to art have been erected in the form of grand museums. The Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, is a world-famous museum housed in a building reminiscent of a classical temple—and it even has two lions to guard the sanctuary. Yet how relevant is art today? Has the separation of art from other institutions in society really improved modern man’s aesthetic judgment and his overall taste? Probably not. Visiting an art museum on vacation is merely a civic duty, rather than true enrichment.

Second, consider exercise. More than one commentator has remarked on modern Americans’ worship of physical perfection, embodied in a nearly obsessive concern with exercise (think of gym memberships), yet the average American grows fatter from year to year, despite warnings about the dangers of obesity. We have, on the one hand, lengthened the average person’s life expectancy by relieving him of the necessity of performing hard physical labor in order to earn his daily wage, but we have simultaneously harmed his health by relieving him of this necessity. We separate work from physical activity to help ourselves, but in the end only create new problems.

Finally, think of how America sets aside more and more land as “nature reserves” and some environmentalists seem to worship nature, yet fewer and fewer people are really in touch with nature on a daily basis. At best, the average American spends a week camping or hiking in a national park, but out of touch with nature for the remaining 51 weeks of the year. One writer (Nicolás Gómez Dávila) has even warned of the danger that an “age is upon us in which nature, displaced by man, will not survive except in arboretums and museums.”

Priests and pastors have long admonished their congregations not to restrict religion to Sundays; instead, they must let their faith permeate their daily activities. The same applies to all other areas of life. Art, exercise, and nature must be released from their holding cells and be free to influence society at large. There is no easy way to do this. However, I would suggest that one rule will apply generally: The only way to integrate all these separate goods into society is under the aegis of a single “architectonic” institution with the breadth of vision to encompass them all, to allow them all space for development yet also impose limits on them. Art and nature will not be worshiped, but nor will they be denigrated; each in its proper place. Until we recover some conception of an architectonic institution that can give order to the various goods, our compartmentalization of these goods will only hurt them in the long run.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Irrelevance of Political Science

In a piece he wrote back in April, FT columnist Gideon Rachman wrote that "it is no longer fashionable to pick political scientists for the top positions making US foreign policy." The reason why is clear enough: "I looked at something called the Journal of Conflict Resolution and found articles about real-world political problems which seemed just to be a mass of quadratic equations. It is hard to believe that anybody actually trying to resolve a conflict would find this kind of stuff useful, or relevant." Joe Nye and Stephen Walt, both of whom teach at Harvard, have made similar observations.

As a result of the growing irrelevance of political science, it has become fashionable to recruit talent from Washington's think-tanks, institutions which are much more policy-oriented than the American academy. But this, Rachman points out, has in turn created another problem: "The transition must be extraordinary for these former analysts and scribblers. Many of them have never managed anything more than a research assistant. And suddenly, they are placed in the White House or the Pentagon and given real-world responsibilities and real soldiers to play with. It’s all a long way from the seminar room."

Not to toot my own horn too much, but a little school in the Federal City seeks to address some of these issues. The Institute of World Politics - from which I hold an MA - was founded in 1990 by a former member of the National Security Council Staff who noticed the very same problem Rachman points out: in spite of studying and teaching at the finest schools in the national security field, John Lenczowski discovered that these institutions had not prepared him for the actual work of national security. So he founded his own school, dedicated to the apprehension of intellectual tools which have a practical value for foreign policy practitioners. For faculty he has recruited a variety of men and women who are not only published scholars in their respective fields, but have also served in foreign policy and can bring real-life experience to bear on their teaching. Finally, recognizing that international affairs is not an amoral business, IWP insists that its students study the ideals and values of the American Founding and the Western moral tradition.

IWP has not yet achieved a perfect synthesis of study and practice, ideal and realpolitik. But it is definitely doing some interesting work and making a serious effort to train a rising generation of foreign policy practitioners in, well, the practice of foreign policy.

