Sullivan's Broken Windows — Intent

Sullivan's Broken Windows — Intent on exposing the New York Times as the center of a giant left-wing anti-war conspiracy, Andrew Sullivan claims that the following Times paragraph is the acme of editorialization hidden as news:

Already, the federal budget deficit is expanding, meaning that the bill for a war would lead either to more red ink or to cutbacks in domestic programs. If consumer and investor confidence remains fragile, military action could have substantial psychological effects on the financial markets, retail spending, business investment, travel and other key elements of the economy, officials and experts said.

Sullivan's reply: “Could it get any more obvious? One question: wouldn't lots of military spending help the economy?”

Yes! And, No! It could get a lot more obvious that the Times is trying to muffle the war drum — everything they say is correct. Why is any of that editorializing? It seems a likely and straightforward consequence of ramping up for war.

And NO, NO, NO, lots of military spending will not help the economy. Money spent on tanks and guns and planes and missles and bombs, much of which is promptly destroyed to the tune of billions, is money not invested on the stock market and not used to produce and buy motorcycles and slacks and dishwashers and dildos and cigarettes, etc. Military spending is a largely a transfer program from computer programmers, farmers, and insurance salesmen–you know, regular folks like you and me–to the employess and executives of Lockheed and so forth. This does not help the economy. It does not create wealth.

It does two things mostly. First, it moves a great deal of diffuse wealth and concentrates it in the hands of the war industry. Second, it simply destroys wealth. When the government takes huge amounts of taxpayer money and transfers it to the “military/industrial complex,” no new wealth has been produced. Old wealth has been collected and moved. And when the war industry goes on to produce billions and billions worth of stuff that is intended to be utterly destroyed, and then the state goes and destroys it (destroying the enemy's wealth in the process), it should be obvious that all that expensive destruction is the opposite of production. War spending is like dumping money by the truckload into an enormous bonfire in the hope that the towering conflagration will scare off our enemies. We'll be glad if the enemies go away. But we will not have been enriched by dumping our cash into the flames.

Poetry Specials — After badly

Poetry Specials — After badly insulting my philosophic, yet poetic, soul, Natalie Solent has made amends, even reprinting one of my good bad poems (I write bad poetry, but it's good bad poetry… I may have once written a bad good poem, but it's hard to tell). Because no one has clamored for more, I'm going to give it to you. Here's another good bad poem over on my Afterthoughts page.

AFF You! — I'll be

AFF You! — I'll be going to the America's Future Foundation monthly happy hour at the 18th St Lounge this evening. I have a soft spot for AFF's monthly event; I met my sweetheart there. Here I am (on the left) at the last one, underdressed and unshaven, as usual. (And try here (center-right) for Julian in his mafia/pimp outfit, along with Kelly, Juan Carlos, and some tall dude.)

How to be a Package-Dealing

How to be a Package-Dealing Theist — In a recent NRO essay, Michael Novak accuses atheists of trying to have the cake of theism, while eating it too. Novak's analysis is such a well-distilled statement of common confusions, that it's worthwile working through the worst of it. Novak says,

Atheism is a long-term project. It is not completed when one ceases believing in God. It is necessary to carry it through until one empties from the world all the conceptual space once filled by God. One must also, for instance, abandon the conviction that the events, phenomena, and laws of the world we live in (those of the whole universe) cohere, belong together, have a unity. What is born from chance may be ruled by chance, quite insanely.

Most atheists one meets, however, take up a position rather less rigorous. To the big question — Did the world of our experience, with all its seeming intelligibility and laws, come into existence by chance, or by the action of an agent that placed that intelligibility there in the first place? — the run-of-the-mill journalistic atheist replies, By chance.

Problem is, such fellows blink at the point grasped so fearlessly by Nietzsche. If the answer to the Big Question is chance, then all the coherence among the little questions may mean nothing at all — is intelligible only in appearances, and is otherwise a big lie. Courage is not really any better than cowardice; that's only a preference. Hate is not really worse than love; to think so is merely a weakling's prejudice. Freedom is no better than slavery; both are equally absurd. Destructiveness is no better and no worse than creativity.

Most atheists, of course, would rather get rid of God, but still keep the rationality in the universe that comes from actually having a God, Who understood all things before they were, and then made them to be. Atheists of that sort would even like to keep the Jewish vision of community, justice, and compassion, as set forth in the Prophets. All this, without keeping the God of Israel.

A nice deal, if you can negotiate it.

