Sunday, August 30, 2009

Conversation by Factoid

Much has been written about the way that reading is quickly changing in the internet age. Consider, for example, a fairly standard internet news story: it consists of a paragraph or two of information, with a large, glossy picture. There may be further text stashed away somewhere, but you have to click on a link to find it. Meanwhile, the key points have been summarized for you with bullets. Related stories are linked somewhere in the margin. At the bottom of the screen, perhaps, are unrelated but highly popular stories, usually involving celebrities, nakedness or both. And then there are the omnipresent advertisements. (I would have included a screen shot of such a thing, but you've all probably seen it before; and if you haven't, the Guild Review more or less reproduces the phenomenon, though without the ads or naked celebrities, and somewhat more text.)

Critics point out that this format is changing the way that we read, shortening our attention spans and making it harder for us to follow narratives, arguments or anything more than a paragraph in length. Moreover, it seems the phenomenon is spilling over into spoken conversation as well. Rather than telling stories or laying out a line of reasoning, conversations often consist of factoids, one-line arguments and the briefest of anecdotes. Frequently these come from television programs such as The Daily Show or Mythbusters. All things considered, both programs are fairly intelligent, but the snippets that get cited the following day are frequently the witty lines or the (literally) explosive conclusions, rather than the thoughtful discussions that went with them. Perhaps the most grating form of this phenomenon is conversation which consists wholly of movie quotations. While a certain amount of intellectual power is required to memorize and string together such quotes, the heights which can be reached by such discourse are fairly low and no given topic can hold the collective attention for terribly long. In all of these cases, the result is an intellectually choppy outcome, incapable of moving from A to B to C and on to D, either narratively or philosophically.

Short intellectual attention spans manifest themselves in other ways as well. Even the intelligent and well-educated can be woefully incapable of discussing such things as literature. Interesting comments may be given, but they focus on poignant moments or arresting characters, things which are often emotional and subjective and are usually perceived in a single instant. Much more rare are considerations of an author's world-view or his opinion of virtue. Such rational arguments require the review of multiple episodes within the work, the discovery of common elements between them, and the refutation of episodes which would seem to undermine the argument at hand. Such discussions are by no means impossible today, but much more difficult for those who cannot hold their nose to the grindstone of a single topic for more than a passing moment.

In addition to frustrating college professors, does this phenomenon really have significant consequences? Who cares if our conversations are becoming shorter and choppier? Does it really matter? In point of fact, it does. Financial investing, political decisions and life-long vocations all require more than a moment's consideration. But perhaps most importantly, our ability to consider the Highest Things, the First Principles of the cosmos, is seriously compromised if we cannot think outside a jumble of factoids. Christ' words to Martha seem particularly apt: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary..."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Putting the "Beer" back in Root Beer

Ok, so today's subject line is a slight misnomer. The folks over at Art in the Age (of Mechanical Reproduction) are bringing back the alcoholic beverage from which root beer is derived, though it's not actually a beer, but rather, a spirit.

Art in the Age describes Root as having "a lively, burnished rose-gold color,... fairly clean on the palate with strong notes of birch, peppery herbaceousness, spices, citrus and vanilla bean. Very aromatic in the glass and finishes medium dry and exceptionally full-bodied." Intriguing, to be sure... I'll have to try some some day.

Special thanks to the men of Quincy House for bringing this to my attention.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cultural Eclecticism & Irish Music (Part 2)

Continued from yesterday...

One of the few factors in national life working in favor of traditional music in the late 19th century was the rise of the Irish nationalist movement. In order to foster traditional culture, many nationalist organizations organized musical competitions. One effect of these competitions, though, was to encourage an interest in virtuoso performances of traditional music that could be recognized at a country-wide level—an idea almost completely foreign to the humble village life, where all that was required was someone who could play enough tunes to keep the dance going into the night. If he could play well, that was simply an added bonus. While the nationalist organizations undoubtedly did much to keep traditional music alive, they were not able to keep it alive in the context of village life, from which the music derived most of its vitality. Ultimately, the nationalist interest in music must be seen as a sign of the decline of traditional culture.

By the 1950’s traditional music was nearly dead in Ireland. It took the success of the Clancy Brothers in America to revive some interest in ballad-singing in Ireland. To a large extent, their success was due to the nostalgia of Irish-Americans for a culture they had never really experienced. Their choice of less traditional material sung in English, along with their use of guitars—and their touring with Pete Seeger—also meshed nicely with the folk revival in America, and made them into a commercial success. This spurred a new generation in Ireland to find ways to modernize their own traditional music.

