Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What about democracy?

I should have commented on the November elections right away. Or probably it wasn’t necessary. The few who read this blog should know well that I don’t like Obama, not just a little, but a lot. As always, though, expressing opinions, likes and dislikes, is less important than arguing about “things themselves”.
At times like these I wonder about the destiny of democracy. In the US and out of it there is talk about the decline of America. I rather ask: is there in the US an apt understanding of America, and, with America, of democracy? In short: what about democracy? In the US, I don’t know whether they can still be called of America, as in Europe?
As far as America is concerned, my friend the LD wrote a beautiful book entitled The soul of a nation, for which I am pressing him to find a publisher to make known his enquiry, historical and philosophical, into her formative idea. As far as her connection with democracy is concerned, well, who doesn’t know the brilliant Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville? Amazing how he was able to draw, just from a journey through the young United States in the thirties of the Nineteenth Century, such essential an insight into the kind of society that was taking shape in them!
Mind me. I said that “society was taking shape” in the united ex British colonies, meaning that a certain ordering of human affairs found in the American constitution, wisely empowered by the Constitution, the institutional setting that allowed it to flourish. I didn’t say that the state newly formed by the ex colonies shaped society.
Let’s call, as it has been called, this ordering of human affairs “democracy”.
It had already started taking shape before the independence in the colonial period, over against the modern European experience of the absolute monarchies, by which it was the states that tended to reshape society. The same tendency, though, was not overthrown but confirmed and strengthened by the French Revolution. Again on this, de Tocqueville makes an interesting reading, with his less famous but no less important The ancient regime and the revolution.
Also to the ordering of society from  on high, on the absolutist model confirmed by the French Revolution, it has been given the name of “democracy”.
It is legitimate then to ask: which is democracy, the one or the other?
A widespread opinion identifies democracy with the possibility to hold elections – or at least so it looks from the pressing in this direction exercised by the US on countries where elections weren’t previously held. What is happening for example in Egypt shows how illusory that opinion is: an elected president took the first chance he found to make his power absolute. But it’s not just this. To be elected implies the capability to obtain consent, and to stay in power doesn’t require suspension of further elections, it is enough to control the organization of consent. Moreover, the idea of democracy thus expressed is that consent by itself is all that is needed: nothing it is said in this way about the consent obtained, whether it is for good or for bad. To maintain consent by itself as good, qualifications are added on the way it is obtained that little have to do with elections.
I’m not saying that elections are not important. They are quite so, mostly for the understanding of man they show, when by elections we mean universal suffrage: one man (or woman), one vote. This implies that sense of equality in which de Tocqueville rightly sees the main mark of democracy.
Let’s not trust our democratic sensitivity, which makes the affirmation of men’s equality almost a truism. It is not. Men are different, starting from the most patent difference of sex and age, to all other kind of differences, physical and moral, ethnic and cultural. If we still hold their equality, this needs to be accounted for by saying in what it rests, what is it that equalizes them.
By the answer to these questions come the different conceptions of democracy I spoke about, still at play in the partisan search for consensus in our countries. We could call them, following what I said, the first “American” and the second “European”, if we only remember that they are embattled both in the USA, quite strongly, and, to a lesser degree, in Europe.
I was wandering how to carry forth my argument, when I run into an interview with Harvey Mansfield, and this interview prompted me to look into his home site. Professor emeritus of Government and teacher of political philosophy at Harvard University, he ironically declares himself to be the “conservative mascot”  in that home of liberalism, the token dissenting voice necessary to show that liberals tolerate criticism. Now, liberalism is the European way to democracy, which threatens the American way – if threat it is. That such is the case, it is precisely the point to argue.
Let’s hear Mansfield’s words, from the review of a book on de Tocqueville entitled Soft despotism:
Soft despotism (despotisme doux), according to him, is a new despotism found only in democracy. It is not based on making the people tremble with fear, as Montesquieu said of the usual despot, but on providing benefits and offering good will to the people as individuals.
"It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them," says Tocqueville. It even teaches you how to improve your life. But the price of the benefits is to hinder and discourage all political or associational activity in the people, leaving democracy in the condition of a mass of dissociated individuals governed by an "immense being" known today as Big Government. This new democratic despotism, rather than any direct enemy of democracy, is the greatest danger in our democratic age.
At danger, with democracy, is liberty, that freedom with which we are used to associate it. Now, freedom is as hard to define as democracy. But I don’t need to enter into all the disputes surrounding it. It is enough to make explicit what is implicit in the dispute concerning “Big Government” or “Small Government”. Classical Nineteenth Century liberalism advocated the latter, Twentieth Century liberalism advocates in the US the first. But they share a common assumption: that the State is superiorem non ricognoscens, doesn’t recognize anything above, or for that matter below, itself.
This means that for liberalism there is no divine or natural law ordering human relations in society; or, in other words, that there is no order immanent to personal relations prior to their ordering by the State. The famous separation of powers: legislative, executive and judiciary, however important, doesn’t change the simple fact that the governing body of society, made of the three corresponding branches, claims for itself the absolute power of making laws. Granted this assumption, it can be disputed about big or small government.
Let’s hear again Mansfield on de Tocqueville:  
[…] he presents the idea of democratic liberty in an account of the facts of American democracy, above all in the discussion of the New England township with which he begins his presentation of American government. Here one sees the natural, spontaneous association of free men to address a need before their eyes, such as laying a road, that cannot be satisfied by one individual alone. He goes on to describe and praise the complex, artificial, theoretical Constitution that presides over the more spontaneous "civil society" of American democracy. But he never mentions the Declaration whose fundamental principles inspired the Constitution.
[…] Tocqueville appears to have had an aversion to abstract principles and to have considered them a menace to democratic liberty. In a democracy, abstract principles, including the Declaration's statement that "all men are created equal," will be democratic ones and will accelerate the democratic revolution rather than guide it. Democratic citizens, lacking any sense of hierarchy either in society or in their own souls, are likely to reject demanding ideals and to prefer immediate, material enjoyments that are easy, obvious, and palpable.
A government led by an abstract idea of men’s equality to be implemented in society has an intrinsically despotic bent. Be it of a soft despotism. Then a tendency toward conformity in the minimum common denominator of desires is  guaranteed by the State, definer, as supreme legislator, of life and death.
What was it then the worth, if this were to be the final outcome, of having left absolutist Europe?

