Other worlds and ours: James Cameron, Gene Roddenberry, and Dante Alighieri

You may have heard this report about some fans of James Cameron’s new movie Avatar who have become depressed and even suicidal over the realization that this world can never be as wonderful as the movie’s fantasy world of blue-skinned elves living in harmony with nature.  It brought to my mind an old boast I used to hear:  that whereas people in the Middle Ages were indifferent to their actual lives and their actual world because they’d put all their hopes in an imaginary afterlife, we brave, secular moderns put all our hopes and energies into this life–and, by golly, it’s helping us make progress.  (Whereas in the Middle Ages, centuries would go by without major changes.)  Now, not only is this claim not true, in some ways it seems to have gotten things exactly backwards.  People in the Middle Ages did dream about another world or worlds, and so do modern people.  There is a big difference, though, in how the dreamed world relates to our current one.  For medievals and other traditional peoples, other worlds tended to enhance the significance of this one.  For moderns, the meaningfulness of the fantasy world is contrasted with the meaninglessness of the real one.

Continue reading

Toward a deeper understanding of conservatism

I would like to recommend that my fellow reactionaries check out this essay over at Dispatches from the North.  It’s a short but penetrating introduction to the great counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre.   A couple of points to take away from it:

1) The author hones in on the real heart of Maistre’s project, which was to examine the nature of authority.  This examination lead to Maistre’s well-known claims that authority cannot be grounded in consent, and authoritative consitutions cannot be deliberately and explicitly manufactured, any more than the people it rules can be so manufactured.

2) The author explicitly points out that traditionalist conservative thought cannot be reduced to Edmund Burke.  This is a necessary corrective to the annoying Burkeolatry one often encounters on the intellectual Right.  It’s been my experience that arguments that start with the formula “true conservatism = Burke” always seem to end in the conclusion “we should capitulate to the liberals”.  One can see this quite fully in the recent books on conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus and Jeffrey Hart.  True conservatism, these men insist, consists in gradual change–never mind its direction–and defense of the status quo–no matter how iniquitous.  Only loony reactionaries like de Maistre acturally tried to undo established liberal policies, right?  In particular, a true conservative would certainly jump on the divorce-feticide-and-sodomy bandwagon by now.  Hence the conclusion of the “Obamacon” Burke-aficionados that Barack Obama is today’s most exemplary conservative.  If this is conservatism, they’re welcome to it.  I’m happy to be a reactionary loon.

The curse of the Wandering Jew

The first man to acheive immortality was Utnapishtim.  For rescuing animal and human life during the Flood, the gods granted him this favor, that he and his wife should live forever, albeit outside the realm of mortal men.  For Utnapishtim, immortality is a blessing–one that the gods have seen fit to deprive from every other man, as Gilgamesh learns with bitterness.

Next came the Sibyl of Cumae.  To win her love, Apollo offered her a gift.  Gathering a pile of sand, she said, “Let me live as many years as there are grains of sand here,” and it was granted.  Having been given near-immortality, she spurned the god–after all, the gift of a god is irrevocable.  Apollo then changed his blessing into a curse:  the Sibyl would continue to live, but she would also continue to age.  She would age and shrivel until nothing was left of her but a voice, pleading for death.  This time, near immortality is a curse, but only accidentally.  Not perpetual life, but the infirmity of extreme old age is what is unbearable.

During the Christian era, another man was given immortality:  Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew.  For mocking Christ as He carried His cross to Golgotha, Ahasuerus was cursed to live on for millenium to millenium and wander the Earth until Christ’s second coming.  Unlike the Sibyl, Ahasuerus does not continue to age–near immortality itself is the curse, as well as the perpetual homelessness which, we shall see, is essentially connected to it.  Nor is immortality a curse only for the Wandering Jew in Christian folk lore.  It is also such for the Flying Dutchman, who is essentially the Wandering Jew at sea.

How could immortality–not immortality accompanied by perpetual pain or aging, but immortality in itself–be a curse?  And why couldn’t an immortal man feel at home in the world?  Why must he be a wanderer?  It might seem that such a man would be more at home in the world, which after all is his permanantly, while we are just temporary guests.

Continue reading

Brainwashing vs. Indoctrination

My mother once told me a story about a Catholic grade school class.  The teacher (who was a sister in a religious order) was telling her pupils about the evils of communism.  In particular, she told them that the communists used their power to brainwash their subjects and tell them what to think.  One student raised his hand and pointed out that the sister did the same think to her students.  My mother didn’t tell me what the teacher said in reply, but I would like to reply for her.  What they do in Catholic schools is not brainwashing, it’s indoctrination.  The two words both have negative connotations, but they are as different as night is from day, as conditioning is from teaching, as animal is from man.

Continue reading

Is the right more militaristic than the left?

Let me present a thought experiment.  Suppose the twentieth century had gone a different way.  Europe is now ruled by a rejuvinated Habsburg Empire.  These Austrians are America’s main compeditor for world power.  The Habsburgs are aggressively Catholic; they have declared that they will use any means at their disposal, not excluding military force, to rid the world of American-sponsored evils like abortion.  Suppose half of academia was Catholic and fairly obvious in their support of the Empire.  Suppose crypo-Catholic movies were constantly coming out of Hollywood.  Who do you think would be more inclined towards a confrontational posture towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the right or the left?  Who would be more inclined towards negotiation or even appeasement?

Continue reading

Another reason to despise the Iranian protesters

They’re trying to do to Islam what Western liberals did to Christianity:

To varying degrees, thinkers and theologians identified with the democratic movement have been offering a new reading of Shiism that makes the faith more amenable to democracy and secularism. The most significant innovation—found in essays, sermons, books, and even fatwas—is the acceptance of the separation of mosque and state, the idea that religion must be limited to the private domain. Some of these thinkers refuse to afford any privileged position to the clergy’s reading and rendition of Shiism–a radical democratization of the faith. And others, like Akbar Ganji and Mostafa Malekian, have gone so far as to deny the divine origins of Koran, arguing that it is nothing but a historically specific and socially marked interpretation of a divine message by the prophet. The most daring are even opting for a historicized Muhammad, searching for the first time in Shia history for a real, not hagiographic, narrative of his life.

As this book explains, for a Muslim to deny that the Koran comes directly from God is equivalent to a Christian denying the Incarnation.  I strongly suspect that the only reason the Greens don’t openly advocate atheism is because they think they can do more damage through subterfuge.

Now, not being a Muslim, I myself am not committed to a belief in the uncreated nature of the Koran, so you might think it strange that I should mind anyone else expressing skepticism about it.  However, when evaluating a movement like this, we should not just ask ourselves whether the criticized beliefs are completely true.  We must also ask whether the beliefs that the skeptics are steering the Iranians towards are truer.  We must also remember that truths can be tied up with falsehoods in the minds of men–if a falsehood legitimates a truth, we should be wary of attacking the former lest we cast doubt on the latter as well.  Now, I have little doubt that these religious reformers have privately abandoned belief in their historical religion.  They have done so not because they suddenly found Islam to be incredible, but because they encountered a new faith that they found more credible.  This faith, it can hardly be doubted, is liberalism.  So the choice here is not between Shia Islam and whatever you think is a perfect belief system.  It’s between Shia Islam and atheist liberalism.  I myself am quite convinced that the former is closer to the truth about the universe, man, and society than the latter.  I’m also convinced that the former is connected in most Iranians’ minds to a number of important truths.  Islam provides them with a sense of the sacred and the profane; it reinforces the claims of morality; it helps people put the good of family, clan, and nation over their own; it affirms a person’s sense that what he does with his life matters in some ultimate way.  Liberalism would take all of this away.

Fortunately, as Daniel Larison points out, the embrace of liberal theology will be political suicide for the Greens.  By the way, my Burkean defense of the Iranian regime can be found here.

Another reason why the Republican Party is worthless

It does things like this.  Senator Reid pointed out that the fact that President Obama speaks without a Negro dialect helped him to get elected, and this is a scandal why?  First, does anyone seriously doubt that there is such a thing as a negro dialect?  If you do, read this by a black linguist, and then stop pretending to be stupider than you are.  Does anyone doubt that people would be less likely to vote for someone who they thought sounded like a black gangster?  Note that Reid didn’t say people would have been correct to feel this way, only that that’s how it would have been.  Finally, has anyone not noticed that Obama speaks standard English?