Perhaps the first “modern-traditional” Irish band to arise was Planxty, which released its debut album in 1972. Planxty also featured many of the same ballads that the Clancy Brothers had popularized before them, but with the addition of piper Liam O’Flynn, they also exposed a wider audience to the older dance tunes that were being lost. Then, in 1975, the Bothy Band released its first album. Though they only stayed together for four years, this sextet occupies a special place in the history of Irish music because of their unabashed embrace of the older dance tunes and the Irish language. Their front-line combination of flute, fiddle, and pipes could play both at ferocious speeds and with great delicacy. At the same time, the sibling duo of Micheal O’Domhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill were unafraid to sing in Irish. What made the band truly modern, though, was their rock ’n’ roll style of accompaniment, combining a strong rhythm guitar, an aggressive bouzouki, and booming bass lines on an electric clavichord. They introduced traditional music to a whole new audience. Thanks to them, it was no longer something for Irish-speaking peasants in the countryside; it was for an urban, non-dancing youth generation. Indeed, with all the musicians’ long hair and hard drinking, traditional music had now become a legitimate form of rebellion for the younger generation.

But what connection did all this have to traditional music as played in the early 1800s? It was still the same music, but the ethos was more eclectic, commercial, and youth-oriented. It often was played at such great speed that it was nearly impossible to dance to. It is an interesting comment on modern Irish culture that when the Bothy Band’s star fiddler, Kevin Burke (born and raised in London by parents from Sligo, incidentally), in the liner notes of his first solo album in 1978, tried to explain his music to Irish youth, he did so by comparing the spirit of his playing to that of “old Negro bluesmen”: Enjoyment and an appreciation of life—whether in the form of joy or sorrow—were his primary goals, not profit. While these are certainly worthy sentiments, what is telling is that his cultural references—and those of the young audience he was attempting to reach—were informed more by a heavily romanticized view of American blues and rock ‘n’ roll than by a deep knowledge of Irish life before the Potato Famine. The Romanticism of Burke’s comments signals that there has been a clear break in cultural continuity. Ireland had entered the modern world.

The history of Irish music over the last two centuries is a good illustration of the growth of an eclectic culture out of the elements of a once integral culture. The economic pressures of the Famine and the self-doubt that came with modernization mostly did away with village life and the old peasant culture. Music lost the connections to the rest of the culture which had given it meaning originally. As a consequence, most Irish gave up interest in their traditional music. Ultimately, though, the music did survive into the 21st century—and even survived Riverdance—but to do so it had to move to the city and assume a modern, rebellious tone. At this point in time, most yearning for the return of the integral culture is bound to appear as just more Romantic nostalgia. The old Ireland is dead. But, perhaps the traditional music can become part of a new integral Irish culture. Time will tell.

Cultural Eclecticism & Irish Music

In his recent post on Caritas in Veritate, Aaron noted Pope Benedict’s call for the integral development of culture as a protection against the dangers of relativism and cultural eclecticism. An integral culture is one that forms a true unity; all the parts of such a culture fit together in a coherent way. The way these individual parts fit together is usually determined by a culture’s ethos, its ordering principles. However, if a culture doubts its own ordering principles, or if outside forces upset a culture’s ordering principles, the culture’s individual parts will be distorted in some way. They either appear too large or too small, anything but their right size, and out of all proportion to the surrounding parts of the culture.

The usual result of the breakdown of an integral culture is eclecticism. Eclecticism essentially dispenses with all ordering principles besides individual preference—which is why throughout history eclecticism has usually been closely linked to relativism in metaphysics, and commercialism in economics. Eclecticism, though, is an unfortunate name for what I mean to discuss. The word “eclecticism,” at least in my mind, usually conjures up images of agnostic elites desperately searching for meaning in the universe by scouring every culture they know for fragments of intelligibility. I think of demoralized Roman senators worshiping the latest fashionable oriental divinity, or 19th-century decadents dabbling in the occult. In the modern world, though, cultural eclecticism has assumed a new, more democratic form. Thanks to the spread of videos, sound recordings, and mere factual knowledge (on the encyclopedia model), a lonely individual can appreciate one aspect of a culture, in abstraction from the rest of the culture. Then, if the enough of the masses share this individual’s taste, the newspapers (or today, the Internet feuilleton) will announce that this particular foreign element has “entered the culture.” But, what the newspapers usually ignore, or do not even know enough to investigate, is how this new development relates to the ordering principles of the culture. All they ever really notice is that someone has become rich and famous in the process. However, the crucial question to ask is: Is this an integral development of culture?

