Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Vehige: Dechristianization

But what makes the French Revolution the first fascist revolution was its effort to turn politics into a religion. (In this the revolutionaries were inspired by Rousseau, whose concept of the general will divinized the people while rendering the person an afterthought.) Accordingly, they declared war on Christianity, attempting to purge it from society and replace it with a "secular" faith whose tenets were synonymous with the Jacobin agenda. Hundreds of pagan-themed festivals were launched across the country celebrating Nation, Reason, Brotherhood, Liberty, and other abstractions in order to bathe the state and the general will in an aura of sanctity....

-- Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, "Introduction"

I'm still in the "Introduction" of Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. By way of coincidence, I happened upon two disparate pieces (one being Goldberg's book, the other an article by a young Joseph Ratzinger) that placed the birth of the modern world in 1789 -- the beginning of the French Revolution. Being almost ignorant of any history after 1600, I decided I needed to learn something about the French Revolution before continuing in Liberal Fascism. 

Now, I've found the best way to learn quickly is by watching a documentary or two. Of course, you have to expect ideologies to influence any documentary (or piece of writing, for that matter), but if you go in expecting the piece of lean one way, you can learn quite a bit without being influenced to think they way the filmmakers think. So I watched The French Revolution: A New Republic is Born in Blood, which was produced by the (leftist) History Channel.

It's not a bad film, though it ends on a completely pragmatic note -- namely, that sometimes violence is necessary to overthrow a tyrant. Well, yes, I suppose that's true. I'm not sure how we could have stopped Hitler, for example, had we not entered WWII. But any thinking person has to conclude that 800 deaths by guillotine a day (which was the average when The Terror reached its peak), sometimes for nothing more than complaining about the price of bread, isn't the kind of violence that overthrows tyrants. That's the violence of tyrants.

At any rate, after watching the French Revolution, I went back and reread the page where Goldberg talks about the Robespierre and his Jacobin cohorts. The passage I cited above struck me anew.

One of the ways the Jacobins waged war on Christianity was to change the calendar. They changed the names of the days and months -- which is pretty innocuous, really. The sinister part is that they changed the length of the week from 7 days to 10 days. This did two things: first, it made it almost impossible to tell when it was Sunday; and second, it undermined the Christian view that God made the world in seven days. It was a blatant attack not only on how Christians worship, but on the fundamental Christian doctrine that God created all things.

I suppose it's because we're close to Christmas that all of this seems more important than it probably is. Yet, every December I'm struck at the ever-growing anti-Christian sentiments in our culture. Battles over elementary-school Christmas programs; battles over nativity scenes on government property; colleges doing away with giving-trees and replacing them with ugly-scarf days. The ubiquitous use of "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." What the hell is going on?

This trend, more than anything else, makes me think that Goldberg may very well be right in saying that we're moving toward a fascist state. It's not the over-the-top fascism of the French Revolution. I suppose I should have ended that sentence with a "thank God." But I'm not so sure. The radical ideas and practices of the Jacobins are scary, but at least you know what you're dealing with.

The smilie-face fascism of in our country is much more sinister. We're being lulled by the gentle baa-ing of sheep. Will anyone be awake when the wolves reveal themselves?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Woodward: The Morality of Christmas Trees

"The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science."

--Adolf Hitler

This is not the beginning of a reductio ad Hitlerum. I will not be attempting here to argue that Christianity is good and science bad because Hitler hated the one and championed (in his own depraved way) the other. But I came across this quotation in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, and it triggered some associations. Hitler's personal philosophy (if it even deserves that name) was certainly a mixture of commonplaces and lies, and the line quoted above has been one of the intellectual commonplaces of secularism for a very long time. While I reject it, I acknowledge that the proposition contains this much truth: If science and Christianity are in fact irreconcilable, and if science is ultimately to win the resulting contest of irreconcilables, then it will have to offer the human race what religion has always offered it. In other words, science will have to become a religion. I am beginning to think that that project is pretty far advanced.

As evidence, I offer this item from one of the kiosks of trendy secular pop culture -- Slate magazine. The moral question being posed is one that I'm sure has been burning in the consciences of all those environmentally sensitive Americans who still celebrate Christmas -- Is it better for the environment (or is that Environment) if I buy a real tree or an artificial one? The answer (to spare you any unnecessary suspense) is that real Christmas trees are greener, in every sense of the word.

