Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Milton’s Satan and our Polarized Republic: Not “Reason vs. Faith” but “Faith vs. Faith”

That we were form’d . . . say’st thou?
. . . strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d.

--Satan in Paradise Lost, V, 853, 855–60

Though politically on the left, in recent years I’ve had to engage more in “culture war” issues, and my stance, being Catholic, is more aligned with the right. Thus America's neat polarization into a unified "liberal" camp and a unified "conservative" camp often puts me at cross-purposes. Given the odd and historically contingent way our camps are constituted, I can agree with neither side, which results in a political loneliness that prods me to think and argue at the level of philosophical differences. The arguments are necessary, because when such differences aren't plumbed, no actual communication takes place.

At least for myself this constant digging at the root brings some deeper perspective. During the Obama years especially, certain insights about what drives our American polarization have become almost second nature to me. My main frustration is that it's now nearly impossible to communicate these insights to liberal friends; the resultant feeling of separation, that I'm speaking a different language from nearly everyone, grows worse by the year.

How to get across what I see in our endless talking past each other--that’s the challenge. A challenge I fail time and again.

Writing on our liberal order back in the 1990s, Stanley Fish put his finger on the crux of what divides religious from secular Americans. He underlined just the kind of problems that nag me to no end every time I discuss the culture with friends, foes and that ever growing group: frenemies.

Fish, a literary critic and law professor, begins by contrasting the distinct ways of reasoning followed by Satan and Adam in Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost. This contrast is then taken as a lens through which to clarify our ongoing American scuffles. A fine lens it proves to be, and Fish’s article, appearing in the journal First Things, is compelling reading for anyone who wants to grasp some of the maddening paradoxes inherent in our “pluralist” culture.

Milton’s Satan, a self-conscious being unable to remember how he was created, concludes that he must have created himself or somehow arisen from his own being. As Fish rightly points out, Satan’s initial conclusion on this point colors all his subsequent reasoning: “The habit of identifying the limits of reality with the limits of his own horizons defines Satan--it makes him what he is and is everywhere on display.” To figure forth such a character, Milton had to be keenly aware of the stakes of seeing oneself as a self-made being. For Fish, and I would heartily agree, we Americans have largely lost such awareness.

Adam’s path, which is Milton’s own, is radically different. Adam, coming to awareness as a self-conscious being in a world governed by complex laws, and like Satan unable to remember his own creation, concludes that there must be a Creator. Adam’s goal as a conscious being is to know and connect with that Creator. His is a path, an epistemology, that the modern liberal mind can no longer so much as grasp in its implications. Fish:

I make the point [about Adam’s way] strongly because it is so alien to the modern liberal-enlightenment picture of cognitive activity in which the mind is conceived of as a calculating and assessing machine that is open to all thoughts and closed to none. In this [modern liberal] picture the mind is in an important sense not yet settled; and indeed settling, in the form of a fixed commitment to an idea or a value, is a sign of cognitive and moral infirmity. Milton’s view is exactly the reverse: In the absence of a fixed commitment--of a first premise that cannot be the object of thought because it is the enabling condition of thought--cognitive activity cannot get started.

Two philosophical points might be made about Adam and Satan’s distinct paths: first is that they begin with equally valid starting perceptions, equally rational reactions to the fact of self-consciousness in a universe; second is that they are both built entirely on initial gestures: for both Satan and Adam, the first step is a leap of faith, but it sets the course of all reasoning that is to follow.

Satan’s faith corresponds more closely to the secular liberal vision of human consciousness--that it arose from impersonal forces in a universe with no Creator. Adam’s faith corresponds to the religious perception: that there is a consciousness undergirding both ourselves and the universe.

But if both liberal and religious epistemology depend on an initial act of faith, and are thus similar in a way, the universes that come to be constructed on these different grounds will be radically different. What's more, those who hold to the path of Adam rather than the path of Satan will hold radically different elements of the universe as significant when it comes to constructing a system of values. And again this is a matter of the initial gesture. For both sides “evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of [that] first premise or ‘essential axiom’ that cannot itself be put to the test because the protocols of testing are established by its pre-assumed authority.” That is key: the authority in each case is a pre-assumed one. Once Satan’s initial assumption has been made as to his ultimate origin, his criteria for what will subsequently count as evidence in any given case is set. Likewise for Adam.

