Trouble Teaching the Kids Shakespeare?

Try implementing the Sobran method, which initiates the young student to the Bard by having him read aloud:

“Monster, I do smell all horse-piss; at which my nose is in great indignation.”


*UPDATE*

My welcome to readers of The Anchoress. Thank you for stopping by!

For Full Disclosure

Kudos to Glenn Greenwald for continuing to harp on this New York Times story and the television networks' continued silence concerning the accusations. More than ideological bias shapes the media's reporting.

Two Tales of Imprudence and Seven-Year-Olds

Here's a story not only of poor judgment by public servants but also of systematic Puritanism: parents lose custody of their child after the father unknowingly purchases Mike's Hard Lemonade for his seven-year-old. Hat tip to Darwin.

Sometimes, though, the problem lies with the seven-year-old, as this story illustrates.

Idea for a Novel

A horror/comedy about a cannibal who eats only organic people. His strictly organic diet requires him to do extensive research on the diets of and actual food-chains that sustain the people he eats. Think Hannibal Lector meets The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Undercutting Roe v. Wade

Columnist Joseph Sobran, a Catholic and self-described reluctant anarchist, has a provocative theory that Abraham Lincoln helped to pave the way for the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. Sobran counts our sixteenth president not among the greatest leaders of the republic; he reserves other superlatives for him. Responding to what he sees as the deification of President Lincoln in our culture, Sobran wrote:
Maybe it would have happened anyway, but since Lincoln the Constitution has meant not what it says, but whatever the U.S. Government decides it shall mean. The very meaning of constitutionality has become entirely fluid, so that the law itself has become exactly what law should never be: unpredictable. Think of the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 1973 abortion ruling. Nobody before then had ever suggested that abortion was a constitutional right, but the Court suddenly discovered that it was, protected somehow by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. The laws of all 50 states were struck down at a blow, but thanks to Lincoln the remedy of secession was no longer available to them.
Lincoln’s unintended contribution to the cause of “abortion rights” concerns the pro-life movement. Pro-lifers push for judicial appointments that will result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but unless they also fix an underlying problem that made Roe v. Wade possible, the Supreme Court could again declare state laws prohibiting abortion unconstitutional.

What Lincoln did, according to Sobran, is remove a primary check upon the Supreme Court’s power: the real threat of State secession. Had Texas—especially Texas—the power to secede from the Union, the justices of the Supreme Court in 1973 would have had a darn good reason to withhold judgment on the constitutionality of Texas’s abortion laws. The remedy of secession would not have been a guaranteed preventative of judicial tyranny, but it would have given Texas a real check upon the Supreme Court’s power.

Whether or not secession from the Union is a prudent power to reinstate, it would be prudent to establish some check upon the power of the Supreme Court. Despite all the talk of “activist judges” and the need to fill the court with “strict-constructionist” judges, activist judges aren’t the foundational problem, and appointing strict-constructionists isn’t going to solve it. Changing the make-up of the court does nothing to check its power from the outside. With proper checks and balances in place, “activist” judges would have far less leeway to exercise legislative power or overreach beyond their constitutional authority.

To guarantee legal protections for the unborn, the pro-live movement has to do more politically than overturn Roe v. Wade; it has to make sure Roe v. Wade doesn’t come back. Checking the power of the Supreme Court is a step in that direction.

Where’s Aragorn When You Need Him

When it comes to believing the word of our politicians, I have some serious trust issues. The current crop of candidates doesn’t ease my doubt about their capacity to lead justly and prudently. Nor does reading these posts:

Daniel Larison is sure that an Obama Presidency will disappoint:
Disillusionment will happen partly because it is inevitable that a politician will disappoint some of his supporters on account of the constraints and pressures of governing and political pressure, but it will be worse in this case because Obama has cast himself as some great transformative leader and people have been drawn to him in large part because they expect him to practice the “new politics” he keeps talking about.
Larison continues with an intriguing statement, one that challenges the usual narratives:
One of the causes of disillusionment will be that the “new politics” doesn’t actually exist and never will exist, so long as it is premised on the ideas that lobbying and partisanship are fundamental parts of the problem, when it is the lack of representation provided by the two-party system and the excessive concentration of power in government (facilitated through direct taxation) that protect the status quo.
Sen. McCain, who has actually experience torture, has been an outspoken critic of its use by our government, but how committed is John McCain to outlawing torture? Glenn Greenwald highlights how Senator McCain has repeatedly enabled the president to claim torture powers.

