In the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and the ensuing controversy over the Obama Administration’s handling both of the pre-attack intelligence and the post-attack response, Neil Cavuto invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on his show to discuss how President Obama might go about exercising proper leadership and accountability in his address to the nation last night. The clip from Your World with Neil Cavuto follows:
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reflect on a decade of Wikipedia, a remarkable experiment in human interaction:
Ten years ago this month, Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales hired Larry Sanger to develop an online encyclopedia. You may have never heard of that project, titled “Nupedia,” but you’ve probably heard of the site that emerged from its ashes. Wikipedia is not only one of the most successful initiatives in the history of the Web but also a shining example of the potential of human cooperation.
Wikipedia sprouted in the fertile soil of freedom and possibility that characterized the early days of the Internet. Andrew Lih tells the story in The Wikipedia Revolution (2009). Wales, a principal of the technology company Bomis, perceived the potential demand for an online encyclopedia and launched his new venture to fill that need. Nupedia was soon abandoned because it was the result of conventional thinking—a traditional encyclopedia model applied to the Internet. When this dawned on Wales and Sanger, the resulting creative spark ignited the Wikipedia revolution. Putting an encyclopedia on the Web should mean not merely a change in the location of encyclopedia content, they realized: the new technology could instead transform the entire process of content production and publication. This was the insight that set Wikipedia apart and soon attracted millions of people across the world to its community.
The Wikipedia experiment was an exercise in entrepreneurship, and demonstrates that the impetus for life-enhancing innovation is not merely monetary success. Wales and Sanger were motivated by a desire to promote learning and empower people. In their view, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge should be democratic: let anyone with access to a computer participate in the process.
Traditionally, the collection and presentation of the world’s accumulated knowledge in the encyclopedia format was a jealously guarded prerogative of the gatekeepers of established publishing and academic institutions. This method had its advantages: consistency, careful review processes, and adherence to accepted standards of scholarship.
It also had its drawbacks. The updating and release of new material necessarily occurred at a glacial pace. Originality and dissent were frowned upon and non-mainstream perspectives could only find their way to print slowly, if at all. There were intrinsic limitations of scale and scope, put in place by the economics of the editorial and print process: only major topics deemed to be of interest to large numbers of people could justify the resources put into covering any given entry.
The philosophy of its founders shaped Wikipedia and supplied its unique sensibility, overturning the conventional constraints of established encyclopedias. Most critically, Wales and Sanger possessed a fundamental faith in humanity. Wikipedia is not about technology, Wales wrote in the foreword to Lih’s book, “it’s about people… it’s about trusting people, it’s about encouraging people to do good.” Detractors believed that permitting open editing of web content, or “crowdsourcing,” would result in chaos. Bias, error, and distortion would be rife. How could the anonymous interaction of the Web, they wondered, result in reliably accurate information on a wide range of topics?
But Wikipedia’s bet on the potential of free human interaction in an online community paid off. By 2008, it boasted more than 2 million articles in English, and millions more in some 250 other languages. By almost any measure it was a spectacular success.
The model pioneered by Wikipedia is not flawless. One might say that it is perfect only in its reflection of human nature. Without a formal review process and elite gatekeepers, there is the constant threat of interminable “edit wars,” which have in fact occurred from time to time. There is always the possibility that inaccurate content will be posted and will not be corrected in a timely fashion: Wikipedia entries cannot be assumed to be error-free. This last problem is most serious when contributors use content maliciously to defame the character of individuals or institutions. Finally, the vast scope and influence of Wikipedia is a temptation to the unscrupulous who have a pet agenda to push (witness the recently exposed exploits of a British scientist and Green Party activist who modified more than 5,000 articles in the cause of global warming alarmism).
Partly in response to these problems, Wikipedia has progressively imposed more elaborate publishing protocols which has, in turn, raised frustration levels and resulted in a decline in the number of editors who write for the site. There are also fewer subjects that haven’t already been covered after a decade of Wiki writing.
Yet Wikipedia is immensely useful and, all in all, remarkably reliable. Its success is a testament to the potential of human cooperation in a system of free exchange. It capitalizes on a vision of the person as flawed but capable of accomplishing good when given the opportunity and encouragement to do so. It recognizes that there is, in community, a power and capacity that exceeds that which is possible when people apply their talents individually and haphazardly. In brief, Wikipedia is a brilliant display of ordered freedom.
That there was no burdensome government regulation of technology in place to impede or prevent Wikipedia’s creation and expansion is then only the more superficial policy observation to be drawn from this episode. Wikipedia both recognized and benefited from a realistic appreciation of the human person as a creative, social, and moral being. Applying its lessons to the interaction of government with individuals and communities would transform political institutions as radically as Wikipedia transformed the meaning of the word encyclopedia.
