The reins of our brains

If you’re used to thinking of sin in terms of “culpability,” as specific and deliberate deeds, then focusing on thoughts can seem impossibly small. But if you think in terms of soul-sickness, of sin as a systemic corruption that marches on to death, then it makes sense to go to the root. That’s what a surgeon would do. We might wish that our faith would instead keep us happy and comfortable, but it’s when the surgeon says, “All we can do is keep her comfortable” that you’re really in trouble.

(Frederica Matthewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church, page 202)

One of the reasons I think Calvinism is a “good place to be from” is that Calvinist Tipsy realized that sin ran deeper than specific and deliberate deeds. It also ran into thoughtlessness, cluelessness, clouded intellects and even sin’s epiphenomenon of “social friction,” as when Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over John Mark.

But when I read “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” I mis-translated it into “in any sustained battle between the imagination and the will, the imagination will eventually win.” I got that from C.S. Lewis, I believe. And I do believe it’s true. But the underlying attitude was “as a man thinketh in his heart, so does he deeds sooner or later.” That was the only way thoughts really mattered, thought Calvinist Tipsy. (Maybe I was just a lousy Calvinist.)

One of the reasons I think Orthodoxy is the place to abide is that it knows sin is “soul-sickness … a systemic corruption that marches on to death,” and that thoughts per se matter tremendously.

Some days, though, I wonder if I have reflexively taken guarding my thoughts a little too far.

I have been under the impression that cable and satellite Television had destroyed Television as one of our commonalities — one of the things you can safely broach at the “water cooler” (these days, the office Keurig machine) with a colleague you don’t know well enough to really open up to. The method of destruction: today’s twenty-person office dispersing at 5 pm and going home to watch 20 different, personally-interesting narrowcasts, as opposed to yesterday’s office going home to watch Cronkite and then Dallas — the drama or the Cowboys football team.

And I worried that, neither network TV nor the shopping mall (destroyed by Amazon) being a suitable agora any more, we were left bereft of even crappy commercial glue to hold us together.

But having “done lunch” with colleagues recently, it now seems as if there may have emerged certain “cable shows” that “everyone is watching,” contrary to my impression. I use the term “cable show” loosely; for all I know, they are Netflix or Amazon original content, viewed over an internet stream rather than cable TV. I can’t tell you the name of any of these current shows. I don’t watch them. The cultural allusions are lost on me.

It’s tempting to feel smug about that instead of thinking de gustibus non est disputandum, but what if

[p]urity . . . is not the one thing needful; and it is better that a life should contract many a dirt-mark, than forfeit usefulness in its efforts to remain unspotted[?]

(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)  Should I risk being slimed by violence, sex, cynicism or whatever else might assault my imagination, all for solidarity’s sake?

Could I even pull it off, or would I sound like some Aspie trying to make small-talk? Am I an Aspie?

I spend orders of magnitude more time online than on television. I try to avoid both the repulsive and the seductive. Good luck with avoiding seductive on the internet, which is free because “you are the product,” and seduction is the whole point of “free.” But there’s Regular-Seductive (Hammacher-Schlemmer, The Grommet, Amazon, Apple) and then there’s Succubus-Seductive (sorry, I know they’re there, but wouldn’t name them if I could).

Heck, I generally stay away from even the more violent professional sports. It doesn’t seem right to enjoy men trying to knock each other unconscious, for instance.

Is that a virtue, or at least a para-virtue, or am I just being a prig?

One thing I can assure you: I’m not doing it so that I can virtue-signal “Oh, I wouldn’t know about that” when some pop culture topic comes up. Been there, done that, and felt pretty bad about it.

I really kind of wish I could understand what my compadres are watching. It seems benign enough. They are nice people, after all.

But then I see stuff like this (warning: page loads very slowly, but the link was valid Thursday) and this, and I wonder “where did that come from?!” The moral majority apparently is dead. Very dead.

One example of “moral issues” in a Gallup poll is birth control:

One of the six issues showing virtually no change is birth control. Opinions on this issue have been highly permissive since Gallup first asked about it in 2012, ranging between 89% and 91% finding it acceptable.

One of my liberalish Facebook friends wondered not only why the heavy focus on sex, but why birth control was even surveyed. But while I grok her question (I’m surprised it might be as low as 89%) I know enough history to know that 90 years ago, there was virtual Christian unanimity against birth control. It may say more about us, and about our susceptibility to Succubus-Seductive cultural shifts, that such a high proportion of us find the question itself jarring.

I’m open to argument on many things. But I don’t like bad notions insinuating their way into my head through back channels. So I’m careful about to whom I hand the reins of my brain. (As an Orthodox Christian, I should say “nous” instead of “brain,” but darned if I could rhyme that.)