But what's interesting is the elaborate technical calculation that Slate undertakes in order to resolve this moral dilemma. It's worthy in every way of a medieval scholastic treatise on moral theology -- "Obj. 1: It seems that it is more environmentally responsible to buy an artificial Christmas tree. I answer that..." -- or a pharisaical gloss on Leviticus. Note the careful weighing of the use of PVCs in the manufacture of artificial Christmas tree needles, the possible emission of "harmful lead dust" as the tree ages, the byzantine calculations of carbon fuel expenditures in transporting Chinese-made fake trees from Shanghai to Long Beach versus the trucking of real trees from a domestic tree farm, and the all-important factoring in of objections from those who might have qualms about "the idea of killing a living thing solely so you and yours can enjoy a few weeks of pine-scented joy."

What kind of people live their lives on the basis of this kind of ethical calculus? And do they (whoever they are) very often devote even one percent of that intellectual energy to the resolution of moral questions that have historically been regarded as more pressing than the conditions under which it's okay to kill a blue spruce -- say, for example, the conditions under which it's okay to kill a baby a few minutes before it's born? Only a true believer's conviction can explain the willingness of people to devote so much of their attention to any of these questions. Can there be any doubt that environmentalism is filling the space once occupied by religious faith in the lives of people who weigh 3-to-1 reforestation plans and landfill decomposition rates before they decide what kind of Christmas tree is the most "moral"?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Woodward: Book Meme

This is my response to being tagged (along with Vehige) by Steven McEvoy at Book Reviews and More. I'll leave it to Vehige to pick further victims.

The book turned out to be the Scribner's edition of The Boy's King Arthur -- Sidney Lanier's modernized and abridged version of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (with N.C. Wyeth's wonderful illustrations). Although it was conceived as a way of making Malory accessible to children (hence the name), this book has yet to capture the fancy of my own two boys, who, at age 8, are still perhaps a bit young for it.

In any event, here is the requisite excerpt from page 56, a rather graphic account of Sir Launcelot hunting a boar. (The gloss on "rove" is Lanier's.)

Then Sir Launcelot ran at the boar with his spear. And therewith the boar turned him nimbly, and rove [gashed] out the lungs and the heart of the horse, so that Sir Launcelot fell to the earth, and or ever Sir Launcelot might get from the horse, the boar rove him on the brawn of the thigh, up to the hough bone. And then Sir Launcelot was wroth, and up he gat upon his feet, and drew his sword, and he smote off the boar's head with one stroke.

Sir Launcelot was admirably slow to become "wroth," wasn't he?

Woodward: While I'm At It...

...and as an accompaniment to the post on religion and politics, I'll cite a recent example of the secular media's fascination with religion and science. Although in this particular case there should probably be quotation marks around both "religion" and "science."

The Washington Post, in that snide tone that comes so easily to it whenever Catholicism is the subject, reports that a medical panel will no longer "rule on" whether a miraculous cure has taken place at Lourdes. "Doctors," the Post flippantly informs us, are "getting out of the miracle business." They will no longer decide "what makes the cut as a miraculous cure," leaving the French shrine's "miracle-making outfit" to go it alone.

Interesting, except that that's not even close to what has really happened. The International Medical Committee of Lourdes (CMIL) has never been in charge of deciding whether a Lourdes cure was miraculous -- no doctor or panel of doctors could or would ever take on such a role. All the doctors have ever said is that there is no known medical explanation for a cure; it's then up to the Church to rule on the possibility of a miracle as an alternative explanation. What the CMIL has now decided to do, apparently, is to revise its terminology, no longer making the absolute-sounding judgment that a cure is "inexplicable" in medical terms, but rather that the apparent cure is "remarkable." This change, which is an expression not of theological doubt but only of rationalist humility, says more about the way medical science now views itself than about the way the Church views miraculous cures.

Still, the news story makes it sound as if doctors have decided to distance themselves from a lot of embarrassing medieval hocus-pocus. Truth is, there's no real news here. Miracles are still miracles, and the Washington Post is still, alas, the Washington Post.

NOTE: (With that out of my system, and even though I am myself deeply devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes, I must repeat my favorite anti-Lourdes quip, attributed to George Bernard Shaw after he visited the shrine. Looking at the mementos left hanging on the church wall by those who had been healed, Shaw supposedly said: "All those crutches, but not a single toupee or glass eye.")

Woodward: Politics and Religion

I used to be a lot more interested in politics than I am now. In college (late 1960s) I was something of a right-wing activist at a time when almost everybody I knew was a left-wing activist. Over time, both I and my left-wing friends mostly moved on to other interests and concerns, as it slowly dawned on us that political activism, of whatever stripe, pays extremely limited dividends on the time and energy invested in it.

