Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My radio appearance today on Lexington Catholic radio

I was on the Mike Allen Show this morning from 7:15 to 7:45 discussion the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is today and my article "The Secular Liberal Death Wish." You can listen to a recording of the show here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

As it turns out, we are not all going to die

I checked in last night on CNN and realized that we were in for another storm. No, not the weather kind, but the blizzard of news reports on how the snow blizzard that was hitting the Northeast. I remarked to my wife about the hysteria that hits the media every time we have a few inches of snow or a tropical storm. "You would think these people had never seen a snowstorm," I said.

Every time inclement weather hits, the media goes nuts and its going to be the storm of the century and everyone should hunker down in their basements and we're all going to die.
BNN's Blanderson Stupor (BNN: Blithering News Network): We have our correspondent Rolf Schlitzer on the scene in New York. Rolf, how is it looking?
Rolf: Blanderson, although I haven't actually seen one, we have one report from Queens of a snowflake actually having been sighted. This could mean that we are all going to die.
Blanderson: This is terrible, Rolf. How many people have died already?
Rolf: What we're being told now by city officials is that there are up to 25 casualties already.
Blanderson: From the storm?
Rolf: No, Blanderson. Officials say that other than several people who were trampled to death at grocery stores after hearing media reports, most deaths are largely the result of suicide.
Blanderson: Suicide?
Rolf: Yes, Blanderson. They say these people were so frightened by news reports that they were going to die that some just decided to get it over with quickly. Others, say officials, just simply couldn't bear the thought of a lifetime of hysterical news reports every time a snowflake fell in Manhattan. In any case, it is a terrible tragedy and probably means ...
Blanderson: That we're all going to die"
Rolf: Yes, Blanderson. Blanderson: Thank you, Rolf. When we come back, we'll tell you about how one family in Long Island is preparing for rising sea levels that could be another indication that we're all going to die. Stay tuned.
Physicist Peter Woit teaches at Columbia University. He reports (Snowpocalypse, 2015) that after all the blizzard hype and the forced shutdowns of businesses, transportation and order to stay home, it was all for naught:
Columbia never used to shut down at all, New York City never used to shut down the transit system, and the states never used to shut down all roadways. Until the past decade or so people tried to go about their business here in the winter, taking action to shut things down only once snow had arrived and was causing a problem. The US has now become a nation of hysterics, with media-driven hype frightening everyone about everything, and public officials desperately taking action to protect the citizenry from imaginary threats.
Phew. So I guess we're not all going to die.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Land Remembered, by Patrick Smith: Historical fiction at its best

This is another in a series of book reviews from books I have recently read.

I used to read a lot of historical fiction, but lost the taste for it a few years back. I still love Janice Holt Giles (40 Acres and Mule, The Believers, Hannah Fowler), not only because she is an excellent writer, but because she is a Kentucky writer. But the book that has gotten me interested once again in historical fiction is a book about the history of another state than my own.

Last August I was trying to figure out what short story I was going to use at St. John's Academy, a Florida school at which I do teacher training every year. Interestingly, every year, the discussion of a short story is what the teachers and staff enjoy the most. For several years, we have read stories from Kentucky authors that I like, but I decided I wanted to try to see about Florida writers and use something from a native author.

After a little literary detective work, it became clear to me that, in terms of litarary stature, Marjorie Kinan Rawlings ruled Florida's authorial roost. Her most famous book, of course, is The Yearling. I read several of her short stories, some very good, one particularly excellent. But the excellent one suffers from the vicissitudes of racial politics, and even though its point is entirely sympathetic to the plight of Blacks, its language is no longer acceptable. It's a shame.

I eventually went back to safe territory—to a short story from a Kentucky author that I knew well. But in the process of looking for Florida writers, I stumbled upon the book A Land Remembered, by Patrick Smith. The accolades were astounding. On Amazon, for example, it has an average four and a half star rating from almost 700 readers. I don't always trust popular reviews like this, but in this case, they were dead on.

My wife and I actually listed to the audio version of this book on a trip to the Midwest in 2013 read by George Guida, one of the best readers going. You don't have to even be interested in the history of Florida. I never was. This is just a great story.