Given my level of trust in the purveyors of popular media, I’d rather eat at the Ptomaine Café or get tattooed by troglodytes with dull needles than watch TV dramas, sitcoms and such with less than full, critical attention at all moments. And that (“Look! A squirrel!”) …

Where was I? Oh, yeah: that just isn’t likely to happen.

So I don’t think my parsimonious viewing habits are likely to change unless, by sheer force of will (and perhaps some technological reminders), I resume watching Major League Baseball as retirement (not quite here yet) frees up my afternoons.

They don’t have Hootchi-Cootchie Cheerleaders in MLB, do they?

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Falls the Shadow

I’d rather not have to write about this, but a majority of the Electoral College has forced my hand.

1

I love that Trump gave us Judge Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. But there is nothing that he or any president could do for conservative Christians that would justify tolerating a president who is so cavalier and incompetent with national security.

(Rod Dreher)

In 1972, I voted for George McGovern. It wasn’t because I was a liberal, even as “a mere child” relatively, but because I had become convinced that Richard Nixon was a crook. (Mrs. Tipsy, as we left the polling place and I announced my final decision, smiled sweetly and announced that her voted had canceled mine.)

I don’t know if I ever came right out and said it outside a very small circle, but as November 8, 2016 approached, I was grateful to be spared the most difficult decision of my life as a voter.

I said several times during the election season that Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton “had God’s judgment written all over it.” I haven’t changed my mind.

If Indiana had been “in play”in the presidential election of 2016, I knew that I would have to consider voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton. I would have done so under no illusions about what it meant for religious liberty for conservative Christians, the lives of unborn children, and other issues of high concern. There was a time in my life when I would have described myself as a “single issue pro-life voter,” but as the country sinks deeper and deeper into manifestations of God’s judgment on us, I’ve encountered too many “pro-life” candidates whose unfitness (if not insanity) outweighs that issue.

Donald Trump was and remains clearly emotionally disturbed — hollow, resentful, insecure, and much, much more — as further items in today’s blog will underline. As in 1972 I could not vote for a crook, so in 2016 I could not, and did not, vote for a madman. I cast a symbolic vote for the American Solidarity Party’s candidate, but had Hillary won with my vote helping her, I’d have been in the reverse mirror image position of those  diehard Trump supporters whose response to every outrage from Trump reply “But but but but but but … Hillary!!!!

May God have mercy on me, a sinner of imperfect judgment.

2

I will occasionally miss David Brooks and Ross Douthat when my New York Time subscription expires next month. Brooks on Tuesday:

Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself …

Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence …

Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar …

“We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,” David Roberts writes in Vox. “It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?

Hollow man. If that’s not part of it, then I’d better just close down this blog because my assessments are worthless.

A poet tell us where hollow men lead. And his description of feckless hollow men fits those in a position to do something about it but don’t:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom.

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

3

Those who might be understandably confused by the current state of evangelicalism should understand a few things:

First, evangelicals don’t have a body of social teaching equivalent, say, to Catholic social doctrine. Catholics are taught, in essence, that if you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, you also have to support greater access to health care and oppose the dehumanization of migrants. And vice versa. There is a doctrinal whole that requires a broad and consistent view of social justice. Evangelicals have nothing of the sort. Their agenda often seems indistinguishable from the political movement that currently defends and deploys them, be it Reaganism or Trumpism.

Second, evangelicalism is racially and ethnically homogeneous, which leaves certain views and assumptions unchallenged. The American Catholic Church, in contrast, is one-third Hispanic, which changes the church’s perception of immigrants and their struggles. (Successful evangelical churches in urban areas are now experiencing the same diversity and broadening their social concern.)

Third, without really knowing it, Trump has presented a secular version of evangelical eschatology …

(Michael Gerson, Trump is evangelicals’ “dream president.” Here’s why.)

Those confused by the current state of evangelicalism might also want to read Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. Albert Mohler’s extended podcast interview with her persuades me that she is a very knowledgeable outsider.

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Lawyerly blind spots

In my home state, covenants not to compete can be enforced against physicians by their former employers, but not against lawyers by their former employers. I don’t remember the details of the court’s rationale, but the feeling it left me is that lawyers, unlike doctors, are just too darned important to deny the public in a particular locale the ability to hire a guy who just hung out his shingle as a solo practitioner right next door to the big firm that hired him fresh out of law school, where he worked until last Friday.

Hold that thought.

A Kentucky print shop owner, whose business (Hands on Originals) includes printing T-Shirts, has once again succeeded, this time in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, in defending against a charge that he discriminated based on sexual orientation when he refused to print T-Shirts celebrating gay pride.

The outcome pleases and mildly surprises me. The surprise comes because similar cases have been losing oftener than not.

