Legislating Morality, 2
Saturday, November 27, 2010, 2:55 PM

     Until recently, most thinkers about justice have assumed not only that laws should reflect and promote what is morally good, and punish evil, but that good laws helped to make their subjects better.  Customs, too, perform much of the work of law, and usually with far greater efficacy, for good and for bad.  I've been thinking about how some dubious customs, and bad or weak laws, have long thwarted the economic development of southern Italy, the chief culture analyzed by Edward Banfield in The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.  Banfield saw that the trouble — if we assume that in fact it is a better thing to be industrial Milan than crime-ridden Naples, and I'm not entirely sure that I want to give the nod to Milan without further consideration of what family life is like in both places — depends not so much upon political ideology or even natural wealth but upon morals.  It was the same kind of cold-eyed analysis that led him, in The Unheavenly City, to entitle one of his chapters on American cities in the 1960's "Looting for Fun and Profit."

     Anyway, I think I'll defer performing the thought experiment, asking, "What would happen to people's honesty, and to business in general, if we treated contracts with the same insouciance with which we treat the marriage vow?"  That's because it has occurred to me that there is one group in America that has been, perhaps inadvertently, conceding the point, that good laws not only reward good behavior, but encourage it, and help people to become good.  Who are they?  The male homosexuals arguing for the right to "marry".

     Anyone who has paid attention to the self-described lives of homosexual men must be struck by the mind-boggling promiscuity — in fact, by the acceptance of promiscuity, and even group sex, as a matter-of-course part of the homosexual life.  Yet, as the argument goes, such promiscuity is not simply the result of the desires of homosexual men themselves.  It is also, it is said, the result of their inability to form legally binding marriages.  If marriage were available to them — a biological absurdity, but let's ignore that for the present — then that would not only recognize and reward those men who would have devoted their lives faithfully to one another in any case.  It would encourage other men to do the same.  It would restrain the promiscuity; it would change the world of the homosexual male.

     Now I don't believe that the marriage go-ahead would actually achieve these effects to any significant degree, because I don't believe that the relations of male homosexuals are analogous to the relations of married men and women.  I've written elsewhere that, from what I've read and from what homosexual men themselves have told me, it seems rather that the relations are sexualizations of male friendships, and friendship is a different thing, not necessarily a greater or even a lesser thing but a different thing, from what men and women experience when they give themselves to one another in marriage.  Still, I'd like to note the presumption of the argument.  It is not, "People will do whatever they do, sexually, regardless of the law."  It is, "Laws can make people better, not just by deterring the bad, but by encouraging and teaching the good."  For people who make this argument assume, tacitly, that it would be a good thing if the relationships of male homosexuals were more permanent, and since they would not be more permanent if the men involved did not want them to be so, we must conclude that the goodness includes the desire, now made more frequent, of the men to form permanent relationships.  In other words, the tacit assumption is not simply that a law permitting male-male pseudogamy would be just, but that it would make many of the men themselves more virtuous.

     And that, dear readers, gives the game away.  We may then argue — indeed we must argue — about what in sexual matters is good and bad, what will make us a more virtuous or a more vicious people, what we seek to affirm in marriage, what is good or bad for a child to see as allowable behavior, what we look for from manhood and womanhood, and so forth.  We may not simply assume that people are inert and utterly invariable from time to time and culture to culture.  We do actually have the right to ask, "What kind of society will this law help to produce?"  And, "What virtues — or vices — will this law or custom help to teach?"



Legislating Morality
Friday, November 26, 2010, 3:15 PM

     That is something which one cannot do, as we are now to believe — though "morality" is taken to mean "sexual morality."  The claim is, of course, provably false.  We do almost nothing but legislate morality: we pass laws which at the best reflect our customs and folkways, to the extent that we have any folkways remaining, and when we legislate we do so based upon a shared sense regarding what a good society looks like, and even what it means to raise good and noble individuals.

     The great counterexample, one that is always put on display, is Prohibition.  It did not stop people from drinking.  It only stopped people from drinking legally.  If people were going to drink, they were going to do so one way or another.  Such is the argument, anyway.

     That was not the argument of the women's temperance leagues, however.  They pointed, no doubt with some exaggeration, to the social harm caused by drunkenness, the men who blew their salaries on drink, the wives and children beaten up, the families in disarray.  It is no accident that the first thing that the new female electorate did, upon receiving the franchise, was to use federal authority to override local authority and local customs, to restrain the bad behavior of men.

     Now, I have no love for the idea of Prohibition.  There were all kinds of things wrong with the law.  I don't think the federal government has any business bossing around states and municipalities on what is eminently a local matter, involving local ways of life.  Wouldn't it have been a lot easier, for example, to arrest men who were drunk in public, and fine the owners of taverns who kept serving them long after they were clearly intoxicated?  Also, the amendment outlawed something which was, in itself, not an evil, and in fact was rather a positive (though minor) good.  That is, there's nothing wrong with taking a drink, and a glass of beer or "wine that gladdens the heart" has long been a part of man's conviviality and feasting.  Then there was the unintended consequence of the spree of crime based on the sale of bootleg alcohol.  Finally, there was something waspish about it all, as it coincided nicely with the eugenic concern that the nation was being overrun with "lesser stock," all those Mediterranean Catholics.

     So I think that what Herbert Hoover called "a noble experiment" was ill-conceived.  Did it work?  That is, did it actually decrease the number of people who got drunk?  A related question might be, "Did Carry Nation's crusade work?"  Or, "Did the Knights of Father Mathew achieve any part of their aims?"  Closer to home, has the crusade of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a crusade that was both legal and moral, worked?  Are there fewer people driving drunk than there used to be?