That was all rather abstract, so what is needed is a concrete example. The example I have chosen is traditional Irish music, since it is a hobby of mine (well, more of an obsession). About fifteen years ago, traditional Irish music received a lot of popular attention due to Riverdance, the dance extravaganza starring Michael Flatley. Soon there was a craze for Irish music and dance across America, and parents with Irish surnames—and even those without Irish surnames—were signing up their little girls for dancing lessons (and buying those horrible sequined dresses). This was a major “cultural event.” Yet, after a couple years, the hype died down and Irish music and dancing in America returned to their pre-Riverdance status. At the end of the day, a lot of people had heard some Irish music, seen some amazing dancing, and Michael Flatley was a wealthy man—and people genuinely devoted to Irish music and dance returned to their prior obscurity and their small groups of like-minded individuals. Riverdance, with its incorporation of elements of tap, flamenco, and ballet, marked the victory of modern eclecticism over integral culture. Many people now realize that Riverdance was only based on traditional music and dance, but have no conception of the broader tradition. What was Irish music—and Irish culture—like before Riverdance?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the early 1800s, a time when Irish peasant culture was relatively intact. The Irish have never been a very urban people, and so most of what we think of as traditionally Irish developed in the context of the countryside. At this time, music and dancing were firmly embedded in village social life, which revolved around the farming year and the special events in a community—births, weddings, and funerals—as well as around the Church’s liturgical year. In addition to these grander events, there was the informal practice of visiting neighbors in the countryside, when it was common to tell stories, sing songs, and play a few tunes at home. Music and dance were certainly developed art forms, but they were not art in the way we educated city-dwellers usually think of art. Very few musicians earned a living by their music, though a few wandering musicians did travel from village to village and play for dances, often supplementing their meager income by other work, especially by repairing pots and pans. Moreover, while some musicians were certainly known throughout a region for their skill, they did not think of themselves as virtuosos, and did not define themselves as musicians. Instead, their art and their ego were subordinate to the needs of the community. They simply provided music so that people could dance and celebrate the most important occasions throughout the year. Their celebrations were (at least loosely) bound up with the larger cosmic perspectives of agriculture and salvation history, as well as their own life and death.

At the same time, however, Irish peasant culture was under tremendous pressure from outside. Their English lords had already been persecuting Catholic priests under the Penal Laws for many years. The English language was steadily displacing Irish. The death blow came, though, with the Potato Famine in 1845. From then on, Irish peasants left their homeland in droves, seeking new homes primarily in England and the United States. This mass exodus would last well into the 20th century. If the Irish could resist religious persecution and the loss of their native language, they could not withstand starvation and emigration.

Village life in late 19th-century Ireland was severely disrupted, and the people demoralized. With many children knowing that they were destined to leave their homes once they were old enough to find work on their own, there was understandably little call for celebration. Paradoxically, though, what kept music and dancing alive during this period was the “American wake.” American wakes were farewell parties held for members of the community the night before they left for America, and featured much music and dancing.

Constant emigration, however, eventually took its toll. Many towns and rural areas were so decimated that they did not have enough people for dances. It was at this point that many musicians simply stopped playing. If there were no dances, there was no point in playing. Music and dance were so closely connected that one without the other was barely imaginable. Modern technology in the early 20th century also undermined the foundations of the integral Irish culture. In those places that still had enough people for a dance, the record player brought new, usually American, music to the Irish countryside. People in larger towns usually rejected traditional music as uncouth and un-modern—and so did many peasants in the countryside. Interestingly enough, even recordings of Irish music in some ways had detrimental effects. Many older fiddlers abandoned their instruments when they first heard the likes of New York virtuoso Michael Coleman’s blazing reels and heavily ornamented jigs; they felt they just could not compete with Coleman.

By the first half of the 20th century, traditional Irish music was on life support. The traditional Irish village was no longer a place where most people lived, but simply a place where they were born before they decided to cross the ocean for America. Moreover, with the disappearance of the Irish language from wide parts of the island, a vast store of older sean-nos songs was lost. Finally, the spread of modern technology even to the more backward parts of Ireland discouraged people from playing traditional music.

To be continued tomorrow...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Caritas in veritate: On Cultural Eclecticism

In section 26 of Caritas in veritate, Benedict XVI describes two dangers facing the modern world, modes of thinking which "separat[e] culture from human nature." The second of these is fairly straightforward: "Cultural leveling, [the] indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and life-styles." We all see this, probably every day. In a world of cultural leveling, Benedict writes, "one loses sight of the profound significance of the culture of different nations, of the traditions of the various peoples, by which the individual defines himself in relation to life's fundamental questions."

But the second danger against which he warns is more subtle: "cultural eclecticism, [by which] cultures are simply placed alongside one another and viewed as substantially equivalent and interchangeable." I must confess, this is the danger by which I am more tempted. (As you may have noticed, my interests include pow-wowing with Afghans, praising obscure African peoples and observing esoteric regions of post-Soviet republics.)

Following Paul VI's Populorum progressio, one of Benedict's major themes throughout Caritas in veritate is the importance of integral human development: the economic, political, educational, social and spiritual must all go together. Likewise, I think cultures are unitary things as well. The philosophy or world-view of a people does not simply exist alongside their literature and political institutions, but infuses them; moreover, ideas may exist in their most pristine form in treatises and high culture, but they are usually transmitted through earthy rituals and low culture. Though Benedict does not elaborate to this degree, I think one of the potential pitfalls of cultural eclecticism is that cultures are often broken into pieces which are then viewed as interchangeable, when in fact they usually are not. This phenomenon can be seen in the cultured agnostic who attends a high liturgy and is overwhelmed by the ceremony of it all, but misses that which the believer considers most important. Likewise, the same phenomenon is at play when a certain economic model which works well in one culture is exported to another culture, often with disastrous results for families or traditional ways of life.

