Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries

Skepticlawyer recommended Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, a fine, erudite study of the persistence and suppression of paganism under the Christian emperors.

What struck me was MacMullen’s mastery of sources, some quite obscure. The chapter headings—Persecution, The Cost to the Persecuted, Superstition, Assimilation, Summary—summarise MacMullen’s thesis quite nicely. That paganism was seriously persecuted by Christian rulers, that Christianity (once it became the official doctrine of the Empire) spread more by the operation of legal and other penalties and inducements than preaching (particularly among the elite), that paganism was a more resilient competitor than it has often been given credit, that Christianity assimilated much of the rituals, observances and functions of paganism. A thesis advanced via citing much revealing incident and careful sense of evidence. Including how much our evidence has been strained through Christian sources and selection. Scraping off the last copy of Cicero on political good sense for the hundredth (surviving) copy of Augustine’s meditations on the Psalms is a typically vivid example of this process (p.2).

In the first paragraph of his Preface, MacMullen, sets the story as the replacement of one Establishment with another where we already know how the story ends (p.1). MacMullen then launches into a discussion of the problem of evidence: not only loss of sources but the suppression or congenial reconstrual of the inconvenient:
The father of ecclesiastical history, Eusebius, in a particular serious aside, disclaimed the telling of the whole truth. Rather, he proposed to limit his account to “what may be of profit”. His example found favour among his successors, by whom all sorts of details were bent out of shape or passed over, events were entirely suppressed, church councils deliberately forgotten, until in recent time even the wrong saint and pope might vanish from the record, or almost (p.4).
With surviving literary sources so compromised, studies such as those of urban inscriptions in North Africa, tell us (in contradiction of the surviving literary sources) that Augustine did not live in a Christian world (p.5).

By the fifth century it became increasingly difficult for the wealthy and the prominent to remain pagan:
Savage penalties were more loudly advertised by the impatient autocracy of the emperors, to offset the irremediable venality and favouritism of their students. The means of persecution available to the church thus had more of an edge (p.26)
Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law, was particularly brutal in his persecution (p.27). MacMullen pointedly contrasts the survival of the pagans of Harran under Muslim rule, noting their role in the transmission of Greek thought and learning to the Muslim empire, with the decline and loss of literary tradition by the Edessene church, which had suffered under the persecutions of the Christian emperors for choosing the “wrong” side in theology (Pp.28-9).

MacMullen estimates that a majority of Roman officials had become Christian by 360s-370s. Only one significant missionary effort is recorded in the sources: positive and negative inducements seem to have been much more important in the process of Christianisation of the Empire (p.30).

There was a clear process of the persecutions intensifying. From preferment in office it moved onto requiring attendance at church (on pain of confiscation and exile), being banned from imperial service (420s), being lawyers (468), being teachers in the schools (527) then the 529 reign of terror in Constantinople when prominent pagans were arrested, gaoled, interrogated, tortured (p.58). As the costs of intolerance fell, the level of intolerance intensified. Paganism was simply unacceptable. In 472, even ownership of pagan places of worship was subject to being stripped of rank and property (p.66).

MacMullen points out the range of human needs paganism appealed to with its rites, rituals, feasts and other services (p.71). Part of what went on was that Christianity incorporated these in itself more and more.

MacMullen estimates that about a tenth of the Empire was Christian at the time of Constantine. With the secular support of the Roman state, that number reached probably half of the Empire’s population by 400, or in three generations (p.72).
The importance of official preferment can be seen from a fundamental change in the empire from the principate to the dominate: the huge growth in government officials under Diocletian and after. MacMullen estimates that there were about 300 career officials in the reign of Caracella (r.211-217) and about 30-35,000 under the later Empire. This without considering the expansion in church offices (though much of that would be replacement of pagan ones). MacMullen argues that this led to a dramatic change in the range of intellectual opinion, with the empirical/sceptical end of the spectrum as represented by Pliny, Plutarch and Plotinus disappearing (p.83). It was a move to a situation where, for over a thousand years, the question was not which religion but how much (p.84).

MacMullen argues that Pliny, Plutarch and Plotinus had been taught by philosophy and books to restrain resort to the divine in explaining phenomenon, but both of these sources of scepticism lost power in favour of more “popular” outlooks, which became Christian outlooks (Pp85ff). Study of nature was to luminaries such as Tertullian, Augustine and Eusebius a superfluous diversion from the really important issue of salvation and study of God (Pp87ff). The corpus of the past became full of perils to the soul according to the new instrument of instruction, the church (Pp89ff). MacMullen identifies all this as the beginning of the Byzantine and medieval world and worldview.

MacMullen also notes a large difference between the pagan and the Christian. In the former:
… sacred texts, doctrine and directorate had no place (p.108).
This contrasted dramatically with Christianity:
It was a religion of the book … developed around certain sacred texts very gingerly chosen. For centuries, it had no temple; it filled the streets of no cities with its crowds and celebrations. Celebration instead was kept simple, not to distract focus on the Word; and the too-enthusiastic acting out of response to that Word, except in moral life, was discouraged.
This simplicity of structure was generally well protected. Change was suspect (p.105).
The one great Christian innovation during this period being the development of the ascetic life.

As Christianity became, not merely a public cult but increasingly the public cult, it more and more incorporated forms from paganism (parades, feasts, music, dancing, funerary rites) thereby increasingly taking over the human needs and comforts paganism provided: with the extra benefits of doctrine (to engage intellects and supplant other ideas) and active secular support (Pp108-9). Hence MacMullen’s argument that paganism never completely disappeared: it got incorporated.

The cult of St Michael was a particularly good example of the process. Angel worship had been condemned in the 360s by the Council of Laodicea, St Michael being a particularly awkward example since his cult had both pagan and Jewish roots. Yet his cult proved too attractive and prospered (Pp125ff).

Similarly, the Council of Elvira (c.306) forbade images of Jesus, Paul and Peter in Churches. Once again, the pagan influence proved too strong, with the Emperors leading the way (P.130).

In his Summary MacMullen reiterates the point about the breadth of human wants and services paganism covered that early Christianity did not (p.150) even though it did manage to spread both geographically and in numbers even, to a much lesser degree, in wealth. With the conversion of Constantine and the capture of the Roman state, all that changes. While doctrine did not much change, public rites, rituals and displays did incorporating all sorts of pagan forms. A variety of positive and negative inducements lead to a massive increase in Christian adherence. Yet, 250 years after Constantine:
… Justinian was still engaged in the war upon dissent (p.151).
And a war it surely was.

But one won in part because:
Elite and masses were in broad agreement about how the universe worked, though they put different names to the superhuman agencies at work (p.153).
Working with this, and responding to the persistence of the human needs paganism served:
… Christianity became (as a salesman would say today) “a full service religion” (p.154)
This is the world of theological incorrectness, of religion as it is rather than doctrinally ought to be. Hence:
The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation (p.159).
But still, in the end, a triumph of massive, sustained application of state coercion.

There is a sense of shock in reading about Christianity as an imposed religion: it is not the culturally received view. Especially as it becomes quite clear that Christian persecution of paganism was typically more severe than the later Muslim persecution of Christianity, since Muslims permitted the structures and observances of Christianity to continue while the Christian rulers successively, and evermore restrictively, banned the same for paganism. One sign of the greater Christian persecution is that it took, on MacMullen’s estimate, less than two centuries for Christians to increase from about 10 per cent of the population in the Empire at the time of Constantine’s reign to them becoming about half the population (around 400). It typically took much longer for Islam to become the majority religion in the lands of the Arab conquests. It is likely, for example, that Egypt did not become a majority Muslim country until sometime in the C12th to C14th: five or more centuries after the original conquest.

But paganism was “demonic error” while Christians had an accepted (if clearly inferior) role in Muslim jurisprudence and were a useful source of revenue from the jizya (“you get to keep your head this year”) tax.

Ramsay MacMullan’s disturbing study not only brings alive the process of the Christianisation of the Roman world, but it also throws light on other periods of religious transformation, as I discuss in my next post.

Headline panic

Read this story and then consider the headline.

It rather weakens one's case against the sort of hysteria the piece is attacking when one frames the story so falsely in one's headline.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Indigenous policy: a rant

Indigenous policy in Australia has been something of a serial disaster from the beginning of European settlement. This is a fairly normal pattern: around the world, integrating hunter-gatherer cultures into mainstream society has proved to be deeply problematic.

What is less normal is that, over the last 40 years or so, overall living conditions for Aboriginal Australians in outback communities have generally got worse. That is, the situation in many indigenous communities (in terms of employment, drug abuse, child abuse, violence, school attendance) is worse than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Cultural distance
First, some context. Ever since the invention of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, farming and farmers have been pushing out hunter-gatherers and hunter-gathering: a process that is still going on around the planet.

There is no mystery as to why: farming can supports a lot more people. This is, in fact, farming’s sole original advantage. But it is, of course, all the advantage it needed.

The last continent that this process reached was Australia. But, as historian Geoffey Blainey has pointed out, when farmers and farming reached mainland Australia with British settlement, Britain was already in the first stages of the Industrial Revolution. Which made the cultural gap between the new arrivals and the residents the largest in human history.

It is this cultural gap, this cultural distance, which has always been, and remains, the central difficulty for indigenous policy: as it has been everywhere that hunter-gatherers have been territorially incorporated in modern societies.

The greatest immediate problem for indigenous Australians from British settlement was the introduction of the Eurasian (and American) disease pools into an epidemiologically isolated population. It had much the same devastating population effects as it did in the rest of Oceania and as had happened with the introduction of the Eurasian disease pool to the Americas.