     I believe that there is ample evidence to show that the MADD crusade has been victorious, almost as far as any such moral crusade in an imperfect world can be.  And I find it prima facie absurd to suppose that similar social movements in the past were utterly ineffectual.  That is, the way out is to argue that only such people as would not have been drunks anyway would be moved to join the  Knights of Father Mathew.   If that were the case, though, then it would make no sense for any of us at any time to attempt to persuade our fellows (and ourselves!) to change.  But history is full of examples of moral movements wherein people turn themselves about, for the better or, alas, for the worse.  Gertrude Himmelfarb has written about the concerted efforts of nineteenth century reformers and moralists (yes, that was once not an evil word) to clean up the debauchery of the previous era, efforts that were in large part successful.  As late as the presidency of that enigmatic duelist Andrew Jackson, men defended their "honor" against an offender with pistols; that is how Aaron Burr slew Alexander Hamilton.  But dueling fell to an increasingly popular moral animus against it.  In the Middle Ages, common peasants and townsmen banded together, with the assistance of the Church, to curb the violence of noblemen.  Such movements as The Peace of God and The Truce of God were not effective immediately and everywhere, but they did work as part of a larger social expectation, morally based, that violence must not simply be a way of aristocratic life, and in these regards the late Renaissance nation-states represented a distinct moral regression, enabled in part by gunpowder, but also by the view of the state as a kind of god on earth.  No doubt William Wilberforce was derided in his day as a meddling moralist, and the apologists of slavery in the American south were quick to argue that the Negroes would have been treated worse in Africa, and that the factory owners in the North abused their workers in their turn.  But the outlawing of slavery eventually achieved more than just the practical outcome, that of freeing the slaves.  It achieved a moral outcome, as people came to be persuaded that the chattel trading in human beings was a terrible evil.  Indeed, one of the arguments of the abolitionists was precisely that the existence of slavery had a morally vitiating effect upon the owners; that people who might otherwise be decent enough were led by the permission to own slaves to become callous, irresponsible, cruel, or debauched.

     So, then, did Prohibition actually lower the level of drunkenness in America?  Yes, it did.  The evidence is inescapable.  Take a look at actuarial tables drawn up before and after Prohibition, and note the number of people who died of alcohol-related causes.  You will find, for example, a sudden and very sharp drop in deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver.  Not only that, but the incidence of such deaths remained low all throughout the Prohibition years, even though some of them coincided with the miserable time of the Great Depression.  Prohibition, whatever else we can say about it, actually did achieve the primary end for which it was passed.  Did it mean that nobody got drunk?  Of course not.  Did it mean that drunkenness became far less common, far less of a way of life?  Of course it did.  Does that mean that it was a good law?  No, it was a well-intended bad law.  Is it evidence that one cannot legislate morality?  Quite the reverse.  Is it evidence that one should not legislate morality?  No, not at all.  The question is, what to legislate about, where, how, to what end, and with what possible unintended effects.



No Right to Solipsism
Tuesday, November 23, 2010, 7:45 PM

     My friends know I'm a die-hard fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals, and something of a baseball historian, by hobby.  I'm pleased to see the nouveau stadia of the last twenty years, with their funny angles and quirky walls.  I like the grass fields too, aesthetically.  There really wasn't much to boast about in the cookie-cutter stadia built in the early 1970's, such as Three Rivers (Pittsburgh), Riverfront (Cincinnati), and the truly awful Vet (Philadelphia).  They were all outfitted with astroturf, too, leading to such anomalous injuries as turf-burn and turf-toe, and weird turf-hits, like a hot one-hopper scooting past the second baseman and splitting the outfielders for a ground ball triple.  Bill James, the eloquent baseball statistician, hated astroturf too.  The stuff, that is.  But he did not hate the game that it produced.  If you watch a tape of games played in that era — the 1982 World Series, for instance, won by the Cardinals over the then-American League Brewers, four games to three — you'll see all kinds of distinguishing features.  The infielders played deeper; they had to.  (Frank White of the Royals was the first second baseman to figure this out, and played well back into what we'd call right field.)  There were more players who got their hits by chopping down at the ball.  (Whitey Herzog, manager of the Cardinals, "taught" Ozzie Smith to do that, giving him a buck every time he hit a grounder, and taking a buck from him every time he hit it in the air.)  The players, too, were much leaner.  George Hendrick, cleanup hitter for the Cardinals, could not have weighed more than 185 pounds, tops.  Baseball was played by a few beefy guys, outfielders like Greg Luzinski, and a few fat pitchers, like Gaylord Perry and Mickey Lolich, and a horde of skinny guys who could run fast.  That meant, James said, that the game featured all kinds of offensive and defensive skills — and indeed the Cardinals and the Brewers were wholly different sorts of teams, the Brewers with power hitters at almost every position, and the Cardinals with a speedy outfield and a perfectly impervious infield (Smith at shortstop and Keith Hernandez at first can plausibly lay claim to being the greatest ever to field their positions).

     I think about that sometimes when I confront the immorality or amorality of the sexual revolution.  Quite aside from the question of whether fornication, readily available pornography, no-fault divorce, contraception, and abortion are morally licit — I'm a Catholic, and believe that all of them are evils — we should ask, "What kind of society has the sexual revolution produced?"  For surely we have no right to solipsism.  The Constitution is not a suicide pact.  It does not compel us to submit to living in a sewer.  We do have the right to ask, of every single one of our sexual customs, "To what does this conduce?" 

     It's strange, but when I engage in some on-line confrontation about the morality of this or that sexual proclivity, and I challenge the interlocutor to defend the sexual revolution based upon the goodness or the nobility of the society it has led to, that challenge is never taken up.  It's as if the question is not even supposed to be asked.  But I do ask it.  For example: today we were visited by a very nice man, a little older than I am, and his young son, who used to live in our house, and who had to sell it in short order at a severe loss, as part of divorce proceedings.  Our house is a three-story Victorian that has been a work in progress, I guess, for decades.  So we took them on a tour, showing them what we'd done, and he told us about what he'd done, while reminiscing about what they used to do in the attic (now an enormous library with a 13-foot high peak), how he taught his son there how to throw a baseball, how they used to play ping-pong in the basement, how they had a pool table in what is now our music room.  I had heard, back when we bought the house from a quick-change developer in 1996, that when this man had signed the papers over the year before, he wept; he had invested so much of himself and his love for the children in that house.  But his wife was in the process of running off with her boss, and apparently she took him for all he was worth.  He is still bitter.

