John Schwenkler

P.S.

Inspired by reader PrajK’s suggestion, I’m going to use my old del.icio.us feed to link to my articles and blog posts while this blog is dormant. Those with RSS readers who wish to keep track of what I’m up to can go ahead and subscribe.

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On Hiatus

I suppose it goes without saying after more than two months of inactivity, but this blog is presently dormant and is going to remain that way at least for a while longer. As I indicated elsewhere a couple of weeks ago it was a perfect storm of matters professional (beginning my final semester of teaching at Berkeley, rushing to finish a dissertation, and preparing for my job at the Mount) and personal (fathering a 2-1/2-year-old, preparing for and then welcoming a new infant into our family at the start of October, and getting everything ready for a cross-country move) that ground my already faltering bloggy momentum to a halt, and unfortunately I’m not the sort of person who’s very able to do a given thing in earnest only some of the time. But if circumstances change appropriately in the coming months or years, reviving this short-lived forum is high on my list of things to get to.

Another thing that should go without saying, though with the way the cobwebs have gathered around here the message probably won’t get to enough of the people who deserve to hear it, is that I am deeply grateful to the many people who made my 18 months or so of blogging so enjoyable and – much less importantly – relatively successful. When I took to blogging in a fit of boredom near the start of 2008 I certainly didn’t expect to reach such consistently active levels of traffic, let alone to be invited first to join an exciting venture like Culture11 and then to be picked up by a magazine I enjoy as much as The American Conservative. Hardly a day of active blogging went by when it wasn’t the standard set by the incomparable Daniel Larison that I measured myself against, and while I’m sure I hardly ever got there it has been a thrill to share space alongside him and to engage in virtual conversation with so many other bloggers, as well as all of the insightful readers whose comments consistently kept me on my toes.

So there may be more of this down the line, but in the meantime keep an eye out for me in print in places like TAC and Commonweal, as well as @TAC, dotCommonweal, and The American Scene, where I’ll hopefully resume contributing with some regularity after submitting my dissertation and getting settled on the East Coast. Many thanks to all of you who took the time to hear me out.

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Reading “Caritas in Veritate”: Notes on Chapter Five

(Apologies for the absurdly sparse blogging of late – the beginning of the semester has kept me quite busy since returning from New Jersey. The following are my notes on the fifth chapter of Caritas in Veritate, and I’ll plan to have my final set of notes up some time tomorrow. The archive of my previous entries is here, and here is the text of the encyclical itself.)

This is probably the longest of the chapters we’ve read so far, no? There’s a lot in it, but as I think I remarked in discussing chapter four many of the topics – like, say, globalization or finance or foreign aid – are being treated in a strangely repetitive and fragmented way; they recur here and there and make arguments when brought together, but it’s unclear why they weren’t presented in a more linear fashion in the first place. At least in this instance, though, there is a key theme that helps to unify the chapter, namely the understanding of the human race as “a single family working together in true communion, not simply a group of subjects who happen to live side by side” (sec. 53; and note that there is more in a similar vein at the start of ch. 6). By my lights, the discussions of the place of religion in the public sphere (see secs. 55-56), the importance of human solidarity and the principle of subsidiarity, and the proper role of a global political authority can clearly be seen as tied into this fundamental claim.

For present purposes I’ll just focus on the latter two topics, since the claim that sectarian convictions have a constructive role to play in political deliberation is one that I’ve discussed at length before. The importance of solidarity is made evident in the passage I just quoted from, at the very start of the chapter: we need “a better understanding of the implications of our being one family”, Benedict writes, so that the greater interaction among the world’s peoples “can signify solidarity rather than marginalization” (sec. 53). Importantly, however, just as membership in a (global or local) human community should not be a threat to human individuality (ibid.), so the organization of such communities even on a very large (e.g. global) scale must proceed in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. by providing “assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies” (sec. 57). Indeed, Benedict proposes that the reliance on autonomous intermediate bodies in offering assistance can be “the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state”, and goes on to argue that this is especially true in the case of globalization: dealing justly and effectively with global issues “certainly requires [political] authority” (on which more in a moment), but this authority “must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice” (ibid.).

Among the topics that Benedict goes on to treat according to this framework (including the international tourism industry (!) in sec. 61), the one that strikes me as most interesting is that of international aid. Benedict argues that in order for such aid to avoid encouraging corruption and exploitation, and fostering a problematic dependence, its distribution must involve “not only of the governments of receiving countries, but also local economic agents and the bearers of culture within civil society, including local Churches”; hence it must “increasingly acquire the characteristics of participation and completion from the grass roots” (sec. 58). And as he goes on to note, a crucial element of successful foreign aid is the way that it allows developing countries to introduce their products into international markets. (The discussions of micro-finance and cooperative economic endeavors in secs. 65-66 are also relevant here, and are helpfully read as furthering the discussion of alternative models of business enterprise that was initiated in chapter three.) So the goal of political assistance is to foster “freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility” (sec. 57), and the best way to do this is to put its operations in the hands of local and small-scale agents.

