In the calculus of power

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput offers his perspective on Joe Biden’s unfortunate embrace of public funding of optional, non-medically necessary abortion:

Speaking at the University of Notre Dame in October 2016, just a few weeks before a national election that seemed sure to put a second Clinton in the White House, I noted that:

[Q]uite a few of us American Catholics have worked our way into a leadership class that the rest of the country both envies and resents.  And the price of our entry has been the transfer of our real loyalties and convictions from the old Church of our baptism to the new “Church” of our ambitions and appetites.  People like Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Kennedy, Joe Biden and Tim Kaine are not anomalies.  They’re part of a very large crowd that cuts across all professions and both major political parties.

During his years as bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI had the talent of being very frank about naming sin and calling people back to fidelity.  Yet at the same time he modeled that fidelity with a kind of personal warmth that revealed its beauty and disarmed the people who heard him.  He spoke several times about the “silent apostasy” of so many Catholic laypeople today and even many priests; and his words have stayed with me over the years because he said them in a spirit of compassion and love, not rebuke. 

Apostasy is an interesting word.  It comes from the Greek verb apostanai – which means to revolt or desert; literally “to stand away from.”  For Benedict, laypeople and priests don’t need to publicly renounce their baptism to be apostates.  They simply need to be silent when their Catholic faith demands that they speak out; to be cowards when Jesus asks them to have courage; to “stand away” from the truth when they need to work for it and fight for it. 

It’s a word to keep in mind in examining our own hearts and the hearts of our people.  And while we do that, we might reflect on what assimilating has actually gained for us when Vice President Biden conducts a gay marriage, and Senator Kaine lectures us all on how the Church needs to change and what kind of new creature she needs to become.

Those words displeased some who see Mr. Biden as a veteran public servant and a well-intentioned, decent man trying honestly to balance his religious faith with the demands of a complicated political terrain.  On the complicated nature of today’s politics, there can be no dispute.  But complexity is never an all-purpose excuse, especially on matters of principle, and most especially when the innocent and voiceless stand to pay the price for a bad choice.

In defending Mr. Biden, his advocates have typically pointed to his long-standing support for the Hyde Amendment banning federal funds for abortion; his support for Catholic teaching on various other social issues; and his resistance to late term abortion, all admirable positions.  In today’s Democratic Party, these things marked him as a “centrist” and set him apart from the pack of other Democratic presidential hopefuls — nearly all of them hard to his left.

That was before last week.

On June 6, the Wall Street Journal reported (“Biden’s Abortion Views Irk the Left”) that Biden faced growing criticism from abortion activists and his party’s leadership for his Hyde Amendment track record.  Exactly 24 hours later, on June 7, the same paper noted that Biden had sharply changed his thinking (“Biden, in Reversal, Backs Abortion Funding”).  Translation:  The unborn child means exactly zero in the calculus of power for Democratic Party leaders, and the right to an abortion,  once described as a tragic necessity, is now a perverse kind of “sacrament most holy.”  It will have a candidate’s allegiance and full-throated reverence . . . or else.

There’s a remark by Thomas More in the film A Man for All Seasons that’s worth remembering in the months ahead: “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their own public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

I’m particularly disappointed with Joe Biden because he had a chance to stand for a somewhat older, less extremist sort of American politics in what I expect will be another corrosive national election. Joe Biden’s forfeiting his moderate reputation is both strategically and tactically incomprehensible to me—he signals that in his ambition he is willing to jettison principle, and he will likely obtain a smaller share of the vote as a result.

Ambition and politics

I don’t plan to write much about the next presidential election, and as an example of why I’ll try to avoid writing about it I’ll use Joe Biden’s unfortunate endorsement of public funding for non-medically necessary abortion as an example.

On June 5th, Joe Biden voiced support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal taxpayer funding of optional abortions. Joe Biden has supported this policy for nearly fifty years. Here’s what I said on June 5th, as Biden’s opponents were criticizing him for his willingness to strive for being a centrist:

“It should not be a controversial stance to oppose public funding of optional procedures, and in fact it should be a common American value that, because abortion is always the deliberate, intentional, and forcible ending of a human life, it should be unthinkable,” Tom Shakely, a spokesperson for Americans United for Life, said in a statement.