This post first appeared on Statecraft & Security on 16 May 2009.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"I Did Not Know Him"

The other day I was reading the first chapter of St. John's gospel. It is an interesting passage for a variety of reasons, but one of them is this little oddity: John the Baptist says of Jesus:

I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.... I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, "On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit" (1:31, 33; all quotations come from the NAB, unless otherwise indicated).

This would seem to contradict the claims of St. Luke's gospel that Jesus and John the Baptist were kinsmen whose mothers spent several months together. Moreover, we know that Jesus' family visited Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals when He was growing up, so it seems unlikely that His kinsman John would not have known Him. What are we to make of this seeming contradiction?

The answer, I think, lies written all over the chapter, and tells us about a lot more than simply solving a small textual problem. So let's go to the beginning of the gospel. There St. John takes us all the way to beginning of time, back to Genesis, opening with the same line, "In the beginning..." (1:1). We are told that "the light shines in the darkness / and the darkness has not overcome it" (1:5). The NIV says that "the darkness has not understood it." Does that ring a bell with Genesis? "The woman saw that the tree [of knowledge of good and evil] was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit" (3:6). Seeking knowledge, she grasped after what had not been given, bringing death upon the human race. So too the darkness in St. John's gospel grasps, but it comes up short. It can neither understand nor contain the light. But "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (1:9). Notice who does the action: enlightenment is received by those who have it; it is not something they produce or achieve for themselves.

Returning then to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist: when asked if he is the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet, he denies that he is any of them. When he sees Jesus he quickly announces, "Behold the Lamb of God!" (1:29). John is keen to avoid the limelight. And I think his comments about knowledge - or rather, ignorance - of Jesus and His identity underline this. John did not grasp at an understanding of who Jesus was. He did not ascertain it by his own powers of mind. Rather, it was revealed to him by God, something for which he could take no credit.

This theme of knowing infuses the entire chapter. Those who think they can know by their own power fail - "the world did not know him... his own people did not accept him" (1:10-11). But to those who come before Him in humility of heart, Jesus says, "Come, and you will see" (1:39). For those who accept that knowledge is an invitation and a gift, Jesus promises "you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (1:51). Not that we could ever see such things on our own, but God, in His self gift, reveals them to us.

Common Fallacies in Political Arguments

Of late I have noticed that certain sorts of fallacious arguments recur with distressing frequency in discussions of American politics, so I decided to keep track of some of them. Here are four such fallacies.

I begin with the reductio ad Hitlerum. You attack your opponent’s position by saying that it is a spitting image of the Nazi party program. It’s a low blow, but often very effective. After all, what sane person wants to be associated with Adolf Hitler? It is essentially nothing but a verbal stick with which to beat your opponents into submission. A related fallacy, employed by some of the more hysterical conservatives, is the reductio ad Stalin or the reductio ad communismum.

In the US, liberals do not always resort to the reductio ad Hitlerum, because many people have figured out that it is a logical fallacy. So, they have invented the reductio ad segregationem. Anything they don’t like reminds them of the days when blacks in the South were not allowed to share public places with whites. Thus, when someone opposes gay “marriage,” liberals immediately cry out that not allowing gays to marry is equivalent to segregating them from the rest of society, or like not allowing blacks and whites to marry (i.e., miscegenation laws). They don’t realize—or they intentionally ignore the fact—that the two issues are completely different. In one case, the issue is race; in the other, it is sex.

Equality = Equity. I actually cringed all the way through the first reading at Mass one Sunday when the lector kept replacing the word “equity” with “equality.” He apparently didn’t know that, though the two words are etymologically related, they have acquired distinct meanings over time. The proper relation between the two words is akin to the idea of “equal protection of the laws.” Nobody should be above the law, and nobody should be considered beneath the notice of the law, but that does not imply that the law should treat everyone the same. For example, as Justice Scalia pointed out during oral arguments for the Ricci v. DeStefano case, throwing out the results of an employment test for all applicants is certainly equal treatment, but it most definitely is not equitable treatment. This confusion of equality with equity is the dark core of egalitarianism.

