Monday, July 4, 2011

Two Good Articles: Sandel and Hitchens

In clearing out a career’s worth of files, books, journals, and magazines, I came across the April 2004 issue of The Atlantic – the only issue I own (as far as I know). I noticed that it has two excellent articles.

The first, featured on the cover, is by Michael J. Sandel. The article, “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering,” foreshadows his similarly named 2007 book, The Case Against Perfection. I have discussed Sandel’s book and course on Justice elsewhere here and found his work very helpful in thinking about the virtues, moral philosophy in its practical application, and bioethics.

The article here carries the reader in a careful consideration of his moral intuitions about the willful attempt to design human beings to our liking through genetic engineering. What is it about designer babies, bionic athletes and the like that we find creepy in ways similar to our responses to such literary dystopias as Brave New World or the film Gattaca. Starting with this unease, Sandel considers one explanation or ethical principle after another and shows how it fails if some alteration to the story is made that leaves the unease but removes the apparent ground for it.

In the end, Sandel, a Harvard liberal, brings us to considerations similar to those raised by such conservative writers as Thomas Sowell and Roger Scruton. It is a wariness about the utopian desire to control and remake the world from scratch according to our own desires, with what Sowell calls an “unconstrained vision” and Scruton “unscrupulous optimism.” It is an unease reinforced by the utopian efforts of the last century, of left and right, of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as well as Hitler, with their drive – led by an enlightened party with an absolute dictator at the helm - to cast off the constraints of history, religion, tradition, the wishes of the masses, and human nature, to make the world anew by any means necessary (i.e., by extreme violence and the deaths of millions).

It is, as Sandel acknowledges, a religious sensibility that recognizes, in contrast to such unscrupulous optimism, the giftedness of life, its unbidden nature, and the inherent imperfection and limits of our life on earth. As he says,
To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, despite the effort we expend to develop and to exercise them. It is also to recognize that not everything in the world is open to whatever we may desire or devise. Appreciating the gifted quality of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility. It is in part a religious sensibility. But its resonance reaches beyond religion.

Citing the theologian, William F. May, Sandel discusses how parenthood, more than other human relationships, teaches us an “openness to the unbidden.” In a social world that prizes mastery and control, it is a school for humility. Though we care deeply about our children and love them unconditionally, we cannot choose the kind we want. As we appreciate them as gifts or blessings, we recognize that there are limits to how far we can or should seek to control, shape, and direct them.
Sandel points to the similarity in spirit between attempts to improve children through genetic engineering and the heavily managed hyper-parenting that is now common among the more educated and affluent. But far from vindicating genetic enhancement, the similarity highlights the problem with over-controlling, over-ambitious parenting. To appreciate Eugenics and genetic engineering
Eugenics, old and new, and genetic engineering represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness – the Triumph of the Will – over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.


In the same issue of The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens offers a surprisingly sympathetic assessment of that earlier critic of Promethean pretensions to remake the world from scratch, Edmund Burke.

Hitchens points out how prescient Burke was in pointing to authoritarianism and violence of the French Revolution, its inherent elitism in substituting the enlightened few and ultimately the imperial dictator for both tradition and the wishes of the people. Burke points to the feebleness of the National Assembly and the absurdity of expecting the military leaders to submit themselves to it. Thus, he predicts the rise of Napoleon (not coincidentally the name George Orwell gives to the pig who represents Stalin in his dystopian novel, 1984) almost a decade before it happened:
In the weakness of one kind of authority [i.e., the assembly], and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself…. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.

Except for the bit about the king, who by the time of Napoleon’s seizure of power had already lost his head to the revolution, this is eerily exact, as Hitchens says.
As Hitchens points out, Burke’s response to the French Revolution was diametrically opposed to his earlier support for the American Revolution, a shift that led to astonishment on the part of Thomas Paine, who supported both, and scorn from many later leftists, who characteristically attributed base material motives to Burke’s turn. In this regard, Sowell’s comments on the two revolutions, in an interview he did in connection with his reissued book, A Conflict of Visions, is instructive. Sowell argues there that the American Revolution reflected the constrained vision of its leaders, whereas the French Revolution was led by a revolutionary elite with an unconstrained vision and a determination to make the world anew according to their own understanding of the dictates of Reason. [The interview is available at] From this perspective, Burke was right to support the American but criticize the French Revolution.