So, with the cultural disruption inherent in the wave of new diseases and death while suddenly confronting a new society with a much wider range of capacities, indigenous society in Australia had to travel from the paleolithic to industrial age more than 100 times faster than European cultures had to. Aggravated by poor networks of communication between the residents and the new arrivals.

Cultural distance and lack of communication remain the central problems. There are a whole set of cultural adaptations to living in agrarian—let alone industrial—society that we take utterly for granted which Aboriginal cultures do not have and merely living territorially in the same society does not necessarily transmit. Attitudes to work patterns, property, deferred action, time, reasoning, education, alcohol use and so on that we take as “natural” but which are, in fact, cultural adaptations.

But, in order to grasp that, one has to accept that aspects of indigenous culture may be problematic for good social outcomes in an industrialised society. One has to be able to “see” that what we take as “natural” are a series of learned responses: in particular, to not engage in policy which assumes responses we take as “natural” will structure Aboriginal behaviour. One has to see the broader Australian culture as being well-adapted to modern society. (Hence, for example, Australia ranking second in the world on the UN Human Development Index.)
All this being aggravated by poor information flows. After all, how many inner city Australians actually know any Aborigines? Particularly Aborigines living in outback communities? Not only are there gaps in presumptions, there is a lack of connecting personal networks.

The reasons why Maoris ended up 15% of New Zealand population rather than then 2% that Amerindians are of Canadian and US populations, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are of Australian population is that the Maoris were agrarians (so the cultural gap was much less), Maoris shared a single language (so communication was easier and quicker) and disease control was better due to much greater knowledge about disease transmission.

Then things got worse
One can begin to see why indigenous policy has been so problematic from the start of British settlement. But not why things have got worse in many indigenous communities since the early 1970s.

The simple answer is: because indigenous policy became a totemic policy. That is, it became increasingly driven by what people who personally knew few, if any, Aborigines felt was good policy. And what they felt was good policy based on their own worldview. A worldview that generally took a critical attitude to the society around it.

In other words, rather than seeing the key to indigenous success as being to adapt to the otherwise highly successful Australian society, “proper” indigenous policy became about using indigenous Australians as a totemic example of what was wrong with Australian society. The key role for indigenous Australians became a stick to beat the rest of Australia with.

So the big issue became, not cultural distance, but racism. Missions and pastoral work—which had evolved as ways for local whites and local Aborigines to deal with each other—were replaced with centrally organised policies of making full-time employment (something no hunter-gatherer culture evolved) the only acceptable mode of pastoral work (so effectively reserving it for white stockmen) with outback Aborigines living in government-funded communities based on romantic notions of indigenous collectivism.

The result has been, almost everywhere, social disaster. Which leaves us with a question

Do progressivists want indigenous Australians to succeed?
I ask this question seriously.

Progressivists in Australia have clearly selected indigenous policies, not on the basis of what is likely to succeed, but what makes them feel good about themselves. They regularly refuse to treat any part of indigenous culture as problematic while happy to treat almost any part of own culture as problematic. The key issue is defending romantic notions about themselves as exemplars of compassion and social justice (so anyone who disagreed them was “obviously” lacking in compassion and concern for social justice) and indigenous Australians as noble collectivists.

Hence they have advocated and overseen a set of policies not based on careful analysis of the realities, but on projection of their own preferred world-view. One, moreover, that demonises and dismisses experiences and perspectives that do not conform to their congenial worldview and sense of themselves, thereby cutting out of policy debates those with experience in living, working and dealing with indigenous Australians

A process aggravated by the fact that progressivist views have become so hegemonic in their social and institutional milieus, they cannot deal with effective dissent except in terms of demonisation and belittling. Thereby acting as if truth and morality is their sole possession. (A splendid set of possessions to have, to be sure.)

But one cannot build successful policy based on such a crippled epistemology (pdf). Only by careful attention to the truth, to the realities of the situation, can one hope to have any success in such an inherently difficult area of public policy.

To take a few examples: the exaggerated and over-simplified breast-beating about massacres. Of course massacres occurred: you simply cannot get such a huge disparity in relative power with valuable resources to be had, very limited information flows and sparse policing resources and not have violence be part of the story. In both directions. My own ancestor, John Warby, absented himself from one punitive expedition in the early Sydney colony (1814), for which he had been contracted as guide and leader of the Aboriginal trackers, once he became aware of the expedition’s instructions: apparently because he judged them as likely to sabotage his own (very good) relations with the local Aborigines. The expedition (under Captain Wallis) proceeded to attack an Aboriginal camp at night, killing at least 17 men and women (not including any which might have fallen to their deaths in flight).

But sometimes, part of what was going on was that one Aboriginal group would get some of its men into police service and then use their official position as a weapon against hostile Aboriginal groups. If one cannot acknowledge that hunter-gather societies are typically more violent than agrarian and industrialised societies, and that hunter-gatherer societies were typically less successful at evolving restrictions on violence, then one cannot deal with violence in Aboriginal communities.

Consider complaints that native title is a weak form of property rights. This is as it should be. Without denying for a moment the points Geoffrey Blainey makes so well in The Triumph of the Nomads about Aboriginal groups managing the land, land just did not have the scarcity value needed to evolve strong property rights in land. Which is directly connected to the high rates of violence and attenuated mechanisms against violence. Nomadic hunter-gatherers have limited returns from trade, their groups can just split rather than finding other ways to resolve disputes and they lived in small groups which could be successfully wiped out by killing all the males and incorporating the women.

To put it another way, the costs of violence are lower and the potential returns higher across the society than in agrarian or industrial societies. Of course hunter-gatherer societies are typically more violent than agrarian societies—where being tied to a particular bit of land forces repeated interactions with the same people, requiring mechanisms to resolve disputes—or industrial society—where the greater social surplus allows increased investment in policing and the greater level of capital increases social returns from effective policing and dispute resolution.

Consider the “welcome to country” acknowledgements at the start of public events and speeches. Has it never occurred to such people that the previous 50,000 years of Aboriginal history in Australia was not all sweetness and light: that such acknowledgments can, in reality, merely be giving a tick from one set of dispossessors to a previous set of dispossessors. Which represents a moral advance how, exactly?

Or the hugely exaggerated breast-beating over “stolen generations”: if one cannot acknowledge that cultural dislocation can put children at risk from their own families and relatives one cannot be honest about the genuine problems of such dislocation. (I recommend Andrew Bolt’s speech at the launch of Keith Windschuttle’s book on the stolen generations: an edited version is here.) What such over-blown and over-simplified apologies do is, in fact, endorse the process of congenial romanticisation and self-congratulation (mostly a deeply mendacious process) while making it harder to protect children at genuine risk.

But lots of people do not want hear any of this, because it gets in the way of their consoling self-romanticising and “noble savage” fantasies about Aboriginals and Aboriginal cultures. They particularly do not want to hear that they, and their attitudes, are not any sort of solution but a big problem that has been making things worse.

One is left with progressivist sentiment that takes no responsibility for consequences: particularly not its own failures. That does not care about truth and consequences, but status-from-noble-intentions: hence Noel Pearson saying of progressivist ideas (pdf):
But I have major reservations about the Australian Left. In important policy areas, the political Left is dominated by unprincipled sloppy leftist and progressivist ideas, which are in reality reactionary and against the interests of the majority of the people.
For they do not care for the truth about Aborigines and Aboriginal Australia if it contradicts their consoling myths, such consoling myths being much more important to them. So, the answer to the question do progressivists in Australia genuinely care about Aborigines is: no, they do not. What they really care about is their myths about themselves.

For indigenous Australians to succeed by becoming and acting like other Australians would, in fact, be a major defeat. What they want indigenous Australians to be is a stick to beat the rest of Australia with to suit their self-image, their consoling myths.

And while they continue to use Aboriginal policy as a totemic policy for that purpose, nothing will get better in any systematic sense, for they certainly have enough social “pull” to frustrate any policy changes that affront those myths.

Successful indigenous policy has to be based on truth, and the epistemologically challenged romanticisation that progressivists are so enamoured of must be the enemy of truth. It is, therefore, just another way of colonising indigenous Australians: of exploiting them for one’s own benefit, and against theirs. With a collaborating “comprador” class of “activists” and indigenous bureaucrats providing the needed cover.

ADDENDA: Picked up Keith Windschuttle's book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: the Stolen Generations 1881-2008 from my local bookshop.

In the bookshop, the books people have ordered are behind the sales' desk on a shelf where people can clearly see them, with the order slips in the books with the name exposed so the shop assistant can easily see them.

The only book where the order slip had been carefully placed over the title with a rubber band (thereby also blocking the shop assistant from seeing who had ordered it) was Keith's book: the only hardback on the two shelves. The bookshop clearly did not want people to know that such a vile book had passed through their hands.

They still sold it to me, however.


My speech on the moral case for free commerce has been published in the April issue of Quadrant.

Monday, March 29, 2010

From Beginning to End

The eighth and final film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the Brazilian From Beginning to End, a lyrical meditation on love.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
One of the most controversial films in this year’s Festival, causing a stir in its native Brazil, is From Beginning To End, a drama that delves into a passionate relationship between two brothers. Francisco is five when his brother, Thomás, is born. They share the same mother, Julieta, but different fathers. From the start the boys are close, and always show affection for each other – constantly hugging and even falling asleep in each others’ arms. When the boys take a trip to Buenos Aires to visit Francisco’s father, Pedro, the Argentinean disapproves of the boys’ behaviour, insisting to their mother that the boys are ‘too intimate’. But Julieta pays no heed to her former husband’s warning. Fifteen years later, on the night of Julieta’s funeral, the brothers’ affections for each other are taken to an overtly sexual level. When Thomás is invited to Russia for 3 years to train for the Olympic swimming team, the brothers must make a tough decision – stay together for love, or part to enable Thomás to take up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Bold in its theme, this melodrama is not afraid to tackle an issue few films face. However, this is not a gritty, low-rent, morality tale; the sun is forever shining, everyone thrives in a wealthy lifestyle, and the adult brothers are pin-up worthy gorgeous. Unashamedly romantic, and, like its two protagonists, unafraid of the consequences, From Beginning To End is bound to be one of this year’s talking points.
One of the things I very much enjoyed about the film is that family life was presented as being able to be a place of love. Not of anodyne harmony, but a place of genuine love, affection and acceptance.

