Archived Posts May 2005 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jspalink
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

C.S. Lewis identifies the development of "the machine" as the most drastic change in both technology and philosophy in all of history (he pinpoints the machine age as generally beginning around the time of the Industrial Revolution). While Lewis’ context is directed more towards a realistic understanding of the interval of time separating the "dark ages" and the Renaissance, the continued developments in technology in the last century, and in particular the last five years, have led us out of a sort of "dark age" by providing us with overwhelming sources of information about everything imaginable. While there is still skepticism about the proper role and niche that blogging fulfills in the neo-renaissance, the realm has now officially expanded to first-hand reporting – a role that has traditionally been reserved for news agencies.

An article from the Wall Street Journal on the expanding role of blogging says this:

Already we’re seeing a lot of reporting from non-journalists, where the "reporter" is just whoever happens to be on the scene, and online, when news happens. Given the ubiquity of digital cameras, cellphones, and wireless Internet access, that’s likely to become more common, making the kind of distributed newsgathering seen during the Indian Ocean tsunami the norm not the exception.

Reporting through a blog sidesteps editorial processes and can provide a very quick means of communication – publishing to the world requires only an Internet connection, a few minutes to type, and the push of a button. The more people who blog about something they’ve seen, the better the picture becomes of that event. Direct and unfiltered.

Other online resources use the general public to populate their pages. As an example, look at Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an "open source" encyclopedia, edited by the public. It is edited and checked for accuracy by a sort of "distributed intelligence" – people who know about something write. People add to it; other people remove from it. A record is kept of all changes (all visible to the public) and its accuracy is assured by the general consensus of the readers. People who disagree will change an article to reflect what they believe to be accurate, others will view the changes and make their own. This distributed intelligence also works as a self-checking mechanism in the blogging world, something we will see more of no doubt.

The invention of the printing press was revolutionary in the distribution of information. Perhaps the Internet has finally found an efficient means of reforming the now "traditional" method of information creation, shifting away from singular (or close to) news sources to larger distributed networks of redundant and peer reviewed information.

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “For the Nation,” (1979), p. 258

Blog author: jballor
Friday, May 27, 2005

Cuke Skywalker vs. Darth Tater

The popularity of the Star Wars franchise (and Episode III Revenge of the Sith) has been fertile ground (pun intended) for various political satire and commentary. For a mildly entertaining take on Star Wars from the Organic Trade Association, attacking "the dark side of the farm…more chemical than vegetable, twisted and evil," visit "Grocery Store Wars."

Check out the Acton Institute’s Environmental Newsletter on Genetically Modified Foods.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, May 27, 2005

A good question and discussion over at WorldMagBlog: “Should everything that’s immoral be illegal, regulated, or punished? If so, by which kind of government (include family and church as kinds of governments)? Can you give an example of a behavior that’s immoral but shouldn’t be regulated by the state?”

My answer:
Here’s what Aquinas has to say on this (in part), and I think it has a lot of merit in determining when and in what situations conduct should be legally sanctioned:

“The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still” (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

The point is that in cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior. Prohibition strikes me as a particularly excellent example of this.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, May 27, 2005

The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek

This OpinionJournal article, “Investing in the Right Ideas,” by James Piereson, surveys a brief history of philanthropy in the 20th century. Piereson describes three phases of conservative philanthropy, initiated by F. A. Hayek in the 40′s and 50′s. He writes, “The seminal influence on these funders was F.A. Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom,’ published in London in 1944 and in the U.S. the following year. This slender volume, an articulate call to battle against socialism, turned its author, then an obscure professor at the London School of Economics, into an enduring hero among conservatives and classical liberals on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The second phase is identified with a move toward a broader interaction with society, in areas of art, religion, and literature, among others. The funders in this phase “were more self-consciously conservative than libertarian. While sympathetic to the writings of Hayek and the ideals of classical liberalism, they adopted a broader intellectual framework encompassing fields beyond economics: preeminently religion, foreign policy and the traditional humanities. In contrast to Hayek and his followers, they were also prepared to engage the world of politics and policy and to wage the war of ideas in a direct and aggressive style.”

