New Essay Up at the Federalist

Don’t particularly care for the title they gave it, but such is life. This one is a semi-sarcastic examination of the idea of ‘The Age of Faith’ as it applies to the modern age

Sample:

We’re not taught how to reason in school: we’re just presented with “right answers” and told to put those down. Science textbooks don’t delve into the complexities of research, competing theories, the long, hard process by which accumulated facts slowly create a clearer and clearer picture of the workings of nature. They just list the facts, laws, and theories as ready made, sometimes with an understated sneer at those who initially doubted them for failing to give the right answer.

It’s like this with most aspects of our lives. When was the last time you actually heard someone lay out the reasons why, say, racism is wrong, or democracy is good? We don’t make arguments, just statements of faith based on what we’ve been taught to say.

The trouble is that this kind of faith-based approach is very fragile (which is one of the reasons the old Christians didn’t use it). It’s apt to breed resentment and rebellion, and to crumble if the observed facts don’t seem to match the received doctrine.

We’re sometimes told with horror that half the country doubts evolution. Well, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been taught it as a matter of faith, not as a scientific fact dug out of nature through observation and reason. They’ve simply been told, in essence, “This is true and you’re a bad person if you don’t believe it.”

We should only expect some people to rebelliously turn their backs on it for that reason alone. Then again, there’s the fact that anyone of basic intelligence can see where evolution, as it is usually taught, seems to contradict the observed world around us. It doesn’t make sense that the vast variety, beauty, and efficiency of the natural world came about simply by random mutations that happened to be beneficial (I am told modern evolutionists generally think the situation is much more complicated and interesting than that). So, when forced to choose between the rather patronizing faith that’s been shoved down their throats or their own good sense, they choose the latter.

Read the rest here.

A Thought on Aretha Franklin

More specifically, on some of the responses to her death.

I’m a Detroit native, and for that city the death of Aretha Franklin is as the death of a home-grown President or war hero. She was a major and beloved figure in the city’s history and culture, all the more so because, unlike many of her contemporaries, she continued to make her home there after she made it big. Personally, I don’t have much interest in her music, but that hardly matters; the woman left behind a staggering artistic legacy and brought joy and inspiration to millions, and that counts for a lot.

The trouble, and the reason I’m writing this, is that I keep hearing commenters who seem to think that isn’t enough. They keep trying to talk about how she ‘changed the world’ or ‘changed the complexion of American music and society.’ Meaning no disrespect to her (and I suspect she’d agree with me), but this is nonsense. Black female singers were not at all uncommon or unpopular before Miss Franklin. In terms of breaking down barriers, Marian Anderson, a generation before, was probably much more instrumental than Aretha Franklin.

This is a problem I notice a lot when a major entertainment star dies; people feel the need to insist that their work had a significant social or political impact. That it ‘changed the world’ somehow, rather than simply being an excellent example of the craft. I remember the same thing was done when Prince died: articles about how he ‘changed the world.’

The problem with this is not just that it’s faintly ridiculous, but that it is actually rather insulting to the field of entertainment. It seems to imply that the real purpose of entertainment, the thing that makes it worth celebrating, is the effect it has on the socio-political landscape. Not whether it brings joy or inspiration or comfort to people, but whether it moves the social needle in the preferred direction.

See, to my mind the fact that Aretha Franklin was a fantastically gifted performer whom millions of people loved to listen to is far, far more important than any supposed social impact her music had. The latter will always be dubious at best (how can you possibly say objectively what effect a certain brand of music had on people’s opinions or behavior? Individuals would be hard pressed to definitively say that of their own lives, let alone some armchair commentator speaking about thousands upon thousands of strangers), the former is undeniable. The latter is, when all is said and done, ephemeral: social issues come and go (despite the best efforts of some parties to keep them on life support for as long as possible), but art and music remains. It may not always be as popular, but if it touches hearts in one generation, it will do so for as long as it is remembered. Great entertainment and great art are immortal, or at least much longer lived than socio-political matters.

Moreover, being a singer was her profession; the celebrate the fact that someone did her life’s work so well seems far more to the point than celebrating third-party speculation about how her work may have affected some other issue.

Basically, what I am saying is that entertainment has value independent of and superior to any kind of socio-political effect it may have had. I think most people would agree with me on that, but one would hardly know it from the way we tend to honor the passing of great entertainers. This is part and parcel of our tendency to subordinate all other concerns to the political, causing us to devalue the actual virtues of a artist’s work in a desperate grasp to talk about the same tired issues once more.