I’ll admit that I feel a little sorry for the Senator.  After all, I thought the big advantage that comes with selling your soul to the Devil and becoming a liberal is that you finally get to stop groveling before assorted wedge minorities.  So, due in part to his nitwit Republican detractors, Reid has apologized to the Negro community, and all whites will suffer for it.  The fact is that every time a white person cowers and grovels at the feet of the Negros, it only encourages them to become more belligerent.  When whites try to make reparations to blacks, it only convinces the latter that the white man’s guilt is indeed beyond question.  Then there’s the matter of displaying weakness.  The black community has learned very well that the white man fears being called a “racist” more than death itself, and small acts of moral blackmail can yield big rewards in money and status.  Finally, there’s the issue of precedence.  Nobody could give a sensible explanation of why Reid’s comments were offensive, but we have now collectively agreed that such statements are beyond the pale.  This will just make it that much harder for the next poor shmuck who gets called down to Human Resources for using the word “niggardly” or the next first-grader who gets suspended because she says she doesn’t like Mexican food.  Ironically enough, the only friend that white American’s have had during this farce is President Obama, who has (quite reasonably) striven to downplay the incident.

What’s the difference between a king and a tyrant?

By the way, Aladdin ends the same way as Eddie Murphy’s comedy Coming to America.  The princess (prince) has found her (his) true love, but he (she) is a commoner and the law/custom demands that she (he) marry someone of the appropriate social station.  Then the kind decides, “Hey, I’m the king.  I’ll just change the law and let my daughter (son) marry whoever she (he) wants.”  Simple.  Happy ending.

The trouble comes from the answer to my question.  The difference between a king and a tyrant is that the former is bound by the laws and traditions through which he gets his authority.  So I’m happy for the united lovers, but apprehensive for the kingdom’s subjects, because their ruler just took the first step from king to tyrant, from rule by law to arbitrary power.

Now, I promise I’ll stop talking about cartoons for a little while.

The beauty of women

I love to look at pretty girls–I could watch a beautiful woman for hours an be completely content.  Christ says that this is adultery, and I don’t doubt it, but it’s also a curious phenomenon.  Why do so many of us find the beauty of women so enthralling?

Dumb question, you might be thinking:  it’s my sex drive, vile sinner that I am.  Now there’s no doubt that I’m sexually attracted to women, and these desires can be strong, but I don’t think that’s it, at least that’s not most of it.  The way I respond to a pretty girl is nothing like the way I respond to, say, a juicy steak.  I’m interested in the steak for the satisfaction it can give me by eating it; if I can’t eat it, it might as well not exist as far as I’m concerned.  When I see a lovely girl, my thoughts are seldom on how she might delight me in bed.  In fact, my experience is ecstatic in the old sense of the term–I am lifted outside myself; I joyously forget about myself completely.  For an instant, the girl is everything–her face, her eyes, her smile, her hair.  I’m enthralled; I would be content to just look forever.

Is this the disinterestedness of a true aesthetic response, or am I just fooling myself?  I don’t think I’m fooling myself, for three reasons.  First, it’s not just men that are enraptured by women’s beauty–I’ve seen it have the same effect on women and children.  I can remember times when one of them (say, my wife or one of my little nieces) pointed out a pretty girl to me.  “Look at how pretty she is!” they say with the excitement that comes not from desire but from delight.  A beautiful woman brings happiness to everyone who sees her:  men, women, and children.  We rejoice that something so lovely exists.

Second, I find that I can have a similar, but much weaker, appreciation for the beauty of some animals.  Perhaps you, too, have been struck by the gracefulness and perfect design of a cat, and you’ve thought to yourself “What a magnificent creature!”  We can appreciate the grace and perfection of a woman in the same way, although for a woman the impression is much, much more intense. The reason, I think, is that human women really are more beautiful than cats, although both desire might augment our interest (as might our appreciation of the woman as a fellow person, with consciousness and intelligence).

I have another reason to think that the appreciation of female beauty isn’t purely carnal, but I’m afraid I don’t know a delicate way to say it.  When I judge a steak, I do so solely on the basis of how much pleasure it would give me to eat it.  Now, this can’t be the “edge” that a pretty woman has over a plain one, because, frankly, sex with either one would probably feel about the same to me.  Furthermore, the thought of adultery is not only morally, but also viscerally repellent to me.  If looking at girls always meant plotting to sleep with them, I would rather have an urge to avoid it.

Furthermore, the awe elicited by a pretty girl doesn’t just come from the form of her face and body (although she needs these to be pretty).  What most enthralls us is this form charged with life.  We love to watch her hair bounce and her body sway as she walks, to see her lovely eyes move from one object to another, to watch her concentrate, blush, smile, and laugh in turn.  A woman’s vitality is part of her beauty.  This is why a pretty girl in a movie is much more alluring than the same girl in a photograph.  And this is still all at the level of superficial appreciation.  Even if I don’t know or care about a girl, I can appreciate and be attracted to her vitality and her femininity.

The appreciation for a woman’s beauty is thus a spiritual as well as a carnal affair.  This makes it both promising and dangerous.  It is promising because it can fuse with and complement real love so easily.  If my desire for a woman was the same as my desire for a steak, I could perhaps both love her and desire her in this way, but the two feelings would be totally separate.  In fact, they would tend to oppose one another, since one treats her as an end and one as a means.  On the other hand, attraction to a woman’s beauty, vitality, and femininity can merge seamlessly with love for her as a person and a child of God.  Both aesthetic appreciation and love are value responses; both treat the object as an end in itself.

On the other hand, this spiritual element can make the desire for a girl a more dangerous temptation than a mere carnal desire could be.  If I want a steak but know I shouldn’t eat it, it’s not too hard to change my attention to something else.  The steak had only made a claim on a part, a fairly humble part, of my soul.  A woman, though, can entrance and intoxicate me body, soul, and spirit.  This is all to the good if she is, or can become, my wife.  If she’s not,  then it might require all of my strength to put her out of mind.  Christ was right to turn us away from such danger.

The varieties of sexism

Like many words in political debate, the word “sexism” seems to have been designed to confuse rather than to clarify.  Its only real meaning is “anything feminists object to”.  The word is an impediment to thought because it connects semantically things that have no connection in reality.  Consider that stock villian, the sexist man.  He actually comes in at least three different types.

  1. The misogynist–the man who hates women.  I doubt many of these actually exist, but I suppose there could be some men who’ve had bad experiences with women and have irrationally extended their hostility to the whole sex.  Related to this would be people like the fictional detective Nero Wolfe, who doesn’t hate women (as in wishing them harm) but dislikes their company.  As I said, there certainly could be genuine misogynists out there (although the only examples I can think of are fictional), but they are, and always have been, rare and regarded as defective men.  Feminism certainly did not come into being to protect women from this insignificant threat.
  2. The philanderer–the man who regards women as mere means for satisfying his sexual appetites.  Now, you’ll notice that the philanderer is generally not a misogynist–he has no hatred of or hostility towards women at all.  Caring little about their welfare, he doesn’t wish them harm; he would be pleased for all women to be perfectly happy, so long as it doesn’t interfere with his ability to gratify his lust.  He has no trouble with women voting or working outside the home.  He shares with the feminists an appreciation for divorce, contraception, and abortion.  The more “sexually liberated” women are, the better for him.  Feminists often criticise him, but on the deepest level, the philanderer is their ally.
  3. The patriarchist–the man who believes men and women should assume distinct gender roles based on father/mother archetypes.  The patriarchist is not a misogynist–he can’t be, given his high opinion of the maternal role, and given that his own role requires him to behave chivalrously towards women.  Of course, he will probably despise loose women and bad mothers (unless Christian charity helps him see them as souls in need of redemption).  He will admire women who are chaste and devoted to their families.  Nor is the patriarchist a philanderer; he acts against his own ideals if he behaves like one.  The patriarchist does have a “double standard” for men and women, but although distinct, each standard is very demanding.  The patriarchist is the true enemy of the feminist, all the more formidable because he is sincere and holds himself and his fellow men to a high paternal standard.

As we see, the word “sexism” just creates confusion by linking together these things that have nothing in common.  As a rhetorical trick, it can be useful.  Suppose a feminist is debating a patriarchist.  The patriarchist is arguing, say, that women should not be priests or executioners or policemen or some such thing.  The feminist says that he only wants to exclude women from these jobs because he hates them (i.e. he’s a misogynist) and just thinks of them as objects to gratify his lust (i.e. he’s a philanderer).  The really sinister thing, though, is that the feminist actually believes this silly set of identities:  patriarchist=sexist=philanderer=misogynist.  They actually think that men want women to raise their children because they hate them.  This makes it impossible for feminists to understand their opponents.  It also leads them to despise every culture in the history of humanity except for late-20th-century Europe, since distinct gender roles are at the heart of all other cultures and civilizations.