Saturday, May 31, 2008

New Classical Teacher magazine online

The last edition of The Classical Teacher, of which I am editor, is up on the web:

Joe Knows Latin by Joe Paterno
Penn State’s legendary coach tells what Virgil’s Aeneid has to do with football—and life.

Why Read Homer’s Iliad by Cheryl Lowe
I don’t know any substitute for Latin for training the intellect and sharpening the mind. And I don’t know any substitute for the Iliad for humanizing and civilizing the young.

Harry Potter And the Attack of the Critics by Martin Cothran
Literature is dangerous except when taken in large doses.

Ordering Knowledge to the Child’s Nature by Andrew Campbell

What’s so Great About Great Books? by Martin Cothran
There are some books we set apart from the rest and call “great.”

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Questions to Ask about Poetry

Happened to run across the following questions you can ask about any poem while reading Mark Van Doren's The Noble Voice, and related them to my English students. They're quite good:
  • What is a given poem about?
  • What happens in it?
  • What exists in it?
  • If too little of the world is in it, why is that?
  • If all the world is there, By what miracle has this been done?
  • Is tragedy or comedy at work, and what is the difference between those two, and what the resemblance?
  • Are the facts of life accounted for in the unique way that poetry accounts for them, and is this poem something therefore that any man should read?
  • Does its author know more, not less, than most men know?
Mark Van Doren, The Noble Voice, A Study of Ten Great Poems (Henry Holt & Co., 1946)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eliot Spitzer's State recognizes same sex marriages

Eliot Spitzer's State (I think I may begin referring to New York this way consistently from now on) now recognizes same-sex "marriages" that have been performed in states and countries where they are legal thanks to an executive order from Eliot Spitzer's Successor (otherwise known as "David Paterson").

Eliot Spitzer, of course, wanted to legalize same-sex marriage altogether in New York, a plan that was foiled by Eliot Spitzer's State Senate. Eliot Spitzer's Successor's spokeswoman, Erin Duggan, explained that the new policy was the result of a court ruling from a lower court in Eliot Spitzer's State finding that the state (you know which one) had to recognize such "marriages" performed in other states--a decision which undoubtedly claimed it was just interpreting the law rather than devising new policy (Ever notice how courts say that every time they devise new policy?).

According to, about a dozen other states (in addition to Eliot Spitzer's State) give same sex couples some rights.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One thing you can know that was not arrived at scientifically

Someone at the Philosophy Forum has a thread asking the question, "Is there anything you know that was not arrived at scientifically?" My answer: "How about the fact that I can know anything at all?"

Are children better off in homes with homosexual parents than in a polygamist home?

State authorities have taken children out of polygamist homes at the same time they have placed children in homes with same-sex parents. Are we in Wonderland yet?

Monday, May 26, 2008

How National Geographic mishandled the translation of the "Gospel of Judas"

We've all heard the story: how a "lost gospel" has shown that Judas, far from being the traitor presented in the traditional gospel accounts, was actually doing his job by expediting the crucifixion of Jesus at the behest of Jesus himself. He wasn't, so the new story goes, a bad guy after all.

Here, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the behind the scenes story of how National Geographic may have used legitimate scholars to distort what the "Gospel of Judas" actually said.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Anderson responds on Tolkien vs. Lewis

Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy responds to my comments concerning the relative literary merits of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a discussion which has again flared up due to the new Prince Caspian movie that has just been released.

Anderson takes issue with my characterization of Lewis's Narnia stories as allegories, a position he shares with Lewis himself. "I would strenuously disagree," says Anderson, "with his characterization of the book as an allegory–it is much more significant than that." If you are taking the term 'allegory' in its most literal sense, I suppose Anderson (and Lewis) is right. If you restrict the application of the term to the kind of almost literal allegory you find, for example, in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, then the term obviously cannot be applied to the Narnia books. But I am certainly not using the term in this restricted sense, and I don't think most people who deal with such things do. I also don't know why an allegory would be any less an allegory for being more significant, since it is of the very nature of allegory to signify.

The Narnia books meet every definition of allegory I know. The books may have elements in them that go beyond allegory, but that doesn't affect their general nature as allegory. I agree with the assessment of Doris Myers, who Anderson quotes, that "It is more than allegory; it has all the mysterious resonance of a myth." But to say that the books are more than allegory cannot justify that they are less than allegory--or not allegory at all. If an allegory has mythic elements in it (as Lewis's books certainly do), that is not a reason for concluding that it is not an allegory. Anderson himself says, "there are clearly allegorical elements to the book." Maybe Anderson and I could settle on the term "allegorical myth," as does John Warwick Montgomery.

