North Western Winds

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Archive for the ‘U.S.A.’ Category

Obama on the Mount

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It’s been a long time, but I simply can’t let this pass by me without a rejoinder:

( – Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told a crowd at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, Sunday that he believes the Sermon on the Mount justifies his support for legal recognition of same-sex unions. He also told the crowd that his position in favor of legalized abortion does not make him “less Christian.””I don’t think it [a same-sex union] should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state,” said Obama. “If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” ((Hear audio from WTAP-TV)) St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans condemns homosexual acts as unnatural and sinful.

I sincerely hope our American friends will soundly reject Obama as a presidential candidate in favour of a far more mature and steady John McCain. There is much about Obama that makes me more than a little queasy.For starters, that ‘obscure’ quote from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is older than any of the gospels. I just happen to be reading Garry Wills’ book, What Paul Meant at the moment. Wills is a liberal Catholic. He might, for all I know, agree with Obama’s positions.This quote from the introduction shows that he would argue for such a position along very different lines. It also makes Obama look silly:

Many people would just as soon avoid Paul’s psychodrama and go “back” to the Gospels, which do not argue about understanding Jesus but just present him. Taking the shortcut was the obvious thing to do in the Middle Ages, when it was thought that the Gospels were written by the original followers of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to what they set down. This lead to the view that there was a primitive church, true to Jesus’ simple teachings, which was later contaminated by Paul’s doubts and theories and wrangling (this is Jefferson’s thesis). But scholarly enquiry has destroyed the idea that the Gospels have a simple biographical basis. They are sophisticated theological constructs, none written by their putative authors, all drawing on second – or third – or fourth hand accounts – and all written from a quarter of a century to half a century after Paul’s letters. If we want to see what the original Jesus communities looked like, the first and best witness is Paul, the earliest writer of what would become the New Testament. In fact, his authentic letters [of which Romans is one – ed.] are the only parts of the of which we can say we know who wrote them. The Gospels, coming later, try to make sense of a history that already contained the conflicts that Paul reveals to us. Those who believe in a providential revelation through the New Testament must deal with the fact that Providence preserved the first batch of inspired writing with the signature of Paul. His letters were written roughly two decades after the death of Jesus. Other new Testament letters attributed to Paul or other authors (Peter, Paul, or John) are written two to five decades after his, and imitate the form of his.

Written by Curt

March 4, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Justice in a vacuum

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Here are two articles I read today; I found both to really interesting. The first is a New Yorker article about an economist who thinks democracy leads to bad policy when it works properly. Why? People are uninformed and irrational. They choose based on prejudice rather than current theory. They tend to choose to tax and spend and regulate.

Fractured Franchise: Books: The New Yorker:

[Bryan] Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they like their irrational views. In the language of economics, they have “demand for irrationality” curves: they will give up y amount of wealth in order to consume x amount of irrationality. Since voting carries no cost, people are free to be as irrational as they like. They can ignore the consequences, just as the herdsman can ignore the consequences of putting one more cow on the public pasture. “Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,” as Caplan puts it. “Shoppers have incentives to be rational. Voters do not.”

Caplan suspects that voters cherish irrational views on many issues, but he discusses only views relevant to economic policy. The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy). Economists know that these positions are irrational, because the average person actually benefits from market competition, which provides the best product at the lowest price; from free trade with other countries, which (for American consumers) usually lowers the cost of labor and thus the price of goods; and from technological change, which redistributes labor from less productive to more productive enterprises.

The economic biases of the non-economist form a secular world view that people cling to dogmatically, the way they once clung to their religious faith, Caplan thinks.

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Written by Curt

July 5, 2007 at 9:34 pm

Pessimism over Iraq

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Today’s reading:

Rod Dreher, whose Crunchy Con blog I enjoy a lot. I’m not quite the pessimist Rod is, perhaps because I treat intellectual abstractions (“the culture”) with instinctual disdain. They’re useful enough for talking, rumination and personal action, but not for forming prescriptions for others. After all, no one ever really sees the culture. Everyone sees the media they do, but not the media they don’t – hence no clear picture can be formed. It’s an art, not a science. More importantly, the media is a fantasy land, a battleground, and a fun house. It never encompasses the world and I’m post modern enough to think that it never really claims to. The whole shebang is more like pro wrestling than anyone cares to admit.