Fish’s point that these two approaches to truth are equally "faith-based" is no longer grasped in liberal culture. In my view, the widespread failure to grasp this basic epistemological insight is at the root of the endless miscommunication between secular and religious. For people of faith like myself, such miscommunication is often maddening, because, no matter how one tries to explain, the secular liberal sitting across the table just doesn't get it. But besides the fact of constantly talking past each other, there's another more menacing element in play. This widespread liberal inability to think to the depth of first premises results in a dangerous false assumption: namely, that their secular liberal viewpoint is somehow “neutral”.

I call it dangerous for various reasons. First, secular minds, unable to see the act of faith on which their worldview rests, are prone to assume that science and “reason” will always bring progress. Thus if we just let science and reason “run their natural course” (whatever that might mean) humanity will continue to grow more truly human. Amazingly, given the horrors of the 20th century, contemporary liberals still don’t see that this is little more than a shopworn 18th century ideology, a delusional misconstrual of the role of science. It seems their “postmodern” sophistication still hasn’t managed to unseat their deeper Enlightenment fundamentalism.

Second, secular liberals assume that those who argue against their conclusions are “scientifically illiterate”, an assumption that has led them to draw ideologically narrow borders around science itself. How so? Anxious that science is being offended against, they've upgraded its status to that of a "pure" and "universal" method, forgetting that it is in essence a philosophically grounded approach to acquiring only certain kinds of knowledge. Of course, when liberal thinkers accuse the religious of being scientifically illiterate, the accusation is sometimes true, but very often it is not. Educated religious people daily witness liberals tendentiously using scientific facts to draw ethical conclusions that don't necessarily follow from those facts. It's not the science that is at issue, but the way that science is used by liberals as a sort of exculpatory imprimatur.

The deep truth in all this is as follows: American liberals have become philosophically illiterate. Our secular liberals are people who can’t see that their own basic principles are not in fact grounded in the science they assume grounds everything. Their whole case rests on various leaps of faith no more rational or scientific than that of Adam in Milton's epic. Their worldview is a religion like other religions, except that they can't see that it is a religion. That they can't see its faith-based elements allows them to impose it with ever more authoritarian zeal. (In April, Yuval Levin argued persuasively that the liberal mainstream is in fact behaving as if it were the official national religion--and thus directly violating our Constitution's establishment clause.)

The danger this liberal blindness represents for a pluralistic culture is clear. If the faith of the secular liberal is that science and “open debate” will naturally lead to progress, what the smart religious observer sees is that this is not science, but merely scientism. And what Stanley Fish sees, and brilliantly underlines, is that the "open debate" the liberal order allows is usually rigged from the start.

But I've written too much here. I intended this post as an invitation to read Fish’s trenchant analysis. Aside from laying out the liberal hypocrisies I always have trouble getting my many frenemies to recognize, the article serves as a case study of how these hypocrisies affect even those who try to fight them. Indeed Fish shows that many who seek to defend religious insights still cannot think outside the box secular liberalism has put them in. As has been widely commented, the "liberal" vision, especially since the start of this new century, is growing ever more authoritarian in its basic gestures.

If you care, whether from a secular or religious point of view, about the deep gash running down the center of America, about why this gash never manages to heal, this article offers some solid answers.

Eric Mader

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

歐巴桑偷了我的雨傘 (Or: Obasan Steals Umbrella, Meets Karma)


I was sitting atop a cement traffic pylon near a busy intersection here in Taipei. It was just before class and I was smoking one of my mini-cigars before going in to teach. I had my umbrella leaning against the pylon--not a very good umbrella, the handle kept coming off and I needed to get a new one when I had the chance.

A well-dressed 60-something woman came by with her little caramel-colored dog on a pink leash. The dog was sniffing the base of the pylon and I was thinking: “This obasan is NOT going to let her dog piss on the pylon while I’m sitting on it.”

I was wrong of course. The dog started pissing, and the stream of piss was just missing my umbrella. I didn’t look at the woman, but kept my eye on the dog to let her know I saw how rude she was being.

