17 September 2009

Some Notes on Western Democracy

In the May/June 2004 edition of Foreign Affairs, Russian expert Richard Pipes [wiki] wrote an article about how Russians view the world, and he had this to say about the Russian view of democracy:
Democracy is widely viewed as a fraud. There is a prevalent perception that Russian's politics have been 'privatized' and are controlled by powerful clans. Seventy-eight percent of respondents in a 2003 survey said that democracy is a facade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques. Only 22 percent expressed a preference for democracy, whereas 53 percent positively disliked it.
Pipes gives some insightful reasons related to Russian history and culture why this may be true (if Moscow-based polling companies can be free of Putin's control). But for our part, perhaps this is also because many of us portray our form of government in a simplistic way that seems to ignore realities that Russians perceive more readily. For example, the very fact that we call our form of government a "democracy" rather than a republic seems like it ignores the fact that the people don't directly run the government--our representatives do.

Political theorists since Plato have noted a natural tendency to slide toward democracy and majority tyranny. We exhibit it ourselves in many ways: in our use of the word "democracy" over "republic", in our changing the Constitution to allow the popular election of senators, in the obsolescence of the electoral college, and in the popular victory of the concept that representatives must execute constituents' will over the complementary notion that they also serve as experts when the common man cannot, and therefore we elect representatives to use their best judgment to serve both local and national good (I'd cite Edmund Burke and George Washington here if I weren't sitting at a Starbucks).

It may be more relevant to say that we have an open society. Government for Aristotle was simply how a society is constituted and organizes and governs itself. And there is a complex interplay of societal movers that the term "government" doesn't capture--lawmakers to be sure, but also businesses, entertainers, scholars, and the institutions of culture such as churches, schools, the media, and anyone with proficiency in communication/propaganda skills, overt or covert. And as movers of society, they also influence the government of that society. While it is an American innovation to be able to govern in a more open way than the world was used to in the 18th century, it is a complementary American failing to forget that the government of a society occurs in more than simply the visible structures, but through all the open, subtle, and hidden influences listed above. Yet it is these influences that other cultures are better at dealing with since they are NOT living the American political experiment. So we won't be able to promote democracy if authoritarians think we are ignorant of these layers of society. We will have to make our defense/explanation of democracy a bit more richer and nuanced.

* * *

Pipes makes another point that pro-democracy apologists should note:
When asked to choose between "freedom" and "order", 88 percent of respondents in Voronezh Province expressed preference for order, seemingly unaware that the two outcomes are not mutually exclusive and that in Western democracies they reinforce each other. Only 11 percent said they would be unwilling to surrender their freedoms of speech, press, or movement in exchange for stability.
First, note Pipes' assertion that in Western societies, freedom and order reinforce each other. How do they do this? The answer is in the very next sentence: surrendering the practice of speech and movement in order to create stability. The fact is, we do this ourselves, but on a personal basis. Members of western societies must learn to make personal choices to use their freedom in a way that is conducive to stability in their own lives, and that creates stability in society and government.

In other words, we must learn to be virtuous. Our governments do not require virtue legally, yet virtue is required (necessary) for our form of society, even if that society is unconscious of that need. The value of "democracy" (in the loose sense we usually give it) is that it does tie together freedom and stability--and virtue. The luxury of being able to be personally immoral yet count on a stable government is less possible in democracies in the long run: the fate of the people and the state are tied together. If they would have stability, they must have freedom, and they must use it virtuously. If freedom is not virtuous, it is not stable; but if stability is not free, it is not virtuous. All three are required, and all rise or fall together.

