Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On The Dangers of Liberal Society, pt. II

In my first post in this series I argued that freedom or liberty--or whatever you would like to call the thing that I think we can all agree that we find in what is generally called "liberal society"--is not good on its own. In fact, it seems quite plausible that freedom can serve as an intoxicating sedative for human flourishing. I hate to use the rather stale analogy of the boiling a frog to death by slowly raising the temperature until he poached, but I think that it can apply here. To be clear, my point was this: Liberty need not be benevolent.

But this is not a surprising thing to say. What may strike us as a surprise is the implication that such an idea may have in the context of political authority. Could it be that, while fascism is never a moral thing to desire for its own sake, it offers us a unique opportunity to exist in the sober reality of the world as it is? In other words, I would contend that, while one need not make an outright case for fascism and offend those who in their own life have suffered at the hands of fascists, one can explore what is it about living in the midst of salient injustice and poignant illiberality that might cause the human person to flourish in a distinctly different way than the person who lives in apparent freedom.

This is the issue I would like to raise and while it may seem flamboyent or controversial, I actually think it is a rather normative thing to ponder. I mean, we rarely see movies that glory at the abilities of the human spirit to thrive in the midst of plenty. No, instead we like to see underdogs, slumdogs, and other caninesque things in our drama.

Now, this may seem overly simplistic, but, I wonder: Could it be that these cases are not extraordinary feats, but, instead, natural things that are proper to such dire conditions? What I mean to say is that instead of thinking about the heroism of the person who can rise out of oppression, what would it look like to think about that same event as something that the non-oppressed cannot do?

This reversal leaves the liberal societies and their (our) comforts behind as crutches that keep us from encountering the brute force of life and death, pain and suffering, and, of course, love. It turns an ironically tragic, but beautiful, light on the very places we long to escape from.

Politcally speaking, this would be fascism. What does it mean to long for this to happen? What does it mean to long for an end of liberalism and its desentitizing sense of freedom that traps our ability to live and, perhaps, to love at the height of our powers?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Social Science & Shameless Self-promotion

If you are interested in social science as it pertains to the general disputes over what constitutes legitimate scientific inquiry, then, you may want to read this recent essay review I co-authored from Education Review. It is a review of Bent Flyvjerg's book, Making Social Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it can Succeed Again. My contributions are mostly critical, but the basic argument is a worthwhile one to think about, I think.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The things dad's (or, at least I) say...

-As said by me to my diaperless son this morning.

Best Hits of William James: Varieties of Religious Experience, pt. IV


“The systematic cultivation of healthy-mindedness as a religious attitude is therefore consonant with important currents in human nature, and is anything but absurd. In fact, we all do cultivate it more or less, even when our professed theology should in consistency forbid it. We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end in which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world really is.” (p. 89)

“I believe the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The experiences which we have been studying during this hour (and a great many other kinds of religious experiences are like them) plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific, sect allows for.” (p. 120)

“What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas (conceptual systems) that our minds have framed? But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true?” (p. 120)

“Science to all of us telegraphy, electric lighting, and diagnosis, and succeeds in preventing and curing a certain amount of disease. Religion in the shape of mind-cure gives to some of us serenity, moral poise, and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does, or even better in a certain class of persons. Evidently, then, the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically.” (p. 120)

“And why, after all, may not the worlds be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time comes out right? On this view religion and science, each verified in its own way from hour to hour and from life to life, would be co-eternal.” (p. 120)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Happy Elephant

Best Hits of William James: Varieties of Religious Experience, pt. III


"Nevertheless, if we look on man's whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it." (p. 72)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Best Hits of William James: Varieties of Religious Experience, pt. II


“Totals reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree everyone possesses.” (p. 35)

“There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse. It is precisely as being solemn experiences that I wish to interest you in religious experiences.” (p. 38)

“The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor jest.” (p. 39)

On The Dangers of Liberal Society, pt. I

I am re-posting an old note from my archive of Facebook notes to serve as a preface to some things I hope to write about in defense of fascism--yes, you read that right. But first things first.