Anderson also argues that I did not address his point in my response to his comments on Chesterton:
I am afraid Cothran missed my point, which was less about Chesterton’s fiction and more about his Catholicism. I agree with Cothran’s assessment of Chesterton’s writings, many of which I have read and almost all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I raised him only as a counterexample to Longenecker’s argument that Lewis’s didactism stems from his Protestantism. Cothran’s reply does not, as best I can tell, refute the point.
Well, let's roll back the tape here. Anderson was responding to Longenecker's argument that Lewis's imaginary vision was uniquely protestant because of its didacticism. Anderson's response argued that if didacticism was a sign of protestantism, then Chesterton's fiction would have to be accounted protestant because of its didacticism. But Chesterton was Catholic, therefore, the idea that didacticism was a peculiarly protestant trait is mistaken. I was disputing his use of Chesterton here because I don't think Chesterton's fiction is didactic to any significant degree. That is what I was arguing, and it seems to me that it does go to the point Anderson was trying to make.

But I was on my way to another point (about what Chesterton generally shared with Tolkien), and so I think maybe I didn't respond to Anderson's main point as pointedly as I should have. Oh well...

I do think, however, that Longenecker's argument about Lewis's fiction being more didactic than Tolkien's stands, and its assumption that this character of his fiction is peculiarly protestant is a legitimate one. Catholic writers, because of their familiarity with liturgy, simply write in a more incarnational way. I'll can do not better than cite Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy--and Tolkien. One of the few protestant writers I know who do well what these writers do is Wendell Berry. The incarnational literary vision is best explained by William Lynch in his Christ and Apollo.

Anderson also disagrees with my remarks about the greater difficulty identifying with characters native to Narnia than with characters native to Middle Earth:
In short, while Cothran finds the attraction in the difference, I look to the sameness: there is, in fact, a little bit of Caspian, of Tumnus, of Reepicheep in us. Who doesn’t wish to join Reepicheep on his quest to the edge of the world? Who has not longed to go with him, like Caspian, but been held back by duties and obligations?
Well, we may want to "join" Reepacheep, and "go with him," but it is hard to see Reepicheep in us--he is, after all a mouse. Caspian is probably one of the few characters with which we can identify (it helps that he is human). I won't press this point about character identification too hard, other than to say that when you use animal characters you do make such identification harder, and, as I have said elsewhere, I don't think Lewis did nearly as good a job with animal characters as other writers such as Kenneth Grahame or Rudyard Kipling. Kipling, in fact, is a perfect example of a great writer of myth, and the Jungle Book stories one of the great modern mythic writings.

But I need to say that I feel a little uncomfortable being on the anti-Lewis side of arguments such as this one, since I have spent so much time being pro-Lewis elsewhere, particularly when it comes to his nonfiction writing (although, as I have pointed out, I enjoy his fiction too). So I should perhaps cast my spear into the ground here and say that I heartily agree with this statement by Anderson:
Lewis’s is a great thinker precisely because he stands at a crucial moment in history, synthesizing and distilling the greatest thinkers of the Western tradition.

And by the way, Anderson has a great blog which I always enjoy. You ought to visit it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tolkien vs. Lewis: Not the Last Battle

Well the truce between the forces of J. R. R. Tolkien and those of C. S. Lewis--two men who were friends during their lifetime, but whose ideological progeny have it out every time a movie comes out based on one of their works--has been broken again. Once again we are fighting about the relative merits of their literary imagination.

The immediate cause of this most recent skirmish is the release of Prince Caspian, a cinematic retelling of the second of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, and the first shot appears to have been fired by Rev. Dwight Longenecker, at, in a piece that pretty much sums up what I have said about this (only he does it much better). He reminds us once again that Tolkien's vision was deeper and more expansive than Lewis's. Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con adds his amen, a chorus in which I'll join once again.

Tolkien's criticism of Lewis's work did not amount to a literary feud, it was more in the nature of friendly advice. Tolkien had enthusiastically recommended the first two books of Lewis's Space Trilogy to the publisher (one wonders why, since they suffer some of the same faults as Narnia), but he apparently expressed more severe criticism for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. According to Lewis, Tolkien "disliked it intensely."

"I hear you've been reading Jack's children's story," Tolkien told Roger Lancelyn Green. "It really won't do, you know!"

In Carpenter's words,
He disliked works of the imagination that were written hastily, were inconsistent in their details, and were not always totally convincing in their evocation of a 'secondary world' ... Moreover, the story borrowed so indiscriminately from other mythologies and narratives (fauns, nymphs, Father Christmas, talking animals, anything that seemed useful for the plot) that for Tolkien the suspension of disbelief, the entering into a secondary world, was simply impossible.[1]
Longenecker states the case rather well:
In short, Tolkien took myth more seriously. He built his alternative world from the ground up. Beginning with the language of the elves, Tolkien created the race that spoke the language, then conceived and carefully created not only the other races and their languages, but the whole world in which they lived, complete with its geography, history, and comprehensive myth. Tolkien may have been scornful of the rapidity and ease with which Lewis created his stories, but he was so not simply because the works were produced quickly, but because it showed.

Tolkien's real objections to Narnia, however, run deeper. Tolkien disliked allegory, and the Narnia tales were too allegorical for his taste. Lewis protested that they were not an allegory (he had already written an allegory in his Pilgrim's Regress) but an analogy. While it is true that the characters in Narnia do not have a one-to-one allegorical relationship with abstract truths, they do point clearly to greater truths and greater characters in the Christian story. Tolkien objected.

