Sunday, August 29, 2010

Two Books

Two important books I am reading. One is Christopher Wolfe's Natural Law Liberalism. Wolfe argues against Rawlsian liberalism, the prevailing form of intellectual contemporary liberalism that draws primarily on Rawls's theory of justice.

Wolfe analyzes the inadequacies of Rawls's theory and argues that liberalism "has to be freed of its insensitivity to the fact of the deep influence of the 'regime'--including liberal democratic political communities--on the formation of people's ideals and character: their thoughts, desires, attitudes." The "tendency of toleration to evolve into forms of skepticism and relativism (at least about the human good) and principled religious indifferentism, and the tendency of equality and freedom to evolve into an egoistic individualism that undermines the family and commitment to human goods beyond consumeristic well-being" (p.4)--all this has to be jettisoned.

Moderated in this way so that when it shapes citizens, as it must, "it does so in ways that are more fully compatible with important intellectual and moral goods: with reason and faith, and with the moral virtues that regulate the passions and promote individual and social well-being" (p.4). For its part,
Natural law, without disturbing its convictions that there is a truth, that human beings can know it, and that their well-being lies in finding and and living in accord with it, has to be so formulated to recognize, in ways that its historical representatives have sometimes failed to do, the intrinsic importance--the necessity--of human freedom and the limits of coercion and law.

Freed from their excesses and formulated correctly, Wolfe suggests, both natural law and liberalism, despite their historical antagonism, can reinforce each other's strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

The other book continues William Brennan's important work of exposing and dissecting the language games we play, the euphemisms, medical metaphors, and the like used to dehumanize the most vulnerable and desensitize us to the inhumane and oppressive way they are treated. In his earlier book Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, Brennan, professor in the School of Social Service at St. Louis University, examines the way language has been abd is used to justify horrendous treatment of women, Jews, Blacks, and unborn babies. His latest book, examines the same phenomenon through the lens of Pope John Paul the Great's teaching about the culture of life. John Paul, as Brennan describes, persistently and brilliantly showed how the distorting semantics of the culture of death dehumanizes those for whose killing--through abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, and assisted suicide--it apologizes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Of Mercator and Me

The last two posts were from an Australian site called MercatorNet that describes itself as neither liberal nor conservative, but "dignitarian." I have no connection with its authors but find myself in agreement with every word of its statement of ideals. Here it is:

our ideals

This is what MercatorNet stands for: reframing ethical and policy debates in terms of human dignity, not dollars and cents or political calculation. We place the person at the centre of media debates about popular culture, the family, sexuality, bioethics, religion and law. MercatorNet isn't liberal. It isn't conservative. We don't want to be trapped on one or the other side of the culture wars. If you want a label, try "dignitarian".

How do we define human persons? They are men and women (that's right, nothing in between) who have an intellect to know the truth and a free will. Their bodies express their spirit in a way that makes them unique in the universe. They are not machines, animals, or cost centres, but beings with a transcendent value. They need loving families to flourish. They only thrive in a society whose laws recognise their dignity.

What about God? We believe in God (the editor is a Catholic), but defending human dignity is a task for people of every religion and of none. "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world!" -- that's Shakespeare, not the Bible. Religion adds clarity and conviction to the task of defending human dignity. But the arguments advanced in MercatorNet are based on universally accepted moral principles, common sense and evidence, not faith.

We oppose moral relativism, scientism, crass commercialism, utilitarianism, and materialism -- in short, any ism which reduces persons to ciphers and treats them as soulless machines. We delight in dissecting media cliches. We respond with logic and evidence. We do our best to be civil and courteous.

These are MercatorNet's principles. We apply them with flair and a sense of humour. If you like the package, sign up for our regular updates so that you won't miss out on the fun.

Retrieved August 20, 2010 from

The Club of Ancient Wrongs: The Mosque Near Ground Zero

Another thoughtful essay from the excellent Australian-based blog devoted to human dignity in the face of the many threats to it, MercatorNet

Michael Cook | Friday, 20 August 2010

Welcome to the Club of Ancient Wrongs
The mosque in Manhattan should be moved further away from Ground Zero, but not because of enmity toward Islam.

With one war in Afghanistan, another in Iraq, a possible war with Iran, and an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it seems bizarre that the biggest political issue in the US is whether to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the former site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan.

Muslims overseas are puzzled. “The mosque is not an issue for Muslims,” says Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, a leading Arab journalist based in Dubai, “and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

First of all, some facts.

Only part of the US$100 million Cordoba Initiative is a mosque which will accommodate about 1,000 for Friday prayers. The rest of it is a community centre with a library, gym, auditorium, restaurant, 9/11 memorial and so on. Second, it is not a “Ground Zero Mosque”. It is a full two blocks away from the place where more than 2,700 people died.

Third, it is not a gathering place for radical Muslims. The Kuwaiti-American imam organising the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, may have sent mixed messages, but he claims to be promoting dialogue between Americans and Muslims. He has even written a book titled, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America. Since we have George W. Bush’s word for it that Islam is “a religion of peace”, at least New Yorkers should believe in Mr Rauf’s good intentions.

There are two strands in the commentary defending the proposed Islamic centre.

The first is that Muslims have a right, like other Americans, to build places of worship wherever they like. In the words of President Obama, "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country." Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a prominent Jewish leader, says: “it is not only the constitutional right of the peace-committed Muslims of the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center in Lower Manhattan, but they are ethically right and profoundly wise to lift there a beacon.”

The other is that “Demonization of the Muslim religion is what this brouhaha is all about.” It is “as irrational an act of scapegoating as blaming all ethnic Germans for the acts of Nazis,” in the words of one left-wing pundit, Robert Scheer. Even the usually sensible Economist says that “The campaign against the proposed Cordoba centre in New York is unjust and dangerous.”

But the right to free commercial activity and the right to freedom from discrimination and vilification are very blunt instruments for dealing with a “sacred site”. His opponents may be using the controversy as a way to weaken President Obama (when 20 percent of Americans think he is a Muslim) but the source of the opposition is more an inarticulate sense of sacredness than bigotry.

If New Yorkers were really that prejudiced, why is the current Islamic centre in downtown Manhattan located ten blocks away in the basement of a Catholic Church?

Today, in most Western countries, the concept of reverence for the sacred is often dismissed or ridiculed or simply viewed with perplexity. But even a secularised sense of the sacred is a tenuous link to transcendence and an important element in forging a personal and national identity.

To take a non-political example, would Walmart ever build a mall and parking lot in Yellowstone? Will California ever sell off Redwood National Park to timber companies to balance its budget? Such proposals somehow violate places revered for their awe-inspiring beauty. Or if Mr Rauf somehow managed to shift his centre to the battlefield of Gettysburg, would the ensuing protests be due to hatred of Islam or to outrage at the violation of this hallowed ground?

And for Americans Ground Zero has been hallowed by senseless deaths, heroic sacrifice, national humiliation and an outpouring of grief.

It is hard to find words to explain why a plot of ground should be revered for memories like these. That is what poets are for. But part of being human is to be connected to places and spaces and memories. Analysing the conflict in terms of constitutional rights is utterly inadequate. Something more ancient is at work which disappears in sterile political battles over rights.

It is not pandering to prejudice to recognise that America, like other societies with a long and deep history, now has its own taboos which ought to be respected even if they are legally indefensible.

A Pakistani professor Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC, Akbar Ahmed, understands this. A former ambassador to the US, he has a deep knowledge of both cultures.
"I don't think the Muslim leadership has fully appreciated the impact of 9/11 on America,” he says. “They assume Americans have forgotten 9/11 and even, in a profound way, forgiven 9/11, and that has not happened. The wounds remain largely open. And when wounds are raw, an episode like constructing a house of worship – even one protected by the Constitution, protected by law - becomes like salt in the wounds."

Protectiveness and anger are typical of disputes over sacred sites in the Old World. Perhaps the passions in this controversy mean that America is growing up, or at least growing older. What could be more characteristic of an Old World society than fights over sacred sites?

In newer countries like Australia passions seldom run so high. I used to live in Tasmania where the indigenous people, the Tasmanian Aboriginals, had lived in complete isolation for perhaps 15,000 years. Within two generations after contact with Europeans they had all perished. It is one of the darkest chapters of Australian history, even of world history. Yet there is no fitting memorial to them, just a few wretched plaques and a hiking track named after Truganini, the last of her people.