15 May 2009

"Without Roots": The Question of Europe's True Identity in an Age of Cultural Crisis

Europe . . . is on a collision course with its own history

Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, written by then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, explores the origins of European culture in terms of its Catholic foundations; it does this with the objective of understanding the cultural and moral decline of the West, while at the same time proposing solutions for its rebirth. The book explains, step-by-step, how relativism has destroyed the West. One example of which can easily be seen, and which therefore is frequently cited in this book, is the West’s current relations with Islam, in both the political and cultural spheres. In an inane and dangerously backwards sense of public relations, the more the West is attacked by Islamic activists – be they attacks verbal, violent, or downright barbaric – the more the West feels the need to apologize for its past mistakes. This “self hatred” from which the West suffers results from the relativistic belief that one culture is neither better nor worse than another: merely different. Such an ideology ultimately becomes hypocritical and leads to self-destruction, for as Pera states in his letter to Ratzinger: “relativism, after teaching that all cultures and civilizations are equal, makes the contradictory insinuation that our culture and our civilization are worse than others.” As Ratzinger and Pera persuasively demonstrate, the intricate levels of civilization found complementarity when they were governed by the Truth inherent in the institution of the Catholic Church. Remove the Church, and culture has no direction. History caught a glimpse of this phenomena in the 1300’s, for when the seat of the papacy rested in Avignon, France, Rome descended into a cultural standstill. The same is happening now, except on a much broader scale, and with calculated deliberation. The battle waged by relativists to remove Catholicism from the culture – and more importantly, the willingness of Catholics to surrender to these attacks – has resulted in a Europe which is now suffering from terminal lethargy.

The Church is fundamental to the culture of Europe. The cultural decline which has resulted from Europeans' increasingly successful attempts of emancipating themselves from their Catholic roots has proven this. Once relativism took hold, once it became impossible to say that one thing is better than another, man became something that could be quantified, while ceasing to be something that could be valued. “Personhood” became an “empirical concept.” As a result of this breakdown, civilization lost its ability to behave responsibly, simply because there is no reason to be responsible towards something which has no value. The same arguments which claim that man will be free once he is rid of the imperialism of the Church and her morality are the same which have, in coming to their logical conclusion, made men valueless and expendable in the eyes of civilization. It is little wonder, then, that Europe has become “infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.”

The most unique character of this book is the fact that it shows two diverse and seemingly incompatible modes of thought – secularism and Catholicism – leading towards the same conclusion: that is, that Western civilization cannot continue to survive without the Catholic Church. Pera, a self-proclaimed agnostic and a secularist, has provided a natural law argument for the efficacy of the Church, not only asserting Her importance as a moral guide, but how indispensable She is as culturally stabilizing institution. He even goes so far as to challenge modern Catholics for their lack of courage and determination, asking: “Do they (Catholics) understand that what they are being called to defend is their identity?” Due to the unprecedented veracity of Pera’s words, Cardinal Ratzinger can only respond with agreement and elaboration. He speaks of the breakdown of a Europe that long ago had been defined by its cultural life and growth. The Church which had been the foundation for that culture is seen as something which is outdated, inaccessible, and irrelevant, and therefore feeble in its mission to communicate the Truth. The result of this breakdown is a West that has become “hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity.” However, as dreary as the future may seem, both Ratzinger and Pera believe that it is still possible to revive civilization, and they therefore propose the creation of a civil Christian religion; such a task would bridge the gap between secularists and Catholics by unifying them in a common end for the good, without compromising the integrity of the Church, and thereby giving “vital new energy to a dying antiquity.”

by A. Schneible

Disclaimer: this paper was submitted as an assignment basically at the same time I posted it here. I was just so eager to finally have something to contribute that I wanted to put it up right away. Therefore, if my Santa Croce professor does a google search and finds this: I didn't plagiarize, I promise!

20 January 2009

Dr. Warren now Pro-Abortion!

Proof: He prayed at Obama's inauguration!

Ok, that's a little weak on the proof-o-meter. In fact, it doesn't prove anything at all. No one on the pro-abortion side thinks that Dr. Rick Warren is now the slightest bit more pro-abortion, pro-gay, or pro-anything else he was against yesterday, just because he gave the invocation at President Obama's inauguration. And there's no reason they should.

And there's no reason we should, either. Which is why I think this letter to Dr. Warren misses the mark. And misunderstands the nature of scandal. I could be wrong, and I am very open to correction or at least interesting discussion on this point, but it seems to me that people tend to give a little too much weight to symbolic communication, but not enough either to actual communication, or to actual ... well, action. I don't think we can say that Rev. Warren is morally complicit in anything Obama will ever do just by his presence at Obama’s inauguration. And the asserted scandalous symbolic message that he somehow supports Obama in some way is easily averted by actual, non-symbolic communication of his own views where they diverge from Obama’s.