Novak starts out in magnificent error. Atheism is not a long-term project. It is completed when one ceases to believe in God. The reason why a philosophical atheist becomes one is that there is no conceptual space filled by God. The postulate explains nothing. Novak says, “One must also, for instance, abandon the conviction that the events, phenomena, and laws of the world we live in (those of the whole universe) cohere, belong together, have a unity.” But why? Clearly phenomena do cohere. That is why they are explicable by laws of nature. And the laws by which we have come to explain the universe do not mention God, do not need him in the inventory of things in order to do their explaining. Physics, chemistry, biology and so on, do just fine. God does not help here. We may ask where the laws came from. And likewise, we may inquire into God's provenance. To say that God just exists, period, is no better than to say that the world and its manifest order just exists, period.

Indeed, to bring in God is to make it worse. We've just postponed our questions. God is not an explanation until we explain how God explains the coherence of nature, and until we explain God. To argue that God is a mystery beyond our ken is but a lazy evasion. We have in effect said, “Got something to explain? Well, let me tell you, there is something that explains everything. But what about that thing? Well, don't worry about it; just relax and go with it.” This does not satisfy understanding. Again, where did that thing come from? Is it the way it is of necessity, or chance? If it didn't come from anywhere, and if it is the way it is because it has to be, then why isn't that explanation just as good for the universe sans God? It's surprising how many people are taken in simply by adding something else to the universe, and then moving explanation back a step

Is the Godless universe governed by chance? To say so is to say that there is another way things might have been. I do not know that there is another way things might have been. In fact, the fundamental laws of nature create the space for how things are. The laws are the frame in which the universe is the picture. To say that the fundamental laws could have been different is grammatical, but I doubt it's a meaningful claim. You've bumped up against the bounds of sense. You're making meaningful-sounding noises, but you aren't meaning anything. But, more to the point, how does lack of belief in God entail a belief in the ultimate chanciness of the universe? It doesn't. That there is order is a datum. Whether God explains it is the question. It begs the question to assume that no God, no order — or to assume that if God, then necessarily God.

Next we get this, the tired canard that atheists must be nihilists — that according to the free-thinker, “Courage is not really any better than cowardice; that's only a preference. Hate is not really worse than love; to think so is merely a weakling's prejudice. Freedom is no better than slavery; both are equally absurd. Destructiveness is no better and no worse than creativity.”

Again, all the relevant questions are begged. Dubious packages are dealt. Novak's assumption is: if values, then God. But this really is absurd, isn't it? There is something it is like to have a happy meaningful life, to be satisfied with life as a whole. And that experience of happiness, meaning, and satisfaction has a lot to do with courage, love, creativity, and freedom. True, the value of these things is not underwritten by the deep structure of reality. It is underwritten by human nature and the nature of human social life. And that's deep enough, if you're human.

I'm sure Novak was not intending to write something compelling to an atheist, because the tendentious circularity of his reasoning is transparent. But you can safely assume what others would ask you to demonstrate when your intention is merely to rally those who share your assumptions against an imagined enemy. I do not disagree with Novak that religious stories, religious tradition, and religious inspiration played an integral role in creating liberal American institutions. But I won't let him get away with this package either. The question is not whether religion has played a role in the creation and defense of liberal institutions, but whether it is necessary to support those institutions. Novak assumes, no God, no America. But he's wrong here too. Neither virtue nor liberty needs to be mythologized to be loved. Human intelligence does not need to be so demeaned. Virtue and liberty are what people need in order to have satisfying lives, and each of us are capable of seeing this, whether or not we do.

With gargantuan condescension, Novak says that “One must feel sorry for atheists. They seem so lonely. Alone not only under the vast stars of a summer's night, in all this immense cosmos. And passing through it as we do all, as evanescently as fireflies. But alone also in this religion-drenched country, most of whose public spaces reek of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” True, it is not easy being just in a world of injustice, nor is it easy being clear-headed in a world of delusion. But I prefer justice over injustice, and clear-headedness over delusion. I could feel sorry for those who prefer delusion, who are willing to use it — to use the church house, the myths of ubiquitous love — to medicate their loneliness. But I don't feel sorry. I just feel a little sad that people aren't taught, and so never learn, that they are strong enough to walk without the crutch, to engage the world as it is, to find the beauty that's really out there, free for the taking.

[Update: Recommended remedial reading for Novak, and those like him: here.]