The saying goes, "You get more bees with honey than vinegar." In other words, there is really nothing sweet about the honey other than being really good at trapping bees.

In a similar way, it might be plausible that other seemingly sweet, innocent, and good things can serve as "honey" for less than sweet, innocent, or good purposes. Anyone skilled at marketing or sales understands that the best way to peddle something is by being nice to people, making them feel cared for, and gaining their trust in as personal and authentic a way as possible. That way, people lose focus on the thing being sold.

Many times people remind me that the very fact that I am free to question and even dissent is proof that things are better than they seem. And, of course, this is a very reasonable thing to assert. The fact that I feel confident enough to show strong disagreement without repercussions is certainly a good thing. However, I wonder: Is it sweet or is it "sweet"? In other words, could it be the case that the hallmark "freedom" we supposedly enjoy in the US is largely a means of appeasement or even oppression?

I think this could, in many cases, be true. You see, when freedom serves as the sole idol, then, as long as things are not overly intrusive no one will complain. And, paradoxically, if intrusiveness is needed for more freedom, then, most will agree to it; and those who disagree will do so thinking they are already free enough. But these are all relative judgments about how "free" we assume to be, when, in fact, we may be quite indoctrinated.

For example, the idea of compulsory school attendance was considered a radical intrusion on American freedom from the revolutionary period to the last state (Mississippi) to ratify it in 1916. Now, even school choice advocates agree that school attendance is a perfectly normal--and good--thing to have.

This is not to digress on to the issue of schooling (frequently confused for education); rather, it is just one case in which there is historical proof that what we consider to be "freedom" is a rather elusive thing that, over time, erodes silently. As true freedom erodes, we find that we are peddled a different type of "freedom" that, many times, is used against those who assume to be free--us, you and me.

So, it seems (at least to me) that the greatest marketing icon of the US--"freedom"--might be one of the very things that oppresses us. It is much more effective to let people do things you don't want them to, and then remind them that they are "free," to suppress their ability to effectively protest or revolt, than to beat or kill them. Do not be mislead, whether violent or benevolent, oppression is oppression.

As the saying goes, "you get more peasants with freedom..."

Dear Rocco:

for saying that you can't read (see the comments section of Obama at Notre Dame). Quite the contrary, you are a splendid reader and, especially considering that you are the only non-contributing reader of this blog (apparently), I would be remiss to piss you off too much. I owe you a drink. In the meantime, please accept this tiny bouquet of cyber-flowers delivered by this cute little rodent.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Sober Moment in the Drunken Fray

I wanted to post about this when I read it but it has become even more poignant as I sit around embroiled, once again, in fighting my leftist friends over the severe shortcomings and dangers of Obama, and--simultaneously--reprimanding my rightist friends for being too simplistic. This is a royal hack of a characterization, to be sure, but such is the violence of quick-fire prose.

Nonetheless, I was sitting with my son this afternoon at the tire shop trying to keep track of his whereabouts and make it through some recent issues of Newsweek. While reading through the tiresome, haven't-I-read-this-a-million-times-already? pages of Newsweek, my mind wandered to a recent, tearful evening I spent with my favorite journal, First Things.

Their most recent edition, honoring the memory of Richard John Neuhaus, was one of the most genuine, sane, and sober things I have read in print to date. Now, anyone who knows me and my sense of politics knows that I slam First Things a lot and disagree with a great deal of their erudite founder's ideas. But, make no mistake, the outpouring from every side of the global political spectrum was moving, to say the least.

It reminded me of the days that I am told that public dialogue was fierce as ever, but still had sanity to spare. In the U.S., these were the days (or, so I am told) when the Civil Rights Act--that Neuhaus bravely marched in support of--was squared off between the political aisle on the basis of activism or gradualism from the coherent philosophies of conservatism (a la Goldwater) and liberalism (a la New Deal progeny and friends). Those days are gone. If anything, LBJ's nasty campaign killed what was left of it. But not everywhere, not for everyone.

