Three By Chesterton

I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.

First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.

Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.

Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”

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A Lecture on Incompleteness and Truth

Below is a lecture I gave to the Socratic Forum for Thought on the subject of Kurt Godel’s marvelous Incompleteness Theorem and its relevance to philosophy.

I have to admit, I found this to be a hard topic since it cut a fine line between rigorous abstract logic and more loose metaphysics. Most in attendance received the talk well, perhaps I will do another in the future.

The Mirror of the Arbitrary Standard

Still fresh off the campus PC-wars of 2015, a recent article from the New York Times highlights Mizzou’s new approach to teaching academic race theory. A key quote illustrates the tenor:

“And then there was Dr. Brooks, a 43-year-old African-American who teaches “Race and Ethnic Relations” and challenged the students to think about race through the prism of sports. He offered a gentle explanation of the Williams/Sharapova discrepancy: “Maria is considered a beauty queen, but by what standards of beauty? Some people might just say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just prettier.’ Well, according to whom? This spells out how we see beauty in terms of race, this idea of femininity. Serena is often spoofed for her big butt. She’s seen as too muscular.”

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Clash of the Standards

There has been some push-back on this piece from the right-leaning side of the blogosphere. Indeed there is much to criticize. Dr. Brooks’ assertions are the all-to-typical progressive pablum, eternally oblivious to the realities of marketing and what the general public want in advertising icons. At the end of the day, most evidence suggests that marketers cater to preexisting desires rather than injecting foreign ones into their subjects’ subconscious. If there is a legitimate critique of the reigning “beauty standard”, it will have to start on a much deeper psychological level than the salary differentials between two tennis stars.

But there is a much broader problem in this “dialogue”. The title claims that it is a “blunt” conversation on race, but there is nothing blunt about it. This is the standard “question your assumptions” line that is trot out by progressive teachers who think they understand deconstructionism but don’t. The nature of deconstruction is that it never stops. Since the perspective assumes that there is “nothing but the text”, it will eventually reduce all arguments to mere words. It is the universal solvent that cannot be contained.

In the future, historians will doubtless attribute the current popularity of this intellectual approach to the insular nature of the academy. In short, campus progressives only feel comfortable using such deconstruction-style tactics because they are confident in their unshakable monopoly within conversations on race and society. The second the monopoly is broken and the non-progressive deconstructionist enters the conversation, all meaning disintegrates and no progress can be made.

For instance, Serena Williams’  body type is indeed disadvantaged under our society’s “arbitrary standard of beauty” which prioritizes subtle curves over muscular angles. But is not Maria Sharapova also disadvantaged by an equally arbitrary standard called The Rules of Tennis? Tennis, by construction, advantages tall players with muscle and long limbs who can slam the ball across the court. A relatively petite woman, like Sharapova, can’t compete in this regard and probably never will. But once we question this standard, why do we even care about Williams or Sharapova at all? We are left only with words, not a meaningful exchange.

I have long wondered how our the modern millennial college grads, educated in such a selectively ideological environment, would react once entering slightly less homogeneous urban areas. My recent experiences have not been encouraging. Where in college my progressive friends had been radical idealists, they now think in terms of power and control. Oddly enough, I found that this phenomenon similar to the attitude I encountered when interviewing members of the fringe alt-right community. No one seemed much concerned about morality or hypocrisy, they just wanted their side to be the one in control of things.

I worry that we may have educated the first generation that actually believes expediency to be the sole value in life. But, perhaps this is my own pessimism. The unsung saints of this age may indeed be too meek to be noticed prominently. But wherever they are, I hope they are considering careers in higher education.

The Value of Debate as Read in Congress….. 

My last post on the alt-right generated quite a deal of feedback from the rightwing fringe community. I was able to engage a few of them in debate (one of which was recorded in a google hangout). I have to confess making much less headway than I had anticipated, despite a few of them being self-described Catholics. At the end of the day the difference between my perspectives and those of the nationalists was too great. The values too far removed.

Sometimes it does seem that faith in rational conversation is foolhardy. Very few people come to a debate in order to learn. In this age of culture war and societal fragmentation one is more likely to leave a conversation despairing about the fundamental lack of common values.

Ironically, today I came across a video of an essay being read in congress with quite a contrasting view. I found it encouraging, not the least because it dismantled two reigning myths: 1.) that Christian apologetics are fundamentally dogmatic and 2.) that senators are uniformly uncultured. I submit the following without further comment.

 

A Late Encounter with the Enemy

There has been much written about the inexplicable emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican frontrunner in 2016. Not surprisingly, people want an explanation for his popularity. It’s not simply that Trump is a dark horse, it’s that neither his campaign nor his constituents line up with what is considered conservative. A Trump victory at this point might upend the entire political balance, perhaps even creating a new ideological force in American politics.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames

Trump lives…..