Julieta is a doctor who was married to Pedro (who lives in Argentina) and is now married to the painter Alexandre. The divorce with Pedro was amicable: they still like each other while Alexandre treats both boys as his sons.

It is clear that Julieta spreads love, but both her husbands—particularly Alexandre—have learnt from her. The film gently builds up our picture of the family, spending quite a bit of time on the brother’s boyhood. Which means that we completely get Alexandre and the brother’s grief at Julieta’s funeral.

Although the film regularly offers possibilities, there is not much plot: but that is not the point. The film is about love, focusing on the relationship between the two brothers. A love that is real but also raises gently the question of whether it is too powerful, too strong. While the younger brother, Tomas, is the narrator the older brother Francisco is the centre of the emotional angst in the later part of the film.

The film has some deeply erotic moments—indeed, some of the most erotic moments I have seen in cinema. Even though it is clear the relationship is erotic, it is left open just how sexual the relationship between the two brothers is.

From Beginning to End is gentle, lush, erotic and good-natured. I enjoyed the film a great deal.

He’s My Girl

The seventh film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the French family drama He’s My Girl.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
Mixing Jewish and gay identities on screen invariably spells a heady brew that’s one part deadpan comedy, two parts screwball, and a bucket-load of heartfelt sentiment. That’s the payoff from director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s He’s My Girl, a revisit to the life of a French Jewish clarinettist first realised on screen in Man Is Woman (1998). This time round, Simon Eskenazy (again played by Antoine de Caunes) finds his life in turmoil when his wheelchair-bound Jewish mother arrives with her suitcases. It’s not that she cares that he’s gay. Nor that he’s in love with a Muslim. It’s that her son wants to evict her. The young Muslim, Naïm (played by Mehdi Dehbi, a scene stealer if ever there was one) flits delightfully between identities. On top of his evening vocation as a nightclub maitre d' transvestite, he easily passes as female and befriends Simon’s mother with more than his share of Yiddish conversation. Beyond Naïm’s high jinx excesses, the film shifts into perfect screwball territory with the arrival of Simon’s ex-wife, fiancé and Orthodox son. Never abandoning its well-drawn characters, He’s My Girl delivers a quietly sincere comedy exploration of love without borders. (BZ)
Fairly early in the film, it becomes clear that the central character, middle-aged (though spry and handsome) French Jewish clarinetist Simon Eskenazy is something of a jerk. Yet that does not get in the way of enjoying the film, or caring about what happens.

Which is a tribute to the script, plotting, direction and performances. There are some genuinely powerful moments, the actions of the characters make perfect sense, the film is not afraid of the odd visual gag but what really makes the film work is Mehdi Dehbi’s extraordinary performance as Naim. Visually stunning (a strikingly handsome man, a very beautiful drag queen), willing to stand up to Simon—albeit in sometimes cunning and unexpected ways: very like a drag queen—by the end of the film you are engaged with whether Simon will realize exactly what he has in Naim if he is willing to grab him and not let himself let Naim go.

While Mehdi Dehbi’s performance is extraordinary, all the acting is excellent. Young Taylor Glasman does particularly well as Simon’s young son he has never met when the film starts. I was intrigued by the running minor theme of the police as people to avoid who the rest of society works there way round. The film packs a lot in, but in a very coherent way. A fine family drama that is also a love story.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Make the Yuletide Gay

The sixth film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the suburban romantic comedy Make the Yuletide Gay. The film is a funny, good-natured "coming out" film.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
Openly gay college student Olaf ‘Gunn’ Gunnunderson lurches back into the closet to spend the festive season with his quirky, sweet, but none-the-wiser parents in Wisconsin. Leaving his boyfriend to his own devices, Gunn dons his best Midwestern straight boy outfit and hightails it back home, where he endures a concerted effort by his parents to set him up with his high school sweetheart, Abby.
When his über-gay boyfriend Nathan shows up unannounced after once again being rejected by his distracted parents, Gunn’s charade needs to step up a notch, as he’s yet to tell Nathan that he’s not out to his parents. With the pressure growing from all sides, a Hicksville mother, stoner father, and the miscommunications hilariously mounting up, will Gunn find the courage to 'fess up to them all? (LD)
“Giddily exuberant, Rob Williams’ latest is not only filled with laugh-out-loud jokes, but also with boys who look oh-so-cute together.” - Scott Cranin, Philadelphia Q Fest
The film puns and double entendre's shamelessly, but they all work so you really do laugh out loud. It is, unusually for a gay film, actually quite affectionate about suburban living: it pokes fun but does not mock. Helped by the delicious malice of the interaction between Olaf's mother and her next door neighbour.

But the film is also very good at playing with your expectations. We totally get why Olaf--Mr Queer-On-Campus at college--is not out to his very loving parents. There is a nice little scene where Olaf explains to Nathan how he has seen conservative "Red State" parents be accepting of their gay children and liberal parents cut their gay children off completely. The denouement is brilliantly handled and it is a sign of how successfully the film has got you "in" with its believable and well-realised characters that you are really feeling for Olaf when the moment comes and so unsure of what will happen.

The performances are generally good: Kelly Keaton particularly shines as Olaf's mum. Derek Long is less successful as his stoner father but Hallee Hirsh is very good as the "girl next door" while the two leads hold your attention and make you believe in their relationship and emotional dilemmas. A lovely suburban comedy.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


The fifth film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the docudrama Pedro. In the introductory spiel before the movie, the organiser apologised for not supplying tissues. Fair call, it was a real weepie.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
In 1994, Bunim/Murray Productions made the groundbreaking decision to cast openly gay, HIV-positive Cuban-American Pedro Zamora as part of MTV's The Real World: San Francisco, one of the first reality TV shows in the US. Zamora's time in the Real World house on Lombard Street brought a face to the AIDS crisis; and US President Bill Clinton credited Zamora with personalising and humanising those with the virus. For millions of people, he was the only person they knew living with HIV.
Pedro celebrates the extraordinary life of Zamora, a young man who, when he found out he was HIV positive at 17, made the courageous decision to dedicate the rest of his life to speaking out about his condition in an attempt to raise awareness about the disease in his community, even testifying before the US Congress to argue for more explicit HIV/AIDS educational programmes aimed at youth of colour, before auditioning for The Real World in 1993. His appearance on The Real World brought his story and his message to MTV's youthful audience and beyond, and when Zamora's health began to deteriorate in late 1994 (after he left the show), it became front page news nationwide, and his death at age 22 provoked a worldwide outpouring of grief. Pedro has Hollywood royalty at its heart with Academy Award winning writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) at the helm, as well as Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceanera, The Fluffer, Grief) in producer roles.
“Pedro offers an intriguing look at this accidental celebrity and his brief but world-changing turn in the spotlight, and hits all the right emotional notes". - Variety
So, you know there is no happy ending here.

The film stars with a statement to the camera by Bill Clinton and finishes and ends with footage of Pedro Zamora, the final footage before the "what happened to them" bits being his on-screem marriage to fellow AIDS activist Sean Sasser, something we have already seen dramatised in the film. Unusually, the actual Pedro Zamora was more handsome than the actor who plays him: not something that happens often with Hollywood's products.

The film interweaves the last few weeks of Pedro's life with his experience in the TV house, his growing up and his diagnosis as HIV positive. The film conveys Cuban refugee experience powerfully, particularly in the scene when the four older siblings are blocked from leaving Cuba at the last moment and the family has to decide, on the spot, whether to separate. The movement between stages in Pedro's life is managed smoothly, the acting is fine and the characters are brought alive very well. The actor who plays Pedro gives a fine performance, holding your attention even when he is largely incapacitated by illness without turning him into some plaster saint: the actors playing his sister Mily and his best friend in the house Judd do, if anything, even better. Towards the end of the film, there was complete silence in the cinema with, I suspect, very few dry eyes. A fine dramatisation of a tragically shortened, yet extraordinary, life.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Big Gay Musical

The fourth film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the musical and romantic comedy The Big Gay Musical. The film contained some of the most good-natured satire I have ever watched, and was charming and funny throughout.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
When Paul and Eddie begin previews for the new Off-Broadway musical Adam and Steve: Just the Way God Made ‘Em, they find their lives imitating art. Paul is looking for the perfect man and Eddie is dealing with how he can reconcile his sexuality with his faith. After yet another disastrous dating experience, Paul has an epiphany and decides he’s done dating and just wants to be a slut like the sexy chorus boys. Eddie comes to terms with telling his fundamentalist parents that he’s gay and is starring in a show that calls the Bible the Breeder’s Informational Book of Living Examples. While Eddie comes out to his family, Paul's manhunt project threatens to stall before it starts. But after musical numbers with scantily-clad tap dancing angels, a re-telling of Genesis, tele-evangelists, a camp that attempts to turn gay kids straight, and a bunch of show-tunes, everyone realises that life gets better once they accept who they really are.
Opening and closing queer film fests the world over, and with great original tunes with titles like ‘I Wanna Be a Slut’, and ‘God Loves Gays’, The Big Gay Musical is campy fun.
Absolutely no false advertising there.