I am quick to assert that any self-respecting leftist (or whatever) ought to engage with the serious and smart ideas that come from the coherent, self-proclaimed right. The problem is that next to Pat Buchanan (a man I respect but, more often than not, rabidly disagree with) sits Monica Crowley who fills in for Laura Ingram (the new guard of the Limbaugh and company types) from time to time. Now, the so-called liberals have their lion's hare of wackos too and, to their discredit, their discussions are worse than stale, more often than not they seem flat out rancid.

So, if I have to sit in a serious discussion on public affairs, give me the likes of a Neuhaus any day--conservative warts and all. It is a shame that he will only live on in his voluminous writings from here on out. And, even worse, there don't seem to be many replacements easily found--on either side--in the druken fray that is public discourse in the U.S. It is my hope, however, that the virtues of catholic (that's for you Ian) dialogue could bring us some smarties out of the ranks of the public Church to help things out.

To put it another way: I pray for the day that dialogue will happen somewhere, anywhere, in a way that is elevated from the simple--and all to convenient for the status quo--rubrics of U.S. political identity.

Best Hits of William James: Varieties of Religious Experience, pt. I

For my anxious readers out there who desire more than this blog seems to be offering these days I will be posting a few "best hits" of the opening chapters to William James' seminal text, Varieties of Religious Experience. Enjoy!


“It seems a natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act.” (p. 3)

“If the inquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject, and I must confine myself to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography.” (p. 4)

“We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as dull habit, but as an acute fever [madness] rather.” (p. 8)

“But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘ I am no such thing,’ it would say; I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.” (p. 10)

“Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thoroughgoing and complete… But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance?... Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see ‘the liver’ determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul.” (p. 15)

“To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of psychological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even out scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of its possessor’s body at the time.” (pp. 15-16)

“By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” (p. 20)

“To understand a thing rightly we need to see it both out of its environment and in it, and to have acquaintance with the whole range of its variations.” (p. 23)

“Few of us are not in any way infirm, or even diseased; and our very infirmities help us unexpectedly. In the psychopathic temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine qua non of moral perception; we have the intensity and tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one’s interests beyond the surface of the sensible world.” (p. 26)

“What, then, is more natural than that this temperament should introduce one to regions of religious truth, to corners of the universe, which your robust Philistine type of nervous system, forever offering its biceps to be felt, thumping its breast, and thanking Heaven that it hasn’t a single morbid fiber in its composition, would be sure to hide forever from its self-satisfied possessors?” (p. 26)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame: Why not?

This seems to be a spicy issue in the Catholic blogosphere (e.g. this one from Vox-Nova and this one from Pro-Ecclesia) so, I'll take the bait.

Here is the main problem, as I see it: Commencement addresses in the U.S. have become mired in the politics of the modern academy and the propagandist relations of academia to the bought-and-paid-for dynamics of Washington.

If this were simply a public lecture, then, there would be little room for outrage. After all, dissenting views and rigorous debate ought to be a hallmark of any healthy university. However, this in one of "those" lectures, or should I say, after-the-fact stump speeches.

I feel that commencement addresses by presidents and other politicians, CEOs and other executives, and TV personalities, ought to removed altogether. But, certain politicians, execs, and TV personas may also have a contribution to offers to the academy. And, this may (and I give a very shaky 'may') be the case with this president.

One of the oddest things to me about Obama's campaign was the omission of his decorated academic career. If his speech were limited to an academic discussion of whatever subject is his expertise, then, that would be wonderful. But, sadly, I highly doubt that. He will be there as "Mr. President."

In that case, I think it is the wrong choice to make. I know for a fact that inviting G.W. to say anything at a University is an academic abomination. This is a different case, but, still, nonetheless, it seems like a bad idea to me. Notice, that the brand of ideas the person brings has very little to do with my evaluation of what is appropriate at a university. Much less a catholic university. As far as I'm concerned, any university that is not catholic, isn't really a university to begin with.

