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When “parens patriae” runs amuck

No child left behind! Like all utopian slogans, it sounds good until you look at what it means. The problem is that the slogan only makes sense if the state can become a universal supplier of adequate education—that is, if it can take on the parental role in raising children. It can’t, though, because its relation to the individual is much too formal and undiscriminating. It’s as if someone tried to have children raised by the Post Office or the beta version of some robot or artificial intelligence program. The Church has noted repeatedly that parents simply can’t be replaced as the primary educators of their children. If the parents don’t do their job, the state might be able to help some children in some ways, but the idea that it can make up for parental failure in all cases, as the slogan demands, is simply wrong.

Since it’s wrong, it leads to destructive policies. One is that young people who don’t belong in school are kept there: reducing “drop-out” rates becomes a goal in itself regardless of whether it makes sense for anyone involved. Another is that the limited capacity of some children to benefit from the education that is offered is denied, so that everyone else is held back by their limitations: Special needs pupils “make majority suffer”. Another problem brought on by the view that nothing is done properly unless it’s done to state standards and under state supervision is that the robotic approach state bureaucracies have adopted in their own dealings with children gets applied universally. The results include anti-spanking laws, various “zero-tolerance” rules, and a cluster of bizarre cases in which Baby pictures are treated as pornography. And a final problem is that since girls are more compliant, and bureaucracies require compliance, the educational system is now engaged in a campaign to abolish boys.

My question: does it matter that none of this helps children, or is it solely important that in principle everything has been seen to, and how it actually works out is unimportant detail? The outlook of those involved in policy seems the latter—whether a policy works or not is less important than that there is a policy. Because policy, and not successful policy, is their business.


Pessimistic Americana

Joseph Stromberg gives a rather lengthy summary of various people’s complaints about the American regime and soul: The Dark Night of the American Soul. (The title is intended to be ironic, he doesn’t think the American soul ever has a dark night.) It reads a bit like an accumulation of notes, but the accumulation is footnoted and worth having. I liked this quote, among others:

“Since Lincoln’s famous address further called on the living to dedicate themselves to the cause of freedom rather than to freedom itself, this meant that their dedication was not in order to obtain freedom’s immediate effects, but for the sake of political rebirth and immortality.”

On other fronts, a new book is out that seems to give some helpful background on Government by Judiciary: Consent Decree Coup. It’s a new form of government: Public-Interest Law Firm brings suit against Sympathetic Social Service Bureaucracy, and the two work out a consent decree which becomes law when the judge rubber-stamps it. We’ve seen the wonders the system can work here in New York.


Self-esteem bad for you!

Recent studies prove: self-esteem is bad for you. There’s no substitute for dealing with reality and calling problems problems. I wonder if that principle has any relevance to happy talk within the Church?


Neutrality as to ultimates?

An activist group, the Alliance Defense Fund, has placed advertisements in major university newspapers urging students to report incidents of anti-Christian bigotry on campus and providing a toll-free number and email address for the purpose. According to the group’s chief counsel, “Students must understand that the protections of the First Amendment do not stop at the university gate.” The group had previously brought successful legal actions against several universities such as Rutgers, which had insisted that a Christian group could not require its leaders to subscribe to its statement of faith, and the University of Houston, which had barred the school’s pro-life group from setting up a display while welcoming Planned Parenthood.

Such efforts are well-meant and perhaps necessary. After all, is it only devotees of voodoo who should benefit from the current regime? Why not Christians too? And why not dramatize the contradictions of “tolerance” and “inclusiveness”? Still, there is something unprincipled about supporting the “level playing field” as the ultimate standard for dealing with ideas. The problem, of course, is that the standard suggests that it’s wrong for public institutions to commit themselves to any idea. Instead, they should base themselves on form and procedure, and be completely neutral regarding all substantive views of what life is about. The suggestion is liberal obfuscation. To claim to avoid deciding fundamental issues like the nature of the good, beautiful and true is in reality to refuse to discuss them and impose a solution by default—the view that the good, beautiful and true are simply the creations of desire and power. The consequences of that maneuver are displayed in the public culture of spin, celebrity and political correctness now forced on all of us.

Christians would do better in the long run if rather than agreeing that all ideas are created equal they pointed out that commitment is inevitable, debunked the pretence it isn’t, and explicitly presented their own answers. Accepting in advance liberal understandings like the ultimacy of equality is a recipe not for equality but for defeat.