The book tells the story of Tobias MacIvey and his wife, who arrive in Florida in 1858—and of the two generations that follow him. He is a "cracker" from Georgia who with his wife Emma, and through hard work and determination, strikes it rich in the cattle business. The story of the first generation is the most interesting part of the book, and you are swept into the hardscrabble lives of these people with a vengeance.

Good historical fiction is able to strike a balance between the story it tells and its historical relevance. It is easy for a story that clearly is intended to tell the story of a state to seem contrived by trying to be representative of the states people and their history. But this story never feels contrived. The hurricane scene and the mosquito scene that follows; the visit by the Confederate deserters; the cattle ruslters, and the mysterious Indian man, and the apply custard forest will stay with you forever. At every turn it is utterly convincing—even compelling. You forget that you are being told the story of a state, so involved are you in the story of the compelling characters.

The differences between the three generations of MacIveys tell a story of their own. There is a grit and fortitude in the character of the first generation that diminishes in the second, and that diminishes still further in the third, when we are left with Solomon MacIvey, a rich, unmarried and childless landholder whose corporate entities dot the modern Florida landscape, but who, in his old age and sickness is unmarried and childless, the last of the now sterile MacIvey line.

MacIvey is on his way to the original house his grandfather has built, there to die, but on the way, he stops in to see his Indian half-brother, who lives is a small village in the scrub, his people having been moved from their native home. They had grown up together, and Solomon has it in his mind that they can die together, but his half-brother must stay with his people.

Solomon's last act is a speech to a professional group that wants to honor him for his contributions to the state. But he knows now what his contributions to the state really are. He has betrayed his grandfather by helping to permanently destroy the very things that he had loved: the forests and the native people. He uses the occasion of his speech to bitterly criticize the assembled leaders for giving him their award—and for their own complicity in these crimes.

When I finished the story, it seemed to me that the characters of the first generation were more real than the later characters—and then I realized that that was part of the point. It wasn't a weakness by the author in telling the story that Tobias and Emma had a substance to them that his descendants did not: That's actually the way it was. The first generation of Floridians was more real: They had a substance to their characters that their children and grandchildren were in the process of losing as they discarded their pioneer virtues and made way for their roads and air conditioned beach houses.

Solomon has come to terms with his and his generation's greed, and he has put the land his father had bequeathed to him in trust so that it might be protected for future generations. And yet at the end of the story, as much as you cheer him on as he lectures his colleagues and as much as he has done what he could at the end of his life to make up for his own greed, there an abiding sense of sorrow at what has been irretrievably lost, a sorry Solomon himself shares.

It's a stunning and heartbreaking story everyone should read.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

With friends like the Fairness Alliance, transgender students don't need any enemies

In the old days it was only politics that was politicized. Today, there are few areas of life that have not become excuses for ideological contest. Race, sex, religion--all have now become occasions for political conflict. Now even bathrooms have become an ideological battleground.

The first shots in the political Battle of the Bathroom are being fired at places like Atherton High School in Louisville, where school administrators created a policy that allowed students to use the bathroom of their choice. If a student "self-identifies" as a girl, then she—or he—can use the girls' bathroom; if as a boy, then he—or she—can use the boys' bathroom.

The argument for the policy, according to groups like the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, is that it will reduce the incidence of harassment and bullying. But it doesn't take a whole lot of reflection to see how hair-scratchingly bizarre this position really is.

Sending girls who claim to be boys into the boys' room and boys who claim to be girls into the girls' room is not exactly the first policy a rational person would think of when trying to come up with a way to protect students who, whether you agree with them or not, want to challenge sexual convention (if not biology itself).

Far from reducing harassment, it's more likely to be a recipe for it.

And it can't be too comforting for the majority of students who probably just want to be left alone when they go to the bathroom.

The underlying issue, of course, has to do with the latest ideological innovation of the political left: what is now being called "transgender rights." While its rhetoric about homosexuality itself claims that gender is purely a matter of biological determinism, the rhetoric of transgender rights makes the exact opposite claim: that gender is a matter of individual choice. You can't help the gender you were "born with" (even if it is the opposite of your biological gender), but you can "self-identify" as anything you want.

It's hard to imagine how both these claims could possibly be true at the same time, but such is the power of sexual politics that we are all now expected to nod compliantly in the face of each increasingly contradictory and preposterous claim. In gender politics, the Parmenedian lion lies down effortlessly with the Protean lamb.