The third and current phase of conservative philanthropy represents a greater emphasis on practical policy issues and a corresponding devaluation of the ideas and underpinnings of conservatism. Piereson, I think rightly, identifies this generally as a negative shift, and concludes that “in this sense, Hayek and the neoconservatives have had it right all along: Any movement, if it is to maintain or augment its influence, will need to wage an ongoing battle of ideas. To do so, conservatives, no less than liberals, will need the help of sympathetic philanthropists.”

Part of the article is a brief sketch of corresponding giving among liberal causes in the 20th century. Piereson identifies the financial abilities of the conservative philanthropists as dwarfed by liberal institutions, including higher education. In that vein, I pass along this link to DiscoverTheNetworks, a site that “identifies the individuals and organizations that make up the left and also the institutions that fund and sustain it; it maps the paths through which the left exerts its influence on the larger body politic; it defines the left’s (often hidden) programmatic agendas and it provides an understanding of its history and ideas.”


Blog author: jballor
Friday, May 27, 2005

Contained in this year’s Christian Reformed Church 2005 Agenda for Synod (PDF), which will be held June 11-18, is a report from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches recent General Council in Accra, Ghana (pp. 257-63). The agenda states, “A reading of this document will make it clear that, while all participants appreciated the common Christian concern regarding issues of poverty and the oppressive structures that contribute to it, not all delegates were comfortable with either the decision-making process or the ideological positions expressed by the General Council” (p. 235).

Also contained is an English-language version of the text, “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth,” (pp. 264-68) the resulting “declaration” to come out of the WARC assembly. In many ways this document represents a defeat for the radical factions in WARC. Over the last decade we have seen the push for WARC to enter a status confessionis, and prepare a binding confessional statement on matters of the environment and the economy. As noted above, however, the “ideological positions” of those behind the push has precluded a more general acceptance of their plan.

The approaching G8 summit in Scotland has led the World Council of Churches to renew its call for a debt-free world. That is, debt-free if you are one of those developing nations that have been victimized by “increasingly unconscionable levels of inequity,” according to Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary. There is nothing in Rev. Kobia’s letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that is new — the WCC has been lobbying for debt cancellation for years. And it is tempting to simply dismiss Rev. Kobia’s sentiments, if it weren’t for the fact that undoubtedly a great many clergy and faithful in the WCC’s constituent churches take his analysis seriously. Here’s a sample of Rev. Kobia’s economic thinking:

The WCC, therefore, urges the G8 to rethink the logic of corporate globalization, which we believe has only sharpened the gap between the rich and the poor and has led to a destruction of the environment. The grinding poverty experienced by millions in our world today is derived from economic models of excessive competition motivated by profits. The WCC cautions that if no drastic changes are made in the present paradigms of economic growth, there will only be an aggravation of poverty leading to insecurity, violence and unnecessary deaths.

He’s also calling for a debt cancellation that comes “without externally imposed conditions on impoverished nations.” Not one word about corruption or waste among the kleptocrats.

When the G8 ministers meet in July, they would be far better off with the much more thoughtful analysis of global economics offered by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a speech given in Sarajevo earlier this month. Rowan Williams would never find himself on the cover of Fortune magazine, but he is willing to view the poor — and developing nations — as something more than a class of individual and corporate victims. Get past the archbishop’s introductory and perfunctory slams at “multinational” corporations pulling the strings on the global economy, and you come across this:

Religious believers will be found among those who are sceptical of appeals to the market as the primary agent of benevolent change; but they should also be found among those who seek to encourage the kind of enterprise that creates wealth in the form of employment, which represents increased levels of control and capacity in a social environment. Perhaps one of the most distinctive contributions that can be made by religious communities is the active encouragement of local credit schemes. Whether in the shape of the Anglican ‘Five Talents’ initiative in Africa, or the Grameen banks of Muhammad Yunus in South Asia, there is a way of furthering economic maturity that belongs most obviously with religious conviction simply because it assumes that a dependable local community, bound by trust and common commitment, is an ideal unit in which economic empowerment can take place.

