Imagine how it looks to Mark Zuckerberg

We reactionaries like to imagine that internet/social media big-wigs go out of their way to persecute us, but a fellow like Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t see it that way at all.  He has just had to deliver a groveling apology to Congress for his failure to do his duty and squash the enemies of American liberal democracy.  Shame has fallen upon his head.  Because of his short-sighted pursuit of filthy lucre, hate speech now prowls our land and Vladimir Putin was able to steel the U. S. election.  None of the internet pioneers and executives interviewed here (who constitute the sort of people who’s esteem a person like Zuckerberg would probably value) dispute this ridiculous characterization of events in the slightest.  The only question is what is to be done to make sure conservatives and Russians are never able to spread their messages online again:  a restructuring of the media, government regulation, or just a shake-up of personnel at the top.  I never thought I’d say this, but I actually feel sorry for Zuckerberg.  He’s still the enemy, but we don’t understand his perspective unless we appreciate that, for all our whining, most of the pressure he’s feeling is to be harsher to us.

Progress in philosophy and theology in the long view

Why does philosophy seem to make so much less progress than science?  Professor J. L. Schellenberg addresses this often-asked question at Aeon magazine.  He quickly touches on some common answers.

  1. Philosophy deals with inquiries for which a proper methodology has not yet been developed.  Once real progress starts being made, a subject stops being a branch of philosophy and becomes a science.
  2. The point of philosophy isn’t to answer the big questions, but for each individual to refine his or her soul by struggling with them.  By its nature, it must be done anew by each person.
  3. Philosophical questions don’t get answered but they do get refined.  We now have a more precise sense of what the problem of free will is, for example, and this is progress of a sort.

I think there is merit in each of these points, but Schellenberg suggests another.  Perhaps the big questions of philosophy are just really hard and take longer than a couple of millennia to solve.  It is not unreasonable to hope that the human race will survive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  On such timescales, philosophy hasn’t be around long and may still be, looking back from a hundred thousand years hence, at a very immature phase.  The task of philosophers for the coming centuries may ultimately preparatory work:  discarding dead ends, developing tools, achieving small but solid initial results.

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Catholic common ground

Bishops are searching for it.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, who at least on some matters, would be regarded stereotypically as representing “liberal” and “conservative” views, will headline together a major convening of Catholic leaders this June aimed at overcoming division, building relationships, and strengthening the Catholic community’s contribution to the common good.

“Through Many, One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought,” will take place June 4-6 at Georgetown University and is a project of the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life in response to what its organizers have described as “the harmful divisions within our Church.”

Cupich – who was appointed to Chicago in 2014 – is widely perceived as one of Francis’s closest allies in the U.S. Church and has been a strong champion for worker’s rights, immigration, and the consistent ethic of life. Gomez has led the nation’s largest and most diverse diocese since 2011 and is currently the vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He was ordained a priest through Opus Dei, a movement that is widely viewed as having conservative leanings, and has been a vocal advocate for pro-life and religious liberty causes. In recent years he has also become one of the most vocal leaders within the U.S. Church hierarchy calling for comprehensive immigration reform.

The gathering will focus not on internal Church issues, but on “the neglected challenge of bringing Catholic principles to public life so as to truly be ‘salt, light and leaven’ in a divided society.”

Well, there does some to be one conspicuous piece of common ground, one that sets apart these holy bishops from all those grubby nativists in the pews.

Actually, I don’t understand why these freedom-and-democracy types are bothered by polarization.  Why shouldn’t Catholics be divided on everything under the sun?  Otherwise, would it not mean that we had failed to evangelize one faction?  If we need a core that unites us and distinguishes us from the world (and we do!), we could point to the seven sacraments and the Nicene creed.  However, that would mean giving up on “bringing Catholic principles to public life”, at least insofar as “public life” means what are commonly called “political disputes”.

Instead, the goal is a united witness to Catholic social teaching.  I’m all for this, but I doubt either the Cardinal or the Archbishop is.  After all, if the Church has a duty to bring something distinctive to public debate, then it must advocate a position different from the main non-Catholic positions, a position that nonbelievers by-and-large disagree with.  Banalities about caring for the poor and the common good don’t count.  The anti-Catholic communists agree with them.  The same could be said for pleas to protect the environment.  Even the episcopal common ground of open borders advocacy is a completely common position in elite circles.  A robust defense of the social kingship of Christ would certainly qualify, but American bishops would recoil from any such thing.

