Charlie's Blog: September 2015


Will on Francis

Chemical cheating will be decisively routed when fans become properly repelled by it. They will recoil in disgust when they understand that athletes who are chemically propelled to victory do not merely overvalue winning, they misunderstand why winning is properly valued.

George F. Will is an avid fan of baseball. The odd thing about this fact is that he seems like someone who has never actually played the game. I lead with this quotation because it shows that Will is spectacularly wrong about something. For George F. Will, baseball is a game of almost cosmic significance. It is philosophy and religion played by men in hats and cleats. He famously predicts that fans will become repelled by doping in baseball. But he overestimates the fans. And he also overestimates baseball. What Will fails to see and always has failed to see is that baseball is essentially a game. It is something that children do, and we shouldn't give it greater merit simply because tobacco chewing grown men do it, too. Baseball has been in decline for some time as sports fan flock to the more visceral sports of tackle football, NASCAR, and MMA.

I have been reading George F. Will since the 80's. I have liked him, loathed him, and liked him again depending on what he was writing and what I was thinking at the time. Will takes turns being either libertarian or conservative. Lately, he has been more libertarian. The reason for this swing back and forth between libertarianism and conservatism is because Will has described himself as an agnostic and as an atheist. Will does not believe in God.

Politics is essentially an extension of ethics, and ethics is an extension of religion. When your religion goes, your politics will follow. But there will be a lag. When I was a Baptist and a Presbyterian, I was solidly conservative and Republican. When I became an atheist, I descended into being one of those hip Ayn Rand reading libertarians. Then, God blindsided me, and I became Catholic. I thought being Catholic would make me a solid Republican again, but it didn't. It made me conservative on some things and liberal on others such that there is literally no candidate that I can agree with on more than a handful of issues.

George F. Will's problem is that his atheism almost certainly creates cognitive dissonance with his politics. This is because conservatism is essentially a Christian thing. This was the teaching of Russell Kirk, the father of modern conservatism. Libertarianism is the child of the Enlightenment, but conservatism is Christian. This puts Will in a schizophrenic position trying to affirm or deny teachings that are in conflict. This becomes glaring in his latest hit piece on the Holy Father, Pope Francis. Most of this antipathy is directed towards the latest papal encyclical, Ladauto Si, where Francis decries environmental degradation and the way a capitalist/consumerist society negatively impacts the poor of the world. Now, one would be lead to believe that conservatives hate the environment, but this is not true. Here are some choice quotations from Russell Kirk on the matter:
Nothing is more conservative than conservation.
 The issue of environmental quality is one which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a cause which can attract, and very sincerely, liberals, conservatives, radicals, reactionaries, freaks, and middle-class straights. 
If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own capital. mankind is now trapped by the failure of its energies and by the depletion of those natural resources that men have plundered wantonly. 
The resources of nature, like those of spirit, are running out, and all that a conscientious man can aspire to be is a literal conservative, hoarding what remains of culture and of natural wealth against the fierce appetites of modern life.
The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors. 
...only the unscrupulous or shortsighted can defend pollution and degradation of the countryside.
Care for the environment is a conservative issue. This is because conservatism is Christian. So, it is with a certain irony that Will takes a baseball bat to Pope Francis for essentially repeating what Russell Kirk already said. Here is what George Will wrote with my commentary and refutations:

Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak — if his policy prescriptions were not as implausible as his social diagnoses are shrill.

Basically, George F. Will is blasting Francis for listening to Al Gore. Regardless of whether you agree with Gore or not, it is hard to understand how environmental regulations would harm poor people in third world countries who have no electricity or running water. What they will certainly do is hurt corporate profits.

Supporters of Francis have bought newspaper and broadcast advertisements to disseminate some of his woolly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies. One example: “People occasionally forgive, but nature never does.” The Vatican’s majesty does not disguise the vacuity of this. Is Francis intimating that environmental damage is irreversible? He neglects what technology has accomplished regarding London’s air (see Page 1 of Dickens’ “Bleak House”) and other matters.

Pope Francis is quotable. George F. Will is not. And I find more wisdom in Chinese fortune cookies that Will's columns. As for the air being cleaner, this is true. This is because the air is the one thing that the rich have to share with the poor. The reason the air got cleaner in London and elsewhere is a combination of regulations and technology created to live within those regulations. Right now, solar and wind power are lampooned by the Right, but they will be used as vindication of the "free market" in a generation.