(As an aside: Much of this, together with the brief case in sec. 60 for allowing private citizens a direct role in allocating some portion of their tax dollars and “eliminating waste and rejecting fraudulent claims” in the welfare systems of economically developed countries, is of course the sort of thing that many conservatives will stand up and cheer for, but if cheering is all that they (we) do then it doesn’t count for much. It is one thing to say that subsidiarity is important, but quite another to do something about it; and as things stand the kind of community-centered service and charitable work that ought indeed to be the all-encompassing welfare state’s worst enemy is far too often the province of the Left. Somewhere on one of my bookshelves I have an edition of Nisbet’s The Quest for Community where George H.W. Bush’s famous image of “a thousand points of light” is quoted in the front matter – but aside from using such rhetoric as a way to argue against “big government”, how much does the average conservative really do to strengthen local institutions and so really help the point he occupies to shine? I am all for devolving power and reconstituting our little platoons, but it’s hard to deny the charge that subsidiarist rhetoric frequently cuts in only one direction, and is more at the service of causes that treat us as “group[s] of subjects who happen to live side by side” (sec. 57), rather than essentially interpersonal creatures in need of authentic communities.)

So the crucial point here is that solidarity and subsidiarity are mutually implicating principles: “the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need” (sec. 59). And it is with this in mind that the closing section on the need for a reform of the U.N. and the establishment of an authentic “world political authority”, which my TAC colleague Lewis McCrary has already discussed at length, ought to be understood: the familial character of humankind as a whole calls for a corresponding international solidarity, and there can be no such thing without the relevant kind of political organization. But this is no more a rejection of local responsibility and national sovereignty than the family is an annihilation of the individuality of its members; rather, international cooperation is meant to encourage freedom and responsibility among states, and is a hindrance to integral development unless it does this. In any case, there is very little to the idea that we can pay anything more than mere lip service to the idea of a universal human family by limiting relations among nations to mere displays of power in the pursuit of self-interest.

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A Quote for Sunday

“Professor Richard Dawkins has complained of religious beliefs that they offer too simple a picture of reality, one that is too easily understood, whereas, he thinks, we should expect to find reality perplexing and hard to understand. As a criticism of Christian belief, this appears to me wildly wide of the mark. I agree that we should expect to find reality perplexing. Physical theories are indeed often perplexing; but so are doctrines of the kind I have just mentioned [i.e., those that rest on revelation rather than human reason, such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Eucharist]. It indeed seems to me that it tells in favour of the truth of the Christian creed that it presents reality as intellectually perplexing in the way that it does: that is just how we ought to expect things to be.” – Michael Dummett

P.S. I excerpted Dummett’s conversion story, which comes from the same volume of papers as the essay quoted above, at dotCommonweal the other week.

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Waiting for the Fog to Lift

From what I can tell, the only thing less conducive to blogging than returning home jet-lagged from a weeklong philosophy-and-beer binge is returning home jet-lagged from a weeklong philosophy-and-beer binge to a two-year-old bedmate who has decided to wake up early and often. (“Papa’s here!” he exclaims at 5:30am the morning after I arrive home around midnight.) I’ve got a couple of Caritas in Veritate posts queued up and some other healthcare blogging I hope to get to soon, but at present I feel as if I’m recovering from minor surgery. So in the meantime thanks for your patience, all.

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Epidemiologists: Pre-emptive Wars Necessary, Justified, Only Hope in Case of Zombie Invasion

by JL Wall

Zombiepocalypse is definitely scenario in which I’m more than willing to break out the “overwhelming force”:

Even so, their analysis revealed that a strategy of capturing or curing the zombies would only put off the inevitable.

In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity’s only hope is to “hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often”.

They added: “It’s imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else… we are all in a great deal of trouble.”

And they offer strategic advice:

“My understanding of zombie biology is that if you manage to decapitate a zombie then it’s dead forever. So perhaps they are being a little over-pessimistic when they conclude that zombies might take over a city in three or four days,” he said.

Our only hope may lie with the creation and training of a secret, specialized squad highly skilled in traditional hand-to-hand combat and biologically immune to zombie-bites

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Another Reason I Don’t Understand the Logic Behind Boycotting Whole Foods

by JL Wall

Before being informed that Mackey identifies as a Libertarian and (apparently) has not made any donations to Republican candidates and rather snittily walking it back just a little bit, Ben Wyskida at the HuffPo proclaims:

The bottom line for me, reading Mackey’s op-ed, is that by shopping at Whole Foods I’m supporting by proxy a donation to the RNC and to health-scare front groups like Patients First. I don’t give money to anyone who injects misleading right-wing talking points into the public debate, so I won’t be giving money to Whole Foods.

