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Archive for February 2013



We disagree because we disagree

Rod Dreher has some interests thoughts and link roundups to the idea of Natural Law, by way of explaining how non-religious people need Natural Law to construct a rational foundation for ethics. I think Hume is right on this:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.


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Making Friends and Influencing People

Travis HoldmanThe Indianapolis Star reports:

Women obtaining an abortion-inducing drug would be required to undergo an ultrasound before and after taking the drug under a bill approved Wednesday by an Indiana Senate committee.

Though the bill doesn’t specify that it be a transvaginal ultrasound, in which a several-inch-long probe is inserted in the woman, that’s exactly what Indiana would be requiring, said Dr. John Stuts­man, an Indiana University School of Medicine professor and obstetrician-gynecologist.

The provision is included in Senate Bill 371, which also would require any clinic that dispenses the drug — known as RU-486 — to meet the same requirements as a clinic that performs surgical abortions, though physicians’ offices would be exempt.

Those requirements, opponents say, potentially would force the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lafayette to close. That clinic offers the abortion pill but does not perform surgical abortions. If the bill passes, the clinic would have to widen hallways and doorways to meet state specifications for surgery and install anesthesia, surgical and sterilization equipment.

Sen. Travis Holdman, the Markle Republican who authored the bill, said the measure is intended to ensure women’s safety. Pushing back against senators who questioned why the heightened standards applied only to RU-486 and not to other prescription medicines dispensed in clinics, Holdman said abortion is different…

And yes, that’s a non-sequitur.




Old Nick, Dead Right

MachiavelliIsaiah Berlin on Machiavelli:

Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances… but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor those who look on such collisions as rare, exceptional, and disastrous, the choice to be made is necessarily an agonizing experience for which, as a rational being, one cannot prepare (since no rules apply). But for Machiavelli, at least in The Prince, The Discourses, Mandragola, there is no agony. One chooses as one chooses because one knows what one wants, and is ready to pay the price. One chooses classical civilization rather than the Theban desert, Rome and not Jerusalem, whatever the priests may say, because such is one’s nature, and—he is no existentialist or romantic individualist avant la parole—because it is that of men in general, at all times, everywhere. If others prefer solitude or martyrdom, he shrugs his shoulders. Such men are not for him. He has nothing to say to them, nothing to argue with them about. All that matters to him and those who agree with him is that such men be not allowed to meddle with politics or education or any of the cardinal factors in human life; their outlook unfits them for such tasks.

…If what Machiavelli believed is true, this undermines one major assumption of Western thought: namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live. If this is false (and if more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent….

After Machiavelli, doubt is liable to infect all monistic constructions. The sense of certainty that there is somewhere a hidden treasure—the final solution to our ills—and that some path must lead to it (for, in principle, it must be discoverable); or else, to alter the image, the conviction that the fragments constituted by our beliefs and habits are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which (since there is an a priori guarantee for this) can, in principle, be solved; so that it is only because of lack of skill or stupidity or bad fortune that we have not so far succeeded in discovering the solution whereby all interests will be brought into harmony—this fundamental belief of Western political thought has been severely shaken. Surely in an age that looks for certainties, this is sufficient to account for the unending efforts, more numerous today than ever, to explain The Prince and The Discourses, or to explain them away?

…If there is only one solution to the puzzle, then the only problems are first how to find it, then how to realize it, and finally how to convert others to the solution by persuasion or by force. But if this is not so (Machiavelli contrasts two ways of life, but there could be, and, save for fanatical monists, there obviously are, more than two), then the path is open to empiricism, pluralism, toleration, compromise.

Well, yes. That’ll do very nicely, very nicely indeed.

H/t (and thanks to) Andrew Sullivan




The End of a “Catholic Moment”?

GWB and B16Ross Douthat mourns (prematurely, I fear) ‘the end of a Catholic moment’:

The mid-2000s were the last time the Catholic vision of the good society — more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American liberalism — enjoyed real influence in U.S. politics. At the time of John Paul’s death, the Republican Party’s agenda was still stamped by George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which offered a right-of-center approach to Catholic ideas about social justice.


I have no particular objection to “faith-based initiatives” and the like (in fact, under the right circumstances they can be thoroughly good things), nor, for that matter, with the notion that the embrace of (ultimately disastrous) “compassionate conservatism” was what it took to win the 2000 election, but let’s be clear that Catholic ideas of “social justice” are part of a corporatist ideology that (as some of Benedict XVI’s pronouncements remind us) is very difficult indeed to square with traditional American notions of individualism and the free market. To his credit, I don’t think that’s what George W. Bush was trying to do.

