Posts tagged with: fiction

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is the most famous quote by the English Catholic historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton. It also appers to be the overriding theme of the recent teaser-trailer for the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The quote is even stated directly in the trailer in a voiceover (by actress Holly Hunter). Is it applicable in this context? Would Lord Acton agree that absolute power has corrupted Superman? I think he would.

That particular quote comes from a letter to Bishop Creighton in which Lord Acton explains that historians should condemn murder, theft, and violence whether committed by an individual, the state, or the Church. Here is the context:

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 19, 2015

Earlier this year, UCLA made available for the first time the audio of a speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. given just over a month after the march from Selma to Montgomery. On April 27, 1965, King addressed a number of topics, including debate surrounding the Voting Rights Act.

At one point in the speech, King stops to address a number of “myths” that are often heard and circulated, and one of these is of perennial interest, as it has to do with the interaction between positive law, morality, and culture. We often hear, for instance, that law is downstream from culture, and this is true enough. Thus King admits (starting at around the 33:35 mark) that there is some truth in this kind of view as far as it goes. But this does not mean that there is no place for legislation.

As King puts it,

It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And when you change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes and the hearts will be changed. And so there is a need for strong legislation constantly to grapple with the problems we face.


gift-of-magi-ohenry-della-jimAmid the wide array of quaint and compelling Christmas tales, O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” continues to stand out as a uniquely captivating portrait of the power of sacrificial exchange.

On the day before Christmas, Della longs to buy a present for her husband, Jim, restlessly counting and recounting her measly $1.87 before eventually surrendering to her poverty and bursting into tears. “Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim,” the narrator laments. “Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.”

Wishing to buy him a new fob chain for his gold watch — his most valuable and treasured possession — Della decides to sell her beautiful brunette hair — her most valuable and treasured possession. “Rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters,” Della’s hair was so long “it made itself almost a garment for her.” And yet, shedding but a “tear or two,” she goes through with it, trading her lovely hair to secure the $20 needed to buy a present for Jim. (more…)

Paradise0038New York magazine’s fascinating interview with Justice Antonin Scalia offers much to enjoy, and as Joe Carter has already pointed out, one of the more striking exchanges centers on the existence of the Devil.

When asked whether he has “seen evidence of the Devil lately,” Scalia offers the following:

You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore…What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

As my friend Irene Switzer kindly reminded me, Whittaker Chambers set forth a similar hypothesis in an elegantly written essay for Life magazine in 1948. “When the Age of Reason began,” the sub-head begins, “the Devil went ‘underground,'” his strategy being “to make men think he doesn’t exist.”

Setting the scene at a New Year’s party in “Manhattan’s swank Hotel Nineveh & Tyre,” Chambers constructs a fanciful conversation between the Devil and a “pessimist” — a Modern Man what-have-you, who exhibits familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis (an indication of rejection over ignorance, no doubt). (more…)



One of the more curious cultural movements in recent years has been the increasing interest in zombies, and in particular the dystopian visions of a world following the zombie apocalypse.

Part of the fascination has to do, I think, with the value of thought experiments in speculation about such futures, however improbable. There may be something to be learned from gazing into a sort of fun house mirror, the distorted image of humanity as seen in zombies.

But zombies have not only captured the popular imagination. They have also become the object of academic (or at least ‘intellectual’) discourse.

Peter Paik, for instance, has a working paper at SSRN on “The Walking Dead” as an exploration of attempts to escape the “state of nature,” characterized by pessimism regarding “a better future and the fear of moving beyond an economic system that permits unlimited acquisition.” Neoliberalism is for Paik the defining feature of the run-up to the zombie apocalypse, which might say more about the captivity of academic discourse to dominant modes of cultural interpretation than anything of value about real-world political economy: “The mindless, undead ghoul that consumes the flesh of human beings lends itself almost too easily as a metaphor about our current economic predicament.”

One of the takeaways from the surprisingly (at least to me) interesting World War Z has to do with a central insight into post-apocalyptic political economy, and is a word of caution pace Paik concerning the relative valuation of a “neoliberal” order. At one point, Gerry Lane’s wife Karin appeals to Gerry (Brad Pitt) to talk to his friend, Thierry, an official with the UN. Gerry response: “Thierry isn’t in charge of anything anymore.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Atheist SupermanLast time the Superman franchise was rebooted, I reacted pretty negatively to the messiah-lite qualities of Clark Kent’s alter ego. In this fine piece over at Big Think, Peter Lawler analyzes the nature of this tension in the context of the new film quite aptly:

The film also has all kinds of Christian New-Agey imagery that you can grab onto if you’re not much of a reader. Superman is compared in some ways to Jesus; he begins his mission at age 33, for example. But that kind of comparison doesn’t really hold up that well. Superman is only here to help us, not redeem us, certainly not to save us from our sins or from death. And he doesn’t have any deep insight into the meaning of life or love. His life, like each of ours, is shaped by choice and chance. He has extraordinary power that falls way short of omnipotence. He’s a man born to love and die—not a god. Superman’s Kryptonian father predicts that the people of our planet would regard his only begotten son as a god, but that we did not do. We’ve never become so Nietzschean or whatever that we’ve come to think a merely Superman can replace our need for God himself.

I haven’t yet seen Man of Steel, but Lawler’s examination has roused my hopes for the reboot. The imperial dynamics of Kryptonian technocracy look to be a fruitful vehicle for examining salient dimensions of our own experience today.

As Lawler concludes, “Krypton’s inevitable decline and fall is a victory of natural evolution over the effort to provide a conscious and volitional replacement for it. It’s not true that human liberty is defeated by evolution; the truth is that we are ‘hardwired’ for choice and chance and can’t flourish without them” (emphasis added; HT: Prufock).

Blog author: jballor
Monday, April 1, 2013

In the current Acton Commentary, I take a look at what I call a “modern-day Robinson Crusoe,” the survivalist Richard Proenneke of “Alone in the Wilderness” fame.

But as I also note in the piece, there are some other instances of this classic shipwrecked literary device, including the TV show Lost. The basic point of these reflections on community and the human person is that no man is an island, even when they are on an island.

Consider this speech with the conclusion “if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone,” from Jack Shephard, in Lost episode 1.5, “White Rabbit.”

As the tagline of the “Hang Together” blog reminds us, the dynamic between human sociality and community is at the heart of the American experiment in ordered liberty. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”