Ancient cultures have deep feelings. Why is Jerusalem the world’s most volatile city? Because Christians, Jews and Muslims would all die to defend their sacred places. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992 by a mob of 150,000 Hindus who believed that it had been built over the birthplace of their god Rama. Serbia fought a war rather than grant independence to Kosovo partly because the Field of Blackbirds, north of the capital Pristina, is hallowed ground where the Serbs made their last stand against the Ottoman Turks in 1389.

It is easy for unscrupulous politicians to exploit sacred sites for their own political gain, as Slobodan Milosevic did in Kosovo to rally Serbs against separatists, and perhaps Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are doing now. But that doesn’t mean that ordinary Americans’ attachment to a sacred site should be dismissed as redneck prejudice. It’s more like the anger and exasperation you might feel if an intruding stranger made a scene at your mother’s wake.

And, to draw on the Australian experience, a sacred site can draw Western and Muslim cultures together. Arguably, Australia’s most sacred site is not on the island continent at all, but in Gallipoli, a Turkish peninsula in the Dardanelles Straits. There in 1915, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders died in a doomed attempt to capture Istanbul. Now it is a place of pilgrimage for both Australians and Turks who remember their forebears’ sacrifice and heroism.

Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and the Turkish commander, later wrote a touching memorial which displays far more magnanimity and sensitivity than anything uttered by American politicians in the past few weeks:

“You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
Retrieved August 19, 2010 from
This article by Michael Cook was originally published on under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit for more.

The World's Most Dangerous Idea?

Carolyn Moynihan | Friday, 20 August 2010

All families are equal

From the halls of academe to the hills of Hollywood the cry of 'family diversity' rings out ever more confidently.

Let’s start with a little warm-up exercise. Here are three people who have made pronouncements on the family: a government advisor on families and parenting; a filmstar; an academic. See if you can correctly match them with the following quotations:

“Twenty-first century American families come in a dazzling array of sizes, shapes, colours, and gender-slash-generational patterns. This reality deserves to be reflected in the literature that children read. Until recently, however, children’s books have privileged a paradigm of homogeneity and heterosexuality.”

“…what is it that defines family? It isn’t necessarily the traditional mother, father, two children and a dog named Spot. Love is love and family is what is around you and who is in your immediate sphere.”

“People are constantly redefining what it means to be a family. What we are seeing is that family shape is changing all the time, the notion of a traditional nuclear family … certainly isn’t the norm now. … What policy-makers must not do is … [try] to reverse the tide of trends by trying to encourage more ‘traditional families’.”

Not very difficult, was it? The new “paradigm” lady is clearly the academic -- Ellen Handler Spitz, Honors College Professor at the University of Maryland. Film star Jennifer Aniston came up with the “what is around you” (including Spot, no doubt) line apropos of her role in the upcoming movie, Switch. And the “what we are seeing” pitch came from the CEO of the UK’s Family and Parenting Institute, Dr Katherine Rake.

From the halls of academe to the hills of Hollywood, from Washington to Westminster and Wellington (the New Zealand seat of government), the cry of “family diversity” rings out ever more confidently and passionately. And the range of family forms grows ever more bizarre. Indeed, if Jennifer Aniston’s idea -- that a family is simply “what” is immediately around you -- takes hold, Spot may soon be named Second Parent in a household where he does more childcare than the absent dad.

Groups of people may call themselves a family if they want to; we are not concerned about private preferences here but about public recognition. When it comes to public support, both moral and material, the family in focus is the one with dependent, minor children. And since children are first and foremost the responsibility of the parents who begot them, the normative family recognised by society should ideally include both parents. This is what we know as the nuclear family.

And it is, by the way, the norm implied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the charter from which our modern sense of human rights and dignity depends. Here is what Article 16 says:

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

The 1948 Declaration sees this “fundamental group unit of society” as built on marriage -- between a man and a woman. And it is no accident that the weight of research up to present moment has shown that children are more likely to flourish materially and spiritually in this type of family than in any other.

Of course, even 70 years ago this “natural” family could present a varied face: a married couple could be childless or have many children; they could adopt a child; any one of the family could die; parents could separate or divorce; a widowed or divorced custodial parent might continue to raise the children alone; or marry again, introducing a step-parent to the children and forming something analogous to the nuclear family. The extended family (grandparents, uncles and aunts and so on) might play a supportive role.

But amidst this diversity no-one seriously contended that all the resulting households were equal -- that is, equally beneficial to the individual members and to society and therefore equally valuable and desirable. Or if they did so contend, their views carried no weight. (I grew up with a widowed mother and knew that our family lacked a vital member.) That breakthrough had to wait another two to three decades, until the sexual revolution had so thoroughly undermined marriage that there seemed to be no other way to assure the welfare of children but to give social support to whichever adult/s they happened to be with -- and to withhold judgement.

Three decades on, we are further down the slippery slope. The idea that a single mother, a “reconstituted family” formed by two divorced people, an unmarried couple with children, and a married couple raising their own children are all morally equivalent (an idea that has gone much further in Britain and north-western Europe than in the United States, for example) has prepared the ground for a new wave of family diversity.

The new model is built on reproductive technology: couples with children conceived with the help of donor eggs and/or sperm and perhaps carried by a surrogate mother; single women with children acquired by donor insemination; same-sex couples with one or more children who might be: a) the offspring of one of them and an ex-spouse; b) the result of gametes from one partner and a donor, or from two donors, and possibly gestated by a surrogate mother; c) adopted or d) fostered.

And here we confront the real and present danger of the whole family diversity trend, because along with it has grown a radical change of focus from the child to the adult/s, from the child’s wellbeing to the adult’s sense of wellbeing. This is the really dramatic “switch” that Hollywood should be putting on the big screen.

An AP story on sperm donor children this week makes this quite clear. Efforts of adult children to find their anonymous parent are being thwarted not only by individual donors but by the industry that uses them. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says it encourages parents of donor-conceived offspring to tell their children the truth about their conception but it is opposed to the banning of anonymous donations.

"The bottom line in the U.S. — we've always been big proponents of individual rights in regard to procreation," said Andrea Braverman, who serves on the ASRM's ethics committee. "We've always taken the approach that we get our own choices in terms of how we build and manage our families."

Someone else from the industry puts it even more bluntly:

"It may not be a popular point of view, but when these decisions are made by donor and a parent, the child doesn't have a say," he said. "If the contract is for it to be anonymous, it should remain anonymous, and the child just has to deal with that."

To translate: “Too bad, kids; it’s an adults’ world. Our desires rule. And if our first priority is our own sense of wellbeing, you will just have to muddle through as best you can. One day you too will get the chance to shop for the child of your choice.”

That is why the idea that all families are equal is the most dangerous ever: it shifts the child from its rightful place at the centre of the family to the fringes, and then to the shelf of reproductive choices. I doubt that there is a better way to destroy the human family than that.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
Retrieved August 19, 2010 from
This article by Carol Moynihan was originally published on under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit for more.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Judge Walker, the Language of Law, and the Dictatorship of Relativism

In this essay, Hadley Arkes, a distinguished professor of jurisprudence and philosopher of natural rights and natural law, shows how Judge Walker’s apparently bizarre and eccentric claim that “Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law,” is an expression of

a trend long in the making, a radical recasting of the language and logic of a “moral” judgment. In the relentless march of “relativism,” good and bad, right and wrong, were translated to mean merely the things we “like” or “dislike,” a matter of personal taste

Walker, in this view, is not just a biased judge who ignores precedent, evidence, and common sense, as Meese argues in the previous post. Judge Walker expresses a subjectivist and relativist view of morality that itself draws on earlier judicial thinking with a large influence in the courts and the academy. “‘Moral judgments’ come down in the end to irrational beliefs; and they could supply then no justification for the law.” Hence Judge Walker’s decision.

Judge Walker and the Language of the Law

By Hadley Arkes
Archeologists of the law may one day come upon these words: “Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law.” Now imagine recasting the sentence in this way: “Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to beget children.” The first line was written by federal Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco as he struck down the constitutional amendment passed by the voters of California, a move to restore the traditional understanding of marriage as a legal relation of a man and a woman. Judge Walker’s argument made sense only if the notion of begetting was conspicuously removed from the very meaning and purpose of marriage. Surely, marriage is not necessary for love: There is genuine love between grandparents and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, and in the nature of things they cannot be lesser loves because they are not attended by penetration and expressed in marriage.

Marriage is not necessary for love, but the law of marriage finds its deep justification as a framework for the begetting and nurturing of children. A commitment confirmed in law is a commitment in the truest sense: it marks the fact that the parents have foregone the freedom to quit their relation to each other and their children as it suits their convenience. And if the purpose is begetting children . . . well, that is the very reason that there are, in nature, men and women. That is thetelos or very purpose contained in the fact that we were made, each of us, as a man or a woman.

