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Friday, March 24, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (VII)

The essay "Progress and Memory" posits that liberalism and related philosophies introduce temporal discontinuities into the lived experience of people; that is, giving an absolute primacy to either the past, the present, or the future, as opposed to respecting each.

Liberalism, says Deneen, prioritizes the present. It seeks the satisfaction of the currently living signatories, as it were, of the social contract. As we have noted from previous essays, liberalism sees the individual as free and autonomous, unhindered by any obligations to ancestors or descendants. Its economics is market capitalism. Anything that posits such an obligation is discarded.

Progressivism shares many of the same assumptions as liberalism, but it idealizes the future. As a result, any contentment in the present is attributed to a false consciousness which must be corrected. Progressivism is the most amenable to despotism, because it harbors an equal hostility to the past as it does to the present. Morality and dignity are dependent on memory and obligation.

Deneen calls the idealization of the past "nostalgism." Nostalgists advocate what Deneen believes to be the mirror image of progressivism, because they have an intense antipathy for the present, and an unwillingness to learn from the past, in the sense of using some wisdom to correct problems in the present.

Deneen identifies "hope" as the answer to these dilemmas. It should not be confused with optimism about the future, since that is the hallmark of progressivism. Rather, it's best said as a steadfast expectation of justice. What is good will be preserved, and what is evil discarded. Memory is the willingness to learn from the past without idealizing it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Believe In Miracles

I was realizing this morning that I am a witness to a miracle nearly every day. Most days of most weeks, I hear and see a man bring forth bread and wine, and by the Holy Spirit, change it into the Body and Blood of Christ. Oh, there isn't much to see, in human terms. It's a miracle, nonetheless.

I'm particularly thankful for the prayers during the liturgy of the Eucharist. In a sense, we are told why Jesus has chosen to come. God has made promises, all throughout recorded history, and the Eucharist is the ultimate promise: "And surely I will be with you, even to the end of the age."

I guess I worry about declining numbers in the pews. But if you don't believe, acting on that unbelief in the form of not showing up is more honest. There is no good reason to be a "church" person, unless it is true. People must have fond memories of fish-frys and youth group, because all these people--who don't appear to be contemplating the niceties of epistemology and revelation--used to be "practicing" Catholics, and now they are not.

For my part, it seems like I am in a movie, and then I realize it's real. "May our voices, we pray, join with theirs..."

If this is true, this is the greatest action movie ever.

If grace is really raining down on us from this altar, I should do this all the time.

I don't feel like much of a saint, but then, how much worse would I be if I were not here?

Amen.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Addendum To The Previous Post

One of the reasons you would teach manners, Deneen reminds us, is to habituate those good behaviors that you want. He describes how young children start out in no way habituated to eating with good manners. It can be a frustrating period of time, as parents correct and model the better way. They must refuse to give up, because if they do, the proper ways of eating and interacting will become second nature to them. You no doubt have noticed a few breaks in between posts regarding Conserving America?... Yet I find that those posts somewhat unwittingly are grounded in Dr. Deneen's observations. One of the great benefits of Dr. Cross' comments with respect to my infelicitous phrase "what comes naturally to a person" is that it gives us a chance to clarify what we mean when we talk about "human nature," as the professor noted. [You want to link to the Michael Jackson song so bad, don't you?--ed.] Yes.

And here is a provocative thought: Aristotelian virtue ethics makes little sense in a Protestant context. If the Reformers had been right about the impact of the Fall on human nature, the habituation of virtue is a waste of time, at best. The notion of "natural virtue" is a mockery, a contradiction. If man's nature is totally corrupt, he is steeped in vice, and cannot be otherwise. Recognizing this difference, I cannot be surprised at even the liberal Protestant default position on moral claims in public policy: "Why do you expect non-believers to act like Christians?" That question hides an assertion that there is little or nothing to be gained in promoting virtue as such. It's perceived as a theocratic imposition, because theologically and practically, there is no "human nature" to preserve. Thus, no human community worth preserving, except the Church, in this view.

If democratic man is impatient with forms, is this because he is Protestant? Or is he Protestant because he is impatient with forms?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (VI)

Dr. Deneen begins his essay "Manners And Morals" with a reflection on eating. Actually, the picture of eating a meal serves as a metaphor for most of what he says here. He says that manners--and specifically table manners--developed as both an acknowledgment of our animal nature, and an attempt to transcend it. We need to eat, but we eat in a manner reflecting a desire not to be enslaved by our passions. Eating together both symbolizes and actualizes a new solidarity born from the recognition that we ought not eat each other.

Our propensity to eat flesh meat, and Deneen's reflection on that fact, may be disconcerting to the reader, but it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our limitations, as well as our dignity. One intriguing aspect of these reflections--which Deneen does not make explicit, or at least to the extent that he could--is the connection between meal time solidarity, and politics as such. A healthy politics, he does say, delicately balances the recognition of personal needs with our duty to the other.

For my part, I recall many accounts of the "good old days" in American politics described the smoothing out of disagreements literally over beer. We do not eat and drink together because the forms of civility that such things indicate are viewed with outright hostility. Indeed, Deneen is not the first to note a kind of anti-politics at work. I join in his lament over this anti-politics, mourning much of what has been lost.

