Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Faithful Departed (2)

This is the second and concluding part of my review of Philip F. Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: the Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, an intelligent, thoughtful examination, by a committed Catholic of what went wrong for the Catholic Church in Boston, a city which had been dominated by the Catholic Church for much of the twentieth century. This first part of the review is in my previous post.

The cultural world changes
Along with the social acceptance of the privatisation of religious belief,the period also saw the 1960s youth rebellion and the changes of Vatican II. As Lawler points out, it was not the actual decisions of Vatican II, but associated notions of change, that generated turmoil within the Church. Lawler identifies specific issues with the role of priests:
The post-conciliar period saw a cataclysmic breakdown in traditional Catholic beliefs, practices and disciplines. With the lines of ecclesiastical authority badly blurred and often completely ignored, individual pastors had greater freedom than ever before. Yet with fewer Catholics retaining fundamental beliefs about the unique sacramental role of the priesthood, the legitimate authority of the clergy was waning. The net result was that priests had more scope for the arbitrary exercise of their influence, but less respect for their ministerial role; they had more power but less responsibility. It was a recipe for disaster (p.67).
Not that Lawler supports the “blame it on Vatican II” mentality:
If the leaders of any institution gather to plan for the future, and their plans bring the institution to ruins, there must have been some problem before the meeting: some flaw in the leaders’ thinking or the way those leaders were chosen. A healthy institution does not self-destruct (p.67).
The story Lawler tells is of liberal Catholics failing to get the Council decisions they wanted, but inserting enough ambiguous wording in Council decisions that, through their domination of European theological faculties, Catholic journals and connections in the popular media, they could declare what the “spirit” of Vatican II was and argue and agitate for it, ignoring a hierarchy which was too diffident to push its authority (Pp68 ff). But it was the liturgical changes that seemed to have been the bigger disaster. Religion in many ways lives as practices and rituals. The rash of liturgical changes and innovations were disorienting for the laity: attendance at mass collapsed (Pp72ff). This was, however, not only true for Catholics: there was a widespread drop in Church attendance throughout the Western world, so clearly something else was also going on.

Lawler again focuses on the effect on priests:
After Vatican II, in parishes troubled by dwindling attendance and flickering faith, priests had more power but less authority. The could design their own liturgies and preach their own theological theories, but why were they doing it? If they did not represent the authority of a universal faith, what was the purpose of their work? Thousands of Catholic priests felt that they had been cast adrift. Many abandoned clerical life; many of those who remained were thoroughly demoralized. These unhappy priests had enormous freedom of action, but very little sense of purpose. They were dangerous men (p.75-6).
Moving back to wider social changes and loss of Church authority, Lawler takes us through the history of the contraceptive pill (developed by a practising Catholic), Humanae Vitae, the spread of dissent and the refusal of either the local hierarchy or the Vatican to enforce obedience (Pp77ff).

Lawler continues in the same vein, deploring the loss of commitment to traditional Catholic belief by both hierarchy and laity, the decline of the political power of conservative Catholicism. He argues the conservative Catholic case forthrightly. Liberal domination of faculties, seminaries and much of the mainstream media is much criticised.

The Catholic hierarchy also comes in for much criticism. This gets fairly (and understandably) savage when Lawler considers the hierarchy’s performance in dealing with sex abuse amongst priests.

Some parts of the book are very powerful. His description of the betrayal of the communities of South Boston by their Cardinal-Archbishop over the busing controversies is clearly heartfelt. It was arrogant public policy at its worse that, as Lawler delineates, had a very negative effect on what had been vibrant communities (Pp97ff).

A parochial universality
What is lacking is a sense of wider context. While there is some early reference to problems with sex abuse in other countries, this drops out of the analysis. Which is a basic problem, because Lawler’s analysis of these problems clearly does not work if it does not also explain similar patterns in other countries. For a loyal member of the “Universal” church, there is a fair bit of American parochialism in Lawler’s perspective.
Lawler may well be right that traditional Catholic teaching lacked support in Catholic schools, seminaries, faculties. But it still raises the question of why liberal ideas were so resonant in particular milieus and why traditional Catholic teachings lost ground so rapidly and completely. Similarly, the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s is treated as something that “just happens”. For Lawler, it is ultimately about a failure to adhere to clear truth – traditional Catholic teaching.

Not noticing women
The areas where the Catholic teaching lost ground have overwhelmingly been sex and gender issues: pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, ordination of women (Lawler cites a survey which found two-thirds of practising Catholics favoured ordination of women [p.129]), gay rights. What had changed that the decisions of generations of celibate men on such matters suddenly no longer resonated? The obvious thing is the situation of women had greatly improved. They had far more economic and political power. Technology was increasingly giving them unilateral control of their fertility. But to look at things in this way undermines the notion that Catholic teaching in such matters represents eternal verities rather than a particular set of social strategies whose underlying drivers had collapsed.

Where Lawler can use traditional Catholic teaching as a benchmark to judge bad behaviour, his analysis is very powerful. He is very perceptive on the way the failures of the hierarchy in dealing with the sex abuse scandals did the real damage. As he points out, only a small minority of priests abused minors, a majority of the bishops covered up for them (p.9). He also sets out clearly how great the failure of the hierarchy has been in dealing with its own failings.

Blaming the queers
If Lawler’s apparent obliviousness about the shift in circumstances for and of women is the shouting silence of the book, his treatment of homosexual and homosexuality is the most blatant failure.

Lawler identifies three scandals. The extent of abuse of minors by priests, the episcopal cover up of the same and, the third “scandal”, the extent to that the priesthood is homosexual (Pp7-8). Yet Lawler fails to sustain any evidence that some sort of “lavender mafia” systematically covered up after errant priests, even though he makes that claim (p.8). As he had already demonstrated before he gets to the hints and allegations section (Pp163ff), it was an entire approach to priestly and episcopal authority that was at fault. Even worse, Lawler himself notes that the priesthood has become more homosexual (p.xiv), yet child abuse cases have dropped (p.xiii) and only a small percentage of priests were involved in abuse of minors (p.7).

Lawler argues that homosexual priests were much more likely to have sex with minors, depending on what percentage of the priesthood is same-sex oriented. But he also makes the point that the problem was overwhelmingly a particular cohort of priests (Pp137ff). This he explains in terms of Vatican II laxness, yet the increase begins slightly before the Council and, as he notes, plateaus and drops off well before any serious Church attempt to address the issue. (Apart from some improvement in the psycho-emotional training of priests: something Lawler entirely fails to mention.) So, something else is clearly going on.

Here, Lawler’s Catholic prejudices betray him. The priesthood has always been disproportionately same-sex oriented. St Peter Damien complained about a “sodomite” “Church within the Church” in the eleventh century. Ladurie found evidence of same-sex active networks that were urban and clerical in the fourteenth century. One thinks of Julius III and the Innozeno scandal. Irish writer Colm Toibin has written perceptively on the longstanding practice of steering same-sex attracted sons into the Church. Given Catholic doctrine, what else would one expect?