That opening line from Judge Walker is one of only a few score that have been zinging around the Internet, soaring well beyond the tethers of reason and propositional logic. Walker’s opinion may not hold up on appeal, but his lines could lighten up our lives for years to come as they make their way into fortune cookies.

There was never actually much doubt about the outcome in Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Judge Walker’s handling of the case revealed a leaning flamboyantly out of the closet. There has been much complaining about the so-called “facts” that Walker was willing to proclaim on the basis merely of opinions offered by so-called “experts.” But the outcome of the case on appeal will not turn on any facts gleaned from the social sciences. That is a long story, best left to another time. What is more striking here is that the resolution of the case was virtually determined by the premise planted in the law by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Romer v. Evans in 1996: The willingness to cast an adverse judgment on the homosexual life can be explained only by an “animus [lacking] a rational relationship to legitimate state interests.” Generations of reflection, running back to the ancients, could be dismissed as one long, thoughtless spasm of irrational “animus.”

With that premise planted, the arguments over Due Process or Equal Protection could be churned out in an instant. Due Process? People were suffering a harm, they were denied a benefit, their liberty to marry was being denied, on grounds that were irrational, and therefore arbitrary. Hence, the denial was unjustified, wrong. Equal Protection? Couples of the same sex were not accorded the same rights to marry as couples composed of men and women. Even if “domestic partners” were given many of the same benefits of marriage, they were treated as morally inferior, not worthy of marriage. They suffered a harm or wounding because they were treated unequally and for no rational reason. Hence, the unequal treatment was unjustified, wrong.

But behind all of this was a trend long in the making, a radical recasting of the language and logic of a “moral” judgment. In the relentless march of “relativism,” good and bad, right and wrong, were translated to mean merely the things we “like” or “dislike,” a matter of personal taste. Justice Hugo Black would famously deride appeals to natural law and moral reasoning by reducing them to subjective beliefs. An argument with strenuous reasoning would be translated to mean that the advocate simply “liked” or “disliked” the policy.

And curiously enough that same translation has come even from conservative and Catholic jurists in our own day who have been suspicious of natural law and the judges who invoke it. With Judge Walker the conversion of terms took this form: “the state cannot have an interest in disadvantaging an unpopular minority group simply because the group is unpopular.” Walker simply rules out the notion that there may have been reasons for turning away from the homosexual life. Homosexuals were simply “disliked,” an aversion without reason. “Moral judgments” come down in the end to irrational beliefs; and they could supply then no justification for the law.

In this way, the wave of relativism inverts language and dissolves any moral ground for the law. What is left then is the bald power of a judge to strike down whatever is enacted. Justice Holmes hoped that “every word of moral significance could be banished from the law altogether,” and Judge Walker stands in the line of his heirs. The result, in this case, is to deprive the people of California of the freedom to deliberate and vote on a matter of moral significance that stands at the very matrix of the laws.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.

Retrieved August 18, 2010 from

I knew it was bad, but...

Judge Walker's ruling on California's Proposition 8 must be one of the worst ever in the U.S.--not only is it wrong in its decision, it states as findings of fact the judge's own unsupported opinions, and ignores contrary evidence as well as cavalierly dismissing as bigoted the opinions, not only of most people in all or nearly all known times and places over many millennia, but also of the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, most members of Congress and seven million Californians who voted for Prop 8. How bad the ruling is, just as legal reasoning and decision-making, without regard to substance, is brought out well in this article in the Washington Post by Edwin Meese III.

Prop. 8 ruling ignores precedent, evidence and common sense
By Edwin Meese III
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A15

Even some who support same-sex marriage worry that, in striking down California's voter-approved proposition defining marriage as between one man and one woman, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker went too far. They are right -- and not the only ones who should be concerned. Walker's ruling is indefensible as a matter of law wholly apart from its result.

By refusing to acknowledge binding Supreme Court precedent, substantial evidence produced at trial that was contrary to the holding and plain common sense, the ruling exhibits none of the requirements of a traditional decision. This opinion is arbitrary and capricious, and its alarming legal methodology and overtly policy-driven tenor are too extreme to stand.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the result, structurally sound opinions always confront binding legal precedent. Walker's is a clear exception because the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken on whether a state's refusal to authorize same-sex marriage violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment. In 1972, Baker v. Nelson, a case over whether Minnesota violated the Constitution by issuing marriage licenses only to opposite-sex couples, was unanimously thrown out on the merits, for lack of a substantial federal question. The Supreme Court's action establishes a binding precedent in favor of Proposition 8. But Judge Walker's ruling doesn't mention Baker, much less attempt to distinguish it or accept its findings.

During a trial, litigants from both sides introduce various types of evidence, including witness testimony, documentary evidence and legal opinions that involve "judicial notice" of certain well-known or legally controlling facts. Sound judicial opinions consider the facts and evidence on both sides of an argument, apply them fairly to the dispute at hand and determine which legal cases are on point.

Yet Walker's opinion pretends that the voluminous evidence introduced on the side of Proposition 8 does not exist. It neither acknowledges nor attempts to distinguish the writings of renowned scholars presented at trial in support of Proposition 8, including that of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, history professor Robina Quale and social scientist Kingsley Davis. It ignores the writings of legal giant William Blackstone and philosophers John Locke and Bertrand Russell. It even refused to address the fact that Congress, in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, defined marriage as the "legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

Despite ample evidence introduced into the record that only a union of a man and woman can produce offspring (as if that needs proof), Walker's opinion denied the relevance of that biological fact. That difference has been the main reason civilization recognized the uniqueness of marriage as between a man and woman, and why courts have repeatedly relied on that common-sense truth.

Despite voluminous evidence and common sense pointing to the contrary, the judge also declared that opposite sexes were never part of the "historical core of the institution of marriage"; "evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different than opposite-sex couples"; traditional marriage is an "artifact"; and, also without reference to the monumental evidence to the contrary, that it is beyond "any doubt that parents' genders are irrelevant to children's developmental outcomes."
These assertions appear in the opinion's "findings of fact" section, yet they are not facts. These "findings" derive from arbitrary and capricious non-analysis and are forcefully contradicted by evidence in the court record. No appellate court should allow the ruling to stand.

Having ignored everything courts typically rely on in making sound judgments, Walker concluded that Proposition 8 was enacted "without reason" and demonstrates "a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples [and are] . . . not as good as opposite-sex couples." Nothing in Proposition 8 supports such conclusions, particularly since California law grants same-sex couples all the benefits and protections that apply in traditional marriage.
People can differ on whether, as a matter of policy, states should allow same-sex marriage. The robust debate on that topic should not be short-circuited by judicial fiat.

Yet, according to the federal district court, Americans such as President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the majority of members of Congress and the 7 million Californians who voted for Proposition 8 are all bigots who have "no rational reason" to oppose gay marriage.

Even the usually liberal U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has reservations about immediately implementing Walker's exercise in judicial social engineering. A three-judge panel of the court issued a stay late Monday to prevent California's law from being cast aside before a panel can fully review the matter. It was right to do so. The rule of law demands more careful consideration of this important issue than Walker's decision delivered.

The writer is chairman of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. He served as U.S. attorney general from February 1985 to August 1988.

Retrieved August 18, 2010 from

Saturday, August 14, 2010

when you know for sure: definitive alzheimer's test suggests future ethical issues

From the editor of Bioedge

Hi there,

Earlier this week researchers announced in the Archives of Neurology that a spinal fluid test can provide an Alzheimer's prognosis which is 100% accurate. The reputation of spinal taps is only marginally better than appendectomies without anaesthetic, but experts say that they are safe and not especially painful. In fact, when drugs are developed to slow or cure Alzheimer's they foresee that brain scans or spinal taps will be as routine as colonoscopies or mammograms.

I wonder how ageing baby boomers will react to this news when they've had a chance to absorb it? They are certainly interested. I noticed that the New York Times report rocketed to the top of the "most read" articles on its site.

Will people with a positive diagnosis feel pressured to take an early flight into the Great Beyond before they become too burdensome for their families? Fanciful? I don't think so. At the moment, well over 90% of pregnant women who test positive for Down syndrome terminate their child. If they fear that life with a disabled child will be purgatory, what about life with a parent disabled by Alzheimer's?

Is a new era about to begin? Leave your comments.