One article that has gotten all too little attention is Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece on a late political activist’s influence on the Trump campaign. That activist, a man by the name of Sam Francis, advised the 96′ Buchanan campaign to make a wholehearted appeal to nationalism in order to further woo the then unaffiliated white working class. A strategy that was ultimately rejected by Buchanan himself. Says Dougherty:

To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots….

What is so crucial to Trump’s success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy. He is doing the very thing Pat Buchanan could not, and would not do. And in this, he is following the advice of Sam Francis to a degree almost unthinkable.

It’s a good explanation of the Donald’s appeal. But the presence of Sam Francis’s ideas in the Trump campaign – paired with strange tweets by Trump himself – have much darker implications for state of white identity in America than might be gleamed from Dougherty’s article.

Almost a decade ago, as part of an early college interest in fringe ideas, I came across Francis’s name associated with the then emergent “paleocon” movement. At that time older conservatives like Pat Buchannan were looking for a platform to advocate protectionist and isolationist ideas, contrasting the then dominant neocons. However, Sam Francis took that project one step further.

Working for far-right publications such as the Occidental Quarterly, Francis advocated a wholesale return to ethnic and racial monoculture. Part nostalgia, part crypto-racist tirade, Francis became known as a stepping stone between conservatism and racial nationalism. By the time I came across his work in 2005 he and his like-minded contemporaries had formed a small but prolific online band. This was the beginning of what would later be known as the alternative right.

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Sam Francis, a founder of the alt-right

At the time it was community of refugees: people who had grown up appreciating the solidarity, familiarity, and racism (through not the rank bigotry) of an earlier white America.  To the followers of Francis, the United States had been betrayed by the 1965 immigration act and could only be restored by its total reversal. How this was to be accomplished was never addressed. And while these people certainly weren’t skinhead Nazis, their contempt for non-white and non-Western immigrants was palatable.

Truth be told, I found this movement fascinating in a dark way. As a millennial educated in a progressive public school, I had been warned of evil white racists dedicated to excluding minorities. In the real world these maleficent forces were ever absent. But here at last, in a bizarre corner of the internet, were the true enemies, the racists against which all multicultural piety had been raised against. Like an old soldier stationed in a remote garrison finally catching sight of the enemy’s banner, I found arguing against the alt-right perversely exhilarating.

However, as a nefarious adversary to multiculturalism, the movement was somewhat underwhelming. Certainly the alt-right had its intellectuals, some were even talented. But those who could think and write seemed pathologically obsessed with “race realism” -the idea that racial groups have distinct and immutable physiological differences. Not unlike the modern new-atheists, alt-right thinkers were ever convinced that they had “cracked the code” and unmasked the fraud of modern liberalism. While congratulating themselves on being “brave enough to see the truth”,  they underestimated the uncertainties in the science and over-estimated its potential impact on modern society.

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 A late encounter with the enemy…

But the fledgling alt-right movement had bigger internal problems yet. Composed mainly of old baby-boomers, the community was aging fast. And while each of the cohort thoroughly denounced laws they saw as leading to America’s decline, they didn’t seem to have a single plausible policy proposal. Later that year, when I heard Sam Francis had died, I considered the movement all but ready for the dustbin of history.

More fool I. Now, a decade later, the movement is alive and thriving. The very web communities I wrote off as aging and stagnant in 2005 are, in 2016, filled with enthusiastic young voices using real names and faces to espouse explicit racial nationalism. Some can even write societal critiques that are genuinely thought provoking . Whatever happened to the alt-right, its decline was my own wishful thinking

Of course, it is always hard to gauge the relative popularity of an online community. As seen from Tumblr, it’s all too easy to mistake the ardor of core members with general political strength. But as the Trump candidacy has itself demonstrated, America seems ripe for such a movement. The alt-right knows this and ultimately the Trump campaign might be just the beginning of a larger crisis in white American identity. Contemporary liberalism ignores the phenomenon at its peril.

At this point I can hear the objections from my more level-headed readers. Why should we worry about this fringe movement? Won’t discrediting such explicitly racist ideas be easy in the modern progressive age? Well, to tell you the truth, I am not sure.

Fundamentally, the power of the civil rights movement derived from a core moral appeal to egalitarian justice. It was the Christian principles laid out in King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail that forged America’s commitment to integration and its subsequent rejection of racism and white ethnic nationalism. But such old-fashioned moral infrastructure has now been deliberately undermined by generations of progressive identity politics. When appeals of to specific racial interests become explicit, can poorer whites be long maintained in the belief that their own group interests are illegitimate?

