Superstition & Subscendence: An Essay in Honor of Tom Bertonneau

Bear with me here. I hardly know where I am going with this, although I feel I have caught the spoor of something Tom would find delightful – that he would join with me joyfully in this new hunt. I’m confused because all I have is that spoor, and my spirits are in a hurry and a muddle due to his too soon death. I miss my friend of many years – of too few! I am not yet sure how to do with the world that, henceforth, shall miss him.

Tom has been a valued colleague since we first encountered each other. We corresponded often – not often enough, alas – about our hopes and worries in respect to our work, much of it coordinate here. We sometimes asked each other for editorial advice upon that work. I could rely on Tom for sound counsel. I hardly know how I shall manage without his sagacity.

But I must. I bid you all help me in that project, in which we may hope we can all together proceed for many more years to come. That would be a fitting legacy of his penetrant honest cheerful mind.

I propose that this essay be an early installment in something like a festschrift for Tom. Let us all try to limn what it was that he taught us. Perhaps we might make a book out of it. Or maybe just something on the scale of an issue of Amazing Stories, circa 1935: the sort of thing that was an important source of grist for the mill of his wits. That would please him, perhaps above all things we might do to honor him.

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Addition to “Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?”

6Scott Adams claims that hearing just one side of an argument by an expert is worthless since one is in no position to argue back, the alternative point of view remains unknown, and one is likely to be illegitimately convinced. I am self-conscious about this observation because many of the articles I have my students read largely present just one side of an argument. Sometimes, this is because a topic like moral subjectivism, or cultural relativism, involves flat-out contradictions and thus cannot be true. There is no “other” side, rationally speaking. The other pedagogical rationale for one-sidedness is where students have already been relentlessly pummeled with the opposing view. Such is the case with moral and cultural relativism. In fact, there are topics of which students have been so brainwashed and overexposed that unless they hear it from me they will probably never hear it. For instance, every single student, seemingly, is convinced that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Aesthetic subjectivism seems so obviously true to them that there is no need whatsoever to reintroduce the idea to them. The only job in the classroom is to make them aware that this view may well wrong – or more accurately, be a partial truth. The fact that male birds use beauty to attract mates, and we humans agree entirely that they are beautiful, despite there being not the slightest biological purpose or selection process being applicable, given that human women do not and never have bred with birds (Leda and the Swan, where Zeus rapes Leda in the form of a swan, was a) fictional, and b) rape), is an interesting case of cross-species, not merely cross-cultural, agreement about what is beautiful. Continue reading

Why You are Probably a Fascist

“Strong words were used of him.  ‘Fascist beast.’—‘Reactionary cannibal.’— ‘Bourgeois escapist.’”

Evelyn Waugh, Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)

If you are not on “the right side of History,” or if you perhaps deny there is any such thing as “History,” these strong words will sooner or later be used of you.  This is because the fanatics who will use these strong words believe that History is bearing us, like a mighty Mississippi, to the workers’ paradise that the early communists saw through a glass darkly, and that we would even now be seeing face to face, if it were it not for fascist beasts like you.

Make no mistake, these are strong words that can hurt you more than sticks and stones and broken bones.  But if you are not in fact a communist, it is futile to protest that they do not apply to you. Continue reading

A synod on synodality: will Catholics finally get the joke?

Few Catholics notice the absurd levels of self-referentiality in the thinking of our Vatican II-worshipping episcopal establishment; we’ve lived with it our whole lives. The Second Vatican Council is the salvation of the Church. The solution to all of our problems is to properly interpret the Second Vatican Council, to fully receive the Second Vatican Council, to let the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council fully permeate and transform all our ideas and practices. What was so great about Vatican II? It was collegial! All the bishops talking to each other! Scrapping their preparatory documents so they could write new documents! From scratch! And vote on them! That’s what the Holy Spirit looks like, right there: bishops writing documents, arguing over them, voting on them. And what did they write documents about? Lots of stuff, but most importantly about collegiality and how great it is for bishops to be talking to each other. Then they went back to their diocese to preach the good news about this great multiyear discussion they’d just had and how it changes everything.

But if bishops talking to each other is so great, why stop? The bishops should spend their whole time talking to each other! A synodal Church! And the laity should join in the discussion, because they’re even holier than bishops. Everything will be open for discussion, because you can’t put rules on the Holy Spirit, and what the Holy Spirit wants is bishops and maybe laypeople talking to each other. No one can predict ahead of time what will come out of these discussions, except that there will be documents, and they will be voted on, and they will be written in that weird mix of baby talk and phenomenological gobbledygook that seems to have replaced Latin as the Church’s official language. Also, we can be sure that the percentage of the Church’s energy and attention devoted to these discussions shall be a monotonically increasing number asymptoting toward 100.

Since the Second Vatican Council has (blasphemously) been compared to Pentecost, it’s worth remembering what didn’t happen at the original Pentecost.

Then Peter addressed the crowd and said, “You guys, you’re not going to believe this amazing meeting that the other Apostles and I just had! It was incredible! Let me tell you all about this fantastic meeting. You see, we were all hiding upstairs out of respect for our Elder Brothers in Faith, when the Holy Spirit descended upon us. At once we began to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and we appointed subcommittees to draft documents. And, oh my God, what documents we wrote! There was this one–James wrote the first draft, I think–called Holding Hands and Walking Together: Being Church in an Age of Displaced Verticality. It was so pastoral, just dripping with compassion. And John wrote the first draft of Always Our Babies: Dialogue and Dialectic De-centering in the Sacred Space of the Other. Bartholomew did a bang-up job tweaking the grammar (although it’s still kind of hard to tell where one sentence ends and another begins), and then we started voting. Voting and revising, revising and voting.”