Tolkien disliked allegory so intensely because he felt it was too didactic. It leaves no possibility that any other levels of meaning in the work could exist. Tolkien understood the artist, created in God's image, to be a "sub-creator" -- producing a work of the imagination that functioned best when it followed God's own complex action of creation.

To do this most successfully, a complete alternative world had to be created in which the work of redemption could be played out within its own consistent and logical constraints. It was not enough to create a world with symbolic pointers to Jesus Christ and the cross; that world would have to have a whole history and unique inner dynamic that would incarnate the universal truths in a totally fresh way.
Both men were heavily influenced by George MacDonald, the author of The Princess and the Goblin, but Lewis had other influences, one of which was John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim's Progress, as straightforward an allegory as has been written. In fact, Lewis sometimes seems two parts Bunyan to one part MacDonald.

But the issue of influences is not limited to who influenced the two writers. More importantly it was a matter of how the influences manifested themselves. Although Tolkien certainly had his influences (you can see pretty plainly E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany in his work, on top of that of early English writers such as the Anglo-Saxon authors of Beowulf and Pearl), Lewis's used his influences more consciously than Tolkien. Carpenter plays upon this point liberally in his book:
Indeed one can regard all Lewis's most successful literary work as pastiche. He chose a form from on source, an idea from another; he played at being (in turns) Bunyan, Chesterton, Tolkien, Williams, anybody he liked and admired. He was an impersonator, a mimic, a fine actor; but what lay at the heart of it all? Who was the real C. S. Lewis?[2]
Tolkien was, in short, more original than Lewis. Lewis pasted his world together from others he had at hand, while Tolkien created his own world with materials less recognizable. While Narnia is strange and fantastic, Middle Earth is fantastic too, but in a different way. Middle Earth was there before we knew of it; Narnia is a late discovery. This is why Middle Earth can be lived in, while Narnia can only be visited.

Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy has responded to Longenecker, saying that he unjustly uses Narnia as representative of all of Lewis's fiction. He points to Till We Have Faces as an example of fiction written by Lewis equal to Tolkien's. But ironically, it is the allegorical aspect of Till We Have Faces that is the only really valuable aspect of the book. In fact, it seems to me that it fails the test of a good allegory in a way that the Narnia books themselves do not: that you can enjoy the story quite apart from the allegory. I do think Till We Have Faces does a better job of creating a convincing world, but the story just isn't as compelling as Lewis's children's books.

Anderson doesn't do his case any good either by, I think, misunderstanding G. K. Chesterton. Longenecker argues that Tolkien's vision is innately Catholic in its essential incarnational vision, a point with which Anderson disagrees, and he tries to use Chesterton to make his case:
...[T]he fiction of G.K. Chesterton–no slouch of a Roman Catholic himself–is even more didactic than Lewis’s. At points, his stories serve only as backdrops for his characters’ always amusing and edifying speeches. For Longenecker’s argument to stand, he would have to agree that Chesterton’s imagination was more Protestant than Catholic–a thought, I’m sure, which Chesterton would himself reject, and which would be difficult for any reader of Chesterton to sustain seriously for long.
I don't know which stories Anderson is referring to here. Certainly Chesterton's characters make some interesting speeches, and certainly his fiction has flaws, but you simply cannot look at something like The Man Who Was Thursday (a work written, by the way, when Chesterton was an Anglican) and view it as a backdrop for anything other than Chesterton's own original genius. Chesterton's stories were perfectly suited to Chesterton's vision of the world: a place where mirth and magic underly every ordinary thing.

To say that Chesterton's vision is didactic is sort of like saying that The Divine Comedy is didactic: it's true, but it is so inadequate an assessment as to tell us nothing essential about the work. It also doesn't prove Anderson's point. There is a certain didacticism to Chesterton, but Chesterton, unlike Lewis, isn't trying to create a secondary world. Chesterton doesn't need a secondary world to instruct us about this one. To Chesterton, this world is fantastic enough.

In his Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, by Macdonald's son, Greville MacDonald, Chesterton makes an observation about MacDonald's imaginative vision that speaks directly, not just to the difference between Lewis and Chesterton, but to the difference between Lewis and Tolkien:
...[F]or this is the very important difference between his sort of mystery and mere allegory. The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them pleasant or picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women.[3]
Lewis tries to makes us see our own world by means of a different one; Chesterton makes us see a different world by means of our own. Lewis's thought is replete with Platonisms: he speaks of heaven as being more real than this world. But Chesterton is an Aristotelian, and he would never say this. The real world in Lewis's Narnia books is mundane: it is only Narnia that is fantastic. For Chesterton, the really fantastic thing is this world, "in spite of its defects, such as dragons." Lewis has to create a fantastic world from scratch; for Chesterton, all that is required is to recognize this one for what it is.

In a sense Tolkien's genius is his ability to do both of these things. While being fantastic, Tolkien's world still has a familiarity to it absent in Narnia: that is why it doesn't require a wardrobe to get into Middle Earth. Middle Earth is our own world. I don't think it was an accident that Tolkien chose this particular term, "Middle Earth". You come across the expression frequently in early English literature, and it is never a reference to another world, but always a reference to our own.

