Category Archives: Politics

What Can Be Expected of Us

More from Vaclav Havel’s book, Disturbing the Peace:

I’m not one of those who somehow got mental stuck in that week of occupation and have then spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about what it was like.  And I have no intention of romanticizing that period either.  I only think that, taken all together, it made for a unique phenomenon which to this day, as far as I know, has never been analyzed in any depth sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, or politically.  But some things were so obvious you could understand them immediately, without any scientific analysis.  For example, that society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and that it’s extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face.  None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the populations, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible.  Who would have believed–at a time when the Noventny regime was corroding away because the entire nation was behaving like Svejks–that half a year later the same society would display a genuine civic-mindedness, and that a year later this recently apathetic, skeptical, and demoralized society would stand up with such courage and intelligence to a foreign power!  And who would have suspected that, after scarcely a year had gone by, this same society would, as swiftly as the wind blows, lapse back into a state of demoralization far deeper than its original one!  After all these experiences, one must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us.

Soberness and Balance

I am enjoying the chapter, “Facing the Establishment”, in Vaclav Havel’s book Disturbing the Peace. Written in an interview format, he answers some questions about his activities during, and his reflections of the period surrounding the Prague Spring.

Haval took part in a lot of debates in universities and faculties: “I took part in meetings, I wrote declarations, and I felt I had to be involved in all of this…I stressed, perhaps somewhat more energetically than others, that every concession gives rise to further concessions, that we cannot back down, because behind us there is only an abyss, that we must keep our promises and demand that they be kept. I struggled, as was my habit, against all kinds of illusions and every form of self-deception. However influenced I might have been by that agitated period, I tried to achieve a soberness and a balance. In the spirit of the old Tvar approach–although with obvious differences, for this was a different level of activity, after all-I opposed to every grandiose but vague demand the need simply to remain steadfast to the end in matters that were smaller, perhaps, but more concrete.”

I think he understands human nature very well:

At one large meeting of the central committees of all the artistic unions, a well-known actor….made a dramatic appeal for the establishment of a national tribunal to try Indra, Bilak, and other traitors of the nation. Hysterical nonsense. I got up immediately and replied that, instead of suggesting something that no one could ever hope to carry off, it would be better to attempt sticking by the solidarity agreement that every cultural worker had signed (and which was shortly after that betrayed by most of them).  I said it was a thousand times more valuable to insist, regardless of the consequences, on something more modest but realistic, than to pacify one’s conscience by firing off loudmouthed proposals that evaporate forever the moment they’re made and therefore commit no one to do anything about them.  Histrionic emotions expressed through proposals like that are extremely unreliable: they may be grand today, but the resignation felt tomorrow can be equally as great…Sober perseverance is more effective than enthusiastic emotions, which are all too capable of being transferred, with little difficulty, to something different each day.

Science in Politics

Today I read this excerpt from a letter C.S. Lewis wrote:

Facism and Communism, like all other evils, are potent because of the good they contain or imitate….And of course their occasion is the failure of those who left humanity starved of that particular good.  This does not for me alter the conviction that they are very bad indeed.  One of the things we must guard against is the penetration of both into Christianity—availing themselves of that very truth you have suggested and I have admitted.  Mark my words: you will presently see both a Leftist and a Rightist pseudo-theology developing— the abomination will stand where it ought not….

Unfortunately I do not have access to the complete text, because I wanted to see how Lewis expanded on what he said. But I did find an interesting, somewhat related essay on-line. From that:

Fascism and communism were the two most obvious manifestations of tyranny about which Lewis wrote, but they were far from the only kinds of tyranny about which he was concerned.8 Tyranny comes in many forms, most of which are more subtle than Stalin’s gulag or Hitler’s death camps. Lewis knew this, and his most compelling writings on tyranny for us today focus on these more subtle forms of oppression. In particular, Lewis was concerned about the tyranny that could result from the union of modern science and the modern state.
To understand the dangers of a scientific state, one must first understand something about modern science.