Counseling Kevin summarizes why none of these candidates for the presidency merit our trust in their leadership:

Every man and woman running today desperately wants the crown and knows that he or she can rule. Therefore, according to Chesterton, none of them are worthy of the crown.

Suffice it to say I'm less than thrilled about the November elections.

A Date With Your Family

Classic Mystery Science Theater 3000:

Thought for a Sunday

"It can never be intelligent to take lightly anything that God takes seriously."

- Frank Sheed

The Return of Dad Bike Broke

My son, an inquisitive twenty-one-month-old, has taken an interest lately in his father’s affairs. The other day, unprompted by me, he repeated the words “blog post.” I took that moment as a cue to teach him to say “Postmodern Papist.” Truly, though, his interest is aimed more at the wonders of the computer, which he just loves to put in stand-by mode while I’m working on an unsaved essay, than at what I’m doing on it.

His most eager fascination of late has been directed at my bicycle, which he called “Dad bike” and then, after the deterioration of the pedal, “Dad bike broke.” How he enjoyed watching me depart for work each morning and telling his mother about my cycling throughout the day!

Yesterday I returned the broken thing to the store for a refund. Yeah, think I’ll look elsewhere for a bike that actually reaches the level of functionality. My son, unaware of the bike’s return to the super-center of value-prices for valueless merchandise, moseyed into the room where I had kept the bike, pointed to the now empty space, and said, “Dad bike broke,” only to realize, after a moment’s befuddlement, that “Dad bike broke” was—gasp!—gone.

Disintegration of a Dream

Here’s the right pedal of my new bicycle after only four days of cycling to work:

Methinks I need a new bike. And another store for that matter.

A Forgotten Pleasure

Steadily increasing gasoline prices have compelled me to purchase a sixty-dollar bicycle from the local vendor of mass production and aesthetic nihilism—yes, I’m a hypocrite, but as Max Scheler would say, the sign for a town is outside the town! I can tell already from a test ride Sunday and the maiden voyage to work today that the bike is worth every depreciating penny. The handlebar loosens with the slighted twist or tug from my scrawny arms; looking slightly downward while riding today I notice the front reflector staring at me in the face. The breaks slow the bike’s motion at such a rate that if I wish to come to a complete stop in this busy suburb in north Dallas, I’d better press the breaks with full force somewhere around Texarkana and hope I’m going uphill.

Yes, my new bicycle will be my standard vehicle for transportation to and from work, and perhaps trips to the store, the library, and other locations accessible via sidewalk. I don’t trust Texas drivers well enough to consistently ride in the street; I was hit by a car once while riding my bicycle to school, but then, that was in Iowa many years ago, and I was on the sidewalk. I was also on the entrance drive to the city’s Catholic Church. It was early morning, dim, and an elderly man pulling into the parking lot for daily Mass smacked me on the side with the front of his car.

Of course I wasn’t wearing a helmet, but from then on I started to wear them. The helm really makes my morning/evening biking outfit: t-shirt, khaki shorts, dress shoes and socks, and a backpack with the day’s pants, shirt, and tie. A couple of my colleagues this morning remarked that their getting to work early that day was more than made worth it by the silly sight of me. Perhaps I’ll set a new fashion trend for Frisco, Texas.

The ride is nice enough. Sure, I have to maneuver around stragglers to school, coordination-challenged track-teams, cars inching—ok, yarding—into the intersection, and neighborhood ground crews. Sure, north Texas is slightly more hilly than Iowa, a fact I didn’t notice until I was peddling uphill using muscles I’d forgotten existed. But a third of the ride consists of a relaxing through the twisty and tree-laden paths of a park. And I love the wind on my face.

