Saturday, 8/5/17

  1. Malodorous and Malarial
  2. Modern, internet-fuelled Gnosticism
  3. Call me when you’ve got your dogmas straight
  4. The limits of universal-rational scrutiny
  5. Bo, Mike, and the real possibility of change
  6. Buried in my Journal six years ago


How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity?

When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. (The only pejorative sense which Johnson gives to Primitive in his Dictionary is, significantly, “Formal; affectedly solemn; Imitating the supposed gravity of old times”.) Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. For the two great imaginative expressions of the myth, as distinct from the theorem–Keats’s Hyperion and Wagner’s Ring–are pre-Darwinian. Let us give these their due.

But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage.

But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world.

Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defense and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

(C.S. Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum, 1954, formatting added and typos corrected)


The articles by Clare Foges (“Gender-fluid world is muddling young minds”, July 27) and Hugo Rifkind (“Social media is making gender meaningless”, Aug 1), and the letters about children wanting to be pandas (July 29), dogs or mermaids (Aug 1), show that the confusion about gender identity is a modern, and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance (in Rifkind’s apt phrase, the “ungainly, boring, fleshy one”). This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world. Nature, however, tends to strike back, with the likely victims in this case being vulnerable and impressionable youngsters who, as confused adults, will pay the price for their elders’ fashionable fantasies.
The Right Rev Professor Tom Wright 

St Mary’s College, St Andrews

(The Times, H/T Denny Burk)


While I’m on the topic, and for those who read the term “gnostic” and reply “WTF?!?!?!,” I commend Chad Felix Greene’s Public Discourse exploration of Transgender Suicides: What to Do About Them. First, he introduces himself:

I have personally experienced gender dysphoria, and I explored transition in my early twenties. I am aware of the emotional struggle, but I am also aware of the empowering realization that I alone control how I perceive the world.

Greene is no self-loathing gay fundamentalist Christian, either. He’s sort of Milo-type, flamboyantly gay but conservative. You can look that up on Twitter.

Back to the Public Discourse article:

The argument can be summarized as follows. Without medical treatment (expensive surgery and lifelong hormone therapy), social acceptance, correct pronoun use, and open bathroom access, trans people will never be comfortable in their bodies or in society. Consequently, they are at a high risk for suicide, and it’s an injustice not to make these “treatments” available; the crime of killing trans people can even be laid at the feet of those who do not take these steps.

This argument, made by Manning, Ford, and so many others, is supposed to halt any criticism—or even querying—of gender theory, but it raises more questions than it answers.

If It Needs Treatment, Isn’t It an Illness?

The various liberal resources are shockingly equivocal as to what gender identity actually is. Gender identity is an “innermost knowing,” an issue of hormone imbalance, the result of a male brain in a female body, or a ‘transsexual’ brainmaybe an inherited characteristic, and many other possibilities, depending on whom you ask. According to some, gender is an inborn and permanent state; for others, a fluid awareness that might change by the day. How is it possible that a condition so insusceptible of consistent definition could be universally declared fatal without medical treatment?

Further, if transgenderism requires medical treatment, how can it form the basis of anyone’s identity? Trans people and their allies have, of course, insisted with great indignation that their condition is not an illness, but it is hard to see how this conclusion is to be avoided, if it’s insisted that it must be treated or else will be fatal.

The goal of most transgender individuals is to live as the opposite sex. If this were not true, there would be no concern about “access to health care” or medical necessity. If one could simply enjoy whatever gender identity felt the most appropriate at any given time, medical intervention would be merely cosmetic. So if we agree that people who identify as transgender desire to be the opposite sex to the best of their ability—arguing that internally they already are—then we must accept that the ideal state for all individuals is cisgender, where gender and sex align naturally.

In order to achieve a healthy and mentally stable state, a trans person must have their gender and sex as closely aligned as possible. Why, though, does this require the physical sex to change in order to align to the perceived gender? Why shouldn’t the perceived gender be what changes?

It seems far more reasonable—and medically ethical and sound—to achieve this homeostasis by changing gender to match to the already established sex ….