The Church is committed to fighting an unending war, generation after generation, against human sexual diversity. Yet, the reality is humans are sexually diverse. Catholic doctrine requires either celibacy or “pretend heterosexuality”, sexual posing by the same-sex oriented. If same-sex oriented boys go into the priesthood, they avoid the pressure to get married and can gain social status from the celibacy the Church demands of them anyway.

What went wrong? The liberalising of social opportunities for the same-sex attracted (and, to some extent, the loss of priestly status and clarity of role Lawler does deal with) made the “bargain” of celibacy-for-status more and more costly. Poor training of priests and an Episcopate much more concerned with maintaining priestly authority and institutional status than anything else intersected with these changed circumstances to lead to an epidemic of abuse. Once willingness to report abusive priests increased sufficiently, training of priests improved and liberalising of social circumstances reached a stage where priests were far more people with genuine vocations, not folk “making the best of bad options”, abuse dropped dramatically. That the priesthood quite possibly was becoming more homosexual (given the dramatic drop in vocations overall) was irrelevant. It was not an enduring reality – a disproportionately same-sex attracted priesthood – but a set of circumstances around that which created the abuse scandals.

But to think like this you have to see the same-sex attracted as people, not as pathetic perverts who should have the decency not to bother the rest of humanity with outrageous demands to be treated as full humans.

The celibacy of the Episcopate was, almost certainly, much more important than its balance of sexual orientation (whatever that might be). None of them were parents (at least, not officially), so none of them had the visceral “that might be MY child” effect that was such a powerful factor in the wider society when the scandals of priestly abuse and Episcopal mendacity broke.

Counselling delusions
Something else that was clearly in operation was the advent of the “therapeutic culture”. As Lawler points out, the traditional way to treat with abusive priests was to confine them to a monastery or dismiss them. Or, even earlier, deliberate abandonment to the “sword of secular justice” (Pp 137-8). The modern “managerialist” hierarchy switched to the “modern, scientific” response of therapeutic “cures” and reassignment. This approach was a complete failure. But such therapy-through-counselling is a cultural fad, not something with any substantial evidentiary underpinning it. Indeed, the evidence is very much that such counselling is likely to be either useless or counterproductive.

Lawler concludes with a plea for a smaller, but committed and believing, Church. He cites the success of St Peter Canisius in early C16th Vienna – a city that had not had a priestly ordination for 20 years when he arrived – as an example (Pp256-7). That the good Saint – charismatic preacher though he likely was – also had the support of the secular authorities does not seem to strike Lawler as important: a common Catholic blindness about the history of Christianisation.

The Faithful Departed is an intelligent, heartfelt wrestling with the collapse of Catholic culture. Lawler wants a hierarchy and a Church he can believe in and which is committed to its traditional beliefs. Yet, in the end, his apparent measure of Catholic success or failure is the extent to which it succeeds or fails in denying women control over their own bodies and (especially) a vulnerable minority of his fellow citizens (queers) equal protection of the law. A fight where his Church has been performing in much the same way – right down to making the same accusations – as it did in another losing fight to deny a vulnerable minority of citizens equal protection of the law (the Jews). Is this really part and exemplar of the “Sacrifice of Christ” that he invokes in his call for a Church militant? Apparently so.

The Faithful Departed successfully gives an intelligent conservative Catholic analysis of the problems of the Church. As such, it is as revealing in its silences and its obsessions as in its, often clearly heartfelt, critique.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Faithful Departed

Philip F. Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: the Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture is an intelligent, thoughtful examination, by a committed Catholic (founder of Catholic World News) of what went wrong for the Catholic Church in Boston, a city which had been dominated by the Catholic Church for much of the twentieth century.

Prelate disaster
The initial focus is the sex abuse scandal. Lawler makes two key points about that. First, it was not errant priests who were the real blow to the credibility of the Church, but revelations about how much bishops had covered up abuse. This episcopal mendacity is an aspect of the scandal that Lawler holds the Church has continued to fail to address (p.xiii). Lawler notes that as early as 1985 US Bishops had received a confidential report on child abuse, and there had been court cases and payouts. Then, in 2002, a Massachusetts judge became the first to order public release of confidential Church documents and the full extent of episcopal cover-up and mendacity became public knowledge and public record: while a minority of priests where abusers, a majority of bishops were party to the cover-ups (Pp7-9).

Second, that the Church’s influence had been waning for decades. As a sign of this, Lawler notes that laws have been passed going against Church doctrine without a single dissenting vote by lawmakers. The “most painful” sign of the decline in Catholic influence being Massachusetts legalising same-sex marriage (p.4).

The essential problem Lawler sees as the hierarchy betraying Church doctrine and pastoral care in order to prop up the Church as an institution (Pp12-3). Lawler is judging the Church within an orthodox Catholic framework, arguing that it was betrayal of the divine mandate, the transcendental role of the Church, in order to further the institutional interests of the Church that was the fundamental problem. Hence the scandals being worst, and most disastrous, in Boston, where the process was most advanced, most successful (Pp14-5). What he is telling is a cautionary tale that Lawler holds carries lessons for any conservative Christian Church “fighting to preserve the integrity of the Gospel message against the advances of secularization” (p.16). The examples he lists of contentious issues – “abortion and contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage, sterilization and in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research and assisted suicide” (Pp16-7) – indicate how much issues of sex and gender are confrontation points. Issues with little actual Gospel support for most of the conservative Christian positions thereon.

Catholic struggle
Lawler then moves into a history of Catholicism in the US, particularly the Irish and particularly in Boston. It is a story of struggle against exclusion and discrimination. Alas, Catholic complaints about discrimination, given the appalling Catholic record of repression of (for example) the Jews, always come with a whiff of discount-for-hypocrisy. Especially when, as in Lawler’s case, no context is given for Protestant distrust of Catholics and Catholicism is given while he is clearly very much in favour of his same-sex oriented fellow citizens being denied equal protection of the law.

Still, it is a dramatic story, well told. The horror of the WASP elite as an overtly tribal Irish Catholic politician, James Michael Curley, proud of being convicted of fraudulent conduct because he “did it for a friend”, became mayor of Boston is well told (Pp30-1). The Catholic takeover did lower the probity of city government, but if one uses universal values as a weapon for tribal exclusion, you undermine the credibility of those values.

