An Atlas of Ethica Mundi: A Fantasy

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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.

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.

A Discussion on Ethics and History – part two

The continuation of the conversation on ethics with Damien Athope. This leg touches on the history and teaching application of ethics.

The conversation goes on a bit long and is cut-off towards the end. Certainly not as focused as part 1.

A Discussion on Ethics and Objectivity -part one

A recent discussion I had with Damien Athope on ethics and objectivity. This talk largely traced similar ground to a previous discussion that I had with Jersey Flight. Still, it might be of some interest.

The second half of the discussion that addresses the history of ethics and contemporary issues will follow shortly.

How to Suck At Your Atheism

A few years back I came across a rather condescending web-comic by the ordinarily entertaining “The Oatmeal” entitled

“How to Suck at Your Religion”

The comic was tirade of anti-religious stereotypes and inspired a bit of anger on my part, not the least because I felt that the jabs were not only untrue but altogether unworthy of the author who should have known better.

Indeed, there have been Catholic responses, most notably here, but at the time I felt that a more direct counter-punch was in order. So, I began to set my pen to the obvious counter-point : “How to Suck at Your Atheism”.

Needless to say, constructing a web comic was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I had drawn the outline and the first draft of the panels while recovering from surgery, it took me almost 2 years to complete the entire production.

Once you start on a project it’s hard to stop and although I am satisfied in the quality of the production, I have to admit being a little embarrassed about the final message. This must be the most condescending straw-man laden argument that I have ever made. My only excuse is that it was written (if not entirely produced) in anger and meant as a satirical response to equally condescending source material.

And, if nothing else, it’s just a bit of good fun…

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Just so I don’t get called out, there is an accompanying set of footnotes. The permalink can be found here https://datadistributist.wordpress.com/how-to-suck-at-your-atheism/

-Footnotes-

  1. This panel refers Dawkin’s advocacy of rational dialectic between secular and religious individuals. His speech at the 2012 “REASON” rally betrayed this conviction when he called on atheists to mock and bully religious individuals.
  2. Bill Maher has been one of the highest profile atheists since his 2008 film “Religulous”. His opposition to vaccinations has been well-documented. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/25/bill_mahers_bizarre_anti_vaccine_rant_stop_calling_these_people_kooks_and_liars/
  3. Dawkin’s has mentioned his opposition to fairy-tales at The Cheltenham Science Festival. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/professor-richard-dawkins-claims-fairy-tales-are-harmful-to-children-9489287.html
  4. Tyson has voiced his opposition to philosophy as a discipline several times. https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/
  5. The science-meme revelers are indicative of many of the threads on the Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/IFeakingLoveScience
  6. The Atheism Bohr Atom is used by the American Atheists http://www.religioustolerance.org/atheist6.htm
  7. The slavery panel references the well-documented scientific racism of the 19th and early 20th century
  8. There is a general reference to internet fights between left and right-style atheists.
  9. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the Iraq War and was one of the war’s biggest defenders. Subsequently, there were soldiers who did enlist due to his advocacy. One of those soldiers famously perished in 2007 http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/11/hitchens200711. Hitchens transformation from geopolitical commentator to anti-religious firebrand occurred at roughly the same time.
  10. This is a reference to the history of the French Revolution when the idealistic atheist Maximilian Robespierre turned draconian tyrant in an attempt to strip traditional and religious culture from France. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Robespierre
  11. The relative body count between the 20th century communists and the inquisition has been well documented not least by García Cárcel, (inquisition) and Jean-Louis Panné (communism).

https://datadistributist.wordpress.com/how-to-suck-at-your-atheism/

Blogging Orthodoxy 7: An Eternal Golden Thread

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with :

Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy

I consider The Romance of Orthodoxy to be the weakest chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything that we haven’t heard in the previous chapters. To this point Chesterton has already talked at length about how a mystical love of the universe is needed to value life and how mystical skepticism is needed to reform it. He has reviewed in detail the dangers of trying to conceive of the world as purely rational and visited the mistakes humanism has made when attempting to achieve reform without understanding the concept of the ideal. With all of this already said, one might wonder why Chesterton spends his eighth chapter rehashing many of these same points. But although The Romance of Orthodoxy may seem entirely redundant, I think Gilbert does have a point. However laboriously, by the end of the eighth Chapter, Chesterton has built towards a singular question, perhaps the question for anyone reading a book about Catholicism and not Catholic themselves: Despite the fact that there may be some, possibly incidental, truths in the Faith, why actually be Catholic?

Though Chesterton answers this question mainly in his last chapter, it was this question that dominated our reading group’s discussion on The Romance of Orthodoxy. And for good reason. Our patron was certainly speaking for everyone when he pointed out that this question was the question that our modern age has saimtsfor the Catholic Church. Not Why do You believe in God? not Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  not even Why are you Christian? but Why be Catholic?  It’s a question that Catholics hear all the time. And no one ever has a really good answer.

I admit, it is a hard question because the question is inseparable from historical record. God and Jesus may be eternal and unsullied, but the Church is very much a being of history and as most people are aware, it has had quite a long one. Moreover, unlike Muslims, Atheists, and Buddhists, Catholics for, the most part, are singularly conscious of their Church’s historical misdeeds. I’ve noticed that, despite believing in the Church’s mission, Catholics tend to avoid asserting that their Church has historically bore witness to the gospel of Jesus. And, given this record, it’s probably no surprise that secular people can’t take the concept seriously either.

Even after coming to believe in God, I found the concept of the Catholic Church being a force for any kind of good in history to be utterly ridiculous. Of course I knew enough history to discount many of the common atheists myths surrounding Catholicism spun by those like Christopher Hitchens and it was not necessary to dispel common exaggerations about the relative violence of the Church to other factions in history. But nonetheless, beyond statistical nitpicking, there was human reality of the Church’s terrible role in history that had to be confronted. It may be true that the Spanish Inquisition killed only around 3000 people, but, for an institution that claims every human is the image of God, the inquisition was an atrocity more revolting than the 20 million souls trod under by Genghis Khan. And so the central question remained.

A common, and not entirely inadequate, response is that the Church itself is fallen and flawed like all other human institutions. I have to say, this perspective, while truthful, didn’t satisfy me initially. If the Church was truly the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching on earth then it must be much more than one fallen entity among many. If the history of human existence is one long line of tarnished treasures, why should one particular piece be worthy of adoration?

I began to see a better explanation when reading The Screwtape Letters where the demonic Screwtape counsels his understudy on how the Church on earth can stand in contrast to the divine Church as seen from time immemorial.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church screwtapeas we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.

Though C.S. Lewis’ target with this passage was pettiness among parishioners and not grand historical crimes, his thoughts formed in me the first inkling of a concept I later came to accept. There might be something in the Church beyond what is superficially seen in the institution. The true Church might be less like a tarnished golden chalice and more like a small golden thread, that while almost invisible against the backdrop of the soil that covers it, still leads onward towards its luminous source. And as I looked at the Church in history, there did seem to be just such a thread running through it. The Catholics referred to it as The Lives of the Saints.

Often times the word Hagiography is used loosely to condemn whitewashed and arduously positive biographies. But I found nothing arduous or whitewashed about the lives of the Saints. The Saints were flawed individuals but in their moments of grace they became something far greater than themselves and the times in which they lived. The saints were real. More real than other historical figures and more real even than the figures that occupy our contemporary StatueTriumphjpgworld. Most people, from politicians and celebrities to ordinary grocers and policeman, are carried along with the flow of history, working from within their time and place to do the best they can. But the Saint stands still, the ebb and flow of their time and culture folding around their lives like the waters of a stream against a stationary rock. In communion, the Saints stand apart from history like a series golden links. The institutional Church, as we see it today, acts simply as a container for this more glorious witness. It keeps the doctrines, the sacraments, and the records of the Saint’s coming. But in the end, it is simply an observer, in waiting, and in anticipation of something greater than itself.

At this point I have probably lost my secular audience and I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of looking at Catholic history with rose-tinted glasses. Couldn’t one take the most shinning examples of any institution and hold them aloft? How would this then justify the Catholic Church above other institutions? Again, without answering these objections directly, I would like offer a caveat. From my own experience, it is actually rare for institutions to justify themselves by pointing to a past communion of truly good people. Much more common is to look back at the powerful and argue that their evil actions weren’t really evil, or that their evil actions were necessary do to the particular situations of the age. But the Saints have no reason to be recognized but for their goodness. Some are meek and others powerful, but their common communion is only virtue. Here, there is something truly unique: a link to the past that is more divine and accessible than any other past heroism can provide. Few have the intelligence to be an Einstein, the power to be Caesar, or the wealth to be a Rockafeller, but the goodness of a Catherine of Sienna or a Saint Francis of Assisi is available to every person at every moment of their lives. We have but to reach forward and accept it.

It seems the modern world is sorely in need of just this conception of Saintly continuity. We all have an innate desire to look back and see an unbroken chain of idealism leading from the past on into the future, and of course we fasten upon the great leaders and thinkers of our history to serve this purpose. Right-wingers have their obsession with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, while the left has their devotion to Margaret Sanger and Harvey Milk. But modern history is none too slow at finding the flaws in any of the great idols of our past. Behind every Jefferson there is slavery, Northern rose window of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Chartres, Francebehind every Sanger there is Eugenics. The great leaders and thinkers of the past are all compromised just as every empire that is old is also brutal. So modern man is left, looking back at a history of moral ambiguity, disconnected from any concept that his ancestors had anything to teach him.

I believe it is this very disconnect that enables the progressive view of history to become so popular. With a past of unmitigated misery and evil, we may want to believe in a present and future that will inevitably be better, not just in material comforts, but in human goodness. But this progressive vision does nothing but impede our ability to live as good people in our daily lives. With the idea of goodness inevitably expanding, we forget the very important reality that, in any age, being virtuous is difficult. To be good, truly good, is a task so herculean as to be almost impossible, and we discount this fact at our own moral peril.

I must now return to the question posed at the onset of the discussion: Why Be Catholic? For myself, it is because I see the Church as a historic moral teacher, not through the institution, but through the narrow paths walked by the saints in obscurity. The Catholic Church has committed many crimes, but this does not set it aside from any other historical institution. Every cause and great leader is flawed from Pericles and the Athenian Democracy to George Washington and our current Republic. I get the sense that when most people look back on their ancestor’s history they are in fact looking for some progressive thread through which to learn moral lessons. And here the institutional Catholic Church has played a prophetic role. It has discovered just such a thread in the live of the Saints. And although it is flawed as an institution, the Church may act as a sign post for the greatest moral teachers the world has ever known.

At the close of this article, I am reminded of an oft-repeated Catholic adage-“there is only one true tragedy in life and that is to not be Saint”. There is certainly truth in that statement, but if it is entirely accurate then the world is quite a tragic place. Of course, we have all known great individuals living selfless lives of grace, but they are quite rare. For the most part we plod along, not willing to fight against the current of our modern age and personal desires. The path of true righteousness is narrow. It is not a golden carpet that will roll out easily in front of us. We are not good by nature and, as such, teachers are needed. So Christians must tirelessly search for the good people in the narrow and dirty places of the world looking for the living Saints that can continue to guide us. As in all ages past, we will stumble and struggle to find this thread of true human compassion, but as difficult as the task may be it is absolutely necessary. For if we desire to be bring any true goodness, the loss of that golden thread of Sainthood may be the world’s only true tragedy.