Years ago, when I lived in Iowa, I rode my bicycle everywhere. Even in sub-zero temperatures with the frosty booger-freezing air and the sheets of ice populating the sidewalks and streets. In the dead of winder surrounded by the snow-packed high school parking lot, there was usually at least one bicycle chained to the bike-rack. I remember vividly one evening ride home from school, through powerful winds blowing over the frozen Iowa plain and freezing rain pouring on my gloveless hands that gripped bare medal handlebars. Oh that was wonderful, so wonderful I didn’t even get a car until I was nearly 20.

I haven’t ridden much, if at all, this past decade. I realize now how much I miss the time cycling, the sweat, strained muscles, and the closer view of the neighborhoods near my home. So many campaign signs I’ve missed behind the wheel! A professor of mine once quipped that we today tend to think of landscape as an inconvenience between us and Wal-Mart. Cycling sure helps fight that tendency. Unless of course I’m running late for work and I’ve recently overused “The Rapture Just Happened” excuse.

A Spritual Wake-up Call

Sometimes it takes a grand event to get me to see the simple truths of this life.

Other than my watching live footage of the Holy Father descending the stairs from the airplane and greeting President Bush and his family, the event of Pope Benedict’s visit to these United States has been one I’ve had to witness and to take in after the fact, mainly from reading transcripts of the Holy Father’s words. I’ve missed the laughter and screams, heartache and tears, frantic fanfare and patient waiting. And more grievously, I’ve been in danger of missing the core purpose of the Holy Father’s visit: to remind us of the “good news of our reconciliation with God in Christ” and all that that means for us in the here and now.

Prior to the Pope’s visit, there was much speculation and way too much blather about what the Pope should say and do, much ostentatious presumption that the Pope came to validate or endorse our particular stances on those issues which we hold dear to our hearts: abortion, clerical abuse, torture, war, Catholic education, etc. I myself confess to scanning the Pope’s words for quotable sections that I could use in defense of some argument or another that is of particular importance to me. The truth is that I’ve devoted more mental energy lately to posting in defence of a dead deconstructionist than I have to relating to the living God. As important as the political, legal, moral, liturgical, and clerical issues are, and as imperative as it is that I respond to each appropriately, if I allow them to distract me from my response to Jesus Christ, then my attention to those issues is disordered and spiritually dangerous. It is a dark reality of this life that anything can be a near occasion for sin.

I needed the wake-up call from our Holy Father, and given my continued grogginess, I’ll need many more. Pray that I remind myself and allow myself to be reminded of the “good news of our reconciliation with God in Christ.”

A Go on Painful Penalties

The Washington Post reports:
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the most common method of lethal injection used to execute condemned prisoners is constitutional ... The decision's most likely immediate effect is to dissolve the de facto moratorium on executions that has taken root since the court announced in September that it would decide the case, Baze v. Rees. Just hours after yesterday's decision was announced, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) lifted the hold he had placed on capital punishment.

Social Beings

In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church (cf. Spe Salvi, 13-15), giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community. Yet from the beginning, God saw that "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love - for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God (cf. Spe Salvi, 14). If this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.

- Pope Benedict XVI, from his address today to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Read the rest here.

Telling It to the Pope

I see the American Life League has taken upon itself to tell Pope Benedict XVI in a full page advertisement those to whom he should refuse Holy Communion. The issue, of course, is abortion.

Coverage of the Pope's Visit

For comprehensive coverage, I recommend checking out the weblogs American Papist and Whispers in the Loggia. Papist has lots of pictures, but is a bit busy, while Whispers has less fanfare but more focus.

New Releases - Old Commentary

There Will Be Blood and Juno have recently been released on DVD. My commentary on the two splendid films can be read here and here.

Polysemic Statement of the Day

"And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it."