     Then I look at the apartment house across the street, which for all the years we've been here has seen a steady stream of renters.  I believe there have been no more than four or five intact families there in that time.  The others have been addled by this or that result of the moral free-for-all.  So we have had plenty of "domestic" troubles over there, between unmarried adults, and uncared-for children (I think of the two-year-old boy whom his inattentive mother would let wander about a busy street), and filthy language, and drugs, and cops showing up in the parking lot three or four times a year, every year.  One boy in particular I remember, a kid who wasn't too bright, but who had a pleasant personality.  His mother and father, unmarried, would station themselves in their van in the parking lot late on a summer night and play gangsta rap at 100 decibels or more, so that I'd have to trudge out there at 3 AM and bang on the door.  This young fellow should have grown up well enough, and probably would have, in a sane world.  But he ended up turning to crime, and landed in the state penitentiary.  The last time I saw him, he was out, and said that he had become a Christian while behind bars.  If that's true, it would be the best thing that ever happened to him in this life — quite aside from consideration of the next.

     Or I think of my next-door neighbor, a Greek man with a wife and four kids, two boys, two girls.  The youngest, a boy, was not his own.  His wife had taken to drugs and had run off with some man or other.  Yet he took her back when she promised she would lay off the drugs, and he promised to raise the son as his own.  That lasted for a while.  The oldest, a girl, had the great good fortune of falling in with a charismatic Catholic group in Providence, led by an exceptionally holy priest (whose brother, a fellow priest, taught Renaissance literature in my department).  The group met in the basement of a church, where there were also outreach programs for the sick and the poor (my family doctor, until his recent retirement, was the chief there).  That group saved her from the filth and the confusion around her, both on the streets and in the local school.  She is now, I am happy to say, happily married, and devoutly Catholic.  But things have not turned out so well for the rest of the family.  The wife turned back to drugs, decided that marriage cramped her style, and ran off with another man, taking along the younger boy.  This time the husband refused to take her back, and divorced her.  Then he in turn took up with a cynical lady lawyer, who made no bones about wanting nothing to do with the children; she was a regular rusty nail of a woman.  Sex was more important to him than the happiness of his children, so he married her, and that made the older daughter leave home as soon as she could.  They've been gone from the neighborhood for some years now.

     Then I go to a little local diner, and the television is on.  Usually that's not a problem, because we go there for breakfast after Mass on Sunday, and then what's playing is football.  Since you can't hear the sleazy commercials in the hubbub, what's left is just the noise of the game and the commentary, which is unobjectionable.  But last time we were there, it was Monday, and we were battered with the cackling of women on something called Talk Time, clearly a riff on the abominable View, and they were laughing and nattering on about sex, and what men want, and doing it in the bathroom, and suchlike.  They didn't know how stupid and shallow and sleazy they sounded.  A far cry from Annie Laurie, that.

     I'll be visiting the state penitentiary in Massachusetts this spring, to meet a few dozen lay Dominicans, contemplatives now, serving life sentences.  They spend much of their time reading and discussing Thomas Aquinas, and that, naturally, has led them to Dante.  I am eager to meet these holy men, and to learn a little bit of what they have learned.  I wonder, though, into how many of their criminal actions the sexual revolution had woven its venomous tentacles. 

     So, defenders of the sexual revolution — come with me to the prison in Norfolk, and let us ask the men about their lives.  Maybe then you will admit that there is no "right" to help to destroy sexual virtues that are the basis of a decent and coherent community.



Thought Experiments, With W
Monday, November 15, 2010, 10:26 PM

     Friends of ours, a gentle-spoken and kindly atheist couple, ride a truck with an "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker on it.  I haven't broken it to them that on the wall of my office is a framed invitation to the 2001 Inaugural.

     I have long wondered about the animosity that the younger Bush has attracted, when he hardly governed as a conservative, and when, by all accounts, he is personally a likable enough fellow.  I mean the absurd accusations of complicity in the deaths of 3000 Americans in New York, or the nonsense that he was another Hitler, or that he lied in order to involve the nation in a war, and so forth.  So I'd like to perform a couple of thought experiments.

     Put a (D) after Bush's name, and remove from him all the most obvious influences of his Christianity.  That is, make him a man who hardly darkens a church door, is pro-abortion, would never think of faith-based initiatives, and is uncomfortable praying.  No National Hymn played for the second inaugural.  Keep everything else exactly the same. 

     What would people say about him?  What would Democrats say?  What would Republicans say?

     I can think of one thing people would say.  "If you knew that the man in the cell was in on a plot to kill your child," or, since it's the politically correct military we're talking about now, that new creature called "your sunnerdotter," "what would you do to get the information out of him?  I know what I'd do.  I'd hold a knife to his throat.  I'd beat him within an inch of his life!"  I'm not justifying anything here, folks.  I am wondering what people would say.  By the way, if I thought that somebody was threatening my kids or my wife — well, I better not dwell on it, because it would keep me up all night.

     You can probably think of many other things.  But I'm betting that much of the antagonism that Bush met with has to do with his profession of faith.  Clinton, a cad and a scoundrel, could sing in the choir because everybody knew he was a cad and a scoundrel, and could guess (I am not sure how accurately) that he was just putting on.  (I believe there's a real soul somewhere inside of ol' Jethro, but I don't think that that was a side of him that his supporters cared about.)  Suppose George W. Bush was Bob Packwood, or Arlen Specter, thoroughly secular, and yet suppose that in eight years he did pretty much the same things (like tabbing Harriet Myers for the Supreme Court).  Suppose he were someone who might say, "Yes, they get frightened, and so they cling to their guns and their religion."  Suppose he bowed and scraped to "science" every other day.  And yet suppose, based on the information he had on hand, that he decided to invade Iraq, and all the rest of it, just as President Clinton involved us (yes, to a much lesser degree) in Serbia (and for no clear reason related to national security).  What would the "religulous" Bill Maher say about him?  Or the erstwhile sportscaster with the dyspeptic grimace, Keith Olbermann?   



