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Hurricanes and Mastery
Monday, September 5, 2005, 10:09 PM

A number of friends have asked me to write something about the present condition and future prospects of New Orleans—a city I lived in for twelve years, know fairly well, and for which I still harbor a certain abiding affection. I’ve refrained so far. There is probably enough being said on that subject already, even though an enormous portion of it is inaccurate, suffering from a strained and self-induced dreaminess that afflicts most of what’s written about New Orleans, a suspension of disbelief that recalls Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of sentimentality as "the bank holiday of cynicism." It is interesting, and indicative, that there is no sober, scholarly, and clear-eyed book on the history of New Orleans, even though there is material for dozens of them. It is as if there is a national agreement that we will pretend that New Orleans really is what the glossy travel literature says it is. No one really wants the Mardi Gras mask to come off.

Let me add that I write this as one who genuinely loves the city, though more for its gritty, everyday blue-collar virtues than for its celebrated domestic architecture, its Creole pretentiousness, and its rather dull and unspontaneous parading of its putative naughtiness.

But more on New Orleans another time. What has struck me more forcibly has been the near-instantaneous eruption of a hysterically intense version of the blame game in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Much of this, of course, is nakedly partisan, and directed at the President for political purposes. But the litany of complaints is most impressive. The storm itself was caused by global warming, which Bush has failed to address, and by the erosion of the south Louisiana wetlands, which has been caused by the doings of his fat-cat developer friends. The break in the 17th Street Canal levee was caused by inadequate Federal spending, including a cut in the most recent budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. The violence in the streets, as well as the human disasters at the Superdome and Convention Center, and on the rooftops of the submerged Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, were caused by an inadequate Federal response, stemming from National Guard troops having been deployed in Iraq and from incompetent management of FEMA, not to mention FEMA’s having been placed under the Department of Homeland Security, marking the Bush administration’s overemphasis upon terrorism, to the exclusion of natural disaster relief. And so on.

Try, for a moment, to set aside the partisan environment in which these charges have arisen. Let me stipulate, for the sake of argument, that it is possible that all or some of these criticisms have some validity. And let me stipulate, too, that it’s entirely possible that the same partisan criticisms would have been levelled at Bill Clinton, or some other Democratic president, had he been in office during this disaster. The good or evil of any particular extant party in this is not my point. (For what it is worth, my years in New Orleans incline me to believe that municipal and state officials make more plausible villains than the Feds. But let us leave that aside also.)

What I find interesting, though, has been the instant, reflexive resort to the belief, and accusation, that SOMEONE IS TO BLAME for this. Someone can and must be held accountable for this vast calamity. This, it seems to me, is a powerful confirmation of something that I have argued in the pages of Touchstone before: that the increase in our mastery over the physical terms of our existence will not make us happier or more content, and may even lead to chronic political and social instability and unease, precisely because of the unsatisfiable expectations it generates.

It has often been argued that an individual’s attraction to conspiracy theories, far from being a sign of irrationality, is a sign of hyperrationality, of an insistence that great events in the world cannot ever proceed by chance or without human direction. The historian Gordon Wood wrote a brilliant essay a number of years ago, arguing that "the paranoid style" in politics was partly a product of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, with their insistence upon the rational intelligibility and orderliness of events, and upon the human ability to exercise control over them.

It is not so farfetched an idea, though I would place it in a continuum with the practice of magic and other prerational antecedents, including most pagan and animistic religions, which have similar aims. It is quite natural for us humans to wish to control events, and control our world—and natural to believe that, if we are not in control, someone else is. There may even be an element of the scapegoat mechanism, as described by Rene Girard, operating in such matters, reestablishing social order by displacing the sins of the community onto a sacrificial head.

Yet I cannot recall a case quite like this one, in which the tacit assumption was made so widely, so angrily and self-righteously, and so completely implausibly, that the destructive effects of this enormous storm could be, and should have been, prevented—or if not entirely prevented, at least greatly mitigated. If one were today rewriting Candide, the mocked Pangloss figure would be the one who says, "Well, these things happen, and one should learn to accept them gracefully. Although we cannot control our world, we can at least strive to do our best, and understand that there are risks in living below sea level in a hurricane-prone region." And he would be ridden out of town on a rail, by an angry mob. The extension of our power means an extension of our culpability. (Which in practice means that competing groups will be searching for ways to transfer exclusive culpability to one another, one of the reasons why the competition for "victim" status can be so intense in our culture, since being a victim is the surest way to certify one’s right to offload one’s culpability. We are seeing some of this in the aftermath of Katrina.)

