Monday, December 29, 2008

The Length of Creation Days


T. David Gordon has some good points to make about the length of creation days in his article "Distractions from Orthodoxy", from the last edition of the Modern Reformation magazine. Against the populist literalism of fundamentalist hermenutics, Gordon points the way towards a more responsible approach to the Genesis narrative without coming down on either side of the debate.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Epistemological Explosion in Miracle on 34th Street (Part 2)

In my previous post "Epistemological Explosion in Miracle on 34th Street (Part 1)" I discussed some of the confusing elements in the original Miracle on 34th Street. In this article I shall continue the discussion by suggesting that the film sets up a number of false dualisms, not least the antithesis between faith and reason.

Faith and Reason in Miracle on 34th Street

Consider the following dialogue between Doris Wood and Fred Gailey, after the later decides to prove in a court of law that Kris is Santa.

Fred: You don’t have any faith in me, do you?

Doris: It’s not a question of faith, it’s just common sense.

Fred: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see, it’s not just Kris that’s on trial its everything he stands for: kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.

Doris: O Fred, you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world and all those lovely intangibles of yours are attractive but not worth very much. You don’t get ahead that way.

Fred: It depend on what you mean by getting ahead. Evidently you and I have different definitions.

Doris then accuses Fred of going on an “Idealistic binge”, whereupon Fred responds: “Someday you’re going to find that you’re way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work, and when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover they’re the only things that are worthwhile.”

As the ice on Doris’s heart begins to melt, she begins to have faith in things which go against common sense. She says to Fred, “I never really doubted you. It was just my silly common sense.” She then tells her daughter that she was wrong to refer to Kris as just as nice old man with whiskers: “I was wrong when I told you that. You must believe in Mr. Kringle and keep right on doing it. You must have faith in him.” When Susan doesn’t get the present that she asked for on Christmas, she begins to doubt that Mr. Kringle is Santa. But her mother encourages her to believe against all evidence, saying, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Taking this advice, Susan keeps repeating to herself, “I believe, I believe. It’s silly but I believe.” She keeps repeating this phrase until they stumble upon the present that Susan asked for: a house.

Given this fideistic backdrop, I think my article Santa and Postmodernism was mistaken to see the courtroom scene as a nod toward modernist epistemology. When watching the film more recently, it struck me that the lawyer’s Post Office proof served as a convenient loophole by which Fred could beat Kris’ enemies on their own turf and get him acquitted, but no one actually believed on the basis of this evidence. Indeed, to do so would have gone against one of the dominant themes of the film, which is the importance of exercising blind faith.

Fall and Redemption in Miracle on 34th Street

All good stories are echoes of the One Story, telling the account of the fall and redemption. Jack and the Beanstalk is typical of a good fairy story: it begins with Jack and his mother impoverished, which we later learn was because of the giant’s cruelty to Jack’s father. This is a type of the fall, although in this case the enemy is not the serpent but the giant. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from paradise, so Jack and his mother are sent to live the life of paupers. Jack, who is a type of Christ, comes and plunders the giant’s castle and redeems is father’s lost fortune, just as Christ bruised the serpent’s head and redeemed us for His kingdom.

The reason Jack and the Beanstalk and similar tales are so enjoyable is because they echo themes at the very heart of our world and our humanity. All good stories follow this same basic pattern, telling a story of fall and redemption.

Miracle on 34th Street is no different. It begins with Doris and Susan in a fallen state, although in this case it is a fall into a rationalistic, restricted epistemology which the cold Doris adopted as a form of self-protection after her divorce. Kris revealingly refers to Doris and Susan as “a couple of lost souls.” By the end of the film they are no longer lost but have found redemption, metaphorically, through “faith.” However, unlike Biblical faith, this faith is an existential leap of irrationality.

The Enlightenment and Miracle on 34th Street
According to many thinkers of the Enlightenment, the only things we can really know objectively are those things that we can perceive tangibly through the senses. This is known as the philosophy of empiricism. Empiricism created a divide between those ideas that could be verified through empirical observation, vs. ideas derived by other means. Ideas belonging to the latter category (which included religious ideas) were necessarily personal and private, existing in a different sphere to that of normal objective phenomena. Since one could apply reason to the former but not the latter, it followed that religion could only be a matter of blind faith. Whereas the pre-Enlightenment worldview generally attempted to apply reason to both the tangible and intangible realms (so that you could apply reason to the content of faith just as easily as the content of sense perception), empiricism said that reason could only apply to the former. Anything intangible (such as the content of religious belief) was necessarily personal, private and subjective. Lessing’s parable of the 3 rings, mentioned in my earlier post, brings this out very clearly.

It is doubtful that the Enlightenment would have succeeded in achieving any long-term effect had it not been for the fact that most Christians were caught off guard by this change in categories. While rejecting the Enlightenment’s conclusions, few Christian thinkers took the challenge of offering a rational critique of the assumptions upon which those conclusions were derived, notably the divided epistemology. Like the Romantics in the 19th century, serious Christians at the time of the Enlightenment tended to emphasize the importance of religious truth, while still unconsciously accepting the epistemological package which kept that truth subjective and privatized. The Church tended to react to the new wave of secular philosophy by taking refuge in an emotional, devotional type of Christianity which, because it required no intellectual underpinning, fit nicely into the divided epistemology.

The “double-truth universe” bequeathed by the Enlightenment found renewed impetus in the increasing polarization between earth and heaven that was so characteristic of 20th century piety. If religion is about our personal and private experiences with God cut off from the objective realm of empirical fact, then true piety consists in having our minds fixed on heavenly realities instead of earthly concerns. In practice this meant getting as many people into heaven as possible. Once you were “saved” - that is, once your ticket to a happy afterlife was secured – Christian living was thought to involve little more than living by a pedestrian code of personal pietism. No longer was the Bible seen as giving us a worldview that structured the whole of public reality. It became instead a privatized faith that, as Roszak put it, was “socially irrelevant even if privately engaging.” It is hardly surprising that around this same time (late 19th early 20th century) hymnology began to be increasingly ‘feminized’, with the singing of robust psalms and hymns replaced by subjective sentiments (“he lives within my heart” or “now I am happy all the day” or “precious memories of everything Jesus has done for me”).

As the church became diluted by anti-intellectualism, feminization, pietism and cultural anorexia, the church as a whole was largely unprepared to combat the influx of liberal theology and deconstructionism that began to pour into England and America in the 19th and 20th century. In the early 20th century, three Christians tried to address this situation by writing a twelve volume work titled The Fundamentals. The Christians who affirmed the doctrines in this book soon came to be known as fundamentalists, a term which has subsequently come to carry pejorative connotations. As fundamentalism began to be a badge to distinguish true ‘Bible-believing-Christians’, the emphasis came to rest more on what you believed rather than why you should believe it.

The notion of ‘faith’, long since subjectivized, deteriorated further to become an approximation for anti-intellectualism, to the point where the word can now be used in movies like Miracle on 34th Street to indicate belief that goes against common sense. Being able to “just believe” and “have faith” against evidence and common sense has become a sign of fundamentalist piety, in contradistinction to Biblical belief which always appeals to the evidence (consider the opening of Luke’s gospel, for example, or Paul’s appeal to the evidences of the resurrection in the Corinthian correspondence).