And the Earth is becoming “an immense pile of filth”? Hyperbole is a predictable precursor of yet another UN Climate Change Conference — the 21st since 1995.

I have to agree with Pope Francis. Our waterways are the most visible sign of our pollution. Where I live, people are not allowed to eat the fish from the river because of mercury contamination. George F. Will is engaging in hyperbole when he derides the words of Francis as hyperbole.

Fortunately, rhetorical exhibitionism increases as its effectiveness diminishes. In his June encyclical and elsewhere, Francis lectures about our responsibilities, but neglects the duty to be as intelligent as one can be. This man who says “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions” proceeds as though everything about which he declaims is settled, from imperiled plankton to air conditioning being among humanity’s “harmful habits.” The church that thought it was settled science that Galileo was heretical should be attentive to all evidence.

At some point, no criticism of the Catholic Church is complete without dragging Galileo out of his resting place and tossing his bones at the Church. This is where Will becomes schizoid. Is the Church overdoing it or underdoing it? Is it overstepping into science when it makes moral claims based on available science? Or, is it failing because it does not provide scientific answers? Or is science utterly neutral when it comes to morality and ethics? A recent CEO was imprisoned for 20+ years for knowingly selling product containing salmonella. Is the science settled on salmonella? Or, should we exercise caution for the sake of human life? I'm waiting for George F. Will to enlighten us on these matters and give guidance. I doubt he would do better than Pope Francis.

Francis deplores “compulsive consumption,” a sin to which the 1.3 billion persons without even electricity can only aspire. He leaves the Vatican to jet around praising subsistence farming, a romance best enjoyed from 30,000 feet above the realities that such farmers yearn to escape.
The saint who is Francis’ namesake supposedly lived in sweet harmony with nature. For most of mankind, however, nature has been, and remains, scarcity, disease and natural — note the adjective — disasters. Our flourishing requires affordable, abundant energy for the production of everything from food to pharmaceuticals. Poverty has probably decreased more in the last two centuries than it has in the preceding three millennia because of industrialization powered by fossil fuels. Only economic growth has ever produced broad amelioration of poverty, and since growth began in the late 18th century, it has depended on such fuels.

Basically, if you fly on a jet, you can't be green. I don't think the blessings of industrialization are in dispute. As for subsistence farming, I find it morally superior to trading in derivatives or being paid to give your opinion in the media. And St. Francis was just plain cool. Will wants to turn him into a proto-hippie.

Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist,” notes that coal supplanting wood fuel reversed deforestation, and “fertilizer manufactured with gas halved the amount of land needed to produce a given amount of food.” The capitalist commerce that Francis disdains is the reason the portion of the planet’s population living in “absolute poverty” ($1.25 a day) declined from 53 percent to 17 percent in three decades after 1981. Even in low-income countries, writes economist Indur Goklany, life expectancy increased from between 25 and 30 years in 1900 to 62 years today. Sixty-three percent of fibers are synthetic and derived from fossil fuels; of the rest, 79 percent come from cotton, which requires synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

These arguments are valid. The USA alone produces enough food to feed the entire planet. Yet, people are starving. Why? The problem is one of distribution of final goods which capitalism has failed to address. When it is addressed, the assumption is that you must be a Marxist. When the livestock in America eat better than human beings around the world, I think this is something worth looking into.

Francis grew up around the rancid political culture of Peronist populism, the sterile redistributionism that has reduced his Argentina from the world’s 14th-highest per-capita GDP in 1900 to 63rd today. Francis’ agenda for the planet — “global regulatory norms” — would globalize Argentina’s downward mobility.

This is Will accusing Francis in less than subtle terms that he is a Peronist. But the teachings in the pope's encyclical are based on and are a repeat of a century of Catholic social teaching. Was St. John Paul II a Peronist when he taught the same thing? Was he a Marxist?

As the world spurns his church’s teachings about abortion, contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage and other matters, Francis jauntily makes his church congruent with the secular religion of “sustainability.” Because this is hostile to growth, it fits Francis’ seeming sympathy for medieval stasis, when his church ruled the roost, economic growth was essentially nonexistent and life expectancy was around 30.