…Modern science is premised on the notion that all things are determined by material causes. It proposes strict laws that explain natural phenomena in terms of physical, environmental or hereditary necessities–e.g., the ball falls when dropped because of the law of gravity; the dog salivates at the sound of the bell because of environmental conditioning; the mosquito generates other mosquitoes because of its genetic code. Now no matter how necessary such materialistic determinism may be in the study of the natural world, it cannot be applied indiscriminately to humans without destroying the very possibility of knowledge and virtue. Such determinism destroys the possibility of knowledge, according to Lewis, because it undermines the validity of human reasoning;9 it destroys the possibility of virtue because it denies the free choice upon which all virtue depends.

If modern science is correct that human thought and conduct are functions of non–rational causes, then the nature of politics changes fundamentally. Under the old order, politics involved serious reflection about justice and the common good. But the more man thinks he is determined by non–rational causes, the less important serious reflection becomes. Under the new order, all that matters is achieving the end result. The only deliberation is among social science bureaucrats, and the only question is not “What is just?” but “What works?” Moreover, since the new order has dispensed with the notion of man as a moral agent, “what works” will almost inevitably be intrusive. 

…Lewis does not dispute that scientists have plenty of knowledge; the problem is that most of it is irrelevant. Political problems are preeminently moral problems, and scientists are not equipped to function as moralists. Said Lewis: “I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”17

The cardinal danger of depending on science for political solutions, then, is that science is divorced from those permanent principles of morality upon which all just political solutions depend. Indeed, words like “justice,” “virtue,” “mercy” and “duty,” are terms without meaning within the scientific framework. And so while science is not necessarily tyrannical, it can easily become a tool for tyrants because it has no firm grounding in morality. The same goes for politics: Without a firm grounding in a firm morality, politics easily slides into tyranny.

And all this got me to thinking about the irony of materialists, agnostics and atheists demanding “justice.”  What does justice even mean in that worldview?

Read it all


A Few Realities about Abortion in the United States

David French:

Decades of data and decades of legal, political, and cultural developments have combined to teach us a few, simple realities about abortion in the United States:

1. Presidents have been irrelevant to the abortion rate;

2. Judges have been forces of stability, not change, in abortion law;

3. State legislatures have had more influence on abortion than Congress;

4. Even if Roe is overturned, abortion will be mostly unchanged in the U.S.; and

5. The pro-life movement has an enormous cultural advantage.

If the points above don’t seem to make sense to you, then you’re likely unfamiliar with the way that decisive numbers of Americans think about abortion—not in crystal-clear terms of life versus choice (or “baby” versus “clump of cells”), but through much hazier and subjective reasoning. This means that absolutists are consistently frustrated with the political process. Unless Americans change, that process will not yield the results they seek.

Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on their Hands’?

Science and Unwishful Thinking

A startling investigation into how a cheap, well-known drug became a political football in the midst of a pandemic

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, a survey of the world’s frontline physicians showed hydroxychloroquine to be the drug they considered the most effective at treating COVID-19 patients. That was in early April, shortly after a French study showed it was safe and effective in lowering the virus count, at times in combination with azithromycin. Next we were told hydroxychloroquine was likely ineffective, and also dangerous, and that that French study was flawed and the scientist behind it worthy of mockery. More studies followed, with contradictory results, and then out came what was hailed by some as a definitive study of 96,000 patients showing the drug was most certainly dangerous and ineffective, and indeed that it killed 30% more people than those who didn’t take it. Within days, that study was retracted, with the editor of one of the two most respected medical journals in the Western world conceding it was “a monumental fraud.” And on it went.

Not only are lay people confused; professionals are. All that seems certain is that there is something disturbing going on in our science, and that if and when the “perfect study” were to ever come along, many won’t know what to believe.

We live in a culture that has uncritically accepted that every domain of life is political, and that even things we think are not political are so, that all human enterprises are merely power struggles, that even the idea of “truth” is a fantasy, and really a matter of imposing one’s view on others. For a while, some held out hope that science remained an exception to this. That scientists would not bring their personal political biases into their science, and they would not be mobbed if what they said was unwelcome to one faction or another. But the sordid 2020 drama of hydroxychloroquine—which saw scientists routinely attacked for critically evaluating evidence and coming to politically inconvenient conclusions—has, for many, killed those hopes.

