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Archive for June, 2010


with 5 comments


I mean, gee.

I got this new computer, which is great, and a lot faster than my computer.  I can actually write this blog on the blog site, which I couldn’t do on my home computer before.  I’m in love with the thing.

But I’m also me.  I react to change in minor routines with a kind of belligerent panic.  So I’m doing a little of that.  What the hell.

Right now, I’ve got to major problems, which are connected–the space bar tends to stick, which I’m not used to, so I’m not correcting for it yet.   But I will get used to it. 

And the related thing is that the back space key on this keyboard is the size of an ordinary letter key, instead of being really long like it was on my old keyboard.

And I touch type.

So, I write merrily along, realize the space hasn’t happened, blindly put my pink up to hit the back space and get slash marks more often than not.

I’ll work it out.  I had keys on my old keyboard where the letters had worn right off, making them blank.  Which was fine for me, because I do touch type, but it drove the boys nuts because they hunt and peck.

I’m keeping the keyboard.  I’ll learn to remember to really smash the hell out of the space bar eventually.

As for anything else that might be going on:

Sitting around yesterday, waiting for the computer to go in and to leave for a really ridiculous, unnecessary meeting that I had in the evening, I realized something about myself.  It’s one of those things that surprise me, but that I don’t know what to do with.

When it comes to “entertainment,” both the fictional kind and the reality-TV kind, what I’m most drawn to is one of two things:  the extremely competent, or the extremely screwed up.

Take,  for instance, Apollo 13.  I don’t think I ever remember to put it down when somebody asks me for my favorite movie, but I’ll watch it whenever it comes on television, I own it, and there’s never a time when I don’t want to see it.

What is that, really, but a movie about a world of extremely competent people handling a very big problem?  I think I like the idea of it, a world full of people who honestly bone-deep know how to do very hard things, and do them every day, without–I don’t know what I want here.  “Prancing around about it” are the words that come to mind, but that’s not quite it.   Maybe “making a big deal about how important they are” comes closer to it.

It occurs to me that this is why I like the Ocean movies, too, even though I’m not usually a good audience for caper stories.  There’s always something in the back of mymind going, “they’re stealing stuff.  They’re stealing stuff, for God’s sake.

I think with the Ocean movies, the focus is not on the stealing but on the skill, planning and intelligence of the operation, so that the nature of the operation sort of drifts into the background.

On the other end is the extremely screwed up, which includes things like Intervention and a fair number of the various Lockup and Women Behind Bars sorts of things.  It also includes all those movies about alocholics (Days of Wine and Roses, 28 Days, Clean and Sober) that I sometimes wonder might have been made by people as part of a sentence after a drug or alcohol charge.

Part of what fascinates me with these is the money.  There you’ll have Our Guy, hasn’t had a job in ten years, starts shooting up at eight in the morning…and then the information that, last year, he spent $30,000 on drugs.

I mean–what?  Getting that much out of mugging people would make mugging a full time job that would leave him practically no time to get high.  Where is all this money coming from?  And there’s tons of it.  It’s everywhere.

And although there are certainly plenty of bums on the street because of alcohol and drugs, it’s astounding how many people with full-blown addictions manage to have really nice places to live. 

I know that the reality shows are skewed to middle class anomalies, but still–there do seem to be an awful lot of them. 

Part of what fascinates me about all this is that I can’t really imagine it.  I seem to have some kind of internal program that makes me run around doing stuff, teaching, writing, whatever.  I don’t even need a boss or a supervisor to do it.  I just do it. 

Obviously, some people don’t.  I always wonder why they don’t, what it is in them that makes it possible to just let themselves go.


This keyboard is getting easier to use, and I found my copy of Edmund Burke, which I’d been looking for.

And, just a note, the new copy of  Free Inquiry has yet another column by Shadia Drury full of howlers, and this time without even the excuse that it’s all from the Middle Ages and she doesn’t read Latin anyway.

My favorite was her definition of “oligarchy” as “rule by the rich.”  It means “rule by a small group,” which is hardly the same thing. 

Ah, well.  She was doing her usual thing of dumping a bunch of cliches about the US as if she’d thought of them herself and they were brand new, coupled with indulging her nostalgia for a “conservatism” that, if she actually knew anything about it, would make her run like hell in the opposite direction.

I’m going to go do something practical.  Maybe I can get back to the two Enlightenments tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 29th, 2010 at 6:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Note in the Evening

with 4 comments

So, whatI havehere, at the moment,isanewcomputer. That I don’t really know how to work yet.  I especially don’t seem to know how to work the space bar yet.

The computer arrived courtesy of my friends Carol and Richard, who understand this kind of thing.   

It’s very nice, and faster than my old one–well, snails are faster than my old one–but I’ve threatened to kill the keyboard twice in the last five minutes.

It does work a lot better on Hildegarde, though, and that’s a plus.

Written by janeh

June 28th, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Enlightenment Strikes Twice

with one comment

Okay, let me work this out a little–let me go back to where I started thinking about it, instead of where I started writing about it.

In the beginning, not of Western Civilization itself, but of Western Civilization as you and I have lived it–because we are products of the twentieth century, and not the fourth–the Aristotelian and the Platonic.

Yeah, I know.  I always get back to this.

But I think that it does always get back to this. 

Aristotle and Plato provided two different and essentially contradictory ways of looking at the world.

Plato proposed a system of pure intellection–we would learn about the world by thinking about the world, by making connections and finding patterns.  And, in doiing so, we would discover the ideal and the perfect, and be able to aim for it.