- President George W. Bush, admitting that senior officials in his administration had his approval to discuss interrogation techniques, and moreover revealing something of his ethical thought and philosophy of law.

A Question of Influence and Interpretation

A reader of The Daily Dish ponders the possibility of Sen. Barack Obama's having been influenced by historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, author of The True and Only Heaven and The Culture of Narcissism. An interesting question, especially given the plethora of "Obamessiah" narratives and charges of Marxism that populate the blogosphere.

Thought for a Sunday

Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves. They are all thrown together in their fire and each one tries to thrust the others away from him with a huge impotent hatred. And the reason they want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them: and all recognize in one another what they detest in themselves, selfishness and impotence, agony, terror, and despair.

- Thomas Merton

Postmodernists Need not Apply

Lydia McGrew of What’s Wrong with the World envisions herself founding a fictional college free from the slightest trace of that corrupting philosophy known as postmodernism. Her larger questions: “Is it still possible to do anything practical to save the formal humanities disciplines from postmodernism? And if so, how?” McGrew doesn’t worry so much about staffing the philosophy department of her ideal school, for she’s pretty sure there are lots of excellent candidates to fill “good analytically-oriented philosophy department.” Her concern is more with the English department:
But what about English? Indulge me for a moment and imagine that I want to have an English department entirely staffed by people who are completely opposed to postmodernism. No "critical theorists," no "Well, Foucault had some good points" folks, nobody wishy washy on this subject. Everybody should take a traditional approach to the humanities, should believe that texts have meaning outside our heads, and should be seeking to teach them.
Being a father, a former English teacher, and having been partially responsible for developing a school’s English curriculum, I can appreciate Lydia McGrew’s desire to establish a top-notch English department. For my part, I insisted on teaching such old-fashioned practices and subjects as sentence diagramming, the Trivium, and supporting one’s arguments with sufficient evidence from the text.

Being something of a postmodernist, I am of course quite in disagreement with McGrew's berating of postmodernism and her idea that a good English department needs to be free of postmodernists teachers. Now I’m only remotely familiar with Foucault, so I’ve nothing to say one way or another on his possible contributions to or opprobrious influences on postmodern thought. I do know that Derrida thought that texts had meaning outside our heads – that was what drove his whole deconstructive approach! As I see it, the postmodern critique and deconstruction of metaphysics, meta-language, and meta-narratives is grounded precisely in the hope of opening texts to the mystery that cannot be contained by any human formula. If the humanities require saving, the occupying enemy to be purged is not postmodernism, at least not the whole gamut of studies associated with that name.

More troubling in Lydia McGrew’s proposal is the assumption that the only true and valid interpretive approach to texts is completely contained in certain traditional approaches of the past, as if postmodernists (or anyone McGrew fashions as part of what’s wrong with the world) had absolutely nothing to contribute to our understanding of texts or textual interpretation. She writes, “Speaking for myself, I think the world of academe would be a far, far, better place if Foucault, Derrida, and all their ilk had never written a word or at least had been entirely ignored by the academic world.” This assumption can lead to the idolization of a hermeneutic method, treating it as the only right way to read and think about a text, and implying that the fullness of a text’s meaning is discoverable by that method of interpretation.

Becoming locked into a particular interpretive approach hinders the pursuit of truth, for it closes to the mind any meaning beyond the artificial boundaries set by the hermeneutic framework. Moreover, it stifles the soul’s spirit of wonder by reducing the surplus of a text’s meaning to whatever fits into the framework. We become convinced that we possess the truth. In his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II defined the human being as “the one who seeks the truth.” When we cease to seek the truth, believing we have found it and possess it in its totality, we act against our own nature as a human beings—against what Derrida called our "messianic" nature.

The Words of a Relativist?

Relativism, according to Carl Olsen, "insists that morality, cultures, and beliefs are all of equal value, meaning, and worth. It asserts that what is true for one person might not be true for another, and each person can decide for himself what is true, good, and right." Also according to Olsen (and many others), the French philosopher Jacques Derrida was a relativist.