The only time the Bible ever comes anywhere near to advocating faith that goes against reason is when the prophets enjoin the people to hold on to God’s promises in the light of contrary circumstances. Thus, even as Jerusalem is being plundered, the people are told the glories that will accompany the restoration. The heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 are praised for their ability to believe in God’s promises in the face of martyrdom and apparent defeat. Is this a case of faith as “believing in things when common sense tells you not to”? I don’t think so, for it is clear throughout the prophets and the Psalms that the ability to believe in God’s promises in the midst of trying circumstances is only because we first have evidence of God’s covenantal faithfulness and trustworthiness demonstrated over time, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus to the monarchical period, and so on. That is why the Psalmists and prophets respond to suffering and persecution by reminding God of the great victories of the past and the great victories promised in the future. Faith in the promises of a trustworthy God is not the irrational option for the believer; rather, it is the rational option. Irrationality (and the corollary dualism between faith and reason) is the tool of the father of lies. No where does the Bible instruct us to “just believe” without evidence, like Doris instructed Susan to believe that Kris was Santa even when the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, many Christians have bought into secular assumptions of the Enlightenment project and the subjective concept of faith that arose as a consequence and which permeates Miracle on 34th Street.

Many modern films take this subjective epistemology one step further by suggesting that as long as you believe something to be true, then that can be true for you. Miracle on 34th Street anticipates this Postmodern epistemology by mixing the categories of truth and falsehood. When Doris and Fred are standing in the home that Susan believes Kris has provided, they talk about purchasing the house in order to preserve Susan’s illusion that it is a gift from Kris. In being willing to allow her to believe a lie, they reveal that truth does not matter for them. In this final scene, we find that Fred never really believed Kris was Santa after all, for when they spot Kris’ stick leaning against the wall of the house (an apparent vindication that he had actually provided it as a gift), Fred says that maybe he hadn’t done such a wonderful thing after all in proving that this old man was Santa Clause (the subtext being because he really is Santa Clause). We are then left to wonder in what sense Fred and Doris ever believed that Kris was Santa prior to this scene. If they only believed in him in the sense of believing in all the intangibles that Kris stood for, then that is accidental to his actual identity as Santa, thus rendering vacuous all the characters' statements about faith in Santa Clause. After all, I can affirm intangibles such as love and kindness without having to believe in the tooth fairy.
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Epistemological Explosion in Miracle on 34th Street (Part 1)

After a friend offered some critical feedback to my post Santa and Postmodernism, I decided to watch the original Miracle on 34th Street again. Esther and I both found the film confusing when we watched it as children, so last night we watched it as adults to see if we could make more sense of it.

We still found it confusing, but also very interesting because of the epistemological questions it raises.

Imagination and Reality in Miracle on 34th Street
William Symington said that “imagination is one of the noblest faculties...the sound and proper use of which is not only necessary to the existence of sympathy....but also intimately connected those higher exercises of the soul, by which men are enabled to realize the things that are not seen and eternal.”

We live in an age that has lost the noble faculty to which Symington refers. The endemic scepticism, materialism and commercialism of Modernism has flattened out the sense of wonder, magic and imagination that not only makes life worth living, but orients towards the unseen world of spiritual intangibles.

That is why a film like Miracle on 34th Street is appealing. The film seems to offer a solution to the endemic scepticism of the modern world. In the beginning of the film, it is clear that 9-year old Susan Walker has been raised to despise anything make-believe. She looks down on children who pretend to be animals and she has never even heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, much to the consternation of Fred Gailey, her friendly neighbour who attempts to expand her horizons by introducing imagination into her life. Meanwhile, Susan’s mother Doris continues to instruct her daughter in a nuts-and-bolts approach to life, where the only things worth believing are tangible facts.

This epistemological conflict centres around the character of Kris Kringle, a curious old man who claims to be Santa Clause. Kris joins Fred in trying to awaken a sense of magic and imagination in the life of Susan and her mother. This attempt is connected with Kris’s goal of convincing the pair that he is indeed the real Santa Clause. These are not two separate goals, for Kris assumes that once Doris and Susan abandon their nuts-and-bolts empiricism, they will embrace his identity as Santa Clause. Santa-belief thus becomes a powerful metaphor for the human need to have faith in something beyond the tangible facts of the material world. The following dialogues from the film illustrates this:

Fred Gailey: No Santa Clause, no fairy tales, no fantasies of any kind - is that it?

Doris Wood: That’s right. I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not having them growing up believing in a lot of myths like Santa Clause.

Kris Kringle: You don’t believe then?

Doris Wood: By filling them full of fairy tales they grow up believing life to be a fantasy.

Throughout the film, all the main characters operate on the basis of a juxtaposition between a nuts-and-bolts, just-the-facts empiricism bereft of all magic, make-believe and sense of wonder, versus an imaginative orientation which recognizes that there is more to reality than meets the eye and appreciates the value of beautiful intangibles. Since Santa-belief becomes paradigmatic for the latter approach, the more Susan and Doris turn away from their sceptical empiricism the more they turn towards belief in Kris’ identity as Santa Clause. This culminates in Susan writing a letter to Kris expressing her belief in him, while Doris movingly adds “I believe in you too” at the bottom of the page.

Category Confusions in Miracle on 34th Street

The association of Santa-belief with an imaginative orientation sets up a number of confusing dilemmas at the heart of the film. Since Kris claims to really be Santa Clause in a tangible, factual sense, it is hard to understand in what sense believing in him represents an alternative to the just-the-facts scepticism of Doris and Susan. Confusingly, the film connects Santa-belief with “faith in lovely intangibles” even though Kris claims to be Santa in a tangible sense! Further, how can Santa-belief be wrapped up with an ability to enjoy what is make-believe, seeing as Kris’ makes very clear that his identity as Santa is not a matter of make-believe at all? For all Kris’s lip-service to the importance of imagination (which he defines to Susan as the ability to pretend impossible things), he makes it clear again and again throughout the film that when it comes to himself imagination isn’t good enough: he wants everyone to accept that he is not just a pretend Santa Clause (like Macy’s former Santa), but the real thing. Confusingly, Kris colludes with the very fact-based epistemology he claims to repudiate, insisting that in his own case make-believe is not sufficient: he expects people to actually believe in his identity as Santa Clause.

Modernism and the Problem of Imagination

The above may be a simple ambiguity for the sake of the narrative, but I suspect it is symptomatic of Modernism’s fundamental misunderstanding of imagination. It takes imagination to enjoy fairy tales precisely because we know that fairies do not exist. Once fairies begin to be treated as entities which really exist in a factual sense, it not only destroys their magic, but means that we no longer need imagination to enjoy them, just as Santa requires imagination precisely until we begin to treat him as someone who really exists in the same sense that you or I exist. This may help to explain one of the primary reasons why so many parents lie to their children about Santa: in the modern age, belief in falsehood often acts as a substitute for true imagination.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s comment that if Conan Doyle was correct in claiming to have seen a genuine photograph of a fairy, then fairies would lose their magic. Quite true, and that is why fantasies like Harry Potter which reduce magic to something mundane and prosaic ultimately require less imagination than a narrative like the Narnia Chronicles. Thomas Howard writes that ''what we encounter in the landscape of Narnia is true - not in the sense that we will come upon the ruins of Cair Paravel somewhere (there are none), but rather in the sense that Cair Paravel is a castle, and the man from whose imagination castles have disappeared is disastrously deprived, as is the man who has lost the capacity to appreciate how it can be that for a free man to bow in the presence of a great king, far from being demeaning, is ennobling.”