Friday, November 02, 2012

Faith and natural law

Now we can't but wait for Wednesday 7 to know the result of the elections. Where my preference goes should be well known. Not because I am more "republican" than "democrat", but because of what I said in the last post of more than a month ago: the total failure of the incumbent president to be as he promised post-partisan and post-racial. Which also means his incapability to respect the nature of the USA, which is to be democratic because it is Christian: not meaning by this that everybody has to be Christian (Romney, strictly speaking, isn't), but that only to Christianity is due the extension of human representation to any single individual, which makes the only acceptable sense of democracy. While they plead to be for the poor, liberal democrats look at them with a sort of condescending benevolence, more as people needing help than as people to be promoted in their humanity. Because it waned from their outlook any normative notion of humanity: of what used to be called natural law.

I'd like therefore to insert here this couple of pages on faith and natural law which I wrote for another occasion.


Pope Benedict opened the year of faith together with the Synod of bishops dedicated to "the new evangelization". The theme in both cases is faith, but the Pope himself remarks that faith is in need to be explained again to people to whose culture it has become alien.
One reason of today’s difficulties in speaking of faith is that we tend to identify it too directly with Christian faith. By so doing we deprive ourselves of the universal cultural background to which “faith” is natural. When saint Paul, for example, spoke to the Greeks of faith (pistis in Greek), he didn’t give to the word any special meaning different from the current one. So we need to recover such a meaning.
One way of doing it, is to notice that the concept of faith had a role of mediation between “natural” and “culture”. In other words it belongs to the realm of what we traditionally call natural law. It is an ancient notion originating in Greece and Rome to express the cosmic rooting of human things: in the totality of all things that we still call in a generic sense nature.
Today’s “sciences of nature” don’t give the sense of what nature was for ancient and non-modern people: to use the Greek word, a cosmos, an ordered whole, endowed with beauty (that’s why we call “cosmetics” the products for the care of beauty). The word cosmos refers then to the common human experience of knowing the world in such a way to be able to orient ourselves in it. Thus, when we describe something, we also prescribe what to do about it: how to do the right thing. Not so with the modern descriptions of “nature”, to which the prescriptive sense of “culture” is extraneous.
This makes the notion of natural law extraneous to the current understanding of law, as being essentially man made. It makes us unable to see in the law the enunciation of a pre-legal right. What is lacking is a nexus between the description of how things are and the prescription of what to do about them.
What is lacking is essentially a reflection on faith. A description is in any case included in a discourse by which the speaker claims to be speaking for everybody. Let’s call it a claim of authority. Before the distinction of sciences there is the ordinary experience of language, even previous to our perfected adult capability of speaking. We observe in the way children learn how to speak, how the world take shape for them, thanks to their reliance on those who educate them. But reliance is another word for confidence, confiding in somebody, having faith in him. Hence “faith” has its correlation in “authority”.
Therefore the blessed Antonio Rosmini called faith “a voluntary assent given to the revealing authority of God, in whatever way this authority be known”. Such is the root also of the tendency immanent to human reason to fill the gaps of perception, like when I see somebody as a friend by the signs he gives me.
In English we have a happy distinction between “belief” and “faith”, even though we tend to confuse them. It corresponds to the distinction theologians make in Latin between fides quae creditur e fides qua creditur. Belief (fides quae) concerns the doctrines or theories we hold as true, faith (fides qua) concerns the relation between listeners and speakers, teachers and pupils, in general among people in their reciprocal doings.
It would be a worthy effort to see how different languages equally recognize and name what is peculiar of such relations, making them possible. I spoke of “reliance”; another word in English is trust. However far it might be etymologically from faith, the meaning of the two words is very close. The sense of trust, in fact, is embraced by the two words which have originally entered into the shaping of Christian theology: the Greek pistis  and the Latin fides.
In Greek pistis belongs to the vocabulary of “persuasion”: the corresponding verb means “to be persuaded”, or, in an active form, “to persuade”. But the first thing of which one has to be persuaded is the trustworthiness of the one who addresses him and hence solicits his faith. This falls therefore in the realm of what used to be called “rhetoric”, or “art of persuasion”. The persuasion depends on the things said and on the quality of the speaker, both included, at the same time, in the reflection which gives a theory of this art. Such was ancient philosophy and also theology, in their dealing truth and truthfulness. We recognize here the universal validity of the mentioned distinction of fides quae and fides qua.
We come so now to the Latin fides, in which the personal sense of faith is still more evident. The Latin construction of “to have faith” is such that it takes us to the realm of human interrelations: it shows that the original Latin meaning of the word is something like “credit”. So fidem habere (“to have faith”) didn’t mean my subjective stance toward something or somebody, but rather that somebody has or enjoys credit with me.
We say currently that faith is a gift, “God’s gift”, that some have and some don’t: a way of saying that becomes an alibi for those who negates their assent to God’ authority. Indeed, it is right to say that faith is a gift, if we keep in mind the Latin construction of the word fides. One has credit with somebody else because of what he has given him.
Everywhere, in all times and places, we find witnessed a distinction of contractual exchange and gift exchange. In a contractual exchange people have something that others might want, and for which they are ready to pay. In gift exchange we define by what we give the relation in which we stand with each other: if I give something to somebody who is a friend or whose friendship I want to solicit, he feels obliged to reciprocate if he does consider himself my friend or wants to accept my offer of friendship. Such is the meaning of faith-credit: what is given is capability of participation in friendship. Furthermore giving is a sign of authority enabling us to enter in the friendship circle of exchange by giving in turn.
With gift comparative anthropology takes us onto the sense of justice universally present in human relation, however articulated in different societies. Justice is the measure of things immanent in human relations: let’s call it natural right. But the measure has to be enunciated as a rule: let’s call it natural law. The great question which differentiates societies is: what authorizes somebody to speak and act for all, by enunciating the measure and the rule?
The answer is: he who gives more, everything, his own life. Such is ideally the figure of the king, actually realized in Christ the king. It is Christ himself who enunciates this as the criterion of authority: “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. The “for my sake” concretizes what is otherwise a wisdom maxim with reference to the one who represents in his own life what the maxim says. In this way “Christian faith” meets the universal natural law.
If such is the evidence witnessed by anthropological comparison, we couldn’t recover by it the full meaning of natural law, i.e. the cosmic rooting of human things, if we leave the sciences of nature out of comparison. This means that we have to take also these sciences for what they are: expressions of human understanding and knowledge, i.e. human sciences. Not easy undertaking, on which it floundered and went under great part of modern philosophical, and even theological, thought. I cannot enter into it, except to remark that perhaps no one else, besides Antonio Rosmini, offered suggestions able to integrate the witness of contemporary natural sciences with that of history and anthropology: to account for the universal experience in which the order of the world is given as ordered, which is also the experience of faith in the Orderer. 