Narnia is fantastic because it is different. We may be like Peter, and Lucy, and Susan, and Edmund, but we are not like Prince Caspian, or Mr. Tumnis, or Reepacheep, or the White Witch. The only characters in Narnia with which we can really identify are not from Narnia. Middle Earth, on the other hand, is fantastic because it is familiar. There is a little bit of Frodo in all of us--and Bilbo, for that matter, and Aragorn, and Merry and Pippin.

Why is it that the place constructed from a less original vision should seem so distant, and the place created from the more original vision should seem so familiar?

But we need to be careful here lest we make the perfect the enemy of the good. While Tolkien's world is a more convincing one, the result of a more mature vision, that does not make Narnia any less fantastic in its own right. It is hard to capture the imagination of a child. I have raised four children, and read to all of them. Without exception, they have loved the Narnia books. In fact they see them in a way I have never been able to see them because I read them as an adult. So while we may live in Middle Earth, there is something very delightful, every now and then, about visiting Narnia.

1The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter, p. 223.
2Carpenter, p. 244.
3G. K. Chesterton, "Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife," by Granville MacDonald.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Science Fiction Writer Orson Scott Card on Intelligent Design

This piece by Orson Scott Card on Intelligent Design is a mixed bag, and some of what he has to say would get shot down by both sides were he to air it in a debate forum, but he has a few interesting things to say.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

California Supreme Court redefines marriage

The California Supreme Court today redefined marriage.

Do Kentuckians still want casinos?

I am quoted in today's Lexington Herald-Leader story about Kentuckians' views on casinos remaining unchanged over the course of the legislative session. One thing I told Janet Patton, who wrote the story, and which she didn't include in the story, is that, while most Kentuckians want to vote on the issue, the fact is they would want to vote on any issue you asked them about. I bet if you asked them whether they would like to vote on what kind of china was used at state dinners, they would say they would want to vote on it.

The reason for this, of course, is that most Kentuckians do not understand that we do not, like many other states, have a ballot referendum process. We have a mechanism for amending the Constitution, which happens to include ballot ratification.

Yuval Levin responds to Stephen Pinker on "dignity"

Yuval Levin, former executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, responds at National Review Online to Stephen Pinker's article in the New Republic on "dignity".

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stephen Pinker questions Dignity in the New Republic

Stephen Pinker attacks the President's Council on Bioethics in a new article in the New Republic. He criticizes the idea of "dignity," propounded by the Coucil, as a "squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it." In its stead, he proposes a reliance on "personal autonomy," the firmness and objectivity of which he never actually defends in the article.

It's getting a lot of attention and criticism. More on it later.

Monday, May 12, 2008

They shoot horses don't they (in Kentucky)?

I suppose Kentucky is like every other state: it isn't really one state, but several. Many people think of Kentucky primarily in terms of the Appalachian region, but then there is the Kentucky Derby, an event that casts a short of genteel glow over the state's reputation. In fact, it is hard to describe the horse culture that one sees on prominent display at the Derby to those who don't know the state.

I have lived close to Lexington and worked there, and sometimes the horse culture doesn't seem so prominent. But if you look out of your window as you take off from Bluegrass Field you all of a sudden broad expanse of horse farms that surround the city for miles and miles. It is times like these that you see just how significant it is. But you don't have to be airborne to appreciate the horse culture. It is a fabulous relic of the past that still survives, and you can still get a taste of it if you go the right places at the right time of year (the Derby Breakfast, Brereton Jones picnic in late summer).

Sometimes these two cultures--the Bluegrass horse culture and the mountain culture--don't see things eye to eye, as can be seen in Larry Webster's recent column in the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington is the hub of the state's horse culture.

Webster too is a relic, and fabulous in his own way. He is a mountain attorney, and a regular writer for the Lexington paper. Webster has been called a humorist, but he is really a wit. Wit, said Chesterton, "is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it." If you watched the Derby, you saw the horsey set. Read Webster's piece and see another Kentucky.

In two recent horse events, the Rolex 3-Day Event and the Kentucky Derby, horses had to be euthenized because of disabling injuries. Here is Webster's view of things in "Killing horses is illegal for poor, sport for rich".

He makes a good point. And, to expand on it, if it is bad to sell horses for horsemeat (at least feeding people serves a useful purpose), then why is it okay to sacrifice them at the altar of public entertainment?

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Educational Romantics strike again

The inimitable Rod Dreher somehow got a sneak peak at a June Atlantic Monthly article that brings down another blow on the educational romanticism that infects our culture. The article, apparently written by a professor at a small college where kids who don't really belong in college go, argues that college isn't for everyone.

But try saying this in a room of "education professionals" (as I have), and you get a look that is somewhat akin to that on the face of Dracula when confronted with a cross.