Scandal, as I understand it in the Catholic tradition, comes about when people weak in the faith are too attached to a person or are too dependent on that person for their faith (as children are toward their parents), and that person does something that seems to represent or suggest a position outside the faith (like eating meat sacrificed to idols, or committing a public sin, or publicly advocating a specific sinful action), and it is likely those people will not find out or understand the person's real reason for being there (assuming they haven't actually left the Faith). Because if there was a good reason and the weak learned of it, the danger to their faith is now gone, right?

But if someone’s faithful views are already known, you can’t then cry scandal just b/c he associates with the bad guys in public. The nature of politics is maintaining relationships with people who disagree with you, even if those relationships are public. And we are called to work in the world as a leaven, as long as we do not allow ourselves interiorly (our intentions, etc.) to be of the world.

The lapsed in Augustine’s day weren’t condemned because they were merely present at a ceremony, but because they broke down and actually performed a ceremonial action specifically construed to communicate only one thing: that in their hearts they were willing to give to a man the worship due to God alone. So unless you honestly think Warren has changed his views and is now willing to be silent when it counts, e.g., when some abortion law comes up for a vote, then you are not experiencing scandal. Rather, you have created your own angst not through weak faith, but misinformed faith. (This makes it a problem of formation, not of weakness).

15 January 2009

The Poetics of Inauguration

Here's an interesting combination of politics and art.

Elizabeth Alexander is about to become only the fourth inaugural poet in American history, so Jeremy Axelrod over at Culture11 has written an analysis of her work as well as of the three previous inaugural poets: Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993, and Miller Williams in 1997.

Axelrod's article isn't a complete critique of the entirety of these poets' works. But it is a balanced look at their overall strengths and weaknesses as poets, in light of the very unique and, in some ways, conflicting challenges that accompany writing poetry for an inauguration.

Those challenges are greater than you might think. Even Robert Frost, whose subtlety and insights into the ambiguities of modern and especially American potential Axelrod illustrates in his article, yielded a rather amateur and bland poem for the occasion of Kennedy's inauguration. (Luckily he couldn't see to read it, and instead recited from memory a more intelligent and nuanced work.)

Axelrod describes what "a truly strong inaugural poem should be":
a work that reveals the obligation of the president to history as much as to the present and future; a poem, in other words, that is alive to the centuries of promise that weigh on a new president in a new year
But there is a tension between the inherent depth of poetic communication, demanding thoughtful contemplation, versus the pep-rally emotion of the inaugural victory party:
If poetry brings any aspect of life into keener focus, it is at a level too subtle, and often too dark, for mere oratory. To both celebrate Obama’s inauguration and give it a richer meaning, then, Alexander will have to tread warily between depth and shallow patriotic cheer.
Now, it really isn't a bad thing to celebrate at an inauguration, anymore than at a party convention. The mob emotion that is generated at such events is a great way to motivate troops that must be motivated. One must only hope that the ideology underlying the troops and their generals is correct. And an inaugural poem has the potential to remind euphoric attendees of the intellectual foundation of their movement -- i.e., it's the perfect opportunity to look at the *content* (if any) of catchphrases like "Change". :-)

14 January 2009

Killing with Kindness: Your Best Weapon is Your Best Work

Recently, I read an article about the subtle (or not) revival of the Hollywood Blacklist. For those who are not familiar with the Blacklist, a group of Hollywood actors, directors, etc., in the late 1940s/early 1950s were accused of holding Communist views and spreading those views via their movies. It seems that today's Hollywood elites have decided to employ those past Draconian practices. The new generation of acting and directing talents are being scrutinized for any signs of conservative principals.

As in most places, money is really the name of the game and Gary DeMar's answer is a simple yet effective one: create the best art possible and beat them at their own game. Think this is an obvious solution? Case in point: a friend recently related to me the following story. Well-known conservative organization hires a professional firm to update their marketing brochure. Long-time client complains that it is not "Catholic" enough ~ it is too "professional."