After you have fired your Galileo missile, you have to reach for the Dark Ages myth. I'm surprised that Will couldn't make room for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition in there. The reality was that the Middle Ages were a time of flourishing relative to what preceded it. Are they as flourishing as today? Of course not. But neither were the Greek and Roman Empires. As for today, it rests on the foundation of thinkers who lived during those horrible Middle Ages. And, yes, many Catholics are Catholic in Name Only. But that is a discussion for another time. Will is just grabbing whatever stick he can to beat this dog.

Francis’ fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church. Secular people with anti-Catholic agendas drain his prestige, a dwindling asset, into promotion of policies inimical to the most vulnerable people and unrelated to what once was the papacy’s very different salvific mission.

This is Will calling out Francis for sucking up to the left wing media. It would be quite alright if the pope sucked up to George F. Will and the right wing media. 

He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.

This is the first pope to use an iPad and the second to ever use Twitter. The Vatican has an astronomical observatory. There are 35 lunar craters named after Jesuits. Here is a list of Roman Catholic cleric-scientists. As for scientists, they would claim that George F. Will was antiscience for not believing in anthropogenic global warming. I don't see where Pope Francis is against modernity. He is definitely against modern consumerism and greed and selfishness.

Now, let me boil this all down for you. This is how capitalism works. Rich people enjoy the benefits of modernity and a consumer culture while the poor are left holding the garbage bag. This is all justifiable because poor people in rich countries have iPhones. That's it in a nutshell. Pope Francis makes the simple claim to wish for a world with less pollution and more dignity for the poor. He is not advocating for Marxism but asking those who have been amply blessed to show the same concern for their fellow human beings that they show for their pets with their gourmet pet food and air conditoned doghouses.

There is no such thing as morally neutral economics. Libertarians who argue for this morally neutral economics admit that they like laws against fraud and theft and wish there were less taxes while making moral claims for a less strict tax policy. Conservatives used to believe that morality informed economics and was what gave capitalism a human face. Somehow, this has been lost, and I know where it was lost. It was when conservatives like George F. Will became atheists.


Failure Is An Option

And Jesus said to them: A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and in his own house, and among his own kindred. And he could not do any miracles there, only that he cured a few that were sick, laying his hands upon them. And he wondered because of their unbelief, and he went through the villages round about teaching.

I have to laugh whenever I hear some idiot say, "Failure is not an option!" What hubris! There are two levels of stupidity at work in that line. The first is that failure is somehow a choice. The second is that failure can somehow be willed away by the same exercise of choice. Then, there are those who believe failure is essential in much the same way that Edison found it essential to fail his way to inventing an incandescent bulb. But failure is neither avoidable nor essential. Failure simply happens. This does not make it preferrable or even useful. It simply makes it an option.

When I think of failure, I'm not considering my own failures since they are already considerable enough. I am talking about failure when it comes to the Church. The Roman Catholic Church is simply a colossal failure in the annals of history. Hilaire Belloc wrote, "The Church is a perpetually defeated thing that always outlives her conquerers.” This is important stuff to remember as people wring their hands and fret and worry about what will happen to the Church from the various threats she faces both internal and external. The reality is that the Church is always dying, yet it never dies.

I am reminded of the scene in The Mission where the natives tie the missionary to a cross and send him over the falls. That is failure. We love to hear the stories of mass conversion and conquering saints. But what about those saints who were cut down as soon as their feet hit the ground? Where is God in this failure?

Can God fail? That is a bold question to ask and borders on blasphemy. The answer is even more bold because we must say yes. God can fail because He did fail. He failed at Nazareth among his own kindred to convert them. He would go on to fail to convince His own people that He was their true Messiah, and they crucified Him. But that failure is only seen from one viewpoint. When you turn the looking glass around, you see that Jesus did not fail but His people failed Him. In the wider view of things, God does not fail. The world is the failure.

To be a Christian is to be a failure in this world. I think we forget this. I know I forget this. A Protestant derisively asks, "Are you living right?" This is in response to the Catholic who does not follow the prosperity teachings of Joel Osteen and his ilk. But I tell you now, if you are a success in this world, you will be a failure in the next. God does not care about your success in this life. Let no Christian think he or she is above their cross.

Success in this world is like being promoted to captain right after the Titanic hit the iceberg. I am heartened by those who reject worldly success to take up the cross. In my own life, I regret those times when I was more concerned with the world than with God. It is so hard to keep your eyes on the prize. I yearn to be indifferent to the world like the saints I admire.