Sunday, September 30, 2012

To be post-partisan

Anybody, with the ambition to be like Obama in 2008 presented himself as being, i.e. post-partisan and post-racial, can't but hope for his defeat in November.

I know of course that, to be elected, most of the time candidates show themselves to be better than they are, and promise more than they can maintain. Rarely, though, the way they present themselves has been as in the case of Obama so far from reality.

He has revealed himself strongly partisan and racially biased toward the father side of his being.

His supporters will object that it was his opponents' fault, forcing him into partisanship. And I will answer that this is a partisan way of reasoning.

To be post-partisan means to be able to assuage partisan contrasts, and so it goes for being post-racial. It requires to be utterly partisan not to see that the failure to do so means a lack of capability, or, worse, of will. In one way or the other such a lack made Obama's self-presentation in 2008 a total lie.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Islamic dilemma

The Islamic world is afire. Off against America, and what it means in the mind of the rioters and those who inspire them.
We are told: these are extremists, not really representing Islam. See how their own Islamic governments try to keep them in check. Even the highest Saudi religious authority denounced present day violence as un-Islamic. Besides, we offended their feelings.
What to think about it? How to get around in order to judge who is right about the legitimacy, from the Islamic point of view, of such violent reactions to the news of words and images demeaning of the figure of the man held to be the Prophet? No more than news, mind, for people who hardly have the chance to hear or see them, rumors spread on purpose by those interested in making havoc against America. Again, we might ask how proper this is from an Islamic point of view.
I must say: don't look for an answer by reading the Qur’an. You may doubt that, staying to it, the so called extremists are right.
In respect for Islam, I must recognize that it is, after all, a widely spread civilizational reality of about 1400 years, a span of time over which quite different claims have been advanced in its name. For what I know, then, the Islamic world isn't one coherent block, but it is a very diversified reality. Everywhere, it seems, the Qur’an is read as God's word dictated to Mohammad, but according to the time and the place different things have been read into it. I don't have the competence to deny that they are there, but I have enough confidence in my own capability of reading and understanding what is prima facie written (if translations are granted validity). And before the Qur’an I am perplexed.
First of all, the chapters of the Qur’an, which bear the Arabic name of sura, are assembled according to the utterly extrinsic criterion of their length. Which is very confusing, especially if we consider the importance of chronology according to the same Qur’an: so that, where they diverge, the later suras supersede the early ones. But this is the least of problems, which can be easily overcome with a textual guide informing on the chronological sequence. The perplexity comes from elsewhere.
What I find, starting from the earlier suras, is the witness of a man who has an experience of the absolute sovereignty of God, or, in slightly different words, a vision of an utterly transcendent Sovereign, who is speaking to him. Nothing strange for me in this. I know it from all historical evidence, that everywhere men experience in society the sense of a whole that transcends them, and that someone among them represents it by referring beyond himself. I also know, from experience, that in writing I have no control on words, which come or don't come to me, are dictated, so to speak, from elsewhere. The same it is witnessed, for example, in the Homeric poems with the invocation to the divine Muses, or also, but without the Muses' mediation, when the inspiration is perceived as coming immediately from the one source of all things, such as the divine Lord of the Bible. Nothing peculiar in this, therefore, with the Qur’an. The claim of “prophecy” any one advances is though open to controversy, and peculiar to the Qur’an is the way the contrast arising from it is maintained absolutely raw.
From earlier to later suras, it is a crescendo. The voice speaking in the Qur’an, traditionally identified as that of Mohammad, while on one side presents the speaker as being addressed by another voice, that speaks to him in sovereign fashion, and at times merges with it, addresses on the other its audience with the authority coming from that. The audience it addresses is at the beginning universal, and it remains such, on the background, throughout. But it is addressed to determine a choice, pro or against the message brought forth, and so at a certain pont the audience is split, between those who have accepted the speaker's authority and those who have rejected it. Prima facie, which is as far as my reading goes, the theological message is pretty simple, somewhat like what remains of Christianity by the hands of some modern philosophers: there is one God, only sovereign to whom all men are subjected, to be judged by the end of time. Here comes the division of the audience, between the deniers, who have refused subjection (in Arabic islam), and those who accepted it. To the firsts, who are ironically made to speak in the moment of judgment as looking for excuses, none is granted and are