The cost of success
From a repressed minority, the Irish Catholics of Boston became a vigorous and confident majority: particularly under the episcopate of William O’Connell. O’Connell was a vigorous and successful administrator. Vocations, parishes, Catholic schools expanded greatly under his administration. He was an efficient and effective delegator, building up a system where institutionally effective priests were given considerable latitude and authority: this was the path to promotion (Pp33ff). In effect, O’Connell created, or at least was a prime facilitator of, a priestly managerialism (though Lawler does not use the term). Managerial authority and efficiency – the priest as professional – overtook vocation.
O’Connell even had his own sexual scandal – a very heterosexual one – where his priest-nephew led a double life as a married man, possibly involving funds embezzled from the archdiocese. Cardinal O’Connell took years to do anything about it: a harbinger of things to come (Pp39ff).

Lawler then takes us through how mainstream, influential and self-confident postwar American Catholicism was. It had a positive “media presence” – a good relationship with Hollywood, a radio and later TV star in Father, then Archbishop, Sheen, who concentrated on pastoral advice, unlike the previous media star Father Coughlin (who Lawler casts as ‘fiery’, with the barest mention of accusations of anti-Semitism). Lawler presents the avuncular Cardinal Cushing, O’Connell’s successor and a practitioner of interfaith dialogue (his sister married a Jew and the Cardinal became a friend of his brother-in-law’s family) as the symbol of the era. A lenient man, friend of Joe Kennedy (who was very attentive to the institutional presence of the Church, rather than its teachings), publicly sympathetic to Jacqueline Kennedy when she married a divorced man, the Cardinal was at an appalled loss when confronted with angry students full of 60s rebelliousness. (Lawler never quite says so, but gives the impression that he would have preferred the Archbishop to have rejected, or at least publicly rebuked, his sister and his friend.) There was also an ongoing controversy over an evangelising Harvard priest, Father Feeney, who took a particularly strict version of no salvation outside the Church (Pp43ff).

So C20th Boston had two long-serving Cardinal-Archbishops: one who was respected, but not loved; one who was loved but not always respected. In 1960, a Catholic was elected President. In 1964, Catholics become the largest religious block in the US (as they still are). Yet the cultural revolution of the 1960s was sweeping through the US (and Western world more generally) (Pp53-4).

The distractions of democracy
Lawler is clearly a conservative Catholic, in both accepting Church authority and in politics: yet the most prominent political Catholic family were the Kennedy’s, notoriously liberal Democrats. This is an issue for Lawler, particularly given that they produced the first (and so far only) Catholic elected US President. Lawler examines candidate Kennedy’s September 12 1960 Houston speech to Baptist ministers where Senator Kennedy made it clear that he would not be an agent of the Catholic Church, that he would be guided by his private conscience. Lawler’s problem with this is that his speech in part signalled that on some of the issues of the day – recognising the Holy See, state aid to parochial schools, public funding of family planning – he would oppose Church teachings. Kennedy was accepting his position as the “tribal” Catholic but emancipating himself from the burdens of Church teaching. Lawler notes that he was following in the footsteps of Justice William Brennan who, at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, acknowledged the supremacy of the Constitution (Pp55-6).

Lawler comments:
But Kennedy’s message was—or at least should have been—unsettling to Catholics who believed that a properly formed conscience will adhere to the teachings of the Church (p.56).
The notion that the decisions of a serial group of celibate men operating in a particular tradition achieve a monopoly of moral truth is precisely what concerns people about Catholicism. How can someone be an agent of a wider society, or of a particular Constitution, while accepting that the decisions of a specific Church are always ultimately moral trumps? Particularly a Church with a somewhat grisly, intolerant and repressive past? If it had been up to the Catholic Church, Jewish emancipation would not have been achieved: nor intellectual freedom; nor religious freedom; nor sexual freedom. A story that Lawler does not tell, nor even allude to except in the most elliptical terms, is how outside pressures have forced change on quite basic issues of public life even in Catholic teaching (for example, on treatment of Jews). He is concerned with the Church’s failure to stand by its teachings without concerning himself with how those very teachings have evolved and what that implies about the Church’s own doctrines and processes.

Catholics may have become the largest religious bloc in the US, but it is still a majority Protestant country, with very different views of individual conscience and authority. The issue of Church authority and democratic agency is rather more complex than Lawler is implying.

It is all very well for Lawler to point out that the Church had failed to follow its own teachings in the child abuse cases, but those teachings are still decided upon by precisely the class of people who made such serially mendacious decisions, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. Lawler wants to use the teachings of the Church as not only a benchmark to judge, but as a protection against, the implications of the Church’s profound moral failings. A certain selective blindness is required to carry this off. I am reminded of Orwell’s critique of Chesterton: that his commitment to the truth of Catholicism compromised his commitment to truth:
Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.
Lawler strays into similar territory.

Lawler engages in a historical dissection and critique of the process by which being a Catholic politician came to have very little to do with following Catholic doctrine. He notes that the puritan elite of Boston had long been motivated by politics of salvation, this simply became more overtly focused on salvation in this world. (Modern progressivism does descend in part from transferred Protestant radicalism.)

What grieves him particularly about the process is that Catholic prelates led the way, accepting that religion was a matter of private belief, separate from public life. In 1965, when the Massachusetts legislature was debating on repealing a statewide ban of sale of contraceptives, Cardinal Cushing told a radio audience:
I am also convinced that I should not impose my position—moral beliefs or religious beliefs—on those of other faiths (p.60).
Lawler wants to differentiate Church teachings that are specifically religious (such as doctrines on the Trinity) with those which are based on natural law teaching (such as opposition to contraception and abortion): a separation between those with direct public policy implications and those without. This is also not a differentiation based on the authority of Church teaching – they are all equally that – but which are more readily open to building alliances and coalitions.

When a Democratic primary to replace Father Drinan (a Jesuit priest who, in defiance of the Church hierarchy, had repeatedly sought and been elected to the House of Representatives) was underway in 1980, Cardinal Medeiros issued a pastoral letter denouncing abortion and support for abortion. The timing was clearly aimed at supporting anti-abortion Arthur Clark over pro-abortion Barney Frank. There was a public outcry at religious interference in politics and Frank won the primary (Pp62-3). The notion that Catholic moral teachings apply only to Catholics had become widely accepted, becoming internalised even by those speaking for the Church (Pp63-4). Surely, the implication that Catholics ought to vote as a bloc was also causing some angst, not merely in defence of a position many disagreed with. (Though, in Lawler’s defence, many such commentators were and are completely comfortable with African-Americans voting as a bloc.)

For Lawler, the Church provides authoritative truth. Anyone can argue for something they believe is true: being a prelate gives one no special authority on such matters. Indeed, given the need to stay within doctrine, it may even be a handicap: particularly if such doctrine has decreasing resonance. In the wider society, that a Catholic prelate argues for it gives something no special authority. It may have importance, if it reflects a sizeable slice of opinion, but that is a separate question. The tension between Church authority, group identity and popular sovereignty is perhaps more complicated than a failure of the Church hierarchy to speak up for Church doctrine.