The trouble is that, to episcopal ears, “Catholics social teaching” means “the things we can say that will make us popular, that will attract the young people and get the newspapers to write nice things about us”.  There are indeed things men in the public eye can say that carry no risk and some degree of social reward.  (Nobody ever lost a job or status for attacking “racists”.)  However, such popular, consensus-affirming positions simply by being popular and consensus-affirming are not distinctive, and the Church serves no urgent or irreplaceable function in articulating them.

If Catholic social teaching is important, it must be unpopular.

Another “bloody racist” for us

Welcome to the ranks of the deplorables, Joseph Conrad.

Conrad had grown up hearing his father refer to local peasants as “monkeys.” Throughout his life, he maintained what Jasanoff describes as “an enduring distaste for organized labor and radical politics,” and he regarded popular political movements as nothing but manifestations of the herd. Although he regarded class “a hateful thing,” he was deeply sensitive to it. When working in the Congo, he referred to his Belgian boss as “une espece de boutiquer africaine”—an African shop boy.

Jasanoff goes further. She suggests that Conrad, in purveying such stereotypes (of women, too: they are “savage and superb,” “wild and gorgeous”) “subverted prejudices as much as … reinforced them.” But there is little evidence to support such a hopeful exoneration. In fact, whatever Jasanoff tells us about Conrad’s contemporary readers suggests the opposite. Take the case of Charles Buls, the mayor of Brussels. Buls read Conrad before travelling to the Congo in the 1890s, and he found his own racist views corroborated and reinforced. Conrad showed him how civilisation might collapse when white men came in contact with “pure savagery, primitive nature, barbarism.” Even the critic and editor Edward Garnett, a far more sophisticated reader and a man whose critical intelligence Conrad admired, read Heart of Darkness as a story of what happens when a European “goes native,” when Western values become contaminated by local non-Western conditions—which is to say, he read it as Conrad wrote it. To Garnett, the work revealed “the deterioration of the white man’s morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and planted down in the tropics.”

Conrad also refused to get on board with the social justice crusade against King Leopold.

SOME OF CONRAD’S CONTEMPORARIES—the ancestors of today’s protesters and activists—did read his fiction as a call to action. By the turn of the century, as Conrad published Heart of Darkness, the shocking depredations of Leopold’s rule—the appropriation of huge swathes of territory as private land, the pillage of tens of thousands of tons of ivory, the routine use of forced labour in frenzied rubber cultivation—were coming into European view. In his first days in Africa, Conrad had met Roger Casement, who would become a leading voice in the campaign against Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo. After Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Casement got him to read exposés of Belgium’s administration of the Congo by the journalist Edmund Dene Morel, in hopes of recruiting Conrad into the Congo Reform Association, the campaign against Belgian misrule. Conrad privately expressed his dismay to Casement, but he never joined the movement. “It is not in me … I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” He claimed that what Casement and Morel were telling him did not tally with what he had seen, and Conrad would later dismiss Casement as emotional and unreliable.

Needless to say, the author finds Conrad sorely wanting.

VS Naipaul, another fatalist master of fiction, has portrayed Conrad as the upholder of a “universal civilization,” one able “to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of the world’s thought.” But Conrad, even as he traced the limits of the universal claims of his own civilisation, stayed within its bounds. In the last decade and a half of Conrad’s life, as politics stirred Asians, Africans and black Americans, setting them thinking about how to reclaim civilisation for themselves and inspiring them to embark on collective movements of political change and revival, the ageing writer grumbled and wagged his finger against such hopes. Is it a coincidence that in these final years of his life, at a time of revolutionary ferment in both politics and the cultural imagination, his own work became conventional and conservative?

Is the novel a distinctly atheistic art form?

This is the opinion of Ian McEwan, because novels train us in empathy.  I’m not sure what that has to do with religion, but most atheists do strike me as nauseatingly sentimental, so maybe there is a connection.  In the linked article, M. M. Owen analyzes three of McEwan’s novels, finding their treatment of storytelling to be more ambiguous than McEwan’s public position.  It sounds like McEwan is too good a novelist to keep himself on message.

Certainly, there does seem to be something about the novel that makes it a poor vessel for religious or mythical narratives.  I think it’s that novels describe their events in such great detail.  Archetypes may be invoked, but no character or event can simply be its archetype because it has been so thoroughly individualized.  Myths reside in “sacred time” beyond profane localizations, like Platonic Forms.  When the story is recited, or a like event occurs, the myth becomes present.  Novels are too long and too detailed to be “made present” through communal, liturgical reading.