destined to the fire of hell, while the expectation for the seconds is life in beautiful gardens. Hence the speaking voice expands in giving a thorough vision of history, made with materials widely drawn from the Jewish Bible, by which it is shown that to all people have been continuously sent messengers to call them back on the right way of “subjection”, whom they refused to listen to or did it just for a short time. In addressing those who have accepted “subjection”, the voice becomes then that of a lawgiver. A main law of purity appears to be given, and it is that of not mingling with the deniers, who, by refusing subjection, have excluded themselves from the common humanity of the universal audience to whom the message is addressed. Killing them is therefore allowed, if not even, as in the awful verse 5 of sura IX, prescribed.
What to think of all this?
That Muslims find themselves at a crossroad. A big dilemma. I know, I said, that much more has been read in the letter of the Qur’an than what I just referred. But this happened inside the umma, as they call the community of the faithful, once it was established, history teaches, by way of conquest. Done, it looks, following the prescription of the founder. Now days, though, Muslims are no longer living within an umma territorially severed from other people, literally or even when belonging to Islamic countries, because of the wider world of planetary communications in which we are all involved. Either then they interpret away that kind of prescriptions, and learn how to promote the deeper universal content of their teaching in a different way, out of the raw logic of contrasting claims with no other solution than the subjection of one to the other; or they maintain it to the ultimate consequences. But, to follow the first path, might mean simply to cease to be Muslims in a traditional sense. So, while avoiding such a conclusion, but seemingly not wanting to follow the second path either, easily they engender a suspicion of  dissimulation.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Scandal that Wasn't: thoughts on Cardinal Dolan's invitation to President Obama

In inviting President Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner, NY Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan has exposed himself to criticism on the grounds of inconsistency: if Notre Dame made a "big mistake" - as he was quoted as saying at the time of that kerfuffle - then someone might reasonably ask, "Why isn't it a 'big mistake' to invite the POTUS to the Al Smith dinner?'" Several reasonable responses to such a query are available, ranging from, "Well, I got it wrong the last time," to, "It's really apples and oranges you're comparing...and here are ten reasons why." In any case, I cannot bring myself to be bothered by the invitation. The following is an outline of a few reasons why, try as I might, I cannot be scandalized.

Put aside, for just a moment, the following pair of facts:

  • Benedict XVI is not only the Successor to Peter and Vicar of God on Earth; he is also the greatest theologian of the post-Conciliar period.

  • Barack Obama is not only the President of the United States; he is the person with the most radically pro-abortion views ever to stand in, let alone be elected to, the White House.

I ask you to put these aside for the time being, not because they are unimportant, but because they are of supreme importance and therefore need to come into the discussion at just the right moment.

Now, consider the following:

  • There is a long tradition of inviting presidential candidates to the Al Smith Dinner in an election year.

  • There is an even longer tradition of making French Chiefs of State honorary Canons of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

In order for the argument to continue, I must introduce a premise (one that, I hope, will not be too controversial):

  • The order of worship in Rome’s cathedral basilica is rather more important than the guest list at the Al Smith Dinner.

Now, if Pope Benedict XVI could make former French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who is not only a supporter of the permissive abortion status quo in France, but also a public adulterer, an honorary canon of Rome's cathedral basilica - and he did, on December 20th, 2007 - then the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York can have US President Barack Obama over to dinner.

Now, just as it would arguably have been "bad form" for the Pope not to make Sarkozy an honorary canon on his first official visit to the Vatican, so would it have been for Cardinal Dolan to refuse Obama the invitation.

Questions of form aside, one may say the invitation was out of order.

There are concerns over the propriety of giving the most radically pro-abortion President of the United States ever elected in the history of the nation a platform from which to advance his pro-abortion agenda. Anyone concerned about this has never been to (or YouTubed) the Al Smith Dinner.

I think back to the Notre Dame debacle. Many Catholic bishops and public intellectuals were extremely vocal in their criticism of ND's President, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., who, in keeping with tradition, invited the newly-elected POTUS to commencement. Much of that criticism was in fact condemnation: of ND's president, of the university over which he presides, and of the person he invited – before, mind you, the POTUS had had a chance to do any of the awful things he eventually did, in violation of his public promises.

