England: the island nest of vipers

In a discussion of the Pope’s upcoming visit to England, one of the commenters, “Fabio P”, at Damien Thompson’s Telegraph weblog makes the following point

I am serious. The seething malevolence and hatred against the Pope which every lunatic in this country seems to share may not surprise those of you who have no term of comparison, but I can tell you that it has so stunned Italian observers that I have had people seriously telling me that the Pope should never set foot in so hate-ridden and dangerous a country. I heard from people who told me that they were less worried by Papal visits to Turkey or the Holy Land than to this island nest of vipers. And I could say little to reassure them, except to say that all British Catholics who can make it will certainly be there.

Another commenter, “Mundabor”, agrees:

As in “Italian Observer”, the biggest differences between I and UK I notice are:
1) the militant fanatic atheism.
2) the obsession with political correctness.
3) the global warming maniacs
4) the animal rights terrorists
5) the compulsive nannies.
6) the vegetarians, vegans and other “ans” brigade.
7) the chariteeee activists

Whilst some of these are present in Italy too, they are the reserve of a small and ridiculed minority and are never a mainstream issue.
Italians get mad for lesser things (football, mainly) and are unable of being serious in many others (list is too long); but they have a remarkable middle of the way attitude, such that none of the issue above would ever become “life defining”.
The idea of going around trying to arrest Popes or otherwise making an ass of oneself is so stupid to them that no one would do it for fear of the ridicule alone.
I’m sure many would compare such a fanatical behaviour to the man who at the wedding lunch tells the bridegroom in front of everyone all that he doesn’t like in him. Embarrassingly stupid, unnecessarily exaggerated and index of a disturbed personality. Even if they don’t like the bridegroom themselves.
To the typical Italian, looking with some mistrust even at a vegetarian, an animal rights activist or one who wants to arrest the Pope are people from another planet.

This doesn’t surprise me.  Upon the vast reprobate continent of modern Europe, England strikes me as the most malevolent presence.  This is a feeling I have, rather than a rational conclusion.  Even among the best of Englishmen–such as Burke, Coleridge, or Dawson–there’s still a stench of Whiggery about them.  Since they lost their empire, it’s gotten far worse.  Every English mind is immersed in Whiggish bigotry and superstition; each is filled with an unshakable conviction that he is riding a millenia-long wave of progress and freedom.  (An English Spengler is unimaginable.)  Russell Kirk and other traditionalist Anglophiles tend to see the English as a characteristically nonideological and practical people.  My impression is the opposite–that the English tend to be far more ideological than most of the Continentals.  The French and Italians may have (or had) large communist parties, but it seems to me that even their communists never took their Marxism as seriously as Englishmen take their feminism, anti-racism, and environmentalism.

For example, Italy, like the rest of Europe, is officially feminist.  No one but the Pope would publicly question androgynist doctrine.  On the other hand, it’s considered shameful if a man fails to carry his lady’s bags.  (Once, on a trip to Italy, my father-in-law had to tell my wife that she was making me look bad by refusing to let me carry things.)  Here’s another example:  An American physicist once told me about a conference he attended in Italy.  One day, he went out to lunch with a female colleague.  The waiter handed them each a menu, but the menus were different colors.  Intrigued, they compared what was inside the menus.  It turned out the two were identical, except that only the man’s menu had prices listed.  To avoid scandalizing the waiter, the man paid the bill for both their meals, and the lady paid him back her share after they left.  When I first heard this story, I was not yet the committed patriarchist that I am today.  Nevertheless, even then the Italian custom stuck me as classy and civilized, while our rigid egalitarianism seemed boorish.  One feels that the Italians have accepted feminism reluctantly, and that they don’t draw any more conclusions from this unnatural doctrine than they’re forced to at any one time.  The English, on the other hand, are in deadly earnest about their feminism.  They’re always on the watch to find some harmless and pleasant custom to denounce so that they can feel morally superior to their ancestors.  This is the effect of Whiggery on the brain:  a man’s worth is measured by his contempt for his parents.

Progress in Politics

The longer I live, the more skeptical I become that the history of man has seen any real, unambiguous advances in the understanding of how to organize public life.

In science, we see a definite kind of progress.  About a century ago, we were barely able to demonstrate the existence of atoms and of other galaxies.  Today, we know a great deal about the constituent parts of atoms and other galaxies.  Our proofs of the existence of these things are so extensive and unambiguous that we don’t even bother noting when another confirmation of these known facts comes along.  Scientific knowledge has continued to advance, and as the frontier has moved, those things no longer on the frontier have grown in certaintly.  On the other hand, nobody would say that the existence of atoms or galaxies should be obvious to anyone who didn’t have access to the observations and measurements carried out by modern science.  We can understand perfectly well how our ancestors didn’t know these things.

