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?”

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.

 

Text and Community

I run a small book discussion group through my local parish. This year, in coordination with the Pope’s own advice, we are tackling Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Fall we finished Inferno. This Lent we read Purigorio, then Paradiso after Easter.

For a while I have considered blogging about this project.Read2 Certainly re-reading the Comedia has changed my perspective on theology and the history of Catholic thought.

However, probably the single greatest insight I have gotten from re-reading Dante is just how much community means when experiencing a work of fiction. I first read and discussed the Inferno as part of a general-ed literature class in college. The impression it made on me would be hard to understate. With both Professor and students eager to dismiss the work as a grand Florentine revenge fantasy, the poem was quickly used to bolster my already unflattering view of the Medieval mind.

Needless to say, revisiting Dante’s hell with a group of orthodox Catholics is very different. The theology built into every layer of the burning perdition is too sophisticated for any modern Catholic to dismiss. The sins that bring the souls to their eternal torment are a little too close for any modern Christian’s comfort. The experience is rich, chilling, but not easily explained in words

There are certain works of art that might only be authentically experienced from inside a certain community. I remember thinking this again when seeing the new Star Wars movie on opening night. Not being a fan myself, I could understand something key about the film just by being in the audience. It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing the excitement, I could -in fact- understand a very different message being communicated. To the audience there, The Force Awakens was a fresh story of redemption even if the individual plot points were, well totally predictable. It was a story about their community, and ,more importantly about what it meant to truly like Star Wars. You had to be among them to really understand that.

Generalizing, it might be worth trying to read a book popular with an antagonistic community this way. I can’t be the first Christian who has wondered what it must be like to read The God Delusion with a group of atheists. I read the book a while back and found it to be preachy, tiresome and self-righteous, but I know people who have read it lovingly over twenty times. Perhaps the true appeal of Dawkin’s labored tirade could be better understood through seeing it read and discussed inside an atheist book group. Might it be less an explanation of scientific fact than a story of community’s exodus, liberation, and rebirth? This would indeed be a greater story.

Ideology in the Ivory Tower: Old and New

As the rehash notable news stories start rolling in for 2015, the conflict between campus radicalism and free speech has been an unavoidable addition. From the Yale halloween costume fiasco to the Missou poop-swastika, this has been a banner year for progressive campus melt-downs.

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A less well publicized scandal was a reciprocal right-wing over-reaction coming from a midwest evangelical college. While, I can’t say the incident is indicative of a larger trend, the story of a Wheaton Professor being suspended for wearing a hijab and stating that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” was certainly chilling. In fact, I find it odd that the incident didn’t get more media coverage, especially since it contrasted the main narrative of intransigent campus progressive busy-bodies cracking down on largely conservative victims.

Now the suspension of the Wheaton professor does has some caveats that make it less egregious than the radicals at Missou or Yale. Wheaton is explicitly religious and does not accept federal funds (in contrast to larger state-schools). The professor also signed an agreement to adhere to orthodox Christian doctrine as a condition of employment, an agreement that was arguably violated by her stating that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” (this might be argued one way or to the other).  However, despite these excuses, the incident at Wheaton demonstrates what the college is at its core. Wheaton is first and foremost a safe haven and platform for ideological instruction. It is only secondarily a community for exploring and exchanging ideas.

Strangely enough this evangelical perspective on the role of the university dovetails exactly with the oft-heard radical demand that secular campuses should primarily be homes for radicals to find shelter and make common cause. Both groups implicitly desire a situation where discussion and investigation take a back seat to moral insulation. In fact, the foundational idea of a Patrick Henry or a Wheaton college is identical to the cause of radical progressive activists. Setting aside that the progressives are lobbying for ideological control inside supposedly neutral state-financed institutions, the alignment of the two demands is telling.Meeting_of_doctors_at_the_university_of_Paris.jpg

But perhaps the convergence of the left and right over the idea of college as an ideological finishing school is not so coincidental. The original purpose of the university was in fact evangelization and training clergy (see Harvard’s own history). It was not until the late German enlightenment that the university was put forward as a non-ideological space for debate and investigation. Subsequently the idea was copied throughout the 19th and 20th century and only then became universal throughout the modern world. But this transformation may only be temporary. Ultimately, the 20th century perspective of a neutral and intrepid institution of higher education might itself represent only a marked intermission between the university’s role as an organ of Christian evangelization and the university’s new role an organ of Marxist and progressive evangelization.

Too much digital ink has already been spilled lamenting the closed mindedness of the modern campuses and I don’t intend to spill more here retreading the same tired points. However, before we completely resign ourselves to the death of the intellectual university there might be a few reservations that should be considered even by those firmly enconsed in the left or right side of the culture war.