There were in that case some interesting parallels with an earlier incident involving a head of state, a prestigious university, and a controversial invitation of the latter to the former.

About a year before the ND invitation in 2009, a small group of disgruntled university professors led a somewhat larger, but still tiny (as a portion of the whole student body) group of radical, ideologically committed and agenda-driven students in raising cain over the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI to give the celebratory lecture at the Solemn Academic Act opening the academic year at Rome's La Sapienza university - this is the rough cultural equivalent of Commencement Day.

They succeeded in making so much noise, that the Pope decided not to go, but the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Italy and throughout Europe was against them. The rector (president) of the university read the Holy Father's entire lecture into the acts of the event, and the radical anti-clerical presence in Italian political culture did itself serious and lasting damage.

In military parlance, they rendered their strategic goals unreachable in a short-sighted attempt to press a tactical advantage. They took the ground, as it were, but lost the field as a result.

In the case of the La Sapienza professors and students, the loss was in public sympathy and prestige.

There are real lives at stake in the present US public contest, not just public sympathies - though, as we are about to see, public standing is intimately related to political effectiveness - and whatever else this contest is, it is political: indeed, it is political in the deepest sense of the term, for it seeks directly to answer in important part the basic political question of how we ought to order our lives together.

In the case of Catholic bishops and public intellectuals, the best they could possibly have hoped for is that ND's president might have disinvited the POTUS, or that the POTUS would have voluntarily decided to withdraw his acceptance of the invitation - but the losses were infinitely greater.

They did not succeed in embarrassing ND and her president, though they did make the POTUS appear gracious in the face of rabid hatred and scorn.

They also burned all bridges with the White House. This is the loss of the field, the result of which was a seriously diminished capacity on the part of the bishops (whether singly or corporately) to press for enforcement of conscience exemptions and institutional autonomy, for the rights of Catholic schools to teach Catholic doctrine in social matters and maintain hiring and disciplinary practices in line with the Catholic vision of the human person and the true good of society.

The outcry never had more than the slimmest of chances to keep the President Obama off the dais on ND's Commencement Day, 2009. It did, however, succeed in placing Catholic health care facilities and schools at greater risk of government intrusion and prevarication, while simultaneously reducing the bishops' ability effectively to champion the rights and immunities of the Church and her organs. Said shortly: the outcry succeeded only in angering a vindictive Chicago pol, who happened at the time to be the most powerful man in the world.

In sum, the end result of the public outcry over ND was a Church with a weakened ability to defend human life from conception to natural death.

The present outcry cannot reasonably expect to achieve even such a victory as that, for which those who raised their voices over the ND invitation might have hoped. At the same time, the outcry risks further diminishing the ability of the Church and Her leaders to engage in effective public action - and this is a consequence neither the Church nor the country can afford.

So, perhaps I am scandalized a my fellow Catholics who would throw Cardinal Dolan under the bus in order to score a few sympathy points with the "home crowd" while simultaneously giving ammunition to the folks who think Christians generally and Catholics especially are unfit to participate in public life.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Unpolitical political reflections

A lot of things I am brooding about, requiring to be spoken about all at once, but hard to be kept within the bounds of a post.

Things that happen. Europe in shambles. The failing American leadership at home and abroad.

Here it is a good summary of the European  crisis by an Italian journalist:
Crises have this of grand and terrible: unveil simulacra, rags flying all over. In few month this one dissolved the illusion of a unique money without government, without politics, without a common soul. All the elites appear worn out and peoples come back on the scene. With their memory and passion, their diffidence and grudge. Cultural and anthropological prejudices came back, and with them hatred. Come back national characters, to which global economy and the universal drive to consumption didn’t make a scratch.
Vainly POTUS complains for the repercussions the European crisis can have on American recovery (which one?), and urges European leaders to put their sheets together, so to say. Funny: the European crisis is undoubtedly endogenous, due to a common currency created without adequate institutional support in the ECB; but it was triggered from the United States, and it can't be said, in all honesty, that sheets there have been properly put together.

Out of metaphor, as far as the economy goes, POTUS doesn’t seems to know better than the European leaders. Moreover, he was elected as the harbinger of new hope, but it looks like he forgot that you can’t have hope without faith (and charity). So, once in office, he behaved like a father who knows best and is irritated when the children question his doings. Let the grownups work, he seemed to say, and have faith that they know what is good for you, and what to do about it. But people are not children, and, even with children in their process of growing up, it isn’t this the way that faith functions. It rather functions by inspiring people in knowing what is good by themselves, and empowering them to act on their own. It’s such an empowering that makes us speak of leadership.
There are, besides, books I’m reading, somehow bearing on what happens.

It has been sitting in my shelves for decades a book by the famous German writer Thomas Mann, Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, written in the last years of the First World War. I hadn’t picked it up again since I bought it and made a cursory reading of it. Not much remained in me from this reading, but when I was recently invited to speak about the “crisis of civilization”, I remembered it made a distinction between “civilization” and “culture”. So I took it, I dusted it, and read it again. And I was amazed by what I found.