The moral strength of the will of the majority. Shockingly enough, I found this idea in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
There is nothing as irresistible as a tyrannical power commanding in the name of the people, for while being clothed in the moral strength derived from the will of the greatest number, it also acts with the decision, speed, and tenacity of a single man.” (Vol. I, Part II, chapter 5, “The Efforts of which Democracy is Capable”)
I hope that Tocqueville was merely making an empirical observation about how men react when confronted by a large majority. However, I hasten to point out that a majority in and of itself does not have moral strength, but only brute strength. This confusion of numerical strength with moral strength is yet another sinister aspect of egalitarianism.

Well, those are four logical fallacies I have noticed lately. If you can think of anymore, please do not hesitate to add them in the comments.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Two Anniversaries

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the killing by the People's Liberation Army of hundreds, probably thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators in China's Tiananmen Square.

The anniversary has been the occasion for a flurry of articles, interviews, op-eds, rallies and at least one memoir. It has also been an occasion for major censorship in China.

But today is also the twentieth anniversary of another event, on the opposite side of the globe. On 4 June 1989 - a decade, almost to the day, after John Paul II's first visit as pontiff to his homeland - the people of Poland voted in a truly multiparty election for the first time since World War II. The Communists had hoped to take the wind out of Solidarity's sails by allowing elections: while all 100 seats of the upper house were up for grabs, only 35% of the lower house's seats were open to elections; the Communists retained 65% of the seats for themselves which were not subject to voting. This would be enough, they reasoned, to tip the balance and ensure that they retained power. They were woefully wrong. Solidarity received 99% of the votes cast, capturing all but one seat open to them (which was taken by an independent candidate). It was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Attraction

A while back I happened upon a note on Facebook by a gal complaining that women who aim for purity and eschew casual sex and drunkenness are "ignored by guys." "I used to wear more frumpy clothes and no makeup," she explained. "These kind of actions get guys to be friends," but romantic interest is slim. "But if a female is drinking, being sexy by her dancing or clothes this is the woman that men try to get." It is a complaint I have heard before, in one form or another, so I thought I would share my response with the wider blogosphere:
I think you've rather misrepresented the kind of attention men give. Singer/songwriter Rosie Thomas has one of the most amazing voices I have ever heard. When she's singing, that is. When she's talking she sounds, well, dorky at best. Her fashion sense is... not exactly hip. Last summer, when announcing on the news section of her website that she would be getting married, she wrote, "I was ready to adopt 14 cats and 10 children and then Mr. Shoop came along."

By the "usual" standards, she would seem a fairly unattractive gal. But, on the contrary, I think mine was not the only heart just a little bit broken when I saw she was tying the knot. She's a very attractive gal, not because she dresses in some sexy outfit or saunters about the stage.

She's attractive because of the personal bits of outtakes she includes on the end of tracks. You can hear her laughing, kidding around with her friends. You think, "This is someone I'd like to know."

She's attractive because you quickly realize that the woman you see and hear is a real woman, not a personality manufactured by her agent. She sells hand-made crafts and knitting and things she's done after shows. What kind of self-respecting recording artist does that?!? But this is who she is.

And she's attractive because she cares about other people. Her latest album ends with a whole track of her thanking family, friends and fans for their support, and wishing them all the best. Last year a friend of mine was able to attend a show that I was not, but picked up a CD and mailed it to me. On the inside was a note that read, "Aaron - Merry Christmas! You are loved. ♥ Rosie." Not only did she take the time to write it, but you believe it might be true.

I'd write all this off a my own crazy personality, but I've heard the same from other fans: Rosie is the real deal, and that's highly attractive.

And it's not just Rosie Thomas. Real women who are kind, sincere, thoughtful and maybe just a little goofy are DEEPLY attractive, and anyone who is worth having around will tell you as much.

Don't settle for cheap attention; it's not worth it. And anyone who really wants your attention will happily strive for purity, for your sake and his.