The Big Hollywood blogger and actor Adam Baldwin, recently of the television series Chuck and Firefly, has taken up his virtual pen to defend Brit Hume from those who have criticized him for suggesting that Tiger Woods should consider Christianity in his time of crisis. Hume made the statement on Fox News Sunday, thus prompting outrage from secularists who find such an offering offensive and irrelevant.
Baldwin scores several times in his blog piece. Here is the foundation:
As an avid golfer, Christian man, and therefore a witness to the historic fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Mr. Hume clearly offered his message in good faith with honest concern for both Tiger’s future and for that of his family, friends, fans and business associates.
Look carefully at what Baldwin has written. Brit Hume believes Christianity is true and is based on an actual historical event. He is not adverting to some mystery religion (reach for the seventh level, Tiger), but is instead giving advice every bit as practical, or perhaps more so, than urging Mr. Woods to seek marital counseling or to find a good attorney.
This is what secularists simply do not understand. They think Christianity is “inaccessible” to others. It is not. You can accept it or reject it, but there is no reason for confusion. The basis of the faith is quite clear. Either you accept the evidence that the resurrection of Christ actually occurred in time and space or you do not. In no case should you accuse the Christian of hitting you with a bunch of magical mysteriousness that you cannot possibly understand.
You should really consider reading the entire post. Baldwin completely exposes the inappropriateness and unfairness of the comparisons of sincere Christianity to Jihad and deftly analyzes the pretensions of secularism. I could try to summarize, but would just end up reproducing his essay.
The New York Times is not known to be the most reliable or informed commentator on matters religious, but a recent Times article (marred, unfortunately, by a couple of inaccuracies) highlighted that France’s claim to have separated religion from the state is only true in parts. French cities and the countryside are dotted with beautiful churches, but few realize that the state is responsible for the physical upkeep of many of them. This is a legacy of the famous (or, infamous, depending on your perspective) 1905 law – Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État – in which a militantly anti-Catholic French government unilaterally abrogated the Concordat of 1801 and ended state-funding of religious groups (which meant, in overwhelmingly Catholic France, the Catholic Church).
But it didn’t quite cut all the ties. As part of the 1905 law, the French government declared that all then-existing religious buildings were the property of the state (specifically, local government), thereby legalizing the greatest theft of private property owned by a religious organization since Henry VIII’s dissolution (or, more accurately, government-sanctioned sacking, pillaging, and destruction) of the monasteries. Unlike King Henry, however, the French state allowed Catholics to keep using these places of worship and even today maintains their upkeep – something that lends itself to all sorts of mischief-making on the part of politicians.
A good example of this was highlighted in the Times article which reports that a beautiful 19th century church in the town of Gesté in the province of Anjou is scheduled for demolition because the local council has decided that it is too costly to maintain and cheaper to build a new one. But many opposing the council’s decision say that it has nothing to do with government budgets and everything to do with trying to reduce local unemployment.
Given the state of much post-1960s church architecture, it’s likely that the new church will be just as hideously ugly as most other churches (of any confession) built since 1960. The wider point, however, is that it should surely be up to the local bishop and the parish itself as to whether to renovate the church or build a new one. Instead, the choice has been made by Gesté’s local council, of whom one can safely presume a good number (even in the still very Catholic province of Anjou) are not believers or haven’t darkened a church door in several decades. Christians presumably would not expect to have a say in the building or demolition of the local Communist party headquarters, feminist collective, or Masonic temple. Yet in France if the local village atheist gets elected to the local council, he is henceforth in a position to make decisions about the fate of many houses of worship.
Such are the perils of government funding for churches – or mosques or synagogues for that matter. Inevitably, one’s independence is unjustly circumscribed.
Camarin M. Porter of the Department of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison reviews a text edited by Stephen J. Grabill, Sourcebook in Late-Scholastic Monetary Theory: The Contributions of Martin de Azpilcueta, Luis de Molina, and Juan de Mariana (Lexington, 2007). The review appears courtesy of H-Net, a unique and indispensable set of list-servs hosted by Michigan State University.
The Sourcebook includes translations into English of selected texts from the significant figures listed in the book’s subtitle, as well as a general introduction by Grabill and specialized introductions for each text: Azpilcueta’s Commentary on the Resolution of Money (1556), Molina’s Treatise on Money (1597), and Mariana’s Treatise on the Alteration of Money (1609).
In this extensive review, Porter writes, “For each of the three texts, the Sourcebook efficiently accomplishes its goal of setting each authors’ specific concerns in areas of moral theology and economics within full social and intellectual contexts.”
As we begin the New Year, I find myself thinking about books that fill the conservative armamentarium for resisting the left-liberal onslaught on the past handful of years. I’ve omitted some categories, like military and foreign policy, because they are outside my areas of expertise and don’t apply as much to the Acton mission, anyway. Here are my recommendations:
Common Sense Economics by James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee — Dr. Gwartney taught the first economics class I ever took as a university student and made a permanent impression. Socialism has looked like wishing-makes-it-so madness ever since I sat under the powerfully logical lectures of this confident professor.
The Role of Government:
Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics by P.J. O’Rourke — Though this book is billed as an economics book, I think of it as having broader philosophical and practical lessons to teach about the way government works in healthy societies and how it creates pathology in unhealthy ones. It has the trademark O’Rourke humor, but the moral of the story is deadly serious.
Bi-Partisan Hope (if such a thing exists):
Re-Inventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler — One of the worst parts of the decline of the New Democrat movement in America is that it took the kind of thinking in Re-Inventing Government with it. The authors argue that government is not very good at actually, you know, doing stuff. It would be better for the government to privatize as much as possible and take advantage of market incentives where it can. The central insight, which I love, is that the age of monolithic government bureaucracies should quickly pass in favor of lean government which focuses on entrepreneurial policy where it makes sense for government to intervene. The logic of Re-Inventing Government could easily support new ideas about public schooling where government might fund education, but wouldn’t have to run schools.
The Party of Death by Ramesh Ponnuru — The author documents the slide of the American left into an almost soulless devotion to abortion laissez faire and an accompanying disinterest in maintaining the sanctity of life in other areas. This book did not get the attention it deserved in a year dominated by news about Iraq. Ponnuru is one of the most articulate and rhetorically powerful defenders of the sanctity of life writing during the last ten years.
Religion and Money:
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem by Jay Richards — Evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals, have been increasingly squishy on free-market economics of late. This has been so much so that different organizations, like the Acton Institute, Heritage, and AEI have undertaken initiatives to reach out to them on matters of economic policy. Jay Richards (a think tank vet of Discovery, Acton, and Heritage) has written a book tailor-made for this audience. I’ve had the privilege of hearing him discuss these matters and he is highly persuasive.
Christianity and Whatever Historical Awfulness You Care to Name:
God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark — Stark is legendary in my old grad program for once telling a socialist student “Listen to me. Marx is doo-doo.” In this book, he takes on the old and busted claim that the Crusades were a purely evil enterprise. I recommend this one because it is his latest, but he has written several other fantastic volumes on the intersection of faith, history, and society. For the Glory of God is particularly notable.
*Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism.
I post the following excerpt of an editorial from a Danish news outlet without further comment, other than to say that I look forward to giving our PowerBlog community the opportunity to have a grand old time trying to come up with new superlatives to describe just how fantastically stupid this is:
EDITORIAL: Obama greater than Jesus
He is provocative in insisting on an outstretched hand, where others only see animosity.
His tangible results in the short time that he has been active – are few and far between. His greatest results have been created with words and speeches – words that remain in the consciousness of their audience and have long-term effects.
He comes from humble beginnings and defends the weak and vulnerable, because he can identify himself with their conditions.
And no we are not thinking of Jesus Christ, whose birthday has just been celebrated – – but rather the President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama.
For some time now, comparisons between the two have been a tool of cynical opinion that quickly became fatigued of the rapture that Obama instilled prior to and after the presidential election last year.
From the start, Obama’s critics have claimed that his supporters have idolised him as a saviour, thus attempting to dismantle the concrete hope that Obama has represented for most Americans.
The idea was naturally that the comparison between Jesus and Obama – which is something that the critics developed themselves – would be comical, blasphemous, or both.
If such a comparison were to be made, it would, of course, inevitably be to Obama’s advantage.
Please, oh please do read the rest. It’s delightful.
Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.
Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:
But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.
Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.
Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.
I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.
For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.
It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.
Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.
Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:
I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.
It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.
Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.
“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”
On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.
Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.
As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”
What made this son of Scottish parents both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government. Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both. What made Gladstone great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government. Biographer Magnus says Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”
Today, when a citizen is elected with a mandate to cut the government down to size, but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having “grown in office.” Gladstone “grew” but in precisely the opposite direction. When he entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832, Gladstone was a protectionist on trade, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and a protector of the status quo. By 1850, he had become an ardent advocate of free trade and by 1890 had reduced Britain’s tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.
Gladstone slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied the franchise. He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity. And he lived what he preached. Even as prime minister, Gladstone was so moved by the degraded plight of London prostitutes that he would search the streets of London to talk them out of their destructive occupation.
Update: More on Gladstone at Scriptorium Daily, “Gladstone: The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture.”