Why do people believe this? It goes back, once again, to the false notion that "all children can learn at high levels"--and the idea that once our elementary and secondary public schools have failed to educate them over 12 years, we should send them on to college anyway. As the article reportedly points out, these kids would be far better served at a technical school where they could learn a trade. In fact, secondary schools need to be doing this too, but their educational romanticism prevents them from doing it.

Somehow we've gotten the idea that blue collar work is demeaning. Well, not only is it not demeaning, but in many cases is more lucrative than white collar work. I realize this every time I have to call a plumber--or an electrician. As a state senator friend of mine put it recently, "Have you tried to hire someone to drywall lately? But they don't tell this to high school kids who really don't want to go to college and who could be benefiting from trade courses and apprenticeships.

I don't know what the studies say, but you don't need a study to know things that are staring you in the face. A friend of mine is heavily involved in the Association of Builders and Contractors in our state. He says their national organization has a complete trade curriculum that they will come into a school and implement--for free. There are a few public schools who take advantage of it, he says, but most are not interested.

This attitude has filtered down to kids themselves. There is now only one locksmith in our tri-county area after the recent death of the other one. He told me recently that he has too much work to handle but is more than well paid. He has tried, he said, to find a young person to hire so he could train him in the profession. "They could make a great living, be their own boss," he says. "They could take over my business when I retire in a few years, but I can't find anyone who is interested. They all think they've got to go to college to get a job."

I can't say it with certainty, but I bet this is going on all over the country.

The educational romantics think you are cheating kids if you don't buy in their ideology, when, in fact, it is the other way around.

Why I believe God exists

An anonymous commenter on a previous post asks the following:
You say that there are good arguments for theism, and you list those who you think made good arguments. For the sake of those of us who haven't read these people, why don't you give us what you see as the strongest argument for theism.
What I said was that there are rational arguments for theism, and I said this because a poster had said there weren't. Some of these (and I didn't say this before, but I'll say it now) I not only find rational, but convincing. And to say that they are the product of a mind akin to "a five year old," as the person I was responding to claimed, is simply ludicrous.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers his "five ways," all of which I think are sound, but the third seems to me the most convincing:
We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence — which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 2, Article 3)
The soundness of such an argument certainly shows theism is rational, although just because something is rational doesn't mean it is persuasive to them. I find it persuasive, and others don't. But I think few people come to a belief in theism as a result of going through some reasoning process. I don't think people reject theism because it is irrational, and on the other hand, I don't think they accept it because it is rational.

I believe it because it makes more sense of things than any other view of the world. Or do I?

I can't prove it, but I think most people know God exists intuitively, and only abandon the belief because it gets in the way of other priorities. In the final analysis, if you ask me how I am persuaded God exists, I can only sort of stare blankly at you and say: "Love, the law of non-contradiction, sunsets, the Fibonacci Sequence, horses, the Sistine Chapel, something funny my son said this morning, poetry, Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor, the taste of chocolate, Flannery O'Connor's short stories, seeing my first son being born, Godel's Theorem, charity, a sunny day at the beach ..."

In other words, in the final analysis, I just think the existence of God is intuitive. But I don't know that you can really argue that point. It happens all the time that people look at the very same thing and yet see two completely different things. If you don't think it's intuitive, I think you're mistaken. You either see it or you don't.

Jesus didn't say the Pharisees were irrational; He said they were blind.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Embarrassment in House

Brett Hall has a good commentary today on Rob Wilkey's parting shots at his fellow Kentucky House leaders after he announced he was leaving the legislature. Wilkey (D-Scottsville) expressed disappointment and embarrassment at how House leadership as a whole had performed during the last session. He also observed that a few House leaders (read: Jody Richards) had tried to embarrass Gov. Steve Beshear.
I thought we didn't serve anyone very well . . . I also thought there was a conscious effort to embarrass the governor during this session. It worked.
Yeah. It worked alright. You'd be embarrassed too if it was publicly known that you were in the same party as the people running the House.

Charles Murray on a modern education heresy

I've always said that a couple years in teacher's college is as good as a lobotomy, and the woolly-headed thinking about human nature that gets propagated there is the major cause of our education woes.

One of the unquestioned dogmas that gets passed on to each successive generation of teachers is that "every child can learn at high levels". This was one of the mantras of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, one of the most sweeping education measures ever approved by a state. And in the early 1990s, it was considered heretical to question it. All children are equal, and all have equal natural capabilities.

Charles Murray is the perfect person to address this issue, as he does in this article, with his background in dealing with the issue of nature and nurture, a debate the fire of which he threw a great deal of gasoline on in the late 1990s in his book The Bell Curve. Murray just reported the data, and the liberal media proceeded to do two things: either scream bloody murder, or stick their collective heads in teh sand.

What made the news was the very brief section in the book about intelligence and race, a rather unremarkable part of the book anyway. The real point of the book was to report what the evidence tells us about how both nature and nurture affect who we are and what we become. Murray and Herndon, the co-author, delivered the common sense conclusion that nature determined from 40-60 percent of what we become intellectually, and nurture the rest.

