Saturday, May 05, 2018

My Two Cents

I'm pretty sure the copper is worth more than my opinions....

I should do this article more justice and read the whole thing and respond to it, but since when is this a just world?  Instead, I'm going to copy the bits TC posted at his blog, and add to what he says there.  Think of this, then, as an extended comment to that post.

First, the quotes:

More than 13 years ago, in a homily given at the conclave that would later elect him Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of a growing “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” The urgent call for a return to truth-based religion, far from repelling the cardinals, distinguished Ratzinger as the frontrunner for papal office.

Ratzinger’s papal platform did not prove broadly appealing. The secular pundits of the last decade often ignored his warning as the scare tactic of a dogmatist unable to adjust to the benign pluralism of a world that had, in keeping with Kant’s rallying cry, “dared to think.” I doubt the pope emeritus has much energy nowadays to follow the many instructive ironies of the Trump era; but if he did, he might take just the tiniest bit of satisfaction in seeing not just the religious right but also the secular left denouncing a growing “dictatorship of relativism.” Ratzinger’s distinctive emphasis on freedom’s need for truth, in other words, may have come not too late but too early to find a bipartisan hearing in the United States.

It is here I will pause and just bring up the conclusion of TC's post, which I think is as sound as anything you'll read on the internet today:

For the record, I've noted any number of times that arch conservatives though they were, Benedict XVI and John Paul II were far more radical than just about any secularist leftist on the issues of economic justice, Pope Francis is far more radical on that and many other vitally important issues, certainly on environmental catastrophe.  I'll bet you that there is little to nothing more realistically radical that issues from the upcoming Left Forum than the various documents that have come from the Vatican in the last five years.

Take that idea to heart, that JPII and Benedict XVI were as radical on some points as Francis I, and you will finally be understanding things more clearly.  You certainly aren't going to get that from Bill Maher (who I saw interviewed last night on some program PBS aired.  Maher was sure to praise himself as "dangerous."  I think of Maher as being as dangerous as a butter knife, and about as sharp. But his comments get played on the internet, while Maher continues to confuse his ignorance of Catholic social justice teachings with wisdom).

Back to Pidal:

The irony in this evolution of U.S. culture, Andersen notes, is not that ivory-tower insanity failed to remain confined to the academy but that postmodernism took deepest root in the sector of society that is normally most suspicious of university elites. The new communication vectors of social media and talk radio, with their broad accessibility and immunity from peer review, accelerated the rightward movement of the belief that all reality is socially “constructed” to such an extent that “starting in the 1990s, America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left.”

As evidence of the right’s proclivity toward fantasy, Andersen recalls its many paranoia-based enthusiasms: fear of one-world government, gun-control fanaticism, seven-day creationism, climate-change skepticism and more. Perhaps the most insightful aspect of Andersen’s narrative is his conclusion that right and left extremes have now met: “Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team.”

Or, as Nietzsche supposedly said:  Those who pursue dragons too long become dragons themselves.  It's an old notion (I learned it in college, anyway), that opposing parties at their extremes are barely distinguishable from one another, which is one reason those extremes fight their "opposition" so fiercely.  Nobody fights against someone else as fiercely as those who seem to be most like us.  Just because it's not new, doesn't mean it isn't insightful, or even wisdom.

Before we go to the next quote, I'm reminded of a passage I read recently (somewhere on the intertubes, and I couldn't recover it now if I had to) that slightly (and almost slyly) blamed Michel Foucault for the creeping relativism of the American right.  Foucault, the argument went, championed the idea of knowledge held by the fringes of society being suppressed by the powers that be.  Basically, the victors write the story of history (again, there's nothing new under the sun).  This, of course, is the basis of feminist readings of the Bible, and of many readings that find the emphasis of Jesus of Nazareth on the poor and the outcast, rather than on saving souls from eternal damnation and upholding whatever social/political structure is in power.  Are these things right? Or wrong?  Truth remains, in some sense, maddeningly relative; or not.

Examples of the secular left’s re-enchantment with objective reality abound. Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University was perhaps the first out of the gate with his interpretation of Hillary Clinton’s defeat as “the end of identity liberalism” in a New York Times article in November 2016. Obsession with diversity has produced, he laments, a “generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined group.” Donald J. Trump’s victory shows that this has ultimately “encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” The way back for Democrats, accordingly, lies in recovering a rhetoric of the common good and a shared destiny. Though Lilla does not use the language of “natural” or “objective” morality, he presupposes their reality. For how can a good be common, or a destiny shared, unless it is somehow discernible by all reasonable people?

Here I have to quote TC again, because the problem with identifying a false location for judging truth as relative v. universal, is just where you decide "universal" lies:

Just as a start, when in post-war history didn't "white, rural, religious Americans" NOT think of themselves as a disadvantaged group "whose identity is being threatened or ignored."  Only someone who has never much looked at the history of the United States could make that claim that that's a reaction to the "identity politics" of the last several decades.  I'd wonder how Pidal didn't manage to notice such things as the populist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, the white backlash that followed the all too brief Reconstruction period,  pretty much the rise of the formal Fundamentalism in Protestantism.

