The Long View 2004-04-27: The Darwin Award Ceremonies

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote just this week that the birth rate in the United States now stands at lowest level ever recorded. It turns out the anti-natalist political program branded as reproductive rights has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. Like many such things, it has also taken on a life of its own, following its inexorable logic to its end. As much as proponents of cognitive bias would like to say that humans are largely irrational, we have an alarming tendency to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, even if said ideas have only been adopted as a measure of political expediency.

The interaction here is particularly interesting. The process by which ideas take hold of us and make us their own isn't often rational, in the sense commonly meant, but the process is rather predictable for all that. Scott Adams has made a name for himself outside of Dilbert in the recent presidential campaign by looking at the ways in which polls turn on matters that turn out to be quite persuasive, despite not necessarily making any sense.

The thing that gets me is that Adams is resolutely uninterested in things like Plato's Republic, which is the textbook for this. 


The Darwin Award Ceremonies

I have yet to find a non-partisan account of Sunday's (April 25) March for Women's Lives in Washington. Estimates of the turnout run from 300K to 750K, depending on whether the source was hostile or favorable. It seems safe to say that, for a march that was supposedly in support of reproductive rights, an awfully large percentage of the marchers were far beyond the age of reproduction. Many accounts, and not just the hostile ones, stress the large gay turnout. Despite the perhaps ancillary nature of reproductive issues to gay organizations, this was not surprising: gay groups in large metropolitan areas are now the Usual Suspects who turn up for every demonstration.

One could go on about the merits of what these people were interested in. However, might I suggest here that the march represents a cultural moment that is becoming simply anachronistic? As a matter of history, the reproductive rights movement began during the late Baby Boom as a strategy to encourage population control. Progressive opinion had it that some degree of coercion would eventually be needed, as we see from the first edition of Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb (1968). The foundations concerned with these questions were as surprised as the public at large when the courts proved amenable to constitutionalizing the issue.

The origins of institutional feminism and of the attempt to normalize homosexuality are complicated, of course. Nonetheless, it is not a complete distortion of the record to say that they are both based on "anti-natalism," which seeks to separate sex as far as possible from reproduction. Gay marriage might, in fact, be considered the final flower of a cultural complex of which abortion is the root.

Frankly, this whole business has become a luxury that the developed world can no longer afford. Readers will know that I am not unduly put out by demographic trends that predict the death of the West. Reversal is the movement of Tao. It's a sure as anything can be that those trends will turn around. It's just as sure that the ideologies that promoted them will evaporate. They will not be refuted. They will be forgotten.

* * *

Speaking of ideologies that will be forgotten, there is an interesting article in the May issue of First Things, entitled "How Richard Rorty Found Religion." I can't say that I have read much by Richard Rorty. In the few items I have read, he seemed to be one of those people who will never, under any circumstances, allow a line of thought to take him someplace unexpected. To me, at least, this misses the point of thinking. The article, by Jason Boffetti of the Catholic University of America, records yet another of Rorty's philosophical conversions.

Rorty was once a Platonist, who turned to analytic philosophy, but then emerged from that cocoon as a postmodernist. In that incarnation, he was a cheerful pragmatist. He spent a lot of effort arguing that the good society and the moral life do not require a metaphysical foundation, and especially not a religious foundation. Rorty is a Red Diaper Baby, and like many such people, the fear of religion has been one of the constants of his career. However, for pragmatic reasons, he has come to realize that it is true that America is a "nation with the soul of a church," and that there is no hope for the progressive left if it does not appropriate America's "civil religion."

He has a very minimal definition of religion: religion is our "final concern." He is willing to look for American civil religion in familiar places, such as the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, or the poetry of Walt Whitman. The one place he is not willing to look is to the doctrines of actual religions. His hostility to the transcendent remains unabated:

Whether or not one agrees with the earlier Rorty that metaphysics can be dispensed with entirely in the political sphere, the later Rorty has clearly brought metaphysics back into public discussion. He insists on a "fact of the matter" about the nature of our universe and our place in it -- that there is no God and that all we have is one another -- and he seeks to establish, in patently religious terms, a public-spiritedness that comports with this "fact."

In short, Rorty proposes to unify the public and private sphere under a metaphysical notion. The clear implications of Rorty's religious turn is that when orthodox theism conflicts with the American civil religion of democracy, traditional religious belief must yield or risk public approval and a range of possible, though as yet unnamed, threats.

Rorty's philosophy sounds a great deal like the air-head metaphysics that suffuses the majority opinions in Supreme Court decisions like Casey (abortion) and Lawrence (sodomy). One suspects it would have found wide acceptance among the gammers who turned out for the March for Women's Lives. The philosophy, like many of the marchers, has claimed to be new for 30 years. In fact, it's long past it's "Best Use" date.

* * *

Far be it from me to suggest that religion per se is a good thing; not when there is Islamicism to destroy. Some helpful hints about how to accomplish this can be found in the writings of a columnist for the Asia Times, who calls himself Spengler:

The West cannot endure without faith that a loving Father dwells beyond the clouds that obscure His throne. Horror - the perception that cruelty has no purpose and no end - is lethal to the West. Europe is dying slowly from the horror of the 20th century's world wars, ending the way T S Eliot foresaw.... "not with a bang but a whimper". Despite its intrinsic optimism, America is vulnerable as well.

The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that to "come to prayer" is the same thing as to "come to success". Humiliation - the perception that the Ummah cannot reward those who submit to it - is beyond its capacity to endure

I think that analysis is right on the nose. I would add one qualifier: Islamism will destroy any region it comes to control. It's own victories will destroy it. 

On the subject of post-humanism and death cults, I got around to seeing Kill Bill, Volume 1, over the weekend. It was mesmerizing, but I'm not sure it was a movie.

You know Marshall McLuhan's old distinction, between "hot" media (which impose their messages on the audience) and "cold" media (which require a high level of audience engagement to make sense)? Print is a cold medium in this dichotomy, but then so is television. Movies, in contrast, are supposed to be hot. Well, that's as maybe, but it seems to me that characters in most stories are "cold," in the sense that you have to empathize with them to understand what they are doing.

Kill Bill, Volume I did something I would not have believed possible: the key characters radiate behavior like light bulbs, and so are impenetrable to the light of empathy. They aren't really people.

There are a few exceptions, such as Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), the sword maker. Actually, the long anime sequence was more like a human story than were the scenes with live actors. Narrative animation consists of humanizing conventions, for the most part. Too much abstraction, and you're just watching a kaleidoscope.

C.S. Lewis sometimes speculated about entities that would be biologically homo sapiens, but that would not be human. Kill Bill, Volume I pulled it off. It was Animal Planet with people.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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