My apologies. Remind me -- when did Catholics identify themselves by their lack of professionalism? I understand perfectly that the past forty years have seen our liturgy become a playground for the artistically challenged and the liturgically insane. But that really is no excuse -- invincible ignorance and all that rot, what? So from whence came this idea that our best work is somehow "too much" and that things held together with duct tape and spit are somehow to be shown proudly as uniquely ours, I do not know. But it is an idea that must be destroyed and true beauty and professionalism put back in its place.

DeMar quotes Gary Susman's article in Entertainment Weekly:
...in entertainment, people want escapism, not spinach or propaganda. It's why (as conservatives note) few went to see last year's group of movies critical of the War on Terror (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, etc.) or this year's W., but it's also why few went to see American Carol, either. (It's not a liberal conspiracy that both Carol and W. are being roundly ignored in favor of talking chihuahuas.) Explicitly partisan movies, left or right, don't seem to do as well as those that give both sides a voice or whose ideology takes a backseat to plot and character development.
As a writer, this goes without saying. But for our our more provincial friends, not so much. Another case in point: Fireproof. To be honest, I did not go to see this movie. But several friends did. Almost every single one admitted that it was no great work of cinematic art. But they felt that it should not matter because it had a good message. And since this seems to be the view that most Catholics (and I assume other Christians and conservatives) take, it must be addressed.

I am sorry. I simply will not waste money (especially nowadays) on a movie that may have a good message but terrible acting and directing or producing. Whatever one may think about his politics or even his religion, Mel Gibson's Passion was brilliant on all accounts: good message, superb acting, delightful direction and production. For some of my friends, it was a "not fair" that Fireproof did not get the credit and the exposure it deserved.

This is simply ridiculous. Holding something to be true and good does not mean that one can expect it to be applauded and accepted by everyone. For those who want to split theological hairs, consider that even Jesus Christ did not just state the truth of who He was with crayons and duct tape. He told stories: riveting stories. They're called parables.

Regardless of what one's religious or political affiliations may be, good art is good art. And good art is one of the ways we have left to reach a hardened post-modern heart. It is our baptismal duty to do so.

So get out there and create great art.

06 January 2009

Western views on Islamic violence

Happy New Year, everybody!

This article
was on cnn.com a few days ago. It's a terribly tragic story, but I think really significant that this type of story is getting front page coverage.

First, it shows a young terrorist-in-training getting untrained.

When I think of the West's reaction to terrorism, I usually think of a few main common threads. A political thread focuses on fighting and/or preventing terror tactics. This is the basic 9/11-never-again reaction, and encompasses people of both or neither of the next two.

A second thread found among Christians talks about the inherent violence of Islam, and I'm not sure what comes after that, except maybe something about fighting their tactics as in Camp A - a strategy which may or may not be conflated with a half tongue-in-cheek reference to the Crusades.

(A third camp exists among modern agnostics and sees all religions as inherently violent, to the point of being surprised to meet normal nonviolent people who are devoutly religious. Their inability to make distinctions about or even talk about religion seriously is a handicap, since most of the earth's population does take seriously the human inclination toward religion. This explains a large chunk of failures in US foreign and especially public diplomacy.)

Neither of the first two common ways of speaking says much about fighting the recruitment of the great cultural threat that is (hm, what to call it exactly...) violent Islamism.

There are efforts being undertaken to counteract the main patterns of terrorist recruitment of young, idle Muslim teens full of passion and promise but also resentment and frustration and deprived of a decent liberal education (in the classical sense of "liberating"); but these efforts are not enough, and for some reason the coverage of them is even less.

The CNN article was interesting secondly because it mentions an organized program of undoing terrorist brainwashing being conducted by nonviolent Muslims. Now, many of you conservatives are convinced that Islam will always be violent by nature. This may be true on some levels, but here are some not-fully developed thoughts on whether Christians should even care about that internal Muslim debate:

1. If you are convinced of the truth of Christianity and the divine mission of Christ, or even the divine selection of Israel, then you must believe that all other religions are of merely human origin. At least, this is the traditional claim of Christianity--that it was in fact founded by God Himself. So if less and less Muslims view the violent passages of the Quran literally, isn't this a good thing, regardless of whether WE think it is a less pure form of Islam? Seriously, if Islam is only a human institution, as Christians regard it, then the humans that hold it have as much authority to say what is its most essential or best or purest form. Arguably, they have more authority than we do.