There was a particularly cliched scene early in the film about Christianity supposing to mean loving one another that could have happily been cut, but it turned out not to be indicative of the rest of the film. There was a lot of musical numbers, partly because excerpts from the musical the two protagonists were starring in was interspersed with the action and partly because Paul regularly sang at a Mostly Sondheim open mike night. The two protagonists wrestled with related but not identical issues while the chorus boys were a hoot. There were also some nicely observed moments.

There was some great visual gags and other amusing touches (including having Brent Corrigan [link not worksafe] star as a hustler) plus a particularly poignant subplot carried off without any words at all. Everyone seemed to be having heaps of fun. That the film ended on a note of the transformative power of a good musical well, it had every right to. A fun night at the cinema.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

David's Birthday (Il compleanno)

The third film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the melodrama David's Birthday (Il compleanno) . At the end of the film, I was left with a very mixed reaction: which remains my reaction.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
Two forty-something married couples head to the sunny Italian coast for the perfect holiday destination. A large spacious house, with a golden sand beach on the doorstep, awaits. Diego and Shary are enjoying the ‘empty nest’ quiet life, while Matteo and Francesca’s relationship appears serene and calm. Small squabbles are put aside with the arrival of Diego and Shary’s young and buff son, David, a model of sumptuous beauty. It soon becomes apparent that Matteo – whilst clearly passionate with his wife – has one eye on his friends' son.
In the long tradition of quality European cinema, David’s Birthday is pitch perfect with its nuanced plot, understated dialogue and dramatic tension. As Matteo’s internal life unravels, cleverly hinted at through scenes of him treating a patient in his job as a psychoanalyst, the film takes on shards of Death In Venice (1971) and American Beauty (1999). Against the operatic score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, David’s Birthday delivers perhaps cinema history’s most tensely crafted climax. Even if you know it’s coming, it’s nail-biting stuff all the same.
Even without reading the blurb, it is obvious as the film progresses that it is not going to end well, even though how it actually ends is still a shock.

The characters are flawed, but vivid: except for David himself who is essentially an amiable beauty and so a more bland character than the rest. Because of my personal history, I am deeply suspicious of youthful beauty (and the attraction to it), so perhaps the story did not resonate with me as it might. I was also left with a "well, what happens next?" reaction. There were some wittily funny moments, the film held your interest and one cannot deny the power of the final performances but the ambiguity and uncertainty of my reaction to the film ultimately flows from it not engaging the viewer in the central characters as it needed to.

Anarchism, libertarianism and the problem of power

Charles Johnson’s essay on anarchism is an excellent example of how anarchist thought, and some libertarian thought, fails to grapple seriously with the problem of power.

They would, of course, claim, that only they take the problem of power truly seriously. By profoundly limiting (libertarian) or abolishing (anarchism) the state, they are offering the best solutions to the problem of power.

Regarding anarchism, it is clear that propertarian anarchism is much less delusory than anti-propertarian anarchism. The brute reality is that property cannot be abolished—the issue of control over specific resources never goes away. Failing to recognise this does not make the problem better, it makes it much worse, for then everything is “up for grabs”. Tool-using and pair-bonding—with their requisite sense of boundaries of “mine”, “ours” and “not mine”—is the very basis of the moral sense, as one can see in comparing homo sapiens to chimpanzees. So, a sense of ownership is not incidental, still less antipathetic, to the development of morality, it is an intimate part of its natural history.

So propertarian anarchism does at least acknowledge the sense (and, indeed, the morality) of property rights. But having faced the problem of control over resources at the petite level it then stops. It holds the problem of defining and policing control over resources can be handled just fine without the state.

Which raises the question of why the state developed in the first place. Anarchism is either committed to the position that the evolution of rulership in every society of any scale we know of was a horrible mistake (yet, strangely, one that humans “fell into” with relentless persistence) or represents a stage that we can surpass.

Why did we “fall into” the mistake? What did rulership—and later the state—provide? Exploitation certainly. Which means there are things to be gained from creating and maintaining rulership. If that is so (and it clearly is), then how does anarchism propose to stop people seeking those gains? This is the first problem of power that anarchism does not deal with: rulership provides benefits that drive people to seek it. Nor are there any signs that either people have lost the taste for its benefits, that we have developed effective means to stop them seeking it; as distinct from ameliorating their effects. Getting rid of your state just makes you vulnerable to other states.

But was exploitation all there was to rulership? Did rulership provide benefits to its participants? The short answer is yes. Effective rulership protected its subjects, coordinated infrastructure, promoted trade, reduced the transaction costs of human interaction with common rules. Humans could simply do more with effective rulership than without it. Elementary historical observation demonstrates this.

Now, it is true that one could take this too far. Civilisations that, for example, achieved unitary rulership tended to stagnate. Competitive jurisdictions provide a much more reliable engine of human progress because they put barriers on the exploitative elements of rulership and encourage the productive elements of rulership.

But rulership was not mere exploitation on one side and irrational submission on the other. Indeed, this makes it much more tangled matter to evolve a strong sense of the limits of rulership. Particularly as that, in itself, changes. The proper limits of state control in the UK in 1931 or 1951 were clearly quite different from that of 1941.

Now, it is all very well to say that wars are creatures of the state but, given the reality of the Nazi state in 1941, only other states could stop it. Besides, there is plenty of war in places without states, or where states are not effective. Pre-state homo sapiens were in fact far more murderous towards each other than post-state homo sapiens have been.

This is the paradox of politics: the state is needed to protect us from human predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of all human predators. This is a paradox that can never be solved, but only managed. All claims to “solve” the paradox are dangerous nonsense. Whether the Leninist claim to achieve the “correctly motivated and understanding” state or the anarchist claim that we just abolish the state.

For to do the latter just makes people vulnerable to state and non-state predators. If one doubts that, consider the case of Somalia, which has not had an effective state since the early 1990s. What do we observe? Yes, there is economic activity, which does indeed show how overblown state claims in that area can be. But we also observe intervention by neighbouring states, struggles within Somalia to establish control, violation of Somali territory by outside private actors, piracy: in other words, all manner of predatory actions. The evolution of rulership and the state was not some sort of deluded irrationality. Nor have the drivers of that evolution “gone away”. The realities of human nature are not a “stage” we have surpassed.

Libertarians face up to this, of course, which is why their position is fundamentally more sensible (if not necessarily as relentlessly consistent) as anarchocapitalists. In particular, the anarchocapitalist notions that there are some agreed set of natural rights that people will naturally operate on the basis of, and that people “just naturally” see others as members of the same moral community, are simply not true.

But libertarians are still prone to not confronting the realities of power: particularly in international affairs. There is a strong strain of libertarian thought in the US (epitomised by folk such as Will Wilkinson and the Independent Institute) that is pervasively hostile to US interventions overseas. Now, individual US actions can certainly be debated and it would be silly to claim that the US has never used its commanding position illegitimately for its own advantage. Though one can reasonably ask if any other state had been so commanding whether it would have been so comparatively restrained in doing so.

My point is a more empirical one. The international system has worked a great deal better since the US assumed the role of “managing hegemon” than it did in the period 1914-1945. Part of the reason for that is that taking on that responsibility has, in fact, restrained American irresponsibility (something of a feature of its foreign policy from 1918-1940). More generally, the only two prolonged periods of peace between the Great Powers has been when the British were able to function as “hegemonic balancer” from 1815 to 1914 and the US doing so since 1945. It is when the international system is at its most “anarchic” that the dangers are greatest.

It is easy to overlook, for example, how much of the economic progress over the last two centuries has rested on first the Royal Navy and then the US Navy ensuring that the oceans were protected highways of trade. The solution to the problems of power is not to abolish the state but to tame it.

The great sin of Leninism is to seek to abolish politics in the Aristotelian sense. Its enormously delusory and destructive claim that there is a “correct” metric of politics such that people with the “correct” understanding and the “correct” purposes can just be trusted to crank out the correct policies. The cult of leadership worship that is such an inveterate (if variable in intensity) feature of Leninism flows from this disastrous claim: indeed, is a natural manifestation of it.

But anarchism is no less delusory in its abolition of politics. Abolishing the state does not abolish the problem of power, it just creates a power vacuum into which predation will flow. We are left with the dilemmas of politics and of the paradox of politics they flow from. Seeking to manage it as best we can but never being able to free ourselves of its burden.

As we contemplate the historically unprecedented mass longevity, peacefulness and opportunities of our lives we can also perhaps grasp Aristotle’s point that politics is not merely a burden: that, on the contrary, it can be a noble calling. Yes, there are lots of knaves in politics: there always will be. The real trick is to make knavery work for us, not against us. Adam Smith pointed out that we do not rely on the good intentions of others to feed and clothe us. Politics is no different.

There is utility in considering the possibility of not having the state so we can see, in hopefully more clear-eyed fashion, what it is, and is not, good for. But the anarchist claim to abolish the paradox of politics is as much a delusion as are all such claims.

ADDENDA This post has been amended slightly to clarify the argument.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


The second film in Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I attended was the documentary film Outrage. At the end of the film, I heard someone near me in the audience say it was better than they expected, and which was also my reaction.