With What Measure Ye Measure
Sunday, November 14, 2010, 5:58 PM

     President Bush is back in the news, with his recently published memoirs.  I wouldn't expect much from them by way of great literature, but then, really eloquent presidents who can also write well have been pretty rare.  The metier of the current occupant of the Oval Office seems to be meditative, gazing upon his image and telling the world, in platitudes, what he sees there.  How I long for a Calvin Coolidge, in style though perhaps not in policy, with his clipped speech, his few but clear principles, his Puritan austerity, and his quietly daffy humor.  Apparently Cal was a frequently photographed fellow.  I've seen a picture of him in South Dakota, grinning impishly, in a full Sioux headdress, like Bob Newhart playing Sitting Bull.  Or William McKinley, who would wave from his window every day at a certain time to his invalid wife Ida.  When McKinley was shot, the first concern he expressed was for her, that she should be told about it gently.  Then for his killer, whom he begged the crowd not to hurt.  McKinley was a hard-favored man, stolid of mind and body, with beetling brows and a stern jaw.  He was the last sitting president to refrain from campaigning for reelection, as he thought it was beneath the dignity of the office.  Or I think of "Uncle Jumbo," the honorable Grover Cleveland, who did not disdain the hard and surely thankless work of personally overviewing applications for pensions from members of the Grand Army of the Republic, trying to make sure that the nation did not waste money on people who were not eligible to receive it.

     Those were not great statesmen, but that's all right, since neither President Bush nor President Obama is a great statesman, either.  Great statesmen are pretty rare.  What does seem clear to me is that, on the whole, the three earlier presidents I've mentioned were good and honorable men.  They were not without failings, but they were more often the failings caused by adhering to a principle, rather than by following the winds of popularity, in the pursuit of self-interest.  Grover Cleveland, for example, had long supported an illegitimate son who was certainly not his own, out of a desire to right a wrong caused by one of his friends.  He enjoyed such a reputation for scrupulous honesty that, after his retirement from the presidency, his public endorsement was sufficient to shore up the fortunes of a failing insurance company. 

     Now it's said by many on the left that George W. Bush is a criminal, a veritable monster.  Here I apply one of my rules for judging between opponents in a fight when I don't know the full facts of the case.  (And I don't know the full facts; I doubt that anyone does, because that would require being privy to all kinds of confidential documents, for instance, from the CIA and the Pentagon.)  The rule is simply to disbelieve the one who badmouths the other.  And it is easy to apply it in the case of President Bush.  The most remarkable political characteristic of President Bush was that he was a just awful politician.  I don't know why more people do not recognize this.  People said that he was another Hitler, which should have earned them ferocious rebukes from the Anti-Defamation League, but somehow never did.  Others accused him of complicity in the 9-11 attacks, making the man they accused of imbecility on Monday a Machiavelli of genius and ruthlessness on Tuesday.  He was regularly derided as stupid, bloodthirsty, even criminal.  Yet he never attacked his attackers.  He did not play the political game. 

     There's another rule I apply, and that is to be wary of the ambitious.  I am fond of the old Roman meaning of the word: a man who is "ambitious" is literally "full of going roundabout," canvassing for votes.  It was considered a serious vice.  A week or so before the election of 2000, Al Gore made an astonishing admission, one that should have rendered him unfit in the eyes of the electorate for the highest office in the nation.  Gore said that he envied George Bush, because if Bush lost the election it wouldn't bother him at all; he would just go back to his ranch in Texas.  But as for himself, said Gore, the election meant everything in the world.  That should have disqualified him right there.  (In our elections for department chair, I have always voted for the person who really does not want the job.)  Was Gore's appraisal of Bush's character accurate?  Probably so.  The man who craves fame does not cease craving it once he has left the spotlight.  Witness Teddy Roosevelt (whom I rather admire), witness Bill Clinton (whom I don't).  But President Bush has simply retired from the public eye.  He does not criticize his successor, who for his part never misses a chance to criticize Bush.  He really does not seem to care what people think of him, so long as he is content with his own conscience.  That is the blessing of believing in God — because when you believe in God, even the presidency of the United States is small change by comparison.

     And because he believes in God, President Bush was precisely the opposite of the partisan ideologue that his opponents say he was.  This is something, again, that the opponents find hard to understand; they saw in him the partisanship that was their own.  But Bush, for better and for worse, never had a consistent political ideology to begin with; and that is consistent with his coming to the fullness of the Christian faith relatively late in life.  For some people, conversion is a call to arms to fight the enemy, but for others, it is a call to fight oneself and have a beer with the enemy.  President Bush seems to be of the latter sort.  In this he resembles his father, whom he reveres; the two Presidents Bush have been easily the least bitterly partisan presidents since I learned to read the newspaper.  I don't think I'm just speculating here.  I think of two things that the younger Bush did, because he believed they were right, that angered conservatives.  He spearheaded new national standards for public education, called, in the insufferable jargon of our times, No Child Left Behind, and allowed Teddy Kennedy to write what he wanted into the law.  That bill, now, can find cheerleaders neither from conservatives, who would dearly love to see the Department of Education strangled, nor from liberals, who complained that the bill caused teachers to gear their instruction to success on some standardized test.  Yet, whatever else the bill was, it was not partisan, nor was it born of some ruling ideology.  The same thing can be said of his attempt, thwarted by members of his own party, to establish a system of amnesty and paths to full citizenship for illegal aliens.  Again, Bush tried to do something that would have made him unpopular in his own party, because he believed it was a good thing to do.  If Bush had succeeded, he would have done something that no American president since Lyndon Johnson, with the Civil Rights Act, had done.  I am not saying that it would have been right.  But it certainly was not motivated by ideology.

     I think it will take some time to get a decent perspective on the last several presidents.  But I believe that, on the whole, both presidents named Bush are decent human beings.  Just for the record, I believe that President Obama is not a monster, either.  Vain, elitist, and a statist, yes.



I’m Still Paying Attention to the Election
Sunday, November 7, 2010, 4:36 PM

     I mentioned last time that I'd noticed several gerrymandered districts, two of them in Pennsylvania.  When I looked more closely, at all the districts nationwide, those two in Pennsylvania didn't seem so bad.  One really awful district in Arizona connects a population center near the Nevada border, by way of a thin squiggly syringe evidently along the Colorado River, to another population center at least two hundred miles east.  And a Democratic district in Florida uses the same technique to link Jacksonville all the way down south to Orlando.  Then there's the district in California that basically surfs along the coast for what looks like two hundred miles, without ever extending inland more than a couple of miles or so.