This highlights two different approaches to fantasy literature that have found expression in critical comparisons of the imaginary visions of J.K. Rowlings and C.S. Lewis. Steve D. Greydanus’ has argued convincingly that magic in both Lewis and Tolkien is always otherworldly, bearing little or no resemblance to the actuality of events in the real world. Magic in Lewis and Tolkien consists of obviously imaginary and fantastic phenomena that could never occur in the real world as opposed to Rowling’s more materialistic treatment of magic. Tolkien’s fantasy was intentionally non-realistic because he believed myths to be the best way of conveying truth that would otherwise be inexpressible. Something is lost when we try to translate myths into prosaic, materialistic fact since there are essences that can only be conveyed poetically. We see this dynamic at work in Miracle on 34th Street and the attempt to translate Santa into a realistic fact and to reduce the imagination to an approximation for believing in impossible things.

Miracle on 34th Street is symptomatic of a society that, because it has lost its sense of poetry and wonder, has reduced imagination to belief in fairies. Consider Fred’s treatment of Jack and the Beanstalk when he is talking to Susan. After she says that giants don’t exist, Fred responds that they used to in the old days, as if actual belief in giants was a necessary precondition for being able to appreciate the magic of Jack and the Beanstalk. As we have seen, this approach to magic ends up colluding with the very epistemology that the film tries to repudiate, since Kris asks people to believe that he is Santa in a factual, tangible sense which therefore has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy. The film thus invokes the dizzying paradox that those who think Kris is Santa in a make-believe sense (like Sawyer, Mr. Macy, New York County District Attorney Thomas Mara) don’t have any imagination, while those who believe Kris is Santa not merely as make-believe, are learning to use their imaginations!

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Shack

Our pastor has just posted a review of the popular book The Shack on his blog. His analysis is valuable in bringing out many of the unbiblical dualisms that pervade the novel. You can read his review HERE.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa and Postmodernism

Every Christmas, each of us is a little bit older. Some of us show our age more than others. Not so with Santa Clause. He remains the same year after year. However, beneath the white beard and sparkling eyes, some changes can be apparent to the discerning eye. The Santa of Postmodernism is not quite the same as the Santa of Modernism.

The Modernist makes no pretences about Santa’s ontology. Santa may be a useful lie for deceiving children into being good, just as Kant and the early Voltaire saw belief in God as a useful idea for motivating the masses in morality. But there was never any question, in the mind of the Modernist, about Santa being real. The Modernist is a rationalist and believes only those things which can be demonstratively proven.

In the original 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, the lawyer Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) proves in a court of law that an elderly man is actually Santa Clause, and he proves it through a legal appeal to authority of the postal service, who had implicitly recognized Kris as Santa by delivering to him mail addressed to Santa. This fictional rendition of Santa’s reality gave a nod to the evidence-based epistemology of Modernism.

Enter Postmodernism and it is no longer a question of whether Santa actually exists. Under Postmodern epistemology, truth is relative to the framework of the perceiver. Since the aim is “no longer truth but performativity” (Steven Connor, Postmodern Culture) Santa can actually be “real” for those who believe in him. This came across in an article I read last week in one of the British papers about a school where a supply teacher had let slip that the old man didn’t really exist. After a number of parents complained, the school fired the teacher and brought in a man to address the class and put them right about Mr. Clause. He assured the distressed students that the other teacher had simply made a mistake: Santa is real, he said.

A Modernist might make such an audacious claim as a manipulative tool (and Santa belief has traditionally functioned as a manipulative tool, as in the song “Santa Clause is coming to town”), but he would know it was a lie. But the Postmodernist can tell his child that Santa is real and really mean it, because he can be real for you. This is because it is a centerpiece of Postmodern epistemology (grossly oversimplified) that there is no notion of truth external to the conceptual frameworks we choose to adopt. This comes across in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, staring Richard Attenborough. In this newer version of the same story, the lawyer doesn’t prove that Kris is Santa by appealing to evidence. Instead he appeals to the legitimacy of having “faith” in God and then uses an a fortiori argument to show that it isn’t any less reasonable to have “faith” in Santa.

The placidity of the Postmodernism epistemic paradigm has meant there is new freedom for having faith in God, although “faith” in this sense differs greatly from the objective Biblical concept. Whereas Modernist critics of the Christian faith would typically respond by asking for evidence and proof, those who have been thoroughly Postmodernized are quite happy to accommodate faith in God as long as that faith is understood in the subjective sense typlified in the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street. That is why critics of religion who are still working under a Modernist paradigm, such as the new atheists, have been generally greeted with ire from both the religious and the secular communities. Why get so worked up about attacking faith if it gives meaning and purpose to people's life, many have asked in response to Dawkin’s atheistic crusades, including his crusade to abolish Christmas? Similarly, why bother telling children that Santa doesn’t exist if it gives magic to their lives? (See some of the comments following THIS article).

I am reminded of the play Nathan the Wise written by Lessing (pictured right) and published in 1779. (For background to the play, see my article "Mother State or Mother Church" in Christianity & Society, Volume XVIII, No. 1, Summer, 2008) Because Nathan the Wise takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, Lessing is able to have interplay between all three of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The portion of the play that is most famous, as well as most significant, is a parable that the wise Nathan tells to the Sultan. The Islamic Sultan had asked the Jewish Nathan to tell him which religion was the true one. Suspicious of the Sultan’s motives, Nathan answers with the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, there was once a rich man who possessed a magic ring. This ring had secret power which caused the owner of the ring to gain favor in the sight of God and humankind. Now the owner of this ring took precautions to leave the ring in his family, ensuring that it was faithfully passed on from generation to generation, from son to son. Finally, the ring reached a man who had three sons, each of which he loved alike. As the father drew near his death, he was in a quandary as to which son to leave the ring to since he had promised the ring, in turn, to each.

As a solution, the father secretly contacted a craftsman who made two identical replicas of the ring. Not being able to distinguished the original, the father left each son with one of the three rings. Of course, when the father died, disputes immediately began to arise between the sons, each of whom believed he possessed the genuine ring.

At this point, Nathan pauses the story to say that just as it was impossible to distinguish which was the correct ring, so we cannot trust ourselves to distinguish the grounds on which the different religions rest.

The story continues with each of the three sons believing their ring to be the true one since each had received it directly from the hand of the father. In the end the brothers take their problem before a judge. The judge enjoins the brothers that what is more important than knowing the truth about their rings, is the motivation and inspiration each will achieve through believing that their ring is the genuine one. The judge enjoins each brother to pass his ring on to his descendents as the real ring.

Thus ends the parable that Nathan used to answer the Sultan’s question, namely, which religion is the correct one. The important thing is not what is true but what you believe.