Even the language used to identify bigotry has been fundamentally cheapened. Under white-privilege theory, the definition of “racist” now seems to include most every person of European descent. Not surprisingly the term no longer has the same impact. Even I find myself reacting to it less and less. When I was young a “racist” was a person who maliciously harmed his fellow citizens, today it’s the frat boy down the street who threw an insensitive party on Cinco de Mayo. As when an antibiotic is overused, it is only a matter of time until a resistant strain emerges.

We have a tendency to believe our own propaganda. As such symbolic preparation for an old enemy is often misguided and fundamentally ineffective. As the French discovered about the Third Reich and the Chinese discovered about the Golden Horde, highly publicized defensive structures have a tendency to be naive. The idealistic demonization of a foe prevents the very understanding necessary to confront him in reality.

I shouldn’t overstate the case. Even in its reinvigorated form, the alt-right is a disorganized trainwreck. Yet, looking at it again, it’s hard not to recognize it as a malignant tumor steadily growing in one of modern culture’s largest blindspots.

We should be vigilant. If careless liberal America might yet be shaken to its core by a late encounter with the enemy.

Leah Libresco (audio): “Accidental Stylites: The Benedict Option”

An amazing talk by Leah Libresco on how to build community through small groups. I really liked the story about Leah’s dinner community that became a focal point for young adult organization in her community. Worth a listen.

Theology on Tap

From Theology on Tap @ the Rattlesnake on 13 January 2016

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That Dragon, Cancer….

Despite the unending internet controversy, I remain resolute in my stance that video games cannot be art. Games contain a fundamental opposition at their core between players and audiences that cannot be resolved. Failing some huge revolution in Western culture where we suddenly conceptualize beauty as something you can “win”, I wouldn’t expect the next Picasso to be releasing his work at a GameStop.

Still, every now and again I see a new title that makes me question my conviction. Enter That Dragon, Cancer, a small indy game being released this winter. The game is an auto-biography that tells the story of a young Christian couple and their struggle with the extended sickness and death of their infant son, Joel.

Yes, I know this sounds like a macabre subject for a video game, but it makes more sense when the entire story is told. The NPR show ReplyAll does a good job explaining:

This is by no means the first artsy viewpoint-style video game. But from what I can tell, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form one step further. It contains genuine emotion that I just haven’t seen in titles like Gone Home or Life is Strange. Moreover, there is a raw power apparent in the story. It’s certainly art, even if it’s ultimately not much of a game.

But the strangest component of this game is its apparent focus on religion. Christianity is at the heart of That Dragon, Cancer. The central layout is a cathedral, the family’s own spiritual beliefs are a driver of the plot, and the original purpose of the game was to express the emotions felt during a moment of prayer. Ultimately, I will be very interested to see how these themes are expressed in the medium of video games.

The central problem of art in video games has always been player choice. Video games put the player at the center of making decisions beyond the creator’s control. Thus there is an interplay between the two where the desire of the artist to challenge assumptions and the desire of the player to escape reality are at odds. The more the artist introduces a strong narrative and challenging messages, the more a constraints are needed to steer players away from their natural inclination towards self-affirming fun.

In the past artsy video games like Limbo and Bioshock have addressed the problem of choice by making the futility of the player’s decisions a central theme. With enough existential “Waiting-For-Gidot style” doom, a player can be artfully compelled towards an art-house ending without damaging the realism. A seemingly open world where the character’s minor decisions cannot assuage their final doom might be the plot of every French existentialist novel, but it’s also an easily programmable format for a video game.

But the subject of futility and choice also have a direct relationship to prayer. Prayer is a difficult thing to explain to most non-religious people. Do believers really believe they are influencing the will of God? Do the pious think they can bend the universe with the force of supplication? If not, isn’t the whole endeavor futile?  All these questions are fair, but very difficult to answer without extended analogy. To the religious prayer comes naturally, and there is is an ineffable flow and logic to those who practice it regularly.

During more religious ages powerful scenes of prayer in fiction were passed over with little commentary. Our contemporary age is quite different. When so few people practice devotion themselves, a depiction of such requires explanation. But is any verbal explanation adequate?

The central inspiration for That Dragon, Cancer was a prayer of a father for his son when nothing else seemed to make a difference. Certainly, the prayer neither stopped the cancer nor ceased the pain, but was it futile? Perhaps prayer might be better thought of as something that brings rational order to a reality that would otherwise seem cruel and futile. It might even be possible that this side of prayer is better expressed in a video game than in written theology.

I’ll be looking forward to “playing” That Dragon, Cancer when it comes out. However, I might have to force myself to play all the way through. A strange problem for such a typically addictive medium.