I disagree, and I hope to show in this post that whatever Derrida was, he was not a relativist.

Consider Derrida's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, an evil that Derrida condemned unconditionally. Were Derrida truly a relativist, at least as defined by Olsen, he would have morally equated the policies of United States of America with the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden. This Derrida did not do. Rather, in an interview shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he said this:

Despite my very strong reservations about the American, indeed European, political posture, about the “international antiterrorist” coalition, despite all the de facto betrayals, all the failures to live up to democracy, international law, the very international institutions that the states of this “coalition” themselves founded and supported up to a certain point, I would take the side of the camp that, in principle, by right of law, leaves a perspective open to perfectibility in the name of the “political,” democracy, international law, international institutions, and so on. Even if this “in the name of” is still merely an assertion and a purely verbal commitment. Even in its most cynical mode, such an assertion still lets resonate within it an invincible promise. I don’t hear any such promise coming from “bin Laden,” at least not one for this world.

Putting aside the veracity of Derrida’s assessment of American and European political posture, we can make a few points germane to the question of Derrida’s relativism:

In this statement Derrida contrasted America, the target of the 9/11 attacks, and the terrorists, the perpetrators of the attacks; moreover he judged each according to objective criteria and declared his support for America, despite its own history of atrocities (which he clearly saw as bad things). Why? Because the United States, if only in word and not in deed, offers that promise for the impossible—perfect justice. For Derrida, the policies, institutions, and actions of America and al-Qaeda are not of equal value, meaning, or worth. For Derrida, what is “true, good, and right” is not nothing, but indeed the impossible, the undeconstructible—justice, forgiveness, hospitality and friendship. That Derrida thought of such things like justice and hospitality in ways foreign to the linguistic terms and frameworks of metaphysical realists didn’t make him a relativist.

This quote also reveals that Derrida didn’t think we’re enclosed in language (a point to which I’ll return at post’s end). He speaks of language that refers to real action and commitment (something beyond words) and notes that even the cynical language of an empty promise has meaning and resonates with something outside itself—something messianic that is to come. (Derrida once said that we are by nature messianic).

So why is Derrida so often placed in the camp of relativists? I suspect that many of those who accuse Derrida of relativism interpret his philosophy within the particular hermeneutics of a metaphysical realism or moral absolutism. They juxtapose Derrida's thought with their own philosophical or moral systems of thought—specifically with their own favored philosophical language—and judge the words of Derrida in so far as they match or mesh with their own linguistic concepts. Instead of being read on his own terms, Derrida is translated into the accepted terms of these critics, and much is lost in translation. Derrida clearly was not a realist, so he must have been the alternative in the binary opposition: a relativist.

Derrida didn't use terms and concepts in the same way they are used by Platonists, Thomists, Realist Phenomenologists or other metaphysicians and moral philosophers. He didn't operate in the same concepts and structures of thought. What separates his project from those of these critics is not that he gave different answers to their "perennial" questions; he asked radically different questions! His project was not the study of forms or natures or essences or being-qua-being or things-themselves or timeless truths considered as things divorced from our understanding.

As for the assertion that Derrida holds words to be meaningless, here’s Derrida answering such a charge:

I never said everything is linguistic and we're enclosed in language. In fact, I say the opposite, and the deconstruction of logocentrism was conceived to dismantle precisely this philosophy for which everything is language. Anyone who reads my work with attention understands that I insist on affirmation and faith, and that I'm full of respect for the texts I read.

News from the Philosophy World

The New York Times ran a piece the other day on the growing number of college students pursuing studies in philosophy. (H/T: Policraticus) I wonder if this trend is likely to increase or decrease the likelihood of philosophy becoming a lucrative profession.