There are many things we could say in response to this tale. We might point out that in actual fact the religions of Islam and Judaism are quite distinguishable from Christianity. Or we might say that since one of the rings actually was the correct ring, it follows that two of the brothers would have spent their life believing a false proposition. However, such observations miss the whole point Lessing was trying to convey. His point – from my understanding of the story at least – seems to be that there is something far more important than questions of truth and falsehood in the narrow, letter-of-the-law sense. Stop trying to defend what you believe is true, he is saying to us, and instead concentrate on letting your belief motivate and inspire you. There is no need for factual coherence to be antecedent to religious belief as it must be with scientific truth; rather, the nature of religious belief is such that it can exist on its own, without needing to appeal to historic grounds. In fact, Lessing saw the very attempt of Christians to defend the historical veracity of their faith as intolerant since it failed to recognize that all the major religions, if rightly understood, were equally valuable routes to God.

Lessing’s parable illustrates the Enlightenment commitment to relegating religious belief to the realm of the subjective, private and unverifiable.

This subjective epistemology invited people to view religion and worship of God as a personal matter - a solitary experience between the individual and God that had little relevance to the objective world. To seek objective verification about a matter of faith was now almost to commit a category mistake, since the ‘truth’ of religion had now become a personal truth discontinuous from the fixity of the external world of science, history and public life.

Postmodernism has taken Lessing’s subjective epistemology and applied it to more areas than merely religious belief. Under postmodernism, all fields become matters of “faith” to the extent that our perceptions of reality are conditioned by our expectations and subjective ideological paradigms.

As soon as Santa-belief becomes a matter of faith in this sense, we are commiting a category mistake to speak of that belief as being true or false in the narrow objectivist sense. As in Lessing’s parable, we create our own truth by the belief structures we choose to adopt. Thus, the teacher referred to earlier can tell children that Santa is real just like the men in Lessing’s parable can tell their desendents that their family ring is the genuine article.
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chesterton on Female Domesticity

In an essay in "What's Wrong With the World", Chesterton challenges the complaint that home-making is narrow and demeaning for women. On the contrary, he said: "woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. . . . when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. . . . If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun a Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors, and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, cakes, and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone and narrow to be everything to someone? No, a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute."

Friday, December 19, 2008

The True Measure of Man

"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." Samuel Johnson

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam

If we don’t know our own history then we simply have to endure all of the same mistakes and all of the same sacrifices and all of the same absurdities over again times ten.

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

At a time when public debate about Islam is continually being sabotaged by the high priests of political correctness, Robert Spencer’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) makes for a refreshing read.

As the title suggests, the author is prepared to tell the truth about Islam even if it means knocking down a few PC idols in the process.

And that is certainly what he does. Mr. Spencer’s basic thesis is that Islam is, and has always been, a religion of violence. He contends that we will never be able to understand what is happening in our world today if we do not appreciate this basic fact.

Like Regency’s other Politically Incorrect Guides, the book is scholarly without being dry. Published in 2005, the title remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 15 weeks.

Despite the book’s success with the general public, it has been largely ignored by mainstream and academic reviewers.

This is not surprising. Robert Spencer systematically dismantles all the dominant myths about Islam and the crusades with a thoroughness that has gained him many enemies.

The one thing Robert Spencer’s enemies cannot accuse him of is failing to do his homework properly. Author of 6 other books on Islam, eight monographs and hundreds of articles, Robert Spencer is one of the world’s leading Islamic historians. This comes across in his Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam which is meticulously well researched while still being fast paced and accessible to a popular audience.

The high standard of scholarship is apparent in the first section of the book, which deals with the history of Islam from the time of Muhammad up to the time of the Crusades. Drawing on the Qur’an and other ancient Muslim sources, Spencer shows that terrorism has always been intrinsic to Islamic piety.

The book is useful compendium of facts we are not normally told about the world’s fastest growing religion. For example, I had always assumed that the Qur’an was Islam’s only sacred text. Yet as Mr. Spencer points out, other authoritative writings include the Hadith, which contain quotations from Muhammad in which he or his followers explain how verses in the Qur’an should be interpreted. In some of the ahadith (the plural of hadith), Muhammad quotes words of Allah that do not appear in the Qur’an. These are known as the ‘holy hadith’ and are considered by Muslims to be just as binding as the Qur’an itself.

Not surprisingly, the focus of many ahadith is violence.

In the Qur’an itself, Spencer points out, there are over a hundred verses that exhort Muslims to wage violent jihad against unbelievers. Muhammad led the way by his own example as a particularly brutal terrorist. Muhammad was not content to simply kill those who refused to convert. When his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad’s response was typical: ‘He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck!’ (Qur’an 111:1-5)

The book shows just how mainstream the culture of jihad is, and has always been, within the Islamic community. This even includes the large portion of Muslims that have been labelled ‘peaceful’ by the establishment. Most of these, so called, ‘peace loving Muslims’ have the same goal as the extremists - the only difference is that they have not yet taken up arms. This is often because ‘peaceful’ Muslims have found it is more effective to work through the jihad of ideas (more about that in a minute). Other Muslims who claim that Islam is a religion of peace are referring to the peace that will prevail when the entire world is under the hegemony of sharia law. Similar verbal gymnastics underpin the claim that jihad is a purely defensive conflict. As Mr. Spencer points out, ‘if a country is perceived to be hindering the spread of Islam, Muslims are obliged to wage war against it. This would, of course, be a defensive conflict, since the hindrances came first.’

In the second section of the book, Robert Spencer presents a thumbnail sketch of the Crusades as they really were. Contrary to popular assumption, the crusades were a purely defensive action in response to hundreds of years of Muslim aggression.

The Christian empire of Byzantium had originally ruled a vast expanse of land including southern Italy, North Africa, the Middle East and Arabia. Over the years, however, Muslim aggression progressively reduced this empire to a land little more than the size of Greece. Faced with the possibility of complete extermination, the Byzantine Emperor pleaded with Christians in Europe to come and help. The Crusades were Europe’s response to this request.

Spencer quotes the letter that Pope Urban II wrote, calling for the First Crusade. The letter is revealing as much for what it does not say. Instead of urging an agenda of religious conquest, the pope gave a brief history of Islamic acquisitions in the East. Neither did the pope see the crusades as an opportunity for gain or territorial expansion. In fact, he decreed that all lands recovered from the Muslims would belong to Alexius Comnenus and the Byzantine Emperor. Urban, like the Crusaders themselves, saw it as a chance to sacrifice rather than to profit.

While maintaining that the Crusades were a necessary defensive action, Spencer acknowledges that the Christians, no less than their Muslim opponents, were sometimes guilty of the kinds of abuse and violent excesses that were typical of medieval warfare.

In hindsight, we tend to think of the Crusades as a great failure. Spencer believes otherwise. While it is true that all the Crusader’s acquisitions eventually reverted back to Muslim rule, Spencer argues convincingly that these battles played a key role in staving off the jihadic conquest of Western Europe. Because the level of Islamic adventurism in Europe dropped off dramatically during the era of the Crusades, this gave Europe the window of time it needed to strengthen and fortify itself. After the era of the Crusades, Europe was again defending itself from jihad, but this time closer to home. While Muslims were not successful in conquering Western Europe, they did manage to seize large tracts of Eastern European land, including Albania, Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and more.

The third section of the book is on ‘Today’s Jihad’ and contains four chapters. For me, the most fascinating of these was chapter 16, titled ‘”Islamophobia”’ and Today’s Ideological Jihad.’

