That anomalous moment: America in the counter-revolution and Vatican II

“The Fifties” (really 1945-1964) are remembered as a conservative time.  They weren’t, but there is something to the impression.  For most of its history, the United States has understood itself to be a liberal nation, a beacon of enlightenment and freedom surrounded by the “Old World” of ancient tyranny and superstition.  In 1945, America found her faced with a rival that was much more obviously revolutionary, one that had made an even more thorough repudiation of Europe’s Christian, monarchical past.  Quite against her preferences, America came to occupy what was effectively the counter-revolutionary position.  All the world’s progressive forces looked to the Soviet Union as their natural leader, while the remnants of hierarchy and religion had no choice but to embrace American protection, or at least American-allied Christian Democratic parties.

Such a novel situation required a rethinking of American identity, and “the Fifties” were, in terms of America’s self-conceptualization, the most intellectually creative time of the twentieth century.  From this era, we see many foundational works of the New Left, according to which the capitalist, America-led West was conceived as reactionary and oppressive, and also of what was then called the New Right, which re-imagined the Anglo-American world as heirs of Edmund Burke and the European counter-revolution.

America’s reactionary moment was an anomaly.  By the Reagan administration, the Republican half of America had chosen to present the country as the true revolutionary power, fighting for liberalism against Soviet tyranny.  The Democratic half of America didn’t buy this, of course, but now, deep into the Obama administration, they have largely reconciled themselves to seeing America as a force for good in a world of villainous European nativists and Russian homophobes.  Like in the Soviet Union before us, there no doubt remain reactionary elements that will have to be terrorized into submission, but it would take fantastic mental contortions to deny that the regime is pushing along the revolution.

Times have returned to the post-French Revolutionary normal.  Stuff written in 1850 seems more sensible to us than stuff written in 1950.  Only one institution has failed to return to type:  the Catholic Church.  At the Second Vatican Council, she locked itself into mid-century illusions about a pro-Christian version of liberalism, and she now finds herself controlled by a cadre of men who built their careers off of promoting those illusions and marginalizing those who weren’t taken in.

The more I think about it, the stronger the case seems for the hypothesis that Vatican II caused “the Sixties” (1964-1975).  Apologists continue to make excuses for the Council’s manifest failures, saying that everything would have worked out fine but for a hostile cultural upheaval that by complete coincidence overtook the Western world right as the Council began to be implemented.  Is it true that the Left mutated around 1965 into a much more virulent form?  I don’t see any evidence of that.  “The Fifties” were, I think, a more innovative time for the Left.  No doubt some of these innovations would take time to affect the masses, but most of them I’d say tended to make the Left’s appeal to normal people weaker.  Anti-Americanism and loss of interest in the working class especially were hardly winning moves.  No, what was really different about “the Sixties”, if you think about it, was that the Left was no longer getting any resistance.  By 1950, a large part of the resistance to the Left in the West was coming from the Catholic Church and Catholic lay groups.  I don’t think my Protestant readers will be offended if I say that it had to have been at least around half.  What happens when two armies are equally matched and half of the troops from one side desert is not a slight shift of power, but a rout.  The Left might have been weaker than in the Truman years, but the Right was far weaker than in the Pius XII years, because Catholics had now been told that they should be open to the world rather than loyal to the Truth.

Explanations of the Vatican II collapse often fail by denying what they are trying to explain.  They assume that any institution that collapsed so quickly couldn’t really have been strong before.  However, the evidence for Catholic strength–in Mass attendance, vocations, lay associations, missionary work, and a crop of martyrs that bear comparison to ancient Rome–is overwhelming.  Thus, criticisms of the pre-conciliar Church focus on unmeasurable assertions about peoples’ interior states.  For example, people were just “going through the motions”.  But how can the conciliar debacle be explained without at least a modernist conspiracy comprising the majority of the Council Fathers?  If we think our way back into that anomalous time, the mystery disappears.  American anti-communism.  Christian democracy.  Catholics, Protestants, and classical liberals as brothers in arms fighting the Red Menace.  In those days, liberal slogans like “democracy” sounded good to Catholic ears, because when we heard them, we registered them as “not communism”.  Surely, a bit of theological flexibility is warranted to cement such a beneficial alliance?  I know the Council documents don’t directly even mention communism, but it clearly framed the way those who voted on it understood all the things it does mention.