Rod’s happy in the real world and that is telling. That is where we ought to give the preponderance of our consideration when we stop to reflect on the world.

In a meandering post, Dreher writes:

And then there was the [Iraq] war, which I supported completely, for reasons that now appear absurd. Our country has been humiliated by this adventure, by our hand devils have been unleashed in the desert, and God knows what’s coming next. My generation — I am almost 40 — is now having to deal with something that we, formed by the triumphalist confidence of the Reagan era, never have done: the limits of American power, and in turn the falsity of a vision of the world that assumed that hyperpower America could pretty much do what it wanted.

I think I’ve come to regard with deep suspicion, and probably even contempt, the blithe optimism that seems to be our American way. To borrow a phrase from Turner, I believe it’s liberalism’s most attractive quality and greatest weakness to be constantly focused on the future, and to turn the expectation that things will keep getting better and better into a conviction. There is something sterile in a repining conservatism, true, but there is something unreal in the kind of liberalism that characterizes the American spirit (and even the spirit of many Americans who claim the label “conservative”). It is more fecund that repining conservatism, true, but so many of its projects are stillborn disasters. In this light, better the repining trumpeter than the pied piper.

Iraq has been a disappointment, undoubtedly. I also supported the war, and in many ways I still do. I would like to see a free Iraq; I had hoped it might resemble more moderate Arab countries like Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. None of those is Amsterdam, but neither are they killing grounds. It hasn’t happened yet and it may not be in the cards at all.

I’m not pleased with America’s being so wrong about the state of Baath free Iraq. The sectarian conflict ought to have been foreseen and either taken into account as a reason for forgoing the attack, or it needed to be planned for and contained. It seems that there was a large failure on one or both counts. Foreign intelligence is not an exact science, I know. That is why the failure to find weapons of mass destruction didn’t bother me. It was embarassing, sure, but it seemed to fall in the ‘margin or error’ or the ‘fog of war’. The extent of the sectarian violence, on the other hand, ought to have been more obvious.

Failing to plan for the war’s aftermath will likely mean planning to lose, and that’ s a tragedy. Such a failure can’t be blamed on philosophical conservatism, which ought to be pessimistic enough to ask better questions before hand. Conservative parties don’t always act conservatively (or liberal parties liberally). That too ought to be obvious but political partisans and media pundits (often the same people) make a living out of obfuscation, so the point needs to be drawn again and again.

Written by Curt

January 3, 2007 at 9:24 pm

Take California

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The big day at last!

Well, almost.

Rebbecca and I will be packing our bags for California tonight and be off in the morning. We’re driving down, so it will take a couple of days to get there. Officially, we’ll be staying in Santa Rosa, home to the Charles Schultz Museum, the Luther Burbank museum, and close to all the gastronomic and vinty-goodness Napa and Sonoma have to offer. It’s also close to San Fransisco itself and we intend to check that out. Lots to do and see there.

We will be packing along a Macbook and a digital camera and are intending to share the fun. Rebecca even went so far as to set up a WordPress blog called Take California. I will try and update this site as we go along but if you don’t see new content here you might want to have a look there.

Written by Curt

September 14, 2006 at 5:26 pm

Posted in U.S.A., Uncategorized

The bridge of Natural Law

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I have, from time to time, considered a subscription to Touchstone magazine. Articles like this are what pull me that way. I have long been attracted to Natural Law as the basis of political philosophy, and been wary of what author Robert Cochran describes as ‘scripturalists’. I find that approach heavy handed and am hard pressed to know how it can cope with a global civilization in which people of many beliefs interact and must find a way to accommodate one another. As an adolescent I was drawn into a secular way of thinking about this but as an adult I have found that school to be as problematic as the scriptural. The secularists claim to neutrality simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

Cochran suggests that Natural Law theory can act as a bridge among these groups, and cites the current presence of five Catholics on the US Supreme court as evidence of this:

There may be political explanations for the attractiveness of Catholic justices, but I think three Catholic doctrines—natural law, subsidiarity, and religious freedom—help to explain why a majority of the justices are now Catholic. My argument is not that citizens who support, presidents who appoint, and senators who confirm these justices consciously do so because they want Catholic religious beliefs on the Court, but that these doctrines yield habits of thinking that make Catholics attractive candidates to the broad range of the American people.