In this chapter, Spencer suggests that Muslim’s most effective weapon has not been guns or bombs but ideas. After bringing much of Eastern Europe under their sway, Muslims have been trying for centuries to gain control of Western Europe. Having been unable to achieve this goal through force, they have finally seen their moment with the rise of political correctness and multiculturalism. A prime example of this is the invention and development of the term ‘Islamophobia.’ Those who use this word are able to short circuit crucial debate by dismissing all criticism of Islam as akin to racism. (The press frequently interchanges the words ‘Muslims’ and ‘Arabs’ even though the majority of Muslims are not Arabs. This semantic gymnastics allows the media to talk about Islam as a race and, consequently, to dismiss criticism of Islam as a racist offence.) The concept of ‘Islamophobia’ has even been employed at the highest levels of international diplomacy to give lawmakers enormous political leverage.

Chapter 16 exposes the pro-Islamic bias of the Western media. While this comes as no great revelation, what was interesting was a list of numerous occasions when acts of Islamic violence were reinterpreted by Western police or media as having been done for motives other than jihad. This has even occurred in situations where the assailant explicitly specified religious motives. In one case, the American media went so far as to change the name of a Muslim terrorist in order to conceal the fact that he was a Muslim (his name was Muhammad).

Chapter 17, titled ‘Criticizing Islam May be Hazardous to Your Health’, will resonate with all who are alarmed with the way Muslims are quickly turning into a class that is immune to criticism, precisely at the moment when the West most needs to examine the implications of Islamic teaching. Faced with a powerful pro-Muslim lobby (often funded by Saudi oil) on one side and the politically correct thought police on the other, the window of free speech is quickly closing in the West.

When he claims that criticizing Islam may be hazardous to your health, Robert Spencer knows what he is talking about first hand, having received death threats as a result of his research. In an interview with FrontPage magazine, Mr. Spencer explained that ‘these threats are in effect saying, "Say that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, or we'll kill you!"’

The book concludes by outlining some practical proposals for mounting a fully effective response to the challenge of the global jihad. These proposals hinge on first naming and shaming the enemy. The enemy is not ‘terror.’ (‘To wage a “war on terror”, Spencer writes, is like waging a “war on bombs”; it focuses on a tool of the enemy rather than the enemy itself.’) The enemy is nothing short of ‘a totalitarian, supremacist, and expansionist ideology’ that must be recognised before it is too late.

Above all, Spencer argues that Europe will stand or fall based on how it responds to today’s jihad of ideas. If we are to successfully defend our civilisation from Islamic invaders, we must first fight against the culture of denial, the propagation of misinformation and the strategic lies that Muslims have exploited to their own ends.

But where do you start?

Buying and reading The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), seems like a good place to begin.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Freedom of Choice Act

President-elect, Barack Obama, has many things he is planning to do after he is sworn in as President next month. But there is one thing which he has promised to do first. On July 17, 2007, Senator Obama spoke to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, saying: “The first thing I’d do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”
What is the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) and why is it so important to Obama?
The FOCA is a ground breaking measure that would eliminate every restriction on abortion throughout America, including the right of states to prohibit partial birth abortions. The FOCA will also do away with state laws on parental involvement, compel taxpayer funding of abortions, force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions and prevent states from enacting protections against further measures in the future.
Denise M. Burke, AUL Vice President of Legal Affairs, explains the history of the present version of FOCA:
In late April 2007, Obama along with Senator Hillary Clinton and others, immediately re-introduced the federal Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), a radical attempt to enshrine abortion-on-demand into American law, to sweep aside existing laws that the majority of Americans support-- such as requirements that licensed physicians perform abortions, fully-informed consent, and parental involvement-- and to prevent states from enacting similar protective measures in the future.
More importantly, FOCA is a cynical attempt to prematurely end the debate over abortion and declare “victory” in the face of mounting evidence that (a) the American public does not support the vast majority of abortions being performed in the U.S. each year and (b) abortion has a substantial negative impact on women....
FOCA would also subject laws regulating or even touching on abortion to judicial review using a “strict scrutiny” framework of analysis. This is the highest standard American courts can apply and is typically reserved for laws impacting such fundamental rights as the right to free speech and the right to vote. Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (which substituted the “undue burden” standard for the more stringent “strict scrutiny” analysis), abortion-related laws (such parental involvement for minors and minimum health and safety standards for abortion clinics) were almost uniformly struck down under “strict scrutiny” analysis. If enacted, FOCA would retroactively be applied to all federal and state abortion-related laws and would result in their invalidation.
The FOCA will reverse the landmark Gonzales v. Carhart ruling of 2007, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. Ever since the ruling, Obama has not been happy. As he has said in 2007:
“I am extremely concerned that this ruling will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman’s right to choose, and that the conservative Supreme Court justices will look for other opportunities to erode Roe v. Wade, which is established federal law and a matter of equal rights for women.”
How does a ban on partial birth abortion threaten the equal rights of women? Because, according to the FOCA, a prohibition on this barbaric and extremely painful procedure creates a “legal and practical” barrier that hindered “the ability of women to participate in the economic and social life of the Nation.”
That is just the tip of the iceberg. Denise M. Burke points out that among the more than 550 federal and state laws that FOCA would nullify are:

· Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003
· Hyde Amendment (restricting taxpayer funding of abortions)
· Restrictions on abortions performed at military hospitals
· Restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion for federal employees
· Informed consent laws
· Waiting periods
· Parental consent and notification laws
· Health and safety regulations for abortion clinics
· Requirements that licensed physicians perform abortions
· “Delayed enforcement” laws (banning abortion when Roe v. Wade is overturned and/or the authority to restrict abortion is returned to the states)
· Bans on partial-birth abortion
· Bans on abortion after viability. FOCA’s apparent attempt to limit post-viability abortions is illusory. Under FOCA, post-viability abortions are expressly permitted to protect the woman’s “health.” Within the context of abortion, “health” has been interpreted so broadly that FOCA would not actually proscribe any abortion before or after viability.
· Limits on public funding for elective abortions (thus, making American taxpayers fund a procedure that many find morally objectionable)
· Limits on the use of public facilities (such has public hospitals and medical schools at state universities) for abortions
· State and federal legal protections for individual healthcare providers who decline to participate in abortions
· Legal protections for Catholic and other religiously-affiliated hospitals who, while providing care to millions of poor and uninsured Americans, refuse to allow abortions within their facilities
The FOCA elevates abortion to a ‘right’ of the same status as those rights which are enshrined in the Constitution, such as the right to vote and the right to free speech.
The FOCA provides that “[i]t is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.” Further, FOCA would specifically invalidate any "statute, ordinance, regulation, administrative order, decision, policy, practice, or other action" of any federal, state, or local government or governmental official (or any person acting under government authority) that would "deny or interfere with a woman's right to choose" abortion, or that would "discriminate against the exercise of the right . . . in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information."
Article I, Section 8 of the United States’ Constitution sets forth the powers of congress. It was the intent of those who framed and ratified the constitution that this list be exhaustive. If congress wanted to exercise a power not explicitly mentioned in this list, there was a mechanism for changing the constitution through the amendment process. But as the Constitution stands, the federal government is prohibited from legislating outside its delegated powers.
Just to make sure that this point was understood, the founding fathers added the 10th amendment to the Bill of Rights, specifying that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” What this means is that although the federal Congress is prevented from acting outside the powers delegated to it in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the individual states are free to do so. Thus, while the constitution lists the powers of the federal Congress with the understanding that they were prohibited from legislating in all other areas, Article I also includes a section listing the powers prohibited to the states, with the understanding that they were free to legislate in all other areas.
The Freedom of Choice Act would violate the constitution on both these fronts. First, it would give Congress broad powers over areas not delegated to it in Article I of the Constitution. For example, it would force states to recognize a “fundamental right to abortion” and prohibit those states from enacting any legislation that would limit or “impede” access to abortion. Second, it would add additional prohibitions to states not specified in Article I of the Constitution.
How can Obama justify such a piece of legislation that is so overtly unconstitutional? For Obama it is quite simple since he views the Constitution as a “living and breathing document” which changes its meaning over the years. As Obama writes on pages 92-93 of his book The Audacity of Hope:
"What the framework of our Constitution can do is organize the way by which we argue about our future. All of its elaborate machinery – its separation of powers and checks and balances and federalist principles and Bill of Rights – are designed to force us into a conversation, a 'deliberative democracy' in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent. Because power in our government is so diffuse, the process of making law in America compels us to entertain the possibility that we are not always right and to sometimes change our minds; it challenges us to examine our motives and our interests constantly, and suggests that both our individual and collective judgments are at once legitimate and highly fallible."
In plain English what this amounts to is that the meaning of the Constitution is not fixed but fluid. Melody Barnes, senior domestic policy adviser for the Obama campaign, expressed it more succinctly when she said: “His [Obama’s] view is that our society isn't static and the law isn't static as well. That the Constitution is a living and breathing document and that the law and the justices who interpret it have to understand that...”
Once Obama packs the courts with judges who adopt a similar view of the Constitution, American jurisprudence could become a legal free for all.
In that case, the FOCA may be just the beginning.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