To put these issues in context, change ‘Catholic doctrine’ for ‘Sharia’ or ‘fatwa’ and how do Lawler’s arguments look? The claims of religious authority do not come in the “clearly right” and “clearly wrong” versions that Lawler implicitly claims. The state and public life must deal with them in general, not according to some form of privileging.

This review will be concluded in my next post.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

About human nature

There are two mistakes one can make in thinking about human nature. One is to think there is no common human nature and the other is to think that there is.

Human nature and social order
Without consistencies in human nature, we could not have any social order at all, because there would be no basis on which to form expectations about behaviour, and so about the results of actions and how institutions can work. Social order is based quite fundamentally on human nature having certain patterns and structures.

Thus, it is a great mistake to think there is no commonality to human nature, no basis to structure human interactions and to develop expectations about human actions. Clearly, there is.

Social order and human variety
But it is also a mistake to think there is, in a strong sense, a single human nature. Over at improved clinch, Jon Venlet has published the following musing for pondering:
As you go through your daily lives, is government truly the mechanism which provides you with stability and safety? When you get up in the morning and brew a cup of coffee, is it the government which has made it possible for this to happen? Did you sleep unmolested because of the government? Do you have a place of work to go to because of the government? Do you drive down the road, safely, because of the government? What about lunch? Are you able to buy a burger or burrito for lunch, tastily made and free of germs, because of the government? How about when you walk your dog? Are you able to do so unmolested by thugs because of the government? Is it really the government, today, which is making it possible for you to engage in all the activities you engage in safely? Is it really the government supplying you with stability in your lives, or is it you and I?
Let us suppose that humans are made up of three types of people:
saints who always seek to act morally;
pragmatists or moralists who prefer to act morally; and
knaves who act amorally: that is, on personal calculation of benefit unconstrained by moral considerations.

(You can read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Anarchism fails

A recent guest post On the [US] Constitution as a “Counter-Revolutionary” Act by John Venlet (who blogs at improved clinch), and the subsequent discussion, has helped crystallize my objection to anarchism.

This can be summarized as: you cannot get there from here and, even if you could, you could not stay there. When states and rulerships collapse, we do not see anything resembling the stable anarchic orders of anarchist (including anarcho-capitalist) theory. Instead, we see highly chaotic situations marked by rulerships of varying size and stability where economic activity (and thus social possibilities) drop to a much lower level. (This drop often including serious population collapses.)

When we look a periods of sustained economic growth, one of their basic features is stable legal orders. Not necessarily a single legal order but, nevertheless, stable legal orders enforced by one or more effective states or rulerships.

To understand why this is so, and where anarchist theory goes wrong, one of the comments on the above post responding to an “how would it work?” query is an excellent starting point:
An anarchist working from moral principles might say: I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. If the individual is sovereign, then he is sovereign. He isn’t merely sovereign-except-when-it-comes-to-stuff-like-strips-of-asphalt. He has the right to live free from coercion, full stop. Everything else is superfluous detail.
Anarchism is generally based on some sort of natural law concept, since it is based on a notion of rights and liberties that do not require a state to create or enforce them. The above comment makes the classic mistake of natural law theory: it reads a particular set of values into the universe by the process of definition.

Rights do not exist in themselves: they are the creations of human thought and action. The key aspect of a right is some sort of acknowledgment of that right by others. The point of a right, after all, is to restrain the actions of others so as to give the right-holder a specific realm of action. To simplify somewhat: you have the rights that are acknowledged by others.

This acknowledgment can come from a shared system of belief that translates into restraints on behaviour. Or it can come from some system of enforcement. Or both. Given that people vary in both their beliefs and adherence to moral norms, then an effective system of rights needs belief (accepted constraints on behaviour), signalling (telling what rights exist and what their boundaries are) and enforcement (including dispute resolution). An effective legal order provides all of these things. An anarchic order reliably provides none of them—hence the massive levels of rights infringement, or simple non-acknowledgment of rights, that occur when states or rulerships collapse.

How things started off for homo sapiens
Something is a living thing if it has (or is capable of) revealed preference. This what distinguishes living things from non-living things: that they have actions with intent. Both the actions and the intent might be extremely rudimentary, but even a virus acts in a way a rock does not because the virus seeks things while a rock does not.
(Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nietzsche and the Nazis

Philosopher Stephen Hicks has written one of my favourite intellectual and philosophical histories, Explaining Postmodernism. His Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View is the book of the documentary and is another, very clearly written, excursion into philosophical history.

It attempts to answer two questions. First, why did the Nazis and their specific ideas come to power in Germany, in what the historian Friedrich Meinecke called The German Catastrophe? Second, what was the connection between philosopher Frederich Nietzsche’s ideas and Nazism?

Before doing so, Hicks poses a series of questions indicating how fascinating history can be. Why are particular periods and places in history – Classical Greece, Renaissance Italy – marked by such startling creativity? Where did the Industrial Revolution come from? Why are some societies apparently unchanging for hundreds of generations?

We can examine particular such episodes in detail. We can also think more abstractly and broadly about causes in history treating various episodes and cultures as experiments in living: such as the Nazi experiment, one of the great disasters of human history.

Hicks dismisses as weak explanations for the Nazi success the German loss of World War I, Germany’s economic troubles, some specifically German failing, the neuroses and psychoses of the Nazi leadership and manipulation of mass media. For Hicks the interesting question is why this particular movement achieved the success it did. He points out that significant intellects (such as Nobel prize winners Phillip Lenard, Gerhart Hauptmann, Johannes Stark; public intellectuals Oswald Spengler, Moeller van der Bruck, Dr Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger) supported the Nazi movement and it garnered millions of votes: none of the above explanations lead from the alleged cause to the Nazis specifically (Pp6ff).

Power ideas
Hicks argues that the Nazis were selling idealism, a vision of life, a noble crusade. To explain the Nazi it is necessary to explain the appeal of their sets of ideas: tthat people needs structure and leadership; that life is fundamentally struggle and conflict; that such conflict brings out the best in people; that some cultures are superior than others. The Nazis were selling a heroic idea that resonated with some powerful streams in German intellectual life. That they were not merely after power is indicated by them setting up a fringe Party rather than just joining an established one: they wanted a vehicle for their specific ideals (Pp10ff).

Hicks then goes through the platform of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), setting out the ideas involved and connecting them to the writing and speeches of Hitler and Goebbels. This is a very intelligent and accessible analysis, which has the great advantage of taking Nazi ideas seriously (Pp15ff).