If you think about Plato long enough, what you get is a kind of early version of Intelligent Design–that is, the conviction that the universe not only makes sense (Aristotle thought that, too), but that it makes a certain kind of sense, a narrative sense.

It was in this sense that the Middle Ages (and Augustine before them) adopted Plato–not for his political writings (which they knew little about and ignored when they did know them), but in his concept of a “real” world beyond this one, the world of perfection and ideals.

Since the world of perfection and ideals was, in fact, perfect, it could be understood by thinking about it as long as we kept our thought ruthlessly logical.

If you want to see how this works out, consider the Medieval defense of the Immaculate Conception.

For those of you who haven’t already heard me rant about this obsessively, the Immaculate Conception is NOT the Virgin Birth–it is NOT Jesus Christ who was immaculately conceived.

The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that says that MARY was conceived in HER MOTHER’S WOMB without the stain of original sin.

The pregnancy was otherwise completely usual.  Mary’s parents had sex, and Anna gave birth to Mary in the ordinary way. 

“Immaculate'” refers to MARY’S lack of original sin at birth. 

A lot of people these days try to say that the Immaculate Conception wasn’t part of Catholic Doctrine until the 19th century, which is when the Vatican defined it officially as a dogma, but the idea goes back as far as the early Fathers of the Church and was a popular subject for art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

It was defended in two ways:

First, as a matter of the morally proper.  It would not be proper for God himself to be lodged in a body stained with sin.

Second, as the logical inference of the narrative–Mary was a “second Eve.”  The first Eve was asked for her obedience, to do what God willed for her, and she said no, and ate the fruit.  Mary was asked for her obedience, to do what God willed for her, and she said yes.

In order for the parallels to be exact, Mary had to be free of original sin–because Eve had been free of original sin.

I remember, the first time I heard this, thinking that it was so much like analyzing a novel or a poem–it’s that same kind of thinking, the same kind of assumptions about what you’re expecting to find, and what would establish the rightness of your interpretation.

That is how Platonists view the world–by starting with what they already know to be Right and Proper, and then working out the ways in which the world must be if that is so.  And since what is Right and Proper is not just unquestioned but unquestionable, anything found in the world that seems to contradict it is inherently evil, and must be resisted or rooted out.

I’d like to point out that this is a closed system.  There is no way to successfully argue with a Platonist except by attacking his definition of the Right and the Proper.  Once you’ve accepted those definitions–remember my think about equality the last couple of days–any attempt you make to argue with him will not only fail.  You’ll decisively lose.

Aristotle was less interested in ideals and perfection than he was in the everyday reality of the everyday world.

His approach was not to ask what was Supposed to Be, but to try to find out what was.  He may be the first person in history to try to make a systematic study of animals by collecting specimens of them and reports from people who had travelled and seen species not immediately available to him.

For Aristotle, it was important to uphold the Right and Proper, but the definition of the Right and Proper had to be derived from the real experience of real life.  How men Ought to Behave mattered, but when you were setting up a legal system or a political system, it mattered as much how they actually did behave. 

The differences between how men ought to behave and how they did behave marked the limits on the possibility of earthly perfection in any society.   We could try our best to efect the Perfect State, but we would fail, and if we tried to hard we might actually get something less good than if we’d agreed to compromise earlier. 

At any rate, what we needed to decide what kind of society we should have was just what we needed to figure out what kind of solar system we had–a thorough investigation of what actually exists.  Our standard should be the Real, not the Ideal.

By now, all of this ought to sound at least vaguely familiar.  The fact is that this argument has not really changed since fourth-century-BC Athens. 

It is the argument that created Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the classic conservative (in the traditional sense) response to the rise of modern political radicalism. 

It is also the argument that created both classical liberalism (what we’d call libertarianism, these days) and eventually the American Republic.

But the first thing it did was to create two Enlightenments, not one–the French (which is the one we all think of when we think of the “Enlightenment”) and the English.

And it is the tension between those two things–and especially the tension that exists in the constitution and founding documents and ideas of this country in particular–that we end up talking about affirmative action, national health insurance, immigration illegal and otherwise, and all the rest.

Which is the reason I started this series of posts, and what I’ll get to.

But I want to point out one thing.

In terms of PRACTICAL consequences, Aristotle has it over Plato hands down, at least if you look at the overall picture. 

And yet Aristotle loses time after time, and he’s been in retreat now for decades, first on the cultural level, and then on the level of laws and of nations.

And there’s a reason for that, that is not just “those guys are evil.”

If that’s all it was, we would all be doomed.

Written by janeh

June 27th, 2010 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

More Equal Than Itself

with one comment

Okay, let me come around in a circle here.  And don’t think I don’t know that there are at least a couple of people who read this blog who tell me they’re socialists, and who could make a better case here than I can.

But–let’s get to it.  It’s Saturday.

Robert says that socialism isn’t about equality, but about who gets to control the distribution of resources.

And I think that in any existing socialist state, that’s pretty much what you get–but I wasn’t talking about existing socialist states.

I was talking about the argument people in favor of socialism make to the public at large in order to get socialist policies adopted, and the reason why those people at large accept those policies, when they do.

I don’t really think that all of these people can be hoping to become commissars.  And nothing like all these people believe that their own particular situation will be made better–that they themselves will get a larger share of the resources–under socialist policies.