Again, I make no particular judgments about this particular event. We will know more about what really happened in a few weeks or so. But many people will not care about the specifics; the important thing will be that SOMEONE IS TO BLAME. This points to an increasingly familiar pattern of expectation, which only grows as our scientific knowledge and technological wizardry grow. It parallels our society’s growing rage at a medical system, including the pharmaceutical industry, that has been remarkably skillful, and more skillful in each passing year, in successfully addressing a range of diseases and conditions that were formerly thought to be untreatable. But modern medicine cannot banish the existence of risk. Which is why the system is all too often a casualty of the very expectations it raises. There is a sense in which, the more things become mastered, the more intolerable are those remaining areas in which our mastery is not yet complete. This parallels very neatly the observation made by Tocqueville that times of revolutionary upheaval occur when social expectations are rising, and that the growth of social equality in America would exacerbate, rather than relieve, Americans’ sense of class injury and class resentment. This is less of a paradox than it seems at first glance.

I’m not predicting a revolution. Nor am I counseling fatalism or Gelassenheit. But I do think we would do well to recognize that much of the intense and free-floating anger and unhappiness that pervade so much of our prosperous world may derive precisely from the expectations that our successes in mastering our physical environment have generated. The effects of the hurricane would be much easier to live with, were we not so intent upon convincing ourselves that some human culprits caused it. We might want to pause and reflect upon how little mastery we really have—least of all, of ourselves.

The Real Efficacy of Prayer
Friday, July 15, 2005, 9:30 AM

Studies and journalistic stories purporting to provide empirical demonstration of the medical benefits of prayer—or, as in the case of this study in this morning’s Washington Post, studies and stories that set out to disprove such benefits—seem to miss the point in an important way, and may cause us to misunderstand the nature of prayer. We should never take seriously the idea that prayer can be subjected to this kind of test—not because we have reason to fear that it will fail, but because such tests measure the wrong things. Indeed, it can be an even greater danger when prayer "passes" such tests, if such "success" serves to entrench us in the very misunderstanding from which prayer is meant to liberate us. A much better account of the matter was given by C. S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm as follows:

I have called my material surroundings a stage set. In this I can act. And you may well say "act". For what I call "myself" (for all practical, everyday purposes) is also a dramatic construction; memories, glimpses in the shavinglass, and snatches of the very fallible activity called "introspection", are the principal ingredients. Normally I call this construction "me"’ and the stage set "the real world".

Now the moment of prayer is for me — or involves for me as its condition — the awareness, the reawakened awareness, that this "real world" and "real self" are very far from being rock-bottom realities. I cannot, in the flesh, leave the stage, either to go behind the scenes or to take my seat in the pit; but I can remember that these regions exist. And I also remember that my apparent self — this clown or hero or super — under his grease-paint is a real person with an off-stage life. The dramatic person could not tread the stage unless he concealed a real person: unless the real and unknown I existed, I would not even make mistakes about the imagined me.

And in prayer this real I struggles to speak, for once, from his real being, and to address, for once, not the other actors, but — what shall I call Him? The Author, for He invented us all? The Producer, for He controls all? Or the Audience, for He watches, and will judge, the performance?

Prayer is, then, nothing less than contact with Reality, an activity that reorients and reframes the things we experience, and instructs us as to their real meaning. Who would seriously prefer the make-believe of greasepaint to the unfeigned beauty of nature? And then go on to subject the latter to the test of the former?

Of course, Christians are not gnostics, and prayer is not mere meditation. Christians ask God, person to person, for specific things, and sometimes those things are granted. One cannot know with any certainty the reasons for any particular response. But one should feel confident that the answers are meant, not to demonstrate the instrumental power of prayer, but to point us toward a Reality that is quite different from (though lovingly interested in) what’s happening on stage.

On Owning One’s Body
Wednesday, July 13, 2005, 6:34 PM

One of the central tenets of libertarianism, one that ultimately renders it incompatible with Christianity, is its insistence upon self-ownership. Our bodies belong to us, and to no one else, not even God, and the essence of freedom is that we are allowed to do with them as we please. If you want to see what happens when this sort of libertarianism runs amok, as it inevitably does when it is no longer constrained by any normative sense at all, consider this ghastly story by Wesley J. Smith, appearing in the newsletter of the Center for Bioethics and Culture. I confess to being one of those fogies who finds something deeply pathological about our culture’s growing fascination with body piercing, tattoos, gender-bending, transsexuality, etc., so I was not really very shocked to find that there is now something called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a condition in which the patient suffers from a passionate desire to be an amputee. Nor does it surprise me in the slightest that the field of bioethics–of which Wesley Smith, who is truly a national treasure, has been one of the most potent critics–has absolutely nothing useful to say about any of this, and indeed may be on the verge of blithely removing the stigma of "disorder" from it. If there is anything surprising in it all, it’s how quickly the logic of nonjudgmental postmodernism, which liberates us not only from our natural limitations but from the very idea of nature itself, is able to spread, even into hitherto unthinkable regions.