He then goes briefly through their electoral success, from fringe Party in 1928 to by far the largest in the Reichstag in 1933 (Pp24-5). The discrediting of other political Parties, the charisma and manoeuvrings of Hitler mattered. But what the Nazis were selling also had to have resonated with a lot of people. (Looking back on the period, it is striking how long the Weimar politicians were able to keep the largest Party in the Reichstag out of government, given that the total unacceptability and absolute rejectionism of the Communist Party [KPD] so narrowed their room to manoeuvre.)

Hicks then examines the Nazis in power, briefly covering their abolition or persuasive dissolving of the other political Parties, the Rohm purge and merging of Presidency and Chancellorship in the person of Hitler after the death of Hindenburg. Hicks starts the examination of the Nazis in power with education. The Nazi Party had 2.5 million members in 1933, of which the largest single professional group were elementary school teachers. They were able to establish domination of the education system and youth organisations fairly quickly with at least the passive acquiescence, or even enthusiastic support, of the vast majority of educators, particularly among academics (Pp27ff).
The Nazis also assiduously took control over all forms of public culture. Not content with attempting to control minds, the Nazis also sought to control bodies through eugenics programs, a mass of economic controls and increasing militarization of economy and society (Pp33ff). Hicks covers these areas well, connecting actions with ideas with statements by leading Nazis.

All this leads up to the Holocaust, which Hicks points out followed from the logic developed over 20 years of political practice and advocacy and brought together techniques the Nazis had experimented with while in power. The Holocaust becomes not some aberration, but the apotheosis of the regime, its thought and practice. Certainly, the resources put into the processes of extermination when the regime was fighting a great war bespeak of its importance to the regime. Hicks conveys this succinctly, but powerfully (Pp46ff).

Which brings us back to the philosophical roots of Nazism. Hicks argues powerfully that we need to take these seriously: the philosopher who Nazis and supporters of the Nazis most associated their ideas with being Friedrich Nietzsche (Pp48ff).

Ideas of power
The second half of the book is an examination of Nietzsche. Starting with his life and influence, moving on to the elements of his thought that did not resonate with Nazi thinking, then the elements that did and finally bringing the themes together.

Nietzsche’s life is covered very briefly and we are reminded of just how widely Nietzsche’s influence on other thinkers extends and the power of his “sometimes scorching” prose. Key elements in Nietzsche’s thought and philosophical style are covered – the death of God, the symptoms of nihilism, masters and slaves, slave morality and the overman (Pp51ff). Hicks provides an excellent, vivid, introduction and summary of Nietzsche’s thought and influence.

Hicks then takes us through the ways in which Nazi thought diverged from Nietszche’s philosophy. For Nietszche:
(1) the superior man could manifest in any racial type;
(2) contemporary German culture was degenerate and infecting the rest of the world;
(3) anti-Semitism was a moral sickness;
(4) praised Jews for their toughness, intelligence and sheer ability at survival;
(5) believed Judaism and Christianity to be essentially similar, with Christianity being a worse and more dangerous version of Judaism (Pp77ff).

So, plenty for defenders of Nietzsche to claim that he was no sort of proto-Nazi at all since the Nazi believed the opposite on all these points. But, as Hicks points out, it is not that simple because there are plenty of aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy that fed directly into Nazi belief systems. In particular, they shared:
(1) a strongly collectivist, anti-individualist view (with some qualifications in Nietzsche’s case);
(2) saw zero-sum conflict as inescapably fundamental to the human condition;
(3) were irrationalist in psychological theories, downplaying reason and exulting the power and glory of feelings and instincts;
(4) saw war as necessary, healthy and majestic;
(5) were anti-democratic, anti-capitalistic, anti-liberal (Pp87ff).

Nazi admiration for Nietzsche as providing support for their worldview was not irrational or unfounded.

The power of ideas
In his conclusion, Nazi and anti-Nazi philosophies, Hicks points out the enormous cost in stopping the Nazis, what a close-run thing it was and poses a choice: we can oppose such ideas in practice (with all the effort and destruction that may potentially cost again) or we can oppose them in theory before it gets to practice. That fighting the battle of ideas is much better than fighting actual battles. For the Nazis gained such power because their ideas had genuine power and appeal. Against the Nazi ideas and ideals of collectivism; instinct, passion, “blood”; war and zero-sum conflict; authoritarianism; socialism the polar opposites of Nazi philosophy are: individualism, reason, production and win/win trade; liberalism; capitalism (Pp10ff). (Or, to put it another way, Churchill was Hitler’s opposite, Stalin merely a competitor: hence the desperate, longstanding attempts to deny Nazism’s status as a form of socialism.)

Hicks ends on a provocative note:
The Nazis knew what they stood for. Do we? (p.107).
Good question.

The book concludes with various Appendices: the platform of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) (Pp109ff); quotations on Nazi socialism and fascism (Pp115ff); quotations on German anti-Semitism (Pp131ff); quotations on German militarism (Pp 135ff). The four Appendices alone make this book a very useful resource. For example, in displaying the connection between the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Nazi ideas.

Hicks is an excellent historian of ideas because he writes with clarity and succinctness while covering the key issues in a clear, evidence-based way. He does not merely cover, he understands and conveys that understanding in a highly accessible way: both the ideas and their historical context. I would imagine he is an excellent teacher.

Hicks takes the Nazis in their own terms and then puts them in context. That may seem an obvious thing to do, but it is truly amazing how many commentators on the Nazis and Nazism over the years have taken their own preconceptions as definitive and forced the Nazis and Nazism into them. They look for footnotes, they do not begin with the evidence.

A friend has argued to me that military history is a great defence against nonsense, because so much of it is to do with brute facts. It is a brute fact that Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, for example. The course of the battle can be traced and followed to their conclusion. A certain approach to economic history can have the same effect: the gains from trade are a reality – that is why trade happens; the massive expansion in productive capacity from the Industrial Revolution happened, and so on.

Hicks is the Director of the Centre for Ethics and Entrepreneurship: he has a longstanding interest in how business and commerce actually operates. It gives him some intellectual defence, I would suggest, against certain academic foibles – tendencies to pretentious jargon; to an underlying contempt for the commercial; to base worldviews on grandiose schemes; to see people as integers of theory, not beings with often good reasons for what they do; to have distinctive cognitive blind spots from too much association with people in too similar a social circumstance. (To take an example I am familiar with, it is striking how many academic medievalists fail to think through why so much of medieval resources were poured into castles, knights, etc and the implications thereof because such academics live in very safe milieus in very safe and stable societies and do not associate with police or military folk.)

Be that as it may, Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View is not only an excellent treatment of a contentious intellectual topic, it is one of the better, and most accessible, books on Nazism itself. Both because of its wealth of quotations but also because it takes the power of their ideas seriously and, if you do not do that, you cannot understand the appeal, and thus the power, of Nazism.

[ADDENDA Great interview with the maker of a documentary on Heidegger and Nazism here.]