The Festival blurb for the film said:
In June 2007, US Senator Larry Craig, a fierce opponent of gay rights, was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a public toilet. From this and other true stories from Capitol Hill, Academy Award-nominated documentary maker, Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) makes the riveting argument that “there exists a brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy to keep gay and lesbian politicians as closeted as possible.” Furthermore, these double life-leading politicians have consistently supported legislation that harms the gay community, and publicly prevented the advancement of civil rights for gays and lesbians. Many activists opposed to this dangerous hypocrisy have made it their job to publically out these politicians, stirring ethical debate.
A bold and searing political exposé, Outrage features such prominent figures as Larry Kramer (Faggots) and Tony Kushner (Angels In America), probing the psychology of the double life, examining the role of the media in tacitly supporting their closeting, and the moral dilemma of public outing. Fresh from the Tribeca Film Festival, Outrage is bound to be one of the most explosive and controversial documentaries of the Festival.
What bothered me was the phrase "brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy". Fortunately, the film does not make a serious attempt to push that line apart from a brief discussion of the Powell Memorandum. Instead, through a mixture of talking heads, excerpts from news bulletins and current affairs programs and occasional written quotes and comments, Outrage explores very powerfully the operation of the closet in American politics.

The story of Republican Senator Larry Craig partly frames the documentary, though current Florida Governor Charlie Crisp is more of a focus in the latter sections of the documentary, as is senior Republican Congressman David Dreier.

The "talking heads" are well chosen and effective. Some of the most powerful commentary came from former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who has clearly thought long and hard about the effects of being closeted, particularly on one's personal integrity; former Congressman Jim Kolbe, who spoke movingly how liberating coming out of the closet is; and McGreevey's former wife, Dina Matos McGreevey on living with the lie. Some of the comments, written quotes and commentary are laugh-out-loud funny. One of the many points McGreevey makes is that gay people have to come to their realisation of who they are alone: an experience very different from that of Jews or blacks or other persecuted groups.

The film explores well how the closet operates--particularly the complicity of the mainstream press in keeping it operating--its effects on individuals and public policy, how much Washington (particularly Congress) relies on gay staffers, how much anti-gay policies are supported and prosecuted by closeted gays. But, as is pointed out, that becomes one's ticket of acceptance (often to oneself as much as anyone else). The film ends with various comments to the effect that ending the closet would result in victory for gay rights, finishing with a short excerpt of Harvey Milk saying that all that was required for equal rights was for all gay people to come out to their friends and family.

To me, the essence of the closet is the notion that same-sex attraction is not a proper manifestation of humanity. Everything flows from that--even the way, as Michelangelo Signorile discusses, gossip media connives at keeping same-sex dating and relationships out of their reporting. That is the core idea from which everything else flows.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Children of God

The Melbourne Queer Film Festival is on again, and I decided I would make the effort and go this year. I was too late to book for Children of God so I did the standby ticket thing for the first time ever. I got in, despite being 23rd in the standby queue, though I did miss the opening credits.

According to the man about town, who I ran into after I left the cinema, Children of God is the first gay feature film from the Bahamas, though IMDB indicates there was a preceding short film version. The short description in the Festival program certainly made it sound intriguing:
Openly gay filmmaker Kareem Mortimer has made a number of films in his country dealing with LGBTI issues, and Children of God is his latest, and most acclaimed, work. A sensuous and moving drama, it is highlighted by strikingly lush visuals and a remarkable cast. Jonny is a gay, white student studying art in the capital, Nassau. Withdrawn and depressed, he travels to the picturesque island of Eleuthera under the advice of his lecturer, in order to gain some inspiration. Lena is an anti-gay activist, whose preacher husband has given her a sexually transmitted disease. Distraught, she takes her young child to Eleuthera to rally the island community in her toxic cause. Also on the boat to the island is Romeo, who has similarly escaped the capital and his controlling family and girlfriend for some fresh perspective. He meets Jonny and the two handsome men are instantly attracted, embarking on an affair and restoring their love of life. But with Romeo’s family bearing down on them, and Lena’s homophobic crusade gaining momentum, will they be able to find their own piece of paradise?
I enjoyed the film a great deal. The cinematography was excellent in that "you did not notice it" sense. The dialogue was natural, the acting was terrific. I was particularly struck by the performance of Craig Pinder as Johnny's Dad for his ability to invest his few appearances with great emotional power, though there was so much fine acting it seems almost unfair to single out anyone in particular. It is a film with considerable narrative assurance, willing to go with its own story. The film has the confidence to set up expectations and then take them somewhere else without being gratuitous or remotely "look at me, aren't I clever?" about it.

A strong theme of the film is that decency has no religion or sexuality. This flowed from the way characters were themselves, not walking stereotypes. Christianity was not portrayed as an enemy, merely certain conceptions of it. Just a same-sex sexuality was depicted as varying greatly depending on context. In the film, the difference is drawn between those who care about people and those who care about their theories of people. Between a father who, however clumsily, wants to connect with his son regardless of his son's sexuality and two mothers whose theory of how a son ought to be is more important to them than their actual son. Between a reverend who see people and one who sees conveniences. Or a women who preaches against homosexuality but has no understanding of it and whose commitment to her theory of how things are is poisoning her life. Between those who change their views as they experience, even awaken, to life and those who attempt to smash life to fit their views. But not in a heavy-handed, didactic way. It just came out of the story of the characters.

You cared about the characters, and were moved (positively and negatively) by what they said and did. I am glad I took a punt, Children of God is a fine film which moved me to tears more than once.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Suffer the little children

Summaries of Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals in various countries can be found in a sidebar in a Der Spiegel article on spreading sexual abuse scandals in Germany.

There are two aspects to such scandals: that the abuse occurred in the first place and the reaction of the Church hierarchy to cases of abuse.

Patterns of abuse
The former seems to be a mixture of opportunity (priests and other religious were placed in regular and authoritative proximity to vulnerable children and teenagers) and patterns of motivation. If one felt one’s own sexuality was problematic, then the celibacy of becoming a priest (or other religious) became a refuge: a place to hide from one’s sexuality. This includes genuinely problematic sexuality (notably paedophilia) and sexuality made problematic only by doctrine (homosexuality). Hence, according to American data (which is the most comprehensive) the only group where a majority of victims were female were the victims aged 7 years or less and almost a third of the victims were aged 15-17, with the proportion of male victims rising with age.

It is clear that the Catholic priesthood has always been disproportionately single-sex attracted. Peter Damien complained about a “sodomite” “Church within the Church” in the C11th; Ladurie’s classic study Montaillou found homosexual networks in the C14th which were urban and clerical; while modern estimates of the proportion of Catholic priests who are homosexual range quite highly, but it is clearly much higher than in the general population.

Given that the same-sex attracted are a persistent proportion of the population and Catholic doctrine essentially requires them to be celibate, of course they took refuge in the priesthood: it made their celibacy useful, provided status and “proved” that God did not hate them. It was a way of being “the best little boy in the world”.

Which, as I have previously discussed, was probably a relatively stable situation until gay communities started coalescing after the Second World War. As the legitimate social space for being homosexual expanded, those choosing the priesthood as a refuge were, in effect, paying an ever higher cost in foregone opportunities. Hence the pattern of rising rates of abuse from the 1950s to the early 1980s followed by a sharp drop. The drop being a product of the priesthood stopped being a “safe haven” for abuse as priests were increasingly prosecuted; training for the priesthood improved; and more same-sex attracted priests were motivated by genuine vocations than “making the best of bad options”.

The moral failure of the Church hierarchy
The reaction of the Church hierarchy had three features: complicity, denial, acceptance that there was a genuine problem, with each feature being dominant in turn.

Priestly celibacy not only made the priesthood a refuge from personal sexual turmoil, it also meant that the official Church response was by male celibates. That is, men who were not fathers so who lacked the visceral reaction of “that could be MY child” which clearly marked the reaction of many Catholic parents once they became aware of the extent of the problem.

Lacking that visceral reaction, it is clear that the hierarchy’s dominant concern throughout has been protecting priestly authority. Hardly surprising, it is the dominating motivator of the behaviour of the Catholic Church generally. For example, most of those who organised the Holocaust were born and raised Catholic yet no one was ever excommunicated for the Holocaust. Conversely, if you challenge priestly authority, then excommunication is extremely likely.

So—in order to protect priestly authority—for decades the Church hierarchy was essentially complicit in abuse: shuffling abusing priests around rather than dealing with the problem, trying to deny the extent of the problem and only publicly dealing with it when it had got to the stage that failing to do so would cause even more damage.

But there was a more subtle problem with Church doctrine. Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching on sexuality is the Christian natural law position: the final cause of sex is procreation so the only legitimate form of sex is unimpeded penile-genital intercourse within marriage. Despite the burbling on about the joys of “unitive sex”, human experience is irrelevant: the form is everything.

So, for example, if a husband gives his wife a massage, that is fine. If he also gives his wife orgasms from oral sex, that is evil. The pleasure of the wife, that it be an act of love by the husband, that is all irrelevant: such sex is wrong in form, so evil.

Which means the human experience of sex does not matter, only the form matters. (Remembering it does not matter if the husband is sterile and/or the wife post-menopausal--i.e. procreation is impossible--as long as the form of unimpeded penile-vaginal sex within marriage is adhered to.) Now, as it happens, Jesus had something to say about thinking form matters over human purposes, but that apparently does not count.

But, if it is the form of sex that matters—not the human experience of it—then that encourages adherents of such views to not merely discount the human experience of sex in joy (as they clearly do: the anathematisation of homosexuality profoundly discounts human experience and human agency) but also in abuse (as they clearly did in so many child abuse cases).

So, Catholic doctrine and practise is directly connected to the moral failures—particularly the massive moral failures of the Church hierarchy—exposed by the abuse scandals.

While it is tempting to quote Matthew 12:33-36 on knowing things by their fruits, the more appropriate passage is when Jesus talks about what is or is not “unclean” and quotes Isaiah:
"'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Religion is not race

This expands a comment I made here.