What "Freedom" Meant to Rousseau

Ever since reading Rousseau's Social Contract last year, I have been somewhat uneasy by his ambiguous comment that certain classes of people would need to be "forced" to be free by the state. Thomas J. DiLorenzo captured the problem well in his article "Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — and What It Means for America Today".

"Rousseau" said DiLorenzo "thought that society should be guided by the "general will," but what exactly that concept entailed has perplexed later commentators. It cannot be equated with what the majority of a certain society wishes: it is only when the people's decisions properly reflect the common good, untrammeled by faction, that the general will operates. But if the general will need not result from straightforward voting, how is to be determined? One answer, for which there is some textual support in Rousseau, is that a wise legislator will guide the people toward what they really want. Those who dissent will "be forced to be free." Keep reading.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Artistic Intent

In twentieth-century critical theory, it was customary to deny that reference to artists bares any relevance to artistic criticism and evaluation. As Beardsley puts it, speaking of literary arts, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art…”

I’d like to begin by considering an argument often put forward against the relevance of artistic intention. After considering the argument I will evaluate it, stating where the argument breaks down and why I think intention is in fact relevant to critical activity and artistic evaluation. The argument primarily has to do with interpreting literary texts, though it can apply to other arts.
Communication via language is possible only because there is a public structure of language. Beardsley thus takes exception to Hirsch’s view that “a text means what its author meant” and that the meaning of an utterance is indeterminate until we find out what the speaker meant. Beardsley argues, on the other hand, that because the meaning of words are publicly available, we can find out what someone means by consulting dictionaries, not the author/speaker. No amount of intending on the part of the artist can change what the poem actually says or how the painting actually looks. Thus, in his monograph The Possibility of Criticism, Beardsley writes:

"It is in its language that the poem happens. That is why the language is the object of our attention and our study when its meaning is difficult to understand. It is not the interpreter’s task…to draw our attention off to the psychological states of the author."

Because “language is the object of our attention” (in Beardsley’s view, not mine), it follows that the meaning of a text functions quite independently of the author. Hence, he can say (as Beardsley in fact does) that “the belief that a text means what its author meant is not sensible.” Or again, as Beardsley and Wimsatt say in their famous and influential essay,
The Intentional fallacy,

"‘A poem should not mean but be.’ A poem can be only through its meaning – since its medium is words – yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant."

In The Possibility of Criticism, Beardsley presents us with a number of examples to try to show that language functions independently of the speaker. First, he quotes from situations in which speakers have a slip of the tongue or writers of newspapers print typos. The results of such cases are sometimes humorous, but this is only possible because the words have a meaning that is independent of intention. The same can be said of Beardsley’s second example, which is a poem created randomly by a computer. Bearsdley concludes, “There are textual meanings without authorial meanings. Therefore textual meaning is not identical to authorial meaning.”

A third example given by Beardsley is the way in which the meaning of a text can change after the author is dead. He quotes a poem from 1744 in which the word ‘plastic arm’ occurs. Now that ‘plastic arm’ means something different to what the term meant in 1744, this line of the poem has acquired a new meaning. Consequently, there are now two meanings of the poem: what the poem meant in 1744 and what the poem means today. Now here's the crucial point for Beardsley: because today’s meaning cannot be identified with an act of authorial intention, it follows that textual meanings can exist independently of authorial intention.

Fourthly, Beardsley appeals to situations where a text can mean something of which the author is unaware. Because of these things, Beardsley thinks we need to ask “what does this line mean?” and not “what did the poet mean in this line?”

In refuting Beardsley’s argument, I do not take issue with the fact that meaning exists independent of human acts of intention. We might remark that one of the lines produced by the gorilla randomly typing “has a meaning…amazingly”, presupposing that meaning can exist independent of authorial intention. A sentence can have a meaning even though no meaning was intended. Similarly, if someone expresses a thought rather badly, and we know what they were trying to say, we can say, “Your words don’t mean what you think they mean.” Therefore, I agree with Beardsley’s statement that “textual meaning is not identical to the authorial meaning.”
But all this shows is that there are two kinds of meanings that we are dealing with: (A) authorial or intended meaning and (B) textual meaning. But in order for Beardsley’s overall conclusion to be sound, we need reasons showing why critics ought only to attend to meaning in the second sense. It is not good enough to simply observe that meaning can exist independent from human intention: we need to be persuaded that this kind of meaning (the kind of meaning that can exist independently) is the only kind to which critics should attend.

But herein lies a difficulty for Beardsley, for critics do not merely attend to a work’s independent meaning, they attend to a work’s meaning as an artwork. When we attend to a work as an artwork we are attending to more than merely its meaning (in the case of poems) or merely its appearance (in the case of paintings) or merely its sound (in the case of music). Let me prove that this is so, starting with poetry.

If we were attending only to the meaning of a poem then it would not make any difference whether it was written with artistic intent, that is to say, by a human being rather than a computer or an ape. Hence, all the predicates we might apply to the meaning of the poem we should be able to use whether or not it had a human creator. But this is not so, for many aesthetic predicates that we commonly apply to poems would be meaningless when predicated to the computer generated poem. Consider such predicates as ‘witty’, ‘intelligent’, ‘insightful’, ‘controlled’, ‘suppressed’, ‘overdone’, etc., which presuppose a creative intelligence behind them. To attend to the poem as an artwork is, therefore, to already be aware of more than merely the meaning of the words themselves: it is to be aware of their meaning as an intended artwork.