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A tentative suggestion

I am generally not in favour of solving problems by more regulation, but regulations which encourage stability, reduce risk and increase information can be a net economic benefit. (The problem with many regulations is that they set up poor incentives, and/or suppress or distort information: which includes a tendency to suppress information about, rather than reduce, risk.)

With that in mind, thinking of the problem of asset bubbles and the problems with property as an asset -- set out rather usefully here -- lead me to suggest that it may be appropriate to ban borrowing money to buy a house beyond its net present value (NPV) capitalisation of the present (market value) rental income. That is, to limit the debt portion of the purchase to the NPV capitalisation of the rental income (as it would be if it was offered for rent).

This would bar betting on capital gains with borrowed money (so the banking system would not be exposed to a collapse in expectations of capital growth) and would make it clear how much of the price was based on expectations of capital gains, increasing the flow of information about house prices.

The rule could be extended to commercial property as well to eliminate any fuss over definitions.

The thought was prompted by two things. First, that Texas did much better than Georgia in the recent housing problems in part of because, even though neither had a significant housing bubble, Texas has more restrictive rules about borrowing for house purchase so Georgia suffered far more from the sub-prime crisis.

Second, that when a housing bubble bursts, house prices tend to collapse back to around their rental income value. Rather than being based around some arbitrary notion of a "good number" about borrowing limits (some X% of price), the proposed rule would be based on genuine information about house value.

Increasing information, increasing stability, reducing risk, fairly straightforward to follow: a possibly useful rule.

NB: This post is a work in progress, and has been amended to hopefully make it clearer.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A lie so traditional as to become accepted truth

Joseph Goebbels Ph.D., master of propaganda, was famous for observing that a lie told often enough becomes the truth. There are few, if any, areas in contemporary life where that is more true than in the area same-sex attraction and orientation.

A striking example of this recently caught my eye:
Nussbaum would have done well to consider the religious grounds for opposing the gay rights movement, since she underestimates the relevance of the Judeo-Christian tradition for the matters at hand. She suggests, incredibly, that the only strictures in the Bible pertaining to homosexuality are found in the Book of Leviticus. Has she managed to wipe completely the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from her mind?
Possibly. Or possibly, unlike David L. Tubbs, the educator criticising Martha Nussbaum in the quote above, Prof. Nussbaum has actually read the original biblical story in its own terms, not the traditional (mis)interpretation. Or was simply aware of the serious scholarship on the matter.

The notion that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as found in Genesis 19, is about homosexuality does not come from the Scriptural story itself. The actual tale is a story of attempted rape and abuse of hospitality. The notion that the particular crime of Sodom was boy-boy sex was a later interpretation.

It is an instructive exercise, to go through the references to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. In the Hebrew scriptures, the sin of Sodom was inhospitality (Wisdom 19:13), pride, lack of generosity, contempt for others (Ezekiel 16:48-49), failing to protect widows, orphans or act justly (Isaiah 1:10-17), or being unrepentant in evil (Isaiah 3:9). Or was the appropriate punishment for idolatry (Deuteronomy 29: 22-28), for threatening the land and people of Israel (Zephaniah 2:8-11) or being unrepentant adulterers and evil doers (Jeremiah 23:14). All of which is much more in line with the recurring concerns of Scripture, and Abraham’s bargaining with the Lord over saving the cities (Genesis 18:16-33), than an exterminatory Divine obsession with boy-boy sex. The Priestly source that many scholars identify as the compiler of chapters 1 to 27 of Leviticus is also identified as the compiler of Genesis 19:29 (which states God saved Lot due to his descent from Abraham). Yet the Levitical prohibitions make no allusion at all to the story of Sodom. While Judges 19 makes it clear that rape of strangers was treated very seriously, regardless of the sex of the victim.

When Jesus refers to the story of Sodom (Matthew 10:5-15), his comments fit in with the framings of Hebrew Scriptures, not the interpretation that became traditional.

Nevertheless, Tubb takes it as absolutely obvious that Sodom and Gomorrah was about homosexuality. It is a falsehood so traditional as to become accepted truth.

There is a great deal of “just assumed” mythmaking about the issue of whether the same-sex attracted are so metaphysically deformed that they should be denied equal protection of the laws. Some of the time it is misleading silence which has been the problem. Columnist Charles Krauthammer expresses an example of this when he writes:
until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history.
This is just flatly wrong. Entire books have been written about same-sex marriage in particular cultures. Thus the Roman acceptance of same-sex marriage has been lost from cultural understanding even though the Sifra – the earliest surviving text of rabbinical commentary on Leviticusdenounces pagans for permitting same-sex marriage. When anthropologists attempted to discern what, if anything, were the common features of marriage across human societies, being a purely opposite-sex phenomenon was most certainly not one of them. (The sole common feature they could find is that it creates in-laws.)

It is all part of the notion that same-sex attraction, let alone same-sex orientation, should not exist and those displaying such benighted features should have the decency not to act on them. And certainly should not aspire to be treated as the equal of “proper” folk if they are so lacking in common decency as to do so.

This notion of “metaphysical deformity”, which is still the teaching of the Catholic Church, is an extremely dangerous and pernicious idea. It justifies unilaterally stripping people of moral protections by category. If one considers all the fights for equal protection of the law – such as abolishing slavery, abolishing Jim Crow, Jewish emancipation, women’s suffrage – at the back of all such exclusions (or, indeed, right up front) is some notion of metaphysical deformity: some idea that such people are, by category, not worthy of equal protection of the law because they are, by category, profoundly intrinsically flawed in some way.

The ultimate expression of this is that they should therefore be exterminated. The notion that some category of people within one’s own society should be exterminated – indeed, that God wants them exterminated and is willing to do it Himself – comes from this idea of metaphysical deformity and it specifically being applied to queers. We see it expressed in this passage from the medieval bestseller The Golden Legend, a hagiographical compilation assembled by an Archbishop of Genoa who was later beatified (mainly for compiling The Golden Legend):
In that night our Blessed Lady and Mother of God was delivered of our Blessed Saviour upon the hay that lay in the rack. At which nativity our Lord shewed many marvels. … And it happed this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof St. Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.
The Gospel of Love transmuted into a message and example of exterminatory hate in this “Christmas Day massacre”.

The very term ‘sodomy’ invokes this notion of righteous extermination, going back to the arguments of Philo of Alexandria as adapted by Church Fathers as St John Chrysostom, patron saint of preachers. The story of Sodom is a story of righteous extermination and if one claims that the great sin of Sodom was boy-boy sex, one is invoking the notion, at least implicitly, that those who engage in it should be righteously killed. (Or perhaps have the decency to commit suicide, and so save the bother.) The notion of metaphysical deformity and virtuous extermination lashed together.