The article raises a very good question: if we have nothing but the ideal of individual autonomy to guide us–pure consumer sovereignty, so to speak–then how is a physician’s amputation of healthy limbs at his patient’s request any different from the enhancements of a plastic surgeon–a nose job, breast augmentation, facelift? The President’s Council on Bioethics under the leadership of Leon Kass (another national treasure) has published a valuable book, called Beyond Therapy, which reflects usefully on the difference between optimizing the nature that we have been given, and treating that endowment as something entirely malleable and dispensable. But to make that distinction, one must first have a conception of nature as something given, something that both defines and constrains us. And that is what we seem to be losing, at least in our elite circles. Who, after all, is to say that those limbs are healthy, if the sovereign patient has decided they are unwanted, and must go?

One is tempted to wonder what more gruesome illustration there could be, of the folly of a social order with no standard higher than individual autonomy. But at the rate things are going, we won’t have to wait long for it.

C.S. Lewis Lecture in Chattanooga
Monday, April 4, 2005, 9:52 AM

Readers in the Chattanooga area will want to be aware that Gilbert Meilaender will be giving the annual C.S. Lewis lecture at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga tonight, on the subject of "Genes as Resources: A New Image of Humanity." Meilaender is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and a prolific author in the fields of theological and medical ethics, in addition to being a friend of, and contributor to, Touchstone. The lecture will be held at 7:30 PM in the Benwood Auditorium on the UTC campus.

Over at the Democracy Project
Monday, April 4, 2005, 9:17 AM

There are encomia aplenty in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s passing, too many for anyone to read. But I did want to make Mere Comments readers aware of a particularly lovely one by Winfield Myers, at the Democracy Project blog, which connects John Paul’s career to that of Thomas More. .

Also, while they’re there, they may want to move, quite literally, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and read my own reflections on a new book whose title I will not repeat here, but which is now #10 on the New York Times‘s bestseller list. The whole matter contains so many ironies that one could spend weeks detailing them. But rereading Win Myers’s reflections would be a better use of one’s time.

Meilaender-Orr Exchange
Friday, March 25, 2005, 11:55 AM

I want to bring to your attention a brief but extraordinarily valuable and insightful exchange regarding feeding tubes and end-of-life issues, to be found here, in the August/September 2004 issue of First Things. Among other things, it calls into question an unstated assumption that most of the parties to the Schiavo matter seem to share: that the prospect of the patient’s "not getting any better" should be regarded as dispositive in deciding whether that patient’s life should be sustained. It often seems to me that even some of Terri’s defenders may concede too much to that assumption.

I’m especially struck by these words of Gil Meilaender, which are addressed specifically to the question of providing feeding tubes to patients diagnosed as being in what is called a Persistent Vegetative State:

Is the treatment useless? Not, let us be clear, is the life a useless one to have, but is the treatment useless? As Dr. Orr notes—quite rightly, I think—patients “can live in this permanent vegetative state for many years.” So feeding may preserve for years the life of this living human being. Are we certain we want to call that useless? We are, of course, tempted to say that, in deciding not to feed, we are simply withdrawing treatment and letting these patients die. Yet, as Dr. Orr also notes, these patients “are not clearly dying.” And, despite the sloppy way we sometimes talk about these matters, you cannot “let die” a person who is not dying. It is hard, therefore, to make the case for treatment withdrawal in these cases on the ground of uselessness. We may use those words, but it is more likely that our target is a (supposed) useless life and not a useless treatment. And if that is our aim, we had better rethink it promptly.

Is the treatment excessively burdensome? Alas, if these patients could experience the feeding as a burden, they would not be diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. We may wonder, of course, whether having such a life is itself a burden, but, again, if that is our reasoning, it will be clear that we take aim not at a burdensome treatment but at a (presumed) burdensome life. And, once more, if that is our aim, we had better rethink it promptly.

Hence, although these are troubling cases, Dr. Orr has not given us good or sufficient arguments to make the case for withdrawing feeding tubes from patients in a persistent vegetative state. I have not suggested that we have an obligation always and at any cost to preserve life. I have simply avoided all comparative judgments of the worth of human lives and have turned aside from any decisions which, when analyzed carefully, look as if they take aim not at a dispensable treatment but at a life. “Choosing life” does not mean doing whatever is needed to stay alive as long as possible. But choosing life clearly means never aiming at another’s death—even if only by withholding treatment. I am not persuaded that Dr. Orr has fully grasped or delineated what it means to choose life in the difficult circumstances he discusses.

Unfortunately, the assumption that some lives are too "useless" or "burdensome" to be sustained has already made deep inroads in our culture, and not least among our educated elites. We will see whether the now-imminent death of Terri Schiavo will serve merely to confirm that fact, or serve as an impetus for change, or at least for what Meilaender calls "rethinking." If the latter, one can hardly do better than to begin with these simple but potent words:

And, despite the sloppy way we sometimes talk about these matters, you cannot “let die” a person who is not dying.