Mann defended in that book the cause of Germany, over against other German writers and publicists who sided for France and England. It is ironic that the Germany of which Mann made the apology was at the end defeated with the help of Woodrow Wilson’s America, while later that same internal opposition which he lamented was to reproduce itself just the same precisely in America. A lot has happened in the meantime, circumstances have somewhat changed, but it remains the same opposition of two Europes, by now more evident in the USA than in the EU, with artists writers and publicists – today we should add TV and movie stars – blaming their country for all kind of evils, doing harm to an innocent  world. Mann called them literati of civilization

Amazing how the reasons of that old war in Mann’s account are the same of the angry partisanship that pervades our society, to the point (as I have often stressed in my posts) of a creeping civil war. Unvarying is the character of the parties involved, today like then. Mann put in evidence a different attitude toward the humanity common to all people. The literati of civilization criticize the traditional culture of their country for its discriminations, opposing to it an immediate claim of universal humanity to be implemented by political action: if people left to themselves tend to discriminate, so goes their reasoning, their human equality should be enforced by law. On the other side the same claim of universality is not immediate, but mediated by the appeal to that very culture in which the equal dignity of all men was affirmed.

Do I need to say on which side I stand, because true to the human condition? Without a cultural inheritance, we wouldn’t know how to discriminate what is equal and in what, as well as what is different and in what. Discriminating by itself is not a bad thing, it’s nothing else than judgment, the only difficulty being how to judge right. Indiscriminately opposing discrimination engenders a reign of confusion: tyrannically enhanced by the way of laws that confuse equality and justice, to ensure equality among… can I say men, or should I say people?

Another book I am reading came here to the fore as a possible description of the present situation: the Apokalypse of John. But on this I won’t add more.
At risk of sounding presumptuous, I think that our Western world, so called, is collapsing under utter intellectual confusion. Things that should be unifying – religion, law, science – are divisive, divided in themselves and set one against the other. Should I make a total description of the situation? Even this would fall under the effect of division. Books are there like on the stands of a super bookstore, to be picked up at will by different people to appeal to them in their claims. They make so different sets of “scriptures”, which some maintain as such, others mention just as harbingers of evidences.

The result? The vanishing of any public understanding of human affairs for which it could be claimed the name of science. Thus, because of this lack of a scientific understanding of things human, we are even incapable of agreement on what is that makes really “scientific” those human affairs that are the disciplines undoubtedly accredited as such, i.e. physics chemistry and biology.

An example? Well, the easiest one is that of evolution, which some oppose on the basis of the traditional creation doctrine drawn from the Bible, while for others it doesn’t even seem in need of defending. So if one – like myself – asks the latter for demonstrations of how evolution explains the present state of things, risks to obtain a spurning answer, and be branded as a backward denier of the scientific progress brought about by Darwin and his neo-Darwinian followers, with their books.

I could multiply the examples, so to cover the whole of the contemporary cultural positions in their confusion. But perhaps I can do without it, and limit myself to the core problem I recognize in that one example, as representative of the general question afflicting us: to fill the gap between our present subjective experience and the objective discourses we make to account for it, i.e. the gap between what we call “physical anthropology” and “cultural anthropology”. The latter speaks about men’s experience of coming to light and being educated in society; the first of men as biological organisms, identified as such independently from any social belonging. The theory of evolution should fill this gap, by accounting for how men passed from one state (called of “nature”) to the other (of “society” or “culture”). But it does no more than state what we knew already, that somehow it happened. That’s why I think that it is utterly unscientific – by whatever criterion of science we take.  

To say it bluntly, evolutionism hasn’t represented an evolution from myth to science, but, if anything, a return from science to myth. I know well that by saying so I have alienated possible readers who think otherwise, but, if they have counterarguments to propose, I am, however skeptical, available to listen to their reasons. I am afraid though that they wouldn’t be available in the same way, and would simply scorn me for refusing to recognize established scientific evidence: which is a way not to take into consideration the possibility that it might not be such. Because of this I speak of a return to myth. Like with the myths of old (otherwise a very respectable thing), a story is told to account for “us”, in the way “we” are today: in Mann’s words, all literati of civilization.

The point of contention remains hidden: i.e. the authority claimed in the name of “scriptures”, and by which “scriptures” themselves are inspired, being left out of reflection. The result is that the decision among different authorities is not reached through civil discourse, but it is left to the voting mechanism. By which are expressed preferences, variously determined by a rhetoric of an essentially sentimental appeal.

Funny, if we think that the idea of science was introduced by Plato precisely by submitting to a rational discrimination the different opinions on the right way of living. 


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Choosing a king: science and politics

Well, it looks like the challenger for November to the incumbent president is pretty much decided. He can be found more or less exciting, but now this is irrelevant. I have another question for you, and whoever wants may venture an answer.

Are there scientific reasons for wishing the election as president of a candidate instead of another?

What the heck are you talking about? you may ask. What has the election of a president to do with science?

Should I say everything? Ok, perhaps “everything” is too much. There are interests at stake, concrete worries of people, like the state of the economy, by which it depends having work, with all that follows: salary, home, a decent life to live, in short the “pursuit of happiness”. Even ancient Aristotle recognized that it’s hard, as a matter of fact, to pursue the good life, fully consonant to a complete man (like himself, I might say, or his teacher Plato, devoted to theory, the fulfilling contemplation of the order of things, in which one might forget himself), rather it is impossible if one has to worry about the chores of life. Over against an aristocratic ethos, as this, that disdained busying oneself in work, today it might be enough for us having work, such, though, to leave us time free from worries: like the Christian Sunday.