There is a central problem with treating advanced education as an ideological finishing school; namely, it really only works well in societies where the indoctrinated viewpoint is nearly universal. Hence, the old Christian colleges of the renaissance worked very well in times of universal religiosity but began to shift in their foundations after the move towards secularization in the late 19th century. As students, it’s just not very comfortable moving from an ideologically pure university to a society where those very principles are routinely called into question. The education feels incomplete.

I have noticed this phenomenon in some of my own friends who have come from more conservative communities and subsequently attended ideologically conservative Catholic colleges. Many of them – even those still firmly committed to their faith – seem wistful for the opportunity of greater engagement with the intellectual ideas that undergird the society that they now occupy. It’s one thing to be educated as a conservative Catholic to live among one’s own while dealing with outsiders only through activism, it’s quite another to take this educational perspective to the life of a minority in a highly secular city such as New York or San Francisco. It occurred to me many times that these student’s own religious perspectives might have been made more confident had their alma mater made a greater effort to incorporate controversy and contrasting views into the ideological curriculum.

Sure+it+s+only+free+for+straight+white+males+typical+cis+privilege+_2574036b86bedd0691457f93070af4cbThere are be some lessons here, most obviously for those religious conservatives calling for a further “Benedict-option” withdrawal from contemporary society. But more so, I think there is a stark warning for progressives. So far it seems that the breakneck leftward lurch of the universities was catalyzed by similar leftward shift in major urban areas. Without the assurance that alumni would not be greatly perturbed in their progressive perspective during their post college lives, the radical tilt could have never been accomplished with such ease. It’s not hard to graduate a generation of college students with no knowledge of non-progressive ideology if those students are headed towards lives in an urban area that votes 99.9% democrat.

However the ideological shift in the university towards radical pedagogy may make their indoctrination all the more brittle. Progressives might assure themselves that they will maintain a near ideological monopoly in the academy. However, the near conformity of the progressive world-view in wealthy urban communities is unlikely to be sustained. If history is any guide, urban areas are prone to ideological flux. This change may not be conservative, Christian or even Western in nature but ultimately the universal progressive dominance of urban spaces will eventually fall.

With this change to, radicalized universities will finally have to come to terms with their roles as ideological clearing houses for a very particular kind of religion. Perhaps, more disconcertingly students graduated from these institutions will have to come to terms with their roles as evangelical ideologues placed within an intellectual environment of which they have no understanding, nor tools to confront. Perhaps this will be an environment to forge a new generation of intrepid progressive missionaries but it certainly won’t be a place of safe-spaces and trigger warnings.

Resolutions and Blogging in 2016

Welcome 2016!

No I haven’t formed any of my New Year’s resolutions, but there are some changes coming to this site. I am taking up blogging again on a more regular basis and the focus will be slightly changed to emphasize shorter posts with more audio and illustrations.

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Some additions I am working on:

  • Comics and Illustrations Page –  consolidates the comics and illustrations that I have been working on
  • Lectures and Videos – contains links to my youtube channel and playlists that feature discussions and lectures on a variety of topics
  • Essays – All the long form articles that appear on the blog organized according to their subject
  • Sources for Community  – Links to resources for community and local subsidiarity

See you in the next year!

The Distributist’s Guide to Community Service

With the holiday volunteering season well underway, several friends have forwarded me an opinion/comedy clip, from the increasingly popular youtube series: Adam Ruins Everything. The video explains the problem of organizing the typical “canned” food drive. It’s short and certainly worth a view.

There is a lot to say about this. First it’s important to point out that the video does make a lot of valid points.  It is categorically better to give money to food banks rather than cans and there is a problem with people donating unusable goods, spoiled and non-nutritious food to aid organizations.  Also, as a frequent volunteer, I can attest to the fact that people oftentimes underestimate the labor needed to transport and sort donations as well as the sheer volume of food that a bank discards due to spoilage.

But good grief, this video is insufferably smug. I mean, take a look at the still frame that closes out Adam’s argument:

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Does this look like two people exploring a better way to serve their community? Of course not. This is a picture of two people who are trying to upstage each other on the scale of social-justice piety. Adam just won and Emily is chewing on the cold gristle of being wrong, a bitter pill indeed.

But this snarky attitude is hardly unique to this video. Increasingly, in the post-John-Stewart era of social commentary, conversations concerning justice are brought forward by people who seem more invested in the rightness of their argument than in encouraging concern for their cause.