And nodding is not all that is required. A good knowledge of the alphabet and a fertile imagination are now a prerequisite for dealing with the gender acronyms with which we are all now expected to be familiar. What was once "gay," became "lesbian and gay." "Lesbian and gay" became "LGBT" (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender); and now "LGBT" has turned into "LGBTQIA," which, in case you were wondering means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Ally.

Thank the Lord we are done with that.

Oh, wait, here comes our man on the spot, Fairness Alliance director Chris Hartman, with a few additions to what he refers to as the "alphabet soup of the queer community": "LBGTQQIAAPH. I'm sure there are several that I'm missing."

I'm sure there are.

Let's all nod our heads obediently to the idea that we can create whole new genders simply by creating acronyms for them and asserting publicly that they exist.

We shouldn't be too hard on Hartman, however: Facebook (which nods its head more vigorously than most at such things) now lists 52 gender categories, all of which Hartman, after I pressed him on it on KET one night, said were inborn—despite the fact that the whole idea behind some of them is that they can be determined on a whim.

Hartman has come out in opposition to a bill now before the Kentucky State Senate, SB 76, that would require schools to provide separate bathroom facilities for any student who "self identifies" as another sex than his or her biological one--either a unisex bathroom or a faculty bathroom. This would virtually guarantee the safety of transgender students.

But Hartman is having none of it. He claims that it would "actually have the effect of endangering students and potentially increasing instances of bullying for transgender students. “Anything that draws more and more attention and scrutiny to someone who is different naturally makes them feel more different,” he said.

Of course, Hartman has devoted his entire professional life to drawing attention to these people. If he couldn't draw attention to them, he would quite literally have nothing to do.

If the transgender students Hartman claims to be trying to protect (but whose safety he is actually undermining by opposing the bill) were speaking honestly then there would be no reason for him to support the Atherton policy, since if no one knew a transgender student was transgender, but just looked and acted as if they were whatever gender they purported to be and used the corresponding bathroom, no one would ever know and the issue would never come up.

Truth to tell, however, Hartman is in the business of scoring political points for his side and so a policy that would actually help the situation doesn't help him or his group.

It's sad.

The Kentucky Bathroom Bill

The Kentucky State Senate is now considering SB 76 a bill that would protect both the privacy of students by ensuring that only biologically female students use the girl's bathroom and only biologically male students use the boy's bathroom. It would also require schools to provide transgender students with a unisex bathroom or allow them to use the faculty bathroom.

This would both protect the privacy of the majority of students and decrease the chances of transgender students being harassed.

But Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, is opposing it. He thinks sending girls dressed as boys into the boys' bathroom and boys dressed as girls into the girls' bathroom will reduce bullying and harassment.

Go figure.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Secular Liberal Death Wish

On the one hand, secular liberalism practices intolerance toward Christianity—the religion from which it originally got its idea of tolerance. But, on the other hand, it uses the tolerance gotten thereby to countenance equally religious ideologies that oppose tolerance.

It's a weird dance of cultural death and it underscores the suspicion that modern liberal secularism may be congenitally incapable of combating the very things that most threaten it.

When Europe abandoned Christendom in the 19th century, it went into a cultural spiral that resulted in two world wars. The cultural vacuum that allowed German nationalism—and, later, Naziism and Fascism—to capture the minds of so many Europeans has never yet been filled. And secularism will never fill it.

In one sense, secularism is itself a religion—and one as totalitarian as the totalitarian philosophies which it purports to replace. It is what we call an "ideology," a word that simply means a religion without the courage of its convictions. It is a religion without a god.

Modern liberal secularism is the cultural equivalent of a zombie: It has all the normal biological functions, but it has no soul. This is why it is neither good nor evil. Positively good and positively evil things both have a kind of substance. But the ideology that rules the political world today has no real substance, and this is why it is so vulnerable to a religion like Islam.

Secularism is a religion for comfortable people: people who have all the modern conveniences and simply don't want to be bothered, not even by ultimate concerns. It is the religion of Nietzsche's Last Man. All it requires is broad, non-committal sentiments, occasional genuflections toward the popular platitudes, and the repetition of the word "science" in the proper company. And the only creed is that there are no creeds.