And the dog, no more than a foot tall, just kept up its pissing. The piss flowed voluminously, almost amazing for such a small dog, until a broad puddle had formed just under me.

Then the woman went her way.

As I stood up to go, not a minute later, my leg hit the umbrella and it fell flat into the puddle. Oh, well. I decided just to leave it there.

I crossed the street and went into a little bakery to get something small to eat. I hadn’t had time for dinner. As I came out, there was the woman circling back with her dog. She looked at my umbrella lying in the piss, then looked round her a few times to see if I was still nearby, then reached down carefully to pick up the umbrella. She’d decided to take it!

Pulling a few sheets of tissue from her high-end, oversized purse, she began to wipe the piss off the umbrella. I watched her from the shade of the awning across the street. When she was done wiping off the piss, she continued on her way, heading home with her dog and my umbrella.

But she carried the umbrella by its handle. And the handle came off in her hand, the umbrella itself dropping to the ground.

Surprised, she glanced round her again, to see if anyone was watching, then looked down at the umbrella at her feet. Finally, in a gesture of frustration, she tossed the handle down next to it. She continued walking home.

Very obasan!


Saturday, October 10, 2015


Even as a puppy her husky was averse to meat. It would beg for bits of salad at the dinner table. Her guests thought this amusing, but she warned them: “This isn’t something to laugh about.”
     Later her husky would only eat grass. She hardly needed to mow the lawn.
     She decided her husky wasn’t a husky, but a cow. Even two zoologists from the university agreed: “It’s a cow.” And the husky himself barked proudly: “Cow!”
     Some pointed out that her cow couldn’t produce milk, so couldn’t actually be a cow. They pointed to the sleek gray fur, the pointy ears, the canine shape.
     Then the Supreme Court weighed in: “It shall be called a cow.”
     The husky was so happy at the news that he barked all night for a week.
     What's more, three of four academic studies now suggest he can in fact produce milk.
     The community brings the dog salad three times a day. After months of this treatment, he’s gotten pickier. He demands romaine lettuce, only organic.

The kids in the geometry class I teach wondered why they weren’t allowed to draw four-sided triangles.
     “Because a triangle has three sides,” I said. “That’s the meaning of the word triangle.”
     “That’s just ideology talking,” Susan said.
     By the next week they were all drawing rectangles and saying: “See? Triangle! Triangle!”
     In the teacher’s lounge I talked to the principal about this odd class.
     “You shouldn’t call them odd,” he said. “Four-sided figures also have a right to be triangles.”
     I continued to teach the class my way, Euclid and all, doing my best to get them through the theorems, which wasn’t easy without triangles.
     Some parents complained.
     Then the Supreme Court weighed in: “A triangle is a three- or four-sided figure.”
     "I told you to be careful on this," the principal said.
     They didn't renew my contract.

She’s a strict vegetarian who loves a good bratwurst. I pointed out to her--she was grilling on the patio--that bratwursts were made from meat.
     “It’s right there on the label,” I said. “Look!”
     I should have kept my mouth shut. First the threatening phone calls, the snubs from neighbors. Now her vegan friends have started picketing my place of work.
     Eight of my Facebook friends have unfriended me.
     “Just ‘cuz you’re not vegetarian yourself doesn’t mean you have a right to hate them!” one messaged in explanation.

Eric Mader

Friday, October 2, 2015

The New "Gaythoritarianism" of the American Left

What can we learn from the American left’s apoplectic reaction to Pope Francis' meeting Kim Davis?

Perhaps nothing; the reaction is entirely predictable. By turns disillusioned, gasping in disbelief, screaming “I TOLD you so!”--the progressive left is now more or less united in writing off Francis as a loser and a bigot and not someone any respectable person could support.

As for those few liberals who still remain sympathetic to Francis--“even after he met with her”--Charles P. Pierce aptly caught their mood in Esquire:

This is, obviously, the dumbest thing this Pope ever has done. It undermines everything he accomplished on his visit here. It undermines his pastoral message, and it diminishes his stature by involving him in a petty American political dispute.

Pierce sees the meeting with Davis as the end of the Pope’s honeymoon with liberal America. Note his particularly obtuse suggestion that it is all so sad--because the Davis case, after all, is just “a petty American political dispute.”