Language matters because ideas have consequences. In the above quote, Tubb was not displaying Nussbaum’s ignorance but his own. And a vile and pernicious ignorance it is too, no matter how traditional. It is hardly surprising that he is also arguing for the proposition that some group of his fellow citizens are so metaphysically deformed that they are not entitled to the equal protection of the law.

But that, of course, is the power of the idea of metaphysical deformity: the entire point is to block the thought that they are “real” people so that how you treat them matters. But, of course, it does. There are no “metaphysically deformed” humans, there are just people.

It is a very clear lesson of history: it never just stops with the queers. If you let the notion of metaphysical deformity loose, it spreads. Philo of Alexandria used natural law theory to push it into the tradition of Judaic revelation, targeting the queers but, soon enough, the notion that his people, the Jews, were metaphysically deformed and in revolt against the purposes of the Creator became entrenched in Christendom. With regularly horrific results: massacres, pogroms and industrialised extermination. Even the Leninist massacres, exterminatory famines and other megacides were also based on notions of metaphysical deformity. For the notion of metaphysical deformity itself is a lie, a lie created by theory and such theories, such lies, can be applied to anyone.

A very useful lie, however, if one wants to set oneself up as a "gatekeeper of righteousness". So one appealing to priests, clerics, gauleiters and kommissars. And to all those they sell narcissistic, effortless virtue to as members of the class of "proper" (even superior) people.

Tubbs, alas, is showing rather more ignorance than mere ignorance of Scripture in his screed against Nussbaum. But his traditional ignorance of Scripture is very much one of the anchor points for that vaster, and much more disastrous, ignorance.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The appeal of Marxism

A friend, who had served as a research assistant to a Marxist academic, recently observed that Marxists academics do not conduct research, they look for footnotes because they already know the answers. My friend’s pointed observation has a large degree of truth to it: the more overtly Marxist a piece of scholarship is, the more it tends to conform to this “looking for footnotes” pattern. (Even as a callow undergraduate, I quickly worked out that ‘A Marxist Critique’ meant proving that some X was not Marxist and then criticising it or them for it, providing an endless engine of easy publication “productivity”.)

Not that Marxists are alone in this. Much the same observation could be made of certain Catholic and Christian scholars. Indeed, any system of revealed or deductive analysis is prone to similar patterns. This particularly shows up in the tendency towards prediction of apocalyptic failure. Thus we get the Ever Sharpening Crisis of Capitalism of Marxism, the Looming Hyperinflation of many Austrian economics commentators, the Approaching Starvation Catastrophe of Malthusian pessimists and the Clear Moral Decay of conservative Christian (particularly Catholic) thought respectively as the failure of events to actually conform to the system of revealed/deduced truth is reconciled into a projected disaster that will provide The Final Proof. (Catholics and other religious critics have the advantage that they can more easily gloss existing patterns as [moral] catastrophes, since their criteria are supernatural rather than material.)

Considering that Marxism is a structure of analysis of social phenomena adherence to which within the Anglosphere is concentrated in academe (overtly Marxist political parties are highly marginal phenomena whose membership and recruitment is overwhelmingly via institutions of higher education) there is clear ground (i.e. a reason based on evidence and logic), and some clear motives, why someone might become a Marxist.

The ground is simple.

(1) Truth: that Marxism gives an accurate, or largely, accurate view of the world.

The motives are:

(2) Compassion: Marxism provides the best vehicle for improving the human condition. (I would include here revulsion against the dark sides of capitalism provided it is accompanied by genuine attention to, and engagement in, improving the human condition and is not just frozen rage and so covered by one of the following motives.)

(3) Status: Marxism expresses or elevates your status as a morally concerned person.

(4) Gnosis: Marxism gives a sense of having an understanding world that others lack: that is, it elevates your epistemic status.

(5) Alienation: Marxism provides a vehicle for expressing one’s rage and alienation from existing social conditions (such as, for example, colonial rule).

Now, I believe it is clear that, in crucial basic ways – such as its theory of value and of exploitation – Marxism is false. So, believing in Marxism because it is true is a mistake, because it is not. But I do not believe one can knowingly believe something one believes is false. That is, I believe that believing x entails believing that it is so that x.
One could adhere to something, in the sense of wielding it as a banner or identity, or following its rituals, without believing it is true. (Grahame Greene and Catholicism might be an example of this; much Roman public religion and ritual clearly was.) But that just makes it clear one has motives for adhering, rather than grounds (based on evidence and logic leading to conclusions or inferences about what is true) to do so.

One might believe x is true but fear that it is not, and erect various psychological defences to protect your belief in x and so block grounds to believe that x is not so. But you do that when you have motives for believing x regardless of any grounds to believe x based on evidence and logic. Provided one is not simply using Marxism as an identity in the way some religious adherents do about their faith, motives (2), (3), (4) and (5) rely, on believing (1), that Marxism is (essentially) true. But they also provide motives to block evidence or arguments that Marxism is (essentially) false.

But one will behave differently towards problematic evidence depending on which motives drive you. For example, Norman Geras’ paper on What It Means To Be A Marxist is a case of compassionate Marxism. The issues he struggles with are issues about Marxism and Marxists failing to work to improve the human condition and, indeed, making it much worse or being far too lenient on those who are doing so. Conversely, he clearly believes that supporting capitalism shows a lack of appropriate, or deeply flawed, compassion or moral concern. Clearly, I think he is wrong, and demonstrably so. Nevertheless, his motives are fairly clear, both from what he says here and the concerns that drive his blogging. (See, for example, this post on a Terry Eagleton review of an Eric Hobsbawn book.)

But it is also fairly clear that compassion is not the driving motive for most Western Marxists, particularly academic Marxists. We can tell this because Norman Geras is wildly untypical of contemporary or past Marxists. By which I do not mean that they lack his politics (though I mean that in part) but that they show little or no sign of wrestling with such concerns in other than a fairly perfunctory way at best (as Geras takes Eagleton to task over). The level of implicit or explicit apologism for various Marxist tyrannies (or even just anti-Western) tyrannies provide clear revealed preference that, whatever the expressed preference, compassion – in the sense of genuine attention to alleviating the suffering of others – is and has not been a dominant motive for believing in Marxism.

Which leaves (moral) status, gnosis (cognitive status) and alienation (hostile separation) as motives for believing in Marxism. Teasing them out individually is rather harder, as they tend to be mutually supporting. The more evil one characterises ‘capitalism’ (and its political cognate ‘imperialism’) as being, the higher moral status one’s opposition has, the more cognitively perceptive one can feel oneself to be (particularly to all that ‘false consciousness’ one can see all around one) and the more justified one’s feelings of alienation are.