But why does a conversation about charity have to be like this? Isn’t everyone trying to help? It’s puzzling, and indeed the problem itself might indicate something deeper about how society conceptualizes virtue and service.

Our modern era is in a transitional period between two overarching ethical systems. On the one hand modern society embraces a broad utilitarianism that reduces good to the delivery of the maximum resources to the maximum number of people. On the other hand, we have a fleeting  commitment to Christian virtue ethics which emphasizes sacrifice and commitment above purely strategic benefits to the individual or society. Although, much of modern culture emphasizes the cohesion between these two belief systems there remains an un-resolvable conflict between the perspectives.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see why the utilitarian perspective is dominant in the modern world. Utilitarianism is comfortable, easy to visualize, and safe. It reduces a complicated questions about obligation to simpler questions about management and strategy. Utilitarianism can easily be integrated into any large corporate or government structure. It fits on a balance sheet and is easy to conceptualize in an economy mostly run from excel sheets.

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John Stuart Mill, circa 1870

But at a basic level, I think people still yearn for the older notion of virtue.  We all feel that service to the community is good in a way that transcends its basic economic benefit. We admire people who dedicate  their lives to the poor even if those same individuals might have generated more utility by getting a job at Goldman-Sachs and cutting a million dollar check to charity at the end of a lucrative career. Virtue is not a question of economic effectiveness, rather it is rooted in a central obligation to a cause greater than oneself. But classical virtue is not a concept that can be easily translated into the utilitarian language of John Stuart Mill. Strictly speaking there is no room for concepts like altruism and nobility in a system designed to describe the provision of benefits.

Given this absence, there is a temptation to recast virtue into a new utilitarian framework. Instead of a virtue defined by service and sacrifice, perhaps actions might be deemed virtuous in so far as they result in quantifiable progress towards solving society’s problems. This is how most modern progressives think of virtue and it certainly sounds logical enough. After all, this is an objective measure of the good we are doing for others, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well everything in fact. Not only is the utilitarian concept of virtue deeply at odds with human psychology, from a practical point of view the perspective is a sure fire recipe for despair and exhaustion when it comes to charitable endeavors.

Sure, we volunteered at a food bank this week, but the same people will come in the next week looking no better, so what good has been accomplished? Sure, we donated 200 dollars to poverty relief this month, but is the problem any closer to getting solved? Our own contribution is in the rounding error of the Gates Foundation’s yearly dispensation, so will our own effort even be noticed?

At a time when our perspective on world problems is so acute and our ability to contribute so limited, a virtue derived from the utility is extremely difficult to appreciate.

However, just as the utilitarian perspective diminishes the perceived value of service and charity, it amplifies the perceived significance of activism.  Since noticeable results develop from large macro-cosmic changes, identifying as an “activist” emphasizes the role an individual plays in globally addressing the problem, an outcome with easy to visualize utility. The impact of raising awareness seems large because it emphasizes the completed goal rather than the work done to get there, by contrast personal service and charity are by their very nature local actions. Therefore, an enormous amount of perceived virtue can be gained simply by being right about an important humanitarian issue.

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Perception of virtue in a utilitarian system

Of course this is all perception. It’s not clear that a part-time activist has more impact than a regular volunteer. But the attraction of being the person who “sets everyone straight” on the issue rather than the person who does the material labor is obvious. Not only is writing e-mails and tweets easier than waking up early and going to a homeless shelter, being a “Hunger Activist” sounds so much cooler than being a “Regular Food Bank Volunteer”. Therefore we will always have more people demanding “an end to homelessness” than show up on a cold Sunday morning to sort donations.

I think this goes to the heart of the endemic smugness in Adam’s video. It may even be at the heart of the unending pretentiousness regarding organic food, carbon-emissions and other pieties discussed endlessly in progressive media. The person who informs other people about the “right” way to do things is virtuous because he is fighting for the ultimate solution and is therefore better than the people working on the problem in the “wrong” way. When you’re on the right side of history, you really don’t need to bother getting your hands dirty over the details.

Now all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t point out new and better ways to serve our community. Insight and activism are valuable. But dare I say that the lack of a robust service ethic might be hurting our motivation to get out and actually help society? We need to join a community before we begin to steer it, and the most important step towards forming an effective solution is caring enough to show up and work on the problem in the first place.

As statistics can attest, volunteering is down. This is a real problem for contemporary society. Even from a utilitarian point of view, a strong community is necessary to develop citizens willing to pay forward service, charity, and activism. Therefore the old-fashioned focus on dedication and service may ultimately be more effective at generating utility, albeit indirectly.