     I'm well aware that both parties do gerrymandering, though the Democrats have been "compelled" to do it by their evident need to keep urban areas together, where their majorities are reliable.  That too bears some consideration.  Why should there be so severe a divide in our country between rural and urban areas?  It would be interesting to find out how many districts with a city of more than 250,000 are "red," and, conversely, how many districts without a city of more than 50,000 are "blue."  I'll have to ferret out the information.  Off the top of my head, I can say that Cincinnati, Columbus, Omaha, Wichita, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Fort Worth are "red" cities.  I'm not sure if there are any others.  If you look at the national map colored for Democrat and Republican districts, you see a lot of little points of blue in lakes of red, and immediately you can tell, there's El Paso, Minneapolis, Dallas, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Louisville, New Orleans, Sacramento, and so forth.

     I'm not sure why that is.  I might venture a guess or two.  The city near where I grew up, Scranton, was essentially a big small town, even in its heyday in the 1930's, when its population peaked over 150,000, making it the third largest city in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia (over 2 million) and Pittsburgh (over 600,000).  These were manufacturing or trading centers.  Pittsburgh was of course one of the great steel producing cities in the world, and for all I know, the single greatest.  Philadelphia was one of the nation's busiest ports.  Scranton was flush with money from the anthracite coal industry.  In any case, the life of someone whose house was in one of the neighborhoods of Scranton, all with town-sounding names, like Green Ridge and Hyde Park, wasn't all that different from the life of someone whose house was in the neighboring borough of Dunmore, or in my slightly more rural borough of Archbald ten miles up the Lackawanna River towards Carbondale.

     Why was that?  Again I might venture a few guesses.  From what I remember of local businesses still in operation when I was a boy, and of buildings of businesses abandoned and not yet torn down, and from what I see in antique stores — as, for instance, caps from milk bottles with the names and locations of their dairies printed on them, it seems both that there was more manufacturing in small towns than there is now, and more farming nearby the cities than there is now.  The last coal breaker in my town went out of business around 1969, because that's about the time Penbrook Coal stopped sponsoring one of our Little League teams.  That was but one of several breakers in operation back in the old days.  There used to be a train station in my town, for both passengers and freight, though that was gone by the time I was a boy.  Dairies there were plenty of, all throughout Lackawanna County, most of them small and local operations.  I remember my father telling me about one of them, Lou Cure's farm outside of Carbondale, where he worked one summer as a boy, and where his father worked as a deliveryman for a while when I was little, bringing cold bottles of chocolate milk to our front porch every week.  There are plenty of natural springs near Carbondale, and old Mr. Cure had a few of them on his farm.  So he dug a deep well for storing his milk before trucking it away to the local towns.  The water down there never froze, and was always cold.  But the FDA, armed with regulations written by the executives of the larger milk companies, informed Mr. Cure that he could no longer sell his milk, even though nobody had ever complained about it, unless he bought stainless steel holding tanks, which of course he could not afford.  Since he was up in years anyway, he decided it would be just as well to go out of business.

     I imagine that that sort of thing was pretty common.  The centralization of government is a boon to the centralization of business and the centralization of agriculture.  So, over time, the towns produced fewer and fewer of their own goods, and the people living in cities were farther and farther removed from the food they consumed and the natural resources they used.  The intimate connection between the city and its neighboring countryside was attenuated.

     What about the people's way of life?  Of course I know that certain vices are always going to be prevalent in a city.  Take whorehouses, for instance.  Those are what gave Scranton its nickname, "The Friendly City," and not the noticeable affability and helpfulness of its residents.  One of the high class cathouses, so I've been told, was the venerable Casey Inn.  That was still in operation, though only as a somewhat faded old lady of a hotel, when my senior class held our prom there in 1977.  Yes, it was owned by the same Casey family, stalwart Irish Catholics all, that gave Pennsylvania the pro-life governor of happy memory, Robert Casey, and his son, currently a United States senator.  But I imagine that church attendance in cities was not much different from attendance anywhere else.  And certain cities were severe in their mores; hence the phrase, now incomprehensible, "Banned in Boston." 

     But the post-war convulsions eventually did their work.  The African American economist Thomas Sowell recalls the public school he attended in Harlem when he and Colin Powell and others of note were youths in that neighborhood.  It was a good school, he said.  There was order.  The teachers, most of them white, insisted upon discipline, and taught a systematic and "classical" curriculum.  All in all, it was not a bad place for a kid.  Most families were intact.  You could not, as now, go more than a house or two before you found a responsible married man who, with his fellows, could police the older boys, or those all-knowing and all-seeing and all-telling creatures called grandmothers, who sat on their porches or stoops and networked the streets with conversation.

     How different things are now.  Outside of the south, and southern California, the cities are shells of their former selves.  Look at Detroit, look at Baltimore.  The city I live near, Providence, not so long ago mined coal in a large vein that is now the site of a shopping center.  A professor emeritus from Brown, a native son, told me that in his youth, sheep grazed in fields near the college.  And yet the population of Providence is lower now than it was then.  We used to boast a large jewel-cutting district which employed many Swedes from a local neighborhood.  That neighborhood was cut in half by the city-devouring monster called Interstate 95, and in any case the jewelry industry has long gone from Providence.

     What's left?  The overschooled and the underschooled, both of them unusually dependent upon government largesse, or upon government largeness.  I'm not speaking of welfare alone here.  Think of the doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, realtors, and technocrats whose livelihoods in one way or another are based upon the family breakdown that characterizes our cities.  Or perform the thought experiment in reverse.  Ask, "What would happen if people in our cities married before they had children, stayed married, attended church, raised responsible and noble children, provided for all of their most basic needs and for most of those, like celebrations, that really sweeten human life?  Who would be out of work?"