Indeed, this is such a powerful matrix of supporting motives that it lives on beyond formal adherence to Marxism and provides a fairly standard network of outlooks for modern academic culture, especially in the humanities, arts and social sciences (though not so much in economics). In particular, the feeling that as an academic (particularly a tenured academic) one is distinctly morally superior to all those engaged in “vulgar” commerce is clearly a very powerful motivator. (A lot of the antipathy to economics – apart from straight envy at their higher capacity to earn consultancy fees – comes from the fact that it generates the “wrong” answers for such sense of anti-commerce superiority.) The notion that one’s intellectual, cultural or moral sophistication shows one to be better than “vulgar” or “amoral” merchants is a view which has a very long history, after all, extending back millennia.

The grandiose nature of Marxism gives it particularly strong appeal if one feels one lacks power and status (or, at least, has less power and status than one feels one ought to have). Hence its appeal to academics in general and intellectuals in colonial or autocratic societies in particular. (The grandiose nature of Marxism, and its appeal to status, gnosis and alienation, also makes it an excellent religion substitute, as long the fears that it is false can be kept at bay.)

Ultimately, Marxism has been a failure, and I do not simply mean in its propensity to produce murderous tyrannies (though I mean that in part). It has been a scholarly failure. It simply does not expand or grow in any useful sense. Marxist scholars who provide genuine intellectual contributions generally do so despite their Marxism, not because of it. The contrast with mainstream economics, for example, is painful. There is simply no equivalent of – to take just one example – the identification and application of the concept of transaction costs. But mainstream economics represents distilled engagement with evidence and logic. (Consider, for example, this selection of the top 20 articles published by the American Economic Review.) Marxism profoundly lacks that capacity to evolve and grow since it derives its essential identity from the writing of two men (Marx and Engels).

Marxism has some genuine strengths. It does generate some useful questions (though far less useful answers). As noted in my review of Earle’s book, its concern with the generation and use of economic surplus above subsistence makes it attractive to archaeologists and anthropologists. Alas, its misunderstanding of the role of labour, exchange and property severely limits its analytical utility.

Adherence to Marxism has been overwhelmingly based on motives, not grounds. Hence how much it has spread to disciplines other than economics and how little substantive Marxian economics there is. Such evolution as Marxism has undergone has been entirely about keeping up its ability to serve such motives, given that it does not serve for such unless adherents can maintain, whatever their fears, the belief that it is true.

But, whether in overt or covert forms, Marxism does serve such motives very well. It is in decline but one wonders if it will ever reach a point of too much failure: after all, so far no amount of failure has been too much.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Legal Eagle speaks!

In Melbourne on this coming Tuesday evening, details via here.

UPDATE: It was a fine talk, downloadable from here (pdf).

Friday, March 4, 2011

Reasons for Church hostility to Jews and Judaism

Pope Benedict has made it clear that the Jews bear no collective responsibility for the death of Christ. But it is hard to give the Church much credence for backing away from an accusation that it was overwhelmingly responsible for in the first place. Given that, according to the Gospel reports, Jesus was killed by a Roman method of execution by Roman soldiers under the authority of a Roman official, the lack of collective Jewish responsibility even at the time is perfectly clear. It is underwhelming that almost two millennia later that it is news that a Pope wishes to make it clear that Jews have no enduring moral responsibility.

Not that the Deicide accusation was ever the only issue. The early Christian Church, particularly after the alliance with Constantine, had a range of reasons for hostility to Jews and Judaism.

Competition: rabbis and priests competed for believers. We forget that within the Roman Empire, Judaism was an evangelising religion: it was only pressure from the Christianised Roman state (later reinforced by Islam as a ruling religion) that turned Judaism inward.

Preserving Jesus’s status as Messiah: if Jews were God’s Chosen People, yet failed to follow Christ, then either Christ was not Messiah or the Jews were betraying their role as the Chosen People. Holding Judaism and Jews to be at fault protected Jesus’s status as Messiah.

Allying with a Deicide state: if the Romans killed Jesus, then in accepting the alliance with Constantine, the Church was allying with a Deicide state. But, if the Jews killed Jesus, that protected Christian alliance with the Roman state, emphasized their “betrayal” of their role as Chosen People and improved priestly rhetoric against their rabbinical competitors. The accusation of Jews as a Deicide people was extremely useful for the Church and was kept going for as long as it was so useful.

Defusing Christ’s critique of priestly power: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent a great deal of time criticising priests and clerics. If that was identified as purely a rejection of Jewish priests and rabbis, then the Church was protected from having Jesus’ critique of priestly power being applied to it. So emphasizing how wrong specifically Jewish teaching was provided a shield against Christ’s critiques of misuse of priestly power being taken as having general (and so potentially embarrassing) application.

Subverting love thy neighbour: Critiquing Judaism and Jews created a category of person that the authority of God could be used against, further establishing the power of priests to invoke God to unilaterally strip people of moral rights and protections, and so giving them great authority as ‘gatekeepers of righteousness’. This is particularly clear in the preaching of St John Chrysostom.

While notionally these are generally attacks on Judaism, they naturally became attacks on Jews: for rejecting the true preaching, for rejecting Christ, for being Christ-killers, for following false teachers. In the case of subverting love thy neighbour, it had to be an attack on Jews, to create the category of those outside the full moral community as defined by priests.

This is why Philo of Alexandria’s adoption of natural law theory to justify a homicidal intolerance of queers was so dangerous (particularly, it turned out, for Jews) for it created a category of human beings who were in “metaphysical revolt” and (implicitly, a claim later made explicitly) metaphysically deformed who “put themselves” outside the moral community to the extent that they should be killed. (The accusation of being metaphysically deformed also being made against the Jews.)

The bigger the gulf between the anathematised and “proper” people, the more the effect of creating categories of morally rejected people to be unilaterally stripped of moral protections becomes both accepted and invisible. This move is very clear in the preaching of St John Chrysostom, when he goes from utilising Philo’s metaphors in preaching on a passage from St Paul which itself fairly clearly shows Philo’s influence to his preaching against those who fraternise with Jews.

The process of exclusion, of unilaterally stripping people of moral protections on the basis of metaphysical sins or claims, never just stops with the queers.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Housing bubbles and social mercantilism

A two-part essay on the problems of social division and failures of urban planning and management using Sydney and Melbourne as "compare and contrast" examples is here:
Since 1990, owner-occupied and investment property credit has expanded its share of total credit from 23 per cent to 58 per cent. (Business credit has dropped from 63 to 34 per cent.) Australians have been taking on large amounts of debt to invest in houses whose prices are largely a product of quantity controls: Australia has become a country highly leveraged on regulatory approval
and here:
Sydney’s land policy in particular is based on the social mercantilist model—with the inequality, conflict, inequity and corruption that model is inherently prone to. Melbourne can be thankful that its better social dynamics have ameliorated the ill-effects of the same disastrous ideas.
The author should have made it a bit clearer that you can have housing bubbles without quantity controls, they just make them more likely (and possibly more severe).