Mr. Douthat continues:

Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.

It’s interesting to read of a “Catholic view of economics and culture” (in the sense that Douthat defines those terms) as representing “a center” either now, or then. I have my doubts.

As for Rand or Aquinas, I would have distinct reservations about channeling either, although—if really forced to choose— I would prefer the former to the latter (I suspect that I would have even more reservations about old Aquinas, if I could ever bring myself to devote any time at all to his endless—and dreary— theological and philosophical musings, but life’s too short, and there’s only the one).

More importantly, I suspect that the broader point that Douthat is making about the GOP will turn out to be wrong. As he notes later on, “a synthesis of social conservatism and more egalitarian-minded economic policies could have a great deal of mass appeal”. That’s true, I reckon (so long as the social conservatism is more—so to speak—Edmund Burke than Todd Akin), and that is why the Republicans will end up, I have long thought (and Tea Party notwithstanding, still do), as an Americanized version of Europe’s Christian Democrats, with all the baggage that that will entail.

De Tocqueville would weep.




Asteroid 2012 DA14

For some reason, the asteroid’s near(ish) miss brought this to mind…



Ben Carson and neutral principle

A little over a week ago, renowned pediatric surgeon Ben Carson electrified the Right by giving a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast that was widely deemed a critique of President Obama’s agenda on health care, taxation, and stimulus spending.  Some in the media, including conservative columnist Cal Thomas, objected that Carson had violated an unspoken rule of the National Prayer Breakfast tradition to steer clear of partisan politics.  The Right has gleefully fought back, celebrating Carson for allegedly speaking truth to power and rejecting any idea that there should be any muzzle on speech in such a forum.  Carson is now being touted as a possible presidential contender in 2016, despite his own protestations to the contrary.

Carson is unquestionably impressive and was so during that speech.  I recently had the opportunity to observe him in person during a taping of a Sean Hannity special in which he was the featured guest.  He is superbly articulate and magisterially calm, and is an unapologetic and persuasive exponent of personal responsibility, free enterprise,  and limited government (with one odd exception for food stamps).   His contempt for redistributive politics is exhilirating and it would be a boon for the country if he had a wider platform.  (Sadly, however, Carson’s arguments have been made before in the political realm, sometimes as compellingly, yet they failed to win a sufficient number of converts.  The problem is not the messenger, but the message, I am increasingly coming to believe, pace conservative wishful thinking.)

With regards to the Prayer Breakfast protocol, however, the Right might have had a case if there were any chance that it wouldn’t make the identical argument if the roles were reversed.  Imagine if a liberal cleric giving the Breakfast keynote had objected to the Iraq War during President Bush’s realm, or had criticized Republicans for hurting the poor.  The Right would have howled with protest. 

Showing a similar oblivion to neutral principle, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn objected on CSPAN’s Washington Journal this morning to Obama’s declared intention to act on certain policy matters if Congress didn’t give him his way.  Few on the Right objected to Bush’s expansionist view of the executive war powers, which dismissed any Congressional check on his power.  One despairs at the lack of self-awareness.

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Mass shootings and urban violence

President Obama once again conflated the Sandy Hook massacre with chronic gun violence in last night’s State of the Union speech:

in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun. 

Two weeks ago in Minneapolis, he spoke of the need to “protect our kids and address the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country.”  But Newtown-style mass shootings have almost nothing in common with garden-variety gun crime besides the use of a firearm, and the failure to distinguish them has resulted in overlooking the most effective means for reducing gun deaths. 

Mass shootings, especially mass shootings of school children, are exceedingly rare.  Identifying common causes and certain means of averting them is therefore difficult, and legislative fixes are likely to possess a high degree of over- and under-inclusion.  Requiring federal background checks for private gun sales would not have kept guns out of the hands of Adam Lanza, while the NRA’s proposal to put an armed adult in every school across the U.S. wins the prize for the most absurd overreaction to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

The most common gun violence, by contrast, is drearily predictable and is the source on average of nearly ten thousand homicides a year.  Such violence occurs overwhelmingly in certain locations of cities—over the past 30 years in Boston, for example, 75 percent of the city’s shootings occurred in 4.5% of its area, whereas 88.5 percent of the city’s street segments experienced not a single shooting.   Urban shootings are retaliatory or the product of the most trivial of slights.  They are committed by handguns, not assault rifles.  Victims and perpetrators usually know each other, absent bullets going astray.  Reforming the involuntary commitment laws and beefing up mental health services are largely irrelevant to these shootings, since though the shooters have serious problems with impulse control and are clearly a danger to themselves and others, few would be deemed mentally ill.  And both victims and perpetrators are disproportionately minority, by huge margins.  New York City is emblematic of the country’s gun violence.  According to victims and witnesses, blacks commit 80% of all shootings in New York, though they are 23% of the city’s residents.  Add Hispanics and you account for 98% of all shootings.  Whites commit a little over 1% of shootings, though they are 35% of the city’s population.  These disproportions pertain across the country.