Socialism presents itself to the public as a moral argument with equality as its basis.  And equality is a very powerful principle in

The evidence of just how powerful is in the fact that even oponents do not usually attempt to deny the principle.  They say the kind of thing Robert did–that socialism may say it’s about equality, but it isn’t really–but that leaves the principle itself intact.  It is a tacit admission that equality is in fact a bottom-line, not to be abrogated moral principle that must be acknowledged by everybody.

The issue is, obviously, more complicated in real life, not only because of the actual history of actual socialist (and Communist) states, but also because “equality” is a word with more than one definition. 

“All men are created equal,” the Declaration says, but it’s hard to fingure out what even Jefferson meant by that.  Even without bringing in the problem of slavery, the m en of Jeffersons era were not equal in a material sense, and they were not equal in terms of natural gifts, either.  We say the Declaration means to install “equality before the law,” which is true enough, but not an end to the argument.

The usual moral–rather than practical–justification for liberty is that liberty is more just than (material) equality because liberty rewards each person according to his or her merit.  Work hard, live prudently, contribute to society and you go up in the world.  Screw around, nap all day, wallow in self indulgence and you go down. 

And, in the cases where poverty and want are the result not of  bad choices but of bad luck–born with cystic fibrosis, crippled by a drunk driver when you were doing everything right behind the wheel–society, in the form of the government, steps in to cushion the blow.

That, right there, is the acceptance of another moral principle–that the rewards of a meritcratic society are just only if they are in fact meritocratic, if they are a matter of personal choices and not blind dumb luck.

And that’s where we get to the pont that keeps bothering me.

It doesn’t matter if we know how to measure talent or not–it ONLY matters that some people are BORN less intelligent, talented and capable than others. 

If that is the case, if some places in the hierarchy of a meritocratic society are fixed by the simple luck of the draw–sorry, Jack, you don’t have the brains to do simple algebra, you were born that way, no astronaut’s training for you, no matter how hard you try–then in what MORAL sense can we defend a meritocratic liberty society.

Note–I said MORAL, not practical.  There are plenty of practical reasons to defend it, and even more practical reasons to choose it.

But in an argument in which one side is appealing to morality and the other is appealing to practicalities, the side appealing to practicalities is always going to lose.

The Republicans may have had “plans” for catastrophic and chronic care–but that was the problem, they had “plans.”  The Democrats were not talking about plans.  They were talking about narratives.  “Here’s this situation here–do you think that’s fair?”  “Here’s this other situation here–do you think that’s fair?”

I heard Keith Olbermann do it last night–in reference to voting for or against the extension of unemployment benefits, he went, “are there no workhouses, are there no prisons?”  It’s a quote from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, but it is not a policy statement.  Its appeal is to the moral and narrative, not to the practical.

And don’t tell me I only think this because the media weren’t reporting on what the Republicans were saying.  I watch Fox as well as MSNBC, I read The National Review, The Weekly Standard and The American Spectator as well as The Nation and Mother Jones and The New York Review of Books.

If Republicans were making a MORAL argument about their preferences for a health care system, if they were defending the private system on MORAL grounds–I would have heard it.

Instead, all I got was policies and plans–wonk, wonk, wonk.

I’m not saying that polices and plans are not important, of course they are.

I am saying that if one side is appealing to a moral imperative and the other is presenting policies and plans, the moral imperative will win out every time.

And this has been the issue from the very beginning of the two Enlightenments–the French, which was always about moral imperatives, and the English, which was always about policies and plans.

But I’ll get to the Enlightenments later.

Written by janeh

June 26th, 2010 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Wind Storm

with 5 comments

Actually, what we had yesterday in Connecticut was a whole series of thunderstorms that rolled through the state and seem to have pretty much trashed the city of Bridgeport, maybe via a small tornado.  It’s hard to tell, but there are branches all over my yard this morning and Bridgeport made Fox News.  They’ve declared a state of emergency down there and everybody keeps showing the picture of this three story tall building that looks as if the Seismosaurus from Hell has just taken a bite out of the top of it.  It’s very impressive.

As for me–well, a couple of things.

The first is that it interests me that people who have responded to that last post, in comments and e-mail, have largely ignored the second issue for the first.

That is, they’ve talked about the fact that even people born into disadvantaged circumstances–to alcoholic parents, or poverty, or whatever–sometimes make quite a lot of their lives.

And that’s certainly true.  But the bigger issue, I think, is the second one–that some people are born with more intelligence and more talent than other people, and some people are born with very little of those things indeed.

Yes, Obama’s family was poor, and so was Lincoln’s–but I’d be willing to bet that both of them had IQs above 140.

Think of all the people, born poor and middle class and rich, who struggle to get through basic arithmatic because they just can’t understand it, no matter how hard they work.  Think of the people who cannot make simple inferences about things like the connections among a series of bus routes.  And I do mean CANNOT.  People for whom all the education and training in the world just won’t make it possible for them to understand.

There really are such people in the world, and they’re not mentally retarded.  They’re just not very bright.

Certainly they didn’t choose to be not very bright–it’s not their fault in any way that they are unable to “get” algebra or contextual analysis.

If, in a meritocracy, people are supposed to rise or fall by their merits.

And if, in a meritocracy, we feel the moral need to equalize opportunities as far as possible so that mere accidents of birth like race or being born to jerks do not prevent people from succeeding.

Then why is involuntary lack of talen any different than involuntary membership in a race or a sex?

The lack of talent is just as unchosen as is the race.  It is just as much an accident of birth.