On his blog, philosopher of ethics Udo Schuklenk commented (via) on a report issued by Ryerson University about about racism on campus. He objected to conflating of race and religion in the report:
It is deeply offensive to conflate in a report on racism racism with discrimination against people who make the choice to believe such stuff, and who then go out of their way to let the world know that they do (eg by putting black cloth over their heads, or wearing any number of religious knickknack around their necks etc).
He also quoted approvingly from an Op Ed piece in the Globe and Mail by Margaret Wenke which, among other things, said of the report:
Mr. Al-Solaylee is a brown-skinned Muslim who is openly gay. He thinks the entire exercise is a frivolous diversion. “There are things that I need from the university, but this isn't one of them,” he says. “I need computers that don't crash all the time. I want students who don't have to hold bake sales to raise money for their graduate projects. There should be money for these things, not equity officers.” …
The most bizarre revelation can be found in the report's fine print. Among the students, racism and discrimination scarcely register at all. Only 315 students (out of 28,000) bothered to respond to a task force questionnaire. Half the respondents were white, and half non-white. On the question of whether Ryerson treats students fairly regardless of race, the vast majority of both groups – more than 90 per cent – believed it did. Fewer than 30 of the non-white students said they had ever experienced discrimination. That's a 10th of 1 per cent of the student body.
Naturally, the task force has an explanation for this: People are too scared to speak out! That's the great thing about systemic racism. You don't need any evidence. Every negative proves a positive, and the absence of evidence just proves how bad things really are.
How do you say “pathetic wanker” in Canadian English? Apparently “Ryerson ethics officer”.

All of which led to my comment on Udo Schuklenk’s post agreeing with him and noting that the Ryerson report tells us that:
Islamophobia is a form of anti-Muslim racism that involves expressions and acts of hostility towards those of the Muslim faith and people from what is referred to as the Muslim world.
A claim that is stupid and offensive.
(1) The term 'Islamophobia' is a rip-off of 'homophobia', which is truly offensive since Islam is the prime source of the most brutal oppression of gays and lesbians in the world today.
(2) The term 'homophobia' itself is silly, since the problem is hatred, not fear.
(3) As Udo Schuklenk and Margaret Wente so eloquently point out, religion is not race.

'Islamophobia' is just a term to de-legitimise criticism of Islam by pandering to the desire to display "conspicuous virtue".

Racism is noxious, but not all bigotry is racism. Nor is all contempt, dislike or disagreement bigotry. This desperate hunting for mislabeled needles in haystacks is a sad pathology of our time and matters would be greatly improved—particularly the intelligence and honesty of public discourse—if it stopped. Failing that, a certain amount of pointing and laughing seems to be in order.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Talk by (Rev. Dr.) Mark Durie

Recently went to a talk by the Rev. Dr. Mark Durie on his book The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.

Mark Durie began by saying he sought to have a conversation and setting out his background. The son of an Anglican (Americans would say Episcopalian) minister, he grew up in an Australia where one could sense some hostility to people of faith. He was aware of how religious ideas can shape us in profound ways and of the power of faith. He feels it is urgently important to engage with Islam: to identity what are the key ideas, what are their implications.

Dr Durie has a Ph.D in linguistics (specifically, the grammar of Aceh). Became an academic at Melbourne Uni. Then felt the call, left and studied theology. He understood the Islamic theology of jihad pretty thoroughly, as it was a big part of Aceh culture.

Then 9/11 happened. He was particularly struck that the same Quranic verses were in the backpacks of 9/11 hijackers as was used a century earlier in Aceh struggle against Dutch. His reaction to 9/11 was to study. He read the Qur’an, volumes of hadith, biographies of the life of Muhammad. 15-16 volumes in all that he had out of Baillieu library for 6 months—this told him no one else was wanting to read them.

What the volumes displayed was a very disturbing vision of the world. The experience left him with a “soul sickness” for some months. He went to the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), to see what they had. Was sold a couple of books by an elderly gentleman who was a former Australian ambassador to Saudi Arabia in Pakistan who had converted.

One, written in the 1930s, advocated jihad and toppling democracies. The book is still in print. Durie found it to be a very powerful book and it was deeply disturbing that the ICV sold it. The other book, the best-selling Islamic textbook for US, written by a convert from University of Michigan, was similar. There are also decades of journals preparing for the creation of an Islamic state. On the internet, one can see similar book lists all over Australia.

We don’t get it. The question is: why don’t we get?

The publications he read describe in detail why to deceive people on the way to establish the Islamic state. Durie holds that people are afraid of difficult truth until one can show them a solution.

Informed and energised by what he had read, Durie began to write and preach. In his reading, he was struck by the psychological depth, amount of intellectual power and strength of emotion in the Islamic texts.
The reaction to the Regensburg speech of Pope Benedict was revealing. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia—a very serious figure—issued a press release where his response was the convert or die was not the only option, the third option of submission was available: he clearly believed this is a reasonable defence of Islam.

Durie’s book is about that third choice.

He is struck by how people are making small choices to surrender all over world. The third way is based on the dhimma: the pact of surrender (literally: ‘pact of liability’). It is based on the fundamental idea that the destiny of Islam is to rule.

The policy for rule of non-Muslims is the dhimma covenant determined by shar’ia. These are not negotiable: you have to accept terms offered, which come straight from Muhammad.

The subject is steeped in denial. Durie has been struck by the lengths people go to deny the reality, including scholars.

Durie himself is aware of the structures of denial from pastoral care: such as battered women, victims of abuse. Denial is a very powerful force: it is protective, enables you to build a coherent world you can live with. In dealing with denial, have to ask, in deep and patient way, what is the horror they are afraid of.

Under the dhimma, a tax is levied as a payment for your head: a compensation for not being slain. This is the jiyza as a “satisfaction for their blood”. The tax is for the benefit of Muslims: compensating Muslims for not killing them, then taking their wives, children, and their property.

In early years, people would have the front of their head shaved or wear head seals. A physical sign of the “Compensation received for being permitted to wear their heads that year”. Other marks include, at time of payment, ritual of blow on neck, or rope, or gesture of throttling. The tax was not light, it was often extremely heavy.

One C18th Morroccan Islamic writer wrote about how a dhimmi must load his soul down with submission. A C19th Iranian Islamic writer wrote about how the dhimma pact was about taking away his soul. The dhimmi was expected to adopt an attitude of gratitude and inferiority.

This attitude is being manifested in the West. It is creeping into public discourse. Such as the notion that the West was rescued from the Dark Ages by Islam: but Greek learning did not have to be rescued by conquest, while the Renaissance was sparked by Greek scholars and books fleeing Constantinople from the Turkish conquest. There is also a historical argument that the shutting down of Mediterranean trade by the Muslim conquest caused Dark Ages.

The aim was to build up a clear and compelling picture of Islam from fundamental principles, one drawn from a wide range of sources. Durie went through every major commentary so as to be sure was not cherry-picking, but examining mainstream Islam.

Around the world, Islam is the biggest problem in persecution of Christian. The liabilities being imposed on non-Muslims in Islamic countries match shar’ia requirements on dhimmis. The underlying themes of gratitude and inferiority are creeping into Western popular culture. It is a live issue.

Why did he write the book? Not to improve personal safety but to understand and explain. The intention is to challenge people’s worldview and to make it intolerable to continue to live with denial.

There was then a Q&A session.

Q: What is it that is so compelling in book on Islam you mentioned?
A: Plays on desire to be connected to God, surrender to God as source of meaning, building on life of Muhammad. Build a structure of how to live one’s life. Anticipates how people’s hearts will move. Islam is anti-reason, hates reason yet great minds have sacrificed themselves to Islam.

Q: How do you talk to friends, acquaintances, family about this and what is their reaction?
A: Stopped just chatting, because it is quite a depressing subject. Need to be clear himself, hence wrote book. People have a lot to lose if abandon lazy good-naturedness. Need to equip people with skills to do that. To know the questions to ask.

Q: On Dark Ages, was the book you used From Muhammad to Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne?
A: Yes, he advances thesis that Islamic conquest shut down Mediterranean. Explains why Northern Europe became more important—so far away from Islam.

Q: Please talk about the despair you felt from studying Islam.
A: Had soul-sickness for six months: gained hopefulness from faith and truth. Had a framework to fit things in. It became hard to read the Old Testament when thinking Qur’an example. One reads the story of Jericho quite differently. In the book, wrote a chapter on how Muhammad responded to rejection. Did all result in him falling in love with Jesus again. The example of Christ became deeply compelling in a new way.

Q: Regarding jiyza, how was level set, did people rebel?
A: Understood to be the inheritance of Muslim, as the whole world belongs to Allah. His people are the Muslims. So taking resources is liberating resources to the people of Allah. In tribal Arabia, one would kill an enemy, take his property, extend your lineage from his wives and children. The jiyza was compensation for foregoing that right. Imposed on every male who had reached puberty and older: the same list of people who can be killed in conquest as paid the tax. Taxed roughly according to capacity to pay.

Study of records show it was 3-4 months salary of an ordinary labourer in C8th Egypt. Would also lay tribute on cities, lands have to pay to avoid tax. Over time people were impoverished. If could not pay, had to hide (even selling children into slavery).

There were public conversions to Islam while keeping secret belief. In the Ottoman Empire, had a tax of children taken to the service of the Sultan.

James Reilly, an American who was shipwrecked and enslaved in Morocco in C19th, wrote of how, if people could not pay, they were gaoled and beaten until died. The tax continued to 1950s in Afghanistan. The mentality still exists: non-Muslims owe Muslims, non-Muslims become strangers in own land.