Was this a mistake?  Certainly.  We can now see plainly that America carries the same core of godlessness as the Soviet Union.  On the other hand, we needn’t impute ill will to the majority of the Fathers.  Remember, if it weren’t for the United States’ nuclear arsenal, there wouldn’t be any Christians in the world today.

Sometimes memes do die

It is some comfort to remember that ideological fixations and dumb slogans can grip the world in their mania for a time and then finally die.  I’m neither particularly old nor particularly well-read, but even I know of a few.

Continue reading

Is it possible for a human being to consent to anything?

Reading about some of the possible reasons for annulling a marriage makes me worry about whether it’s possible for two human beings to actually marry each other at all.  We have become bewitched with a model of perfectly free consent that can never exist in the real world.  Do not deception, coercion, and unsoundness of mind invalidate consent?  Yet we always make decisions with imperfect knowledge, imperfectly understood knowledge, or knowledge that might conceivably be false.  Our options often have negative consequences attached, so we can always say we are coerced.  I expect only death will fully cure me of immaturity.

Continue reading

Cross-post: what is science?

The following are reflections based on my years teaching introductory astronomy for non-science majors.  Few of my students take the class out of personal interest.  It fulfills a natural sciences general education requirement and sounds less scary than geology or chemistry.  Thus, the ultimate purpose of the class is to expose students to the scientific enterprise, so I put a lot of thought into the impression of science I’m giving them.  When I speak of “science” below, I will be using the word in its modern rather than its classical sense, according to which biology and sociology are sciences while philosophy and history are not.

Survey course textbooks in the branches of science usually include some discussion of the general nature of science.  Anxious to emphasize science’s quality as a process rather than a fixed body of knowledge, they often hold up the “scientific method” as the essence of science.  This, however, has disadvantages.  For one, actual science rarely follows the model given in these books.  More importantly, the scientific method is itself given no real justification, and the limits of its usefulness are left unclear.  What makes this problem pressing is that students may believe, and textbooks may even state, that the scientific method involves assumptions about the world and excludes a priori certain kinds of explanation, as for instance when scientific explanations are contrasted with assertions of miraculous or animistic spiritual causality.  The impression is given that science is at least methodologically naturalist, that when thinking scientifically we must pretend to be atheists.  This, I emphasize, is not a problem for religion; it’s a problem for science.  To tie oneself from the beginning to very questionable metaphysical assumptions threatens the credibility of the whole enterprise.

Continue reading

Reblog: academic freedom

Given DrBill’s recent post, my earlier musing on what people mean by “academic freedom” may be of interest.  The relevant part:

Things academic freedom does not mean:

  1. Profs allowed to say whatever they want in class lectures.  They largely do have that freedom, but only because neither the department, nor the college, nor the university give a rat’s ass what goes in in classrooms.  Faculty exist to publish papers and bring in grant money.
  2. Profs allowed to write what they want, protected from having their careers hurt by tenure.  This is closer to the truth, but it’s not really what academics mean by their “freedom”.  It’s not too hard to put pressure on a tenured professor.  He still has to worry about funding, committee assignments, and promotions.  Being labeled a crackpot would be devastating to him.

Actually, it seems to me that “academic freedom” means something different in the natural sciences and in the humanities/social sciences.  For most of us natural scientists, it’s inconceivable that a department or funding agency would try to dictate our results to us.  Academic freedom for a scientist means the right to work on whatever problem he wants.  Not everybody has this freedom.  Postdocs (the one’s not on fellowships) don’t have academic freedom; they have to spend most of their time working on the problem the professor who pays their salary wants them to.  In theory, a tenured professor who was hired as a biophysicist can decide to start doing research in solid state physics, and he can’t be punished for that.  Of course, there are practical difficulties with such branching which makes it uncommon.