Benedict warns that cultural eclecticism "easily yields to a relativism that does not serve true intercultural dialogue; on the social plane, cultural relativism has the effect that cultural groups coexist side by side, but remain separate, with no authentic dialogue and therefore no true integration." Superficial cultural dialogue says, "I eat X for breakfast; you eat Y? How interesting..." But more profound cultural dialogue considers the way in which various elements of a culture interact with one another and the functions they fulfill in society. True cultural dialogue must consider cultures as a whole and ask about their end. Put another way, authentic cultural dialogue must look beyond the mere elements of a culture and even beyond culture itself, to that outside culture, the philosophic and theological truths it supports.

But relativism says that there is no truth, or at least that all claims to the truth are equal. Thus, relativism stymies authentic cultural dialogue by preventing any consideration of what cultures really mean or the ends which they truly serve. Coupled with cultural eclecticism, the result of such relativism can be that the bits and bobs of different cultures are generously intermixed, but to no meaningful end.

Many of the pictures used on this blog are uncopyrighted or just too plain boring to credit. But oceanic's Flickr account deserves a shout-out for this great find.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Political Consciousness and Meritocracy Revisited

A little while ago, I wrote two posts on political consciousness and meritocracy, which I would like to revisit in light of a passage I came across just the other day. In the post on political consciousness, I observed that many today consider the attainment of political consciousness as necessary for an individual's maturation. Moreover, these same people often define attainment of political consciousness as the rejection of authority. Rejection of authority, then, becomes an essential condition of growing up. In the second post, I reproduced a quotation from Tocqueville, where he points out that meritocracy makes individuals free to pursue their own happiness without regard for others. While this phenomenon is usually praised for enhancing individual freedom, it does have the negative effect of alienating many individuals from society; in many cases, according to Tocqueville, this alienation ends in suicide or insanity.

It should not surprise anybody, then, that these two ideals of political consciousness and meritocracy together have devastated the family. It also should come as no surprise that all these individuals, once beyond their fathers' control, would devise new institutions to deal with their alienation. And without further ado, here is the passage:
Hierarchical, patriarchal, circumscribed families were being replaced [among Russian Jews and the Russian intelligentsia in the 1860s] by egalitarian, fraternal, and open-ended ones. The rest of the world was to follow suit.

All modern societies produce "youth cultures" that mediate between the biological family, which is based on rigidly hierarchical role ascription within the kinship nomenclature, and the professional domain, which consists, at least in aspiration, of equal interchangeable citizens judged by universalistic meritocratic standards. The transition from son to citizen involves a much greater adjustment than the transition from son to father. Whereas in traditional societies one is socialized into the "real world" and proceeds to move, through a succession of rites of passage, from one ascriptive role to another, every modern individual is raised on values inimical to the ones that prevail outside. Whatever the rhetoric within the family and whatever the division of labor between husbands and wives, the parent-child relationship is always asymmetrical, with the meaning of each action determined according to the actor's status. Becoming a modern adult is always a revolution.

There are two common remedies for this predicament. One is nationalism, with the modern state posing as a family complete with founding fathers, patriotism, a motherland, brothers-in-arms, sons of the nation, daughters of the revolution, and so on. The other is membership in a variety of voluntary associations, of which youth groups are probably the most common and effective precisely because they combine the ascription, solidarity, and intense intimacy of the family with the choice, flexibility, and open-endedness of the marketplace.

(Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, p. 142. Princeton University Press, 2004)
Slezkine's main idea here is that many of the most important institutions and ideals of the modern world are all tools invented to deal with the demise of the family. Once we (or at least, the truly modern among us) reject traditional authority, we are free--but we do not know how best to use this freedom. To make up for the loss of our family, the result of our self-emancipation, we form voluntary associations, especially youth groups, where those who have rejected parental authority can unite; or, we conceptualize the "nation" or "people" (in the 19th-century biological/racial sense) as our real family, with a greater claim to our loyalty than our own flesh-and-blood parents.

In the end Slezkine leaves us with a very perturbing question: How much of the modern world is really just our attempt to flee from authority?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Serving Those Who Serve Our Nation

In my scholarly incarnation, one of my primary interests is the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor to the CIA, and in particular its actions in Burma. While reading about Detachment 101's approach towards Myitkyina with Merrills' Marauders, I came across this passage:

Father Stuart heard confessions and held special masses for the GIs. He put aside his weapons to don what vestments he still had and gave spiritual comfort to those men who were soon to die. Two soldiers of the 2nd Battalion brought a buddy who wanted to be received into the Church. His buddies had instructed him in the necessary doctrine. In a midnight service Father Stuart baptized him in the cold waters of the Tanai Hka River, and he was received into the Church Militant. This stood out as a most meaningful service by the gallant priest, for this 2nd Battalion was soon to be cut off and besieged in a small Kachin village for thirteen days. Nearly all of the men involved in that ceremony fell and were buried there.