2. Christianity traditionally is not a completely pacifist religion, which is to say it has a limited place for violence. It has a theory of just war that is more nuanced than just saying "War is always wrong." There are strong currents of support for the theoretical morality of capital punishment (abstracted from the practical difficulties of assuring guilt, or the call for mercy, which is at the same time essential to and higher than the basic concept of justice). There is certainly a strong appreciation for the necessity for social order and a state with the power to police wrongdoing.

Moreover, when it comes to abstract things like occasions of sin and vice, the Christian tradition is just full of violent and military analogies. We are encouraged to make appropriate distinctions like "hating the sin, not the sinner." (I've always thought C.S. Lewis' Perelandra presented the best concrete example of righteous hatred legitimately acted upon.) We are counseled to root out without mercy anything that is keeping us from holiness and perfection - even our own hand, if necessary.

This is a widely acknowledged spiritual principle: Just look at Jacob wrestling with the angel and earning the name Israel ("struggles with God"); St. Paul exhorting us to "fight the good fight"; and the strong tradition in Islam that remembers that "Islam" is related to salam, "peace," and sees jihad ("struggle") as primarily a spiritual one.

So what, you ask? Well, first of all violence on the spiritual level is still violence, since it indicates the existence of evil (something that deserves our hatred and our struggles against it). And spiritual realities very rarely avoid having effects or manifestations in the physical world. So while we can't eradicate the concepts of injustice or the slaughter of innocents, we can and sometimes are obligated to fight instances of them that we see. And if spiritual realities are considered higher or greater, spiritual evils are more evil than physical evils, which suggests a way to justify things like (a) sacrifice for something greater than oneself and (b) using proportionate physical violence to counter a force that seeks to cause great(er) physical or spiritual evil.

Practically speaking, then, I suggest that saying that Islam is a violent religion is at best unhelpful, and at most meaningless, especially if it comes someone who believes Islam does not originate from the one immutable God. For if it is truly a human institution, it by nature can change, and we can only pray for Muslims that their understanding of their religion will change for the better, with God's help. More useful is to say that person or group X is fighting the wrong fight, not to criticize that they are willing to fight for something at all. Thus I think that other religions are in a better position to dialogue with Islam than areligious western modernism.

3. Of course, if Islam is not merely a human phenomenon, then certain things follow from that, too, mostly to do with the fact that its truest form wouldn't contradict other things that God has authored, like human nature and especialy human reason. This is probably the essence of Pope Benedict's controversial 1996 speech in Regensburg: That any religion that is actually good for humans must be above all reasonable in the sense of founded on reason. (Not in the social sense of "Oh, be reasonable" which half the time just means "Don't rock the boat". Benedict obviously wasn't afraid to rock the boat.) Benedict wants us, but mostly Muslims, to look at Islam in terms of how it can respect, improve, and raise up human nature and human reason. The primary goal of this need not be to induce Muslims to reject Islam so much as to reject strains of it that may be deemed unreasonable. This is a good strategy, and for all the protests he received from the Muslim world, it is the nonviolent, rational Muslims that continue to dialogue with him, since they share more common ground: not just religious ground like honoring Abraham as spiritual father, but even more basic, human ground. If Islam is seen and practiced in a way that truly makes one a better person, we cannot be afraid to praise and support that.

30 December 2008

Still culturing...

School is on break, but I for one am still writing papers. Still that doesn't mean this blog has been inactive. Take a look at the interesting conversation going on in the comments section of the previous post.

Topics include:

Do institutions or networks have more influence on culture today? What is the role of cultural elites, and should we try to be one of them?

Does a sociology of philosophies work the same for a sociology of culture in general?

How does grace work in the making/changing of culture? What should those who believe in grace do differently?

What is the role of a strategy in culture making/changing? What does the possibility of grace mean for strategizing?