Similarly, to attend to a visual artwork is to attend to more than merely its appearance, but rather its intended appearance as an artwork. Imagine a piece of wood cut by a wood worker for the purposes of slitting into a joint of a wall. Imagine further that this piece of wood looks identical to an artwork found in a museum. Place the two side by side and they are indistinguishable. But it still matters aesthetically which is the one made with the artistic intentions, for just as with the poem, there are many aesthetic qualities – qualities such as clumsy, controlled, innovative, vulgar, simplistic, etc. – that can be applied only to the piece of wood that we know was made with artistic intention. Thus, to attend to it as an artwork is already to be aware of more than merely its appearance. To do otherwise, and merely to take the object at face value, entails ridding our vocabulary of a wealth of aesthetic predicates and, in so doing, limit the potential enjoyment that might be derived from the work.

Similarly, with music there are some cases where there can be overlap between musical sounds and natural sounds. This is particularly the case with contemporary and postmodern music, though there has always existed a possibility (remote perhaps) that drums could be confused with thunder or that flutes or whistling could be indistinguishable with birdsongs. Knowing which noises are intended for musical art informs the way we listen and evaluate.

I have suggested that our knowledge of intention informs the way we attend to artworks. This occurs at every level of how we attend to such works. If our evaluation and interpretation is of an aesthetic nature, then there is no theoretical limit on the extent to which knowledge of intention may affect this evaluation and interpretation. Knowing that Milton was blind when he wrote his poem "on blindness" affects our aesthetic response, though Beardlsey denies this. Similarly, we may enjoy an apparently serious poem in a way that is different to our enjoyment of the same poem once we have learned that it was written as a joke or mock parody. Knowing that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, or that in Bach and Handel’s day the oboe and flute were intended to be reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s flute informs and enhances our aesthetic response.

It should be clear now why it is not possible to draw a sharp distinction between external considerations (about the artist, his history and biographical details) and internal considerations (those relating to the aesthetic features of the work itself) since the former informs the later. It should also be clear why Beardsley and Wimsatt were mistaken in the view that “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.” (From their paper ‘
The Intentional fallacy.) A work of art differs from a machine or a pudding: with machines and puddings, we need only know if they work, and if we know that, then information about intention is irrelevant. I have tried to show that works of art do not function like this.

We are in a position to answer a final argument used by the anti-intentionalists. It runs like this. Although one might use an artist’s work as a springboard to talk about the artist, this has nothing to do with criticism. On the other hand, were we to use information about the artist to make inferences about features found in the work, then such information is unnecessary because, if the work contains those features, then it must be detectable in the work itself, at least if the artist successfully realized his intentions. But if the artist did not realize his intentions, knowing those intentions won’t make it a better artwork, and hence knowledge of those intentions remain irrelevant.

What is wrong with this argument is that it assumes that “what is detectable in the work itself” can contain all the intentions of the artist. But it is not true that all intentions can be manifest in a work. There are many features of a work’s appearance that only emerge when we first know what to look for. If we consider the case of artwork from past cultures that has been uncovered by archaeologists – say Grecian symposium pottery - it is often only after acquiring background information about the culture, and by implication the governing intentions of the artists, that we properly know what to look for. In recent art as well, the background information we bring with us informs our reception of the work. This is not merely true with conceptual art in which the work is often completely unintelligible until we know the thought behind it, for even the great masterpieces have many features that are lost on us until we submit our minds to the mind of the artist. And more often than not, that requires a bit of learning.
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There are some books that as a family we keep coming back to again and again. John Buchan's Huntingtower is one of them. Having just finished re-reading it, I want to say that no one should go to their graves without reading this smashing tale of middle-class courage and heroism.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

"The Gold Standard

"The gold standard has historically been a bulwark against inflation. It is politically manipulated money such as we have had since the 1930s that causes our inflation. That hsould not be unexpected, or difficult to understand. The supply of gold is relatively fixed and grows only modestly. But in a free economy, capital investment leads to ever-greater productivity, and the ability to produce more and more goods over time. So with gold relatively stable on the on hand and the supply of goods growing by leaps and bounds on the other, the gold will tend to be worth more and more, and the prices of these goods will be lower and lower." Ron Paul, The Revolution, pp. 149.

Grover Cleveland on Socialism

"I will not be a party to stealing money from one group of citizens to give to another group of citizens. No matter what the need or apparent justification, once the coffers of the federal government are opened to the public, there will be no shutting them again." Grover Cleveland

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Hidden Tax

"When the value of Americans' savings is deliberately eroded through inflation, that is a tax, albeit a hidden one. I call it the inflation tax, a tax that is all the more insidious for being so underhanded: most Americans have no idea what causes it or why their standard of living is going down. Meanwhile, government and its favored constituencies receive their ill-gotten loot. The racket is safe as long as no one figures out what is going on." Ron Paul, from The Revolution, pp. 143-144.
“Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. – As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose." Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
"To steal from the shoemaker the fruit of his labor, one can take his product or the money he has received for it. Or else one can so tamper with the monetary system that the money will not serve to purchase economic goods equivalent to the product the shoemaker provides. Outright stealing is widely recognized for what it is, but the economic crime that accomplishes the same thing through debasing the money is not. Yet the motive and the effect are the same." (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols of Destruction, p. 90.)
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But We're At War

"Those of us who still mention the Constitution, even now, and our obligation to observe it, are sometimes answered with the curt reply, 'We're at war.' We are indeed fighting undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an open-ended war against terrorism worldwide. But if the president claims extraordinary wartime powers, and we fight undeclared wars with no beginning and no end, when if ever will those extraordinary powers lapse? Since terrorism will never be eliminated completely, should all future presidents be able to act without regard to Congress or the Constitution simply by asserting, 'We're at war'?" (Ron Paul, The Revolution, p. 124)

Thomas Aquinas and the Limitations of Law

"In the Treatise on Law in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas explains (citing Augustine) that not all vices should be punished by the law. Human law should chiefly forbid those things that cause direct physical harm to others; Aquinas offers murder and theft as examples. With regard to practices that do not physically harm or defraud others (whatever other intangible grief they made cause), it can be necessary to tlerate them if prohibiting them would lead to still further evils...

"What is more, the law cannot make a wicked person virtuous. According to Aquinas, God's grace alone can accomplish such a thing. The law is simply incompetent here. What the law can do is provide the peace and order within which men can conduct their affairs. But so much of what is important in human life takes place far removed from law, and in the domain of civil society, families, and communities. These salutary influences, apart from the state, have a responsibility to improve the moral conduct of individuals. We ought not to shirk our own responsibility by looking to politicians - who are not exactly known for living beyond moral reproach themselves - to carry out so important a function." Ron Paul, The Revolution, pp. 126-127.

Income Tax

"Abolishing the income tax could cut government revenue by about 40 percent. I have heard the breathless claims about how radical that is - and compared to the trivial changes we are accustomed to seeing in government, I suppose it is. But in absolute terms, is it really so radical? In order to imagine what it would be like to live in a country with a federal budget 40 percent lower than the federal budget of 2007, it would be necessary to go all the way back to ...1997." Ron Paul, The Revolution, pp. 79-80.

The Revolution by Ron Paul

I have just finished reading Ron Paul's The Revolution: A Manifesto, which is the most sensible book I've ever read. Ron Paul brings insight and clarity to everything from foreign policy to the economy to abortion to civil liberties to drugs to the constitution to the war in Iraq and everything else in between. It is rare when I can say this, but there was not a single point in the book with which I disagreed. A challenge to both the political left and the political right, I highly recommend this 173-page defense of freedom.