I don’t know how well walking it back but then saying it doesn’t matter works; that was the “bottom line,” after all.  But that’s not what I want to ramble on about.  Two things:

1) This is the logic I was referring to in my earlier post.  Mackey says, “We clearly need health care reform,” but disagrees with Wyskida on the manner of that reform, and the immediate conclusion he lights on is that Mackey is arguing in bad faith, and because they disagree on the means, Mackey is obviously a large donor to Republican candidates and “health-scare front groups.”  Never mind that he doesn’t have a shred of supporting evidence on hand (and don’t you dare think he’ll be happy to be called out on those claims!) — we’re fighting The Man, man!

1a) The reason it doesn’t work for him to claim that his “bottom line” still holds regardless of lack of evidence for his claims about Mackey is that the meaning, in context, of that last sentence was not: “My money –> Whole Foods –> Mackey –> (money into Mackey’s bank account) –> Mackey speaking out against health care reform I approve of because”; it was rather: “My money –> Whole Foods –> Mackey –> (via donations/campaign contributions) –> GOP candidates and ‘health-scare front groups.’”

2) In order to have any semblance of consistency in undue political outrage, Wyskida must also be/intend to immediately commence boycotting all companies, stores, corporations, service providers, etc. owned by Republicans — and, apparently, Libertarians.

Enacting health care reform isn’t going to be accomplished by throwing temper tantrums when the guy who founded your grocery disagrees with you.  Yeah — throwing temper tantrums might be able to prevent the enactment health care reform, and I know that’s not fair.  But as anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling can tell you, when it comes to winning like that, fair don’t have a damn thing to do with it.

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Saul Bellow on the Problem of Modernity

by JL Wall

I read in The Wall Street Journal about the melancholy of affluence, “Not in all the five millenia of man’s recorded history have so many been so affluent.”  Minds formed by scarcity are distorted.  The heart can’t take this sort of change.  Sometimes it just refuses to accept it.  (Humboldt’s Gift, p. 3)

I’m quite possibly the only person who has come to love Bellow’s prose in spite of personal misadventures with Augie March (it may have had much to do with the horrible typesetting of my copy) — but the angle at which he approaches it, just so slightly askance that you don’t notice anything is different until the light hits it like that and everything is altered, gets me every time.  And here, suddenly, there is no difference between the blessings of modernity and the curse of it: they’re one and the same, and neither would exist without the simultaneity of the other.  Something worth considering.

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On the Road

This coming week I’m going to be in Princeton at a seminar on a recent volume of essays by Elizabeth Anscombe, which means that blogging will be sparse to, well, sparser than sparse from my end. (Though given how it’s been the past few weeks, will anyone notice the difference? I’ve currently got a half-written post on Caritas in Veritate that I hope to get up before hopping on the plane this morning, but if I don’t manage to do that it will likely have to wait until next weekend. In any case I’m grateful to be leaving you all with my very capable co-blogger as I work to ensure that my Jersey accent hasn’t fully disappeared. Have a nice week, all.

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The Limits of Good Intentions

TAC contributing editor Andrew Bacevich, whose article on Afghanistan in the latest issue of Commonweal has generated a fair amount of discussion (some of which I plan to address soon), has an appreciation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American in the Summer 2009 issue of World Affairs Journal:

“Innocence,” [Green] writes, “is a kind of insanity.” When it comes to the exercise of power, the idealist intent on doing God’s work is likely to wreak as much havoc as the cynic who rejects God’s very existence. Those who credit themselves with acting at the behest of the purest motives are hardly less likely to perpetrate evil than those who dismiss ideals as sheer poppycock.

Only those who recognize the omnipresence of sin—recognizing first of all that they themselves number among the sinful—can possibly anticipate the moral snares inherent in the exercise of power. Righteousness induces blindness. The acknowledgment of guilt enables the blind to see. To press the point further, the statesman who assumes that “we” are good while “they” are evil—think George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11—will almost necessarily misinterpret the problem at hand and underestimate the complexity and costs entailed in trying to solve it. In this sense, an awareness of one’s own failings and foibles not only contributes to moral clarity but can help guard against strategic folly.

Whether feigned or real, therefore, innocence poses a problem. Good intentions informed by the simplistic belief that the world can be fixed and things set right only succeed in killing people.

Back in Washington, those who dream up such policies somehow manage to evade accountability. Discredited policymakers depart with clear consciences, en route to a visiting chair at Georgetown or a cushy billet in some think tank. There is no blood on their hands, the dirty work having been contracted out to soldiers, whose compensation, writes Greene, “includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope” and who upon returning home from battle may find their sense of personal culpability more difficult to shake. […]

Vietnam once laid waste to Washington’s claim of innocence, until Ronald Reagan helped restore that claim. Every indication suggests that American innocence will survive Iraq as well, this time with Barack Obama as chief enabler helping to sanitize or erase all that we do not wish to remember. A people famous for their self-professed religiosity won’t even bother to look for someone to whom they can express contrition.

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