Then there’s the case of philosophy, which notoriously doesn’t advance in this way.  Thousands of years ago, people argued about the problem of universals, and thousands of years hence, they will probably continue to do so.  Such problems are difficult and perhaps unsolvable.  On the other hand, philosophy does advance in the sense that problems do get clarified.  Finer and finer distinctions are made, so that related but distinct meanings of words like “free will”, “natural”, and “innate idea” are explicitly separated; more sophisticated arguments for both sides of an issue are developed and responded to.  Despite clarifiations of this type, we would never despise earlier generations who shared our intuitions but didn’t state them as precisely.

In politics, there are are also big questions.  Some of the main ones are

  1. Tribalism vs civilization:  should authority be attached to a coalition of extended families, or a definite piece of territory?
  2. Inheritance:  should property belong primarily to families or to individuals?
  3. Monarchy vs democracy:  which is better?
  4. Religion:  should there be an established church or not?

Now, these problems do get settled.  In the contemporary West, there’s not one man in a thousand who wouldn’t take the second position over the first in each case.  Why is this, though?  Is it because, like in the case of science, we know so much more now that we can see where our ancestors went wrong?  We most certainly can’t see how they went wrong, because not one man in a thousand today even knows any of the arguments that were once made in favor of tribalism, trusteeship, monarchy, or established religion.  Everyone just has it in their heads that these positions are obviously wrong, and mankind just happened to go ten thousand years or so without ever noticing the obvious.  That this claim is manifestly implausible and ignorance-based causes people not a moment of doubt.

Let’s start with the what one would expect to be the most obvious of these obvious positions, that civilization is superior to tribalism (“barbarism”).  Ask anyone why he thinks this, and his mind will fill with images of naked savages eating raw bugs and sacrificing virgins to imaginary gods.  This is not thinking; this is just prejudice.  Civil vs. tribal authority has nothing to do with clothing, diet, technology, or human sacrifice.  Any type or level of these could be found in either.  “But we can’t just have tribes murdering each other, right?”  Well, why is that worse than nations murdering each other?  “But what’s to stop the chief from abusing his authority?”  Tradition, religion, and family heads, to name just three.  What’s to stop civil governments from abusing their authority?  You see, the issue is not obvious.  Now, just like most Westerners, I’m pretty sure I prefer living in civilization.  What I’m not sure, though, is that my preference is any more rational than that of the aborigine who prefers the tribe he’s lived in all his life.

Similarly, everyone today just knows that primogeniture is stupid.  What makes this obvious to them, though, is that they don’t know how their ancestors regarded property, that for them it was a family trust rather than a private possession.  Is it obvious that the new understanding is better?  It may be, but I’ve never heard the argument made.

Arguing with people in favor of monarchy, as I have, seems to be a futile exercise.  People today are entirely convinced that monarchy means having an unchecked tyrant, always deranged and sadistic, murdering his subjects with impunity.  Of course, this image bears no resemblance to monarchy as it has actually existed.  More importantly, one must ask that, if a political system is to be judged by its worst possible abuse, does democracy come off any better?  Is a mad tyrant unchecked by a magistracy any worse than a mad mob stirred up by a vicious demagogue unchecked by a civil service?

The opposition to religious establishment is also based entirely on bigotry rather than reason.  In this case, people are motivated entirely by a belief in the wickedness of the Catholic episcopacy.  “We can’t let those people have power!”  Well, what makes you think that “those people” are any worse than any other group of people, aside from the images put into your head by silly anticlerical literary stereotypes?  Why is it worse to organize a country according to Christianity than to organize it according to utilitarianism?

It’s not that people have bad reasons for their beliefs.  They don’t have reasons at all, just mental pictures and associations.  Transport a monarchist from the past to debate with them, and they’d have no idea how to answer his arguments.  The monarchist’s arguments haven’t been refuted; they’ve just been ignored and forgotten.

It’s depressing to think that all the certainty we have in politics comes from substituting arguments with prejudices.  What’s worse is knowing that this will be the fate of my beliefs (i.e. those that haven’t suffered it already).  Ask someone two hundred years in the future why he’s so sure abortion should be legal, and you’ll probably hear something like, “People who thought otherwise used to eat raw maggots and burn people at the stake!  I’m not like that!”  That’s the extent of our reasoning powers today, and it’s not getting any better.

Liberalism for everyone else

That seems to be the foreign policy of the American Right.  Consider two recent articles on the First Things website.

First, George Weigel is outraged that Ukraine is, for its coming presidential inauguration, replacing its bland multicultural interreligious service with a religious comemoration that reflects the country’s actual culture and history.