In the one place he mentions populism, it's today's populism,

Well whaddya know, Pidal does mention Foucault, and pretty much in the way that article I read mentions him:  wrongly, crudely, and dismissively:

But perhaps the most ambitious and far-reaching truth-based criticism of the Trump-era United States can be found in Kurt Andersen’s article for The Atlantic, “How America Lost its Mind,” in September 2017. Andersen combines Guthrie’s charges of fantasy with Lilla’s narrative of the rightward migration of the left’s intellectual extravagances. Yes, he concedes, the 1960s, the Eden of the baby-boomer liberals, were in many ways a retreat from reality into fantasy. In the 60s, the Esalen Institute (which even today identifies itself as a “world-wide network of seekers who look beyond dogma to explore deeper spiritual possibilities”) became a kind of epicenter for an endless variety of ecstatic, dionysiac mysticisms. Shamanic rituals, mescaline consumption, healing energies and tantric sex all combined to form the potent spiritual cocktail known as the New Age movement.

In Lilla’s telling this kind of magical thinking eventually found its academic expression in a mania for “deconstructionism.” Michel Foucault’s seminal argument in Folie et Déraison—that the difference between sanity and insanity rests entirely on social convention and that the very distinction serves only to legitimize hierarchies of domination—has set the research and teaching agendas of humanities professors ever since. Many students, even at Catholic universities, graduate more familiar with the principle that “all distinctions are violent” than with St. Paul’s vision of the church as a many-membered body.
Andersen is badly generalizing there (similar to what I heard Maher do on the PBS interview.  A story about a group of college students protesting an appearance by Jerry Seinfeld was turned into "everyone under the age of 25" and "on the left" is crazy.  Yeah, we talk like this all the time, ignoring the importance of facts and nuance.  The shooting at Kent State, for example, involved non-protesting students on the campus, and a small number of protesting students of the whole student body.  Yet to hear the story, the entire student body was in uproar, the campus near in flames, the National Guard the "thin blue line" of "law and order.")  Generalizations turn truth into crap, but we like crap better.  Andersen describes all Baby Boomers, or thinks he does, and in doing so ignores the "Jesus Freaks" who closed out that decade; people looking for something to believe in, and settling on yet another version of evangelical Christianity (which is as American as cherry pie).   Mark Lilla's reduction of Foucault's work is just flaming ignorant, as is the dismissal of "deconstruction" (which has nothing to do with Foucault, who argued publicly with Derrida, the creator of that philosophy).  The irony is that one of the most insightful religious thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries was Jacques Derrida.  And need I say the idea that "all distinctions are violent" is not that far removed from:  Those who would be first of all must be last and servant of all.  Speaking, not coincidentally, of radical notions.  Then again, so is "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's."

I really don't think "po-mo" thinking has infected the hills and hollers of West Virginia; I think the problem is far more fundamental.  A reporter on NPR this morning spoke of talking to people at the NRA convention in Dallas.  He said he met one man who was convinced the "moral outrage" after Parkland shooting was "concocted and fake."  The reporter said he confronted the man with the stories of people he (the reporter) had interviewed after Parkland, and that their stories were true. The NRA attendee was amazed to hear this; the reporter concluded the man got his news from NRA-TV and Rush Limbaugh and FoxNews.  It doesn't take a course in Foucault to trace out that relativism.  FoxNews and Alex Jones and NRA-TV don't deal in relativism:  they insist they are telling the truth, and CBS/NBC/ABC/NPR/NYT/WaPo are the liars.  That kind of "populism" predates Foucault and deconstruction by centuries, if not millennia.

Clearly Pidel's stance is that where he stands, Truth stands with him, and what he considers true you shall as good assume to be true, because to do otherwise would be, well, just wrong:

Ratzinger’s prognosis perhaps proves especially apt in the United States, where the need to find constitutional support for abortion has led to some of the most fantastical jurisprudential reasoning in the history of the Supreme Court. The court reached the height of magical thinking with Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which ruled that requiring spousal notification prior to abortion posed an “undue burden” on a woman’s freedom. “At the heart of liberty,” the plurality opinion reasoned, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If legal abortion was, as Andersen presumes, a triumph of the “reality-based left,” it was a pyrrhic one.

That's about as muddle-headed an understanding of Constitutional law as I've ever encountered.  If that's his definition of "magical thinking," we don't have anything else to discuss.  But why flex my intellect when I can rely on the words of a Jesuit to argue for me (as Charlie Pierce, says, you don't mess with the Society.)