Tom Moon, The Deadliest Colonel, 197-8.

In other circumstances, I might extol the virtues of the OSS or the Kachin tribesmen who fought alongside it. The praise would be due, but instead I would like to affirm an organization of which most Americans have never heard: the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

In times of war, such as our own, those putting their lives in constant danger deserve the utmost spiritual care. Sadly, military chaplains are too often few and far between. If our armed forces and their spiritual well-being are causes near to your heart, you might want to consider contributing in a financial way to their work. And please keep them in your prayers.

For those of you who are not Catholic, consider supporting the Lutheran Ministry to the Armed Forces, the Episcopalian Military Ministries Office or another denomination's work. For those of you on the far side of the Pond, the Bishopric of the Forces attends to the spiritual needs of Her Majesty's forces.

A US Navy chaplain celebrates mass on the island of Saipan in June 1944, offering the mass for those Marines who died in the initial landing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ice Cream & Bob Dylan

Last week, we had some beautiful weather in Chicago, and fortunately I was off work to enjoy it. One afternoon, I felt a sudden hankering for some ice cream, so I walked over to the local ice cream parlor. When I got there I ordered my milk shake and sat down to enjoy it. Behind me in a separate booth were a father and mother with their two sons. The parents were probably in their mid-40s, and their two sons were seven and four, I would guess. Playing over the store's speakers was the local oldies radio station.

And then, over the radio came a beat on a snare drum, an intro on a Hammond organ, and then that famously nasal voice: Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was playing. At that moment, I heard the father behind me ask, "Bobby, who sings this?" The older son answered: "Bob Dylan," and both his parents congratulated him, obviously impressed at and pleased with his knowledge of 1960's music.

More than impressed, though, I was puzzled that his parents wanted him to know this song and singer in particular; they didn't quiz him on any other songs or singers while I was there. Now, some have interpreted "Like a Rolling Stone" as a paean to the restlessness of the 1960s--probably because of the exultant melody--but the lyrics, addressed to a woman who has fallen on hard times, seem to be a cautionary tale about the consequences of the bohemian lifestyle. Whatever one's interpretation, though, the song's theme is definitely aimed at adolescents and young adults, not parents already settled in life, nor their children.

I think it's good to challenge children in some ways, especially musically, but can't these parents find a different way to challenge their son musically? Or, am I just overreacting?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Inglourious History

Quentin Tarantino is well known for his love of bloodletting: films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill (vol. 1 2003, vol. 2 2004) are chocked full of violence. So it should come as little surprise that his latest project, Inglourious Basterds - due for release on 21 August - features "a group of Jewish-American soldiers... [who] ambush and kill Nazi patrols, desecrating their corpses whilst leaving one alive to tell others," according to The Hollywood Reporter. Tarantino is quoted as saying that the film is a "spaghetti-western but with World War II iconography."

Inglourious Basterds alludes to Enzo Castellari's 1978 movie of the same name (but conventional spelling), though Tarantino's work is apparently a new story and not simply a remake. (Castellari's film follows a group of American soldiers who are on their way to prison for various infractions, try to escape to neutral Switzerland, but inadvertently end up on a secret mission to steal Nazi technology with the help of the French Resistance.)

Even prior to the film's release, there is plenty to talk about. There is, of course, the question of Tarantino's use of stylized - dare we say Homeric? - violence. But the question that that first came to my mind upon seeing the trailer was that of history. So far as I know, the United States never organized Jewish units during World War II. This is in contrast to the British, who recruited the Jewish Brigade and the Special Interrogation Group from among Jews, primarily - though not exclusively - from Palestine. Both saw action in North Africa, and the Jewish Brigade (along with Arab elements of the Palestine Regiment) saw service in Italy. Though members of the SIG disguised themselves as German soldiers - an action which put them outside the Geneva Convention - their goals were basic commando objectives, not terror. After the war, some members of the Jewish Brigade formed assassination squads that hunted down German officers, some of whom claimed to belong to the fictitious Tilhas Tigiz Gesheften, to allow themselves to travel more easily around occupied Germany. However, none of this extracurricular was sanctioned by the British, much less the Americans. (Remember, the British Empire itself was the target of militant Zionism.)

I have been reading through OSS files in the National Archives lately. Though this American outfit has a reputation for playing dirty, and engaged in its fair share of black propaganda and covert operations, I have been surprised by the extent to which OSS insisted that its operations be conducted on the up-and-up. Interrogation manuals read about like business interviews, without so much as an elliptical reference to coercive methods. One series of memos I encountered mooted the idea of OSS special forces posing as civilians - as Tarnatino's characters do - but the idea was rejected for two reasons: (1) It would place American soldiers outside the bounds of the Geneva Convention. Our enemies had violated the Convention on plenty of occasions, but did also follow it from time to time - downed airmen in Germany, for example, were well-treated - but American leaders insisted that we play by the rules, in the hopes that prisoners might receive fair treatment. (2) There was a keen sense from American leaders that we would lose the moral high ground and could not pass judgment on our enemies if we violated the laws of war.