A Poem for the Royal Wedding
Tuesday, March 22, 2005, 8:06 AM

Now here is a topic that would tax even the most fertile imagination. But, in the unaccountably famous words of Arthur Miller, attention must be paid. For some initial efforts, see here. I particularly like this one:

Dejected Thoughts on the Royal Wedding

By Pam Ayres

My mother said "Say nothing,

If you can’t say something nice."

So from my poem you can see

I’m taking her advice.

A Must-Read Article on Terri Schiavo
Friday, March 18, 2005, 8:30 PM

I doubt that readers of Mere Comments need much persuading about the moral gravamen of the Terri Schiavo case. But many may not know the extent of the evils being perpetrated. I urge everyone to read this calm, powerful article, by a Roman Catholic priest from Michigan, which is the best summation of the situation that I’ve seen. In it, they will learn just how thoroughly even the most minimal and reasonable forms of medical diagnosis and care have been withheld from Terri, for more than a decade. (Her husband has, for example, never permitted an MRI or PET examination of Terri.) They will learn how aggressively the courts have sought to suppress complicating evidence and testimony. And they will learn that the chief medical authority for the diagnosis of Terri’s condition as one of a Persistent Vegetative State is Dr. Ronald Cranford, one of the nation’s leading exponents of "the right to die" and physician-assisted suicide, a man who has advocated the "humane" starvation of Alzheimer’s patients. It is not only the depravity of Terri’s husband, but the corruption of the courts and the medical profession, that are on view in this appalling business.

Support the Democracy Project
Friday, March 18, 2005, 11:59 AM

A very worthy undertaking in itself, The Democracy Project is also a good friend of Mere Comments, and its website often posts and promotes our material. We sometimes return the favor, as in the present instance, where the DP’s Winfield Myers gives a greater insight into his organization’s objectives. Please take a look, and be generous, if you share DP’s outlook and objectives.

Reasons for Living
Monday, February 28, 2005, 9:09 AM

Sometimes the contents of the daily news seem almost to take on the shape of parables. Consider the conjunction, in the past week, of two stories: the suicide of “gonzo” journalist and 1960s avatar Hunter S. Thompson, and the continued struggle for life of Pope John Paul II. The contrast could not be more stark, or more instructive.

For those of you who want to know more about Thompson, I refer you to the website Arts and Letters Daily, which has a cluster of links to myriad reflections upon and celebrations of the life and work of this man. But the most revealing article I read, which appeared in the Rocky Mountain News, does not appear in that cluster. The article is entitled “‘Loving’ Farewell to Writer.” It is perhaps all too fitting that Thompson chose to commit suicide in the same manner as Ernest Hemingway, with a gunshot into the mouth. As with Hemingway, so with Thompson: the life became indistinguishable from the layers of publicity-mongering that surrounded it, to the point where, so to speak, the mask fused to the face.

There are countless telling details in this revealing, if astonishingly clumsy, article. (Did the writer really have to inform us that Thompson’s wife “blew it off” when asked about her husband’s health?) But the most important point is made in the opening paragraphs. “He was in control,” she said, and “it was a triumph….He lived a beautiful life and he lived it on his own terms.” Though one wonders why he did not see fit to tell her why he had decided to kill himself, and even lied to her in his last moments, there’s little doubt that she was, in some sense, expressing one of the settled perspectives of our secular age: our lives are our own property.

Contrast this with the unfolding drama of Pope John Paul’s struggle to sustain his own life. It would be hard to credit that a man of such deep faith, who has been afflicted for many years with sufferings that would grind most of us into the ground, would cling to life merely for life’s sake, or because he has an unquenchable will to power. No, what we are seeing enacted before our eyes is the spectacle of a man who has lived his life as a poured-out offering, and who believes that God is not finished with him. His very existence stands as a rebuke to the example of Hunter Thompson, and a reminder of what a life of genuine beauty looks like.

Most of our journalists don’t comprehend any of this, and we can tell that they don’t. The most ridiculous example of their incomprehension that I have seen—though I’m sure there are worse—is this snide little Newsweek article, which criticizes the Pope because he does not have a “living will.” There is a great deal to be said on the subject of “living wills,” which are touted as a way that the dying can “control” the terms of their decline, but often do so at the expense of loving families, and ultimately of the subject himself, while making the decisionmaking process easier and “cleaner” for medical professionals. But the principal thing to be said about living wills in this context is that they are, for better or worse, expressions of the same radical individualism—“I am my own property”—that seems to have been the philosophy behind Hunter Thompson’s grisly act. That the Pope’s persistence, and his unwillingness to “be in control,” might reflect a different philosophy, and a different reason for persisting in life, seems never to have crossed this reporter’s mind.

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