Problem is, when faced with the openly radical sentiments and heartfelt devotion of a religion like radical Islam, it stands no chance. Radical Islam thrives on Europe's host, but will eventually take it over and—because of its inherent opposition to the secular liberalism that now controls it—must turn in to something very different. It may not be Shariah law, but it will be something that approximates it.

The dominant liberalism is outwardly comforting, but intrinsically weak and the forces of culture will ultimately force it to give way either to Islam or something equally radical that opposes it.

I don't know where I stand on the debate over whether radical Islam is by nature radical. But it doesn't matter. What matters is the empirical fact that—however radical authentic Islam is or isn't—the impulse that drives its cultural presence in the world is radical. Shia may be a peaceful Muslim sect, but the Shia rulers in Iran are radical. Sunni Islam may be, according to its central doctrines, a religion of peace. But the ones who control Isis are radical.

What average Muslims believe may, in and of itself, be unproblematic. But it isn't average Muslims who are running the show. Even many of the rulers of a country like Saudi Arabia, who on the surface seem docile and untroublesome, are intensely anti-Semitic and prone to supporting groups like Al-Qaeda with their oil money.

Joseph Sobran once pointed out that turning over the board is not a move in chess, and no one who thinks it is should be allowed to play. On today's cultural chessboard, we see people who think that players should be allowed in the game who think that turning over the board is a legitimate move in the cultural game.

Why is it that the world religion that invented our civilization (Christianity) is denigrated and sometimes suppressed, while the religion whose most vocal leaders want to bring it down (radical Islam) somehow warrant the vocal defense of the Prime Minister of Germany?

Sermons on diversity are no match for the commitment of the faithful. The latter wins every time.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Newsweek writer's "jaw-dropping ignorance" of the Bible

Every Christmas I write a post about how every Christmas the old weekly news magazines write an article that poses as a intellectually responsible treatment of the Bible but is actually a low-grade amateur attempt at historical research and literary analysis. So here we are again.

With mind-numbing regularity, Time, Newsweek, and their ilk publish an article about the traditional Christian belief about how the virgin Birth of Christ and other traditional Biblical beliefs are outmoded by "modern" Biblical scholarship. And the way they do it is to quote scholars on one extreme end of the scholarly spectrum who, far from being modern, are still stuck in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Karl Heinrich Graf (1815-1869). Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Check it out.

Liberal theologians are a bit like those Japanese soldiers hiding out in the jungle on isolated Pacific Islands who finally wandered into villages where they were informed that World War II had been over for 30 years.

Methods that were abandoned long ago in other literary disciplines are bandied about in contemporary liberal biblical circles as the brand spankin' newest thing. They survive only by virtue of a naive materialist rationalism fashionable in Germany 100 years ago which has been largely abandoned by everyone except a few American seminary professors who have yet to be informed that that we are living in the 21st century now and whose chief occupation seems to be taking calls from equally ignorant mainstream journalists looking for their annual Easter or Christmas cover story.

Who was it that said that America is where old German heresies come to die?

Justin Taylor at Sojourners makes the appropriate observations:
It is a tradition in American journalism as predictable as Easter and Christmas itself: a cover story purporting to reveal the true story behind the Bible we thought we knew.
...Even with a generous 8,487 words, Eichenwald reveals he is out of his depth for this subject matter. Though he doggedly advances his predetermined thesis from a mishmash of angles, experts quickly showed online that Eichenwald has not really done his historical homework or read his Bible carefully.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tolstoy's War and Peace: A short review

This is the second in a series of book reviews of books I read this past year. The first was my review of Will Durant's Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is the quintessential long book. When I was growing up and heard the book referred to as a "great book," I thought of its magnitude rather than its quality. Whenever I heard the book's title, what always came to mind was the 1971 movie "Cold Turkey," in which Rev. Clayton Brooks (played by Dick Van Dyke) leads a campaign in his town to give up smoking. Looking for something to divert his interest, he locks himself in his room for a week--to read War and Peace.

This is how we culturally illiterate Americans come to know great things--secondarily, and through some unremarkable artifact of popular culture. We'll never get it where we should get it--through our public schools, since they have largely given up on passing on the great things of the past.

But as I dug more deeply into Russian literature and the secondary literature about Russian writers, I realized that this is not the way people have always thought of it. This was a book that was considered great not just in the sense of being big.