Let me try to be clear here–I do not actually think the luck egalitarians are right here, but why I don’t think they’re right has to do with the practical aspects of the case, not the moral ones.

And it’s the moral ones the luck egalitarians are trying to address.

If, in fact, a meritocracy is legitimized by saying that rewards should go to those who earn them, and further that those rewards should not in any way be dependent on accidents of birth–

Then what makes it acceptable to penalize this particular kind of accident of birth?

Cheryl complains that I’m defining “success” materially, but both the meritocrats and the luck egalitarians do so as well–the issue is, who decides and on what basis is the decision made, who gets more or less of the material resources of any particular society.

If, in all other ways, we resist the idea that biology is destiny–why do we accept the idea that biology is destiny HERE?

In terms of making a moral argument for liberty, this is not a minor issue. 

And I think what got me about that article I posted yesterday was this–one of the prime differences between people who argue for liberty and people who argue for equality is that most of the people who argue for liberty do so on pragmantic grounds, while most of the people who argue for equality do so on moral ones.

This was, I think, a big issue in the health care debate.  The Republicans had a lot of practicaly, commonsense objections to the Obama plan, a lot of which are probably true.

But the question was not, “will this plan work?”  The question was, “a family that’s worked hard and saved and struggled for decades has a kid with cystic fibrosis and ends up getting dumped from their health insurance plan, trashed economically trying to pay for the kid’s treatments and then thrown out on the street when they’ve exhausted all their resources–we think that’s morally wrong.  What is your plan for doing something about it?”

And the Republicans did not, in fact, have such a plan. They had no method at all of addressing that kind of problem, of insuring that accidents of birth or fortune (think about getting hit by a drunk driver when you’re sober yourself) do not destroy whole families financially because of the cost of medical care.

In any argument in which one side is making pragmatic points and the other side is making moral ones, the moral side will almost always win.  For most people, morality trumps pragmatism every time. 

That is, I think, why Ayn Rand was and is so enormously popular as a writer–because she tries to make a case for liberty on moral grounds, not simply on practical ones.  That’s why so many people who reject wholesale whole swaths of her ideas–the atheism; the idea that women’s nature wants to be “mastered” by a man–still call themselves Randians or Objectivists without a problem. 

What that article said to me was that the case for liberty must be made on moral grounds, and not because “God said so.”  If it is not made on moral grounds, it will lose.

And yes, part of making that case will be defining success in such a way that it is not only about material resources.  And part of making that case will be insisting that we all pay attention to the consequences.

But the moral issue will be more important, because men and women in the real world respond more strongly to moral arguments than they ever have, or ever will, to practical ones.

Written by janeh

June 25th, 2010 at 8:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lucky Penny

with 2 comments

Let me start this off by saying that there are entire days during the summer when I have to do nothing but sit around and remind myself that I don’t REALLY hate pollen.

Today is one of those days.  My head hurts.  Everything itches.  It was miserably hot when I ran out to the grocery store at ten this morning, and it’s going to get nothing but worse for the rest of the day.

I am not a heat person.

What I am, apparently, is somebody who can read through anything, and what I read this morning (aside from the end of the Dante, almost) was this:


I ended up looking at this because of a rather misleading link posted today on Arts and Letters Daily.

And from one point of view, it isn’t a very interesting piece.  It’s a book review posted on the website of the Literary Review of Canada, written by somebody named Andy Lamey.

And I just refuse to make all the jokes that come to mind with that one.

The book being reviewed is called “Why Not Socialism,” by G. A. Cohen.  I’d actually heard of the book before, but not of its author, and I’ve never read it.

And the review itself, as I said, is not really all that interesting.  It’s a left wing book being reviewed by a left wing writer in what appears to be a left wing journal–I could probably write it myself, in my sleep, much the way I can usually foresee everything that’s going to be said of right wing books by right wing reviewers in right wing journals.

But in among all the not-very-interesting there are two very interesting things.

The first is something called “luck egalitarianism,” which is apparently a submovement in modern left wing political philosophy.

The second is the claim that Cohen found the arguments in favor of socialism–and against other forms of political organization–to be entirely moral in nature.

First, luck egalitarianism, because it addresses something that’s always nagged at me whenever anybody talks about freedom, equality and the meritocracy.

The felt legitimacy of a meritocracy relies first and foremost on the general agreement that opportunities are equal, so that unequal outcomes are deserved.  That is, it’s all right for Bill Gates to have fifty billion dollars and your brother in law to have only $1.95, because Bill Gates built a huge company and employs millions of people and your brother in law drinks Wild Turkey by the case and robs liquor stores to get it.

In real life, of course, opportunities are not entirely equal, and for many reasons.  The children of Bill Gates did no moe to deserve their good fortune than the children of your brother in law did to deserve their bad luck.

We therefore tend to feel, instinctively, that we should do something to at least attempt to equalize the possibilities for all children.  We build public schools, for instance, and programs that provide money for college for kids who might otherwise not be able to afford it.

But luck egalitarianism goes farther than that, because it faces up to the meritocratic myth–that it is nurture, and not nature, that matters the most in every instance; that people may be brought up unequally, but they are not born unequal in talents and abilities.  We can all of us be whatever we want to become, if we just work hard enough at it.

This is the place to throw in something that matters to anything I’m going to say.  I grew up and went to school largely with rich people.  Although it is true that the ranks of the Ivy League and the successful in general are disproportionately filled by the children of the rich and the educated upper middle class, the fact is that most of the children of the rich and the educated upper middle class do not go on to the Ivy League or to “success” in any form.