In this essay, Murray asks why it is that the education establishment just simply ignores this fact. I'll have more to say about it in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Michigan Supreme Court strikes down domestic partner benefits policies

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision today that local government and state universities can't offer benefits to gay partners. Local governments and universities quickly tried to rewrite their policies to comply with the decision--but to accomplish the same purpose.

The decision could have ramifications for other states such as Kentucky, whose Constitutional language is similar to Michigan's.

Opponents of ID take the bait on voodoo film criticism

Well the critics of "Expelled" have taken the bait: they are defending the idea that you can review a movie without seeing it. Here is one commenter, Dan, on why he supports voodoo film criticism:
You don't actually have to see a movie to know that it's ****.

... Nobody who is intelligent needs to see it. Just listen to Ben Stein. Just read reputable people who have seen it. Just learn about the history of the movie (i.e., the lies they told to their interviewees).

It's not rocket science. It's not science at all.
And what does this guy know about rocket science, anyway? I know something about it. I mean I haven't actually dealt directly with rockets or been at any launches or taken a degree in it or anything like that. But my father is an actual rocket scientist and I've listened to my father talk about it for years. I've even read some things he's written (and he is very reputable). I've also read some things about the history of rocket science. And you know what that means, don't you? It means I know rocket science too. So this guy needs to just shut up about rocket science because he doesn't know anything about it.

Like I do.

Then there's good ol' Frame:
If you're going to talk about integrity, you should stop defending ID right now because this movement is run by an organization of people who believe that the ends justify the means.
Ends justifying means? You mean like saying its okay not to actually see movies you are critiquing simply because it serves your purposes in wanting the movie to look bad?

I love it when defenders of the empirical method defend anti-empirical methods to pursue their purposes.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Review of "Expelled" by author who didn't see the movie touted at more anti-ID blogs

Looks like the intellectual standards over at places like and Panda's Thumb are deteriorating pretty rapidly. It seems they hold John Derbyshire's review of "Expelled," wherin Derbyshire admits he didn't actually see the movie before reviewing it, in some esteem. They join other anti-ID outfits such as Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars in commending Derbyshire's voodoo film criticism to their readers.

Oh well, I'm sure the pretense of intellectual integrity was enjoyable while it lasted.

David Berlinski's response to John Derbyshire on "Expelled"

Here is David Berlinski's response to John Derbyshire's silly "review" of "Expelled" at National Review Online.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Wrong Answer: Is this more Darwinist hyperbole?

L. Ron Brown at "The Frame Problem" responds to my recent pop quiz asking which comment was stupider, one by Ben Stein seemingly laying the blame for certain atrocities on "science" in the course of the chatter on Glen Beck's show or Richard Dawkins' carefully crafted comment that being raised Catholic might be as bad as being sexually abused by a priest.

Brown has picked Stein over Dawkins'. Yeah, I know. Big surprise.

Not only will I have to mark him wrong on the answer, but he wrote all these wild-eyed comments on the back of the test for which I will have to take away additional points. In my class, that's a big no no.

In one of these remarks, he makes the following statement:
There absolutely is good reason to suggest that raising a child Catholic (or of any other faith) can produce lasting negative consequences:

1. You are indoctrinating them into a belief system that after thousands of years still cannot be defended rationally. By indoctrinating them early on, one impedes their later ability to think honestly about the validity of the beliefs. [emphasis added]
Well, let's not be hasty here and conclude that a comment like this is not exactly evidence of a great deal of rational activity going on among critics of religion. Maybe we should first investigate exactly what he means here. Let's just put what I think he is saying in its baldest form:
Religious belief cannot be defended rationally.
Now what does he mean? Does he mean that in the last couple of thousands of years, there has never been a rational case made for religious belief? That, of course, is a historical claim that is demonstrably false. There have been plenty of arguments made for religious belief, and arguments, in case he didn't notice, are rational procedures. And then there is the fact that if the have been defended rationally, then, of course, they can be defended rationally.

Does he mean that the arguments made in favor of religious belief are not valid? Not a single, solitary one of them? There has never been an argument made in favor of religion over the last 2,000 years in which the conclusion followed as a valid deductive inference from the premises?

Maybe he would care to enlighten us on exactly what he means here. That might help dispel the impression that what we have on our hands here is more hyperbole from the Darwinists.

Pop Quiz: Which remark is more stupid? Stein's or Dawkins'?

L. Ron Brown at "The Frame Problem" takes Ben Stein to task for making careless remarks about science on the Glenn Beck show. Of course Brown employs the usual array of hyperbolic terms favored by Darwinists in such cases to describe Stein's remarks, in which he seems to blame "science" for historical atrocities. Were Stein's remarks careless? Sure they were. Shame on him. Were they examples of "Ignorance, deceit, and stupidity"? I don't think so.

I've been on plenty of television and radio interviews and I don't know if there is single one I didn't walk out of thinking, "I shouldn't have said it that way." But for every instance of hyperbole, there seems to be an equal and opposite incidence of hyperbole, and that is what we are getting from the Darwinists.

But let's face it, Stein's remarks were careless. Bad boy! An afternoon's detention I say.