War and Peace is a book that should be read by every literate Western person.

There are several things that strike me about Tolstoy after now having now read all his major works. The first is the sheer vitality of his stories. They are simply bursting with life. Seemingly without effort, he creates a world and peoples it with real people, people who, if they were any more real, would actually be real.

Only God creates characters more real than Tolstoy's.

Despite the vast canvas on which he paints, Tolstoy is able to draw you intimately into the life and thought of each character. Someone told me that when his wife had finished reading the book, she told him she would miss the characters. This was exactly my feeling.

Here I had just finished reading this thousand-page book and I just wanted it to go on. A part of my life ended when I had to leave Pierre and Natasha in the midst of theirs. I would have been only too happy to continue reading War and Peace for the rest of my life, if it only wouldn't end.

The second thing that strikes me about Tolstoy is his very explicit Christianity. It confirms once again something I have said before: An encounter with great Western literature is an encounter with Christianity. You wonder why our schools are engaged in the greatest cultural memory dump since the fall of Rome and rise of the Dark Ages? This may be one reason: The culture of the West is inextricably intertwined with religion—and one religion in particular.

Read Tolstoy. Read Dostoevsky. Read Flannery O'Connor--or, for that matter, Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare. In fact, even the authors who are not themselves Christian are reacting to Christianity and are incomprehensible if you don't understand it.

Teach Western culture and you teach Christianity. There is no way out of it.

The third striking thing about Tolstoy is his ability to create a real world. Sometimes I fall asleep while listening to a book on my mp3 player. But there are some books I can't do this with. I can't do it with a book that doesn't create a real world--one I would want to live in.

And the world I want to live in is this world.

I said this when I introduced Wendell Berry at a conference a couple of years ago: The authors who create a real world are the ones who don't create a different one from our own. They are authors who bring you, not into their own world, but into this one more deeply. Tolstoy is one of only a handful of authors who seem to be able to do this.

And of course one of the essential features of this world--the one Tolstoy recreates--is that it has a metaphysical and moral order: There is an moral "up" and an immoral "down." It is Homer's world; Vergil's world; and, in particular, Dante's world. It is everybody's world up until about the 18th century, when secularism hits high gear and begins to displace Christianity among the literary elite.

But this is the thing about Western secularism: It never can completely rid itself of its Christian origins. It would be like trying to create pure gold: It cannot exist unalloyed from religion--without, that is, turning to dust. It is--to vary the metaphor--like a branch cut off from a tree: it lives for a while and then withers and dies.

In all of Tolstoy's works there is space to morally breathe. And somehow he is able to do this (for the most part) without being preachy.

This is not the case with his his novel Resurrection, which I also read this year. This is Tolstoy's third and last major novel--after Anna Karenina and War and Peace--which he wrote after repudiating narrative fiction for several years while indulging his political and social enthusiasms. Tolstoy was a very heterodox Christian and had basically whittled his Christianity down to a sort of utopian freemasonry. He was perhaps the greatest purveyor of the social gospel in literature. It is certainly present in his other books, but doesn't seem to detrimentally affect them.

Here, it does.

Like all his works, he creates convincing characters and a believable world.  Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, a young Russian noble and former soldier is called to jury duty where a young woman is charged with murder. At first he doesn't recognize her. She is a prostitute accused of poisoning a man. But Nekhludov realizes, in the midst of the trial, that the girl was a servant girl in his house as a young man. He had seduced her and, as he finds out, had born his child, which had died. The pregnancy he had helped to bring about had caused her to be cast out of their house, and she was forced into a life of prostitution.

The woman before him as a juror in her trial, was there because of what he himself had done.

It is a compelling and heart-wrenching story. Nekhlyodov is overcome with remorse and devotes the rest of his life to the girl, who is convicted and sent to Siberia, where he follows her. Unfortunately, Tolstoy creates a character in Nekhlyodov who is so idealistic as to be a bit of a boor. As a character, he ends up shouldering much of the pretentiousness latent in the characters of other novels, where they are always more than balanced by a certain concreteness and earthly vibrancy.

The down-to-earth Kitty in Anna Karenina has been replaced by the abstract and idyllic Nekhlyudov.