Michael Cook
Retrieved August 14, 2010 from
(See link here in right-hand column ->)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Free Speech Under Siege in Denmark

Is public criticism of religion acceptable? In the U.S., the First Amendment protects such criticism, however offensive, from efforts to silence it by law and prosecution, just as it protects the free exercise of religion.

In Europe and, it seems, in Canada too, it depends on the religion. The most extreme, hateful, and blasphemous attacks on Christianity are fine. But Islam is protected from public criticism under hate speech or anti-racism laws. The latest bizarre example is from Denmark. The good news is that the prosecution of a free speech advocate there may lead to review of those laws.

Denmark: Prosecution of Free Speech Advocate May Prompt Changes to Racism Laws
by Nathaniel Sugarman
• Aug 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm
Note: Danish URLs can be viewed in English using Google translate.

On August 4, 2010, the Public Prosecutor for Copenhagen charged International Free Press Society (IFPS) president Lars Hedegaard with racism. The IFPS describes itself as an organization "exclusively devoted to defending the right of free expression."

The basis for Hedegaard's prosecution was an interview from December 2009 in which he made controversial statements about Islam. These assertions included critiques of what Hedegaard saw as Islam's permissiveness regarding child abuse and bearing false witness, as well as Islam's general intolerance concerning apostacism and critical speech. Snaphanen, a Danish blog, published the original interview, and Hedegaard has since clarified some of his remarks.
Hedegaard's statements earned him a hate speech charge under Danish law. While Denmark's constitution ostensibly protects freedom of expression and forbids censorship (see Section 77), the Criminal code provides that "expressing and spreading racial hatred" is a criminal offense punishable with up to two years imprisonment. (Article 266b)

Indeed, notwithstanding Section 77, article 266b has already been deployed against defendants who, like Hedegaard, dare to criticize Islam. On June 16, 2010, the Danish parliament voted to strip a lawmaker of immunity so that he could face charges over anti-Muslim comments. The politician, Jesper Langballe, is a veteran member of the Danish People's Party (PPD) and a crucial ally of the center-right government. In January 2010, he penned a newspaper column discussing the status of women in Islam and the "Islamisation of Europe." Included was the statement that "Muslims kill their daughters over crimes of honour and turn a blind eye while they are raped by their uncles." He is currently awaiting trial for violating Article 266b—the same hate speech statute that will likely be applied to Hedegaard.

The decision to charge Hedegaard elicited a number of immediate reactions—two of which merit mention. First, Danish writer and "integration consultant" Mohammad Rafiq enthusiastically endorsed the prosecution calling it a "victory for integration." This is no surprise. Rafiq has previously attempted to silence Hedegaard by suing him for libel. Ironically, by applauding the de-facto silencing of an activist, Rafik reinforces Hedegaard's point that Islam seeks to silence its critics.

By contrast, a day after Hedegaard was charged, Justice Minister Lars Barfoed announced that Denmark's hate speech and blasphemy laws should be reexamined. The Copenhagen Post explains that Barfoed is "preparing the ground for changes to laws criminalising racist and blasphemous speech on concerns they could be misused as political instruments to restrict free speech."
Barfoed is right to be concerned. If his effort is successful, it will be not only a victory for free speech in Denmark, but a bold example for the rest of Europe.

Retrieved August 6, 2010 from


Meanwhile I am reading two books that deal in different ways with Europe's stormy relationship with Islam. Muslim campaigns to conquer the whole of Europe militarily were brought to an end only in 1683 with the defeat of the Ottoman armies laying siege to Vienna. John Stoye has written a detailed, masterful history of that great turning point in the history of Europe

Last year Christopher Caldwell published a controversial study of the challenge posed to the foundations European culture by increasingly assertive immigrant populations hostile both to Christianity and to liberal secularism.

The Myth of Neutrality: Homosexuality and Higher Education

As we have seen in other Western countries, there is a powerful movement afoot in the U.S. to criminalize expression of orthodox Christian teaching (Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical) as well that of most other faith traditions and peoples throughout history and the world with respect to homosexual acts. It is not enough that the state and the law tolerate such acts. They must suppress all expression of the view that such acts are less morally acceptable than heterosexual acts within marriage that are of a kind that is in principle capable of being generative--that is that makes a moral distinction between acts that are per se, in their very nature inept for generation as distinct from being so in a particular circumstance, per accidens.

We have seen some alarming cases recently, like the dismissal (and subsequent reinstatement on a new basis) of adjunct professor Ken Howell at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the threat to Augusta State counseling student Jennifer Keeton, whose chosen career is under threat because she accepts traditional Christian teaching about certain sexual acts.

In no sense is this trend to intense intimidation an expression of the university's or the state's neutrality on the issue, a willingness to let different views contend in the free market of ideas. It is the suppression of academic freedom in the interest of imposing an official orthodoxy, that of secular humanism or liberal secularism, and rooting out its rival. That rival, which alone is understood as an orthodoxy as opposed to ideology-free neutral stance of the state and public universities, is that of the religiously orthodox and those who are persuaded on purely rational, non-religious grounds of the superiority of that view compared with that of the liberal-secularist orthodoxy. On the clash of oerthodoxies, only one of which dare speak its name, see Robert P. George

Here is an interesting essay by R.R. Reno that speculates that the intensity of the repression of any expression of traditional beliefs in this area stems from a need to repress the voice of conscience.

Homosexuality and the Moral Failure of Higher Education
Aug 5, 2010
R.R. Reno

Recently, Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor who worked for Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, was told by his department chair that he could no longer teach there. His offense: explaining and clarifying the Catholic moral teaching on homosexuality while teaching a class on Catholicism. A couple of students complained to the department chair with the usual charge: his moral reasoning is hate speech that creates a hostile environment for gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Keeton, a student at Augusta State University in Georgia, was forced to undergo "sensitivity training." Her offense: believing Christian teaching on homosexuality. She was told that if she did not change her moral beliefs and affirm homosexuality, she could not graduate with a degree in counseling.

Note the difference. Ken Howell did not insist that students believe or affirm the reasoned Catholic arguments against the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts. Rather, he required students who had chosen to taken an elective course on Catholicism to know and engage those arguments.

But the faculty of the Counselor Education Program at Augusta State apparently requires their students to agree with them. Students must affirm—or at least learn how to appear to affirm—homosexual sex. And the faculty at Augusta State seems to think nothing of intimidating students to ensure that they comply.

The juxtaposition captures one of the most glaring moral failures of higher education in America today, a failure that should be evident to most of us, no matter what we think about the moral status of homosexual acts. When it comes to sexual liberation, a culture of intimidation has taken the place of reason, debate, and civility. The otherwise favored ideal of academic freedom suddenly disappears, to be replaced with other absolutes that seem to demand intellectual submission.

If, like Howell and Keeton, you make any suggestion that homosexual acts are immoral, you are censured and your career is threatened. If you're a pro-gay professor or department, you can censure and intimidate as much as you like.

This seems an impossibly simplistic generalization, but I can’t see how to avoid it. My experience is of course limited, but from what I’ve seen Augusta State is not unique. Professors like those in Augusta State’s counseling department think nothing of withholding credentials and destroying careers, and administrators support them in creating this culture of intimidation.

Advancing the cause of sexual liberation is not negotiable in most of American academia. Graduate students have told me that being labeled as “anti-gay” means getting blackballed when entering the job market. And not just at secular schools. A whisper campaign (“he’s anti-gay”) against a recent candidate for a job in the Notre Dame philosophy department apparently succeeded.

People can be very cruel when they imagine their beliefs to be self-evident, which happens when all dissent is silenced and censured. In a group-think atmosphere, those who disagree are seen as unthinking "fundamentalists" or hateful "bigots." Even the most highly qualified and nuanced moral statements about homosexuality will be denounced as “homophobic” if they fall short of a full and unqualified affirmation of homosexuality.

Sexual liberation seems to have become the great moral cause. It is true that American schools expect ideological homogeneity on all manner of topics, and being pro-life or a person of faith—or even a Republican—can get you in trouble. But homosexuality alone seems to call forth the full repressive power of educational institutions.

On the surface, the culture of intimidation would seem a case of moral passion fused with institutional power. The reasoning goes like this: Gays and lesbians have been an oppressed minority, as blacks have been, and as we resisted racism by banning it where we could, so we should use our positions to ban prejudice against gays and lesbians and to promote equality and inclusion.

However, I’m not convinced. Traditional moral judgments aren’t like the old racists theories. They concern behaviors—the usual focus of moral judgments—not the ontological status of persons as genetically inferior.