One major factor I chose to leave out of this discussion is the implication of giving someone an honorary degree. I still cannot get the bad taste out of my mouth from puking after witnessing Raymond Arroyo get an honorary degree while selling his book on Mother Angelica in his speech at my undergraduate commencement ceremony. Yuk.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where's the Magic?

I am a very cranky person. Too often, I rant about love. There is something amiss about this. So I figured that I need to try and make some sense of my general discontent, especially since it seems to render impotent whatever constructive things I want to say. When I think about it I guess I am suspicious of the superstitious nature of most forms of human belief. The magical sense we give to things we like a lot or that we cannot imagine ourselves to be able to live without. Now, I am a romantic and a believer in God, faith, mystical reality, and other things most confuse with magic. However, the difference between the magical and the mystical--the sacred mysterious--is mostly dispositional, as I see.

Magic renders itself so intelligible that it is not really magical in any mythical sense, it is real. So real that we can possess it as an object, as a thing. The mystical, on the other hand, never quite becomes intelligible to the point of comprehension, much less possession. Like questions of physical, biological, or chemical fundamentals, explanatory power is very, very limited. We run out of intelligibility and begin to guess and wonder and pray. The magic of things we want to be true so badly that we distort them to our own image is nothing really. Nothing other than lesser images of ourselves. And magic wrecks havoc on our language. We say all kinds of silly things like this or that could change the world or do this or that intuitively good thing.

The fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that there is no magic, there is no fancy trick that renders things intelligible to the point that we no longer need to wonder and pray. Mystery is not magical, it is simply the real that sits outside the horizon of human understanding and keeps us trying to reach that unreachable horizon, until we find our rest...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama on Education

One of the most difficult political identities to understand comes from views on education. Today, Obama signaled a rather conservative (merit pay) and liberal (federalized mandate) direction for education reform (read it here). He stated that, under this administration, we would treat "teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable."

This makes sense at one level. More responsibility, more pay, more accountability. But, truth be told, "accountability" means more standards to pass and more tests to teach to. If anything this proposal will only exacerbate the problems of No Child Left Behind.

If Obama wants to reform education, then, he may want to think about re-envisioning the very thing itself. That is, be sober enough to realize that this student is not a person, not a homo-sapien. This is a resource-person, a homo-economicus, whose sole value is in her ability to collect information and use it in the ways deemed worthy by that other tyrant: science.

Schooling has never--and I mean never--been intended to educate at the federal policy level. It is well understood that such a thing is not the purpose of schooling. However, many teachers try their best in spite of it and succeed. Succeed in executing the art of teaching, the art of teaching human persons to be artists themselves in whatever they do.

The failure of reforms today and the ones to come, lie in this basic conflation: teaching and education as a science, or, to put it another way, science as science. Science is not a science, it too is an art, and the same goes for the rest, I think.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Selling '68

First of all, I am sorry about my recent hiatus, but I am in the middle of preparing for my general exams and program approval, among other things. Hopefully my comittee of writers will follow Bill's good example and help me out very soon (hint, hint). I just wanted to pop in to vent a bit and get your reactions.

I am writing a book review in my apartment lounge with a PBS fundraising marathon of 60's music running in the backround. Over and over they sell this as "the music of '68" or "the music of the death of JFK, King, and so on..." and it really bothers me. I mean, I wasn't alive then and I am not naive enough to think they care (although I do expect better from PBS even though I shouldn't), but everything is for sale. And that sucks.

What doesn't suck is my new bike. I just got it this weekend. It is a deep green, 1969, Hercules, three speed, British Roadster (made in Nottingham). I am sure I will be the most stylish biker on my way to the office tomorrow morning.