But let's just remind the hyperreactive critics of Intelligent Design about their own record of stupid remarks made, not in the midst of a television interviews in which there is no editing option, statements made in carefully written statements in which they did have plenty of opportunity to make sure it said exactly what they wanted it to say.

Of this species of remark, my personal favorite is this one, by Richard Dawkins:
Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.
If Stein's remarks deserve afternoon detention, Dawkins gets a week's suspension.

Friday, May 02, 2008

John Derbyshire on "Expelled," or How to Review a Movie without Really Trying

I have always admired G. K. Chesterton's dictum that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, but I never appreciated the full scope of its application until reading John Derbyshire's recent review of Ben Stein's "Expelled" at National Review Online.

"What on earth has happened to Ben Stein?" asks Derbyshire. "He and I go a long way back." Are the two close? Are they old pals who have been through a lot together? "No," he says, "I've never met the guy." But wait. How can this be? How can Derbyshire have forged this bond of friendship with Stein without actually knowing him?

"Though I've never met him," he explains, "I know people who know him, and they all speak well of him."

Got it.

In fact, Derbyshire displays an amazing ability, far beyond that of the rest of us, to engage with people and things even though he has had no direct contact with them. Take "Expelled" for example. "So what's going on here with this stupid "Expelled" movie?" he asks--a question which could have been answered by the simple expedient of actually watching it. A man with Derbyshire's special talent, however, is not hampered by such constraints:
No, I haven't seen the dang thing. I've been reading about it steadily for weeks now though, both pro ... and con, and I can't believe it would yield up many surprises on an actual viewing.
That's right: Derbyshire reviews "Expelled" without actually having seen it! This is a man who has friends he has never met, and who can review movies he has never seen. It is perhaps fortuitous that Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, recently passed from among us: this is a talent I am not sure he would have fully appreciated.

This ability to judge a movie without having to suffer the indignity of actually watching it surely sets Derbyshire apart. Who else could accomplish the task with so few tools: a little hearsay, a few second hand reports--and perhaps a Ouija board. This is a critical skill at which the rest of us can only marvel.

Most film critics attend screenings: Derbyshire conducts a séance.

And what does Derbyshire think of "Expelled" after not having seen it? Very little, it seems. "It's pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance..." One would think, given Derbyshire's method of reviewing movies, that he would have a greater appreciation for ignorance and the uses to which it can be put.

But with his judgment in the can, Derbyshire, like his friend Stein in the movie itself, goes hunting for answers. And what does he find? How could Stein have participated in such an unseemly project? "The first thing that came to mind," he offers, "was Saudi money."

That's right. Saudi money.

Now I will confess that the oil-rich Saudis are not high on my list of people in whose interest it is to explain the dinosaurs away. But as unlikely as this thesis may sound, we must remember with whom we are dealing here, and how far his apparently occult powers of perception seem to extend. Derbyshire may indeed have never met a Saudi, or even been to their country, in which case, who could contend with his knowledge on the subject?

Derbyshire himself has to finally abandon this explanation. "For one thing, Stein is Jewish." There you go. "For another, he is rich, and doesn't need the money." Too true. And then there is Stein's character, which Derbyshire testifies to on the basis of the long and intimate association that he has not had with Stein: "No," he concludes, "Ben Stein is no crook."

The kind of long, painful process Derbyshire goes through to conclude that Stein is not, in fact, motivated by men wearing white robes (No, not those. We don't need to suggest that theory, since it might involve another long thought process and derail Derbyshire from his greater purpose) is one he might well have chosen instead to apply to the merits of the movie itself.

But why bother?

One of the beauties of Derbyshire's sibylline method of reviewing movies is that it places the reviewer at a safe distance from the actual film itself, allowing the critic to say things about the film that are unconstrained by what is actually in it. The downside, of course, is that the reviewer may get it all wrong and look like a complete idiot. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to place him in this latter category, largely because we have actually read his review, placing us perhaps too close to the subject for proper judgment.

But if one were looking for weaknesses in Derbyshire's review, they would point to things like his criticism of the quality of the graphics in the movie, which were actually quite good (though probably not as impressive when, as in Derbyshire's case, you don't actually see them), and to his uncritical acceptance of virtually every hostile allegation made against the production of the film.

But these indiscretions are tolerable compared with the alternative. The best defense of Derbyshire's critical approach of not directly exposing himself to the things he criticizes is to point out what happens when he does.

Although Derbyshire turns his nose up at actually seeing the movies he reviews, he is willing to get his hands dirty when it comes to creationists themselves. And indeed we have to admire Derbyshire's noble effort to actually get to know these people. It is admirable that he would lower himself to do this given the distasteful nature of the whole business:
Individual creationists can be very nice people, though they get nicer the further away they are from the full-time core enterprise of modern creationism at the Discovery Institute. The enterprise as a whole, however, really doesn’t smell good. You notice this when you’re around it a lot.
So even though Derbyshire has largely forsaken the direct application of his senses as a basis for making judgments, at least he has not lost all of them. He can "smell" these creationists, and, if they are not too densely congregated, he can even tolerate the odor. It is a measure of his commitment to the truth that, despite the offense to his olfactory sense, he is still willing to pursue it no matter into what unpleasant situations it might lead him.