I think it safe to say that Tarantino has not taken a historical story and simply changed a few names, nor has he even imagined a plausible historical scenario which might have happened, but did not. He has made up a story which runs contrary to the facts of history on several key points. I am inclined to take offense at this not so much as an American - whose side is made to look bad, even morally equivalent to its Nazi opponent - but even more as a historian. Is the past simply a malleable thing we can reconfigure to fit our narrative needs? How many people will view this film and conclude that the war was more or like this (even while acknowledging that the details are fictional)?

Some might argue that Tarnatino is reaching deeper than simple facts and revealing the fundamental truth that war is hell. This is true to a point, but failing to make any kind of distinctions can be dangerous. Vindictive brutality on both sides was the rule on the Eastern Front; it was the exception in the West. War may be hell, but there is no reason to make it more hellish: that is why a great many nations have not only agreed to laws of war, but even follow them more often than not.

But even aside from these particular questions, is Tarantino's use of history licit? Is history a mere assemblage of names and dates, the re-writing of which only constitutes a kind of white lie? Or does that assemblage contain a kind of deeper truth, which is obscured and violated by changing too many details?

Ultimately the question is that of fiction: What are its bounds? How closely must it conform to "reality"? Fiction reveals certain truths by imagining situations that have not existed, to gain greater perspective on those that have, or will. This is the basic premise behind the fantasy genre. But I worry Tarantino may be blurring the line between history and fiction in a dangerous way that is not faithful to either. But perhaps the jury should remain out until after 21 August.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Caritas in veritate: Manifesto for the New World Order?

Some of the furor over Caritas in veritate may have died down, but I am only now really digging into it. So for the next week or two I will be posting various passages and insights that I found interesting.

The single phrase upon which the media most fixated was "world political authority," something Benedict called for and which any freedom-loving conspiracy theorist can see is a manifesto for One World Government.

That line comes up in section 67 - to which we shall return - but I found it interesting that two key passages near the beginning of the document were apparently overlooked by the same media sensationalists:

In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity's right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development.

Caritas in veritate, 11; emphasis added.

Thus, even if Benedict is calling for some sort of super United Nations, he has already given us several qualifiers. Institutions alone cannot solve our problems and we must not look to them for our salvation. Moreover, only if it is animated by an understanding of man's relationship to God can an institution truly aid mankind. Frankly, I have not seen a lot of transcendence at the UN lately, though there has been plenty of anti-Christian policy. So if the UN is to be the "true world political authority" Benedict is talking about, some serious changes will be in order.

Benedict writes further:

The “types of messianism which give promises but create illusions” always build their case on a denial of the transcendent dimension of development, in the conviction that it lies entirely at their disposal. This false security becomes a weakness, because it involves reducing man to subservience, to a mere means for development, while the humility of those who accept a vocation is transformed into true autonomy, because it sets them free.

Caritas in veritate 17; internal quotation from Populorum progressio, 11.

He denounces false messiahs and illusions and condemns a system which turns man into a cog in the system, a "humanitarianism" which tramples the very people it seeks to help. This is a critique that can be applied to the great totalitarian regimes of history - in particular Communism, which, in the name of helping the downtrodden worker, trod him down further - and many schemes regarding world government of one form or another.

But with those qualifications in mind, let us turn to section 67, home of the infamous line itself. Benedict begins, "In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth." Notice he says "reform" of the UN, not "empowerment." The thing that should get empowered, should "acquire real teeth" is "the concept of the family of nations." Insofar as the UN or other international organizations genuinely foster such familial relations: great, we should support them. In the mean time, reform is the day's task.

He continues,

One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago.

All of the issues here listed are international issues; by their very nature sovereign nation states alone cannot address them. In theory a large number of bilateral or regional agreements could address such questions, and I do not think Benedict is condemning those approaches. But some issues may require a larger framework.

He goes on to say:

Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums. Without this, despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations.

Again, the vision is not of a vast bureaucracy responsible to no one, nor is it of a cabal of the powerful. It must be governed by law, it must include subsidiarity - the notion that problems are best solved by those closest to them, it must serve the common good, ensure justice and respect rights. This sounds a lot like the Preamble of the Constitution... There is, of course, the somewhat sinister line about having "the authority to ensure compliance," but notice that he says "authority," not "power". Power may be a component of that authority, but without legitimacy that comes from the consent of the governed, such power is tyranny.

Benedict concludes:

The integral development of peoples and international cooperation require the establishment of a greater degree of international ordering, marked by subsidiarity, for the management of globalization[149]. They also require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order, to the interconnection between moral and social spheres, and to the link between politics and the economic and civil spheres, as envisaged by the Charter of the United Nations.