Hitchens, who is reviewing a Yale edition of Reflections on the Revolution in France with scholarly essays edited by Frank M. Turner, has an interesting discussion of Paine’s relation to Burke and also of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s essay. O’Brien is interesting both because of his attempt to rescue Burke from his easy dismissal (by liberals) as a reactionary and because he illuminates the importance of Burke, a fellow Irishman, in his Catholic and national sympathies in the face of English oppression. Here Hitchens surprises us with his own sympathy (empathy anyway) for Burke’s Catholic sympathies. Indeed, he almost reminds one of his devastating critic, Terry Eagleton, a Marxist whose own Catholic and Irish sympathies were aroused more recently by Hitchens’s crude and ignorant antics as a New Atheist.

Nabbishing the Bible

Why are most efforts to ‘modernize’ the language of our great religious texts such dismal failures? In his memoir, The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens uses the apt subheading, "The Prodigal Son Returns Too Late," to describe his dismay at encountering this wreckage of the Anglican patrimony on his return to the Church of England he had abandoned as an adolescent. He means that the Anglican communion he returned to was not the C of E he had left decades earlier. Even more than the Catholic Church in the West, the C of E had been infected with a liberal, secularizing modernism. Traditional teaching on faith and morals as well as liturgy, architecture, music and ancient practices and forms had been abandoned and the communion was falling into apparently irreversible decline. Hitchens deplores these developments, which include discarding some of the greatest literary treasures of the C of E and the English language--the King James Bible and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. (See my review of Hitchens’s book on this blog and for Amazon.)

American Catholics have to endure, not only similar liturgical, architectural, and musical horrors. Not least of these are the pop-music hymns of the 1970s and 1980s – what a terrible period in the life of the Church in so many ways! – hymns that are embarrassingly narcissistic, being all about me rather songs of praise and adoration to the Lord or Mary. (I finally had to change parishes after one crooning rendition to many of Dan Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord.”)

But also, and perhaps worst, because inescapable, of these horrors is the New American Bible. Now at least we can relish an accurate account and at least a partial explanation of its peculiar language, the language of Nabbish, in the current issue of First Things ( The essay by Anthony Esolen, also aptly titled, “A Bumping Boxcar Language,” explains:

The bland, Scripture-muffling, colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase American Catholics have had for forty years often was not a translation at all, nor even a paraphrase into English. It was a paraphrase into Nabbish, the secret official language of the New American Bible.
Esolen explains the principles of Nabbish:

Principle One: Prefer the general to the specific, the abstract to the concrete, the vague to the exact.
From Esolen’s wonderful, if depressing, account of this principle in action, let me take just one example. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say to you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. In Nabbish this becomes, Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.


Principle Two: Prefer the neuter, the indefinite, and the impersonal.

Thus St. Paul, in prison awaiting execution, writes to his beloved disciple, the bishop Timothy. As Esolen explains,
He is writing to his beloved disciple, the bishop Timothy. He regards the many years of his life spent preaching the word of God; he thinks of the shipwrecks, the stonings, the narrow escapes, the joys and the sorrows. And he utters those bold words that ring in the heart of every true Christian. Here they are in the Revised Standard Version, an exact translation of the Greek into contemporary English (and quite close to the King James): I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

And in Nabbish this becomes, I have competed well. As Esolen comments, “Try to remember that as you await your own last hours. Just try.”)

Principle Three: Prefer the office memorandum to the poem.
Here Esolen compares two versions part of the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, which he calls “one of the most powerful and astonishing poems in all of Scripture.” Here is the King James Version:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.

The simple, direct and awe-inspiring language of John, faithfully rendered from the Greek to the KJV, is muffled and stripped of its awe in the sadly familiar way of Nabbish:

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.