In any case, Mrs. Franklin left behind a great body of work that will likely remain beloved for generations to come, which is an enviable legacy. May she rest in peace.

 

On the Oscars

Accelerating its journey to complete irrelevance, the Academy Awards announced that it plans to add a category for ‘Best Popular Film’ (there’s a fairly credible suspicion that this is mostly a way to give an award to Black Panther, which…let’s not get into that).

I’ve long since stopped caring about the Oscars, but I wanted to address this a little.

It seems like everyone has problems with this, though from different directions. According to BBC, some people are complaining that it degrades the Academy Awards into a popularity contest, which is rather funny considering what the Oscars already are, while others complain that it will be a dumping ground for worthy films that people actually watched while allowing the more prestigious Best Picture award to continue going to movies people have already forgotten.

Here’s my problem: splitting ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Popular Film’ creates two separate categories of cinema: the ‘important’ films and the lesser ‘popular’ films (because if you distinguish from Best Picture – a designation that includes all films – and Best Popular Film – which includes a limited subset of that, you are very clearly implying the latter is a separate and lesser category).

One of the major problems with the Oscars is that they have been growing increasingly elitist, self-congratulatory, and hyper-focused on agendas. A look at recent Best Picture nominees shows a heavy leaning towards smaller, unpopular films that push issues from a perspective favored by the political and social climate in Hollywood – race, sexuality, Left-wing politics, and so on. Examples of agenda-driven films (listing only the winners that I personally know obviously and clearly fit one of the categories) from recent years include winners The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, and The Hurt Locker, as well as nominees Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Fences, Hidden Figures, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Selma, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Help, The Kids Are All Right, Avatar, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. Again, that is limiting it only to films that of my own knowledge push one of the above listed agendas, limited to Best Picture Nominees of the past ten years. I imagine that a more thorough examination than I’ve made would make the pattern far stronger. This, by the way, is not to say anything about the quality of the films themselves, nor is it to say there are no honorable exceptions, such as 2010 winner The King’s Speech. merely that this is a strong pattern in the Academy’s nominations in recent years.

They have been extremely reluctant to give nods to what are called ‘Popular’ films or films that have the approval of audiences; the fact that the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten following the controversial decision in 2009 to snub both The Dark Knight and Wall-E is only another example of this; it is an attempt at appeasement: to have space to nominate select ‘popular’ films without any chance of actually awarding them the trophy.

This new ‘Popular Film’ category is another attempt at appeasement: the Academy will give out a minor and grudging award to films people actually liked while still being able to reward the films that push the correct agendas. The fact that this seems to be largely a means to reward Black Panther is only another continuation of the trend of agenda first (let’s be honest; Infinity War far and away deserves to win that category above Black Panther. Quite a few films would be more deserving of an award than Black Panther, as a matter of fact: I’d even rank the mediocre Ready Player One as a more worthy recipient, though that’s not really the point here).

This is a trend that has been steadily growing over time. In, say, the 1960s Best Picture nominees tended to be popular films that were well-received at the box office, showed a high level of technical quality, and dealt with large subject matter or at least universal ideas. In 1965, for instance, the nominees included My Fair Lady (the winner), Beckett, Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and Zorba the Greek. Today I can only imagine maybe Dr. Strangelove being nominated. A few years before in 1963 the nominees were Lawrence of Arabia (winner), Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, The Music Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Quite apart from the fact that these are all technically fantastic films (at least, I know the ones I have seen are such and the others have a reputation of being so), note that one, these are big movies dealing with big subject matter and ideas, whether or not its immediately relevant to the then-political climate (though the nice thing about films like this is that they’re always relevant: My Fair Lady is never going to be out of date as long as men and women are attracted to each other and society has different manners for different classes), and two, that there is a huge variety in the kind of film being nominated, from musicals to family films to war movies to intimate dramas. Zorba the Greek is a very different film from Mary Poppins, which is barely in the same universe as Dr. Strangelove.

The point is, these were, by and large, the popular films of their day, and they will be remembered long after most of the Best Picture nominees of the past decade have been forgotten (which, in many cases, is now. Does anyone remember The Artist, Best Picture Winer of 2012?).