There’s the rub right there, the crux of liberals' odd misreading of Francis. The assumption that gay marriage is “just, like, so obvious”; that of course a man as progressive as Francis must see this; that any individual, such as Davis, who’d risk legal repercussions for refusing to go along with the gay agenda is just being “petty”.

I myself don’t think Davis has conducted her conscientious objection very wisely. But I do think she counts as a conscientious objector. And from the Pope’s words during his visit it’s pretty clear (pace Pierce) he doesn’t consider struggles over religious liberty, or individuals with the guts to wage them, at all “petty”. In any case, I don't think the Davis meeting was or is important on the Pope's visit agenda. It is one short encounter among many.

Still, after the news hit, I stopped by at the “progressive left” DailyKos community to see which way the wind was blowing. As if I couldn't guess. It was the usual righteous fury one sees in that crowd whenever anyone disagrees with one of the Holy Gender Tenets.

The meeting with Davis proved that Francis was obviously, as one person put it, “just another misguided, anti-gay bigot who pretends to be loving and compassionate”. Another instructed as follows: “Add poison to an otherwise nutritious soup, and all of it is poisoned.” A third waxed poetic: “All I can say now is, hypocrisy, thy name is Francis!” And on it went.

Yes, there were some mentions of the good that Francis had done on climate change, but in general the mood was: Bigot. Hypocrite. Fool. Fake.

Francis’ radicalism on so many issues supposedly so dear to this American left would no longer influence the Kos majority. No, if you don't dance to the LGBT movement's every new tune, you don’t get a pass with this crowd.

I commented as follows:

Listen to you all. “I’ve no more use for this Pope." "This Pope is slimy." Etc., etc.


At present Pope Francis is probably the world's most consequent voice calling for serious action on global warming. He's a trenchant critic of unfettered capitalism and outspoken supporter of the dignity of workers and of unions--to the point that he sets the Fox crowd and the Limbaughs into shivers of rage.

But the fact that his thinking (as is very likely the case) doesn't line up with yours on same-sex marriage means you've all suddenly "no use" for his stance or voice.

"No use" for Francis' stance on climate change? For his stance on free-market madness? For his stance on militarism?

Again you show that sad old trait of yours. Any figure who doesn't check all the same boxes you've come to check in your own historically specific cultural setting, any person who doesn't see eye to eye with American progressive liberals on EVERYTHING, especially those things related to sex or gender, is necessarily "slimy" or of "no use".

What kind of mature politics is that? It is cultural imperialism is what it is.

You think the Pope is being hypocritical?

The Pope's remark "Who am I to judge?" came at the end of the following statement spoken of a gay or lesbian person: "If someone is trying to live a holy life and seeking God, who am I to judge him?"

Why would progressives assume that the whole first part of that sentence was irrelevant to the Pope's meaning and why would they read into the last five words something like: "Though I'm the leader of the Catholic Church, I'm utterly against its teachings on sexual ethics."

It is very likely Pope Francis does not consider same-sex marriage to be marriage. It is very likely that when he refers to "attacks on the family", he is thinking in part of things like the Obergefell decision. (For the record, during his tenure in Argentina he did express support for something like civil unions for non-heterosexual couples. Which makes him more liberal than most in his church.)

So assuming that Francis does not acknowledge same-sex marriage, and recognizing the importance of religious liberty and the right of conscientious objection in his vision (how many of you, by the way, believe in conscientious objection? or perhaps you only believe in it when the objector agrees with you on all sex/gender/marriage-related issues?)--assuming this, why would it be hypocrisy on his part to meet with Kim Davis? Has she advocated jailing gays and lesbians? Has she picketed funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs? No, she has taken the one step of refusing to allow her name on licenses for same-sex marriages. As a purely negative action, a refusal to act, it's actually a pretty classic conscientious objection stance: "I won't bow to or sign my name to or perform such-and-such an action required by," etc., etc.

So I would think, in Francis' book, Davis' case would count as a valid instance conscientious objection. How not?

Yes, I also have some doubts that the story is legit. But if Francis did in fact meet with her, it wouldn't shock me--as it seems to have shocked so many of you. Is it because so many of you can't imagine there exist people who might agree with you on A, B, and C, but not on D? Is it because that's just too much of a stretch for your "progressive left" cultural imagination?