Unfortunately, this is Tolstoy at his preachiest and most Platonic. But the thing is, Tolstoy at his worst is better than most everyone else at their best. The ending is dissatisfying because of its pretentious high-mindedness, but it's still an engaging and enjoyable read.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Books I Read This Year: Durant's Our Oriental Heritage

This is the first of a series of reviews of books I completed in 2014 (along with a few I never reviewed from 2013).

The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, by Will Durant. I imagine the professional historians would turn up their noses at a popular work like this, partly because it was written for an intelligent public which they have long ago forsaken, and partly because it is a bit dated, and history, which aspires like every other humanities discipline to be a science, can abide only the newest scholarship. It is a professional irony that historians value everyone else's past but their own. Let them dig up and re-bury their scholarly bones for obscure academic journals: As for me, I'll continue to read Durant for the great overview of history he gives and for the beautiful prose in which he presents it.

Durant was a generalist, writing in the more classical mode of Gibbon and Macauley—scholars of more than history—Durant does not get lost in the arcanae of chronology. He is always looking for (and finding) the significance of events—for their own time and ours. The only contemporary historian I know who writes history this big is Tom Holland.

Our Oriental Heritage is the first in the eleven-volume series Durant began in 1935 and finished (with the help of his wife Ariel) in 1975. A great overview of the history and culture of the East—a civilization we often ignore.

Durant, who received his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, apparently wrote these volumes in intentional defiance of professional historians who long ago gave up on the general reading public. Of course, the general reading public in the mid-20th century was far more sophisticated than it is now, but we have not changed so much that we cannot appreciate the lucidity of his prose.

Filled with colorful anecdotes and compelling insights, this book does much more than give us a chronology of events. Instead, it takes us on a tour of the literature, art, music, and politics of China, India, and Japan, helping us to understand the cultures as a whole.

The only shortcoming in Durant is his tendency to downplay the Christianity of the Christian West. As an admitted secularist, Durant views religion as quaint, mostly irrelevant—but the more Eastern is such spirituality, the more relevant he sees it. In this volume, Christianity is always portrayed as inferior to Eastern thought and religion. This is due, in part no doubt, to the fashionability of things Eastern at the time it was written. It is also a tendency you will find throughout his works.

Durant was like many thinkers even now who cling to the cultural wreckage of the old Christendom more tightly the more they repudiate the whole of which they were once a part. The two largest pieces of Christendom's remnants are materialist rationalism on the one hand and spiritualist mysticism on the other. Durant is a rationalist, but one who (like many), while rejecting the more integrated rationality of Western religion, is attracted to the arational mysticism of the East. There are books that could be written on why it is that materialists tend to become, in the end, so attracted to the misty religion of the East.

I'm thinking of Robert Blatchford and Arthur Conan Doyle here--not to mention the more contemporary Sam Harris.

But the occasional encounter with a bad judgment is a small price to pay for the sheer pleasure of reading Durant's great historic and cultural achievement.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Educational Oblivion and How to Avoid It

About a year ago, Universal Pictures released the movie "Oblivion," starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. I saw it on television last night.

It was about a man and a woman (Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) on a space station orbiting a post-apocalyptic earth who are charged with the maintenance of drones which protect a number of orbiting installations which are mining precious resources from the earth, primarily water, for the human encampment now situated on one of Jupiter's moons.

The Moon has been blown up, desolating the Earth, which is now almost unlivable. Cruise plays "Jack," who, along with Victoria, his companion, tries to keep the defensive drones operational in the face of constant attacks from roving bands of alien invaders called "scavs" (short for "scavengers").

Jack and Victoria have both had a memory wipe as a security precaution.

But one day Jack is captured by the scavs. He is knocked out in the struggle and wakes up tied to a chair under an intense light on what appears to be a stage. A voice comes from the darkness:
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.
We hear a match lit, and we see the face of a man, the light of the match reflected off of his goggles. "We've been watching you, Jack," he says.

Far from being aliens, the scavs are really human beings. Led by Beech (played by Freeman), they have been watching Jack and have decided not to kill him because they think there is something different about him. They tell him the real story of what has happened to the earth and allow him to leave their encampment, to find out for himself, risking the safety of their encampment in doing so.