I’ve seen plenty of people with “all the advantages” crash and burn through drugs, alcohol, and general inertia, and even more just sort of settle into middle-management dead-end jobness.  I don’t care how much intelligence and talent you’re born with, to get anywhere with it you actually have to do something.

That said, the simple fact is that we’re not all born with equal intelligence and talent, and that intelligence and talent are to a significant extent heritable.  That means that intelligent and talented parents will tend to have intelligent and talented children, and that most people are born with significant limits placed on their ability to realize their aspirations.

Your good for nothing brother in law’s children did nothing to deserve your good for nothing brother in law, but they also did not do anything to deserve their 101 IQs and the fact that when they try to sing, cats commit suicide.

The fact that some people are born less equal than others is the crux of the problem so many people have with the concept of meritocracy.  A kid born with an IQ of 160 might as well have been born with a trust fund.   He might put either advantage to good use, or not, but at least the opportunity is there.  A kid born with an IQ of 98 has vast areas of human endeavor barred to him from the start.  He won’t be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, no matter how hard he works.  Calculus will be beyond him.   So will any substantive understanding of the meaning of most SCOTUS decisions.

Now, a caveat–I’m using “IQ” as shorthand for a certain kind of intelligence.  I am not referring to specific intelligence tests.

The point here should be obvious:  if meritocracy is legitimized by our belief that anybody who works hard enough can “be whatever she wants to be,” and that is not in fact true, then meritocracy begins to look as unjust as any aristocracy ever conceived.

And if you go back to the second point above–that for Cohen (and I suspect most other appeal) the defense of any political system must be made on MORAL grounds–

Then it’s easy to see why large hunks of people think that capitalism is inherently immoral and socialism is inherently moral in spite of the real world historical consequences of each.

Which brings me back to the idea that defenses of political systems must be made on moral grounds.

But I’ll get back to that tomorrow.

There’s supposed to be a storm from hell any minute now.

Written by janeh

June 24th, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Habits of Illusion

with 3 comments

This is going to be an interesting day.  The pollen count must be up in the stratosphere somewhere–did I just spell that wrong?–and I keep sneezing like I’m a character in an early Disney movie.  I managed to get the writing done for today, but I think I know another reason why I don’t usually write books in the summer.

Let me go back, for a while, to where I was yesterday.

I think part of the problem we have with understanding all this stuff comes from the unstated assumption that to admit that A led to B and nothing else led to B must mean:

a) that A led to B deliberately

b) that A is true.

The modern concept of equality–applying (in some way) to everybody without respect to race, creed, sex, and possibly other things) arose only in those countries which were predominantly Christian, and it arose there because of a specific idea delivered by St. Paul at the very beginning of the Christian era.

Does that mean that that is what Christianity set out to do?

That’s a harder question than you’d think.  St. Paul’s statement seems to say that it did.  The subsequent behavior of the Christian community is a good illustration of how it didn’t on any level we are likely to call significant.

We may all be one in Christ Jesus, but for at least eighteen hundred years or so after that, the Christian Church (and even most of the Protestant) ran on the assumption that that was going to be all very well when we got to heaven, but in the meantime there were going to be hierarchies, and you’d better submit to them.

Still, most of us would say that equality is a good thing.  And it’s obvious that the idea of equality is not a universal characteristic of human societies–in fact, it has only arisen once, and we just don’t know if it could have arisen any other way, because it didn’t.

So…is this an indication that Christianity is true?

No.  At the most, it’s the indication that Christianity had at least one very good idea that we value.  Beyond that, it doesn’t tell us anything.  It doesn’t even tell us whether Christianity has been, on the balance, a force for good or ill in world history.  

The essential point here–and with the science thing–is habits of mind.

Let’s look at the science thing for a minute, and the democracy thing as well.

The Catholic Church was and is a hierarchy, a very well-defined and largely rigid hierarchy.  To put it the way Bill said it was put to him by his father:  the Pope is the boss of the Bishop, the Bishop is the boss of the Priest, the Priest is the boss of the nun, and the nun is the boss of You.

If you read the Bible and think it means one thing and the Pope reads the Bible and thinks it means something else–the Pope is right, and you should just accept it.

If you look at the progression of “natual philosophy” into “modern science” from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Reformation, what you find is not the Catholic Church persecuting scientists for doing science–that didn’t start until the Reformation, and it isn’t what the Galileo thing was actually about.

What you find is the assumption that Aristotle had gifted us with wisdom, and therefore the truth about the material world.  Aristotle was the authority, and if you thought you’d found out something contrary to what he taught–well, you must be wrong.

If you look at the actual intellectual history here, you find that people got into a lot more trouble for challenging the authority of Aristotle than they did for challenging the authority of the Church. 

Deference to authority was a habit of mind–you looked to the Church to interpret scripture for you and to Aristotle to interpret the material world.

What Protestantism did was to bring in the idea that each individual human being was competent to understand and interpret scripture on his own.  Each man and woman was his (or her) own authority, and if he read scripture differently than the pastor, and prayed and studied on it, and still thought he was right and the paster was wrong–well, then, you stuck to it.

By now, there are probably twenty million of you ready to tell me that that wasn’t the way the Protestant Churches actually operated, no matter what they might have said in theory.