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Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Legacy of Keynesian Economics

(A shorter version of this article I wrote first appeared in the November newsletter of Christian Voice. It is reprinted here with permission. For information about joining Christian Voice and receiving the monthly newsletter, click HERE.)

British Chancellor of the Exchequer (pictured left), Alistair Darling, has decided to follow a Keynesian approach for getting Britain out of its financial recession.

The words of Richard Nixon in 1971 are an apt description of Labour’s present approach: ‘We are all Keynesians now.’

But who was economist John Maynard Keynes and why have his views exercised such a lasting impact on Western thinking?

This article attempts to answer that question by exploring some of the lesser known facts from the life of Britain’s most influential economist.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883 –1946) is known for laying the groundwork of modern economic policy.
What few people realize is that his economic theories grew out of his rejection of Christianity and were bound up with the same principles governing his homosexual lifestyle.
Known as the father of liberal economics, Keynes advocated an interventionist approach to economic policy, which urged governments to use fiscal measures to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions, depressions and booms. He opposed the gold standard because it acted as a brake on government’s capacity to control the money supply.

This interventionist model led to a paradigm shift in people’s view of government and “provided the intellectual rationale for the transformation of the State from primarily an administrator of law and order (as the Bible teaches) into an economic manager with broad, open-ended powers.” (Ken Ewert, from his article
In The Long Run We Are (Not) All Dead: The Anti-Christian Economics of John Maynard Keynes’)

A centrepiece of Keynesian economics is that lack of private spending during hard times is compensated for by increased government spending during hard times. In keeping with what biographer Robert Skidelsky calls Keynes' "lifelong bias against long-run thinking”, he argued that when the national economy is faced with a financial recession, the government must spend its way out of the difficulties. In practice, this means Government putting forward billions of pounds on construction projects, schools, social housing and hospitals. If such projects must be financed by debt, then so be it. The theory was that supply would create demand and stimulate consumption, rather than the other way round, as classical economics maintained. This might actually have worked if it weren’t for the fact that Keynes’ advice about lack of spending during good times was never embraced with the same enthusiasm. (See Melanie Phillips’ article "Saviour or Destoryer")

Keynes urged citizens to trust that government knew best and could manage society’s money better than the people could. However, Keynes was astute enough to recognize that governments were intrinsically untrustworthy. He attempted to overcome this dilemma by arguing that England and America should work in concert since neither one could be trusted on their own (as if one leaky bucket plus another leaky bucket equals a perfect bucket.)

Despite the flaws in his theory, Keynes’ General Theory of Unemployment, Interest and Money helped to convert many influential people, including those within the ecclesiastical establishment, to Labour Party socialism (what Keynes himself called “semi-socialism”.)
As one writer put it
The politicians loved him: he was giving academic reasons for budget deficits, price controls, and monetary inflation. The younger economists loved him, for his ideas were creating lifetime employment opportunities for them as government economic planners.
“It was Keynes, more than any man in the twentieth century, who is intellectually responsible for today's looming bank crisis, the huge government deficits, and the eventual default of governments on their financial obligations. He gave the Western economy a large does of intellectual AIDS.” (From


Keynes (pictured right) rightly recognized the central role that worldviews play in economic thinking. For example, in an essay he wrote in 1926, titled ‘The End of Laissez-faire,’ he criticized the Christian idea, advocated in a pamphlet written by Archbishop Whately and published by the SPCK, that true liberty “is that every man should be left free to dispose of his own property, his own time, and strength, and skill, in whatever way he himself may think fit, provided he does no wrong to his neighbours...” Keynes asserted, on the other hand, that “It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities....The battle of Socialism against unlimited private profit is being won in detail hour by hour.”

Because he rejected the Christian worldview, he also rejected the free market. This was accompanied with an almost paranoiac frenzy against thrift, which he pejoratively referred to as the “hoarding instinct.” The General Theory shows an understanding that the ‘virtue’ of saving is rooted in the Christian worldview. As he wrote: “The morals, the politics, the literature, and the religion of the age [are] joined in a grand conspiracy for the promotion of saving.” Elsewhere he argued that the “hoarding instinct” was one of the trinity of evils which also included the family and concern for the future (“the hoarding instinct [is ]the foundation...for the family and for the future...”).

Keynes recognized that the principle behind saving – deferred gratification of immediate desires – indicated a future orientation which pointed beyond oneself. He scornfully dismissed such ‘purposiveness’ with his oft-quoted words, “in the long run we are all dead.” Ken Ewert put it best when he wrote that
“The effects of the ‘short-run’ and ‘childless’ philosophy of Mr. Keynes are clear: nearly all western governments have followed the Keynesian prescription of spending and consumption, and have run large annual budget deficits for decades.”


Keynes’ rejection of the Biblical “sowing and reaping principle” in favour of immediate gratification was not limited to his economic theories, but formed the centrepiece of his deviant sexual lifestyle.

Keynes was the chief homosexual protagonist of the Bloomsbury group, which has been described as a “sexual merry-go-round” by biographer Robert Skidelsky.

Arguing that homosexuality was the supreme state of existence, Keynes saw no problem indulging his obsession for little boys. In letters to his homosexual friends, Keynes urged them to go to Tunis, “where bed and boy were also not expensive”, while he himself ranged throughout the Mediterranean area searching out suitable boys for himself and his friends. He was particularly delighted to discover that the poverty and ignorance of North Africa, the Middle East, and Italy allowed him to use English shillings to purchase the bodies of children. (See Lytton Strachey, A Critical Biography).

Keynes’ short-term philosophy of life held no place for abstinence, whether financial or sexual. He campaigned to legalize homosexuality as well as drugs and believed that a restructuring of economics was central to that process. As he put it, “When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years....”


Keynes was also a strong supporter of eugenics, a point overlooked by his contemporary devotees. He declared that eugenics was "the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists."

He was the treasurer of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society during its early years and served on the British Eugenics Society’s board of directors in 1945.
Despite his problems, Keynes early works are scattered with some amazing economic insights. For example, his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, opens with the following words:
“Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. – As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose."
Keynes asked us to imagine a government that increases the stock of money from nine million to twelve millions currency notes without other conditions being changed. “In taking this step,” writes Herbert Schlossberg summarising Keynes’ position, “it has transferred from the public to itself an amount of resources equal to three million currency notes ‘just as successfully as if it had raised this sum in taxation.’ Who paid the inflation tax? Those who hold the original nine millions notes, because each of those notes will purchase 25 percent less than before the inflation. The inflation of currency means its depreciation in value. ‘The burden of the tax is well spread, cannot be evaded, costs nothing to collect, and falls, in a rough sort of way, in proportion to the wealth of the victim.’ (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction)

Understanding that the money-printing policy he came to favour would eventually lead to economic collapse, Keynes struggled mightily to devise a way to prevent it. He settled finally on a capital levy, whereby the state despoils the creditor and confiscates part of its debt held by the citizens. Seizing the money directly by repudiating the debt seemed better than depreciating the purchasing power through inflation.
For more of my writing on the economic problems of our day and the false solutions, see The Bush Bailout and What's Wrong With It.
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