The argument is, in other words, that Natural Law thinking serves as a bridge between the secular and the scriptural. A Venn diagram of three slightly overlapping circles gives the idea:

Today, natural-law proponents are in a strong position politically because natural law is more acceptable to each of the other groups than the alternative. Natural lawyers are more acceptable to scripturalists than secularists are, because natural lawyers generally come to the same positions as scripturalists and the Scriptures themselves recognize the existence of natural law. (If we had God’s insight, natural lawyers and scripturalists would always reach the same conclusions, but we do not.) Natural lawyers are more acceptable to secularists than scripturalists are, because natural lawyers justify law by reason, a language they both share.

Cochran goes on to argue that in the past, Natural Law thinking was prominent in the American legal tradition but that in the twentieth century it became unpopular among the groups who had created that tradition. He cites Oliver Wendell Holmes as paradigmatic of the changes taking place:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Supreme Court justice and the most influential legal thinker of the twentieth century, called natural law “that brooding omnipresence in the sky.” His views—that moral preferences are arbitrary, law is merely power, and “truth” is the position of the nation that can lick any other—became increasingly influential during the twentieth century.

The leading legal theories of the last third of the twentieth century had no place for natural law. Critical legal studies, feminism, and critical race theory taught that law is merely the power play of judges and their economic classes. However, they offered no basis for reconstructing law on a firm and just footing, for if law is only power, there is no basis on which the weak can challenge the powerful. These theories provided only a counsel of despair, a means of deconstruction with no basis for reconstruction.

The leading conservative theory, called law and economics, also looked to Holmes. It taught that the best ground for law is efficiency and thus provided no conception of justice. In a system based solely on efficiency, the inefficient have no standing.

By the end of the twentieth century, modern legal theories had run their course. Words like “justice” and “rights,” which are rooted in natural-law jurisprudence, mean little in a legal world that understands law as only power or efficiency.

Natural Law is making a comeback because the alternatives are beginning to be found wanting and the best place to find Natural Law thinkers is among Catholic intellectuals. This is not to say that they are not to be found in other groups, only that the Catholics are more prominent at the moment.

Cochran puts it thusly:

Not all twentieth-century use of natural law was Catholic. The opening and closing arguments of Episcopalian Justice Robert Jackson, who took a leave from the Court to be the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, were natural-law arguments: The Nazis had committed crimes against humanity, crimes against a law that is higher than positive law. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, quoted both Scripture and Thomas Aquinas to support his argument that an unjust law is no law.

Natural law received little respect within legal intellectual circles during most of the twentieth century until the publication of Oxford legal philosopher John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights in 1980. Since then, to the surprise of proponents of the dominant legal theories, natural law has re-emerged as a leading legal theory, and Catholics, who had never given up on natural-law theory, have taken the lead in that movement.

Cochran goes on to look at the issues of religious freedom and subsidiarity, which are interesting as well – but I will leave the reader to examine for himself. It’s the idea of a bridge between the camps in the ‘culture wars’ that I find so encouraging. It’s encouraging because, as Wesley Smith writes at First Things:

The value of equality also permits the creation of very powerful coalitions of strange political bedfellows… [therefore] the widespread belief in equality offers great reason for hope.

Equality is continually being undermined by the growing utilitarianism and amorality of society. In such a milieu it is easy to become discouraged. But the fact that human equality has become nearly universally accepted means we have the high ground. That doesn’t guarantee victory. But it does mean we can make powerful and compelling secular arguments about these issues that have the potential to resonate deeply in the public square.

If that is not encouraging, I don’t know what is.

Written by Curt

August 19, 2006 at 8:26 pm