By “dictatorship of relativism” I take Cardinal Ratzinger to mean a sociopolitical movement that refuses to recognize an ultimate objective reality called “the truth.” Although this is a coherent theoretical concept, the closer we get to the ground the more it seems that the battles being waged in the public square are not so much about whether ultimate truths exist, but which absolute “truths” will govern public affairs. In that sense, Pope Francis’ warnings about the dangers of ideology and “ideological colonization” appear more relevant.
In other words, it's not that FoxNews is arguing relativism, it's arguing about what the truth really is, and where it comes from.  Let me just quote from this article at some length, to get at the facts upon which the argument is built:

Meanwhile, just south of the Canadian border, in Vermont, Michael O’Loughlin reports that the state’s Catholic schools are prohibited from access to newly available public funds simply because they are religious schools. Professor Rick Garnett of the University of Notre Dame correctly characterizes the conflict: “It’s about whether a generally available and entirely ‘secular’ benefit should be withheld simply as a penalty” for a faith-based school.
And while the case in Vermont might appear to be a straightforward church-state question, it is more nefarious than that. True, many U.S. states prohibit public funds for parochial schools. Such prohibitions were enacted a century ago by Protestant legislators, chiefly to penalize rival Catholic schools. That much is clear from the historical record.   [Aaargh!  Relativism!  Yes?  No?]  But while that fight was at its heart about competing religious conceptions of the one, true God, the present fight in Vermont is about whether religion has any place in public life at all. Now the opponents of faith-based schools are saying, by implication, that there are truths, we hold them, and religion is not only not one of the avenues of approach to those truths, but an enemy of them.

What we have, then, is not a dictatorship of relativism in which there is no such thing as truth, but a far more dangerous dictatorship of positivism, that truth only exists independently of faith and is brought into existence through brute legal force. We are no longer considering, says Cathleen Kaveny, what we owe people who think differently. “Nobody’s asking that, and you reap what you sow.” 
There's relativism at work there, no?  Is the Vermont stance on funding religious schools truly about whether religion has any place in public life at all?  Are they shuttering churches, requiring them to agree to the dictates of the state?  I had a young German pastor in my church once, and she was disturbed by the presence of the national flag in the sanctuary, in fact next to the chancel.  In Germany interference with the Church was a remembered horror (it led to the exile of Karl Barth and the actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which led to his execution).  Is the action of the state of Vermont really equivalent in any way to that?  Are any other church related schools equally banned?  Is this really a matter of Protestants punishing Catholics, or is it just that Protestants have a different view about the role of government when it comes to religion?  (I know Protestants don't consider marriage a sacrament, or divorce a breach of that sacramental union, and they decided that centuries ago precisely to keep government out of church matters, and church out of government matters.)  Relativism is, dare I say it, in the eye of the beholder, no?  And the other thing in the eye of the beholder is that log that looks like a splinter in your brother's eye.

I don't mean to sound so glib about this, in the end; but this kind of analysis kind of invites that kind of response.  Not TC's, but that of Pidal and even of Fr. Malone.  I mean, if you're going to throw around accusations, remember the four fingers pointing back at you, ya know?


  1. Very thought-provoking. This is also highly relevant; Russian “philsopher” Dugin using post-modernism to tey and deconstruct the modern world to return to a medieval society based on “tradition,” a feudal structure - and a complete rejection of Enlightenment AND social justice teachings....

  2. I saw that; don't think much of it, for reasons outlined above. I noticed after the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement that the claims of the "radicals" had become the claims of the conservatives. The arguments to advance civil rights are not "identity politics" (which is bad, because it upsets white people). The fact is, there is no philosophical or political position that isn't a mirror of the opposition, and as easily conscripted by one side as the other.

    Except maybe "the first of all shall be last and servant of all." Kind of hard, after all these millennia, to turn that one against itself. Pretty much why "religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all," too. Dugin is just inviting irresponsibility ("I'm not a tyrant! This is what is best in life for all!").

    There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. (Not trying to argue against, you, btw; just, again, my two cents. I'm trying to encourage a spirit of argument for inquiry; but I'm not sure it's really possible. It's the Socratic method idealized, without Socrates clever curving of the argument back to his conclusion. I think without that, though, it's not a method; it's just pointless questions. With it, it's not inquiry, it's just brow-beating. The world is full of problems....)

  3. Well I don’t FEEL like I’m being debated with and I THOUGHT I was providing another example of the phenomenon you were describing, so that suggests maybe I need to reread your piece to understand it better. Is this my “violins on tv” moment? ;)

    Also, if you’re telling me I don’t have to worry about Dugan or his philosophy - from your blog to God’s RSS feed. Maybe I’ll sleep a little better at night.

    Finally, I agree that the radical philosophical approach in which we imitate Christ by putting the last first and our neighbor above ourselves is the only possible remedy to violence, strife, oppression, and inequality in this world.

  4. I get people wrong all the time. Any blame is on me, all credit us due you.

    I think the phenomenon is as human as sex and sleep, and just variant excuses for selfishness. Twas ever thus, and still there is an answer, eh? That we both understand.