He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

“Ah,” says Esolen, “the boxcar-bumping of Nabbish! Natural generation, human choice, a man’s decision—thudding softly as their train rumbles across the dusty plains of oblivion.”

Esolen describes and illustrates the core principles of Nabbish. He also explains how a reader may learn Nabbish on his own:
[H]e should simply take all the lessons in an old and reliable book of English style, say the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and invert them. Or he may ask himself, “What are the things that make poetry lovely or memorable?” and eliminate them.

Esolen’s essay is available with a subscription to First Things, at

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sex and the New Intolerance

In a recent article on Maureen Dowd’s increasingly intense and frequent anti-Catholic rants in the New York Times, and on the general phenomenon of Catholic anti-Catholicism, George Weigel sees the driving force of this new bigotry as “an irrational and unsustainable belief in the sexual revolution” .

While the Church has cleaned house, Weigel argues, Dowd and other prophets and prophetesses of the Sexual Free-Fire Zone have blithely ignored the evidence of the broken and crippled lives caused by the sexual license they applaud as liberation.” What infuriates such anti-Catholic Catholics as Dowd, Anne Rice, and the National Catholic Reporter is, above all, the refusal of the Church to bend its teachings to the ideology and practices of the sexual revolution, to fall in line with the rich and powerful cultural elites that accept it as an unchallengeable orthodoxy.

In an excellent interview about the vote in New York on the “Marriage Equality Act,” Robert P. George discusses how the vote there “to redefine marriage advances the cause of loosening norms of sexual ethics,” how New York “has abolished marriage as a matter of civil law and replaced it with a counterfeit that New Yorkers’ children and grandchildren will be taught to accept and approve as if it were the real thing.” The whole argument is penetrating and should be read in full at

The part that especially struck me as a lifetime teacher of graduate social work students is the emergence of this new orthodoxy that George calls sexual liberalism. It is an ideology directly contrary to social work’s purpose of contributing to individual and community well-being and its commitment to the poor and vulnerable. Yet, like liberalism as a political movement, social work has fallen for this ideology hook, line, and sinker, and is increasingly intolerant of any evidence or argument that questions it.

It is an ideology whose early advocates were the likes of Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, and Hugh Hefner, who attacked and ridiculed traditional norms of sexual conduct as mere ‘hang-ups.’
Although Sanger was a racist and a eugenicist, though Kinsey was a liar and a fraud, though Hefner was a buffoon, the liberationist view they had championed eventually hardened into something very close to an orthodoxy in elite circles…. Devotion to ‘sexual freedom’ had been no part of the liberalism of FDR, George Meany, Cesar Chavez, Hubert Humphrey, or the leaders and rank-and-file members of the civil-rights movement. Today, however, allegiance to the cause of sexual freedom is the nonnegotiable price of admission to the liberal (or “progressive”) club.

The price is indeed nonnegotiable and faithful Catholics and other Christians are being forced out of leadership in the Democratic Party, its “Catholic” leaders like Pelosi, Biden, and Andrew Cuomo publicly and vehemently attacking the settled teaching of the Church.

But the same is happening in social work and other ‘helping professions’ as the belligerent adherents of the new sexual orthodoxy reject compromise on grounds of conscience or religious freedom and push out those who disagree with the sexual liberationist orthodoxy. George describes the process of conversion to sexual liberalism/liberation/libertinism and how it produces new levels on intolerance and bigotry in the name of tolerance:
Moreover, one will come to regard one’s allegiance to sexual liberalism as a mark of urbanity and sophistication, and will likely find oneself looking down on those “ignorant,” “intolerant,” “bigoted” people — those hicks and rubes — who refuse to get “on the right side of history.” One will perceive people who wish to engage in conduct rejected by traditional morality (especially where such conduct is sought in satisfaction of desires that can be redescribed or labeled as an “orientation,” such as “gay” or “bisexual,” or “polyamorist”) as belonging to the category of “sexual minorities” whose “civil rights” are violated by laws embodying the historic understanding of marriage and sexual ethics. One will begin congratulating oneself for one’s “open-mindedness” and “tolerance” in holding that marriage should be redefined to accommodate the interests of these minorities, and one will likely lose any real regard for the rights of, say, parents who do not wish to have their children indoctrinated into the ideology of sexual liberalism in public schools. “Why,” one will ask, “should fundamentalist parents be free to rear their children as little bigots?” Heather’s two mommies or Billy’s two mommies and three daddies are the keys to freeing children from parental “homophobia” and “polyphobia.
Kathryn Jean Lopez concludes the interview with a question of how name-calling and ad hominem attacks substitute for reason and evidence in the rhetoric of the new orthodoxy”