But it doesn’t matter.  Someone brought up with the idea that he must bow to authority in both the spiritual and material realm is different in fact–his brain functions differently in fact–from someone who is brought up to think that he’s perfectly capable of understanding the world for himself if he puts his mind to it, and just as likely to be right as any “expert.”

It was societies full of people with that habit of mind that modern science needed to get started, not anything specific to Protestant theology per se. 

And again, that’s not an idea that is universal to human societies.  It has arisen in one place in one specific sequence of intllectual history, and no place else, ever.  They eye is supposed to have evolved several dozen ways over the millions of years of evolution.  This stuff was apparently harder.

Did Protestantism mean to throw up this particular thing, and to launch modern science?

I think we can positively say–no.  In fact, any reading of Luther gives the impression that the first forays in the direction of modern science by Renaissance Popes eager to be patrons of the new Christian Humanism were a good part of why Luther wanted to “reform” the Church. 

“Reason,” Martin Luther said, “is the Devil’s greatest whore…She is and ought to be drowned in baptism.”

 But habits of mind are habits of mind.  Given enough time, they will work themselves out to their logical conclusions.  And those conclusions are often things the initiators of the ideas not only did not intend, but wouldn’t have approved of for a second.

As for democracy–well the core idea of democracy is obviously Greek.  But I’ll stick to my original assertion that successful democracy (and successful representative Republics) require a Protestant habit of mind.

French democracy is a good case in point.  I think most Americans, used to the what we mean by “democratic government” here, would have a hard time accepting that France is democratic at all.  What it is is a meritocratic oligarchy, a country of rule by experts, all of them meticulously credentialed in government-run schools the entry to which is tightly controlled.  Then entry into the ruling bureaucracies is based on whether or not you have the credentials from the schools.

If you don’t like the curriculum–better be ready to go out of the country.  Private schools must follow the state curriculum, and there is no legal homeschooling.  If you want to work more than the state-approved maximum hours per week–nope, going to get into trouble there.  Health care, job policies, education, even entertainment, everything is centrally controlled and administered by school-certified ‘experts,” and  your disagreement is not encouraged or even legitimate.

France runs its country by priesthood, only it calls its priests bureaucrats.   It’s not democracy as democracy is understood in the Anglophone sphere.  It’s really not democracy as democracy is understood in the US. 

It is, however, very Catholic.

I was going to get around to Hart’s Atheist Delusions, because he has an interesting point, and one I don’t have an answer to.

But it’s time to be a grown-up.

More or less.

Written by janeh

June 23rd, 2010 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Created Equal

with 6 comments

Okay.  I sat around looking at the comments on yesterdays post this morning, and I was struck, again, by that thing I’m obsessed with–we have as much a need for intellectual history as we do for the history of events.

Let me start with one thing:  there’s a lot about the Texas curriculum standards what is indeed ignorant and bigotted, but there is a lot that is not.  I see nothing ignorant and bigotted about teaching that free enterprise is a good thing and generally has worked better than the alternatives–it’s true.  And we’ve had forty years of skewing American history towards the critical, we could do with a little more tilt on the side of  acknowledging what we’ve done right.  And the issue of international organizations and national sovereignty  IS an issue, a big one.  Why not discuss it as an issue instead of cheerleading for the UN?

But let me go to the two other things–Mary F says that she’s sure that lots of people besides Christians had thought of helping the poor and equality.

And to that I say:

As to feeding the poor:  yes, with qualifications, and the qualifications are important.

As to equality:  no.  Equality as we understand the term, without regard for race or creed or sex, enters the culture with St. Paul.  As far as I know, it has never existed anywhere else, and no culture has ever developed it independently of being influenced by the Christian West.

But everything is complicated, so let me get into some details.

Charity is indeed an old idea, and almost every culture has developed some form of it.  It is certianly very important in Judaism, and it would help to remember that Christianity is, in the end, an aberrant form of Judaism.  It started as as Jewish sect. Its original members were all Jews. 

That said, Christianity’s form of charity was distinct, and especially distinct in the Roman empire.  Pagan civilization saw charity as the obligation of a free man, part of his honor.  He was exhorted to give to increase the honor attached to his name.  He was not urged to give indiscriminately, though.

Pagan civilization definitely made distinctions between the worthy and unworthy poor, and insisted that it was important that the man who gave alms distinguish between them.  What’s more, pagan charity often came with strings attached.  You could have food and shelter if you cleaned up your act.  You could have food and shelter if you agreed to run around praising your benefactor.  Something.

The great peculiarity of charity in the early Christian Church was precisely that it was anonymous (as to individuals) and open to all comers, no strings attached and no questions asked. 

Virtually every ancient author who came into any direct contact with early Christianity at all makes a point of this fact:  that the Christians gave freely to all comers, that they did not put condiitions on their generosity and that they did not look for individual praise for doing it.

It’s an interesting point,  I think, that so much of Christian charity today, especially those organizaed by Christian religious organizations (rather than practiced by individuals) does indeed put all sorts of conditions on its recipients.  It’s also interesting to note that a lot of those conditions result from fear of getting a bad reputation among non-Christians–if you just give these people food and shelter with no quesitons asked, you’re enabling their addictions!

It’s one of the reasons for the explosive growth of Christianity in its early years that it did give so freely and without conditions.  It made the behavior of Christians so distinct, and so counter-intuitive to everything in pagan society, it became a “proof” of the validity of the claims of the Savior in and of itself.

