Friday 28 October 2011

Milla Jovovich and the end of Western civilization

                                                   Go ahead, steampunk, make my day…

The release of a new version of The Three Musketeers is a further example of how the film industry is ushering in the apocalypse.

Well, all right, this is a bit strong. It’s not a great version, but if you like loud, dumb movies with the beautiful Milla Jovovich in a key role, it’s actually quite enjoyable. But the specific steampunk aesthetic of the film is worth thinking about in a little more detail.

Steampunk is based on the combination of incongruous elements, thereby emphasizing an idea that reality is made, not found. In the case of steampunk, the elements are usually Victorian settings and modern technology, although that technology is reinvented through a Victorian prism (so steam driven computers etc). The Three Musketeers takes a sumptuously imagined seventeenth century French background, and combines it with anachronistic elements such as flying sailing ships to provide a loosely steampunk experience.

Much of the charm of steampunk is from glamour and style: a slightly, gothic, romantic look which would probably have many Traddy Catholics nodding in sympathy. But added to that is the pleasure of undercutting and subverting expectations: by mixing in re-invented technology, what would otherwise be a simple costume adventure is made more ironic, more detached, more knowing –more postmodern.

So what has all this to do with Jerusalem (or at least the issue of Catholic wisdom)?

Firstly, it reminds us about the link between morality and imagination. Works of art (or even bog standard artefacts such as commercial films) express a view of the world, and also reinforce and create a view of the world. Steampunk both reflects and reinforces the idea that nature is made, not found. That is not just an aesthetic matter, but also a moral one.

Relatedly, it is about the pleasure of mucking things around and in particular mucking the past and nature around. Steampunk mucks stuff around by not simply reproducing the past, but remaking it. Moreover, it introduces technology (more human mucking around) into nature where it previously wasn’t. (And then it mucks that technology around for good measure.) This mucking around is extended into gender: Milla Jovovich is (clearly and glamorously) female. She also throws herself around like a Ninja and beats men up.

I don’t really think Milla Jovovich is ushering in the apocalypse. (Given the lack of humour of some anti-Catholic trolls, that’s probably a point worth making clear.) Steampunk isn’t a big enough social movement from which to start drawing many conclusions about the wider culture rather than using it to illustrate facets of that culture found more generally. In the end, it’s mostly play and fantasy and they aren’t always bad things. But nevertheless, steampunk does demonstrate key aspects (the rejection of nature, of tradition and an unwillingness to leave things alone) that are at the core of modernity’s difficulties in grappling with Catholic moral teaching.

How we see the world affects how we act in the world: aesthetics are not neatly separable from morals. Seeing the world as constructed and mucked around is not a good basis for natural law teaching. And the audience the Church has to address has been soaked in such an aesthetic.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

I want to marry my cat...

After same sex 'marriage', what's next? How long before we hear the following sort of case?

Argument: For many years, I have been in love with my cat. I now want to marry her.

Objection: Marriage is between two human beings. It cannot be between a cat and a human being.

Response: Marriage is a human institution and has taken many forms over human history. There is absolutely no reason why it cannot change again to take account of interspecies relationships.

Argument: Marriage has recently been extended to include same sex relationships. I would now like it to be extended to include relationships between a cat and a human being.

Objection: Even if same sex marriage is accepted, it remains a relationship involving mutual consent. It is not analogous to a relationship between an animal and a human being.

Response: Please see my earlier response. What marriage involves is purely a matter for human, social decision. Different features will occur at different times. There is no reason why consent should always feature as an aspect of marriage. The key analogous feature here is the existence of love and mutual dependence.

Argument: There is a social benefit in recognizing interspecies relationships by marriage.

Objection: There is already a mechanism for recognizing that relationship –ie ownership. By linking completely different sorts of relationship within the same institution, you are undermining the nature of marriage.

Response: Although you keep harping on about ‘the nature of marriage’, I have already shown that there is no such nature –it is a human construct. So what are the benefits of constructing marriage in the way I suggest? Well, the current institution of ownership does not reflect the love and mutuality that is at the heart of marriage: by encouraging people to think of pets as things to be owned rather than as partners in a lifelong relationship, we see the terrible social consequences in terms of the abandonment of animals that results. By replacing ownership with marriage, human partners will be encouraged to take responsibility for their animal partners and, in the case of breakdown of the relationship, will be forced to take continuing responsibility for their dependents.

Argument: The only people opposed to this are religious.

Objections: Even if this is true, so what? Don’t we have a right to make our case? Catholic arguments at least are based on an understanding of human nature which was articulated by Graeco-Roman philosophy and engages with the concerns of the non-religious world.