During my first year of graduate school (1972) I became a Catholic (thank you, John Henry Newman) and it's roughly accurate to say that I lost interest in politics in direct proportion to the degree to which I became interested in religion. Looking back at that development now, I realize that I had been regarding politics as a way to make the world better, and when I saw that politics would never make the world better in any meaningful way (because it can't), I turned to something that I finally understood to be the only force really capable of making the world (and us) better -- the love of Jesus Christ.

I didn't even fully understand, until I became Catholic, exactly how the world needed to be made better. I thought that man's happiness resided in material well-being and that political systems, rightly constructed, can create material well-being. Once I understood that both of those assumptions are wrong, my love affair with politics was over.

Which leaves the question of what, if anything, Catholicism has to say about political philosophy -- which forms of government are good and which are bad. The question is still of interest to me, but only because of my interest in Catholicism, not because of any interest I retain in political philosophy.

That, for what it's worth, is the perspective I bring to a reading of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. The opinions I form about the book are likely to be rooted in what I hear it saying about the spiritual dimension of political thought. And as a Catholic, I will be understanding that spiritual dimension in the light of the (relatively few) pronouncements the Church has made as to what constitutes a good or bad political system.

Goldberg has already said some interesting things along these lines in the first couple of chapters. When he identifies the French Revolution, with its pseudo-religious zeal, as the philosophical forerunner not only of fascism and communism, but of progressivism in all its various forms, he quotes Robespierre, the Revolution's chief ideologue:

I am convinced of the necessity of bringing about a complete regeneration, and, if I may express myself so, of creating a new people.

That one sentence captures the spirit that first attracted me to politics. It is an adolescent spirit, at the very best. And at its worst, among politicians who do not actually feel it but profess to do so in order to manipulate others, it is quite literally an evil spirit. No political system can "regenerate" us, no government can make us a "new people." That purpose has already been accomplished, not by any faction or party, but by one Man, far outside the realm of politics.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Vehige: Book Meme

Steven over at Book Reviews and More tagged Woodward and me with a book meme.

The Rules: Pass this on to 5 blogging friends. Open the closest book to you, not your favorite or most intellectual book, but the book closest to you at the moment, to page 56. Write the 5th sentence, as well as two to five sentences following that.

There's already a problem. The book that happens to be sitting closest to me at the moment is Josef Pieper's Abuse of Language--Abuse of Power, which has only 54 pages. So I'll do the next best thing. I'll copy out the last paragraph of this wonderful little book:

There is a memorable statement, spelling out in touching terms these roots, roots that constitute the ultimate freedom of the knowing mind. The statement is memorable above all because of the man who uttered or rather wrote it, and also because of its exceptional circumstances. The man in question is an eminent representative of Western thought and culture; he was of Roman stock, received his education in Athens, and then, at the court of a German prince, tried to hand on the wisdom of antiquity to the upcoming era: Boethius. And the circumstances? A prison cell. The incarcerated Boethius, awaiting his execution, assures himself of his ultimate indestructible freedom, stating, "The human soul, in essence, enjoys its highest freedom when it remains in the contemplation of God's mind."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Vehige: What is Fascism?

In his “Introduction” to Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg seeks to clarify what is meant by fascism. He offers two, complementary definitions.

Fascisms differ from each other because they grow out of different soil. What unites them are their emotional or instinctual impulses, such as the quest for community, the urge to “get beyond” politics, a faith in the perfectibility of man and the authority of experts, and an obsession with the aesthetics of youth, the cult of action, and the need for an all-powerful state to coordinate society at the national or global level. Most of all, they share the belief -- what I call the totalitarian temptation -- that with the right amount of tinkering we can realize the utopian dream of “creating a better world.”

...Since we must have a working definition of fascism, here is mine: Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the “problem” and therefore defined as the enemy.
I had been hoping to have more to say after reading the Introduction. It was fascentating, after all, and I’m excited about reading this book. My hope is that in choosing this book, we haven’t moved out of my league (Woodward will have something to say, I’m sure of it). But I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to political history -- an ignorance I am quickly trying to rectify -- so for the time being, this is all I have to offer, the two complementary definitions that Goldberg offers in the Introduction to Liberal Fascism.

Oh, by the way, that last definition ends like this: “I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism.”

Provocative, eh?