If the Oscars operated as they did back in the day, there would be no need for a ‘Best Popular Film’ because ‘Popular Film’ wouldn’t be considered a lesser category and they wouldn’t be filling up the Best Picture category with nonsense that no one cared about. Avengers: Infinity War would be a shoo-in nominee for Best Picture and a strong candidate to win. That is the kind of movie old Hollywood liked: a huge crowd-pleaser that was technically very strong and which dealt with big or universal ideas.

This whole post turned out longer and more involved than I meant it to. What I mean to say is that this move by the Academy is only the latest in a string of insults against their audience and the idea that they are entertainers rather than instructors. It exacerbates rather than solves the problem of Oscar irrelevance, all the more so because it seems to be done for the sake of continuing the same agenda-based criteria they have been operating under for at least a decade if not more. Certainly if they intend this as a way to tempt viewers back to the show, I doubt this will work. Cutting out the hostile moralizing would be much more to the point.

Privilege in Action

I’m a little late on this, but it’s too good not to share. This is a textbook example of why I despise the whole concept of ‘privilege’ (be it ‘white privilege,’ ‘male privilege,’ or what have you).

To sum up, the incomparable Larry Correia, sci-fi / fantasy author extraordinaire, had been invited to Origins Game Fair as a Guest of Honor, as he’s known as a huge gaming fan and amateur RPG creator, in addition to being a best selling novelist. Shortly after he was invited, someone took to social media to protest that he was racist, sexists, etc. chiefly because he’s an outspoken Libertarian. Origins then immediately caved and disinvited him because of his personal views. 

Now, there’s a lot to be said of that, but others have said it better. For here comes the juicy part (fyi, all this comes from Mr. Correia’s blog, but I’ve found him to be pretty honest and upfront in the past, so I feel comfortable citing this as facts. And most of it I’ve verified from other sources).

It turns out that the person who attacked him is the fiancee of a man whose article Mr. Correia fisked several years ago. Here’s the article. Apparently, she considered this as meaning Mr. Correia “personally hurt [her] loved ones” and even refused to link to the article because it was “too painful.”

The really funny thing? A.A. George, who wrote the article that was fisked four years ago and who took it so personally that his fiancee launched this attack, is apparently the son of a billionaire, who went to a high school with a $37,000 yearly tuition. Mr. Correia, meanwhile, grew up poor on a dairy farm in central California, where he went to school at what he describes as a “junior gladiatorial academy.” But Mr. George’s family is from India, while Mr. Correia is of Portuguese extraction, so guess which one is considered to have ‘privilege.’

But it gets better: in the article that was the source of the quarrel (again, from four years ago), this rich son of Indian immigrants was complaining that geek and gamer culture isn’t diverse enough and doesn’t have enough characters who ‘look like him.’ Four years later, he and his fiancee successfully expel the Portuguese author of an award-winning epic fantasy novel where all the characters are…Indian (okay, it’s actually a made-up fantasy culture, but set in a world and culture based off of India).

So, to sum up, Mr. George was so upset by Mr. Correia taking apart his article complaining of lack of ‘people who look like me’ that four years later he tried to sideline and discredit the man who wrote a bestselling book where everybody ‘looked like him,’ and justifies it in part by citing the “privilege” that the son of a dairy farmer had compared to the son of a billionaire.

Social Justice, ladies and gentlemen!

Our Particular Challenge

There are some doctrine that are ill-suited for some times. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians that he “gave them milk to drink, not meat, for you were not yet able.” (1 Cor. 3:2). That is, he didn’t try to convey the fullness or complexity of Christian doctrine to them, since he knew they weren’t yet ready to understand or profit by it.

The trouble is that if you don’t understand basic ideas, you won’t understand the more complex ones. If the foundation is ill laid, the building will not stand solid. This is one of the chief problems of the modern world; that most of us never learn our basics, yet we attempt to understand the advanced lessons.

To take an example, we often hear, in Christian circles, of the vanity of worldly good and that the good of Christ is other and greater than the greatness of mankind. This is, of course, very true, but it is not, in our day and age, very proper, for we have lost most of our idea of the greatness of man.

People in St. Paul’s day, and for most of the centuries following had a clear notion of what constituted earthly greatness and goodness. They had at least a basic understanding of virtue and nobility; able to look to illustrious figures like King David, Hector, Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Aeneas, and so on for their examples of Earthly greatness. To know that the glory of Christ surpassed these, therefore, conveyed a real idea to their minds.