I see that I am letting myself be taken astray by the thread of discourse. Back to the point, then. The practical matters which are of president’s concern, do not exhaust who he is. The president is also a representative figure: as Michael Novak aptly said, a chosen king. Chosen, because he’s able to represent something people recognize themselves in. But representation may be effective for some, and fail for others. Here politics takes me to epistemology: theory of knowledge, which, when it appears to us well grounded, we consider deserving the Latin name for what is indeed knowing, i.e. scientia.

Why so?

Because someone, say a president (chosen king), represents people in something else. Should we say, not just their interests, but the knowledgeable understanding of the nature of things they may think (feel?) theirs?

Ok, let’s talk about epistemology then.

I wish it were possible. But we need to take it in an roundabout way. We can’t rush to epistemology. See how people take a stance on science and an usually corresponding stance on politics. How come?

Oh, come on. You must be kidding us. Before you say one thing, and next moment you say the opposite. You had almost convinced us: we must go from politics to epistemology. We may grant it: after all, what else do we have to go about but science? And now you turn things around, asking to look at politics first. Either you don’t know what you are talking about, or you want to play some trick on us.

No trick. Just an invitation to look at the way the epistemological question of science plays in politics.

Speaking of this, I’d like to recollect that when I came for a doctorate to the United States in 1971, and stayed there for a few years feigning myself as a sort of field anthropologist, I was hit by the difference in American politics with respect to Italy, my home country, or, let’s say more generally, to Europe. It still seemed then, at least to my at the time rather naïve eye, that political discussions in the States turned primarily around those practical matters and morality. Nothing like what we used to call “political” at home: meaning something that involved the overall understanding of the nature of society. One could translate that impression, by saying that politics in the States appeared to me much less ideological than at home. Or perhaps the fact is that ideology took a different garb. 

However it was then, I should add now that the difference has vanished.

Some authors have indulged in saying that we had in the meantime the “end of ideology”, but it is more right to say that the garb of ideology was changed by what happened in the last forty years along similar lines: on both sides of the Atlantic, it became a matter of conforming or not conforming to that funny kind of moral stance which has been called, starting from the States, political correctness. What this is, could be briefly described as the assumption of a biological and psychological standard, presumed scientific, in assessing human affairs, with the exclusion of everything that smacks of cultural (or, worse, religious), presumed non scientific. But, are we speaking here of science, or of ideology?

Here you are! This is because you promised not to play tricks! And what is it that you are doing, with that presumed of yours? We were to talk about science and politics, but it looks like that you want to smuggle back in religion.

No, I can’t smuggle on you something I don’t know what it is; or, to be plain about it, of which I think that simply doesn’t exist. But you are right, by saying so I am playing some kind of trick, the one represented by the quotation marks with which “religion” is here to be taken, to mean that we so currently call something we’d like to keep separate from “science”, and thus from “politics”. Well, I know nothing of the kind. I only know different people who claim to have a knowledgeable understanding of the world, in the name of which they claim to be authorized to govern the world. Call advancing this second claim politics, then you have that it is advanced through the first, you may call it a claim to science. Here you have what is at stake in the pro o con the political correctness so called, in America as well as in Europe.

The previous POTUS, George W. Bush, was loathed by the American intelligentsia, made of university professors, main stream media operators, Hollywood actors, etc.. By the time of the end of his second mandate, his popularity was measured by polls down to a scanty 30% or thereabout, being charged for all the dissatisfaction that the course of events (internal and foreign) was creating in the country. That’s why the son of an American caucasian woman and of a Kenya man was hailed by many as a kind of savior, come to free the country from the oppressive Bush atmosphere. But actually it wasn’t what he did that made Bush loathsome to them.

Conservative commentators have always lamented the double standard of the left in assessing facts, e.g. actions by man in power. Actually, there might be some reasons for assessing differently the same acts: after all, their meaning depends on the circumstances (let’s think, now days, of a caress given to a child). The trouble is, though, that such difference is passed under silence, which justifies scathing remarks as these of Victor Davies Hanson:
“In my dumber days, between 2001-2008, I used to wonder why the Left relentlessly hammered the war on terror (e.g., renditions, tribunals, predators, preventative detention, Patriot Act, intercepts, wiretaps, Guantanamo Bay) when these measures had not only proven quite useful in preventing another 9/11-like attack, but had been sanctioned by both the Congress and the courts. In those ancient times, I was not as cynical as I am now. So I assumed that Harold Koh and, though mistaken, were worried about civil liberties, or measures that they felt were both illegal and without utility. But, of course, the Obama (who attacked each and every element of the war on terror as a legislator and senator) Left never had any principled objection at all. Instead, whatever Bush was for, they were in Pavlovian fashion against. I can say that without a charge of cynicism, because after January 2009, Obama embraced or expanded every Bush-Cheney protocol that he inherited. In response, the anti-war Left simply kept silent, or indeed vanished, or went to work extending the anti-terrorism agenda. Guantanamo Bay, in other words, was a national sin until the mid-morning of January 20, 2009.”

Those actions were denounced as evil because done by Bush. Why? is my question. To which I expect an answer that, in whatever fashion, would essentially mean this: Bush wasn’t one of us.

You see? You are biased. I also expect to be told. You take sides with conservatives. No, I reply; or yes, if you like, but for a reason: that I want a reason given for the difference of assessment.