Deneen's sharp critique of the economics of "fast food" stings a little, and I hope not only because of my frequent trips to the neighborhood Arby's. [They know you by name, dude.--ed.]

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Further Thoughts On "Natural"

Professor Bryan Cross comments in regard to the previous post:

"The phrase "what comes naturally to a person" is perhaps an unfortunate phrase, because it is ambiguous between (a) human nature, (b) acquired second nature, either virtues or vices, and (c) particular congenital temperaments/dispositions (e.g. disposition to alcoholism, anger). What is 'natural' in those second two senses is not always good or right. But what is in accord with nature in the first sense is good and right; that's just what defines the natural law."

Points taken. I should have been more careful. [Philosophers! Oy!--ed.] Now, now. If we didn't have philosophers, we'd not only be arguing about the color of a dress on the internet, but we'd think it was important. [IT IS.--ed.] Oh, dear.

What's "Natural" Isn't Always Good Or Right

The assumption that what comes naturally to a person is good is a dangerous one. Let's be real: it's usually in the area of sex that people make this assumption. We don't accept it for anything else, but when sexuality is involved, all bets are off.

I do believe that people will destroy anyone who won't tell them what they want to hear.

If I were a psychologist, and someone came to me with unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction, I'd try to help them change those feelings. It may not work, but it may. It doesn't matter in that instance what "society" says about it.

Even so, which is more likely: that society prior to the last few years disdained same-sex activity because nearly everyone is very selectively bigoted (in the traditional meaning of the word: holding an opinion based upon no reason whatsoever) or, because most people know in conscience that same-sex activity is wrong, and that even feelings toward that end are disordered?

My money's on the latter.

Let me say it more strongly: I think we see all these "allies" in the cause because people feel guilty about their own sexual sins. Sometimes we seek people to tell us we are right, even when we know we're wrong.

The bigger problem is that people think "I am a sinner" (or more basically, "I am wrong") equates to, "There is nothing good about me, and no one should, or does, love me." God often does reveal the first statement to all of us. But here's the key: the second statement does not follow from the first. And the best news of all is that God never stops loving us, even when--or especially when--we are sinners.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (V)

Dr. Deneen begins his essay, "Awaking From The American Dream..." by referring again to the "restlessness" of American man, and the wonderment of observers at the time, at the conceit that family and ethnic ties could and should be uprooted in order to forge a new identity. We recall Deneen's contention that the individual in the liberal conception is completely fabricated, at least in terms of the individual being the foundational starting point of society.

Deneen intends to trace the implications of liberal individualism through 3 films, dating from the 1940s through 1990s. The three films are It's A Wonderful Life, Avalon, and American Beauty.

It's A Wonderful Life is perhaps the most beloved movie in American history. There is no need to recount it here. Deneen, however, wants us to re-examine a few things. George Bailey himself displays a marked disdain for his hometown of Bedford Falls. Deneen well documents Bailey's restlessness. His character is an obvious contrast for Potter, but he aims to build his own subdivision, Bailey Park. Deneen asserts that although the film presents his motives and ends positively, it's not likely that the solidarity that rescues George at the climax would persist in the new suburbs. He argues that the smaller, less individualistic arrangement of Bedford Falls creates what we might call a culture of solidarity. Indeed, what exactly is George trying to escape from? More ominously, the viewer eventually realizes that Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. It's doubtful that a stronger denial of tradition and memory could be articulated.

Avalon tells the story of two generations of the Polish Krchinsky family in Baltimore. The younger generation grows restless of city life and tight quarters, and also throws off family traditions, casting aside their name and customs to be good Americans. Even as the older generations learn to drive, get more stuff, and move to the suburbs, it's hard to argue that the situation has improved.

American Beauty is a dark tale of 1990s suburban life. It has the feel of a midlife crisis film, also, since the main character Lester Burnham is around that age. Lester has an awful job, his family despises him, and he has no reason to live. Illicit sex (or the hope of it) is the fulcrum of Lester's "awakening," and even as Lester realizes his folly in the moment of his death, Deneen points out that the resolution is just a different form of the same individualist escapism Lester allegedly hates and rebels against.

Avalon is the film that closely tracks with what Deneen is arguing, but the elements in each film he highlights show us the basic outline of both our American philosophy, as well as its problematic aspects, with respect to our anthropology. We must consider the end or ends we are trying to achieve. Any "progress," whether economic or technical, that contravenes this anthropology ought not to be held up as praiseworthy.

Monday, March 13, 2017

It's The Family Breakdown, Stupid

The winning formula of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign was encapsulated in an offhand strategy comment, by now legendary: "It's the economy, stupid." Well, I interrupt this regularly scheduled programming to say a different thing.

The size and scope of the federal government is of far less concern at the moment than the fraying of natural social bonds that function as support systems for people in great difficulty. These social support systems also transmit morals and mores, and a sense of purpose.

The number of children born out of wedlock and/or raised by a single parent is somewhere north of 40 percent. Drug addiction is exploding, even among the wealthy, and comfortably middle class. Surviving in this economy without an education is questionable.

In my view, some citizens have mistaken a natural solidarity or communitarianism for communism, or other coercive ideologies. Inspired leadership will mean committing money to help people re-connect with each other. There is no true profit in being sound macroeconomically, but unsound socially.