Failure is my option. I choose to fail in this world. I may stumble my way out of it, but I want to look beyond this place. I hate the world. Each day makes me care less and less about the world. I think God is answering my prayer for indifference to worldly things. To see all this madness and stupidity, I don't have to ask myself if I am living right. I have to thank God that I still have the sanity to know better.


Post Twitter Homesick Blues

I've had to learn when not to tweet. Like, you learn how to keep your mouth shut? Learn to keep your tweet shut.

I quit using Twitter about a month ago as I wrote in this blog post. Needless to say, I am at that stage where a new ex-smoker relapses because they don't know what to do with their fidgety hands. I have the post Twitter fidgets, and it is driving me mad. I just have to fight through it knowing it will be done in another month.

This blog post is one of those stream of consciousness things to help me overcome these fidgets. Think of it as Wrigley's Spearmint Chewing Gum, and I have four pieces of it chewing around in my mouth. I can't read a news story or article on the internet without wanting to tweet it except now that is not an option. When I do share things, it is usually to specific people through my email account, and I only share it after asking myself some tough questions. Will this person find value in what I have shared? Or, will they be annoyed to find it in their email inbox? Such reflections are never considered when it comes to Twitter.

I had the same issues when I quit Facebook, so I know this will be the same thing here. It is sad that things like this can be as addictive as crack. Why is social media so addictive? That is a difficult question to answer. I can explain nicotine addiction in terms of neurotransmitters and pleasure centers in the brain. But social media is a purely cognitive thing involving no introduction of chemicals into the body. Gambling has the same quality. You can literally make yourself think yourself into pleasure. Let's say what it is. Pleasure is addictive. People like feeling good.

In other things, I have to admit that I have soured on using the Kindle. I have been an ebook reader for some years now, but I must admit that I prefer a real book to an electronic book. I am not alone in this as ebook sales are in decline. The blame is put on higher prices for electronic books, but this misses the point. The only real selling point for electronic books was that they were cheaper. But if the price for an ebook and a physical book are the same, people opt for the physical book. Why would anyone shun a newer technology to go with an older technology? That is a fascinating question.

Newspapers are not coming back but will die a slow death. Of course, if the newspaper is free, then people love the newspaper. I see all sorts of free papers in cities, and people love them. They sell a ton of advertising as well. But if a newspaper website wants to sell online subscriptions, then people who normally read that online paper suddenly decide that they don't need it. The same is true for music. When music was free via Napster, Limewire, and other piracy file sharing technologies, the music was popular. But when you have to pay for it via iTunes, then people prefer their old vinyl records. I can say that my reasons for buying a Kindle was to avail myself of all the free and cheap books I could get from Amazon. But if I have to pay the same or more, I want the physical book. Price is everything.

I have been obsessed with technology issues ever since the smartphone became ubiquitous. Before the iPhone, I never questioned technology. I never asked the most basic question. Is this an improvement? Then, I saw my first busted smartphone, and I knew I didn't want one. That was when I began questioning tech. The fact is that tech came to an endpoint of improvement in 2007 and became an industry of toy manufacturing subsequently. The industry went from improving your life in new ways to making the tech companies richer in new ways.

I think people return to the older technology when they discover that the newer technology is not an improvement but merely a novelty. This would be my experience with the Kindle. The last four books I read were paper. On my Kindle, I have various books begun but not finished. The Kindle essentially killed my reading life in much the same way that smartphones now kill social life because people can't stop tapping on their screens to have real conversations.

I am not a Luddite because I love my desktop PC, and I would feel naked without my flip phone. But I see tablets as laptops with the keyboards cut off for the benefit of illiterates, and smartphones are Gameboys with call features. I have searched for examples of where people shunned new tech for older tech with the only example I could give being the rejection of 8-track in favor of vinyl. But the best example has been in my face the whole time. That Kindle is the 8-track of our times.

Enough fidgeting now.

RELAPSE: I couldn't do it anymore. I have relapsed and gone back to Twitter like a desperate smoker fishing for the longest butt in the ash tray. It is shameful, I know. Just when you think you are out, social media pulls you back in.

RECOVERY: I have beaten my addiction to social media. I recommend the two following posts for more on this topic: