Friday, 8/4/17

  1. A regrettably narrow victory
  2. Why the ideological imbalance in the academy?
  3. The Church of the Venn Diagram
  4. Stop pretending to be this stupid


A photographer in Madison, Wisconsin, one Amy Lawson, is a big fan of marriage, but she’s not a fan of faux marriage of the kind adopted by a few state courts, then a few state legislatures, then our Übermeisters at the Supreme Court of the United States.

So when state and local anti-discrimination laws appeared to require that she make her creative services available to faux weddings, she did a very American thing: she sued.

Her suit, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, presumably was for a declaratory judgment that the state statute and local ordinance were unconstitutional as applied to her business. The video I shared the other day was motivated by her case.

Earlier this week, she won because her photography business has no physical location, no “storefront,” so the judge decided the “public accommodation” moniker in the law didn’t fit her. For her personally, the case is over. Insofar as she was hoping to establish precedent to help others, her suit mostly failed as I assume most creative professionals have some physical business location.

It’s not clear from the accounts I’ve read whether the state and city suggested that resolution to the judge or whether they merely acquiesced. It definitely strikes me as the sort of theory a journeyman local lawyer would come up with to win a declaratory judgment defense (if said lawyer was not a card-carrying member of the Social Justice War to crush all dissent).

ADF issued a statement making the best of the limited victory:

While the order forthcoming from the court is a victory for Amy Lawson and her business (and many other creative professionals), what about the creative professional who does have a storefront? What about the cake artists, videographers, and other professionals who have set up brick-and-mortar shops?

Unfortunately, unless these laws are overturned, changed, or limited, those creative professionals will still be subject to the same violations of their freedom that Amy was facing. ADF will continue to fight for the First Amendment freedoms of all creative professionals.

I’m pretty near an absolutist against compelled expression. I decline, for instance, to “pledge allegiance to the flag,” in large part because the pledge is always recited as a ritual of our civil religion, with an implied obligation to join in (and I already have a religious religion, thank you very much). It is not something anybody would ever say spontaneously and unbidden — by glossolalia as it were, the American Spirit having taken possession of mouth and vocal chords. I certainly have never done so. Let me know if your experience is otherwise.

Free speech extends to expressive activity under a long line of Supreme Court cases, involving edifying examples like performance artists smearing confections on their naked persons. The freedom not to speak or express something non-verbally is just as precious and protected as the right to make yourself a living meringue.

And, all ribaldry aside, I think ADF’s characterization of those who need legal protection in the human relations/nondiscrimination arena (i.e., “all creative professionals”) is reasonably clear and properly narrow.

I don’t even think of it as an exception to a generally desirable law because I don’t think creative professionals, with or without storefronts, are “public accommodations” within a regime that values both equality and freedom of association and speech. Nobody ought to be able to claim that creative professionals must serve everyone, or must operate on a “first come, first served” basis if there’s too much business beating down the door.

The most recent First Things podcast, I respectfully submit, “over-complexifies” the expressive activity element when it asks whether people really understand the spectacular wedding cake as an expression of approval of the marriage.

  • Would people really understand Melania’s haute couture gown at the Inauguration Ball as the designer’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidency? Yet nobody thinks she should have been coerced to design or punished for refusal.
  • Would the photographer have been expressing approval of ADF by photographing its CEO Alan Sears and his family? Yet nobody thinks she should have been coerced to design or punished for refusal. 

It’s just the wrong question to ask whether hoi polloi would understand endorsement. It seems to conflate “creative expression” with “reducible to an approving proposition.”

I don’t think a creative professional should be compelled to accept all commissions on pain of financial fine, period, full stop. And no spontaneously volunteered reason for declining should matter.


Damon Linker explains, persuasively I think, the political/ideological imbalance in college and university humanities departments:

Professors are trained as graduate students to become scholars — and scholarship in our time is defined as an effort to make progress in knowledge. The meaning of progress in the hard sciences is fairly obvious. But what does it mean to make progress in our knowledge of, say, English literature? One possibility is to find obscure, previously neglected authors and make a case for their importance. (This could be described as making progress in knowledge by way of expanding the canon.)

Another possibility is to bring new questions to bear on old, classic texts. But where will those new questions come from if not the concerns of the present? This is how professors end up publishing reams of studies (and teaching gobs of courses) on such topics as “Class in Shakespeare,” “Race in Shakespeare,” “Gender in Shakespeare,” “Transgender in Shakespeare,” “Intersectionality in Shakespeare,” and so forth. To tease out those themes in texts that have been read, studied, and debated for centuries certainly constitutes progress in knowledge, since those who publish the research have said something genuinely new about something old and familiar.

One reason why conservative scholars tend not to conduct this kind of research is that they’re not especially interested in questions of class, race, gender, and related issues … Rather, conservatives are usually drawn to the study of the humanities with a very different goal in mind — nothing less than pursuit of the timeless human wisdom they believe can be found in the great books of the past. What kind of research and teaching does this motivation produce? Studies of, and classes in, such topics as “Love in Shakespeare,” “Friendship in Shakespeare,” “Justice in Shakespeare,” “Death in Shakespeare,” and “God in Shakespeare.”

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.

By definition, that’s not “progress in knowledge,” since it denies that a contemporary scholar necessarily knows more on the subject than a reader from a previous century. It presumes that the only form of “progress” is each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition, and it looks to great writers of the past for help in acquiring that understanding.

I think it’s probably worse than Linker describes here, though.

A “scholar” who invested years of his or her young adult life teasing out, say, “Intersectionality in Shakespeare” has a lot of ego invested in that seemingly narrow subject being surpassingly important, larger and more all-encompassing from within than from without.

A lot of ego invested. Their enthusiasm can readily approach the level of religious zeal, driving them to autos da fé. Can you say “Social Justice Warrior”?

So I’m grateful for a smallish group of liberal arts colleges that put their emphasis more on teaching and less on “scholarly” (as in, “pretty far out there”) publication. For instance, St. John’s, Hillsdale, and Wabash:

 Faculty at St. John’s College share the college’s dedication to an education that privileges intellectual engagement over rigid expertise; they regard themselves as guides and mentors whose task is not to transmit information, but to pose questions that further students’ ability to develop as thinkers in their own right.

At Hillsdale College, our goal is simple and profound: to help you understand what is noblest and best in yourself and the world. Our demanding courses stress the importance of reflecting and asking questions, which you’ll do in the classroom and outside of it. That’s how you’ll become more than a college graduate—you’ll understand how to live a life defined by the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Founded in 1832, Wabash College is an independent, liberal arts college for men with an enrollment of 900 students. Its mission is excellence in teaching and learning within a community built on close and caring relationships among students, faculty, and staff.

If you want an education in the hard sciences, or engineering, or if you think someone with a doctoral thesis on Intersectionality in Shakespeare is exactly the kind of expert you want teaching English lit to you or yours, there’s no shortage of institutions that privilege those who have made “progress” in their fields.

This definition of scholarship as “effort to make progress in knowledge” also explains why Orthodox Christianity puts very little stock in doctorates conferred by the prevailing system and says things like “the true theologian is the one who knows how to pray.” You’re unlikely to hear someone addressed as the “Reverend Doctor Protopresbyter” X.

We consider that a feature, not a bug.


Speaking of intersectionality:

[T]he founding claim of “intersectionality” is that members of various groups in the United States—women, blacks, Mexicans, gays, people in wheelchairs—are all victims of the same oppressive system or structure, which system or structure works like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, like a ghost in the machine, to deliver power to white men born in America who have the full use of their limbs and who are attracted to women after the ordinary fashion of nature.

Why born-again Christians are not included in the intersection, or coal miners from Appalachia, or blue collar workers whose life-spans are contracting, or men who are ten times more likely to die at work than are their sisters, or Catholics committed to the moral law, or bakers who decline to help celebrate Sodom resurgens, or children whose lives have been maimed by divorce, is never explained. Nor how a supposedly peculiar and evil “system” in the United States produces men and women who are recognizably men and recognizably women, in the same way as does what must be a wholly different peculiar and evil system among the natives on the banks of the Amazon. Nor why a system whose specific contours are undefinable must be invoked when more obvious explanations of things are nearer to hand …

Do not be fooled by names. Take the popular jumble, LGBT. What does that catch-all denote? What “community” does it name? Boys without girls have nothing in common with girls without boys, as members of L and G will tell you, when they are speaking off the cuff. These heterogeneous groups are yoked together for a political cause. The B people are by their own admission attracted to members of the opposite sex; so what imposition is it to expect them to act accordingly? The T are mentally ill, as I would be if I said I were really Napoleon or a dog named Buck. What they all share is a feeling of grievance, fostered by the Church of the Venn Diagram.

(Anthony Esolen)


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Fiat justitia ruat caelum

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.