As the story progresses we, along with Jack, find out that he is just one of many Jack's patrolling various parts of the earth, all seemingly identical clones unaware of the others. More importantly, he finds out he is fighting for the wrong side.

Earth was taken over by aliens who are bleeding the earth dry of its resources. There is no human encampment elsewhere in the solar system. The only humans left are the scavs, who are huddled in caves in the earth, protecting what is left of humanity.

But Beech senses that there is something about this Jack that is different from his copies.

In one of his missions, Jack has discovered an old library. As the scavs watch him from the darkness, they see him salvage several books (in apparent violation of policy). One of them is Horatius at the Bridge, by Lord Macaulay. In one scene we see Jack on the space station, huddled in a corner, secretly reading it and trying to commit it to his formerly empty memory.
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late"
There are other classic books he has found too. And in reading them, he is transformed from a memoryless copy of himself, unquestioningly following the orders of what he now knows to be the very creatures who have destroyed his civilization, to a fully human being. A human being who has, by having recovered his cultural memory, been humanized.

A man who was the servant of machines has become a master of his own soul. In the end, the now fully humanized Jack sacrifices himself in defense of the scavs, uttering Macauley's lines as he does so: "And how can man die better ..."

We are now in the process of producing a whole race of Jacks. We no longer pass on our history and culture to our children. If you doubt the truth of this charge, go look at the recent federal social studies standards which include no historical content whatsoever.

We have been taken over by cultural aliens.

We are well on our way to accomplishing a massive memory wipe. We are quickly accomplishing what the writer George Steiner has called "planned amnesia." We are producing memoryless copies of ourselves.

Lost in the mindless devotion to so-called "critical thinking skills" and "college and career readiness"--not to mention our servitude to machines--are the ancient stories and venerable truths that schools once taught as a matter of course--ideas and and values that made us human, not just just cogs in an economic machine.

Classical education differs from the kind of education that has slowly taken over most of our schools. Its purpose is not to teach job skills or to reform society, although without aiming at these goals it achieves them better than these other methods do.

Classical education is about passing on our culture. If we don't do it, we risk a world as culturally desolate as the physical world Jack sacrifices himself to save.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is the Pope a Sissy? A response to Doug Wilson

I'm not entirely convinced that a chest hair-counting contest is the best use of one's masculinity, but I could be wrong.

In a recent blog post, titled "Gay as a Pope tweet," Douglas Wilson laments the decline of masculinity and uses Pope Francis as his paradigm case for male effeminacy.

Now I don't disagree with Wilson on the issue of the decline of masculinity; in fact, I've made the same point quite a number of times. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that I notice the word "sissy" is now commonly spelled in articles with asterisks, as if it were an obscene word: "s***y." Meanwhile, of course, words that really are obscene are used freely and without self-censorship.

I would go so far as to say that men who find it necessary to spell the word "sissy" with asterisks are, well, sissies.

I just remarked to my wife the other day, after having watched John Wayne's performance in True Grit (which I do as an act of masculine hygiene at least once every couple of years), that the kind of character John Wayne portrayed is virtually absent in modern movies in which male roles are made up largely of overgrown adolescent weenies.

Yes, I said "weenies." Without asterisks. And if you're a male who doesn't like it, then you're a sissy.

I officially attribute the modern problem with male effeminacy to the absurd gender ideology that has become so fashionable over the last ten years. The idea of this school of thought is to get beyond gender altogether. Of course there's really no way to do this.

Gender isn't something you can either invent or change. It's a given. It is something settled by nature and you can do little about it.

To think that you can somehow invent new gender categories is like thinking you can invent new primary colors. Problem is, there's blue, yellow, and red. Period. End of story. If you want to come up with another one, good luck. And if you suffer from the delusion that you are actually capable of doing this, then you need to be committed to whatever the colorific equivalent is of a mental hospital.

Similarly, when it comes to gender, there is male and female. And some of us like that just fine (a great benefit in a world in which you can do little about it anyway).

I know there are people who really think that just because Facebook now has 52 "gender identities" that there must really be, in fact, 52 gender identities. But all of these "gender identities" are ideological fictions manufactured by stitching together the pieces of masculinity and femininity they got by cutting up the originals.

There's a whole story to be written about how people ever got the idea that you could really do this in which postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida would play the major roles, what with their rejection of "binaries" and all that.