Who is then the “us” who resounded to me as excluding Bush from their rank? This question takes us back to the original question: the capability of giving reasons for whatever it is stated should be the mark of what we call “science”. Instead of reasons, though, if I ask what is science, I receive replies that take the answer for granted; like: “science” is what scientists do, and it excludes any God talk, which belongs to “religion”.

Really? I say. Then the great Isaac Newton wasn’t a scientist.

Of course not! We mean, of course he was a scientist, of the greatest. It’s is enough to keep distinct in his work science and religion, as we do.

There is the point. We should judge a president by his capability of representing a knowledgeable understanding of the world. This in turn is to be judged, by giving reasons. But these cannot consist in appealing to the current distinctions – of science, religion, culture, etcetera. Taken for granted, they become no more than factors of identification, defining the “us” to which one has to belong to be politically correct.

I know that with this I haven’t said much about what is science. But perhaps I have suggested that, whatever it is, it cannot be an affirmation of unreasoned tribal superiority. Whichever tribe has its knowledgeable understanding of the world – call it, if you like, culture and religion – and science, to be such, cannot explain it away, without accounting for the experience anywhere so represented, lest it becomes itself a tribal manifestation. 

You may surmize, however, which party on the public scene I judge less tribal.


Friday, April 06, 2012

A president against the constitution?

I was planning to comment on the two excerpts from Pope Benedict’s Mexican and Cuban homilies, when I run into a piece of news that made me jump.

Some Mr. President must be quite desperate to belie the whole Constitution of the United States. Perhaps because he is afraid that he already did it. I read in fact that Barack Obama made a scathing remark against the possibility that a “non elected group” of people might revoke a law legitimately made and voted by a solid majority of the Congress “democratically elected”.

It looks like that he was thus expressing his worry about the possible destiny of his much debated Obamacare. Or was he warning the Supreme Court from erasing it?

However we interpret it, this remark shows how little such Mr. President understands the ground of the USA constitution as defined by the Constitution.

The only excuse for him is that the same mistake is widespread: the belief that democracy essentially consists in determining governance by way of elections. Well, elections are undoubtedly important to decide who in turn enjoys the favor of the majority, to govern and make laws. But it isn’t enough the rule of the majority to make democracy – if we want to keep to the name an acceptable meaning!

What is needed is the rule of law: a law that no majority can make or change. That’s why sovereign is the Supreme Court, the non elected Justices in charge of reviewing the laws the Congress makes. Neither it is them, however, who by their decisions make the law: above them is the Constitution, before the Constitution the Declaration of Independence, and still before this a tradition of natural law that informed it.

This takes me back to the excerpts from Pope Benedict’s homilies I wanted to comment upon.

The freedom of which Benedict spoke in Cuba is now at danger: in America, as well as in Europe, where it might be already gone.

In Europe we are playing ostrich, and hide our head under the sand, feigning that religion does not concern the public space. The sand I speak of is that of willful ignorance, not wanting to know the facts of history, which show that religion always defined the public space, so that people recognized themselves as true men by belonging to a certain kingdom. Only a King who declared that his kingdom was not of this world, made them free to recognize their same humanity beyond all borders.

By choosing to ignore that King, we tend to idolatrize the kingdom that, literally, de-fines our humanity: call it, if you like, EU, or USA – if these were to be plied to the desires of the intellectual class that made the President. For all its pretence to be utterly open to anybody, whichever his/hers religion and culture and sexual preferences, it fails to understand anybody who declares that such things do actually make a difference with regard to the recognition of a common humanity. So, we could even have laws made (against, say, “omophobia” or “islamophobia”, or deciding what is good for you) to silence people who don’t agree with the undifferentiated view of man held as normative for democracy.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Benedict XVI in Mexico and Cuba

I’d like to relate these two passages, the first from the homily Pope Benedict gave in Mexico, the second from the one in Cuba:

Dear brothers and sisters, by coming here I have been able to visit the monument to Christ the King situated on top of the Cubilete. My venerable predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, although he ardently desired to do so, was unable on his several journeys to this beloved land to visit this site of such significance for the faith of the Mexican people. I am sure that in heaven he is happy that the Lord has granted me the grace to be here with you and that he has blessed the millions of Mexicans who have venerated his relics in every corner of the country. This monument represents Christ the King. But his crowns, one of a sovereign, the other of thorns, indicate that his royal status does not correspond to how it has been or is understood by many. His kingdom does not stand on the power of his armies subduing others through force or violence. It rests on a higher power than wins over hearts: the love of God that he brought into the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he bore witness. This is his sovereignty which no one can take from him and which no one should forget. Hence it is right that this shrine should be above all a place of pilgrimage, of fervent prayer, of conversion, of reconciliation, of the search for truth and the acceptance of grace. We ask Christ, to reign in our hearts, making them pure, docile, filled with hope and courageous in humility.

Furthermore, the truth which stands above humanity is an unavoidable condition for attaining freedom, since in it we discover the foundation of an ethics on which all can converge and which contains clear and precise indications concerning life and death, duties and rights, marriage, family and society, in short, regarding the inviolable dignity of the human person. This ethical patrimony can bring together different cultures, peoples and religions, authorities and citizens, citizens among themselves, and believers in Christ and non-believers.

Is it clear enough why I relate them? If not, perhaps a look at our last posts should do.