But that is no longer true in our day. Our conceptions of morality and greatness of spirit are so skewed that we don’t even comprehend the basics of what it consists. We hold up superficialities like sex or skin color, political views or whether a man owned slaves and judge accordingly. Of honor, nobility, magnanimity, chastity, charity, beauty, wisdom, courage, and justice we think (to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lewis) “as a baboon thinks of classical music.”

For contemporary Christians, the first step is not comprehending the glory of Christ; it is comprehending the greatness of man. Not because man is greater than Christ, but because he is less. Because it is easier to understand mortal virtues than divine ones, and yet we have not even progressed that far.

Christ Himself assumed that His disciples understood basic morality and so could understand His taking it to a higher level: “You have heard it said…” “Even of yourselves judge what is right.” “If you who are wicked know how to give good things.” My argument is that, in the modern world, that is no longer the case and we Christians ought to act accordingly. When we preach, our first preaching should be the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil, greatness and meanness.

This is one reason I find it annoying when certain Christians try to say things like “our true country is not here, therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to America.” The first part of the statement is true, but what does it matter where our true country is if we can’t even muster the basic virtue of caring for the one we happen to find ourselves in? What is the sense of saying “it doesn’t matter if you’re unable to ride the pony; you’ll be getting a stallion one day”? To paraphrase St. John, if we don’t love the earthly country we see, how do we expect to love the heavenly one we don’t see?

What many of us seem to forget is that Earthly virtues are not simply contrary to heavenly ones, but are as immature forms of the same ideas. They are precursors, by which we train on lighter things to be able to bear the heavier. That is why men who most manifest the heavenly virtues are not for that reason bare of the cardinal ones. This is also why Christians traditionally honor worldly and even pagan glory: why the Medievals were fascinated by the Romans and Greeks, and why men like Washington and Columbus have been celebrated by Christian writers.

This is the doctrine of objective value, which is less a Christian doctrine than a human one. That is to say, it is a more basic and fundamental doctrine than any of the tenets of Christianity. It isn’t that one cannot successfully be a saint without holding it; it’s that one cannot be a human being.

In summary, in our day and age the first step of evangelization is often simply to convince people of the reality of value, not as a subjective and self-willed part of one’s personality, but as an objective and external reality that demands a certain response. We must first convert people to the human race before we attempt to convert them to Christianity.

 

Why Relativism is Intolerant

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help noticing that people who argue that truth or morality are relative tend to be much more intolerant than those who adhere to the idea of objective values. The tolerance they boast of is purely specific: that they don’t object to certain given acts (e.g. homosexuality) that traditionalists do. Like Father Brown pointed out, they only forgive sins that they don’t really think sinful. Against real differences in philosophy, principle, or even politics, relativists tend to be the most narrow-minded and intolerant people you will ever meet.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that it makes perfect sense that this should be so. Because when you remove a topic from the realm of objectivity, you introduce a factor that wasn’t there before: choice. If something is merely a matter of taste or individual preference, then the question of why you have this particular taste or preference enters in.

If ethics are a thing like mathematics: a matter of reason, then two people may disagree on ethical questions, but if they both believe in objective value then they will not (unless they are arguing in bad faith) assume that the other’s ideas are a matter of arbitrary choice which he could have chosen otherwise if he wished. They will think that each is working off of the best he knows, and in any case that the truth is something impersonal and exterior to both. Moreover, if value is objective then understanding and applying it is a matter of skill and aptitude: differences in which are only to be expected.

However, once you make morals subjective, so that each person chooses his own and no one’s is better than anyone else’s, then if someone has a moral objection to your conduct the question arises “why do you choose this moral value if you know it’ll hurt me? In fact, what does it say about you that you have such taste? There must be a reason, and the reason must be in you.”

In other words, subjective value puts all the onus on the person who holds a given value system rather than on the system itself, because it contains the idea that each person chooses his values and could choose otherwise if he wished. Thus if someone objects to, say, homosexuality, it is not because he sees by reason that it is morally wrong and believes it in the impersonal way he understands mathematical formulas, it is because he personally hates people who act that way and wants to hurt them for some pathological reason. It is not a matter for debate or reason (you can’t reason people out of tastes), but merely for condemnation. There is no space for mutual respect for someone trying to follow the best he knows even if you think him mistaken (as Grant honored the Confederates even if he thought their cause “one of the worst for which men ever fought”): the fact that he chooses to hold this shows him to be a fundamentally evil person. If he weren’t, he would think like me, because I know that I am good.

I notice most modernist ideas produce the exact opposite effect that they claim to intend.