“However, in today’s partisan and polarized climate, we’re grateful for Mr. Biden’s continuing support of the Hyde Amendment, even as we express skepticism of his ability to maintain this position in the face his radical and extremist fellow contenders in the Democratic presidential race,” Shakely said.

One day later, Joe Biden reversed himself and abandoned his principled and moderate position, embracing the same support for public/taxpayer funding of abortion. I offered this in response:

“Joe Biden, like so many of his Democratic peers, supported the Hyde Amendment for decades, because he recognized that compelling American taxpayers to fund optional, non-medically necessary abortion procedures would be both morally outrageous and fiscally irresponsible. Joe Biden’s embrace of today’s extremism in the Democratic Party will only serve to depress millions of Democratic voters across the country who support more life-affirming law.”

David Harsanyi put Joe Biden’s reversal after nearly fifty years in context:

In 1976, Biden voted for the Hyde Amendment, a law banning federal funds to pay for abortion. In 1981, the “Biden amendment” to the Foreign Assistance Act banned any American aid from being used in research related to abortions. In 1984, Biden supported the “Mexico City policy,” which bans federal funding for private organizations that provide abortion, advocate to decriminalize abortion, or expand abortion services. 1993: Biden votes to save the Hyde Amendment. In 1995 and 1997, Biden voted for partial-birth abortion bans that would be vetoed by Bill Clinton. June 5th, 2019, Joe Biden continues his 40+ year support for the Hyde Amendment. June 6th, night, Joe Biden caves and drops a 40+-year position to appease progs. Now supports taxpayer-funded abortion, from conception to crowning. But no, the Dem party isn’t moving hard left, not at all. And Biden is a real rock-ribbed leader. If you take a position 46 years, you change your mind one afternoon, you should probably have a pretty good explanation for why. Biden will make the argument that his experience matters. But if he was wrong about everything, and admits it, then what does that experience mean?

Ambition and politics are corrosive things.

Joe Rogan and Naval Ravikant

I recently listened to Joe Rogan’s conversation with Naval Ravikant.

Naval riffs at one point on something from Nassim Taleb that I hadn’t heard before:

“With my family, I’m a communist. With my close friends, I’m a socialist. At the state level of politics, I’m a Democrat. At higher levels, I’m a Republican, and at the federal levels, I’m a Libertarian.”

Nassim’s point, Naval explains, is that “the larger the group of people you have together, the less trust there is and the more cheating takes place [and] the more you gear towards capitalism, [but] the smaller the group you’re in—then by all means be a socialist.”

Not literal, but a different way to think through topics that are often stale.

A vast machine for forgetting

Ewan Morrison writes on historical amnesia, the process of forgetting, and offers a counter-intuitive perspective on the internet’s role in perpetuating amnesia:

Milan Kundera is 90-years old on April 1, 2019 and his central subject—The Power of Forgetting, or historical amnesia—could not be more relevant. Kundera’s great theme emerged from his experience of the annexation of his former homeland Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1948 and the process of deliberate historical erasure imposed by the communist regime on the Czechs.

As Kundera said: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

I first read Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) back in 1987, when I was a member of the British Communist Party. The book shook my beliefs and Kundera’s writing became a part of a process of truth-speaking that shook the USSR to the ground in 1989.

In the 90s we believed we were living in a “post-mortem” era in which all the hidden graves of the 20th century would be exposed, the atrocities analyzed, the lessons learned. Lest we forget. We also thought we’d entered a time in which the Silicon Valley dream of digitizing all knowledge from the entire history of the printed and spoken word would lead us towards the infinite free library, the glass house of truth and the global village of free information flow. The future would be a time of endless remembrance and of great learning.

How wrong we were. The metaphor of the glass house has turned into that of the mirrored cube. The global village has collapsed into tribal info-warfare and the infinite library is now a war zone of battling conspiracy theories. The internet has become a tool of forgetting, not remembrance and the greatest area of amnesia is the subject that Milan Kundera spent his entire life trying to preserve, namely the horrors of communism.