I do not dismiss the moral passion felt by many proponents of sexual liberation, misguided as it may be. But I look elsewhere to explain the culture of intimidation, which seems so out of proportion to the cause and so contradictory to their belief in academic freedom.

Perhaps the force of conscience plays a role. St. Paul wrote that the law is written on the gentile’s heart (Rom 2:15). We are in a certain sense hardwired to recognize certain moral truths, however dimly, and the immorality of homosexual activity is one. Our internal censor, our interior sense of shame and guilt, often limits, restrains, and disciplines us as we try to follow our desires, perhaps especially those for sexual liberation.

Thus the need to use a kind of intellectual Agent Orange to destroy even the slightest judgments of immorality, because they reinforce what the voice of conscience keeps telling us, and what we would like to avoid hearing. Those who say that homosexual acts are immoral are oppressors, because their words—however dispassionate, however well-reasoned, however subtly expressed, however concerned for others—agitate consciences and block the free flow of desire.

Indeed, even those who are diffident are under suspicion, because that voice of conscience needs complete support to be suppressed. In the cause of sexual liberation nothing is acceptable short of full affirmation, or at least a scrupulous silence that expresses no reservations.

Sexual liberation is a Gucci freedom. Upper middle class Americans possess the resources to get a great deal of what they want, and part of what they want is sexual liberation. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the modern institution most closely associated with elite culture—higher education—should devote a great deal of energy to removing those who believe in moral limitations.

R.R. Reno is a senior editor at FIRST THINGS and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.
Retrieved August 5, 2010 from

Thursday, August 5, 2010

USCCB Statements on California Ruling

Cardinal George Decries Court Decision Striking Down California Marriage Law

Archbishop Kurtz Joins Cardinal George in Criticism
Notes That Voters Have Upheld Traditional Marriage at Every Turn
Calls Marriage Essential to Well Being of Society

WASHINGTON—Cardinal Francis George, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, decried the August 4 decision of a federal judge to overturn California voters' 2008 initiative that protected marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

“Marriage between a man and a woman is the bedrock of any society. The misuse of law to change the nature of marriage undermines the common good,” Cardinal George said. “It is tragic that a federal judge would overturn the clear and expressed will of the people in their support for the institution of marriage. No court of civil law has the authority to reach into areas of human experience that nature itself has defined.”

Joining Cardinal George in his criticism of the court decision was Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage. Archbishop Kurtz noted that “Citizens of this nation have uniformly voted to uphold the understanding of marriage as a union of one man and one woman in every jurisdiction where the issue has been on the ballot. This understanding is neither irrational nor unlawful,” he said. “Marriage is more fundamental and essential to the well being of society than perhaps any other institution. It is simply unimaginable that the court could now claim a conflict between marriage and the Constitution.”

The End of Democracy?

Time to take another look at the controversial but prescient special issue of First Things in November 1996, a symposium about the judicial usurpation of politics. It is available in full at

A Bad Day for Democracy, Marriage, and Children

The completely unsurprising ruling by Judge Walker in the appeal against Proposition 8 is out. As expected, the ruling overturns the decision of the people of California with respect to their own constitution. Judge Walker's ruling will certainly be upheld by the notorious 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, so everyone expects the matter will come at last before the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile the New York Times provides reports and analysis with its own predictable slant. The blogging Anchoress, Elizabeth Scalia, has a brief discussion and many links to other comments at

Walker's ruling represents a repudiation of 5,000 years of understanding of marriage as about socially approved sex between a man and a woman such that any children resulting from that union are understood to be socially, economically, and legally the responsibility of the two parents whose union produced them. Now, it seems, "gender" is irrelevant and so, essentially, are children. Marriage, according to this ruling, is about the relationship between two adults based on the sexual proclivities of those adults. In the past, the adults' sexual desires neither excluded nor included them with respect to marriage. If you examine the usual lists of those excluded from marriage, as inserted in the old English Book of Common Prayer, they included all sorts of people with varying degrees and kinds of kinship but said nothing about including or excluding people on the basis of their sexual desires.

But now it seems, one's sexual inclinations or "orientation" constitute a basis for eligibility for, indeed a right to, marriage. Why this right should be extended only to same-sex couples and not, say, polyamorous groups of various numbers and combinations, or to same-sex pairs living together in interdependence but not in a sexual relationship, like the elderly Burden sisters [see ], who live together in interdependence but do not have a sexual relationship, is unclear. Indeed, advocates of such extension of the "right" to marriage in other kinds of sexual relationship are already on the march. At least polyamorous groups of male and female have the capacity to produce children and hence those children have a claim on the state's protection through legal marriage, which ties those children to those parents who created them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Augustine, Aquinas, and Anne Rice

Ignatius Press has an excellent blog that has recently addressed--in relation to Anne Rice--the question of attempts by Catholics to pick and choose what part of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals to accept. In a recent essay at

the blog examines the Anne Rice case in light of the teaching of Augustine and Aquinas.

How right Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, was back in the 1980s when he responded to his interviewer's question (The Ratzinger Report, p.45) that the key to the crisis in the Church is in ecclesiology. "My impression is that the authentically Catholic meaning of the reality 'Church' is tacitly disappearing, without being expressly rejected. Many no longer believe that what is at issue is a reality willed by the Lord himself."

I admired the works of Anne Rice's Catholic period, but a glance at her Facebook page, with tens of thousands of followers, shows that she always used that site more to attack the Church than to evangelize for it. And whenever she brought up a topic on which Church teaching is settled and clear, but on which she continued to hold heretical views, she elicited a flood of vehemently anti-Catholic posts from her followers.

It seems that sometimes celebrities--Tony Blair appears to be another example--join or return to the Church more in the hope of bringing her round to their way of seeing things than to submit to her teaching authority, especially where that teaching conflicts with liberal-secularist orthodoxy.

Paradoxically, it is often easier for those who move and have their friends and family in liberal-secularist circles to accept Catholic dogma on, say, the mystery of the Trinity, than to accept and publicly support those teachings on morals and the nature of the Church that conflict most sharply with prevalent secularist assumptions and liberal public opinion--questions like same-sex marriage or ordination of women or contraception.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Uses of Pessimism

From many years of teaching social policy analysis to graduate social work students, I have come to expect that what students most want to learn is how to advocate for policy changes—changes that they already ‘know’ are needed. If they are concerned about a – any – social problem, their first instinct for addressing it is to say, “There ought to be a law.” The law, whatever it is, involves more state intervention in the lives of families, neighborhoods or other “mediating structures” that stand between individual and state. The idea is that the state should intervene to protect individuals against those structures and networks, from what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons.” In this vein, rights are understood, not in their original sense as the just claims of individuals to freedom from the state, whether in religion, security against arbitrary state actions against person or property, but rather as claims on the state.

Most mistakes in policy analysis, as in philosophy, result from moving too quickly. The first task of a teacher in either field is to slow students down and help them to be more aware, if not critical, of their own assumptions. In this respect, Bardach’s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis warns about the “optimism problem.” It is an ethical problem, he argues, and a professional obligation to consider what could happen, in particular what could go wrong, if people were actually to follow the analyst’s advice. The costs of over-optimism in the lives of real people, as well as the opportunity costs of ill-used resources, are almost never borne by the analyst who gives the advice. All “solutions” have costs or trade-offs. Or as Sowell puts it: “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”

In a cautionary article in the Harvard Business Review, Bazerman and Chugh (2006) argue: “The ‘bounded awareness’ phenomenon causes people to ignore critical information when making decisions. Learning to expand the limits of your awareness before you make an important choice will save you from asking ‘How did I miss that?’ after the fact.” They discuss various ways in which the blinders we wear keep us from seeing what could go wrong, even when the information is right in front of us or readily available. They discuss the Vioxx case, the Challenger disaster, the New Coke debacle, the Iraq war decision, among other examples. (See also the discussion by psychologists Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman, "Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives' Decisions" (Harvard Business Review, July 2003).

Unscrupulous Optimism
Roger Scruton, in his recent meditation on the uses of pessimism, writes as a philosopher and social commentator rather than as a psychologist or policy advisor to governments or corporations. His concern is also with the dangers of false hope (his subtitle) and the particular fallacies that make such “unscrupulous optimism”—the term he takes from Schopenhauer to distinguish it from a scrupulous and constrained optimism--so powerful and impervious to reason. The fallacies he considers include the Best Case Fallacy (i.e., the failure to consider scrupulously worst case scenarios), the Planning Fallacy, the Utopian Fallacy, Zero-Sum Fallacy (I fail because you succeed), Moving Spirit Fallacy (i.e., the Zeitgeist not as a way for historians to periodize past developments, but as dictating present and future directions), and the Aggregation Fallacy (treating freedom and equality as able to be added to each other rather than as contradictory or trade-offs).