One can imagine him, conducting his research at a local Baptist church social, reaching out to shake with his right hand, while holding a handkerchief to his nose with his left. For a man concerned with the very fate of Western civilization, it is a sacrifice he is willing to make.

Yes, Western civilization: This is what Derbyshire feels is at stake in the debate over Intelligent Design, and it is "creationists" who threaten it. And who are these creationists? They are "shifty," dishonest, nasty, and (I hesitate to repeat the term in the context of a Derbyshire film review) uninformed. They even have "bad manners."

Apparently, they weren't observing proper table etiquette at that Baptist social.

And to what can we attribute these moral shortcomings? Again, Derbyshire has a hypothesis. But, unlike the Saudi Theory of Why Ben Stein Supports Creationism, this one somehow makes it through Derbyshire's rigorous verification process: "My own theory is that the creationists have been morally corrupted by the constant effort of pretending not to be what they are."

His proof for this theory? The fact that many Intelligent Design advocates deny they are creationists. Now one explanation of why these people might deny they are creationists is the fact that they actually aren't. But this doesn't fool Derbyshire. No, sir. They are, he says,
a handful of eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories, and [who] set about presenting themselves to the public as “alternative science" engaged in a “controversy” with a closed-minded, reactionary “science establishment” fearful of new ideas.
Derbyshire does not offer any actual proof for this. In fact, he doesn't even give examples of the misrepresentations he says characterize the movie. "The misrepresentations in Expelled are far too numerous for me to list here, and the task is unnecessary since others have done it." After all, he didn't bother to watch the movie before reviewing it, so why should he offer actual proof of what is wrong with it?
Western civilization has many glories. There are the legacies of the ancients, in literature and thought. There are the late-medieval cathedrals, those huge miracles of stone, statuary, and spiritual devotion. There is painting, music, the orderly cityscapes of Renaissance Italy, the peaceful, self-governed townships of old New England and the Frontier, the steel marvels of the early industrial revolution, our parliaments and courts of law, our great universities with their spirit of restless inquiry.
It is on behalf of these testaments to greatness (and, oh, did he forget to mention good manners?) that Derbyshire charges Intelligent Design with "blood libel on Western Civilization." After all, would these achievements even have been attempted if it hadn't been for Darwin? Would the painting, and music, and architecture of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries have even been possible without the concept of Natural Selection? Is there any great building in Rome or Florence or Vienna that does not know owe its very existence to ...

Oh, wait.

Darwin didn't come along until the 19th century, did he? In fact, almost all of the things in Derbyshire's list of great Western achievements were accomplished by men who believed that this world was ... the product of design.

But what about science? We can't say that science isn't in danger from these dishonest, shifty, unmannerly people, can we?
And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone.
Of course, at least Stein has actually seen the world, which is more, Stein might respond, than Derbyshire has done with his movie. In fact, that a man whose preferred means of critiquing movies is akin to looking into a crystal ball would venture to criticize anyone for being unscientific is an irony perhaps too obvious for a mind as esoteric as Derbyshire's to notice.

Well, okay, but how about Rudyard Kipling, whom Derbyshire quotes as an example of someone who courageously manned the battlements in the defense of the West, and whose name he invokes as a model of how we too should stand in the fight against the barbarians, who now go under the name "creationists"?

Kipling? The author of the Just So Stories, in which the peculiarities of various animals are explained in mythological terms ("How the Camel Got his Hump," "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin," "How the Leopard Got His Spots")? That Kipling? Well, okay, he's not exactly the paragon of science, but I'm hip with that.
For shame, Ben Stein, for shame. Stand up for your civilization, man! and all its glories. The barbarians are at the gate, as they always have been. Come man the defenses with us, leaving the liars and fools to their lies and folly.
Trouble is, if it is Kipling's cause in which Derbyshire wants Ben Stein to join him, it is Derbyshire, not Stein who will have to rethink his position in order to do so.

I just want to see the look on Derbyshire's face when, after Stein has joined him on the battlements and they are singing their rousing war songs, they get to this particular stanza:

God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

("Recessional," by Rudyard Kipling)

Oh, and we should probably point out that the deity referred to here is not Darwin.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Derbyshire Challenge: Is there a creativity crisis among Darwinists?

I will have to reiterate the rule about comments on my previous post about John Derbyshire's review of "Expelled" in National Review: You cannot have read the post if you want to comment. Your comments must be based on second hand information and hearsay--just like Derbyshire's review of "Expelled". I had to reject a post today that wanted me to know how "batsh*t crazy" I was.

This may very well be true, but the anonymous author admitted that he had, in fact, read the post. So into the ether it went.

Tsk, tsk.

Only one comment has met my challenge, betraying a clear indication that the author had not read the post. I'm disappointed by the lack of creativity on the part of all the ID critics who frequent this blog. Surely you can match Derbyshire's inventiveness in being able to write a confident sounding opinion of something you did not actually read or see.

I have not, however, given up hope...