The media loves to think of itself as a crusader for racial justice against the bigotry of red state Americans.  Yet it pays little attention to black on black violence, compared to the ubiquity of such violence.  Only in the extremely rare occasions when a black victim has been shot by a police officer or a white does it summon sustained outrage.  This selective concern undoubtedly stems as much from reluctance to recognize the flip side of the black on black violence phenomenon—i.e., the high numbers of black perpetrators—as from any selective compassion.

While it is unclear how to prevent mass shootings–short of the unlikely event of removing all guns from the public—we know how to reduce urban violence: data-driven, proactive policing.  New York has brought crime and homicide down an unmatched 80% since the early 1990s by identifying crime hot spots through the rigorous analysis of crime data, encouraging officers to lawfully use their discretion to question people about suspicious behavior, and holding police commanders accountable for crime on their watch.  After a street shooting, officers will be deployed to the area in anticipation of a retaliatory hit, where they will look for behavior that indicates that someone is carrying a gun or that gang activity is afoot. 

Gun control, however reasonable, has had only a limited effect on inner city gun violence, as the case of Chicago demonstrates.  Proactive policing, on the other hand, is a demonstrable success, saving thousands of minority lives in New York over the last two decades.  (Strengthening marriage, to increase the chance that sons grow up with their fathers, would also have an enormous effect on inner city shootings, but presents a much greater policy challenge.)  Mass homicides are getting most of the attention at the moment, for the simple reason, frankly, that whites identify themselves with the victims, but the real problem of American gun violence lies elsewhere, and the solution to it within reach. 



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Benedict Resigns

BenedictBrendan O’Neill (atheist, former altar boy) looks at the pope’s resignation and is none too impressed:

Benedict is aware of the crisis of vocation in the modern world, the way in which he what he called the ‘relativist cultural context… adversely affects the formation of consistent and stable vocational figures’ – that is, how modern society’s cult of the narrow self eats away at old notions of sacrificing oneself to a greater cause. Indeed, a couple of years ago he got his cardinals to warn against the ‘transformation of the priesthood into a profession’ and to remind people that actually it is a ‘lifelong vocation’. Yet now he has sent out the message that even being pope is kind of a profession, something one can retire from when exhausted or ill or in need of some ‘me time’.

For my part, I wish Benedict a peaceful retirement, but there’s much that I won’t miss about this pope, including his “Nazi” smears, his corporatist blather about the wickedness of “unregulated financial capitalism” and his sanctimonious greenery.




In the 21st Century

Witch_BurningA hideous story from NBC:

Assailants stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town, police said Friday after one of the highest profile sorcery-related murders in this South Pacific island nation.

Some of the hundreds of bystanders took photographs of Wednesday’s brutal slaying. Grisly pictures were published on the front pages of the country’s biggest circulating newspapers, The National and Post-Courier. The prime minister, police and diplomats condemned the killing.

Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old who had a child, had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in the hospital the day before, police spokesman Dominic Kakas said.

Note the coexistence of modernity (the taking of photographs) with ancient superstition. Belief in the supernatural is not going away any time soon; the only question is the form that it will take.




Nice Try

OrigenWell, this made me laugh:

In authoring scripture, Origen [an early theologian] argues, God has deliberately planted all sorts of interpretive obstacles: problems, difficulties, mistakes, morally objectionable stories, and so forth. These manifold obstacles lead us to press beneath the surface of the text and to search more deeply for its spiritual meaning. Such spiritual exegesis isn’t just a scholarly technique. It requires ascetic purification, the spiritual transformation of the reader. So the problems in scripture – the same problems which Marcion takes as proof of divine wickedness – are planted there by God to lead us into the depths of spiritual life, just as a wise teacher might plant mistakes in a class discussion in order to lead the class, gently and unobtrusively, towards the truth.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan


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