Christians are always being told that we need to retake the culture.  Don’t bother with politics; reach people through the arts.  We should not assume that this just means to excel at the art forms of the contemporary world:  that we should aspire to write the best novels, movies, and pop music and somehow instill it with our values.  It may be that we will need to develop other art forms as proper bearers of our culture.

Another famous man handed to the Right

Welcome to the ranks of the deplorables, Noah Webster.

In the century following the Revolutionary War, Webster’s American Spelling Bookbecame so ubiquitous in the newly formed United States—selling an estimated hundred million copies—that its sales were outpaced only by those of the Bible. “To diffuse an uniformity and purity of language in America, to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect,” wrote Webster in the preface of the speller, “is the most ardent wish of the author.”

Webster hated the French with a passion and even started a daily newspaper in 1793 in part to combat French influence over the U.S. The American Minerva promoted a pro-Federalist and pro-American agenda while also documenting the atrocities carried out by the Jacobins. Following a speaking tour in the American South, he was horrified by the dialect of his countrymen, citing their pronunciation of common words as repugnant and criticizing their schoolrooms as disgraceful or nonexistent.

By the time Webster began writing his dictionary in the early 1800s, public interest in his vast linguistic project had waned, and so he found fresh energy from a new source: God. While working in his study in 1808, Webster said he spoke with God, falling to his knees and confessing his sins. From that day forward he was a devout Calvinist and a born-again Christian, and his understanding of the dictionary shifted to incorporate his newfound evangelism. He became convinced of the literal truth of the book of Genesis and the Tower of Babel, believing that all humans had spoken the same language at the beginning of time.

One might question whether Webster’s zeal for national uniformity was truly right-wing.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that that’s how they’ve decided to portray it.

Arguments for hell need work

If there’s no hell, then what did Jesus save us from?

Sin and ignorance.

Why bother converting people if they’re not bound for hell otherwise?

To save them from sin and ignorance.  One presumes that truth has some intrinsic value.

If there’s no hell, then there’s no reason to be good.

Only if you’re a hedonist.

Without heaven and hell, life has no meaning.

I’d repeat “only if you’re a hedonist”, but not even hedonism would make this argument work.


If the souls of unrepentant sinners are annihilated after death, there is no deterrent to sin.

I’d say the prospect of annihilation is one hell of a deterrent.

If the souls of unrepentant sinners are only punished for a finite amount of time, there is no deterrent to sin.

I’d say the prospect of being set on fire for a hundred years is one hell of a deterrent.  Certainly enough to make me think twice about sleeping in on Sunday.

If the damned can change their minds and repent, the blessed souls would be insecure in their salvation and could also defect.

Within the Thomist tradition, the two cases are not symmetric.  The will is undetermined only when confronted with various partial goods.  Presented with the supreme good clearly known (as only those with the beatific vision enjoy), there would be no uncertainty in the soul’s response.  This is not to say that the damned really can repent, just that there is a way to argue the irrevocability of one but not the other response.

Separation from God is the supreme sorrow of the damned souls.

Now you’ve gone from attributing to them unmitigated wickedness to crediting them with superhuman holiness.  If my body were on fire, I wouldn’t give a s*t about whether my soul was separated from God.

What reason do we have for believing in hell, then?

Because Jesus said it exists and that people go there.  A priori arguments for the prospect of damnation are flimsy or at best inconclusive.  The strongest argument is that we have it on a very good authority.

Doesn’t the knowledge of hell also contribute to the Christian life?

Sure, mostly because the Church has done a better job making hell sound unpleasant than making heaven sound desirable.  The descriptions of heaven I hear sound like being forced to sit in church for all eternity.  Endless contemplation and worship of the Divine Essence may sound attractive to saints and mystics, but for the non-religiously inclined like me, it helps to know that the only alternative is having our bodies on fire.

As a final point, there’s something disturbingly unserious about thinking up something that God might do to souls after they die–annihilating the unrepentant ones, for example–and then just asserting it without any sort of argument, scriptural or theological.  That’s the sort of thing you do if you don’t really care about the truth of the matter but just want something nice (if that actually is nice) to tell people.  It’s the essence of Kasperism, replacing actual truth claims with emotional manipulation.  At first it feels good when you do it, taking the hard edges off of the faith but leaving the stuff you like alone.  Eventually, treating the whole religion as if it’s made up and can be altered to fit your fantasies will cause people, even you, to stop taking it seriously.  It won’t even successfully manipulate emotions anymore, just like people will soon stop being grateful for free access to sacraments that no one takes seriously any more.