How to be Post-Modern —

How to be Post-Modern — Stanley Fish is giving lessons. Check out his Don't Blame Relativism (.pdf) for a bit of a master class. Here Fish says that the essence of post-modernism is the recognition that there is no common language in which truths can be couched, grasped, and agreed upon by all. But this is just wrong. Fish writes:

[It is claimed that] no post-modernist could possibly retain his or her views and acknowledge the reality of a plane hitting a tower. But no postmodernist would deny this or any other reality. What would be denied is the possibility of describing, and thereby evaluating, the event in a language that all reasonable observers would accept. That language, if it were available, would be hostage to no point of view and just report things as they are, and many postmodernists do hold that no such language will ever be found.

I found this passage confusing on several levels. First, Fish seems to concede a certain independence to reality (realities?) such that it makes no sense to deny them, but then straightaway proceeds to deny the possibility of a description of reality that just anyone could accept. But to acknowledge or accept some aspect of reality (beyond a purely perceptual report), it has to be acknowledged or accepted under some description or other. If there is no possibility of a universally acceptable description, then there is no possibility of the universal acceptance of the aspect of reality (e.g., the event of a plane hitting a tower) one is seeking to describe. So either the postmodernist has to concede there there is a way of describing the event such that “no postmodernist would deny” it, or he has to admit that postmodernists do in fact deny “realities” that are couched in alien languages.

Second, it's just queer to deny the possibility of describing things in a language that all reasonable observers would accept. Anyway, you don't need one language. Take any language you want. How about English, or Arabic? Those are perfectly good languages. Anything you can describe in one, you can describe in the other. Now, of course, it's true that everyone won't agree on the correct description no matter what language you pick. But that just means that some folks have got it wrong. Or maybe everybody does. Everybody doesn't have the same evidence. Everybody doesn't use the same standards for evaluating the evidence. That's just obvious and trivial. However, that hardly bears on the possibility of true description of the evidence, or the possibility of a standard for evaluating the evidence that tends to track the honest-to-god truth. I don't understand Fish at all!

Last, Fish implicitly makes the following claim: If there was a universally acceptable description, then it would come from no point of view. That's just a stunning non-sequitur. How about this, in English: 'Hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1.00794'. Now, this proposition describes hydrogen atoms. When I express this proposition in writing or speech, it is certainly captive to my point of view (my context of evidence, my native language, etc.), and also to the point of view of the theory of atoms and atomic weights. Yet, the very same thought could be expressed in any language whatsoever! And it would be true in all of them! It's not so hard to “just report things as they are,” and you can do it in any language you want. Just watch me! “My pants are green!” It's true! It's true for everybody. Will's pants are green! And you could see that it's true from all sorts of points of views — through glasses, through a telescope, from the left, the right, above, below. Say it in French. Say it in Latin. Whatever! Anyone who denied it would be plain wrong. It's not so hard!

Suppose the proposition expressed by “Killing thousands of innocent civilians by crashing an jetliner into a building is evil” is true. Then it's true no matter what language you express it in. Whether it's universally true, and whether people universally accept it as true, are two entirely distinct matters. The first matter is metaphysical, having to do with the nature of truth itself. The second is epistemological, having to do with our grounds for believing things to be true. Maybe Fish is worried that we don't have any good way of knowing for certain which propositions express the universal truths. Fair enough. That's the core question of epistemology. But he seems to be after something else — like covering his ass.

Post-modernism is not the doctrine that it's really hard to get people to agree on questions of value, or that it's nice to walk in somebody else's shoes once in a while. It's a development of Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. Kant said we don't have access to the way the world really is because we have minds, not passive mirrors, and the structure of the mind get in the way. But at least all of our minds get in the way in the same way. Hegel said that, well, not exactly, the way our minds get in the way changes over time. It's relative to where you are in history. Nietzsche said our minds get in the way because of the way our languages reflect systems of values. So values are just a matter of what language you're speaking, and argument about value isn't about reason and evidence, but about raw power — about over who owns the language and the way it structures the experienced world. PoMos extended the reasoning to race, gender, class, and so forth. All these things get in our way of accessing an independent reality. There is no objective truth. Every assertion of truth is a power play. And that's why PoMos are so nasty. And that's why Fish is so busy defending his vocabulary. Because, by his own lights, if he loses the war of words, he's screwed.

Soviet Mass Murder and Never

Soviet Mass Murder and Never Saying Sorry — I'm very excited by the appearance of Martin Amis's new book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Amis addresses the question why the 20 million Soviet dead has never been considered with the same moral seriousness as the victims of the Holocaust, and why Stalinist apologists have hardly begun to be adequately contrite for their sanction of such a vast, bloody moral horror. Apparently he calls bullshit on Hitchens. Good Salon review by Charles Taylor. I'm picking this up from Amazon now.