     So we have cities that are strikingly segregated.  We have the double-professional families, a doctor marrying a lawyer, if they marry at all, working for Fleet Bank or for Sloan Kettering, living in a high-toned townhouse where housing prices are stratospheric, yet still depending upon a host of government giveaways, from NPR and the NEH, to college loans for the aristoi, and hoping for more (government funded daycare asylums), and promoting a way of life that is controlledly debauched, combining lust with cool avaricious career-climbing.  Then we have the poor, whose sons throng the prisons, and whose daughters are far past despair of finding a good man to marry; they no longer despair, because they no longer feel that the lack is a cause of more than mild dismay.

     Our cities, in other words, are pieces of work.  What do we get from them that is worth the headache they give us?  "Culture"?  I can get more of that, more of the real thing, from a country fair than from the city's sleaze-selling theater.  What else?  Manufacturing?  Not much these days.  Yet the cities are still the dog wagging the tail.



I Paid Attention to the Election, Part Two
Thursday, November 4, 2010, 10:41 PM

     One thing I did — it's the mathematical and systematizing part of my mind — was to look up all the congressional districts that were in play.  I noticed a lot of things, among which was the often absurd "gerrymandering" of the districts.  The word was a coinage from our early days as a republic.  Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, did some creative drawing of district lines, one of the districts apparently as sinuous and contorted as a salamander.  Hence the word.

     I have noted that one of the results of the election will be that Republicans, who now will control a majority of state legislative houses and a majority of gubernatorial seats, will do quite a lot of district drawing as the electoral numbers shift among the states after the last census.  This will have quite an effect in a few Rust Belt states that stand to lose a district or two, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, and in a few southern states that stand to gain, such as Texas.  The net result may be an additional dozen or so seats flipped from leaning Democrat to leaning Republican.

     Well, the pictures I saw of congressional districts were not pretty.  And, if you think about it for a moment, you'll see that it is almost impossible to gerrymander one district without doing the same to the districts bordering upon it.  One district in southeastern Pennsylvania, for instance, was composed of a glomming of a couple of counties, plus a weird thing intruding into a neighboring county, a thing that looked like a really thin stalk bursting out into a spiky sea-anemone.  The bordering district, naturally, then looked like the obverse of that, a coherent organism with a little tube stuck into its guts with the efflorescence at the end.  Jack Murtha's old district in western Pennsylvania meandered up and around and underneath Pittsburgh, dodging a town here, laying claim to a town there, basically splattered across five or six counties like tomato sauce splashed on a tile floor.

     What's wrong with this?  Nothing much, if you subscribe to the egalitarian ideal, that every person's vote ought to count for exactly the same, even if exactly the same means infinitesimally; or that every person's voice ought to be heard exactly the same, even if the voice is what William F. Buckley, in Up From Liberalism, calls "exiguous."  If nobody but a surveyor with a computer program can come close to figuring out what's in a district and what's not, then there is in real local political reality no district at all.  It is nothing more than a mathematical fiction.  People cannot say, "We all belong to the same congressional district, because we live in the same town," or the same county, or the same group of bordering counties.  And that removes from us the felt sense that there is such a thing as "us," the people who live "here," and whose interests are, and ought to be, conditioned by our common desire to make "here" a better place to live.  It robs from me my status as a voter connected to a recognizable place, and thus to the people among whom I live and work. 

     Suppose someone were to say, "I will make your vote count for thirty percent more than it otherwise would, by drawing your 'district' in such a way as to place you in a crazy maze of rural zigzags, with thirty percent fewer people than you would otherwise be among."  Wonderful; now instead of having one five-hundred thousandth of a voice in electing a congressman, I will have one three-hundred-and-fifty thousandth of a voice.  That increases my voice, in absolute terms, by next to nothing.  Instead of my uttering the squeak of a mouse fifty miles away, I will blare out my clarion voice of a mouse thirty five miles away.  Big deal.  But place me instead among my fellow townsmen, and I have not simply my individual voice, but my voice as echoed in my neighbors' voices, as my neighbors, with presumably many of the same interests.

     I puzzle over these things, because I do not worship the talisman of the franchise to begin with, and I do believe that if we have votes, they should be weighed as well as counted.  I am quite fond of the brakes that country people can put on city people, by their being two senators from Wyoming, just as there are two rather silly senators from California.  In our summer nation of Nanada up North, we note with dismay that there is "proportional representation," that nightmare dreamed up by logicians with the one egalitarian idea, and that means, essentially, that Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver rule the country.  Nanada has but one effective legislative chamber, ruled by the dominant party's leader; our province of Nova Scotia sends a paltry few members to Ottawa, utterly dwarfed by the hundreds from Ontario and Quebec.  It would be like being governed by the metropolitan areas of the Boston-Washington corridor, Chicago-Milwaukee, and Southern California.  So, effectively, the people of the countryside are disenfranchised — they having a really exiguous voice, compared to that of the people who dwell in the cities, with their megaphones in the major media.  Some animals are more equal than others.



I Confess, I Paid Attention to the Election
Wednesday, November 3, 2010, 6:02 PM

     And that's a thing I'd sworn I'd not do again, trying to remind myself of the verse in Psalms, "Put not thy trust in princes."  That is what all the other peoples of the ancient world put their trust in, even while Samuel is saying to the Israelites, "So, you want a king, is that it?", and Jeremiah is saying to Zedekiah, "So, you think the Lord will not allow the Babylonians to destroy this precious city of Jerusalem, do you?" 

     Anyway, I did pay attention.  I'm not entirely sure why I did.  The kind of conservatism I espouse, one that is grounded in a metaphysic of the human person as made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore not simply a bundle of appetites sexual or otherwise, not to be managed by bureaucrats and technocrats from Susa or Alexandria or Nicomedia, and also not to be encouraged in sexual or fiscal solipsism — that kind of conservatism, such as is to be found in the writings of Leo XIII, is hard to find now.  So I have to take my small victories where I can.  And I am cheered by the fact that we have probably elected four or five dozen pro-life representatives to Congress, at least two of them African Americans.

     Yet — I fear that the battle, not always but all too often, is between a radical materialism and a softer materialism, a radical worship of Progress (to where, is never specified) and a softer worship of Progress.  For instance, I saw the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, on television with Geraldine Ferraro, the two of them commenting upon the difficulties of being a woman in national politics.  One of them said, "There are still some Neanderthals out there who believe that it is impossible for a woman to have a family and raise her children properly while embarking on a political career.  We hope that they will soon evolve beyond that position."  Those italics are mine.  Note the assumptions here.  People in previous generations were bigots.  What they actually believed about the relations between men and women, and their roles in private and public life, can be dismissed with a sneer.  We, who divorce half of the time, when we bother to marry in the first place, we whose cities are sinkholes of sexual and familial chaos, we can safely ignore the so-called wisdom of past ages.  We have evolved, don't you see.  Just as, I suppose, our understanding of freedom has evolved beyond that of that fellow Jefferson — that ascetic and patrician landowner, to use William F. Buckley's words, whom we can call upon to justify denuding the public square of all expressions of religion, but otherwise dismiss.

     The person who made that comment, of course, was Governor Palin.  I guess I shouldn't single women out for the collapse of our political thinking — that we are not producing even an eloquent and somewhat addled populist like Bryan, or a stubborn constitutionalist such as Cleveland; and those fellows are rather dwarfed by the political intellects of the Adamses, or Jefferson and Madison, or Webster and Calhoun.  Yet I wonder sometimes what a Palin or a Pelosi can be thinking.  Are they entirely unaware of the great (and sometimes failed) statesmen of the American and British past?  Are they not embarrassed by the vulgar cackling of the commentators on that show that is inevitably on the screen when I go to the doctor's or the dentist's, The View?  Cackling which makes Rush Limbaugh appear like Demosthenes.  Or are they aware in the slightest of the collapse of the American family, which in certain sectors of our population is evident in the disappearance of responsible men, the should-be fathers of their communities? 

     I note, by the way, that the actual performance of "conservative" women candidates last night was in general disappointing.  Anyone picked at random from Nevada should have been able to defeat the much-disliked Harry Reid.  Mrs. Whitman in California lost to a has-been political hack, Governor Moonbeam himself, by a million votes.  Barbara Boxer is a gaffe machine, and yet Carly Fiorina could not come close to defeating her.  The touted Nikki Haley, now governor of South Carolina, squeaked by in one of the four or five most conservative states in the country.  Kelly Ayotte, the best of the lot by far, from what I can gather (and genuinely pro-life) won handily in New Hampshire, but Christine O'Donnell was pasted in Delaware.

     Ah well.  The fiscal conservatives have no idea that they lack a proper understanding of the human being and of the common good, and that they therefore play the secularist's game on the secularist's own turf.  The social conservatives have either bought the idea that "government," for good or bad, means management by bureaucrats from afar, or have bought so much of the sexual revolution that their residual opposition to killing children remains utterly unmoored from any consistent vision of what a good human life or a virtuous and just human community looks like.  But maybe a few more of the congressmen next year will be willing to listen.  If not, I can always accompany Jeremiah to Egypt — though he never did get there, did he?



Separation of Reason and State
Thursday, October 21, 2010, 9:39 PM

     The season is upon us.  I should like someday to read the speeches of political candidates through our nation's history, and the editorials favoring them, to see whether we have dropped in evident intelligence, and eloquence, and historical knowledge, and practical reason.  Whether we have dropped — I leave it open for question, although I know well how deliberate and articulate were the debates between Lincoln and Douglas, and how steeped in American and classical history were the nineteenth century orations in that august body of statesmen and blowhards, the United States Senate.  Even allowing for the orotundity of the overrated Dan'l Webster, it seems to me, at a cursory view anyway, that we are rather like half-Greek babblers from Thrace trying to vie with the political insights of Plato, or with the argumentation of Isocrates and Demosthenes.  With this qualification: the Thracians were not lazy and effeminate.  But I leave the matter open for question.  If anyone can point me to a compendium of popular political writing from the time of Jackson or Cleveland or Coolidge, I'd be most grateful.

     When I view the comments to the See Jack Run postings on the internet political magazines, I wonder whether the partisans of the major parties, apart from the time of the civil war, were ever so quick to attribute wickedness (rather than old-fashioned folly) to their opponents than our partisans are now.  Ah, maybe they were.  But it is strange, that some of us should persist in the astonishing notion that it is religion that divides people, while politics, that great bamboozling substitute for religion, unites.  I'd like somebody sometime to point me to said unity.

     I'm thinking about this, because of what happened the other day in a debate for the Senate seat in Delaware.  Now I am not going to attribute eloquence or clear thinking to any great number of candidates I've heard about this year.  But the Republican in the Delaware race, Christine O'Donnell, challenged the Democrat to show her where in the Constitution "separation of church and state" appears.  You'd think that he or she or the moderator or somebody might have thought to clarify matters, by asking, "You mean the words 'separation of church and state,' don't you?"  But nobody did.  If anyone had, then we might have been spared the depressing and embarrassing laughter from the audience of law school students, and the depressing and embarrassing high-toned dismissal of Mrs. O'Donnell by the Grand High Mystic Poobahs of the media.

     For of course the words "separation of church and state" appear nowhere in the Constitution.  They appear in a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, to allay their fears that he was nothing better than an infidel, and also to win them over to his way of looking at things, seeing as they had formerly been pushed around by the established Episcopalians of their state.  We know that the First Amendment protects the free exercise of a host of things, among them speech, by which the drafters meant principally political speech; assembly, by which the drafters recognized the rights of people to gather together for their own purposes, within the constraints of civil order; and the exercise, the vigorous and public exercise, of religion — for religion is by its very nature public and unitive.  In a wonderful inversion of judicial insight, we now turn dirty pictures into "speech," but limit the expression of certain political opinions; we assume the right to bully private organizations into following our prescriptions for membership, activities, and mission; and we wish to cleanse the public square of all trace of religion, relegating it to the bedroom, as if it were suspicious or obscene.

