29 August 2009

Question for Psychologists

I grew up a Cubs' fan, but having not lived in the Chicago area for many years, I haven't watched many games recently. So it was fun to watch a nationally televised Cubs vs. Mets game today, especially since the Cubs won. The fans in Wrigley Field were happy to clap and cheer the team upon the win.

But here is my question. Why aren't those fans rioting instead? Here is a team that is not only totally out of the race this year, but hasn't won the World Series in over a hundred years. One hundred years! It requires almost deliberate planning not to win in that many years. I don't know how the Cubs do it, but they somehow manage always to lose when they need to.

Why do Cubs fans put up with it? Indeed, not only put up with it, but actually continue to be fans! And when the rare occasion happens that the Cubs win, they cheer. How can anyone cheer for or support a team without any expectation whatsoever that they will win?

This Just In: Kennedy's Death Bringing Out the Worst in Some

I was not a fan of most of Ted Kennedy's political endeavors, and I was even less a fan of the way he used his social and economic privilege to exempt himself from the rigors of life that all of us non-super-rich face. His condecension, combined with what was to me the inexplicable adoration, deference, and exemption from the normal rules of morality and decorum people showed him and his family, soured me on the entire lot.

But I would not say any of that out of respect for his passing, were it not for what I think is the obscene and disgusting things some people are saying upon his death.

Apparently Kennedy would joke--joke!--about what happened at Chappaquiddick, frequently asking whether people had "heard any new jokes" about it. As shockingly repellent as that is, some are treating it with a shrug of the shoulders, indeed as part of Kennedy's "charm." Others have the indecency to wonder aloud whether Mary Jo Kopechne would actually believe that the callous disregard for her life, the cover-up afterwards, and the pass most of the world gave Kennedy for his role in her death was all "worth it," given the great things Kennedy went on to do for the world.

James Tarantino of the Wall Street Journal suggests that this indicates that some people regard "women as expendable." I am not sure about that, but it is hard not to be disgusted by this.

UPDATE: It turns out that Mark Steyn says some similar things in a recent column of his.

26 August 2009

Update on Obama at Notre Dame

President Obama's appearance as the commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame last May caused quite a stir. (I myself wrote an invited short opinion about it for National Review Online, here.)

Now Bishop John D'Arcy, whose diocese includes Notre Dame, has written a measured and thoughtful assessment of the controversy. His article, "The Church and the University: A Pastoral Reflection on the Controversy at Notre Dame," appears as the cover article in the new edition of the Jesuit weekly magazine, America.

I think Bishop D'arcy's article is well worth reading for anyone interested in the issues involved, and indeed I find the Bishop's argument compelling.

For further reading: here is a story from Catholic News Agency summarizing the Bishop's article; here is another article in America, this one occasioned by Bishop D'Arcy's, by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco on the "role bishops should play on the national political scene."

24 August 2009

Wise Words: Bastiat

"God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works." --Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), The Law (1850)

14 August 2009

The Recession and Jewish Day Schools

The Jewish newspaper Forward has a recent article describing the difficulties the recession is creating for Jewish day schools. Donors are reducing their gifts and even pulling back on commitments, creating real hardships for many of the schools and their students.

One advantage these schools might have over other schools facing similar difficulties, however, is the relative cohesiveness of the Jewish community. Even across the spectrum of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, the Jewish community often sees itself as being in a common enterprise, and it will join together to help one another when hardship arises. The Forward article mentions several such efforts. It is a powerful example of the beneficial potential of civil society.

(On a side note, I cannot resist adding a personal anecdote. A little over two years ago, when I was contemplating accepting a position at Yeshiva University (which I subsequently accepted), an Orthodox member of the community told me that, if I were Jewish and given the size of my family and the ages of my children, I would need to make $183,000 per year in order to provide properly for my family. His calculation of 'proper provision' included the considerable cost of sending my children to Jewish day schools. At the time I was astonished, not only at the number but also at its precision--$183,000, not 180 or 185. He assured me that it was not uncommon for Jewish heads of households to calculate things like this with such precision, and he further argued that indeed it was their moral and religious responsibility to do so.)

12 August 2009

Language and Thought

In his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau puzzled over the paradox apparently involved in the inception of human language. In order to have language, Rousseau thought, one must already be in possession of abstract thoughts; yet in order to have abstract thoughts, one must already be in possession of language. Thus we are faced with a dilemma: either language had no beginning, because it was impossible; or it appeared by miraculous intervention. Neither was a particularly appealing option to Rousseau, so he left the paradox's resolution to others.

The relation of language to thought has puzzled us ever since. Interestingly, however, for some time now--certainly through the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first--political reformers have operated on the assumption that the direction of causality goes from language to thought, not the other way around. Thus controlling language leads to controlling thought. If people can be trained not to say certain things, they will in time, it is thought (hoped, feared), no longer think those things. The prohibitions can become so deeply ingrained that they become second nature, habitual practice that no longer requires deliberation or conscious self-control. And that, of course, is tantamount to controlling people, which is the ultimate goal of most political reformers.

The point was brilliantly made in George Orwell's
Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is recently explored again by one of today's great essayists, Theodore Dalrymple. (I have my own brief discussion in chapter 7 of my Actual Ethics.)

Although I am no expert on the matter, I tend to think the political reformers are right: controlling speech is a first, and a significant, step toward controlling behavior. Whether language ultimately determines thought or the other way around, I am not sure. But as the range of taboo speech increases, the realm of free exploration of thought shrinks. It is for that reason that I think it must be resisted. Control one's speech for decency, clarity, penetration, perspicacity, wit: but not for political expediency. Refrain from saying what is unintelligent, unbecoming, or ugly: but not what offends bigotry.

A vigorous citizenry arises only in conditions of robust freedom, and it can be sustained only in a culture that allows, even encourages, a wide scope of liberty to speak, think, and act--and, of course, to take responsibility for one's speech, thought, and action. A citizenry that guards its words (and thoughts) for fear of running afoul of political sensibilities will not be a "civilized" citizenry--which is usually the rationale given for the establishment of speech codes. It will instead be, or become, a servile and dependent citizenry, increasingly unable to exercize one crucial feature of humanity, independent judgment. And that, as Jefferson said, makes them fit tools for the designs of ambition.

11 August 2009

This Just In: IBD on Adam Smith

Here is a short article that appeared recently in Investor's Business Daily, entitled "Adam Smith Was on the Money." It cites me briefly toward the end. The article is part of IBD's "Leaders and Success" series.

UPDATE 8/12/09: Gavin Kennedy has an interesting commentary on this IBD editorial at his site, Adam Smith's Lost Legacy, here.