Response: Many of us who support interspecies relationships are not religious. We should not have to have our views dictated to by believers in a bronze age god. But even amongst the religious, there is no consensus on this. There is no clear statement in the Bible that marriage between species is wrong. There are certainly statements against types of sexual behaviour with animals, but none which rule out committed relationships of the sort envisaged. In a modern go ahead Scotland, there should be no laws which are against the free exercise of love, unless there is a clear reason on the ground of harm to have them –and in this case there is not.

Very many good and socially important people have strong relationships with their cats and prefer them to human beings. What right do you have to stop them celebrating that love in a dignified manner?

[I had thought this was satire or at least a reductio ad absurdum. I discovered it wasn’t:

A GERMAN postman has "married" his obese and asthmatic cat, saying he wanted to tie the knot before his pet died here.]

Friday 21 October 2011

How to reason with a hypnotized culture

Having thought carefully about all the issues involved, you are clearly just another Catholic bigot…

In my posting on 18 October 2011, I left open the question as to how Catholics should open a discussion with a culture that only gives two minutes for a debate on issues such as same sex ‘marriage’.

One way is illustrated by John Haldane’s article in this week’s Sunday Herald (16 October 2011) (which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be online). There he contrasts modern liberalism, with its ‘talk of equality and rights’ with three other views:

1)      ‘traditional conservatives who favour social duties over social claims’
2)      ‘traditional socialists who see links between the culture of rights and that of consumerism’; and
3)      ‘the morality and politics of the common good’ which ‘shaped the founding cultures of Greece and Rome’.

It is this latter view which lies at the heart of Catholic thinking on ethics. Specifically on same sex ‘marriage’:

            …[M]arriage exists for the sake of making and maintaining family life, the roots of which lie in natural complementarities: in male and female of the species joining together one-to-one, with the intention of creating another. That other, or others borne of the fusion of their parents’ diverse identities, thereby extend a union of two to a community of several.

            Marriage recognises, celebrates and protects this basic source of human society.   It is not an entitlement to be claimed, and its meaning and value were understood long before the idea of rights were ever conceived of.

Two things are going on here: firstly, the reader is being encouraged to think that there is a deeper argument to be had here, one which is scarcely even acknowledged by the proponents of same sex ‘marriage’. Even if you can’t articulate that argument in two minutes –and it’s hard to imagine anyone from the other side being convinced by the brief explanation given by Haldane- you can alert people to its existence. Secondly, the roots of that argument in pre-Christian philosophical culture –and not just the fevered, imaginings of the religious- is being stressed.

Both good things and needing to be said. However, the taster of the argument with its talk of complementarities and procreation is unlikely to draw anyone into further research who isn’t already sympathetic to a Catholic ethics. Moreover –from previous combox discussions of my own- the appeal to Graeco-Roman culture is likely to confirm proponents of same sex ‘marriage’ in their view that opposition to ‘fairness and equality’ is rooted in ancient prejudice rather than modern reason.

None of this should be read as a criticism of Haldane who is one of those rare things in modern Scotland: a national intellectual figure with a deserved international standing. He is right about the existence of a deeper argument, right about its broad outlines and right about the importance of Graeco-Roman philosophical culture. But to acknowledge this shouldn’t blind us to the unlikelihood of his analysis getting a successful hearing.

Well, all that’s something I’ll doubtless be returning to again and again. But what about the other categories above –the traditional conservatives and socialists?  Why is there no non-religious voice being raised in favour of a Burkean conservatism, one suspicious of innovation, sceptical of the claimed powers of reason:

            By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

Why are there no voices on the secular feminist left raised in suspicion of a form of social organization that encourages the view that gender doesn’t really matter? Why no socialists worried about the reduction of human life to monads unable to resist the capitalist machine?

Don’t misunderstand me here. I do not believe that it is clear that any traditional conservative or any traditional socialist who thought about same sex ‘marriage’ would automatically be opposed to it, any more than I think that any neo-Aristotelian who thought about it would automatically be opposed either. But a moment’s thought ought to show that any of these three views contain resources which should make them at least aware of the complexities of the issues involved. And yet –outwith orthodox religions- any sign of the complexity involved here is steamrollered under the sort of mesmerized support for same sex ‘marriage’ that regards any sort of opposition as obvious bigotry. The only exception I'm aware of here is Frank Furedi's article in Spiked (here) where Furedi (humanist and founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party) castigates precisely the same smug, thoughtless dismissal of other views that I'm objecting to here:

The preoccupation of professional victimologists is reflected in popular culture. Cinema and television transmit stereotypical stories about unhappy, failed and dysfunctional heterosexual marriages. In contrast, same-sex unions are treated with reverence and often depicted as a mature relationship between two equals.
Of course heterosexual couples continue to get married, but there has been no time in history when this institution enjoyed such feeble affirmation. Indeed, these days they are often likely to hear the refrains: “Why get married?” or “Why wait for marriage before having children?”
Paradoxically, in some quarters the idea that marriage for heterosexuals is no big deal coincides with the cultural sacralising of a same-sex union.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that behind the gay marriage discussion lurk profound questions about how to endow intimate relations with meaning.
In such circumstances elite-sanctioned snobbish intolerance is no more acceptable than anti-gay prejudice. 

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Proponent of Natural Law

                                  Robert P. George -bringing natural law into the world of politics

One of the issues this blog is going to be banging on about is the need to bring natural law thinking -that is, the tradition of reflection on human nature and its moral implications rooted in Graeco-Roman philosophy which is the basis of Catholic moral theology-  into Scottish politics.

An example of one way to do it is given in this New York Times interview with Robert P. George -a jurisprudent and philosopher at Princeton- who has also become an influential public figure in conservative politics in the US. Clearly not something that can simply be parachuted into a Scottish context, but still raises the question as to why social conservative thinking in Scotland is currently so feeble. (There are honourable academic exceptions such John Haldane but they have extremely limited influence within party politics and the chattering classes here.)

Couple of thoughts on the interview:

1) At times the writer suggests that George has reinvented natural law thinking. I'd prefer to regard it as developing his own engagement with it: natural law thinking is a tradition and within any worthwhile tradition, there will be competing and mutually critical views which, however, will share an underlying focus and general methodology.

2) Within a Scottish context, the identification of this strand of thinking with one party -the Republicans in the US- is probably both unachievable and undesirable. Catholic and other orthodox Christians exist in all the main Scottish parties: equally, social conservatism (certainly in the area of sexual morality) ought to have an honourable and articulated place within those parties. At the moment, we seem to have a rather ironic re-application of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy to any view (religious or otherwise) which doesn't fit into laissez-faire sexual liberalism.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

You can’t believe THAT???

The ordinary, decent person's view of Catholic teaching and spokesmen: bizarre and a little scary

One of the problems with the current debate on same sex ‘marriage’ in Scotland and elsewhere is the blank incomprehension that Catholic views on homosexuality and marriage produce. Quite often, either the view itself is misunderstood or the reasons behind it are regarded as incomprehensible.

The results of this incomprehension tend to fall into two camps. The first is that of angry rejection: homophobic, out of date, misogynist etc. The second is that of marginalization: it’s their religious thing so of course it doesn’t make sense outwith their faith.

What both these approaches fail to grapple with is that the moral teachings of the Church are not (in any straightforward sense) religious, but are based simply on a view of what is good or bad for human beings. This is usually put by Catholics as the claim that such teachings are based on natural law. But such a description itself merely reinforces the existing two sorts of prejudices against it. The first camp will say, ‘That just shows it’s all nonsense. Darwin (or Dawkins or my Uncle Fred) has shown that there’s no such thing and it’s just a leftover of homophobic, women hating nonsense.’ The second camp will say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but since it’s based on the law of God or some peculiar Catholic stuff, while we can let them get on with it, we can’t take much notice of it living in a modern, go ahead Scotland.’

So for a start, it’s incredible difficult to get a hearing for Catholic views because of a) their (counter cultural) conclusions, and b) their being branded as based on some strange Catholic background. And given that the normal spokesmen for the teaching are Catholic Bishops, not normally particularly telegenic and given to wearing strange clothes and having strange titles, the impression can only be reinforced that at best this is the squawking of a strange, marginal world view.

But fine. Let’s assume we can even get so far as a hearing. (Our Bishops are getting good at this even if the reception of their comments by the media is often akin to gawping at the antics of circus freaks.) We then hit the final buffers of modern culture: can you sum up your view in two minutes? The pro same sex ‘marriage’ campaign has a simple slogan: Fairness. Marriage for one group, marriage for all. Those opposing it have slogans too: It’s against God’s law. It’s rewriting tradition. But none of these slogans has anything like the immediate resonance of the pro same sex ‘marriage’ side. (In a modern go-ahead Scotland, we don’t really do God, and in a modern go-ahead Scotland, we certainly don’t do tradition.)

So here’s the nub of the problem. How do we express a long, counter cultural case in the two minutes of the media window?