In the social sciences/humanities, there obviously are restrictions on what claims one can make.  Deviation from PC brings terrible retaliation–“hostile work environment” for minorities and perverts, and all that.  How do they square this with their purported commitment to academic freedom?  Perhaps JMSmith can help me out on this*, but my impression is that, in the social sciences and humanities, “academic freedom” refers to the department, or perhaps the field, as a whole.  Society at large shall not retaliate against sociology as a discipline or against any particular sociology department because of sociologists’ work to delegitimize that society.  The discipline’s internal policing is an entirely separate matter.

* For interested readers, here was JMSmith’s reply:

With respect to publication, academic freedom in the social sciences exists for any cabal large enough to control some funding streams and a couple of “peer reviewed” journals. And for many sorts of “research,” all that is needed is a journal or two. An eccentric social scientist will be unable to publish his work, and so has no effective freedom, but an eccentric group of social scientists can get along very nicely. Practitioners of “queer theory” would be an example.

Academic freedom is more often mentioned when questions are raised about course content. Sometimes this is a cover for ideologically biased courses, but it is more frequently used to defend an idiosyncratic syllabus. I don’t have a problem with a somewhat idiosyncratic syllabus. In most of the social sciences there are many things one may teach and few things one must teach, and professors teach best when they are interested in the material.

One could argue that crackpots are a majority in many social sciences. These are, after all, people who believe in the labor theory of value, contact theory, and the idea that sex is a social construct. But I think what you’re describing is what I call the “wild man.” A wild man is either embarrassingly passionate or embarrassingly angry (often about his own professional disappointments). His hair is often wild, his dress slovenly, and he is known for shouting at professional meetings. All of this is in very bad taste. An academic is expected to be serious, not passionate. And if he gets shafted, he must never mention it.

As I understand it, the concept of academic freedom came from the German universities, where it meant that professors were not subject to religious or political tests. One didn’t have to belong to the ruling party or the state religion in order to teach, say, chemistry at the university. So academic freedom was originally a means to ensure that academics was a meritocracy, not a patronage system. It was not a license to do as one pleased.

What was the real story of the last hundred years?

From that article I was just talking about, a thought-provoking aside:

Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.

To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991. Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape, have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.

Beefy Levinson recently mused

Sometimes I wonder why God called me into being at this point in time when everything is crumbling. Maybe it’s his way of asking us once again to not put our trust in princes.

I don’t know God’s intentions, but one advantage we do have over previous generations of moderns (before things got as bad as they now are) is historical perspective.  The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk.  In particular, with the core institution of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, having nearly completed Her process of suicide, we can for the first time look back and see the story of Christendom whole.  Much that seemed of fundamental importance even to our fathers’ generation we now recognize as ephemeral.  Ask yourself how the probable world of 2050 will most differ from the recorded world of 1750, and consider how little the things that seemed important at the time–two world wars, the coming and going of European nationalism, fascism, the contest between communism and capitalism–have to do with these really fundamental things.