This theme is set out on the very first page of the Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which Kundera describes a moment in Prague in 1948 amidst heavy snow in which the bareheaded Communist leader Klement Gottwald, while giving a speech in Wenceslas Square, was given a hat by his comrade Clemetis: “Four years later Clemetis was charged with treason and hanged. The Propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of the history and obviously the photographs as well. Ever since Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clemetis once stood, there is only bare wall. All that remains of Clemetis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

If you want to make data vanish these days, don’t try to hide them, just come up with four other bits of data that differ greatly and start a data-fight. This is historical amnesia through information overload.

When we lose not just the data, but the record of who did and said what in history beneath the noise of contrary claims, then we are in trouble. We can even see this in the accusation made against Milan Kundera in the last 10 years—that he was a communist informant, that he was a double agent, that his entire literary canon was the result of a guilty conscience for having betrayed a fellow Czech to the communists.

The confusion and profusion of narratives around Kundera lead us to simply drop the author completely, due to conflict-induced apathy. It has already eroded his reputation. We will never know if what he said in his own defense is true, the argument-from-apathy goes, so we shouldn’t trust anything he’s ever said or written, even his indictments against communism—even his theories about historical amnesia as a communist propaganda tool. All of this might as well be forgotten.

To get rid of an enemy now, you don’t have to prove anything against them. Instead, you use the internet to generate conflicting accusations and contradictory data. You use confusion to elevate hatred and fear until that enemy is either banned from the net, their history re-written or erased from the minds of millions through conflict-induced apathy.

If the struggle of man is the struggle of memory against forgetting, as Kundera said, then we have in the cacophony of the internet a vast machine for forgetting.

What we’re seeking to conserve

Sohrab Ahmari has written against what he calls “David French-ism,” which I’ll describe as the tendency of conservatives to attempt to maintain social peace through accommodation with cultural forces that don’t necessarily seek accommodation so much as replacement of America’s older social order with a wholly new order—and a new order with a wholly new set of moral goods. “Though culturally conservative,” Ahmari writes, “French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar.” And the problem with the logic of individual autonomy is that it ends with an unraveling of human relationships, duties, responsibilities, and rights in pursuit of an abstracted sort of liberty that believes its fulfillment will be found in the transgression of all limits, and the dissolution of what conservatives would recognize as social order.

Ahmari points out that the conservative project is doomed if it does not become more confrontational, and if it doesn’t shake off its perhaps excessive concern with abstract goods and its perhaps naive forfeiting of concrete social and political goods in the process of promoting those abstracted goods. Preaching the value of federalism, free speech, pluralism, or toleration doesn’t end up meaning much if you’re only preaching to the choir. At least, this is what I think Ahmari is pointing out. If you’re curious about this intra-conservative debate, first read Ahmari’s piece, then read David French’s response. And then read Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Rod Dreher.

There’s an aspect of Ahmari’s piece that is being widely misinterpreted; many are reading his piece as if he’s deriding conservatives for being “too nice,” when what he’s really doing is point out that calls for civility and niceness are not effective tactics for sustaining pluralism if your opponents no longer care about accommodation. Susannah Black highlights this:

“[Ahmari] wrote that ‘Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.’ This has been read by some as a call to do away with civility and decency. It is not. At least, it is not as I read it. It’s rather pointing out—at least, this is what I take—that if they are in service to an inverted moral order, an un-peace, then these things are not actually civility and decency. … True civility, true decency, are not neutral tactics of conversation which we can use to avoid confrontation. If you’re using something you call ‘civility’ that way, you are not civil. You are dodging. It is not the office of love of one’s enemy to ‘get along with’ him no matter what, to fail to tell him the truth. We must love our enemies—our hosti, as well as our inimici. But the way to do that is sometimes a face off. And there’s nothing noble about shirking.

As with most debates within conservatism, what’s unfolding is an attempt to resolve the question, “What are the things we’re seeking to conserve?”

We will remember them

It’s a warm, sun-lit, breezy Memorial Day in Georgetown. I took a walk earlier and am reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

A Georgetown home with an American flag

In honor of American soldiers both killed in action and departed in the course of time, here’s a bit from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” which I first heard in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old earlier this year:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them.