And, yes, there is a mention of “endemic corruption” which paralyzes economic life.

Very often in political discourse, the labels liberal/progressive are juxtaposed with conservative/traditional (or variants thereof). But there are numerous instances where these terms become misleading, not only due to various connotations associated with them, but because the denotation of each word may not adequately describe the position on either side.

Take the educational choice movement, for example. To the extent that this multifaceted phenomenon can be called a unified “movement,” its defining characteristic migth well be identified as the upsetting of the current status quo. That is, homeschool, private school, and parochial school advocates alike are dissatisfied with the American public education system, and to varying degrees and in varying ways care calling for reform.

And yet those in the school choice movement are typically identified as “conservatives” or “traditionalists” while those opposing the privatization of education are said to be “liberals” or “progressives.” If we view the institutions of public education as the object of criticism and praise in this discussion, we quickly see that these labels are misleading.

The school choice initiative is essentially a progressive movement with respect to the instantiated structures of public education. Whether through vouchers, tax credits, or other policy means, the aim is to radically change the way in which education is delivered to American children.

Contrariwise, those opposed to these projects are conservative with respect to the education establishment. Any threat or hint of change is vociferously engaged. The current state of affairs must continue.

Now of course many in the school choice movement have reforming or progressive views on education precisely because they tend to be more “conservative” on issues of prior logical or ethical importance. And it is this tension present in the name “conservative” that is illustrated well by Russell Kirk when he writes, “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”

In his essay on “Ten Conservative Principles,” Kirk writes that this tenth principle balances traditional and progressive tendencies:

The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

We see that the labels “conservative” and “liberal” can be misleading on their face, and so that without a deeper understanding of the principles of each mindset, these labels can be inadequate. The public discussion of these issues must be informed by a more comprehensive analysis, both explaining and moving beyond this conservative/liberal dualism.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, May 26, 2005

Here’s a different, deeply flawed, and downright chilling take on the creation of genetic chimeras: David P. Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, welcomes them as a sign of the "continuity" between humans and other creatures. Barash attacks "religious fundamentalists" who draw "the line at the emergence of human beings from other ‘lower’ life forms. It is a line that exists only in the minds of those who proclaim that the human species, unlike all others, possesses a spark of the divine and must have been specially created by god. It is a thin and, indeed, indefensible line, but one that generates a consequential conclusion: that we stand outside nature."

Let’s ignore for the sake of brevity Barash’s caricatures and misunderstanding of the historic Judeo-Christian tradition. Barash’s own views about the soul and immaterial things like the mind remain free from examination in this piece, insulated from their incoherence (see Alvin Plantinga on the fundamental contradiction between naturalism and science). Even worse, I suppose, that such nonsense is coming from a psychologist, who it seems ought to know better, given that his profession is at least nominally concerned with mind and thought. In any case, Barash’s piece is a stark reminder of what kinds of support the creation of genetic chimeras will continue to receive among our "scholarly" class.

Following up on my post yesterday about the controversial Japanese history textbook that glosses over Japan’s past wartime aggressions, a new textbook is almost complete which will act as a supplement to current Japanese history textbooks with a much more complete picture of what happened around the time of World War II. The new textbook is a joint project by scholars and historians from Japan, China, and Korea. While the first controversial textbook was published by a nationalistic organization and tended to overlook any crimes that Japan commited in modern history, the new textbook (which will be published in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean in mid-June) is written from a human rights standpoint, and will contain several pages dedicate to the history of "comfort women" and the Japanese use of sex slaves during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. The new text will also elaborate, presenting the evidence that does exist, on the Nanking Massacre including excerpts from the journal of Kesago Nakajima, the Japanese officer who led the operation.