The trans frenzy echoes the fairly recent sexual orientation frenzy, when homophile groups couldn’t get their dogmas straight. When “choice” hadn’t yet lost its cachet, the mantra went something like “How dare you question my lifestyle choice?!” Then someone figured out that immutable characteristic could haul more freight legally and socially, so it became “How dare you attack them for how God made them?!” (If there were other iterations/trial balloons, I forget them at the moment.)

I can come closer to empathically imagining same-sex attraction (and, believe me, I have done that exercise as a gut check on my convictions about it) than I can to imagining feeling as if, deep down inside, I’m a woman.

But the illogic of it, which Greene is kind enough to name, makes me say “Call me when you’ve got your dogmas straight. Then maybe we can talk.”


(H/T Damon Linker, The Left’s Immigration Problem)

The more you think about it, politics (very much including liberal politics) is an activity shot through with norms, practices, and beliefs that can be rather easily exposed as “fictions” once subjected to universal-rational scrutiny.

That’s why philosophers as otherwise so profoundly different as Plato and Karl Marx have concluded that the rule of reason and justice demands communism (the abolition of private property). Indeed, Plato went even further than Marx, to suggest that in a perfectly rational and just political system, property communism would need to be combined with communism of families, with children taken from their parents at birth and raised by the community as a whole. After all, isn’t deference to a mother’s love for her own child based on the fiction that she is always automatically best suited by nature to raise him or her?

The most that might be said for our neoliberal almost-open-border advocates is that they think Plato should have gone even farther in subjecting politics to universal-rational scrutiny and advocated a completely communist state that is also boundless in extent, encompassing all people everywhere, without distinction.

In other words, Plato should have advocated the universal, homogenous state — which is precisely what many on the center-left seem to not-so-secretly believe morality demands.

Linker (whose entire column is worth reading, with the caveat that I don’t know why Zack Beauchamp qualifies as the iconic voice of “the Left”) doesn’t agree with this at all.

But if this truly is the asymptotic tendency of Left immigration policy (and Europe suggests that it is), and if this view is instantiated in our Democrat party (???), then I have some idea why Evangelicals supported the non-Democrat lout so robustly: last I knew, Evangelical eschatological Rube Goldberg scenarios conspicuously involved one world government under The Anti-Christ. Indeed, I also then understand why they’d prefer “roll up the welcome mat” isolationist nationalism to such an alternative.


David Brooks tell a story of Bo and Mike, then synthesizes what he thinks unites people who change in middle age, despite folk wisdom that people don’t change:

First, they’ve gone through a sort of moral puberty, as if a switch turned. They’ve lost most of their interest in egoistic calculation and some sort of primal desire for generativity has kicked in.

Second, they have what Baylor’s Paul Froese calls existential urgency, and obsessive connection to a social problem. When Gallup asked people around the world in 2007 if they felt a sense of meaning in their lives, Liberia came out as the nation where most people felt they led meaningful lives and the Netherlands came out last. It’s not that life is always easy in Liberia, but people are gripped by an urgent and communal desire to address the problems around them.

Finally, they speak in the middle voice. Sometimes we speak in the passive voice, when things are happening to us. Sometimes we speak in the active voice, when we’re lecturing and taking charge. But mature activists speak in the middle voice, which is receiving and volleying, listening and responding, the voice of equal and intimate relationship.

Don’t overlook that Liberia/Netherlands matchup.


I fitfully keep a digital journal putting in some things that aren’t ready for prime time and never may be. I decided to go back yesterday and see what I was thinking privately over the last 6+ years. Here’s one that surprised me, from July 19, 2011. The immediate subject was Presidential Hopeful Herman Cain, but then I pivoted to generalization:

I start calling 2 strikes, when they first step on deck, on anyone who thinks POTUS is an entry-level political position. I don’t care how big a pizza chain they built or what a hardscrabble childhood they had before doing it. If all you’ve done in life is business, bully for you, but you’d better hit it out of the park on your first swing in politics if you intend to start at the top.

And that goes double for guys like The Donald, who no doubt played the crony capitalist system like a Stradivarius as he did his big, big real estate deals.

Today, I’d retract “like a Stradivarius” because I think his business brilliance is mostly humbuggery.

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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.