Perhaps we can take a different perspective to service going forward. Why not focus on participating in at least one local volunteer organization to the extent that one recognizes the names and faces of the people who work there. Be a person who can understand, from experience, the specific problems and challenges of a local organization. This starts with participation in service groups even if we are aware that they have flaws. This is the first step to building the kind of community that will make exponentially more progress towards solving problems. In the meantime let’s get to work. Even if there are problems the participation itself make a difference.

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Community means involvement

Does your community meal program not serve fresh organic food? Don’t worry about it. Concerned that the people who visit the foodbank are using it for non-essential supplemental income? That’s not your immediate concern. Are you thinking that you might be better off donating the money rather than judging a high school science fair? Trust me, you probably won’t.

Just show up and volunteer. You are helping more than you might think.

Mining Healthcare Data : A Modern Rumpelstilskin Story

Via Megan McArdle: the New York times and the Washington Post are reporting on recent problems stemming from the Obama Administration’s Healthcare-data project. Apparently data analysts studying health impacts of new programs are not controlling their experimental samples. Whereas ideally the government’s analysis would be the basis for crafting intelligent policy, the New York Time’s description calls into question the robustness of the research being conducted.healthData

“The studies that are regarded as the most reliable randomly assign people or institutions to participate in a program or to go on as usual, and then compare outcomes for the two groups to see if the intervention had an effect.

Instead, the Innovation Center has so far mostly undertaken demonstration projects; about 40 of them are now underway. Those projects test an idea, like a new payment system that might encourage better medical care — with all of a study’s participants, and then rely on mathematical modeling to judge the results.”

The superficial approach described above is odd because it seemingly flies in the face of conventional approaches statistical modeling. For those not familiar, establishing a randomized control is essential to getting results that don’t just confirm the hypothesis is being tested. You can see this problem in the infamous Israeli Air Force Study(a really informative overview of this concept can be found on YouTube), and it’s been a long standing statistical understanding that, when possible, randomized control samples are always preferable.

So why do government analysts feel so confident that they can dispense with what has, until recently, been an essential feature in any statistical experiment? Well because they’ve got great data-mining technology!  Here, the word “mathematical modeling” does a lot of work in obscuring the real methods that the government is using. Mathematical modeling can really mean anything, and ironically the NYT’s link on this description is broken.

Megan McArdle, has a good take on the possible sources of the mistake: sloppy thinking on the part of federal bureaucrats. Says McArdle:

Gold’s article implies that the administration is looking at gross savings — which is to say, it’s just reporting the amount of money saved by the accountable-care organizations that ended up on the positive side of the ledger, even though this is less than half the total. Statisticians have a term for this: the Texas sharpshooter fallacy…..

Perhaps, I may be even more cynical than McArdle, but my take is somewhat different.rumpel

Given that the administration has been unable to produce evidence of healthcare savings from increased coverage, it is fair to say that the president is feeling pressure to come up with some statistical result that will make costs appear more reasonable  (at least ahead of the next CBO estimate). Moreover, without speculating too much as to the overall structure of bureaucratic management, I don’t think it is unlikely that individual analysts are also feeling the pressure to deliver “good” results, especially with all of these cool new “big data” tools so prominently featured in the news.

The result is predictable: a sort of magical thinking arises where data-mining and complex models become panacea for turning poorly conducted statistical tests into predictive models showing large savings from new “innovative” approaches to delivering healthcare. Of course the results are all confirmation bias, but who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth? Certainly not an administration desperate for good news on the healthcare front.

Now admittedly, I have no inside information, but if this kind of sloppy analysis is indeed going on then it is certainly a cause for concern. The one-sided use of over-optimistic healthcare predictions could lead the CBO to perennial underestimate the cost of supporting programs like Medicare in their current state. This in turn could ultimately doom these program’s long-term solvency (not to mention the long term solvency of the country) since politicians are all too willing to forgo necessary reform in the light of CBO reports that tell them healthcare costs will come down on their own accord.

But ultimately this problem is not political. It stems from a cultural approach to data analysis that is far too prevalent in industry and in government. I like to think of it as a modern day Rupelstilskin story. What do we have? Reams of uncontrolled data. What Do We Want? Optimistic predictive results. With this point of view, it’s tempting to simply lock analysts in a room and ask them to build mathematical models until they finally manage to spin the straw data into golden predictive models like the miller’s daughter from the aforementioned fairy tale.

But just as in the fairytale, when we force someone to spin straw into gold, it shouldn’t be surprising when magical methods play a large role in their process. Moreover, in the case of the government’s own analysis the Rupelstilskin metaphor can be taken yet further. For in trusting their magic numbers, our current leaders may have put the next generation on the line for the results.