The courts are making a distinction “between material that is seen as fundamentally expressive, like a message-bearing T-shirt would be, and material not seen as expressive, such as a cake,” said law professor Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

(Wall Street Journal, emphasis added)

Some such distinction between expressive and non-expressive inevitably must be drawn, lest somebody, some day, discriminate in a routine retail transaction involving fungible goods, and get away with it by claiming the status of, say, Cash Register Artist.

And I’m not going to disagree with Prof. Volokh on what the courts are doing. Hands on Originals was being asked to print the words “Lexington Pride Festival 2012,” as well as graphics, for the event.1 (But I think some calligraphers, called on the inscribe words, are still in legal limbo.)

But I wonder if the courts haven’t been a bit provincial in deciding where to draw the line. Lawyers, sometimes called “mouthpieces,” famously deploy words—sometimes torrents of them—in their advocacy for clients. They don’t hand bouquets or cakes or photo albums to judges to show how wonderful and worthy of legal favor their clients are. They don’t dance, or sing, or engrave calligraphs, either, unless it’s an avocation. Their stock in trade is persuasive words.

As a result, I think lawyers can be pretty dense about nonverbal the ways humans express themselves and their worldviews.

Would we compel a portraitist to render a same-sex couple in oil paint? A musical combo to play the reception? An improv comedy troop to entertain with topical humor? A dancer to do an interpretive dance in the ceremony?

Yet I’ve heard lawyers—including lawyers who by religious conviction ought to be kindly disposed toward the conscience rights of artisans—just mindlessly mouthing the dogma that “if you hang out your shingle, you’ve got to serve everyone,” deaf to the suggestion multiple legal precedents that non-speech expressive activity is protected by the first amendment. And one of the Kentucky judges dissented. Sigh.

That’s a long way of saying that more of the bakers, photographers, florists and calligraphers, who cannot in good conscience promote or celebrate “marriages” that every major liberal politician in the U.S. purported to oppose twenty years ago, should prevail on the basis that they’re immune from being compelled to express, in pixel, petal or pastry, sentiments they don’t believe.

That the sentiments aren’t expressed in words doesn’t mean the activity isn’t expressive. And in contexts other than the latest variants on the sexual revolution, almost nobody has trouble seeing that. I dare say that Polycarp would rightly have refused to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, even without the declaration “Caesar is Lord,” because the incense itself, in that context, expressed Caesar’s lordship.

But I’ve said this in the past, too:

For a number of craftsmen, though, the first thing that pops out of their mouth (and so, presumably, the first thing that came to mind) when asked to contribute to a same-sex “marriage,” is something like “I can’t do that. It would violate God’s commandments.

I don’t think there’s anything shady about lawyerly recasting of that sentiment as objection to compelled expression. It’s kind of a matter of unpacking what the “it” is that “would violate God’s commandments.”

Better, though, if it were put like this: “I’m going to have to decline this commission. I don’t think I’d be happy with the result if I tried, and I doubt that you would be, either. It’s a worldview barrier.”

Note:

1 After I had written and scheduled this for publication, I saw that Professor Volokh had blogged on it and tipped his hand as an Amicus in support of Hands on Originals:

The government may not require Americans to help distribute speech of which they disapprove. The Supreme Court so held in Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), when it upheld drivers’ First Amendment right not to display on their license plates a message with which they disagree. The logic of Wooley applies equally to printers’ right not to print such messages.

The government’s interest in preventing discrimination cannot justify restricting Hands On Originals’ First Amendment rights. Hands On Originals is not discriminating based on the sexual orientation of any customer. Rather, its owners are choosing which messages they print. In this respect, the owners’ actions are similar to the actions of the parade organizers in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995), who also chose not to spread a particular message through their parade.

In Hurley, the Supreme Court noted that the state, in trying to force the organizers to include a gay pride group in a parade, was applying its antidiscrimination law “in a peculiar way”: to mandate the inclusion of a message, not equal treatment for individuals. And the Court held that this application of antidiscrimination law violated the First Amendment. The Commission’s attempt to apply such law to Hands On Originals’ choice about which materials to print likewise violates the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has held that large organizations, such as cable operators or universities, might be required to convey messages on behalf of other organizations with which they disagree. But Hands On Originals is a small owner-operated company, in which the owners are necessarily closely connected to the speech that Hands On Originals produces. In this respect, the owners of Hands On Originals are much closer to the Maynards in Wooley v. Maynard, whose “individual freedom of mind,” secured the right not to help distribute speech of which they disapproved.

(Emphasis added) As many times as I’ve cited Hurley in such contexts as these (a parade is non-verbal expressive activity), I’m embarrassed that it didn’t come to mind spontaneously.

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.