An awesome piece from Mary Eberstadt in First Things

She starts with a description of the intellectual elite’s thoughts about communism before the fall of the Berlin Wall– despite the evidences. She then cites Jeane Kirkpatrick’s contemporary analysis in her essay of the title echoed by Eberstadt: “The Will to Disbelieve”. From there, Ebestadt draws an analogy to “the sexual revolution”– “the powerful will to disbelieve in the harmful effects of another world-changing social and moral force governed by bad ideas”.

As Eberstadt notes about “the benefits of marriage and monogamy” and the impact of single-parent homes on children:

…the empirical record by now weighs overwhelmingly against the liberationists…an empirical record has been assembled that is beyond refutation and that testifies to the unhappy economic, social, and moral consequences….Yet in both cases, the minority of scholars who have amassed the empirical record and drawn attention to it have been rewarded, for the most part, with a spectrum of reaction ranging from indifference to ridicule to wrath.

…[their] words and formulations like them have been fighting words among sociologists, with the majority lining up, sometimes ferociously…It’s not that they are unaware of the evidence. It’s just that they feel forced to explain it away. Such is the deep desire to disbelieve that shapes—and misshapes—so much of what we read about sex today….

Eberstadt continues by noting a few ironies and making suggestions on language and tactics (creatively borrowing from a provocative source)– before concluding with an appropriately hopeful note.

For more on this, click through to my blog &/or to Eberstadt’s piece.

My commentary today looks at President Obama’s deft use of narrative — the art of story telling — to inspire and motivate. By his own admission, Obama has taken a page from the playbook of the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has “a narrative reach” and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan “made other people a part of his own narrative, and that’s what Obama is doing,” Cannon said. “By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn’t necessarily just another partisan Democrat.”

Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, put the country on a “fundamentally different path,” when the nation was ready for it. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama said.

Obama has placed his own story into the great narrative stream of American history. For many, like the million or so people who jammed the National Mall yesterday, this story has them convinced that Obama is the one to, as he promised to do yesterday, “begin the work of remaking America.” I point out that “if religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative” to Obama’s.

Human actions are made intelligible as they are communicated through narrative. The ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre has observed that man is essentially a story telling animal, one that uses narrative to find truth, both through his own history and through connections to the stories of others. We enter human society, MacIntyre said, with an “imputed” character and then we learn what our role is and how others view us through that role. “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” MacIntyre wrote.

Those who wish to move nations, or start a social movement, understand how stories have been used since the dawn of time to create national or ethnic identities (beginning in the West with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid), to communicate religious truth (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and motivate social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). As G. K. Chesterton observed, “All life is an allegory and can be understood only in parable.”

Read “Obama and the Moral Imagination” on the Acton site.

More on this subject:

The Moral Imagination. By Russell Kirk. The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society. By Vigen Guroian. The Heritage Foundation

The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story. By David M. Phelps. Religion & Liberty

Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature? By Vigen Guroian. Religion & Liberty

The Morality of Narrative Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Bavinck on the Moral Imagination. By Jordan Ballor. Acton PowerBlog

Dire predictions about the “death of capitalism” reveal a deep ignorance about the nature of the current economic crisis — technical and moral. “Markets are the combined activities of millions of individuals and families,” Michael Miller writes in this week’s Acton Commentary. “They are not composed merely of some guys on Wall Street; they are made up by us.”

Read the commentary over at Acton’s website, and share your thoughts and comments here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Here are some excerpted quotes from the text of President Obama’s Inaugural address that are relevant to the themes of this blog. Some are already beginning the parsing of these words:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

In case you’re interested, I wrote and just posted a five-part review of Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God.

enjoy! eric

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Friday, January 16, 2009

Eleven times since President Bill Clinton began the practice in 1994, the U.S. President has declared Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, calling on Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” President Bush has done the same this year. The day is the anniversary of the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a work that built upon an earlier Virginia document, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. There American founder George Mason summarized the logic of religious freedom perhaps as well as any could: “Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

On Jan. 15 I phoned my parents, who live in the Texas Panhandle. I was calling to tell my Dad I had registered my kids for the youth camp he’d founded more than fifty years ago. He was pleased, but also uncharacteristically subdued. Something was wrong.

It took a while to understand what had happened. First Dad mentioned Opal, a woman who had lived across the street for 40 years, a kind of third grandmother to my brother and sisters and me. Opal died a couple of years ago, and eventually the house was sold to a family of Iranian immigrants, the husband in his mid-forties, a beautiful wife a bit younger, and several teenaged children.

By nature as well as upbringing, my parents are throwbacks to a time when people knew their neighbors. They’d welcome anyone who moved onto their street, and of course anyone living in Opal’s house merited special attention.

So they made a point of saying hello, of being friendly. Language was something of a barrier, for the family’s first language was Farsi, but my father managed to make conversation and, devoted bird hunter that he was, it wasn’t long before he discovered that the man also was a devoted hunter. In Iran, he explained, he could hunt all over, everywhere. Here it was less clear where he could and couldn’t hunt.

Well, my father had the solution to that problem. He had been cultivating relationships with farmers and ranchers for more than sixty years. Naturally, my dad soon invited his new neighbor pheasant hunting. A few days later, in grateful return, the Iranian family invited him and my mom over for dinner. Come at six o’clock on Saturday night, they said. They would serve pheasant and duck. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, January 16, 2009

The Acton Institute released a new short video to mark Religious Freedom Day. The proclamation from President George W. Bush points to religious freedom as a fundamental right of Americans and, indeed, people of faith all over the world.

Religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society. On Religious Freedom Day, we recognize the importance of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. We also celebrate the first liberties enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which guarantee the free exercise of religion for all Americans and prohibit an establishment of religion.

Our Nation was founded by people seeking haven from religious persecution, and the religious liberty they found here remains one of this land’s greatest blessings. As Americans, we believe that all people have inherent dignity and worth. Though we may profess different creeds and worship in different manners and places, we respect each other’s humanity and expression of faith. People with diverse views can practice their faiths here while living together in peace and harmony, carrying on our Nation’s noble tradition of religious freedom.

The United States also stands with religious dissidents and believers from around the globe who practice their faith peacefully. Freedom is not a grant of government or a right for Americans alone; it is the birthright of every man, woman, and child throughout the world. No human freedom is more fundamental than the right to worship in accordance with one’s conscience.

More on religious freedom from the Acton Institute:

China’s March Against Religious Freedom. By Ray Nothstine
A Patriarch in Dire Straits. By John Couretas
Review of “Catholicism and Religious Freedom: Contemporary Reflections on Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.” By Marc D. Guerra
Turkey: Islam’s Bridge to Religious and Economic Liberty? Interview with Mustafa Akyol
Review of “The American Myth of Religious Freedom.” By Marc D. Guerra
“The Birth of Freedom” official site for documentary trailer and added features.

New from the Heritage Foundation:

“Religious Liberty in America: An Idea Worth Sharing Through Public Diplomacy.” By Jennifer A. Marshall
“Religious Freedom Day: A Timely Reminder.” By Ryan Messmore

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, January 15, 2009

It’s usually good to steer clear of apocalyptic predictions of any sort, but as temperatures struggle to break the 10 degrees fahrenheit mark under full sun here in the Great Lakes region, talk of a “demographic winter” feels more compelling than warnings of global warming.

More seriously, the release of a new film by that name is the occasion for Jenny Roback Morse’s reflection on the economics of population. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field and I am skeptical of any argument simplistically connecting population growth (or decline) with economic growth (or decline). But I am convinced that something as fundamental as demography must play a significant role in economic trends, and it does seem that, in general, economists and policymakers alike have neglected or at least failed to appreciate the importance of the issue. (For a counterexample, see Oskari Juurikkala’s analysis of pending pension crises: Pensions, Population, and Prosperity.)

It is hard to see how strong economic growth can be sustained in the face of a declining population: it’s just asking too much of technological advance and productivity gains.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nathan Hale has long been enshrined as a patriotic American icon for his last words before his hanging by the British, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” M. William Phelps, who is the author of the new book The Life and Death of America’s First Spy: Nathan Hale, believes Hale never uttered those exact words. But in Phelps’s view, that wouldn’t in any way take away from the significance and importance of Hale’s legacy. One of the defining projects of any Hale biographer would be to make an attempt at separating the folk-lore from reality, and Phelps does a fine job in this account.

Phelps also focuses on how defining Hale’s Christian faith was in his brief life asserting “even at a young age, he put Christian values before all else.” Phelps describes Hale as a man who enjoyed his scholarly pursuits and friendships at Yale. The picture that is drawn of Hale is a young man who is committed to his faith, to his family, and serving others. In fact, after his graduation from Yale he went on to serve as a teacher in order to better prepare young minds for the world. One of the many moving accounts of Phelps’s book is the wonderful things people say about Hale as a teacher, as a Christian, and as a man of character. An acquaintance noted, “His capacity as a teacher, and the mildness of his mode of instruction, was highly appreciated by Parents & Pupils; his appearance, manners, & temper secured the purest affections of those to whom he was known.” Phelps also makes note of how he impressed people with his ability to express and explain the importance of liberty, and the oppression of the English Crown. His words were magnified even more because he chose them carefully and spoke from the heart.

Hale decided to take a leave of absence from teaching to join Washington’s Army. He was commissioned a lieutenant, and he wrote to his father to say, “A sense of duty urged me to sacrifice everything for my country.” Hale’s father already had five of his eight sons taking up arms against the British. Hale distinguished himself on the battlefield just as he did as a teacher by being focused on sacrifice, service, and his commitment to being a professional officer.

With Washington’s Army in New York, more information was needed about the British troops in the area. Hale enthusiastically volunteered to go undercover to obtain the necessary information. Fellow officers tried to talk him out of it declaring the mission a “death sentence,” and declared that spying was unbecoming of the character of an army officer. Phelps notes:

I.W. Stuart described a spy as a ‘companion of darkness.’ There was no way of dressing the job up to appear less dishonest than it was. ‘If he moved in the light,’ Stuart wrote, ‘it is behind walls, in the shadow of trees, in the loneliness of clefts, under the cover of hills . . . skulking with the owl, the mole, or the Indian.’ One of the problems Nathan faced as a spy was that, on his best day, Nathan Hale was none of those. He embodied the spirit of that compassionate man Asher Wright described: the one who knelt by the bedside of a fellow, a devoted Christian who prayed for a soldier dying next to him in the marsh. He was not an impostor, an actor. However, Nathan’s commitment to the cause overrode any of the hazards. He had made a decision and saw it as his duty as an American soldier to follow through with it.

Phelps in his account also reinforces the fact that a well educated man was needed for the mission in order to procure the proper sketches and notes for General Washington. Hale went behind enemy lines disguised as a Dutch school teacher in farm clothes.

Phelps tries to put to rest the often cited account that Hale was spotted and turned in by a loyalist cousin named Samuel Hale, arguing instead new evidence favors that he was tricked into admitting his spying by a ruthless and savvier British Colonel, named Robert Rogers. In any event, on his way back to the American line, Hale was caught and disclosed the details of his mission and was sentenced to death by hanging the next morning for espionage. Hale was refused the presence of a chaplain and a bible before execution, which he had asked to be granted to him. Several British accounts testify to the immense courage Hale displayed and faced even with the certainty of his earthly demise. He warned the onlookers “to be prepared to meet death in whatever shape it may appear.” A captain in the Continental Army, Hale was only twenty-one when he was executed. Phelps declared of Hale:

Nathan accepted his sentence. He stood proudly, head tilted skyward, posture firm, hands tied behind his back. Then, in a phrase that has been misquoted throughout the centuries and turned into a slogan for patriotism, he said, ‘I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.’ This is perhaps the most often misremembered moment in the Nathan Hale story: What did he say moments before he was executed? The line attributed to him – ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country’ – is only a paraphrase of what Nathan actually said, which was reported in the Independent Chronicle on May 17, 1781, as part of an article many believed William Hull narrated to the reporter. But contemporary scholars and historians have said the apocryphal quote was derived from the popular Revolutionary War play Cato. This poetic line fit with the heroism being created around Nathan’s legacy at the time it became popular decades after his death. His peers wanted him to be remembered not as a failed spy, but as a hero who spoke with patriotic self-worth at the moment of his death. In contrast, the Essex Journal, on February 2, 1777, reported Nathan’s final words as ‘You are shedding the blood of the innocent. If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down, if called to do it, in defence of my injured, bleeding country.’

Hale was left to hang for three days, then cut down and buried in a shallow unmarked grave somewhere “near present-day Third Avenue, between Forty-sixth and Sixty-sixth streets,” according to Phelps. His body was never recovered.

Phelps has crafted a story that helps to make Hale’s life remarkable outside of what he is most assuredly known for, his heroic death. His life confidently testifies to devotion to his Savior first, his country, and liberty. Phelps movingly concludes his biography by asserting:

When the British strung Nathan Hale up and hanged him, they did so to end his influence on the American effort. And yet, at the moment Nathan died on the end of that rope, the British gave birth to a national icon of liberty and patriotism. Nathan was, during his life, a captain in the American Continental Army who was willing to risk everything for the greater good of his country, a solider who was certainly, ill-prepared as a spy, but had a heart that led him to fulfill his duty. Sadly, death made him a martyr, a hero, an American solider to – rightly so – celebrate and honor. Yet he was – and could have been – all those things in life, too.

Acton’s Sam Gregg on Public Discourse:

At the level of government policy, a prominent instance of moral hazard was what some call the “Greenspan doctrine” of 2002. This involved the U.S. Federal Reserve stating that, while it was powerless to prevent the emergence of asset bubbles (such as the dot-com and housing booms), the Federal Reserve would do everything that it could to soften the effects of an imploding bubble. This included providing investors with the option of selling their depreciated assets to the Federal Reserve at a time of crisis. Not surprisingly, the result was a surge in excessive risk-taking by investors confident that, if everything did not proceed as planned, they could recoup their losses at someone else’s expense. In his recent book, Fixing Global Finance (2008), the financial journalist Martin Wolf underlines “the distortions introduced by government guarantees to risk-taking.” These, he writes, “create an overwhelming incentive to privatize gains and socialize losses.”

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