Second, David Goldman attacks Sharia law for not being as totalitarian as western law, i.e. it recognizes in the family a sovereign who doesn’t derive his authority from the state.  With the customary dishonesty of a neoconservative talking about Islam, Goldman only discusses patriarchal authority in the context of its abuse.  He says

More than the Koran’s sanction of wife-beating, the legal grounds on which the Koran sanctions it reveals an impassable gulf between Islamic and Western law. The sovereign grants inalienable rights to every individual in Western society, of which protection from violence is foremost. Every individual stands in direct relation to the state, which wields a monopoly of violence.Islam’s legal system is radically different: the father is a “governor” or “administrator” of the family, that is, a little sovereign within his domestic realm, with the right to employ violence to control his wife and children. That is the self-understanding of modern Islam spelled out by Muslim-American scholars – and it is incompatible with the Western concept of human rights.

Let’s take this apart:

  1. Rights are granted by the will of the sovereign.  (It’s not clear, then, how they can be inalienable.)
  2. The “Western concept of human rights” requires the destruction of all authority outside the state.  All individuals must stand naked before the all-powerful State.
  3. The “Western concept of human rights” thus regards all tribal and feudal authorities as illigitimate.
  4. The “Western concept of human rights” doesn’t allow parents to spank their children.

Now, I don’t object to the claim that fathers should not have the power of life and death over those in their household.  There is good reason to reserve the harshest forms of physical punishment for the state.  What is missing from this piece is any acknowledgement of the legitimacy of patriarchal, or even paternal, authority at all.  Instead we get a Jacobinical insistance that each man, woman, and child stand alone and naked before the State.

Family = dependency

If I had to sum up my Defense of Patriarchy in one sentence, it would be this:  “The essence of the patriarchal family is embodied personal dependency.”  Dependency means people rely on each other for basic needs.  Personal means that the dependence is ultimately on a specific person for one’s needs, rather than a large organization.  Embodied means that one’s specific duties are “read off” from biological facts, particularly sex differences, and these facts are then given meaning by one’s role in the family. 

Thanks to the research of Oz Conservative, I can now be sure that I wasn’t the first to emphasise some of these points.  Mr. Richardson brings to our attention a 1914 essay by Mrs. John Martin, in which he reads

The family is a closely organized, coherent, interdependent group. The basic principle upon which it rests is the mutual dependence of its members. It is founded on the needs of its members for one another. Were it not for these mutual needs the family would not have been formed.

It is the plant which we tend and water that interests us; it is the canary bird we feed ourselves; it is the baby we nurse and fondle and care for; it is the husband whom we watch over, appreciate, sympathize with, are grateful to, enliven, comfort and cheer; it is the wife whom we toil for, protect, guide, defend, serve and cherish – these are the persons whom we love.

It is apparent that the unity of the family arises out of its common needs and mutual services. But when woman has no need of man as breadwinner and he has no need for her as home-maker, and the child has no further need for either of them as nurse, teacher, guide, friend, but finds most of its needs supplied elsewhere by paid experts … – then the cohesive force of the family dissolves.

Mrs. Martin saw and explained everything clearly, decades before it happened.  But who’s ever heard of her?  Who has ever heard these arguments?  I had to figure it out mostly by myself.  The longer I live, the more I think that arguments don’t make any difference.  When an idea comes up, like feminism or easy divorce, that gives people an excuse to be selfish, they’re going to accept it no matter how good the counter-arguments are.  It’s a very depressing thought, especially given the hobby that I’ve chosen for myself.

Oderberg on journalism

David Oderberg, a philosopher of the Aristotelian essentialist variety, has written an article attacking the mainstream news media.  I had hoped to find an ally in my complete hostility to journalism, and while that’s not what I found, Oderberg makes some solid points that haven’t come up here before.  His main concern is that journalists are creating a distorted picture of reality by failing to report important events and highlighting trivial.  Now, celebrity gossip and things like that are obviously trivia, but Oderberg points to several types of non-news that fill the headlines of serious newspapers.  One example is the reporting of mere mental states:

I take as an example, with no bias intended and in no special order, some stories from mainstream media outlets on Google News as of 20 February 2010. (1) Detectives ‘think’ that a bailed crime suspect fled abroad (The Times). (2) Police ‘fear’ the increase in children taking driving lessons (BBC News). (3) There are ‘fears’ of a double-dip recession in the UK following a sharp fall in retail sales (The Times). (4) The town Toyota built ‘hopes’ US fightback can jump start economy(The Independent). (5) Elton John ‘thinks’ Jesus was gay (The New York Magazine). (6) Ernie Els ‘thinks’ Tiger Woods is upstaging tournament (Detroit Free Press). (7) President Obama ‘loves’ Las Vegas (CBS News). (8) ‘Fears’ over economic revival rise (Daily Mail).