There’s a use for intellectual history for you:  getting young Christian men and women to ask whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Christian charities now behave exactly like the secular kind, with the name of Jesus thrown in just to spice things up a little, like pepper on Alfredo sauce.

There’s an image.

Now to equality, because this is a really important point.

I think part of the problem is that we’re so used to the idea of equality, and so used to thinking of it as a good thing, that it feels “natural” to us.  Of course all people, everywhere, must have felt the same way, must have seen that it is only right and just that all people should be equal before the law (and sometimes in lots of other ways).

In the real world, however, no civilization before this one has every conceived that kind of equality, and none has ever advocated it.  In the Greek and Roman “society of free men,” it was only men who were to be equal, and not all men.  Aristotle said that some men were born with the souls of slaves. 

And it wasn’t just political  rights that were at stake here.  All ancient civlizations considered some people (aristocrats, the king’s family) as having more worth morally than others, and all men as having more worth morally than women.   The world, the pagans would have said, has a natural hierarchy.  Some human beings are, by definition, less human than others.

The first indication that this was not how we should think of human beings–the first anywhere in history, ever–arrived in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  You are all one in Christ Jeus.  You are all sons of God.

The “sons” is important, and in spite of what twentieth century feminism would say, it’s not sexist.  In ancient societies, and especially in Rome, daughters did not inherit.  Only sons were heirs to anything, never mind heirs to a kingdom. 

In Christianity, for the very first time, anywhere, all human beings by virtue of being human beings and for no other reason were equal in the sight of a God who had recognized them each and every one as sons who would inherit His kingdom.

To say that this principle did not work out to its logical conclusions right away–and probably hasn’t even now–is to state the obvious.

But here’s the thing about intellectual history.  Ideas, like events, have consequences–but where the consequences of events are often immediate (or close to it), the conseqences of ideas can take centuries to work themselves out. 

And those meanings can also be hotly contested, and the meaning of “equality” is.  But that’s another discussion for another time, and we’ll get to it.

Paul’s declaration of equality had some immediate and secondary consequences, in spite of the fact that the man himself couldn’t seem to wrap his mind about what he’d just said. 

And since, contrary to what many of us think today, “equality” in any universalized sense is a deeply unpopular idea, the history of the Christian Church after around, say, 200, is a history of deepening political and social inequalities–of the Church becoming what the world around it already was.

But the idea of “equality” never entirely went away, and it threw up, over time, a number of heretical sects that did indeed treat men and women as well or (more often) treated all people as equal to priests and denied the necessity of the Church, as an institution, to salvation.

And then came the kicker–October 31, 1517, and the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Because the first and most important thing Protestantism did was to declare that any man or woman could interpret the scrptures on his or her own account, by the use of his faith and his reason.  It was good to have learned men to help in this process, but those men were not better or worse than anybody else in the congregation, and the fact that they were called “pastor” didn’t mean that their interpretation of scripture was better than yours.

This idea took a little time to work itself out, too, but it did–and it”s not an accident that every single one of the successful movements towards Republican government (that is, government as a Republic, not the modern political party) over the next three centuries was Protestant in origin.

The  French Revolution failed for a lot of reasons, but one of them is almost certainly that its leaders were Catholics before they ever became anything else.  They thought of the world in terms of the necessity of an elited and separated priesthood.

Okay, THAT would be a good subject for a post some day.

At any rate, the idea of “equality” as we know it (in fact, BOTH of the ideas of “equality” as we know them) came from St. Paul, and the idea of representative government as we know it came not only out of Protestantism but largely out of Puritanism.  This was, after all, a religious movement that expected congregations to “call” their pastors by…electing them to the office.

And then firing them if they didn’t suit.

Representative democracy as we understand it–political equality as we understand it–exists only in those states that were either founded on Protetantism, or deeply committed to Protestantism, or overwhelmingly influenced by Protestantism. 

These ideas have never existed anywhere else under any other conditions, and have never been spontaneously thrown up by any other culture that we know of. 

And, even today, they remain deeply unpopular ideas. 

If I was the Texas Board of Education, I wouldn’t bother with a textbook that pointed all this out–although it’s true, and since it’s true there’s no reason not to point it out that I can see.

I’d just give the students a copy of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and have them read it.  There’s no question that this was a seminal book for the Founding generation, and it does a very good job of outlining both the Christian roots of the idea of political equality and representative government, and the limitations of any particular set of Christian ideas for those same things.

But then, I come from a tradition where “go to the original sources” is the great rallying cry, so there’s that.

I really need to go get some work done. 

So let me leave everybody with just one very incendiary idea, but an idea which is a fact, whether we like it or not.

Do you know what ELSE exists only in societies that were founded on Protestantism, or deeply committed to Protestantism,  or overwhelmingly influenced by Protestantism?


Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2010 at 7:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Ripples in the Pond

with 7 comments

The real problem that comes with waking up too early is not the tiredness that comes at the end of the day, but the distractedness that starts at the beginning and never stops.  I get my work done, but after that my brain seems to just float over the landscape without being able to settle on anything.

And that’s too bad, because things keep occuring to me that might be interesting to investigate.

One of them is why Dante waited all the way to the Paradiso to do what most of us would have done from the first second we stepped out of the mortal realm–that is, to ask all those questions (how long ago did Adam live?  how long did he live?  what language did he speak?) that human beings really want the answers to, almost more than we want the answers to things like the meaning of life or the nature of eternal hapiness.

Somebody once called fiction “the higher gossip,” and I think people are always doing that, looking for the little details of other people’s lives.