…..What is unique about the hydroxychloroquine discussion is that it is a story of “unwishful thinking”—to coin a term for the perverse hope that some good outcome that most sane people would earnestly desire, will never come to pass. It’s about how, in the midst of a pandemic, thousands started earnestly hoping—before the science was really in—that a drug, one that might save lives at a comparatively low cost, would not (emphasis mine) actually do so. Reasonably good studies were depicted as sloppy work, fatally flawed. Many have excelled in making counterfeit bills that look real, but few have excelled at making real bills look counterfeit.

Read it.

Hydroxychloroquine: A Morality Tale

Nowhere Man From Nowhere Land

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From a book review of Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul:

Against innovators and radicals, Emerson remarked, “conservatism always has the worst of the argument.” “Always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate,” conservatism “makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.” Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul accepts the Emersonian challenge, calling on Americans to retrieve their heritage from the progressive cultural elites who would consign it to oblivion. Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen are accomplished scholars of American intellectual and political history, but their slim and trenchant book addresses primarily their fellow citizens—and they do not mince words. Americans are in danger of forgetting the historical inheritance that sustains their identity as a self-governing people. This spiritual crisis calls for a “revolution,” in the classical sense of turning back to first principles.
Its title notwithstanding, Coming Home disavows nostalgia; its tone is combative, not elegiac. America suffers not from homesickness but homelessness—the alienation of a people from its true self. “A civilization is diseased when its people lose faith in its essential ideals and institutions, and when its elite loses or distorts its historical memory.” The conjunction is not accidental. Americans are assailed by what the philosopher Roger Scruton dubbed “the culture of repudiation,” a relentless negation of the traditional norms that leaves the world of human ties swept bare. In denigrating our cultural forebears, our elites have rendered our identity opaque and deprived us of a sense of home. The latter grows only from below, through people’s associative impulses and habits of affection, but it is easily destroyed from above when the state arrogates to itself the functions of civil society.
Read it all here.

Politics and Bearing Witness

Alan Jacobs:

It may be that the most important political acts I can perform do not involve siding with one of the existing parties, or even necessarily to vote at all, but to try to bear witness through word and action to this double vision of the earthly city: a long defeat followed by a longer joy.

The phrase “long defeat” comes from J. R. R. Tolkien, who in The Lord of the Rings puts it in the mouth of Galadriel, and in a letter uses it himself: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

The promise of a “final victory” is the context of the “long joy.”   Stanley Fish coined that phrase in response to a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Adam gets too readily excited about a scene from the future revealed to him by the archangel Michael, so that when the darker realities of the situation are revealed to him he finds himself “of short joy bereft.” Michael warns Adam that he needs to cure himself of political and social idealism and focus instead on the simple but challenging work of obedience to God. Fish explains the “politics” that Michael recommends to Adam: “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being — the politics of long joy — is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.”

Jacobs concludes:

We are too prone, I believe, to think that voting is the definitive political act. That would be true only if politics simply belongs to the government. There is a far vaster sphere of politics — the life of the polis — that belongs to everyday acts of ordinary people. In this maybe Gandalf is a pretty good guide: “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

A Long Defeat, A Final Victory


Bradbury: Tyranny comes from the Masses, Not Government

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Bradley J. Birzer writes about author Ray Bradbury’s insight into where the danger of tyranny begins in a society.  Birzer:

“Bradbury taught, though, stated rather bluntly that danger came from the Masses and that the government, naturally inept and unwieldy, only coopted and hi-jacked (rather incompetently) the longings of the mob.

In Fahrenheit 451, Fire-chief Beatty and the protagonist, Guy Montag, play a dangerous game of cat and mouse as they discuss exactly why, when, and how the burning of books and the censorship of ideas became the norm. In a rather long passage—well worth quoting—Beatty, though the antagonist of the story, puts Bradbury’s fears into their most articulate form.