Taking books for granted

Andy Matuschak writes that “books are easy to take for granted:”

Not any specific book, I mean: the form of a book. Paper or pixels—it hardly matters. Words in lines on pages in chapters. And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken. …

Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later. Great: that’s a better model! Let’s look at how it plays out.

I acknowledged earlier that of course, some people do absorb knowledge from books. Indeed, those are the people who really do think about what they’re reading. The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing.

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarize what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them.Baker, L. (1989). Metacognition, comprehension monitoring, and the adult reader. Educational Psychology Review, 1(1), 3–38. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliarSee e.g. Langer, J. A., & Nicolich, M. (1981). Prior knowledge and its relationship to comprehension. Journal of Reading Behavior, 13(4). and Baker, L., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Metacognitive skills and reading. Handbook of reading research, 1(353), V394..

Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?

Of course, great authors earnestly want readers to think carefully about their words. These authors form sophisticated pictures of their readers’ evolving conceptions. They anticipate confusions readers might have, then shape their prose to acknowledge and mitigate those issues. They make constant choices about depth and detail using these models. They suggest what background knowledge might be needed for certain passages and where to go to get it.

By shouldering some of readers’ self-monitoring and regulation, these authors’ efforts can indeed lighten the metacognitive burden. But metacognition is an inherently dynamic process, evolving continuously as readers’ own conceptions evolve. Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. The reader must plan and steer their own feedback loops.

If lecturers believe that lectures are a warm-up for the understanding developed through problem sets and essays, then at least the lecturers design those activities and offer feedback on students’ work. By comparison, if authors believe that understanding comes only when readers really think about their words, then they’re largely leaving readers to design their own “problem sets” and to generate their own feedback. All this effortful “thinking about thinking” competes with actually thinking about the book’s ideas.I’ve oversimplified here a bit. In fact, this kind of meta-processing of material—designing one’s own questions and generating one’s own feedback—are sometimes effective cognitive strategies. But as far as learning science understands it, they’re only effective for people who are already proficient with both the object-level concepts and also the relevant metacognitive skills. For others, these activities appear to detract from understanding the material; see e.g. Kalyuga, S. (2009). Knowledge elaboration: A cognitive load perspective. Learning and Instruction, 19(5), 402–410.

If the model is that people understand written ideas by thinking carefully about them, what would books look like if they were built around helping people do that? …

Rather than “how might we make books actually work reliably,” we can ask: How might we design mediums which do the job of a non-fiction book—but which actually work reliably?

I’m afraid that’s a research question—probably for several lifetimes of research—not something I can directly answer in these brief notes. But I believe it’s possible…

There’s something valuable in exploring metacognition as an undervalued aspect of the art of learning.

A child’s first home

I’m heading to Dallas this morning, and as I’m leaving home for two days I want to share Haley Stewart’s recent reflection on our first home:

As my fourth baby has learned to crawl over the past few weeks, I watch her launch out across the living room to grab toys and explore. After scurrying several feet away, she will turn her head back to where I sit cross-legged on the floor and return to me, climbing into my lap to rest her head on my chest or pat my cheek with her chubby palm before going on her next tiny adventure across the room.

My five-year-old, for so many years the baby of the family, still asks to sit in my lap each day. While we eat lunch, while she does schoolwork, while we read books at bedtime, her little girl limbs find a way to curl up into the space where she found comfort for so long.

My seven-year-old wraps her arms around me many times a day for a huge hug. She touches my hair or shoulders as she walks past me. She runs into my embrace when she scrapes her knee.

My ten-year-old still snuggles up as we look over math problems and read together. He still wants a hug to comfort him when he is distressed or needs to resolve a disagreement.

While my children’s need for physical touch can be exhausting, it reminds me of a beautiful truth: my body will always be my children’s first home. My body is the space where they were woven together, where their tiny baby arms and legs kicked and swam, their first cradle that rocked them to sleep.