In the abstract, and emptied of content, these are useful cautions that no-one sensibly could dismiss out of hand. But Scruton has a more important and more polemical purpose. He aims to show how these fallacies pervade a larger social and political vision that has been ascendant since the Enlightenment and especially the deadly triumph of “Reason” in the French Revolution. It is an unscrupulous optimism that sweeps away the collective problem-solving of generations codified through customs, traditions, and laws built from the bottom up, like English and American common law or Swiss political arrangements, with the will of the radical and enlightened few. The utopian or planning elite sweep all previous traditions and practices aside, along with the wishes of ordinary people, who have to be led to a higher level of wisdom by the progressive, forward-looking vanguard.

Scruton’s critique bears a strong family resemblance to that of Thomas Sowell (A Conflict of Visions), who sees the underlying divide between political and economic camps as the result of two opposed visions of social reality—the constrained and unconstrained visions. The constrained vision—corresponding to Scruton’s ‘we’ as opposed to the individual ‘I’ of the auteur architect like Le Corbusier or the collective ‘I’ of the despot like Hitler or Stalin--seeks to improve life and ameliorate problems within the recognized constraints imposed by our history and human nature. It sees social decision-making in terms of trade-offs rather than solutions, of the will of millions of individuals relating to each other through neighborhoods, social networks, and markets rather than the will of experts and elites, as accountable directly and indirectly to those masses (hence, socially as well as politically democratic). Like English and American common law, it values the precedents and traditions built up through negotiations and compromises over generations and holds kings and presidents as accountable under the law.

The constrained vision of Sowell or the ‘we’ of Scruton is not cynical or comprehensively pessimistic. But it is modest in its assumptions about the capacity of human beings to remake their society from scratch according to their own desires. Or as Dr. Johnson expressed it,
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
That planners and utopians have dictatorial, even totalitarian tendencies is not news, though it is too little appreciated. Marx saw in his Third Thesis on Feuerbach how such thinking divides society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. Marx’s own vision, as Sowell argues, is constrained and anti-utopian with respect to the past, but unconstrained and utopian with respect to the future.

The force of Scruton’s argument lies in the detail and concreteness with which he specifies these dangers in every aspect of life, not only in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but also as destructive forces in the democratic West. He points to the violence and destructiveness of French and Russian revolutionaries, to how the first act of such revolutionary elites is to destroy all the institutions of the old society and especially the rule of law that might hold them accountable.

But he also describes in chilling and vivid detail the bizarre grip of the EU bureaucracy on the once democratic and sovereign nations within its orbit. He shows how hundreds of thousands of regulations are issued at an accelerating rate by an unaccountable bureaucracy that cannot be held accountable and whose many mistakes cannot be rectified through democratic processes. Once adopted, those measures cannot be repealed by the nations involved. By the founding treaties of the EU, measures that centralize control in the EU cannot be reversed without constitutional change or leaving the Union altogether. When the Irish electorate rejected the Lisbon Treaty, the bureaucracy merely requested that citizens should vote again. Scruton shows how brutally the bureaucrats sweep away the customs and traditions of centuries, in the process destroying, for example, family farming and the countryside of Romania. He describes how a European directive requiring the presence of a qualified veterinarian at every abattoir led to the closing of most local abattoirs in England, requiring that cattle be taken much greater distances to be slaughtered, so that when disease did break out it spread across the country instead of being localized.

Scruton is particularly scathing in his account of modern architecture, with its scorn both for history and tradition and for the wishes of the people who were to live in and around its brutal structures. Le Corbusier, a key modern architect whose megalomaniac plans are still studied reverently in architecture schools, comes in for particular scorn. The man planned to destroy all of Paris north of the Seine and to rebuild it according to his own design for how people in the twentieth century ought to live. One of his projects, partly carried out, involved the destruction of Algiers. Scruton writes:
The modernist pioneers were social and political activists, who wished to squeeze the disorderly human activity that constitutes a city into a utopian straitjacket…. Le Corbusier’s project to demolish all of Paris north of the Seine and replace it with high-rise towers of glass was supposed to be an emancipation , a liberation from the old constraints of urban living. Those dirty, promiscuous streets and alleyways were to be replaced with grass and trees—open spaces where the new human type, released from the hygienic glass bottle where he was stored by night, could walk in sunshine and be alone with himself. The fact is, however, that Le Corbusier never asked himself whether people wanted to live in this utopia, nor did he care what method was used to transport them there. History (as understood by the modernist project) required them to be there, and that was that (p.143).

Scruton, we can see from this example, has a way with words. His prose is incisive, sharp, and eloquent. He describes how in modernist architecture, “The accumulated wisdom of builders and planners down the centuries was set aside purely on the strength of a ‘best case’ vision of the new ways of living” (p.143). He illustrates his point with an extraordinary account of how such thinking has devastated the cities of the Middle East. Indeed, he argues that if we are seeking an explanation of Islamism, this architectural and planning modernism is the place to start.

Another twist to Scruton’s anti-utopian argument is that the self-image of the progressive elite as more advanced than the masses whose lives they want to manage, is itself illusory. An important aspect of the book is the effort to explain the resistance of these fallacies to reason or evidence. They are, he argues, residues of an earlier stage of human development, one that still holds value in emergencies, but is destructive in times or conditions of peace. There is an implied analogy here to the fight-flight response—once essential for daily survival, but now often dysfunctional as a pattern of intensified arousal in conditions that do not require it.

Scruton appeals, in contrast to the thought-experiments of Rawls or Locke on which social contract theory is built, to the nature of tribes or hunter-gatherer bands as they actually existed. This was the long prehistory before conditions existed for the emergence of societies of unrelated strangers who found ways to live side by side through negotiation and compromise in consensual communities…or cities. In a band of hunters and gatherers that was in constant danger, pursuing and holding on to territory in the face of human and other threats from the outside, survival depends on the collective ‘I’—submission of all to the goals and strategy of a leader. There is no place for worst case scenarios or competing approaches when the band must unite behind its leader or die. The same is true in wartime—which is perhaps why utopias like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward or Plato’s Republic are deeply undemocratic and organized top down along more or less military lines.

The importance of writers like Burke and Hayek (and he could have added Marx), in Scruton’s view, lies partly in their understanding of how human settlement, where people produce rather than find their food and other resources, changes everything. “They are pointing,” Scruton says of Burke and the Austrian economists, “to the emergence, in historical societies, of a new kind of rationality—not the ‘I’-rationality of a leader and his plans, but the ‘we’-rationality of a consensual community” (p.210). From this perspective the emergence of a society of institutions and laws--built over generations out of the experience of living together in a society in which individuals and families, as well as corporations, may have goals, but not society as a whole, except in war—is a tremendous but fragile human achievement. Utopians, comprehensive planners and architects, anarchists, terrorists and Islamists all in their different ways threaten that achievement, seeking to undermine or destroy it and to start from scratch.

The Pleistocene mindset of Islamists, like that of the Bolsheviks before them, aims at “entirely destroying the forms of settled government.” Terrorism, thus understood, is a refuge from settlement and a return to the all-commanding ‘I’. It seeks the destruction of settled traditions, laws, practices, and institutions, and in their place the building of a new society designed for (but not by) a new human being. In this sense at least, the Islamists, despite their hatred of modernism, are as modern a phenomenon as Le Corbusier.

The tabula rasa vision of the human being—found in notions of constructing a new “socialist man” or a new human type or, in its weirdest manifestation yet, in a transhuman type that is seen as replacing humans with cyborgs—casts aside those compromises and constraints that previously shaped us. Such indeed was the spirit of the Sixties, with concepts of freedom that wrecked—at least for the poor—the institutions of marriage and fatherhood, social patterns of sexual restraint and responsibility, and many other institutions and traditions that reflected the collective wisdom of generations.

In Scruton’s view, then, the fallacies he describes are rooted in the material needs of hunter-gatherer bands, where everything depends on the will and decisiveness of the chieftain—the leader’s collective ‘I’ is at the same time the ‘we’ of the community. One reason that the fallacies are so impervious to refutation is that they are “not new additions to the repertoire of human madness but the residues of our forefathers’ honest attempts to get things right…thought processes that were selected in the life and death struggles from which settled societies eventually emerged” (p.203). The liberal, optimistic, progressive thinking is not, from this perspective, an advance on the ways and customs of the unenlightened masses, but a regression to more primitive ways of thinking. Scruton’s purpose is to defend the world of compromise and half measures, love, friendship, irony, and forgiveness from the Pleistocene mindset of the enlightened that would sweep them all away.