  1. The destruction of patriarchy and its replacement by career as the center of life.  At the time, people made fun of feminists and social conservatives, loudmouth atheists and fundamentalist kooks for their culture war antics, saying that that sort of thing distracts from the “serious” issues of economics and foreign policy.  Now it is clear that the culture war was the really significant one.  The leaders of the sexual revolution will be larger figures in future history books than Lenin and Trotsky.  The formers’ changes were far more radical.  As the years go by, America’s and Europe’s obsession with Nazis and WWII will get harder and harder to justify–Fascists and Nazis don’t have much to do with the main changes of the past century, and communism had a much larger body count.  Already many of us who lived through the Cold War are coming to realize that whether the world is lorded over by Soviet Jacobinism, American Jacobinism, or some combination of the two wasn’t really that important.
  2. The eclipse of the white race.  If it does happen that whites become a minority (realistically:  a despised and legally disadvantaged minority) in the countries they once dominated, that will certainly affect how we read the past.  It doesn’t matter whether the leaders of the civil rights movement got together behind closed doors to plan how non-whites could take over the West; if non-whites do take over the West, everything having to do with race relations in the past century will have to be read as leading up to this.  The basic story is not white supremacy giving way to equality, but white supremacy giving way to colored supremacy.  Of course, the former will be be considered iniquitous, both intrinsically and in how it was maintained, while that latter will be thought glorious, but even so, the story feels very different when it isn’t stopped at 1965.
  3. Mass apostasy of the laity.  It’s ridiculous how clerico-centric most Catholic history is.  One would get the impression that since the time of Constantine the central drama in the life of the Church has been the corruption of clergy and efforts to reform them.  Of course, this has been one issue, although I doubt Christendom’s clergy were any less disciplined than any heathenish priesthood before the modern age of social control.  (Some of the manias over clerical morality are amusing in retrospect.  For centuries, and until rather recently, Catholic populations seem to have been preoccupied with the worry that priests would attempt to seduce women in the confessional.  I suppose this must have happened occasionally, but I can’t think of a worse venue for picking up girls, and it’s funny that more dangerous and plausible abuses like extortion through the confessional didn’t get the same attention.)  Preconciliar writings are obsessed with whether native clergy have been promoted often and early enough in mission territories.  Postconciliar writings until about 2000 focus on coming priest shortages.  None of that crap mattered.  Now that we’ve finally noticed that we’re hemorrhaging laity, we can step back and ask them what was it that kept them all those centuries from leaving before.  It obviously wasn’t perfect priests.

Aspiring philosopher-kings in the history department

David Reynolds reviews The History Manifesto by a couple of history professors who want their field to overcome its current overspecialization so that generalist historians are able to lecture politicians to give them the “historical perspective” on issues of contemporary concern.  They single out “climate change, international governance and socio-economic inequality” as three issues in particular where historians could fruitfully reframe the debates, trapped as they now supposedly are in short-term thinking.  (I haven’t read the book, but hopefully the authors acknowledge that in terms of sheer quantitative timescale, climatologists are capable of taking longer-term views than historians.)  Details are not provided, but somehow even an unlearned man like me can guess what the long-term/historically-informed views on these topics are going to turn out to be when the professors’ lessons are through.

Reynolds recognizes that The History Manifesto doesn’t go into nearly enough detail about how this might actually work.  Gestures toward “big data” are insufficient.  Reynolds recommends instead another book on the historical perspective, Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, which I agree does sound like a more interesting work, although I don’t think it can do the sort of work historian philosopher kings would want.  Exhorting people to think in terms of historical narratives is pointless, because both sides of every issue are already doing this.  Every faction has a sense of the great arc of contemporary history, of what is a key battle and what is background noise.  Reynolds writes

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when making decisions that relate to government…

One of these new frameworks for understanding contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union, intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense. It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we have come from and where we might be going.

You see the problem.  Having a grand narrative about one’s country, perhaps involving the erosion of the national culture or a foreign Continental behemoth, seems to satisfy the Neustadt/May model of narrative thinking perfectly well.  People who don’t want England absorbed into the European Union/Eurabia certainly have an answer to “What’s the story?”, one that probably goes farther back in time than the grand story of EU apologists, whose opinions of European civilization are shaped almost entirely by Nazi Germany.  (Hence, the reason for nations to be in the EU sound like reasons for incarcerating dangerous criminals:  protection of wider society, rehabilitation of offenders,…)  Nationalists tend to be quite good at the mystic chords of memory thing.  Reynolds may not agree with the story they’re telling, but the problem is certainly not that they don’t have one.