O Times, o customs

Since the New York Times plays such an important role in defining American public life, accounts of life backstage are of some interest: ‘Republic of Fear’. It seems that things have gotten really nasty under the rule of new editor Howell Raines. We have pointed out that “diversity” makes terror and utter inefficiency the two possible styles of business management. It’s nice to have one’s views confirmed by the Newspaper of Record.


Afghanistan now as ever

Why does September 11 mean we should care about this? Old warlord proves thorn in the side of Afghan government. Afghanistan has never been fully under the control of any government. On the whole, that has not been so bad for those on the scene. So why should our soldiers stay there and try to change their ways?


“Engaging the culture”

Christian conservatives sometimes talk about “engaging the culture,” meaning participating in mainstream public life with a view to influencing the habits and standards it presumes. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. “The culture,” as authoritatively represented by all respectable public institutions, holds that values are simply personal preferences to be aggregated and reconciled with the aid of bureaucratic and market institutions. It follows that “the culture” is willing to engage in a civil and respectful fashion only those views that lend themselves to such treatment—that are willing to view themselves as personal preferences on a par with other personal preferences. Other views are instances of “bigotry” and “hatred” fit only for therapy or suppression. So “engaging the culture” requires accepting liberal modernity in advance and so—for Christianity—committing suicide. What’s needed is something quite different: to deny the rightness of liberal modernity and to offer and live by an alternative.


The permanent identity crisis of atheism

The question of personal “identity”—who or what I really am—is unanswerable apart from a personal God whose creative word decides the issue. That is why Eastern religions that lack such a God have no use for such questions and consider them illusions to be dissolved. The same applies to notions like a “true friend,” “true poet” or true anything. The reason is that identity and truth in the sense needed require there to be meanings we discover and do not create, and thus a world that is meaningful before we begin to act in it.


“Just war” in the new order

Archbishop Martino’s comments on “just war,” to the effect that Catholic teaching on the subject may be going the way of the teaching on the death penalty—something that may be acceptable in principle but never today in fact because “modern society has enough means [of resolving conflicts] so that we need not have recourse to [war]”—are suggestive and somewhat bothersome.

George Weigel says that the archbishop’s statements are without authority and at odds with Catholic thought in general. (His April 4 column “No just war possible?” may in the future be archived here.) And it’s true that the statements seem to tie into a whole complex of thinking involved in enterprises like the EU that’s at odds with the human need for religion as a constituent of a tolerable way of life. They suggest an extreme view of the autonomy of human social life, as something that doesn’t require agreement on goods transcending the actual purposes of those involved.

To say that war is not needed today because other effective responses to difficult situations are available is to say that the institutions and standards of international society as they now stand are sufficient to keep the peace, even though they rely very heavily on consensus and voluntary compliance that we are to count on in spite of radical differences in outlook among the people and governments of the world.

If the reliance is justified then human purposes and qualities that are in fact universal are enough for free and orderly government. Such government has usually been thought to be a rare and difficult achievement. The view that it’s attainable regardless of the conflicting and sometimes outrageous goals and qualities of those involved, simply because they are human beings, is odd on the face of it.

What seems clear though is that such a view implies that good government is a matter of theory, organization, technical skill and training, and not of particular qualities of the community that is governed. Otherwise free, orderly and peaceful government for a culturally and morally chaotic world community would be impossible. To say that such government can exist independently of the personal purposes and qualities of those involved is, however, to dehumanize government. It makes it something other than the human act of those involved.

In spite of any talk of democracy, participation and transparency, such views sever the connection between government and the moral understandings and way of life of the people. They put government into the hands of a technocratic elite of custodians with no use for religion because they are perfectly capable of running the show. And that, in the end, is what the UN and the EU are about. The archbishop, of course, does not see it that way, but he should consider whether positions he has taken depend in fact on understandings at odds with both humanity and the Catholic faith.


The system works!

Illinois Democrats boost election results by registering sex offenders.