Just as he told the members of the General Assembly last year, the UN must return to high ideals upon which it was founded.

Is the Holy Father calling for one world government? I think it would be disingenuous to say he is not. Is he calling for One World Government, the New World Order? Probably not in the way those terms are usually used. How is he proposing we get from here to there? That, it seems to me, is a crucial question. While he indicated the United Nations by name, policy details are few. His frequent calls for UN reform seem to acknowledge that, however much a world authority may be needed today, the situation is not fully ripe. The means of executing Benedict's vision of global solidarity and fraternity have been left to the prudential judgment of the lay faithful, in their various areas of expertise and in the various situations they find themselves.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Flattery & Treachery

As part of my recent Roman history binge, I have been reading a lot of Tacitus. Tacitus is best known for his rather grim view of the Empire. One of his chief complaints about the Empire was that the concentration of power in the Emperor encouraged flattery on a disgusting scale. This observation is really just common sense. What makes Tacitus’ insight original, however, is that he realized how closely connected flattery is to treachery.

At the very beginning of his History, Tacitus draws a connection between flattery and treachery, and explains how they harm truth:

After the battle of Actium, when it became essential to peace that all power should be centered in one man…the truthfulness of history was impaired in many ways; at first, through men’s ignorance of public affairs, which were now wholly strange to them, then, through their passion for flattery, or, on the other hand, their hatred of their masters. And so between the enmity of the one and the servility of the other, neither had any regard for posterity. But while we instinctively shrink from a writer’s adulation, we lend a ready ear to detraction and spite, because flattery involves the shameful imputation of servility, whereas malignity wears the false appearance of honesty. (History I.1)

The most remarkable point of this introduction is that Tacitus presents flattery and treachery (“detraction, spite, malignity”) as two sides of the same coin. This relationship between flattery and treachery becomes even clearer in Tacitus’ account of the death of Vitellius. Tacitus certainly did not like Vitellius (who was Emperor for a few months in 69 A.D., the Year of the Four Emperors), but he did at least give him credit for insight and a sharp wit just before his death. Link

One speech was heard from [Vitellius] showing a spirit not utterly degraded, when to the insults of a tribune he answered, “Yet I was your Emperor.” Then he fell under a shower of blows, and the mob reviled the dead man with the same heartlessness with which they had flattered him when he was alive. (History III.85)

This theme really struck me when I saw the word “heartlessness” (pravitas) being used to describe flattery. Normally we associate heartlessness with insults and other forms of treachery, but not with flattery. Yet for Tacitus, flattery and treachery are very closely related. What is so heartless about flattery, and what connects it to treachery? What connects them is that both the flatterer and the detractor are lying; they deceive their enemy for their own personal gain, whether about the state of affairs, or about himself. Flattery may appear relatively innocuous, but it always involves one person using another person. Often flattery prepares the groundwork for treachery; the flatterer lulls his enemy into a false sense of security.

In short: If someone is willing to flatter you, he’s probably also willing to stab you in the back. And if you need any proof of this, just pick up Tacitus.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Guild Review!

Believe it or not, it was a year ago today - the Feast of St. Lawrence - that the Guild Review was born.

In the past year we've had 157 posts discussing a variety of questions regarding academia, art, cinema, economics, faith, history, music, philosophy and politics. We've learned about the advantages and disadvantages of the enthymeme, considered the difficulties and joys of Johannes Brahms, and juxtaposed Nietzsche and Mother's Day. That's a lot of ground to cover in a single year.

Since last August we've had over 3,000 visits by more than 1,200 unique visitors, and that doesn't include data from the period when the internet goblins were obstructing the tubes. We've had hits from 43 states, the District of Columbia and 49 foreign countries.

My sincere thanks go out to all our contributors and readers; your involvement has made this little project possible. More than that, you've made it a lot of fun. I look forward to the year to come.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Etymological Reflection

In a field where the exact meaning of a word is crucial, it comes as perhaps no surprise that Roman students of law used to begin with a study of the word "law", or "jus", in Latin. While this lengthy etymology copied here is taken from a very old (the style of writing betrays its age) treatise on Canon Law, it serves as an apt reflection on the meaning and purpose of any kind of law.

Law: Jus

"[Justinian’s] Digest begins with this extract from the writings of Ulpian: “He who undertakes the study of the law should first understand the origin of the term ‘law’.”

The Latin word jus, for which we have no exact English equivalent, is derived:

(a) from justitia or justum (the state of justness). Thus Ulpian (1 D. I, 1) defined jus as ars boni et aequi, the art of all that is good and equitable; and St. Isidore (560-636), whose definition of jus Gratian adopted, says… “jus is so called because it is just”.