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.

And what did the Masses hate the most? The young genius who thinks independently and must be put in his place.

Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course, it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.

Again, what matters so critically with these passages is that the tyranny comes from the demands of the Masses, not from the central government. In Bradbury’s understanding, the government might very well be wicked and evil, but it would always follow the lead of the Masses and become their tool, rather than the other way around.

Read it all here.

Historical Seventh Day Baptist engagement against Slavery

Many of my American ancestors have been here since before the American Revolution, and most of them, including the later arrivals,  belonged to the Seventh Day Baptist (SDB) denomination.   Much of my childhood I attended the second SDB church in America (established 1708) not far from the first one, which is in Newport, RI (established 1672).  So in a very real sense the denomination is my family.

I am reading the first volume of a collection of historical papers, Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America.  The American portion of this volume includes the years between 1664 and 1902.  Of special interest to me right now is the General Conference reports, which began in 1802.  I decided to look though those documents for references to slavery. Each meeting lists resolutions that passed (but not the actual resolutions).  Some of them are not explicit but the wording often gives indication of their point of view.  Here is what I found:

1852  Passed a resolution regarding the inhuman “Fugitive Slave Law.”
1855  Resolution regarding the Case of Pardon Davis imprisoned in Louisiana on the
          charge of aiding slaves to escape.
          Prayer for the emancipation of the slaves in our beloved country.
1858  Resolution adopted relating to the late disgraceful attempt of our general
           government to force slavery on Kansas.
          Resolution regarding The American Tract Society as having forfeited its right to our
          support, because….it refused to publish anything against slavery.
1861  Eight resolutions were discussed and set forth slavery as the cause, and its  
           overthrow as the desired result of the Civil War; and pledged to the Union loyal  
          support, “whatever it may cost.”
1862  A Memorial, upon Emancipation was prepared and ordered sent to the President in  
          the name of the Conference.
1863  Resolution regarding the support of the government against “the slave-holders’ 
1864  Resolution regarding the protracted struggle for the Union, liberty and good
          government in connection with which there was a special prayer of
          thanksgiving and confession.
1865  Resolution regarding gratitude for the overthrow of the rebellion, and its great
          Resolution on the right to suffrage without regard to color.
1866  Resolutions adopted relating to the morally wrong and unpatriotic methods of the      
          nation’s chief executive and the so-called “Union” party.
1870  Resolution regarding the anti-slavery struggle and its results to freedom.
1891  Resolution declaring it to be un-politic and un-Christian for our government to
          make distinction among immigrants based on prejudice, race or color.



Losing our Freedom

Thanks to Patrick Kurp for my introduction to Claire Berlinski, an American journalist in this entry on his blog.  Kurp quoting Berlinski:

“Our shrinking vocabulary is not merely a curious linguistic trend. It signifies that we are losing our capacity for complex thought—and liberal democracy cannot survive this. Liberalism, and the tolerance it demands of citizen, relies upon the public’s sense of, and respect for, the near-infinite complexity of life generally, and human societies, in particular.”

Kurp also linked Berlinski’s newsletter, from which this comes:

That Western academics have become enamored of the idea that nothing is true and only power matters was not an inevitable consequence of our freedom, but a contingent accident of our intellectual history. Nonetheless, academia, and with it our intellectual life and all that is downstream of it, has been degraded by this empty and trivial orthodoxy. This, combined with the revelation that our politicians have lied to us so many times, about so many things, has given rise to widespread cynicism about truth itself. None of this must happen in a free society; there was nothing inevitable about this. It just happened to happen. But this is precisely the climate that allows a New Caesar come to power.

New Caesarism is a regime of lies. Such systematic lying cannot be as effective as it is unless the public believes already that there’s not much of a difference between truth and a lie—that “truth” is a fiction created by power, and that it is natural and legitimate to manufacture facts and arguments to serve a desirable aim or power structure.

Read the rest here.