As myself a Catholic on the left, I admire Francis all the more for the way he screws up the expectations of both the American left and right. And it isn't any wonder. American left and right are both growing to be about equally bigoted and deranged.

I knew I’d mostly be attacked for this comment, and I was. After all: Who was I, “a Catholic”, to be calling anyone a bigot? How “ironic”. Etc.

But what does all this reveal about the current American left? I’d have to put it bluntly: They’re not so much left-wing in any traditional sense as they are obsessed with sexual identity politics. In my comment I mention the need to check “all” the boxes they do, A to Z. But of the boxes one must check to be heard in this crowd, that marked "LGBTQ, etc." is by far the most important. How has it come to this?

A pathological Gay Fundamentalism has taken over the American left. And of course, since we’re dealing here with a fundamentalism, it is no longer by any means enough to respect LGBT people or defend their rights. No, one must agree to recognize the validity of every new right they might demand. One must, first of all, acknowledge that "gay marriage" is an obvious right; that a household centered on a gay or lesbian couple is a perfectly healthy environment for raising children; and that those who refuse to recognize such marriages or the wisdom of gay parenting deserve to have their careers destroyed and be sued out of house and home. But in addition to walking and talking the new marriage orthodoxy, cobbled together just last Tuesday, one must also express delight in LGBT people’s vanguard role in other central social arenas. Because, don’t you know, it is LGBT people who are leading the charge to reform our schools, to police our speech, to correct our outmoded ideas of sex and gender. For who is it if not gays and lesbians who’ve taught us that great and eternal human truth, namely: Male and female sexuality have no inherent relation to male and female biology. Where have we learned this important truth if not from the our new authorities on sexuality, our LGBT brothers and sisters? Yes, thanks to gays and lesbians, now everyone can--and should!--bend any such supposed relations between biology and sexuality as much out of shape as possible. For only then will the "patriarchal ideology" that made these false relations be broken. Only then will one be free to be "oneself"! Which is . . . whatever one demands oneself to be.

Disagree with these fundamental truths and you are a “bigot”. And in this crowd, a bigot is the worst thing you can be.

On the left myself in many things, I cry bullshit to all this. I’m sickened by the cultural demagoguery that has hijacked our political life. These Gay Fundamentalists have been the main attraction for more than a decade now, and they think they own the place. They must be stopped, but with the youth almost entirely under their sway, and with the few sane adults in the room cowed into silence, how is this to be done?

The basic truths are clear. But is anything accomplished by simply stating basic truths in a culture that’s given up on the idea that the universe and humanity even have truth?

Trying to communicate with these people, one finally has the exasperated feeling one might get trying to explain to an especially dumb geometry class that they can’t draw four-sided triangles, even if they wanted to.

And so, yes: Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. That exceptions exist does not mean this paradigm is somehow wrong; it means only that these exceptions aren’t part of the norm to which the vast majority fit. And sorry, but that's just the definition of norm.

A just society gives space to and doesn’t persecute the exceptions. A sick society fetishizes the exceptions and uses them to destroy the norm. A sick society lets the exceptions remake the whole culture in their own image.

This is what is happening in our society now; our public spaces, our speech codes, our education system. Gay Pride has morphed into Gay Arrogance. The media and fashion industry cheer in perverse glee at the newness of it all, if only because “newness” is the very definition of media and fashion. And the American public, or at least those who take their cues from media and fashion, don’t want to feel left behind.

Thus a new Gay Fundamentalism is given carte blanche to impose its agenda on our schools, our legal system, all central institutions. Anyone who dares oppose this agenda will be fined, run out of business, jailed. The new gay commissars know what is right, they are watching, and woe to you if you don't bow to their wisdom.

We must have the courage to call out this fundamentalism. If we don't, it will not stop until it has ferreted out every pocket of sanity. You think things are ugly now? They will only get uglier. And so: We must dissent loudly and clearly. We must begin by calling this movement what it is--an illiberal gay fundamentalism, a gaythoritarianism that has abrogated to itself rights it doesn't have. We must use labels like these, and we must make them stick.

Eric Mader

Anne Widdecombe got it precisely right in this 2012 speech: