Friday, February 29, 2008

Obssessed with Obsession

Ed Brayton has posted his umpteenth post about gay issues, this one about someone he charges with being obsessed with gay sex. I am presuming the reason he thinks some people are obsessed with gay sex is that they talk so much about it, which, of course, makes you wonder why Ed himself talks so much about it. Is this justification for saying that Ed is obsessed with it himself?

Of course, many of Ed's comments on gay issues are about how people are obsessed with them. Maybe he isn't obsessed with gay sex per se. Maybe he is just obsessed with people who are obsessed with gay sex.

In any case, I'm wondering which glass company built Ed's house.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr.: The superfluous man

Somebody, I think it was G. K. Chesterton, said that a man is never truly successful until he becomes superfluous. If this is the measure of success, then William F. Buckley, Jr. was truly a successful man.

William F. Buckley died today. Buckley was probably the most influential conservative of the 20th century. His influence was made manifest through both his magazine, National Review, which he founded in 1955, and his television program "Firing Line", a nationally syndicated interview program that ran for 23 years. Through his writing and his voice--always curious because of its accent which was impossible to identify but hard to resist--Buckley literally changed the course of modern American politics.

It would be fair to say that, without him, there would have been no Barry Goldwater, no Ronald Reagan, and no modern conservative movement. Oh, and no Rush Limbaugh. Depending on who you are, that will come as a commendation or a critique.

I remember snooping around one day in 1979 in the periodicals section of the University of California at Santa Barbara Library, and coming across a copy of National Review magazine. I opened it and was immediately charmed by the cheeky sense of humor and the iconoclastic attitude toward the liberal establishment that ruled without opposition in those days. I remember taking out the subscription card and sending it in, with what then seemed a good hunk of the meager balance in my bank account at the time (oh, the life of a poor college student!). I proceeded to read every issue--letters and all--for 8 straight years.

It was my education in politics and culture. In those days, it was one of only a small handful of conservative magazines, with a circulation under 10,000--small as magazines go. It addressed not only policy questions but literature and the arts. Its scope put to shame the narrow policy wonkishness of modern conservative literature with its shallow slogans and cultural tunnel vision. It had a samizdat air to it. You felt you were a part of an underground movement. Forget Che Guevara, he was mainstream (still is).

At that time conservatives were in the catacombs--only we were armed.

Buckley made his mark as scourge of a liberalism that had grown fat on taxpayer dollars and intellectually lazy by having gone intellectually unchallenged for so long. It simply didn't know what to make of Buckley, whose quick wit and formidable vocabulary placed him outside of any of the stereotypes liberals had of conservatives.

Buckley once told William Rusher, then the publisher of National Review, that he didn't consider himself all that brilliant: it was the quickness, not the depth of his intellect that had stood him in such good stead in his confrontations with the left. Here, as in so many other things, he was exactly on target.

In his many confrontations with the cultural Philistines he was seldom without a sense of humor, and indeed his amicability with those he crossed swords with could even rankle his friends. Rusher said he once upbraided him because every time he debated John Kenneth Galbraith, the left-wing economist (which he frequently did), the discussion often ended in good natured ribbing. Rusher wanted victories: Buckley wanted converts.

People have forgotten the political world before the 1980's. The media at the time was completely controlled by the left in every respect. Conservative publications were few and far between, talk radio had yet to come of age at all, and conservative commentators in the mainstream media were virtually non-existent--except for Buckley. How "Firing Line" ever got syndicated by PBS is still mystery to me.

A lot of people talk about how communism was the great uniting force for conservatism in those days, and there is something to be said for that. But I think for the most part that the grease that kept the wheels of conservatism going in those days was the revolutionary nature of the movement. Conservatives had a remnant mentality: They had to stick together.

With a few exceptions, such as organizations like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and a handful of others, today's conservative movement has split into factions which don't even necessarily talk to each other any more except when they have to see each other at the local polling place where they are probably still voting for the same candidates.

The economic libertarians have embraced a sort of economic utilitarianism that sacrifices everything else to the bottom line. And religious conservatives have considered their political obligations as ending in few specific social issues beyond which they simply consider it impious to go. But both of these factions share a common malady: they are no longer intellectually serious. There has indeed been what R. Emmett Tyrell (whose American Spectator was another fixture of the old, intellectually vibrant conservatism) called, the "conservative crack-up."

There was a time when Buckley could say (and did) that "all the philosophical action is on the right." It would be hard to say that today.

In its prime, National Review bestrode all these factions and kept them talking to each other--even if it was only to disagree. Conservative intellectuals didn't only debate the left: they debated each other--in the National Review. Today, sniping and backbiting has replaced debate among conservatives, and it happens between conservative institutions and organs of opinion, not within them.

National Review was largely Republican in its party allegiances, but it wasn't, like so many conservative entities today, out merely to get its people elected: it was out to change a culture. And it did.

Buckley was never one to wear his religious beliefs on his sleeve--it didn't fit his blue blood manner to do so. But his favorite episode of "Firing Line" seemed to be his interview with Malcolm Muggeridge on the issue of religious faith. He replayed it again and again to the point of tiresomeness. Muggeridge was a Christian convert, and an articulate one. Muggeridge's intellectual approach to religion obviously appealed to Buckley, and he dubbed him "St. Mug." One hopes that he valued Muggeridge's belief more than his delivery.

In my favorite of all Buckley's many newspaper columns, "Pitcairn Lives," about the descendants of the mutiny on the Bounty, who now inhabit one of the world's most secluded islands, Buckley recounted how a friend of his had wanted to visit Pitcairn Island all his life, and finally did, spending "a rapt couple of days" there. The tourist ships come into the harbor, and the natives rowed out their longboat to visit and sell trinkets:
     On bidding an Islander who had befriended him good-bye, he said: "Maybe I'll see you next year."
     "No," the Islander replied, sadly but fatefully. "People only come to Pitcairn once. Good-bye."
     ...At high-tea time they are all back on board, four generations of Islanders. They spend three happy hours, communicating their cheer. And, after sunset, they board their longboat--80 per cent of Pitcairn's population--and sing out their happy/melancholy farewell songs.
     "In the sweet by and by/In the beautiful land beyond the sky . . ./We shall part never more, when we meet/On the be-yoo-tee-fool shore . . ."
People like Buckley only come once, and then you have to say goodbye.

A Defense of Francis Schaeffer

A well-deserved response to Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who recently wrote a tell-all book about his father and mother, by Schaeffer protege Os Guinness.

The Gardasil debate: It's baaaaack

I was quoted in this recent story about required HPV vaccinations for middle school girls.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Are traditional families really an endangered species?

We've all heard the rhetoric about the traditional family being on the skids. This is the message that often comes from people who are trying to redefine the family and who really don't think that the traditional family (i.e. a family that includes both natural parents) is any better than any other structure in the first place.

Truth to tell, there are serious issues that need to be dealth with, but if you look behind that rhetoric about the decline of the traditional family, what you usually find is that the data are overstating the problem. But here is a little more realistic perspective from Beau Weston, a professor of religious sociology at Centre College, in my hometown of Danville, Kentucky, wherein he points out that 58 percent of children live with married parents:
The latest good news from the Census Bureau finds that a solid majority of kids live with their married parents. Another couple percent live with their unmarried parents -- and a significant hunk of those parents will marry. Being raised by their own married parents is the best situation for kids. That doesn't mean that the other options are terrible, or that all married parents are great. But most kids get the best option. And since most parents want to stay married and raise their kids together, most parents get the best option, too.
You will want to visit his very excellent blog, called The Gruntled Center. I admit the title makes him sound..., I don't know, grumpy or something. But I have found him really quite jolly.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Who is that Masked Philosopher? Is neoDarwinism nihilistic--Part II

The Masked Philosopher over at Vulgar Morality has done it again with another great post on how neoDarwinism rationally undermines morality, and yet goes on making moral judgments anyway. The newest installment discusses another prominent neoDarwinist who has just as much trouble as the others in reconciling his materialist views to his moral positions.

Now we've been having just the nicest discussion in the comments section of my post on the part in this series, and the defenders of the neoDarwinists have been having a hard time understanding the masked philosopher's arguments. Maybe this post will clarify things for them.

Or maybe not.

In any case, I notice Adum Gurri has jumped into the fray here with some salient points about what Vulgar Moralist actually said (as opposed to what his critics on this blog misinterpreted him as saying), and I wanted to point out his own very excellent blog, Sophistpundit, which I just discovered after Googling his name. I'll be putting it (along with a few other things) on my blogroll shortly.

And by the way, this discussion brings to mind the BBC debate between Catholic philosopher Frederick Copleston and atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, a materialist from an earlier era. Here is a sampling of the discussion on morality:
Copleston: ...Yes, but what's your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

Russell: I don't have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that's what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn't been gone into in the same way and I couldn't give it [to] you.

C: Well, let's take the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you'd have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.

R: No, I shouldn't quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. if you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You're making a mistake.

C: Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it's simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.

R: It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler's emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.

C: Granted. But there's no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

R: No more than there is for the color-blind person who's in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn't it because he's in the minority? ...
Russell seems to be a little more honest than some of the neoDarwinists about the shifting sand upon which their moral position is built.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Is NeoDarwinism morally nihilistic?

An excellent post drawing out the logical implications of NeoDarwinism on the concept of morality, with a focus on Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Such criticisms always elicit rabid responses from Darwinists, which alone makes it worth doing.

There is no indication who runs this blog (Vulgar Morality), but it is very much worth visiting.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Debate on CATS test Monday night

I will appear on KET's "Kentucky Tonight" program next Monday night, February 25 at 8:00 p.m. to debate Senate Bill 1, which would scrap the state CATS tests in favor of a standardized norm-referenced system. Sharon Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association (the state teacher's union) will be defending the tests. Two other guests have yet to be determined.

UPDATE: Well, hmmm. I think they replaced me. According to Polwatchers today the guests are Fort Thomas Independent Schools Superintendent John Williamson, Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, House budget chairman Harry Moberly Jr., D-Richmond, and state Education Secretary Helen Mountjoy. But that's okay. Kelly is the best man for the job anyway. He's about as articulate a spokesman for common sense in education as there is. It ought to be good.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Majoring in the Humanities: Maybe it's not so impractical after all

The other day a judge asked me (rhetorically) what I thought the most highly regarded undergraduate degree by law schools was. His answer? Philosophy. I have also seen studies showing that indicate that even in the business world, degrees in the humanities are more highly regarded than the standard business degree.

Here is an interesting take one some of these same issues.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

England is taking us back

This is hysterical: a letter from John Cleese informing us of why England is now taking us back and what we need to do as a result.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What is it about Flannery O'Connor?

I've been reading Flannery O'Connor with a class and am once again reminded of what a startling and profound vision she has of the world--and how it speaks to modern students.

I have a class of high school seniors this year who are all very intelligent students, but most of them are the type who are concerned with getting through the program with A's rather than with viscerally engaging in the material we are reading. So I decided to give them a dose of Flannery. We read "Good Country People," one of my favorites. As soon as we started, they focused like a laser beam--for the first time this year. It was really astounding.

What is it about her that prompts this reaction? I notice two things.

Her impact, I think, first derives from her approach to both life and literature, which is the idea that both are incarnational. Her fiction might correctly be characterized as theological embodiment. There is no abstraction in her writing: it is all gritty, concrete, sometimes obscene reality. And although there is no preaching in her writing, all her writings are embodied sermons. She understood, with Aristotle and St. Thomas, that you get to the abstract through the concrete, not vice-versa. Compared to the characters encountered in O'Connor, the characters of most other authors are as ghosts, and the events mere fantastic dreams.

A reader of Flannery O'Connor encounters persons and things, and all the theological significance comes through them and them alone.

In addition to the concreteness of her writing is the starkness of the characters and the events she relates. I was talking to Wendell Berry about this one time and he said, "Yeah. She hits you with both crutches." Indeed. An O'Connor reader will be fascinated or repelled, but they cannot be indifferent. Her prose does not accomodate the lukewarm.

I could say more, but anything more I could say has been better said by Robert Wilkins in a recent post on his blog.