Another of them is the annoying quality of so many spectators–and jurors–in criminal cases, who are convinced that the wife of the perpetrator MUST have known what he was doing or that the defendant was obvious guilty because she “showed no emotion” when the verdict was read.

Am I really the only person who shuts down on surface emotions when I’m under certain kinds of stress?  And do all these people really think that they’d “just know” if their spouse was out killing girls in the park or robbing banks in the neighborhood (that’s a real case)? 

I don’t know, maybe these people think that the average perp spends his off hours telling his wife and family all about his hobbies–but it seems ridiculous to me.  The bank robbery case seems particularly ridiculous, because in that case you had a stockbroker, a nice middle class guy with a nice middle class family, father a police officer, always been on the straight and narrow. Why WOULD his wife assume he was out robbing banks when he wasn’t at home? 

The last thing that gets to me is the Texas Board of Education, but not for the reasons you think.

In case you haven’t heard, the Texas Board of Education recently passed new statewide standards for social studies courses, that including sweeping changes in what i taught.  They wanted Reagan portrayed as a good guy and the free enterprise system portrayed as a good thing, among other things, and they caused a firestorm that lasted a week in the news.

Okay, it was several weeks ago, but still.  People had fits on national television.  The Board pushed a lot of political hot buttons–requiring students to “compare and contrast” the language of the Establishment Clause with court rulings on separation of church and state (I think the Free Exercise clause would have been more to the point), insisting that social studies and history classes should stress the “Judeo-Christian foundations” of the US Founding, and you know, the usual stuff.

But what gets to me is not that they did it, or even that I don’t agree with a lot of it.

What gets to me is–why did it take them so long?

For the past twenty years, I’ve been listening to conservatives complain that education is skewed to the left, that their children are being taught everything from Marxism to hate-America-first in public schools–why haven’t they done anything about it before now?

Hell, why haven’t they done anything about teacher education and the teacher unions? 

You have states across this country where the governor’s office and the state legislature are in Republican control. You have municipalities that are under Republican control.

Why haven’t any of thse entities taken this on before now?  If they don’t like what’s being taught in their public schools, why don’t they change it? 

There’s nothing written in stone that says they have to buy textbooks whose content they don’t like.  There’s nothing written in stone saying they have to buy textbooks from traditional textbook publishers.  There’s a TON of material out there, from traditional book publishing sources (think The Patriots History of the United States) to computer software that would probably be much more to their liking.  Why don’t they install those?

The backbeat of the Republican movement at least since the 1960s is that the leftward tilt they see in such institutions is being installed and enforced by a small elit and that the vast majority of voters are on their side about this stuff.

Well, if so–why HAS it taken them so long, and why is it just Texas that’ doing it?

No, I DON’T approve of most of the new Texas standards.

But it does seem to me that if you’ve got a grievance and a way to resolve it and you don’t, maybe all you really want to do is bitch.

I really am completely addled here.  I’m going to go–I don’t know what I’m going to go do.

I can’t seem to think that far ahead.

Written by janeh

June 21st, 2010 at 6:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Impact Statement

with one comment

This was going to be a very different post. I was calling it something like “The Meaning of Life,” or whatever, and blithering on about what the meaning of “meaning” is.

Bu in order to do it, I went to the website fo the Council for Secular Humanism to see if the link to the new edition of Free Inquiry was up–it isn’t; they’re still showing the last one–and I found this instead:


In case you’re wondering, I’m referring to the long statement beginning “We Need Your Immediate Help,” and it’s a very interesting statement indeed.  There’s also a link to a fact sheet, and that’s interesting, too.

On one level, all this is interesting to me because it would make a pretty good basis for a murder mystery–the mysterious donor with the whacking huge annual gift who prefers to remain anonymous suddenly becoming incommunicado for no reason anybody knows for sure; the apparent forcing out of the Council’s founder.

Yes, a detective story writer could do a lot with that.

But the other reason it’s interesting is the way in which it illuminates just how significant an impact a single person can have on the success of an organization, and of a cause.

I don’t want to exaggerate this.  I don’t really believe that money can buy you anything, that you can make a writer a best seller or get a candidate elected or a referendum passed just because you have the majority of the cash.

There’s certainly a threshhold level, beneath which you just don’t have the resources to get the public’s attention, but after that, if you don’t have something else going for you, you aren’t going to get anywhere.

Kurtz built the Council for Secular Humanism from scratch in the 1960s, and along with it what is now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Centers for Inquirty, two magazines (Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer) and a book publishing company that is one of the most successful small presses in the nation, Prometheus Books.

(Okay, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry used to have the much cooler name of Committe for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP.)

The movement is not a shell.  It brings in better than two million dollars in donations and other money every year.  It has an expanding membership base (although the numbers are really, really small).  It will survive the loss of this donor.

But it does make me think, again, that individuals are enormously important in history. 

And it makes me think about how many really good set ups there are out there for murder mysteries. 

An Addendum:

For what it’s worth, this


is a link to something called the Internet Renaissance Band, a site with Medieval and Renaissance music, and maybe the second or third site I ever found on the Internet. 

It hasn’t been updated in nearly a decade, but it’s still there.  Curtis Clark, whose site it is, teaches something like biology in the California university system, or state university system.  I couldn’t find the bio he used to have up.

But I really love this site.  One Christmas, I just played midi files from it all morning while I cooked.

Written by janeh

June 19th, 2010 at 7:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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