Q: Please talk more about the example of Christ?
A: Both Muhammad and Christ suffered very similar and intense rejection. Responses were very different. He came to see jihad as catharsis for rejection. He works with people who suffer deep rejection: some of them display self-destructive, hateful responses.

Q: You mentioned the use of the same verses in Aceh and 9/11: could you please talk about the context in Aceh?
A: The people of Aceh fought against others a lot, they were also pirates and slavers. Dutch attempted to clean up the Malacca Straits. Led to 30 years of insurgency. Eventually, a Dutch analyst who had lived secretly in Mecca convinced the Dutch authorities that they were fighting a religious war, religious insurgency. The Dutch changed their strategy and suppressed the insurgency. The people of Aceh are proud of their jihad against the Dutch.

Q: What about the notion of Andalusia, al-Andalus as golden age.
A: The dhimmis lived under system of dhimma. He does challenge the golden age in his book. Finds it an interesting mythology: a poisonous myth that does not do Muslims any favours.

Q: Islamic Forum for Europe are using entryism. Anything similar operating in Australia?
A: One is dealing with different types of groups, those overtly extremist and moderate persona people. People take a long time frame with this worldview. When one looks, all significant organised leadership had some radical connections. They had a free run until 9/11. Only in recent years have they come under scrutiny or pressure.

Q: Muslim conquest caused Dark Ages?
A: Muslim conquered much of Mediterranean, terrorised trade. Northern Europe became isolated from intellectual and mercantile networks.

Q: UK has made so many concessions. Any sign of any stemming of this?
A: The tide is turning in Holland, Italy and France. UK has a long tradition of appeasing Islam. British intelligence deliberately hosted most radical Islamists, for example. Don’t know what will happen. In Australia, a lot Christians are speaking out at various levels. Not so in the UK. Muslim connections have white-anted Christian leaders for years. Sabotaging publication. Those who are aware of the issues are often too combative, not good at building alliances.

It is better to be confrontational about ideas, rather than denying the issue until people are fighting for real.

Q: How long has Australia got?
A: The public culture is very different here: things are discussed much more openly. Some evidence of deliberate suppressing of Muslim immigration and Australia has other sources of migrants.
Muslims can be schooled into a place.

Q: Was the jizya only on men?
A: Yes, but there were other taxes as well.

Q: The Story of O—all about submission: submission as seductive sexually. Submission as joyful or blissful state: is this part of the appeal?
A: Submission does indeed have an appeal in its own right.

Q: What about notion of Islam as transmitter of Aristotle and Greek ideas.
A: Come across idea, there were some translation from Arabic. So what?

Q: Is multiculturalism the greatest gift to Islam?
A: It is very subvertable to Islam. But so are other things in contemporary Western mindset. Islam is a kind of booty civilisation, good at taking things and using it for own purposes. It would get renewed from first few generations of conquered people who had not yet fully absorbed its worldview.

Q: Any comments about rape rates from Muslim men in Western societies?
A: The issue is covered in book. That rape is permitted under Islam leads to a rape culture.

Q: Many Muslims do realise harshness of own religion, have had those conversations with Muslims about this?
A: Have not had those conversations. There does seem to be elements of shame among some Muslims about aspects of Islam.

Q: Why did some cultures resist longer than other?
A: Complex question including historical accident. Copts tattoo cross on their wrist. Sometimes had support from outside Muslim rule. Muslim rule varied in harshness.

Q: Any comments about proper response by the US to 9/11?
A: Start with not saying Islam is a religion of peace, not leaving up to volunteers to ferret out truth in these matters. Noted the role of Grover Norquist pushing engagement with Islam to Republicans. As a result, conservatives not united in US on the matter.

Q: What about the responses of Anglicans, particularly in Britain?
A: Christians in Middle East play a role in serving dhimma system pouring out poison about Israel. Anglicans can also be somewhat arrogant and want to be nice.

Q: In my reading, dhimmitude was an adaptation and expansion of the Eastern Roman laws and Church decrees oppressing Jews.
A: Yes, indeed. It is a great moral parable since the ways that Christians oppressed Jews were then applied by Muslims to Christians. Normans adapted the Muslim system when conquered Sicily and applied it to Muslims as tributo.

Q: How do you deal with deliberate obstructionism?
A: Prayer is a great help. It is a big ask to destroy someone else’s world view for their own good. What one does is wait for an opportunity of glaring inconsistency and work on that. It is important not to bury people in too much information too quickly.

Q: What about the Anglican Archbishop hosting President Khatami?
A: The Archbishop made use of opportunity: the meeting included and Anglican pastor who is a convert from Islam who gave the Iranians a copy of the gospels in Iranian.

Found the presentation powerful and effective. I do not agree with the Pirenne Thesis, but that is hardly central to his argument. On the jiyza tax being often very heavy, a tax that cannot be negotiated, which is levied on people excluded from the political community for the direct benefit of the conquering group is a tax which clearly will tend to be as heavy as is profitable. Or even more, since driving people to convert is a worthy act.

What particularly struck me is how much reading one has to do to really “get” the logic at the centre of Islam. I have read a fair bit on Islam, and some of the above was new to me (or put what I had already read in perspective). A central problem is that the operating assumptions, at the most basic level, are so fundamentally different it can be quite difficult to see how different and what their implications are.

The notion that one should love God and treat others as you would be treated pervades our culture in all sorts of ways and forms. The latter, for example, involves a profound sense of moral reciprocity, the same-rules-for-everyone and morality as a general, even absolute, set of principles. The former treats people are choosing agents, whose emotions and judgements have a certain inherent, implicit authority. The preaching of Jesus is all about choice, love and compassion and its presumptions pervade even our secular philosophies.

Conversely, the notion that one must submit to God, and that the goal to which all moral concern is subordinated is universal submission to Allah conceived as a legislating sovereign have profoundly different implications. A system of submission is also a system of domination where one gives up judgement except as continuing submission and if, as is the case, the level of submission varies then it becomes a system of a hierarchy of domination: believing men dominating women, believers dominating non-believers.

If Allah is the universal legislator, then one is committed to a divine command ethics that pervades life. The divine becomes a crushing presence in one’s life. The objection of John Stuart Mill to divine command ethics—that one is still required to develop a notion of the good since the divine commands do not answer every question—does not apply. But consider what a constriction on intellectual life that is. One ends up with a moral “occasionalism” to go with the causal “occasionalism”. No wonder Islam tends to have a deadening effect on intellectual life and creativity over time. (Much of the “intellectual glories” of Islam were either the product of dhimmis, of recent converts or of transmitting what had been created in other civilisations: in other words, of people not yet fully, generationally, absorbed into the mental map of Islam—one could argue the stagnation of Islam followed from “using up” the intellectual resources of the conquered.)

Then there is the notion that the morally trumping goal is the submission of all to the sovereignty of Allah. Not only does this subvert any notion of morality-as-reciprocity but it also subverts morality-as-constraint. As long as an act serves the goal of spreading submission to the sovereignty of Allah, it is a worthy act constrained only by what submission to the sovereignty of Allah may otherwise entail. One can see how jihadi terrorism, including homicide-bombing, can seem to be a thoroughly worthy act even though it does evade other elements in submission to the sovereignty of Allah. But the mere act of misleading or lying to unbelievers is clearly worthy if it advances the spread of submission to Allah, since the Prophet himself endorsed deception. Consider how subversive and poisonous that is to elementary discourse between believer and non-believer. One simply cannot trust that Muslims will be honest about their religion. A reality that seems so offensive to our base assumptions that it seems outrageous to hold to it: alas, there is so much evidence that this is a real problem.

Hence the importance of studying the original documents: the Qur’an, hadith and life of Muhammad. They are the root sources of Islam and set out its basic logic.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Unity of Philosophical Experience (2)

This is the second and concluding part of my review of Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience. The first part is in my previous post.

For Gilson, Kant is a warning:
Philosophers who have been misled by the lure of positive science always end their lives in a queer world—that is a punishment for their mistake; but it never occurs to them that their philosophy that is queer—that is a reward for their honesty (p.192).
Certainly, contemporary scientism seems to end in strange places. Science is immensely powerful as a tool for discovering truth, but perhaps not about everything.

Then there is the problem of disciples:
… whereas a master holds his conclusions as conclusions, his disciples receive them as premises, with the consequence that their own conclusions can never be the master’s conclusions (p.193)
A pattern that Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend display powerfully.

In Kant’s case, Fichte reconciled sensibility and understanding as manifestation of the will. Schelling held that:
… the will is an artist whose intelligible ideas need to embody themselves in material reality (p.194).
Once again, metaphysical chaos loomed. Along comes Hegel, to hold that the contradictions of metaphysics are a correct picture of a reality with contradiction at its heart (Pp196-7).

Hegel taught that reality reflects ideas that are in endless contention as thesis leads to antithesis leading to synthesis leading to a new thesis and so on. These ideas are manifested in civilisations which are thus in endless, and profound, conflict. Such that, in Hegel’s words, the state “… is the march of God through history”: a march that is, as Gilson notes, “strewn with ruins” for, as Hegel tells us:
This military class is the class of universality (p.197).
A universe of contradictory strife hovering on a climactic resolution: one can see that Marx is indeed a disciple of Hegel—a philosophy of profound violence with no higher truth to restrain it than its commitment to the final synthesis. This is revolutionary as ubermensch who is beyond morality and history because they transcend both with the workers cast as the “universal class” but even more universal, for they will be the only class left.