When I was 23 and my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was struck by this truth. Already married and a new mother myself, I was in the process of creating my own home and family. And yet, the prospect of losing my mom made me feel unmoored and lost. Praise God, she has been cancer free for almost 10 years. But no matter how old I am, losing my mother someday will be the loss of home—my first home. In both an emotional and physical reality. The loss of her presence will take away from the comfort of visiting my hometown. It will not feel like home, because my first home, her very body, will not be there.

We know now that some of a baby’s cells to stay in the body of her mother (fetal microchimerism). Part of each of my children will be with me forever and they each have a piece of me. We are physically connected for our whole lives. But a mother’s connection to her child transcends DNA. We will find home in those who have been a mother to us. Our birth mothers, our adoptive mothers, our foster mothers, women who have stepped in to mother us when our own mothers may be separated from us by death, illness, addiction, or abuse.

Our need for a mother, a presence of home, is part of God’s design for human souls.

I think part of the reason I found this so moving is that it’s a way of thinking and speaking that’s presently lacking in both our politics and our conversations on life issues. It’s both tender and humane, and through it we discover a truth about where we can trace our material origins that doesn’t require argument or analysis, but simply a willingness to listen and consider. It reframes life issues from their extreme focus on rights and duties, to one of hospitality and love. And through this reframing, we might consider Roger Scruton’s belief that ours is largely “a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love.”

Condensed symbols

In reading Rod Dreher recently, I came across this comment from one of his readers named Raskolnik:

Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.

Mary Douglas apparently writes on “condensed symbols” in Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, but “condensation symbols” are apparently older:

condensation symbol is “a name, word, phrase, or maxim which stirs vivid impressions involving the listener’s most basic values and readies the listener for action,” as defined by political scientist Doris Graber. Short words or phrases such as “my country,” “old glory” “American Dream,” “family values,” are all condensation symbols because they conjure a specific image within the listener and carry “intense emotional and effective power.” Often used to further the meaning of a symbol or phrase, the condensation symbol has a semantic meaning, but through long-term use, it has acquired other connotations that further its symbolic meaning. Doris Graber identified three main characteristics of condensation symbols, as they: (1) Have the tendency to evoke rich and vivid images in an audience. (2) Possess the capacity to arouse emotions. (3) Supply instant categorizations and evaluations.

How narrow and selfish

Chris Arnade writes on “back row America”:

I first walked into the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx because I had been told not to. I had been told it was too dangerous and too poor, and that I was too white. I had been told that “nobody goes there for anything but drugs and prostitutes.” The people telling me this were my colleagues (other bankers), my neighbors (other wealthy Brooklynites), and my friends (other academics). All, like me, successful, well-educated people who had opinions on the Bronx but had never been there.

It was 2011, and I was in my eighteenth year as a Wall Street bond trader. I spent my work days sitting behind a wall of computers, gambling on flashing numbers, on a downtown Manhattan trading floor filled with hundreds of other people who did exactly the same thing. My home life was spent in a large Brooklyn apartment, in a neighborhood filled with other successful people.

I wasn’t in the mood to listen to anyone, especially other bankers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbors. I hadn’t been for a few years. In 2008, the financial crisis had consumed the country and my life, sending Citibank, the company I worked for, into a tailspin stopped only by a government bailout. I had just seen where hubris—my own included—had taken us, and what it had cost the country. Not that it had actually cost us bankers, or my neighbors, much of anything.

I was in the habit of taking walks, sometimes as long as fifteen miles, to explore and reduce stress, but now my walks began to evolve. Rather than setting out with some plan to walk the entire length of Broadway, or along the length of a subway line, I started walking the less-seen parts of New York City. Along the way, I talked to anyone who talked to me. I used my camera to take portraits of people I met.

What I started seeing and learning was just how cloistered and privileged my world was—and how narrow and selfish I was.

I started reading Chris Arnade after discovering him on Twitter at some point in 2016 or so. His writing helped prepare me for President Trump’s victory, because his writing reveals aspects of the American people from which our ruling class has alienated itself:

Where do most of the press and elites get it wrong? They don’t believe that we live in a two-tiered system. They don’t believe, or know they are in, the top tier. They also don’t understand what people view as value.