The EU begins to blossom

A series of stories from England displays the features of the emerging transnational order:

  • Everything has to be totally controlled by rational legal standards, up to and including:
    1. Things that precede all possible human law, like the ultimate use of force (i.e., war) to decide whose law shall prevail. See “Non-Accountable Organisations” on the extraordinary presumption that it is the NGOs that should decide whether there should be war and how it should be fought.
    2. Things in everyday life that can’t be regulated completely because people have to get a lot of different things done and you can’t have a rulebook for all of them. The EU doesn’t see it that way, though. For example, after this year they will only permit knife blades to have a maximum length of 10 cm (a bit less than 4 inches). It seems that that most knife-related injuries and deaths in EU countries are caused by blades longer than that, so they decided to clamp down.
  • Unfortunately, the totally administered society doesn’t work. It’s not simply that attempts to outlaw war or eliminate all danger fall short of their goals. Rather, the administrative state destroys informal relationships necessary for a tolerably orderly and productive way of life, partly because it rejects them as insufficiently rational and controllable. The problems come out most vividly in connection with family life and crime:
    1. For an example of the effect of the destruction of family relationships, consider “Nights away with parted parent ‘bad for babies’ ”. Bounce the kid around because there are no real connections, just temporary rational arrangements to satisfy current needs until they change, and they’ve got problems. The answer inplicit in the article? More studies and better-designed social policy!
    2. The bottom line: Police ‘unable to cope’ with volume of crime. In the totally administered state only direct application of force helps: “Recently, when hundreds of officers were deployed from central London to deal with a terrorist scare at Heathrow Airport, crime in the capital soared.” Things used to be quite different in England. For example, the increase in robberies in Lambeth (a south London borough) in 2001 was greater than the annual number of robberies in England and Wales throughout most of the 1920s.
  • Since the whole concept is inhuman and unworkable the obvious thing to do is drop out. Unfortunately, they’ve thought of that: a clause in the new European constitution would make it illegal to leave the EU without permission of two-thirds of member states. After all, if you could just leave there wouldn’t be universal control of everything, and how would that be?

Stepping back from politics

The world’s in a bad way, but if we want to turn things around things really aren’t so complicated:

  1. Live rightly. You can’t turn the world around unless you can offer the world something worth turning toward.
  2. Value the good, beautiful and true more than success. You don’t win on basic issues unless you value something more than victory, and have something for which you would accept defeat, suffering and ignominy.
  3. Question liberal modernity. Insist on its contradictions, and point that the things it values can be realized only imperfectly, and only in a social order that is not fundamentally liberal but values other things more.

Nothing’s guaranteed, of course. What we’re offered is not a chance to get our own way but an opportunity to live rightly, and it’s important to see that the two are different.


Explaining the odd

The rock-ribbed Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire is likely to elect the first openly homosexual bishop in the Anglican communion, a man who left his wife and children to move in with the male lover with whom he would presumably share the bishop’s residence.

A lot could be said about the situation. I’ll stand back from the particular facts, though, and consider it in connection with the general problem of theorizing about politics and society. There’s always a question how much theories apply to reality. I might, for example, present a nifty little theory about how liberals are turning America into a totalitarian state. Others might shrug it off on the grounds that things I don’t mention, even things no one notices, are likely to turn out more decisive in the end.

The issue is decidable only in retrospect. Still, it seems that pure theory is more important now than in the past. Globalization, multiculturalism, mass trans-continental immigration and all the rest of it abolish the relevance of particular peoples, histories and relationships. As the world, or a part of it, approaches the condition of a loose human aggregate ordered by rationalized bureaucratic and market institutions, general abstract theories should become more useful in explaining it. What good does knowledge of French history and culture do, after all, if half the French are Muslim Arabs, the other half reject their own traditions, and the place is ruled by bureaucrats in Brussels anyway?

One test of the value of general abstract theory is whether similar things are happening in places with very different peoples and histories. It seems that is so. Another is whether the things that are happening seem bizarre when measured by history, tradition, and accepted common sense, but are easily explicable by abstractions. The news from New Hampshire, along with much else, shows that is so as well in much of the developed world. However you spin it, the impending election of Canon Robinson has nothing much to do with historical New Hampshire and Anglicanism, which have mostly disappeared, and everything to do with abstract universal ideology. And it is by reference to such ideology, and not to history or traditional understandings and commitments, that trends not only in Anglicanism but in Western life generally are now to be explained.


What is Baathism?

We keep hearing about Saddam’s Baathist party, with never any explanation what it is or what they believe. This may help fill the gap: Saddam’s Brain. It seems it’s basically an Arab version of Naziism, with a mystical vision of race, violence, and purity. It has some Leninist elements as well, like the parallel organization of state and party, and in recent years has tossed in a bit of Islamicism as well. “Flexibility”—change in position as demanded by the mysticism of power—seems to be one of its basic principles. Its founder, like Pol Pot, Abimael Guzman (leader of the Peruvian Shining Path movement) and Ali Shariati (a leading theoretician of the Iranian revolution), was an alumnus of the Sorbonne.