“Let me invite you to join us in our dialogue. For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a meeting, a meeting with no end and no bathroom breaks, and anyone who accepts baptism gets to take part in this meeting with full voting rights.”

Acts 2, 14-39

Alas, it would ill befit the dignity due to their office, but one does sometimes feel like grabbing one of these princes of the Church and screaming “No one cares about your stupid meetings!”

Courage Alone Does Not Suffice

“If cowardice is the thing that has allowed for all of this, the force that stops this cultural revolution can also be summed up by one word: courage.”

Bari Weis, “We Got Here Because of Cowardice.  We Get Out With Courage.”  Commentary  (November 2021)

“Your courage alone, Proarchus, slew you in battle.” 

Anyte of Tegea (3rd century B.C.)

Courage is the foundation stone of virtue; but courage alone wins nothing but an early grave.  Bari Weis says many sensible things in the article I quote above, but there is no sense in her claim that courage is a force.  Courage is a resolve to use whatever force one may have without flinching, and force that is used without flinching is as great as that force can be; but courage by itself not a force.  This is why courage by itself never wins anything but an early grave. Continue reading

Standard Politics is Still Valuable for Christians and other Non-Woke People, but Discernment is Needed lest we Waste Time and Support our Opponent

This article continues my opposition to the widespread right-wing belief that politics is a waste of time. This belief contains enough truth to be plausible, but it causes our side to miss important opportunities.

The theme of my previous post was that our opponent is tearing down good culture and replacing it with bad culture, therefore some of our people need to do the work of forming good culture. And anything having to do with the formation of culture may be called “doing politics.”

In this post I continue to build my case by making a point about “standard” politics, i.e., politics in the ordinary sense of the word (voting, supporting candidates, trying to influence government officials.) Standard politics can sometimes be useful for our side, and we inflict unnecessary harm on ourselves if we always stay away from it. I do not try to specify exactly how our side can engage in standard politics; I only make the case that it is sometimes good for us. Continue reading

Householders or Tenants?

“If we are wise, the answer will be ‘programmable geography’ — recoding places based on their changing roles in our fluid global system. Habitable geography is our most precious terrestrial resource, and we must optimize it for those that come after us.”

Parag Khanna, “Migration Will Soon be the Biggest Climate Challenge of our Time,” Financial Times (Oct. 3, 2021)

“By the waters of Babylon
We sit down and weep,
Far from the pleasant land
Where our fathers sleep.”

Christina Rossetti, “By the Waters of Babylon” (1861)

They say that no one has ever washed a rented car.  Nor do the tenants of an apartment building spend their weekends cleaning the gutters.  I confess that I have never entered a motel room and declared to my wife, “we must optimized it for those that come after us.”  Nomads are exploiters. Tenants are termites.  Only sedentary people husband their resources.  And the roots of the word husband mean householder. Continue reading

Beware! Beware! the Ships of Tarshish!

“For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram. Once every three years the merchant ships came, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys.” 

2 Chronicles 9:21

“Howl, howl, ye ships of Tarshish! The glory is laid waste:
There is no habitation; the mansions are defaced.”

Bayard Taylor, “Tyre” (1855)

As a geographer with reservations about modernity, I delight in passages by writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century who express reservations about the new age of seafaring and discovery.  These writers were not, I hasten to add, lamenting the slaughter of distant savages, the plunder of heathen treasuries, or even the hunting of exotic beasts in lands beyond the sea.  These writers who delight me were lamenting the fact that Western man was now exploring the world and not his soul. Continue reading

God is punishing us for what we did to Germany

In poetic justice, when we find a punishment fitting the crime with uncanny perfection, we are apt to sense the hand of Divine Providence. So it is with the ongoing destruction of America and her World War II allies. To be clear, while the evil of the Allies included physical atrocities–deliberate targeting of civilian populations, political terrorization, rape, and forced dislocation of defeated peoples–those things are, alas, unexceptional in human history. One could fairly point out that the Axis powers did things of this sort too. (I make no claim that because the Allies were flawed, the Axis were “the good guys”. “Good guys” and “bad guys” exist in comic books, not real history. But it is the moral corruption of the Allies, not that of the Axis, that has done the spiritual damage to the Allied countries.) I don’t judge the essence of a people’s character by what they will countenance when they think they’re in a life-and-death struggle. No, the distinctive evil of America and her allies is of a spiritual nature, and twofold.

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It is rational to selectively trust and distrust experts

One ideal of rationality, to which people used to appeal, is to refuse to accept anything on trust or authority, to evaluate any claim strictly on the supplied data and arguments. Only thusly can one practice the intellectual responsibility of science. Unfortunately, this is such an impractical ideal that even practicing scientists don’t live up to it. No one has the time, resources, and intelligence to verify all his beliefs; he must fall back on trust. More recently, a new ideal has emerged: the rational man practices perfect credulity and docility to credentialed experts. I have found two types of justifications for this.

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