Thursday, November 24, 2011

Skeptical Gratitude

     The American holiday of Thanksgiving is an example of a useful tradition. Somehow, and perhaps more than with Christmas, the original purpose of the holiday seems to have survived. While many American children firmly believe the purpose of Christmas is solely to get presents (and too many American parents over-endorse that belief), one can still hear the ritualistic question every November, “What do you have to be thankful for?” If this impression is accurate, then the reason appears to be the differing religious content of the two holidays. The Santa Claus myth, transmuted by commercialism into a fully materialist celebration, has neatly replaced the older celebration of the birth of the Christian savior. Anti-Christian media have systematically endorsed this shift, funded as they are by advertising. Skeptical conservatives are no doubt ambivalent about it all, since whatever advance there may be in loosening the old theology is partly and disappointingly balanced by the new theology—materialist consumerism. As for Thanksgiving, though, the original feast (or at least the legend of the feast, which is what we commemorate) was about gratitude for a worldly bounty. After a 66-day sea voyage, a winter of sickness and death, the colonists finally managed a robust harvest in the fall of 1621. Worldly bounty fits rather well into the current paradigm of values. For that matter, the fact that Squanto knew more about how to survive in America than the colonists sounds a bell for multiculturalism as well. So, there is no real difficulty maintaining the forms of the original feast.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Another Leftist Judge Votes Against Liberty

     In a typically important piece published yesterday, agnostic conservative George Will draws our attention to a recent federal court decision on the president’s health care law:
Shortly before the Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed its constitutionality. Writing for the majority, Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a Reagan appointee, brusquely acknowledged that upholding the mandate means there is no limit to Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause. Fortunately, Silberman’s stark assertion may strengthen the counterargument. Silberman forces the Supreme Court’s five conservatives to face the sobering implications of affirming the power asserted with the mandate.
     Will’s treatment of the issue is excellent. Will specifically addresses the interplay between the rights of citizens and the powers of government. He notes the distinction between economic rights and virtually all other rights of citizens by the Supreme Court during the past 75 years. It has been a jurisprudence of illogic, wherein the citizen’s immoral lifestyle choices are somehow sacrosanct—no matter the collateral damage they inflict on his neighbors—but his right to his own property is subject to majority toleration.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Plan B: Monarchy?

     Machiavelli believed that the institutions laid down in a republic at its birth are of little use later, when the people have become corrupt. For him, virtue and corruption had to do with the eagerness or reluctance of a people to hold liberty over any other value. Thus, Machiavelli would consider virtuous a proudly free population such as that which threw off the yoke of England in Eighteenth Century America. He would consider corrupt a population dedicated to self-indulgence and dependency, for which it was willing to trade much of its liberty. It is difficult to be clear-eyed about one’s own time, but there are certainly many indications that Twenty-First Century America is less attached to the rigors of liberty than to the charms of license. Defeatism is its own reward, and hereabouts the tenor is intended to be optimistic. However, it may be worthwhile on occasion to run some thought experiments about what to do if the U.S. eventually loses all its necessary virtue (in the Machiavellian sense). One plan, currently under discussion around the conservative blogosphere, is monarchy.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Moral Consensus

     This week’s revelations about the crimes and cover-up at Pennsylvania State University clarify that all too often our heroes, like the idol in Dante’s Inferno, have feet of clay. That the most successful college football coach of all should have kept quiet for nine years about ghastly crimes, having made a single report to the university authorities, has disillusioned everyone. Of course the perpetrator himself should be jailed for as long as the law allows; but the sting, the sense of outrage and disappointment, rightly includes Joe Paterno himself. Knowing what he knew, how could he not have done more to prevent the ongoing offenses? No doubt he reasoned himself into acquiescence, in which whatever benefit he thought Sandusky provided the football program somehow outweighed the crimes Sandusky continued to commit. This is how otherwise moral people depart from the larger consensus of conduct.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Eleven Eleven Eleven

USS Lexington.
Photo by the author.
World War I was to have been the war to end all wars. The original holiday celebrating the end of war, Armistice Day, necessarily became Veterans Day when, with World War II, it became clear that war is far from over. There could hardly be a better object lesson that human nature survives even the most enlightened experiments in government. That said, there may be some reason for optimism. Although war is far from being merely an artifact of archaeology, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes he has found evidence that violence in all forms does seem to have declined as a factor in human experience. The singular insight of the skeptical conservative project is that human nature does not change much over time, and that therefore abandoning tradition wholesale is unwise. It would be a strong but welcome challenge to skeptical conservatism if it could be demonstrated that human nature is malleable enough that hope for paradise on earth is not just naïve utopianism. Time will tell. In the meantime, in advance of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of this century, we salute the veterans whose patriotism has made and preserved liberty.