(b) Or it comes from the word jusum, or jubere, because jus means that which is commanded, namely, a law, an order, first called by the ancients jousa, and later jura. Thus, in the patrician state the laws voted on by the Roman people … received the name jussa. The chief, termed Rex, proposed laws to the people for their acceptance as follows: “Declare your will, give your command, Citizens,” or “Declare your will, give your assent, Citizens”, as the words originally meant. The Latin term for citizens was Quirites. An affirmative response was expressed by the letters U.R. (i.e., Uti rogas, I vote as you propose), and a negative reply by the letters A.Q.R. (i.e., Ante quo rogas, I vote as before your proposal). This was incorrectly interpreted by some to mean antiqua probo (i.e., I vote for the old law).

Several of the modern philologists go further and trace the derivation of the Latin word jus from other languages:

(c) Some maintain that it comes from the Indo-European or the Sanscrit root yu, which contains the idea of a bond, a tie, or a union, as in the Latin words conjux, conjungere, juxta, jumentum, jurare, and in Greek έυγόν, a yoke, and έεύγνυμι, to join. For jus is the bond whereby men are made subject to God, and one man is bound to another.

(d) Still others say that the word jus comes from the primitive Sanscrit or Vedic, Yos, which signifies what is good, what is holy, something pertaining to divinity. The reason is that right or law in the abstract comes from the divinity, and in ancient times it was the duty of priests in particular to pass laws, jus being closely connected with religion. Accordingly, Grotius and Vico, at once philosophers and jurists, considered the term jus as deriving from the Greek Zeus, which is the ancient form of the name Jupiter.

(e) In Greek, jus, justitia are designated by the word δίχη, and justum by the term δίχαιον. These words take their origin from the Indo-European dik which means to show, or to indicate, because jus is the index or rule of action.

(f) In modern languages, jus is designated by the terms diritto, droit, derecho, recht, right, and signifies that which follows a straight course, possibly from the Sanscrit root rgu denoting that which does not deviate from the true standard. In moral matters it signifies the rule of rectitude and probity. In this sense, then, jus is the same as “the standard of what is just and unjust”, after the analogy of the geometricians’ line or the builders’ plumb.

To sum up: Jus essentially consists in this: it is what is just or good, what is commanded, namely lex, what is holy and pertaining to God, what is straight and not devious; or finally, jus is that which indicates and constitutes a rule of conduct. Its meanings are many, the thing is one. For it portrays that the thing (jus) has its origin in God, the Eternal law, which alone is the sure and right norm of action."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Kind of Guy

I have recently acquired a new hero in my pantheon: Rory Stewart. He was born in Hong Kong in 1973; his father was a diplomat, his mother an academic. He mostly grew up in Malaysia, where he and his father would encounter tigers on their camping trips. Stewart attended Eton, served as an officer in the Black Watch, and then studied history, politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, where he also tutored Princes William and Harry. He joined the Foreign Office and was posted to Indonesia for two years and then to Montenegro. However, a short while later he decided to take an 18 month sabbatical and walk across Asia. (Well, Turkey to Bangladesh. Close enough.) This provided the material for his first book, The Places in Between. He then returned to the Foreign Office and, at the age of 30, became acting governor of an Iraqi province, providing the material for his second book, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. Back in Afghanistan, he founded The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a non-profit organization which seeks to foster traditional Afghan craft as a means of economic and social regeneration. He has been teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard since 2008 and is the Director of the School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is 38 years old.

I first came across this interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I couldn't figure out how to embed it. The one below is perhaps even better:

Monday, August 3, 2009

On the Failure of Population Schemes

What follows is a blog post that I wrote a few days ago for a (very minor) side project of mine, Statecraft & Security. I thought the readers of The Guild Review might enjoy it.

This blog usually discusses matters of security, but statecraft has other aspects as well. An article which caught my attention this morning underlined that point: "Shanghai calls on chosen couples to exceed China's one child limit".

The gist of the article is quite simple: China has too many old people and not enough young people, which will make taking care of the elderly a nightmare. "Shanghai is taking the dramatic step of actively encouraging residents to exceed China's famed 'one child' limit, citing concerns about the aging of its population and a potentially shrinking workforce," the Financial Times writes.

The only thing that prevents me from saying, "I told you so," is the fact that I wasn't around when the "one child" policy was first put in place in 1979. The problems that China is now or soon will be facing are the obvious consequences of their actions. "Shanghai's initiative follows campaigns to encourage more child bearing in other crowded Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which had previously worked to promote small families only to see birth rates trail off..." Well, yes, contraception and abortion campaigns tend to have that effect.

In addition to creating a demographic and economic disaster, "China's decades-old one-child policy... remains a significant intrusion into private life." An added bonus.

What particularly tickles me about this story is that plenty of people pointed out the fact that these kinds of policies will backfire. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his highly controversial encyclical Humanae vitae, which articulated the argument that contraception runs contrary to the natural order. If that sounds a bit too philosophic for a statesman to worry about, let me point out that the true statesman must understand the order of nature before he can operate effectively within it. It is a basic test the Chinese leadership have failed.