Empowerment in the Bureaucratic-Professional State
Some of Scruton’s most effective rhetorical shafts are aimed at experts and professionals who, basing themselves on a stock of knowledge and expertise that is largely bogus, usurp the role of families and communities and undermine their capacity to resolve their own problems. In this respect his critique is congruent with that of other critics of the bureaucratic and professionalized social services. For example, in The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits, John McKnight (1996) shows how competent communities have been invaded and colonized by professionalized services—often with devastating results. (See McKnight’s classic essay, “John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor.”)

The patch approach to neighborhood-based social services and the restorative justice approach to family group decision making were attempts to roll back professional domination of poor families (Adams & Nelson, 1997; Burford & Hudson, 2000). They were efforts, in policy and practice, to work in partnership with those directly involved in the problematic situation. They sought to empower the people closest to the situation to draw on their own cultural and individual wisdom and resources to find ways to keep children safe. The aim of these efforts is to strengthen families and communities, through sharing but not abdicating the state’s obligation to protect children from maltreatment.

In this area, Scruton has a brief and provocative, though not nuanced discussion of a typical child protection scandal in the U.K. known as the Baby P case, where a child died who was already known to the authorities and their professionals. The inquiry that followed called for retraining social workers, more expertise, and more funding of services.

For Scruton the area of child welfare is one where the claimed expertise of the professionals is phony. Citing Baskerville’s (2007) critique, Taken Into Custody, Taken into Custody: The War Against Fatherhood, Marriage, and the Family he says: “Examine their expertise, however, and whence it derives, and you will discover a mish-mash of amateur sociology, left-wing dogma and routinized anti-family rhetoric” (p.174). The inquiry’s recommendations reflect the understandable but diversionary tactic of shifting the blame to whatever can be readily blamed, to whatever responds to blame. (He explains much anti-Americanism, within and outside the United States, on this convenient displacement strategy of transferred blame.)

His argument is that this kind of inquiry and recommendation ignores the real forces that created the modern problem of child abuse. It is much easier to retrain social workers or change their practices than to restore the institution of the family. So what is needed, the experts averred, was “more of us, more planning, more supervision, more ways of preventing this society-wide disorder through the intervention of a benevolent state” (p.173).

Citing figures from research in the UK to the effect that children are vastly more likely to be abused in the homes of mothers with a live-in boyfriend or stepfather than in an intact family, Scruton says, “Actually what Baby P needed was a father, and the smallest dose of pessimism would have pointed this out” (p.173). To think in this way, however, is to run up against “one of the fundamental prejudices of the time: the prejudice that the new forms of domestic life brought about by easy divorce and the sexual revolution are unalterable and unquestionable. Child abuse is not a universal social disorder, for which the state bureaucracy and its experts are the cure. It is the direct result of the delegitimization of the family, often carried out by those very experts. Meanwhile, the state has connived in the dissolution of the marriage tie, and has routinely subsidized, through the welfare system, the arrangements (including live-in boyfriends) that expose children to danger” (pp.173-174).

Problems of Curmudgeonly Writing
Scruton’s prose is witty, clear, and eloquent, always a pleasure to read even when one disagrees with him. His curmudgeonly tone comes from the bitter experience of a brilliant scholar whose academic career in England was blighted for most of its span because his colleagues found his views—those of a Burkean conservative—unacceptable and too far beyond the liberal-radical consensus of the academy (outside the sciences, anyway). The fury with which progressive thinkers respond when the fallacies in their thinking are pointed out has been visited on Scruton’s head in print and in the harshest tones.

It is natural in these circumstances that he would conclude that “the argument of this book is entirely futile. You may enjoy it and agree with it, but it will have no influence whatsoever on those whom it calls to account” (p.3). How could he conclude otherwise after a lifetime of collegial abuse? (This is not to deny the compelling case Scruton makes that the fallacies he examines are indeed resistant to correction, without regard to the author’s personal experience.)

That perception of futility, however, as well as the large scope of the argument compared with the modest size of the book, creates its own limitations. Scholarly rigor, careful documentation of the examples and fair consideration of objections and alternative arguments must seem hardly worth the trouble since, in any case, those who comprehensively disagree with the author will not themselves be open to argument.

So Scruton’s dismissal of multiculturalism, progressive education, postmodern gobbledygook, and the like are witty and a delight to read, but do not seriously engage the advocates of those follies. His account of how utopian notions of “education for equality” in the UK succeeded only in destroying opportunity for gifted working-class children and ensuring as nearly as possible that students did not learn anything, is fun to read. His view of education experts with their “agenda that was uniformly egalitarian, child-centered and knowledge-averse,” (p.172) and their disastrous effects on education is scathing and witty, but probably not compelling to an educationist.

Some of his examples are also tendentious and do not consider alternative explanations—for example, he sees the housing crisis as arising from government interference in the market with the aim of encouraging people who could not afford them to buy homes and banks to lend them the money to do so. Scruton does not consider the alternative (or is it complementary?) explanation that the problem was too little government regulation rather than too much.

He makes complex economic arguments but dismisses economics as a phony discipline. His argument is at some level theological, but he dismisses theology as another area of phony expertise—because we cannot know anything about God. He does not draw the obvious conclusion that theistic religions are ipso facto bogus, or that the theological conclusions about God in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds that resulted from centuries of theological study and debate are worthless. Nor is it clear what he means by using the word God as if God existed but we could not know anything about the subject of that existence—except, presumably that God exists. His position seems not to derive from the tradition of negative theology that addresses only what we do not know about God or that of apophatic mysticism that emphasizes the unknowability of God. Rather, it seems to reflect a characteristically Anglican agnosticism, of one who enjoys the traditions and rituals of the Church of England but who is not sure he believes a word of it. (Indeed, Scruton’s curious theology invites a whole separate discussion.)

Most seriously, Scruton pays little or no attention to the most obvious questions his critique raises. Are tradition and custom so benign? What about slavery or female genital mutilation or suttee? These are the standard questions raised about multiculturalism and a cultural/moral relativism that regards all cultures as equal (or equally deserving of respect). Since Scruton has no time for such postmodern or politically correct tendencies, it is surprising that he does not take greater care to explain how his valuing of tradition addresses such questions. It is not that they cannot be addressed. English conservatives like Burke or Samuel Johnson supported the American Revolution and/or opposed slavery without difficulty or inconsistency. But Scruton does not take the trouble to anticipate such objections or explain his position to skeptical readers.

At times, Scruton’s manner is reminiscent of a father who provokes his liberal and idealistic children by making provocative remarks he knows the young people will find outrageous. He knows there is nothing he can say that will persuade the younger persons to re-examine their views or look at them with a measure of irony. The elder will not be intimidated or silenced by the usual conversation-stopping insults (right wing, racist, sexist, bourgeois, etc.) but thinks it pointless to defend himself against them. However seriously misguided he thinks the young are, and however disappointed in their failure to take seriously the fruits of his knowledge, experience, and wisdom, he consoles himself by getting a rise out of them and a chuckle from the other grown-ups.

But the curmudgeon stance makes it too easy for critics like George Scialabba (at to dismiss the book as a partisan rant. That is a shame. Scruton is a brilliant author—philosopher of ethics and aesthetics, critic of music, art, and architecture, commentator and polemicist—of extraordinary depth and range. His work challenges received wisdom in the social sciences and humanities. His critiques, even when lacking the full apparatus of German scholarship, are serious attempts to offer a coherent and comprehensive alternative to the dominant thinking in the academy, arts, and media.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Dreadful Generation

I am dipping into a series on the blog called Patheos on the future of specific religions. The one on Catholicism is very interesting. I liked this longer version of the piece by a young screenwriter where she trashes the entire boomer generation--or the dreadful generation, as she calls us. A bit of a broad brush, but I think she is right that we (well, I'm slightly older but was politically and culturally a child of the Sixties) need to acknowledge and account for the immense damage we did--with sexual license, easy divorce, legitimizing single parenthood, abandoning marriage and hence fatherhood as a social role and responsibility, subordination of the needs of children to the freedoms of adults, etc., etc. (Just watched again Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which lampoons the silly and irresponsible world of the Sixties. My 10 yo son thought it was hilarious!)