Of course, if the State is such a metaphysically heroic entity, it can be so heroic in all sorts of causes. Including manifesting the will of the volk in history, seeking lebensraum: resources clear of ethnic obstructions just as Marxism sought resources cleared of class obstructions. That nationalism (as distinct from patriotism, which is far older and more inclusive), Nazism and Leninism (the most murderous movements of our times) arose out of German philosophy seems something less than accidental.
Just as Ayn Rand’s bitter antipathy to Kant seems far more reasonable. Gilson does not connect the dots to nationalism, Leninism and Nazism, but he does not have to:
The liberal-minded professors who teach Hegel’s relativism in universities seem to believe that it is a school of toleration, where students can learn that there is a place for everything because everything is right in its own way. That is not Hegelian relativism; it is philosophical indifferentism. The dogmatic relativism of Hegel teaches something quite different, and it is that, taken by itself, no particular thing can rightly assert itself except by destroying another, and until it is itself destroyed. “War”, says Hegel, “is not an accident,” but an element “whereby the ideal character of the particular receives its right and reality”.
Class war and race war both justify themselves by their Hegelian “necessity”:
These are really and truly murderous ideas, and all the blood for which they are responsible has not yet been shed. Yet they are the last word of Hegelianism and the necessary conclusion of a school which, confining reason to the sphere of pure science, enslaved philosophy to the blind tyranny of the will (p.198).
These prophetic words were originally published in 1937. The collectivisation and terror-famines of Lenin and Stalin had already occurred, the Great Purge was already underway, but the horrors of Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Ethiopian collectivisation famine and Year Zero were yet to happen. Ideas have consequences.

Having dissected logicism as philosophy, theologism as philosophy, psychologism as philosophy, moralism as philosophy, mathematism as philosophy and physicalism as philosophy, Gilson moves on to Auguste Comte and sociologism as philosophy. Gilson regards Comte as being, like Kant, a response to Hume (p.199). Comte informed us that:
Hume is my principal precursor in philosophy (p.214).
Comte’s specific concern was how to re-establish a durable social order after the French Revolution. His philosophy of positivism sought to re-organise knowledge to see man’s social needs; right down to having a new “demonstrated” religion. John Stuart Mill had been attracted to Comte’s thought, but as a positivism which had:
… a complete reliance on scientific knowledge coupled with a decided agnosticism in metaphysics as well as religion (p.215).
This was going too far. The objectivity of science was not to be sacrificed.

To Comte, this was missing the point. Without the subjective purpose of organising knowledge to suit human purposes (which included positivist politics and positivist religion) there was nothing left of positivism but science without philosophy (p.216). Gilson notes that if one identifies objective rational knowledge with science there is no realm left for philosophy except rampant subjectivity. But the philosophical questions will not go away.

Meanwhile, Hegel led to Feuerbach led to Marx and Marxism. But, as Gilson points out, there is nothing special about class as a category of struggle, conflict and history, Hegelian thought equally well fed into fascist thought (Pp227ff).

Gilson defines Western culture, in the broadest sense, as:
… essentially the culture of Greece, inherited from the Greeks by the Romans; transfused by the Fathers of the Church with the religious teachings of Christianity, and progressively enlarged by countless numbers of artists, writers, scientists and philosophers from the beginning of the Middle Ages up to the first third of the nineteenth century (Pp218-9).
Thereby putting himself very much in the “declinist” camp (that there has been something “wrong” with Western civilisation, in his case since the French Revolution) and in the classicist camp. I disagree on both grounds. I agree there are some social and cultural pathologies in contemporary Western civilisation, but there always has been: the striking thing is that the pathologies evolve and change while the civilisation expands in capacity.

Classical civilisation is the precursor civilisation to Western civilisation which was born in the squabbling alliance of Church and (mainly Germanic) warlords on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire. Passing over the Germanic, Nordic and Celtic influences and the extent to which the Dark Ages represented a profound restructuring misses the point. In particular, it misses, and gives no grounds for, how Orthodox civilisation is different from Western civilisation.

To take just one example, the new Western civilisation largely lost science, not to be rediscovered until the wave of classical learning hit the West from the destruction of Constantinople coupled with the wave of new knowledge from Europe’s becoming the first civilisation to connect the entire globe. But, even in the depths of the Dark Ages, the emerging new civilisation was strikingly more technologically adaptive than its precursor had ever been: a product of its far more decentralised and varied institutional framework operating on comparative scarcity of labour. It was also a far more resilient civilisation: the Antonine and Justinian plagues were unmitigated disasters for the Western and Eastern Empires respectively. The Black Death re-invigorated the technological adaptiveness of Latin Christendom. A resilience that persists: one of the many reasons why I have little patience for “declinism”. (Small things such as domination of global intellectual life, greatly improved life expectancy and health, remarkable peacefulness, continuing technological vibrancy also inform my thinking.)

What specifically bothers Gilson is abandonment of the conception of man as the rational animal and classical culture as a common intellectual language and framework (Pp220-1). But:
While man remained in control of nature, culture could still survive. It was lost from the very moment that nature began to control man (p.222).
Gilson argues that culture has been overwhelmed by the success of science:
… the first article of the scientific creed is accepting nature as it is. Far from making up for the loss of philosophy, the discovery of the scientific substitutes for it leaves man alone with nature such as it is, and obliges him to surrender to natural necessity. Philosophy is the only rational knowledge by which both science and nature can be judged. By reducing philosophy to pure science, man has not only abdicated his right to judge nature and to rule it, but he has also turned himself into a particular aspect of nature, subjected, like all the rest to the necessary law which regulates its development.
With the more specific consequence that:
A world where accomplished facts are unto themselves their own justification is ripe for the most reckless social adventures. Its dictators can wantonly play havoc with human institutions and human lives, for dictatorships are facts and they also are unto themselves their own justification (p.223).
Comte and Hegel have much to answer for, is Gilson’s diagnosis, in the way they gave history a trumping end point: one, moreover, found in serving the nature of things.

There is much in this, as we have seen. But we also note that the Anglosphere has remained largely immune to such murderous nonsense, though there has been some infection in its intellectual life. Ideas and institutions interact, neither is the mere causal slave of the other.

Some of what Gilson writes does read as if a prediction of modern environmentalism. But then one remembers he was writing during the period of the rise and rule of Nazism. Environmentalism is utopian faith re-energised—a notion of humanity in harmony with nature by subordinating ourselves to it—with religious framings added in, so Gaia and Gaia-concern substitute for God, Christ and Christian compassion. When one considers the way it characterises civilisation, particularly Western civilisation, as engaged in a daemonic-cum-demonic “rape” of the planet, one wonders what environmentalism might bring forth if it ever did achieve full power.

Gilson predicts the triumph of Marxism in intellectual life:
Against the crude, yet fundamentally sound, craving of Marxism for positive and dogmatic truth, the scepticism of our decadent philosophy has not a chance (p.236).
He was temporarily right, but Marxism failed spectacularly on its own grounds—as a vehicle for social transformation—and the decadent scepticism of post-modernism swept academe in the wake of that failure, on the back of a neo-Kantianism that allowed folk to discount awkward truths.

In his concluding chapter, Gilson draws together principles from this history of the shipwreck of philosophies. The principles he draws are:
Philosophy always buries its undertakers (p.246).
Philosophy is a realm of knowledge in its own right and cannot be reduced to something else:
… by his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal (p.248).
The questions of philosophy will not go away: the rational animal will not stop asking them and acting on answers offered. In particular:
… metaphysics is the knowledge gathered by a naturally transcendent reason in its search for first principles, or first causes, of what is given in sensible experience (p.248).
The lack of definitive answers would seem to be a problem. As Gilson himself notes:
Scepticism is defeatism in philosophy, and all defeatisms are born in previous defeats (p.249).
Surely part of the appeal of science is that it does provide answers a lot more successfully than metaphysics has done. From past failures, Gilson concludes:
… as metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions (p.249).
But we can deduce from the patterns of failure in philosophy, the repeating cycle from proposal to scepticism back to new proposal which collapses into scepticism that:
… the failures of the metaphysicians flow from their unguarded use of a principle of unity present in the human mind (p.251).
… since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics (p.252).
(One can just feel Heidegger looming out of the dark.) Gilson puts his final conclusion:
… all the failure of metaphysics should be traced to the fact that, the first principle of human knowledge has been either overlooked or misused by metaphysicians (p.255)
Which is a lot of failure.

A problem Gilson then traces to what is surely an inevitable part of being a rational animal:
The most tempting of all false first principles is: that thought, not being, is involved in all my representations.
Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and enjoys them as beautiful … the inseparable privileges of being, which are truth, goodness and beauty (p.255).
Really? Surely these things are not features of existence as such (there is not much truth, goodness or beauty in a world of insensate matter) but features of existence apprehended by a sentient mind. There can be no truth without language, no language without thought. Science is successful because it forces us to investigate what is by means that act to overcome human cognitive frailty, but that cognition is a necessary part of the process. Nor is there goodness in a world of a insensate matter: there is neither good nor evil in the collisions of rocks and the creation and explosions of suns. While beauty is what a sentient mind can perceive but is a property that is merely open to be perceived if there is no person to perceive it. There may be beauty in a world of insensate matter but only an implicit beauty. It is sentient agency which makes things matter, not mere matter.

Gilson holds that Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas are the three greatest metaphysicians and the models for metaphysics, who merely sought to maintain and serve philosophy for their own time, as we should for ours (p.255). Which looks suspiciously like a belief in philosophy as a response to cognition moving through time.

But, then, what Gilson does very well is point out that there are enduring cycles in philosophy from system through collapse to scepticism to new system. If philosophy is to transcend that cycle, it better find the drivers of the cycle and avoid them.