Middle Eastern worries

What this means depends on what you bring to it: Afghan opium production is almost at the peak reached before the Taleban suppressed it. What the president of the World Bank draws from that is that “the failure to rid the country of its drug lords and poverty could undermine the West’s moral case for invading Iraq.” What I get out of it is that in that part of the world society has always been incoherent on any scale bigger than the village and the clan, so if you get rid of a very bad national political structure what succeeds it won’t be modern, democratic or law-abiding. (I should mentioned that I lived two years in provincial Afghanistan and know something about how people do things there.)

Iraq won’t be like Europe after the war, where Naziism had been an aberration, or Japan, where the people are very law-abiding and do what they’re told . If we want to become responsible for the political and social well-being of the Iraqis we’re likely to have to rule them indefinitely as a colony, and I don’t think we’re capable of doing that effectively. So if we do go to war I think it should be on the most narrow and necessary grounds, principally the physical security of the United States. If those grounds aren’t adequate we shouldn’t do it.


Turnabout makes its debut!

Here’s my new weblog, which expands my old Metanoia log and folds in entries from View from the Right (which will continue its separate existence).

As the description states, it’s a place for exploring culture, politics, tradition and Catholicism. The point of view I’ll be presenting is that there’s something wrong with politics and culture today, that our response to the problems must grow out of experience and an orientation toward things that transcend us, and that Catholicism and a return to tradition is a necessary part of that response.

“Exploring” means I’m no expert in any of this. I’m a very new Catholic, and while I’ve written a bit about politics and culture it’s an inexhaustible topic. So all I can do is my best, with the help of anyone who’s willing to comment. Do take a look at what’s here, I hope you find something to interest you, and let me know what you think!


Business as usual in the New Europe

New hope (of a sort) for EU sufferers: European Commission chief accountant canned after complaining about fraud and abuse, and Oxbridge threatened with financial penalties for merit standards (they make state schools look bad.)

Corruption and incompetence are going to be endemic to the New Europe, because the transnational multicultural managerial order they have there is unable to foster concrete standards and loyalties. Since intrinsic flaws of this kind are all that is likely to save us from universal bureaucratic rule, in a way they may not be such a bad thing.


The eternal word, EU version

More on the Eloi Union (EU): Eurotalk vs. Ameritalk. Why do anything now when you can keep on going through process forever?


War and torture

Is it torture time? Afghan detainees’ deaths ruled homicides. According to their death certificates, two enemy combatants who died in U.S. custody at Bagram air base in Afghanistan died from blunt-force homicide. In general, the U.S. admits to a policy of using “stress and duress” during interrogation, including deprivation of sleep, various disorienting tactics, and transfer of prisoners to the custody of nations that routinely use more extreme measures.

Torture is common in unconventional wars, and if war is necessary one shouldn’t be amazed by what comes with it. There are two special points though:

  1. U.S. world-wide involvement, easy travel and transportation, a cosmopolitan U.S. population and the increasing technical facility of terrorism make it likely that the “war against terrorism” will last a very long time and be carried on at home as well as abroad. So it seems likely that whatever measures are found necessary will deeply affect our domestic institutions.
  2. The nature of “our side” and the goal for which it is fighting matter a great deal. It seems possible to fight for home and hearth, using brutal methods if necessary, without becoming morally insane, because what you’re doing is not self-contradictory and your goals are limited. I don’t think it’s possible to fight for principles like “cruelty is the worst thing we do” or “everyone should be free to define his own good” using brutal methods without going morally bonkers. If you are fighting for contemporary liberalism, what you’re doing is flatly self-contradictory and your goals have no practical limits. There’s no telling what you might do.

So what follows? First, if war is necessary its goals must be defined and limited as much as possible. A “war against terrorism” is already impossibly vague. One “for democracy” would be infinitely worse. A “war for the security of the U.S. and other participants” would be much better. Second, all men of good will should reject the notion that the abolition of borders is a good idea. Peace, order and freedom can only be established and maintained within boundaries and limits, which should therefore be guarded and enhanced rather than done away with.

As to torture, it seems right to repress excesses of brutality (as apparently is being done in the present case). It seems futile though to imagine that it can be treated as simply a violation of legality in a war that if it continues will soon destroy the basis of legality: a settled society based on mutual trust.


United colors of Italy

Italian political posters are much more stylishly designed than in America, and when you combine the high style with the habitual cynicism about government it’s hard to believe any of it should be taken seriously. So when I was in Venice recently I was inclined to view the rainbow-colored peace banners fluttering from windows as more a personal and fashion statement than anything else.



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