July 29, 2010
Turn, Turn, Turn
By Barbara R. Nicolosi

Natalie: I really don't want to say anything that's . . . anti-feminist. I mean, I really appreciate everything your generation did for me. . . . But sometimes, it feels that no matter how much success I have, it all won't matter until I have the right guy. (From Up in the Air, written and directed by Jason Reitman)

I admit, I felt a surge of unholy glee when I watched that scene unfold. Gen Xer, Jason Reitman's 2009 Oscar nominated film about the pointless and shallow lives of a couple of narcissistic Baby Boomers had many such gratifying take downs of the dreadful generation. Seeing the Boomers finally get their comeuppance is cream puffs of delight for folks my age and younger, whose mantra has gradually morphed from the resigned "Whatever," into the steely-eyed, "Don't trust anybody over fifty."

The entertainment industry is in the full throes of the changing of the generations, and suddenly enumerating the failures of the angry, grey-haired pathetic people is all the rage. I could go through a long list of recent movies and television programs that show this pattern, but I'll point to probably the most powerful of the recent offerings. Precious, another 2009 Oscar nominated film, was many things, including a devastating repudiation of the Boomers' beloved social welfare state. The villains of the piece, Precious' brutally selfish mother and her sexually abusive father, are creatures completely borne of the Great Society's failures. They are indigent, grasping, self-absorbed, ignorant, isolated and full of the age's disgusting self-righteous sense of entitlement. In short, they are the ultimate Boomer policy legacy -- the total fruit of a life of government handouts and public school education. There were times in the movie when I felt like I was sitting in the crowd listening to the ranting warnings at a Tea Party rally. Precious is the kind of bald-faced truth-telling about the Boomer's failed dogmas that just never used to get up on the screen.

Natalie: Would you stop condescending for one second? Or is that one of the principles of your bullshit philosophy?

Ryan: Bullshit philosophy?

Natalie: You've set up a way of life that basically makes it impossible for you to make human connections. . . . Jesus. I need to grow up? You're a twelve year old! (From Up in the Air, written and directed by Jason Reitman)

As cultural power brokers, the Boomers have stamped their downward spiral from stoned rebels to cynical whiners on many aspects of Hollywood's once great storytelling voice. Greedy for the power and control they have lusted for since they came of age, the Boomers created the factory model of blockbuster movies in which the pursuit of mega-dollars eliminated creative story choices again and again. They bequeath to an age desperately in need of hope and heroes, a storytelling industry that is shattered to its core in having forgotten how to weave a good tale. For decades Hollywood had the whole world sitting on its lap. The Boomer elites squandered that global audience in their one lifetime.

Films and television are beginning to reflect the visions of Generation Xers like Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), the fresh, young voices at Pixar (Up, The Incredibles), and other young artists who dare to buck the tired irony-cool cynicism that has shaped and stifled too much of the culture. Suddenly, after decades of being shut out, minimized, or mocked, film characters have room in their lives for optimism, and even something almost like faith. The Church, if it seeks to be relevant in the future, needs to welcome this development and encourage -- even patronize -- such talents.

Pope Benedict XVI, who has an artist's heart, seems to realize this; he recently met with artists to discuss the role of beauty in the health of the world. That is a start, but more is needed. The Boomers' exit from cultural influence creates a two-sided pastoral challenge for the 21st-century Church.

First is the effect on the gargantuan Boomer generation of a lifetime of listening to their own voices. The movies being created by and for the Boomers today are a very unentertaining mix of "Never regret! Life starts at 70!" and "Life is a cruel joke, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'" Movies like It's Complicated showcase a bunch of grey hairs still acting badly, swallowing their shame and ignoring their appropriate role as the wise mentors of the younger generations. The Dorian Greyish dark echo of this kind of story are movies like There Will Be Blood and the chillingly titled No Country for Old Men, in which the characters' lives of narcissism and greed devolve into cynicism and brutality.

As an institution bent on saving souls, the Church's urgency with the fading Boomers must encourage them to face and take responsibility for the mistakes they have made. If they would be saved, the Boomer Generation must be guided into repentance for the way they self-righteously sacrificed all others as they fled from the simple heroism of adult human life. The rigid eradication of tradition, the gross materialism, the unbridled license, the embarrassing promiscuity -- all always accompanied by shrill distortion and denial -- have left our society disconnected, bloated, poorly educated, unable to trust and simmering in resentment. If the Boomers don't begin to admit to the rest of us where they went wrong, we all risk losing any of the positive achievements the generation has contributed to human history. I see many of my Millennial Generation students clamoring to set back the clock to a day before the Sixties, when there were grown-ups.

The Church's secondary, but equally urgent pastoral challenge, is with the younger generations. Do not think me flippant in suggesting that pastors and teachers of the faith must quickly provide substantive, moral reasons for GenXers not to euthanize the Boomers; I wish I were kidding, but I watch television, so I know that euthanasia is coming. The Entitled Generation will quickly morph into the Expensive Generation in the minds of the Millennials bent low under the weight of social programs that were strapped on their backs without their consent. It will be very easy to isolate the folks who are draining Medicare and Social Security and the health care system of most of the resources. History has a devastating way of being cyclical. It was the Boomers who made the case that they should end their marriages and abort their children for the God Expediency. Now, their children, stripped of any attachment to a moral framework, will eye the old grey hairs drooling in a corner in diapers -- but certainly still sneering -- and consider expedient "Death with Dignity" to be a sensible and pragmatic policy. The Church must use all media to reach these new cultural power brokers, and to penetrate the commanding subconscious voices of their parents; she must teach them that the breakdown of the Boomers will require patience, heroism, and long-suffering.

How can we help the younger generations break out of the resentment and emotional disconnect that has come from being the children of the Boomers? Decades of being abandoned, let down, and embarrassed has meant that we are engulfed in a new society that sneers at its own impulse to hope and dream. Survey most of the "adult" characters in today's popular entertainment for a scary cultural temperature. The parents in the global phenomenon Twilight, for example are immature, emotionally needy, and insecure. The "adults" in Harry Potter's world are mostly needy, clueless, and ultimately oppressive to the younger generation.

I suspect the only way to reach the Millennials and Gen Xers, from a spiritual standpoint, will be with a powerful, renewed ethic of the value of suffering and the urgent need for forgiveness. We need hero stories perhaps more urgently than any generation of humanity that has come before.

The Church needs to give serious, thoughtful, and weighty commitment to a whole-hearted engagement of the arts. Dostoevsky's notion, "Man will be saved by Beauty" is now a prophetic and frightening warning. Human society will either be saved by beauty or lost, as men cease to be men and become boorish beasts, scratching and burping like the bloated floating creatures in Pixar's Wall-E. Those young artists who are making films like Juno and Superbad write characters displaying good instincts under pressure, but possessing a bittersweet befuddlement that has them stumbling into the good choices, because their relativistic upbringing gave such little direction.

The Church needs to come alongside artists, to pray for them and form them so they can inspire us and our future. We need beauty -- in music, in story, in visual art, in oratory -- to frame a restored vision of human life and dignity.

It isn't going to happen by accident. Let the church get her own house in order, in the area of art and story. We will have to wage war against the egalitarian impulse that has trumped excellence so often in the Boomer's reign. We will have to fight against the legacy of sloth and greed that will keep us from mastery of craft and full investment in the beautiful.

As cultural drivers, the Boomers have done a tremendous amount of damage, but the Good News is that in the Divine Economy, it is never "too late."

Portions of this piece appeared in Nicolosi's essay "Save the Boomers, Save the World; Redeeming Culture," part of the Future of Catholicism forum.

Barbara Nicolosi is a screenwriter with an M.A. in Cinema from Northwestern University. She is the co-writer of the 2011 Lionsgate/MGM release Mary, Mother of the Christ, wrote Polosuasion for IMMI Pictures, and is currently writing Fatima, Miracle and Message for Origin Entertainment. She is an adjunct professor // cinema in the Seaver Graduate School at Pepperdine University and lectures on cinema and screenwriting at universities and conferences around the world.

Barbara was the Founding Director, and is now the Chair, Emeritus of the acclaimed Act One Program in Hollywood, CA. As such, she has been instrumental in launching hundreds of young people into Hollywood careers as writers, producers, and executives. Barbara has also worked in the industry as a Director of Project Development, a documentary researcher, a theater producer, and as a consultant on features and television shows including The Passion of the Christ, A Foreign Affair, and Saving Grace. She is the co-editor of the 2006 Baker Books release Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith and Culture, and blogs at Church of the Masses.

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