In conference news, Duquesne University will host the Society for Ricoeur Studies Conference October 15-16, 2008, preceding this year's SPEP, the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Pittsburgh. My alma mater will host Jean-Luc Marion in a conference this month devoted to Marion's thought. This weekend the North Texas Philosophical Association meets with keynote speaker Robert L. Bernasconi presenting "The Policing of Race Mixing and the Birth of Biopower."

A Few Bad Apples

No Correspondence


It is ironic that certain criticisms of deconstruction and its father Derrida fall prey to the same dishonest play of words that they accuse of Derrida of perpetuating. I’m thinking here not so much of criticisms of Derrida grounded in a well-researched study of his thought, but more specifically of those criticisms that originate from knee-jerk reactions to caricatures or the sometimes disturbing themes of deconstruction, particularly those themes that call into question the stability of our structures of thought. Mark C. Taylor described these criticism thus:

To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.
Carl E. Olsen provides an example of the criticism described by Taylor. In an article posted on Ignatius Insight, he accuses Derrida of dedicating his entire life to stupidity and confusion, of teaching that “language is meaningless, communication impossible, and life ultimately absurd,” and of seeking to destroy the nature and meaning of language. Olsen’s evidence consists of quoting one partial sentence of Derrida’s and a couple other philosophers.

Here’s a whole paragraph of Olsen’s:

To cut to the chase, Derrida taught that language is meaningless, communication impossible, and life ultimately absurd. This is all the more amazing since Derrida dedicated most of his life writing and teaching about deconstructionism. In books and lectures he insisted that words, sentences, and books cannot really say anything—or, if they do, they cannot say what the author [sic] think they say.
You know, maybe the fact of Derrida’s dedicating his life to using language to communicate about deconstruction (not an “ism”) should give Olsen cause to question whether Derrida really is the nihilist he thinks he is. Olsen also seems undecided in that last sentence about whether or not Derrida thinks words can say anything. Olsen’s “undecidability” here threatens to deconstruct his whole thesis. Point Derrida?

Olsen remarks that Derrida was “an atheist who had little patience for religion or the belief in the supernatural.” That would be news to John D. Caputo, who’s made a living drawing out (or just drawing?) the religious dimensions of Derrida’s thought, an interpretive project praised by Derrida himself. It would be news to Louis Dupré, who while writing on the idea of religious truth, noted, “[Derrida’s] philosophy of the creative word breaking through the given, whereby the signifier transcends the signified, appears, paradoxically, to reopen the way to religious transcendence.” It would have been news to Derrida, who wrote some books in which he explored religious mystery, such as The Gift of Death.

The criticism of Derrida from William A. Borst is another example. He blames Derrida for the West’s (particularly liberals’) illiteracy and moral confusion. George Weigel frequently refers to the demolishing plague of postmodernism and deconstruction. Given the misrepresentation that Catholicism receives in our culture, I’d expect these Catholic critics, who declare themselves the defenders of Truth, to be more sensitive to accurately describing philosophies that are not their own and to providing sufficient evidence to support their statements about them. If Derrida is bad news, these critics too often make poor arguments in defense of that proposition. These supposed critics of Derrida charge that his philosophy bears no resemblance to reality; ironically, the object of their criticisms bears no resemblance to Derrida.

Speaking Superlatively

Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine posted the other day on a survey of historians showing that 61% percent of them considered George W. Bush the worst president in U.S. history. Horton raises the difficulties in making such definitive pronouncements concerning a sitting president, but also marks President Bush as a special case.

I find all the talk using negative superlatives regarding the current administration to be a bit much and a potential distraction from more pressing matters. We have an unhealthy addiction in our society to spectacle, and enlivening the headlines with superlative assessments feeds that addiction. Besides, peaking of Bush as “the worst of the worst” inspires more knee-jerk reactions than conversions; if persuasion is your game, tempered language might be in order.

Adding weight to a historical figure with “best” or “worst” labels also can create an imbalanced historical perspective in which attention is paid to those superlatively honored and dishonored at the expense of attention being given to other figures whose historical influence shouldn’t evade our sight. To his credit, Scott Horton has an eye for underlying and peripheral details.