Then there are speculations about the future

Closely connected, of course, are those non-news items consisting of reports of the future or of what might or is likely to happen. Some examples. (1) ‘British Airways crew likely to vote for strike’ (The Telegraph). (2) ‘Rail passengers set for disruption as conductors’ strike gets under way’ (The Scotsman). (3) ‘David Cameron may struggle to disguise his dinosaurs in casual shirts’ (The Guardian).(4) ‘There may be fewer great white sharks than endangered tigers’ (Daily Mirror).(5) ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber may buy Abbey Road studios’ (The Guardian). (6) ‘Obama most likely to visit India later this year’ (Press Trust of India). (7) ‘Pilot possibly angered by contract-worker tax issue’ (Wall Street Journal). And so on ad nauseam. There might, in such cases, be some newsworthiness, but only if the hypotheses, speculations, and predictions are tied to actual events and actions, such as a vote or a decision by someone. But then why not just report the vote or the decision?

Oderberg wants the news to get back to reporting “the truth”:  bare facts about important political and economic issues.  This is where I thought the article ceased to be interesting, and I find it strange how Oderberg invokes Plato’s allegory of the cave in beginning his discussion.  While newspapers as Oderberg would have them would certainly be better than the ones we have now, they would still not be reporting what Plato would regard as “the Truth”.  All news deals in contingent, transient, historical facts.  For Plato, truth consists in the contemplation of the eternal Forms.  I think if Plato were alive today, he would not tell us to read only the political and financial reports in our newspapers.  He’d more likely tell us to put down the stupid-sheet altogether, and go read a book on group theory, or general relativity, or ontology, or mysticism.  These latter would be much more likely to tell you what’s Real.

Down with journalism!

Recommended readings in Catholic history

1) The early Church and the Patristic age: 33-450AD [The Church grows from obscurity to become the dominant religion in Rome.  The orthodox creed is ironed out amid numerous heresies and schisms.]

  • The Early Church by Henry Chadwick
  • The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark
  • The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken

2) The Dark Ages: 450-1000AD [The Roman empire disappears in the West, and the Church forges a new civilization.]

  • The Making of Europe by Christopher Dawson
  • The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown

3) The High Middle Ages: 1000-1300AD [The Church asserts her independence.  The clash with secular powers.  Universities and scholasticism.  The crusades.]

  • The Papal Monarchy by Colin Morris
  • Religion and the Rise of Western Culture by Christopher Dawson
  • A Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas Madden
  • Inquisition by Edward Peters
  • The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson

4) The Renaissance: 1300-1500AD [The Great Schism.  Conciliarism and the corruption it fostered.  The flowering of Italian civic culture.  The worldly popes.]

  • haven’t found any particularly good books on this era yet

5) The counter-reformation: 1500-1800AD [Trent and the reform of the clergy.  The wars of religion.  Missionary efforts throughout the world.]

  • The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700 by Robert Bireley
  • The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico by Robert Ricard
  • The Lost Paradise:  an account of the Jesuits in Paraguay by Philip Caraman

6) The battle with liberalism: 1800-1960AD [Enlightenment, Revolution, persecution.  The secular powers embrace godlessness, but the Church holds firm.]

  • The Popes and the European Revolution by Owen Chadwick
  • Prosperity and Plunder:  European Catholic Monastaries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815 by Derek Beales
  • The French Revolution and the Church by John McManners
  • A History of the Popes, 1830-1914 by Owen Chadwick
  • Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789-1989 by Hugh McLeod
  • Earthly Powers by Michael Burleigh
  • A Fight for God by Henri Daniel-Rops
  • The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century by Robert Royal
  • The Cristero Rebellion by Jean Meyer
  • The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy by Jose Sanchez
  • The Vatican in the Age of Dictators, 1922-1945 by Anthony Rhodes

7) Debacle: 1960- [Surrender, betrayal, heresy, apostasy, hedonism, ruin.]

  • The Desolate City by Anne Roche Muggeridge

New book reviews

I’ve added a few new book reviews.

First, I’ve reviewed Stanley Payne’s Fascism.  Payne wrote an excellent history of the Franco regime, in which I first found him to be a careful and openminded taxonomist of the radical Right, a skill that serves him well here.  Unfortunately, the book lacks a big idea like we find at the end of Nolte’s.

Then I’ve reviewed a couple of classics:  Aristotle’s Politics and Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Maybe I’m getting lazy, reviewing stuff that I read a long time ago, but hopefully it contributes a little to my goal of elevating the intellectual level of discussions on the Right.  When reviewing classics, you’re not evaluating quality–of course these are great books.  Rather, you try to engage their arguments.

Ah, but isn’t it presumptuous for me, a physicist entirely self-taught in philosophy and politics, to present my take on Aristotle and Kant?  Perhaps.  But remember that, because of Leftist hegemony in the universities, the American Right is an intellectually decapitated movement.  This is bad overall, but for an obscure reactionary blogger, it has this advantage:  it doesn’t take much for you to get (intellectually) near the top.