     We know too that the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from following the example of the European states, in establishing an official religion.  That it therefore meant that the federal government, much less state and municipal governments, must be severely neutral as to religion or irreligion would have struck them with amazement.  I daresay that if that is what the clause had been understood to mean, one would hardly have found a legislator of the day in any of the thirteen colonies to ratify it, and that would have included the sometimes Unitarian and sometimes Who Knows What, Jefferson himself.  We don't have to guess at these things.  All we have to do is to take notice of their behavior: the laws they then went on to pass, for instance.

     What distinguishes the self-styled conservatives of our time, more than anything, seems to be a residue of a very old-fashioned virtue, hardly talked about today.  The virtue is that Roman thing called pietas.  It is consonant with patriotism, but more deeply founded — it reaches down into the core of a person's being.  The "pious" American, by the Roman definition, reveres the Constitution as it was written by the framers, because he reveres the framers themselves, perhaps considering, if but vaguely, that a group of men who reintroduced democracy to the world, men who were steeped in learning that the pious fellow himself no longer attends to (as Adams was steeped in the analysis of the Roman republic written by Polybius, friend of Scipio Aemilianus), men as brave and modest as Washington, as fiery as Jefferson, as astute as Madison, probably ought to be given the benefit of the doubt in all of our political controversies.  We ought, in other words, to pay attention to what they wrote and said and did, not to imitate it blindly, but to learn wisdom from it.

     One wise thing we might learn, if we attended to these men — and not just to a few obiter dicta by the secuarist's darling, Jefferson — is that none of them believed that democracy could last without its being supported by the pillars of religious faith.  Their view of faith, rather than of denominational controversy, was incomplete, but what they did see they approved of heartily, and most especially for its irreplaceable role in forming the virtues of a free people.  They knew, as we did not, that virtue is a difficult thing to attain, and is as high above some lazy "tolerance" and mere refraining from breaking laws as the mountains are above the sea.  They wanted more than a people who generally did not steal or kill.  They wanted a "land of the noble free." 

     And they knew, too, that free people will naturally gather to celebrate what means most to them, and will want to pass on to the next generation not only their technical knowledge, but their wisdom and their objects of love and devotion.  That is, after all, the essence of what it means to be a people, and not just a congeries of persons.  So for nearly two centuries, America boasted public schools in which students could sing national hymns (like, for instance, the National Hymn, "God of Our Fathers"), or say a prayer together, or read passages from Scripture; and they could do so, while somehow managing, more or less, to admit to their halls Catholics and Jews and others, alongside the dominant Protestants.  All of this was ruled out of bounds by the archons of the Supreme Court some decades ago, about at the time when the archons would begin to take more and more authority from the people in their localities, and tell them what they must do for their own good.  Thus we have the irony, as our Touchstone writer Bill Tighe put it to me the other day, that Americans are supposed to govern themselves in matters about which very few people know anything of substance, while they are incapable of determining matters about which everybody knows quite a lot, as for instance marriage, child rearing, and schooling.

     Christine O'Donnell, I suppose, was trying to say, "I do not agree with an interpretation of the First Amendment which privileges irreligion over religion, because the supposed 'neutrality' gives the game over to the secularists eo ipso."  But all our political speech must be aimed at the electorate such as we are.  Run, Jack, run.



Mildred Jefferson, M.D., Rest in Peace
Sunday, October 17, 2010, 6:05 PM

     A few years ago I gave a speech for the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, on what the license to abort children does to a people who allow it.  It was not a "political" speech in the sense of the word common among us now; it had nothing to do with federal policies, or with any current partisan controversies.  It was rather a spiritual meditation.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in a culture whose members would understand, not just with their scripturally trained ears but in the pulses of their blood, what it was to be Scrooge on Christmas morning, rejoicing and crying out, "I don't know anything!  I am quite a baby!"  Not the same as those who treat children as a lifestyle accessory, and who shunt them off into institutions as soon as they can.

     There was an elderly black woman sitting in the front row, rapt, nodding occasionally and smiling.  Only after the talk did I learn who she was.  Dr. Mildred Jefferson was the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, having racked up an impressive educational resume along the way.  She continued in a remarkable career of firsts (she was a surgeon and a professor of surgery at Boston University), and no doubt would have been celebrated as a cultural heroine from coast to coast, had not something happened in America to change her public life forever.  That something was the abortion license.  Of that license Dr. Jefferson had this to say:    

"I became a physician in order to help save lives.  I am at once a physician, a citizen, and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow the concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged, and the planned have the right to live."

She quickly became one of the most active crusaders in the nation for the right to life of unborn children: one of the founders of the National Right to Life Committee.  She never ceased to try to make public that vicious racism of the early eugenicists, including Margaret Sanger, that caused them to advocate contraception and abortion for less desirable "stock," to use the barnyard word common at the time.  I was told by Anne Fox, her friend and the president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, that Dr. Jefferson was the person who brought Ronald Reagan into the pro-life fold.

     I'm proud to say that Dr. Jefferson thought very highly of the talk.  We chatted a bit afterwards.  It became clear immediately that she was a woman of profound Christian faith, and proud of her heritage as a black American.  She understood that her fight for the unborn was but a chapter in the African American fight for full participation as citizens in our republic.  It was an honor to meet her.  A year later I again gave an address for the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, this time for a large fundraiser, and again Dr. Jefferson was in attendance, and we exchanged words of warm good will.

     Dr. Mildred Jefferson died yesterday at age 84.  One might have supposed that such a trailblazer for civil rights would have merited a rich obituary in our nation's newspapers, but if the clipped account that I have read in the Los Angeles Times is typical, that is not to be the case.  Indeed, the obituary mentioned nothing of her personal influence on President Reagan, nothing of what she perceived as the congruence of her struggle against racial discrimination and her advocacy for the unborn, and nothing of her Christian faith. 

     I am often struck by the flatness and drabness of the secular world, its downright prurient itch to reduce all human things to easily quantifiable measurements, its incuriosity into the mysteries of human existence, its nervous dismissal of all but the tamest of virtues, and its incapacity for wonder.  Dr. Jefferson shone with wonder.  May she now hear the words our Lord has promised that his own shall hear: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of thy Master."

 

 


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