Of course as soon as you reject binaries, you create a new binary; namely, the binary of a world with binaries and a world without them. There are two kinds of people, Richard John Neuhaus once said: people say there are two kinds of people and people who don't say that.

The people who think you can transcend gender or invent new genders can only play off the two poles of male and female. They never get beyond that. They never really invent anything different that is not some knock off of the originals. There's no way to reboot nature. You've got to live with what it gives you.

So, then, I agree with Wilson on the problem. But his choice of examplars leaves something to be desired.

Pope Francis? A sissy? Really?

I have this underlying urge, being a Catholic (and a male), to throw down the gauntlet and demand satisfaction, but that would imply I wear gloves. And you know how that would go down with certain people.

To prove his point, Wilson cites several papal tweets which he thinks exemplify effeminacy. Here are the examples he uses:
“Advent begins a new journey. May Mary, our Mother, be our guide.”
“Advent increases our hope, a hope which does not disappoint. The Lord never lets us down.”
“There is so much noise in the world! May we learn to be silent in our hearts and before God.”
Now I doubt if they chest bump in the Vatican after every tweet, but I'm trying to figure out what is effeminate about these expressions. Is there something less than masculine about the grammatical subjunctive? Is there something hairless about hope? Wilson does not elaborate. Instead, he pines for "days of the badass popes."

Maybe he could do a tweet: "There is a crisis of effeminate popes. May they be replaced with more masculine ones."

While I don't get a testosterone rush every time I read a Vatican tweet, maybe there is just something that gets lost for certain people when these expressions are translated from the more manly Latin in which, as I understand it, such things are written at the Vatican. And then, of course, there is the matter of the whole Twitter form of media, which doesn't exactly lend itself to any kind of meaningful expression in the first place.

Maybe if there was a way to adequately transcribe grunts and belches and other common masculine bodily sounds into the 140 character format of a tweet, there would be some hope of whipping the Twitter world into more masculine shape.

But, more to the point, I find it rather ironic that Francis--a man who forswore a car to take the bus to work when he was an Argentine bishop, who has taken on the lethargic bureaucracy of the Vatican, and who has been willing to pick fights where he thought it necessary to get the Church into a more evangelical shape--could be plausibly portrayed as effeminate. But it is probably easy to see it that way from the comfortable confines of a safe little Idaho town.

I'm trying to imagine the results of applying the criteria Wilson wants to apply to Pope Francis to--oh, I don't know--Jesus. Someone who goes around saying things like "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" would make an easy target for ancient Hebrew bloggers on the lookout for the weakly constituted.

I like Doug Wilson. He's one of our few great evangelical wits. Wait, let me check ... He may be the only one.

But he's wrong about the Pope.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Trickle Down Immorality: Why the rich marry and stay that way and the poor don't

Sociologist Charles Murray's analysis continues to be confirmed: The permissivist social morals of the rich don't detrimentally affect the rich, who continue generally just to talk about them but continue to do things like get and staying married; it is the poor who act on the rich's permissivist morality and they are the ones who suffer from following through on them and do things like produce children out of wedlock and get divorced. And this is what helps make and keep the rich rich and the poor poor.

This is a bit of an oversimplification. Murray refers not to the rich, but the "cognitive elite," who lead lives, if not of economic bounty, at least economic comfort. "Belmont," Mitt Romney's hometown is his synecdoche for it. Then there is the "lower class," which he leaves undefined, but refers generally to those who struggle economically. His symbolic stand-in for this group is "Fishtown," a largely White working class neighborhood in Philadelphia.

You can read about it in Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Not surprisingly, this analysis is not a popular with the political left, which wants to pose as being concerned about social polarization and its effects on children while spouting ideas that do exactly the opposite.

Here is Belinda Luscombe in Time magazine, limply trying to soften the hard edges of Murray's analysis, but having to give up in the end:
The gap in the family life of the rich and poor yawns wider that it ever has, and the individuals most hurt by this are, you guessed, it, the children of the poor. The working class have experimented with a new type of family formation that’s not based around the equation of one partner who runs the home front plus one partner who brings in the income both of whom throw in their lot together for the long haul. These new formulations tend not to be as stable, and instability is sub-optimal for kids.
This is what the ideas of those who want to redefine the family really do. Read more here.