Monday, March 2, 2009

The Wisdom of Conversion

“At the same time I warn them that to have the mirror of the external world placed before them is of little significance unless the mirror of the mind is cleansed and polished. Therefore, O child of God, awaken yourself first to the remorseful sting of conscience before you raise your eyes to those rays of wisdom that are reflected in its mirrors. Otherwise it might happen that the very act of looking on these rays might cause you to fall into an even more treacherous pit of darkness.”
– St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum

Aristotle once said, “All men desire to know.” Whether this is true or not is of little consequence for me. That people desire to know, simply generally speaking, is enough to begin with. For it is clear that in all cases, from the moment of our birth to the inevitable moment of our death, we are engaged with the world and this engagement requires a certain understanding and a certain meaningful grasp of the world around us. The mind is, from start to finish, thrown out upon and among the objects of the world and the persons we encounter in the world; and all the hopes and longings of the human heart are acted out amidst this maelstrom of the exterior world.

If, then, we cannot avoid a certain attempt to understand the world, at least in order to survive in it, and more importantly to flourish in it, then one can admit that knowledge holds a certain importance as something of a universal goal among all persons. Knowledge, however, is one thing. Wisdom, something else entirely. Wisdom is concerned not with an understanding of the facts of the world, not an understanding of what this particular object before me happens to be or how it might be used, and it is also not the possessing of a particular theory of the world and how it works. Wisdom penetrates deeper than this. And this is why so many of the most knowledgeable people in the world can nevertheless fail utterly in wisdom. Wisdom, and the pursuit of wisdom, is something different entirely from the pursuit of knowledge, however much a certain knowledge might be necessary for wisdom to be born.

What makes wisdom different, one might ask? For one thing, knowledge implies nothing about how we live our lives. It implies no action at all. It simply implies a certain resonance of our concepts with the world. Wisdom, on the other hand, supplies the meaning and direction of how we live in the world. Wisdom, above all else, is concerned with life and with action. Knowledge, merely with the static character of having certain facts readily available. Thus, knowledge without wisdom is meaningless. Without wisdom, all we have are lifeless facts and our lives are lived out with the same aimlessness of a ship without its rudder.

Those who would live out a life of meaningfulness, a life of direction, must be seekers and lovers of wisdom. These are those we once might have called philosophers, the first to be called lovers of wisdom. But, those lovers of wisdom are perhaps long dead; philosophers today, and in fact for many generations, have made themselves men of science and nothing more, intellectuals of the worst variety in all their hypocrisy. But if the philosophers as philosophers have nothing to say about wisdom, then how is wisdom to be achieved at all? Where are we to turn for it and to whom are we to go?

The world is the always already given fundament of all knowledge and we are always left with the world before us. It makes sense that we should start there. But, as I have said, wisdom is not a matter of knowing the world. Our knowledge is already operative to the extent that the world appears clearly. But the mind on its own cannot peer around the indistinctness in which the world appears because all knowledge is first and foremost structured by the way in which we live out our lives. That is to say, when we desire to live out our lives in a particular way, we tend to interpret the world according to those desires. Thus, the man who longs for power and wealth interprets the meaning of the world in terms of what will furnish these ends. If, however, we are to attain wisdom, if we are to grasp meaning, to acquire the direction in life which only wisdom can give, then we are faced with a fundamental task.

The world can only be given in its ultimate meaningfulness when, as Bonaventure says, the mind is disposed to reflect it most clearly, or one might say, when the mind is sufficiently free from its vicious desires and expectations for the world to see the world itself and how the individual is called to live. In short, wisdom cannot be attained by the vicious individual. Wisdom will always elude the man and woman of hatred, of egoism, of resentment. To the extent that one seeks to be wise, one must also seek to be good. But, this implies an alteration in the very direction of one’s life; it involves a dynamic movement in which both straightforward viciousness as well as contented mediocrity must be abandoned altogether. Total conversion is the only road to wisdom. It is only on the road to perfection, with the burning desire for total conversion of heart that the mind is itself perfected and disposed for wisdom, a wisdom which goes beyond knowledge and which provides a direction for life and seizes upon a meaning which gives life its sense.

We have entered into the season of Lent. The time in which we go out into the deserts of the spirit in search of the wisdom of the children of God through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; the time in which we become men and women of authentic and intense desire, when we become desirous of wisdom itself. May you all have a very blessed and fruitful season of Lent, that the mystery of Easter might complete you in wisdom, faith, and perfection. God bless you all.