LOPEZ: Why should anyone care about this debate anymore? A man and a man can legally get married in New York. The die is cast. Besides, who wants to be an intolerant anti-civil-rights bigot — or so my inbox has called me all weekend, again.

Anyone in social work who has even attempted to explain the arguments for maintaining the integrity of marriage and the social harm done to women, children, men, the poor and society as a whole abandoning its legal recognition as a comprehensive union ordered to the having and rearing of children, will have experienced these defeatist sentiments. Students and colleagues, in my experience, are unable even to comprehend the argument or weigh the evidence, all claims to “critical thinking” notwithstanding.

Here is George’s response:
GEORGE: Well, people should care because the whole edifice of sexual-liberationist ideology is built on damaging and dehumanizing falsehoods. It has already done enormous harm — harm that falls on everybody, but disproportionately on those in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our society. If you doubt that, have a look at Myron Magnet’s great book The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the UnderclasThe Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclasss, or some of the writings of Kay Hymowitz and other serious people who have examined the social consequences for the poor of the embrace of sexual liberalism by celebrities and other cultural elites. Marriage is a profound human and social good; its weakening and loss is a tragedy from which affluent people can be distracted (and protected) by their affluence for only so long. The institution of marriage has already been deeply wounded by divorce at nearly plague levels, widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation, and other damaging factors. To redefine it out of existence in law is to make it much more difficult to restore a sound understanding of marriage on which a healthy marriage culture can be rebuilt for the good of all. It is to sacrifice the needs of the poor, who are hurt the most when a sound public understanding of marriage and sexual morality collapses. It is to give up on the truth that children need both a father and mother, and benefit from the security of their love for each other.

So people are calling you “intolerant” and an “anti-civil-rights bigot”? Well, for those who have absorbed the premises of sexual liberation and embraced its dogmas so fanatically that they can’t fathom the possibility that any reasonable person of goodwill could dissent from them, that’s what people like you and me seem to be. Like overly impassioned believers at all times and in all places, these folks suppose that anyone who doubts the tenets of their faith must have malign motives. Dissenters from what they regard as an unquestionable orthodoxy must be “haters” (the modern word for “heretics”). It’s ironic — and amusing — that these folks regard themselves as urbane, sophisticated people — critical thinkers — who are much smarter and better informed (not to mention more “tolerant” and “open-minded”) than their opponents. In truth, they rarely have the foggiest notion of what the arguments are in support of the view they reject or what the intellectual challenges are for the view they hold. They already know the truth, and that’s that! So what need is there for reflection, study, deliberation, and debate? Why argue with “intolerant, anti-civil-rights bigots”? To the barricades!

Of course, there is an astonishing degree of ignorance on display in all this, especially when considered in proportion to the certitude and moral passion of sexual liberalism’s true believers. Perhaps it is too much to ask of them, but for those who might (perhaps secretly, when no “sophisticated,” “urbane” friends are looking) want to know why those of us on the other side dissent, and who might be willing to consider what we believe are the damning intellectual challenges that same-sex “marriage” advocates have not met and cannot meet, here again is the link to “What is Marriage?”

[For more on the post-Sixties phenomenon of the anti-Catholic Catholic, see Philip Jenkins’s excellent study, The New Anti-Catholicism]