Then there’s the controversial question of what criteria are used to measure and compare presidents: ability, effectiveness in implementing policy, faithfulness to his oath to uphold the constitution, etc. Those considered by consensus to be the “great” presidents may, in light of other criteria, be regarded as candidates for the most tyrannical rulers.

If fair evaluation presupposes full and accurate understanding, then we have a ways to go before a relatively complete evaluation of this presidency can be made, for, as its critics are quick to point out, the inner-workings of the Bush Administration are largely unknown, shrouded in, among other things, secret memos. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, there are many known unknowns about this presidency. And unknown unknowns as well. That doesn’t rule assessments of Bush’s performance, but maybe we ought to withhold the superlatives until we get a better picture.

Pat Buchanan, Postmodernist?

To an extent, history is a narrative composed by the historian, who does his best (we hope) to weave together the who, what, when, where, how, and why of an event or related events in time. The historian constructs and produces an interpretation. When an accepted interpretation of an event is questioned, we’re often witnesses to a bombardment of charges of revisionist history. Well, revisionist history doesn’t trouble me in the least; I’m all for revising our interpretations of historical events with the aim of arriving at more accurate understandings.

I’d bet the bookshelves that come May we’ll be hearing charges of historical revisionism; that’s when the ever provocative Pat Buchanan’s book questioning the orthodox narrative of World War II will be published. If the title is any indication, Buchanan will argue that the second world war was an unnecessary disaster.

My knowledge of history is too dry and barren to know whether Buchanan’s cup contains any water, or if all is there is a cleverly crafted mirage—I do have several history books on the shelves, and I do plan to read them someday—so I’ll have to leave the evaluation of Buchanan’s claims to those with a post-kindergarten comprehension of history. Whatever the case, we should be open to alternative tales and entertain revised narratives. After all, the story of history is partly a construct.

H/T: Blackadder

Burke on Forming a Free Government

But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.

[...]

To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience: and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.

[...]

But when leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides of the people. If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

- Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France

Personal or Impersonal Government?

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “there are only two types of social structures conceivable—personal government and impersonal government,” and he warned his friends (even his opponents were his friends) that if they “will not have rules—they will have rulers.” News today of the declassification of John Yoo’s torture memo reminded me of Chesterton’s words. Torture is not only impersonal; it is among the most depersonalizing crimes. It is twice cursed: it depersonalizes him that tortures and him that takes the torture. Torture violently and sacrilegiously violates the personalist principle articulated by Kant, Woytyla, and others that a person’s dignity prohibits him from being used as a mere means to an end. It treats another human being as a thing to be broken and destroyed. It is an evil our representatives and public officials have worked secretly and diligently to make legal. Their efforts have rendered our government ever more impersonal.

Reactions [UPDATED]

...to the declassification of the other Yoo memo:

Morning’s Minion summarizes and provides links for further reading. Is John Yoo complicit in war crimes? Glenn Greenwald thinks so. Mark Shea offers a conservative Catholic response, helping to clarify that opposition to torture is not just a leftist thing. Kevin Drum posts and comments on a few of the most controversial quotes* from the memo. Still gathering his thoughts, Scott Horton points us to a newly and timely published piece called “The Green Light,” a detailed examination of the chronology of our torture policy. Yoo does have his cheerleaders, though.


* Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of enemy combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President....Congress can no more interfere with the President's conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield.

* Any presidential decision to order interrogations methods that are inconsistent with CAT [Convention Against Torture] would amount to a suspension or termination of those treaty provisions.

* If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.

UPDATE:

Scott Horton has collected his thoughts; he analyzes the political context behind the second Yoo memo. The NY Times questions whether the memo implicates official high in the chain of command for the "torture abuses" we know about. Meanwhile, a footnote in the newly declassified Yoo memo points to another memo, still classified, saying, according to the AP, that...
"For at least 16 months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, the Bush administration believed that the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures on U.S. soil didn't apply to its efforts to protect against terrorism."