Thursday, June 4, 2015

Leading from behind

Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die. --2 Samuel 11:15

If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible. --Harry S Truman, 1941

Various commentators of the neo-con, interventionist sort (y'know, "serious," mainstream commentators) have faulted the Obama Administration for a while now for not warring more directly on the Assad regime in Syria. Now that the Saudis and Turks are funding and arming al-Qaeda linked militants, and those militants (along with ISIS militants) are making greater progress against the Assad regime, the new neo-con line seems to be that we're going to miss our piece of the action if Sunni radicals do all the anti-Assad fighting and dying for us.

Now as it happens, I will be somewhat sorry to see the murderous Assad regime go, because it seems to be the only protector of Christians in Syria.

But assuming for argument's sake that the fall of Assad is desirable (to check Iran or whatever), why exactly is it a problem if it's jihadis dying for that cause, rather than Americans? Is it supposed to be because the jihadis will then have more influence in a post-Assad Syria? But if that's the case, how is it any different than Libya, where we followed the interventionist script and ended up with more jihadi influence than under Qaddafi? For that matter, how is it any different than Iraq, where we have ended up with more jihadi influence than under Hussein? It seems to me that we are going to have more jihadi influence in the Arab world until Arabs themselves weary of them. So why not let jihadis and Baathists slaughter each other in the meantime, rather than having Americans be involved? As Kissinger is said to have quipped of the Iran-Iraq War--can't they both lose?

I think the obviously correct analysis of what the Administration is trying to do here here isn't some sort of liberal timidity (as if the party of drone war, the Carter Doctrine, and Vietnam were really noninterventionist anyway), but rather the one Perry Anderson offers in his (excellent) new book American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, reflecting conditions as of its composition in 2013, but still plausible today:

The safer path was a proxy war, at two removes. The US would not intervene directly, nor even itself—for the time being—arm or train the Syrian rebels. It would rely instead on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to funnel weapons and funds to them, and Turkey and Jordan to host and organize them.

There's a great deal of loose talk among neocons (many of them working at Gulf-funded think tanks, I imagine) about some sort of dangerous split between the U.S. and the Gulf princedoms. But Anderson's picture of the U.S. and the Arab royals working hand-in-glove rings a lot truer than the spleen being vented by the Gulf royals' American mouthpieces.

Not, of course, that we mere citizens have much power over the steady course of the national security establishment's plans for continuing imperial hegemony. Just nice to call out obvious cant for what it is once in a while, if only to stay sane.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

War (of the Stray Dog) in Heaven

I would not have returned to the Faith as an adult were it not for discovering Aquinas' proofs of God, and I would not have come to Aquinas' proofs were it not for the Thomistic popularizer and reinvigorator Edward Feser. Accordingly, I owe Feser an incalculable debt.

Feser has feuded in print with Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, whom I also esteem for his splendid contributions to contemporary theology.

Their most recent slapfight--here, here, here, and here--concerns whether animals go to Heaven.

Besides a general disdain for (a caricature of) neo-Thomist manualism, Hart's thrusts attack the Thomist point that animals do not go to Heaven because their souls are not immaterial.

This point runs roughly as follows:

The soul, for a hylemorphist (i.e., an Aristotelian who believes that matter is structured by form) is the form of the body--the organization of its faculties.

The form of a rubber ball is, inter alia, its sphericity.

The form of a plant is its vegetative soul, the way that its matter is organized and informed unto nutrition, growth, and reproduction.

The form of an animal is its sensitive soul, which includes all the vegetative functions, but also informs animal functions of sensation, locomotion, appetition, emotion, and imagination.

The form of a human is his or her rational soul, which includes all the animal (and thus all the vegetative) functions, but also informs the human function of reason.

Now, modern science will confirm Aristotle's and Aquinas' view that vegetative and sensitive faculties are entirely embodied: they work in and through matter, and without matter, they do not work.

Reason is different. As the contemporary Thomist James Ross has argued in Immaterial Aspects of Thought (one of the most important readings in my own intellectual development as a Thomist and indeed as a Christian), reason incorporates a degree of abstraction and precision that the material, of its nature, cannot entirely embody.

Because reason is immaterial, the rational soul which instantiates it must, Aquinas rightly reasoned, be immaterial, too, as the vegetative and animal souls are not.

Now, animals have imagination and emotion, but they do not reason. They can be taught to communicate, but they do not make logical inferences or engage in mathematical theorization. An animal's mind is entirely exhausted by the hylemorphic form/matter compound of its brain, with no "naked form," no solely immaterial aspect, left over.

Thus, reasons the Thomist, dogs don't go to heaven. (Or cats to hell.)  They cannot:  Heaven and Hell are immaterial realities, and a dog has no immaterial soul.

Thus the Thomist, and so thus Feser. Hart is outraged at this slight to our animal brethren, and cites the Bible ("the lion shall lay down with the lamb," etc.) against it. Hart reminds us that the Kingdom of God will involve the restoration of all Creation. And it indeed it shall. But.

The feud has gone on for some time, and neither Feser nor Hart has drawn what seems to me to be the crucial distinction between Heaven and the General Resurrection.

When you die, we may hope that you go to Heaven. There, you will exist immaterially, as Aquinas teaches. But at the end of history, all the dead shall be raised. The sheep shall be separated from the goats. The saints shall live in glorified resurrection bodies in the New Jerusalem, and the damned shall burn: both the joy of the saints and the agonies of the damned shall be embodied, somehow--real pleasure, real burning.

There will be no dogs in Heaven, because there cannot be. But will there be dogs, will there be lions and lambs, in the general resurrection? Well, why not?

Just as the glorified body of the Risen Lord and of His Mother assumed bodily into Heaven (in a way that dogs very much are not) is not the corruptible, agonized and agonizing body we bear today, so the resurrected lion and lamb need not dwell in ichneumonidaean agony anymore.

In sum, I think Feser and Hart, two heroes of mine, are simply arguing past each other. Feser is right, with Aquinas, to affirm that there are no dogs in Heaven. Hart is right to affirm, with the Fathers, that there may indeed be animals in the Kingdom. But the Kingdom, in its fullness, is not the rest of the righteous in Heaven, but the glory of the saints in the general resurrection after Doomsday.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

(Star) War(s) is Hell

I suppose it's not very BenOp of me, but I let my toddler watch Star Wars. She's pretty obsessed with it now. "I want watch bobots" is pretty much a nightly refrain around here: she does like her daily dose of Luke, "Dark Hater" ("He's Luke's daddy; you're my daddy"), and especially "Bobot Fett"--kid has great taste already. (It's also probably not very traditionalist of me that I'm proud of her for wanting to be a Jedi instead of a princess, but she does, I am, and that's that.)

Anyhow, I've had a lot of time lately to ponder all six episodes of Lucas' magnum opus. (If you had told pubescent me that it was possible to get sick of Star Wars, he wouldn't have believed you. He would have been wrong.) In addition to their surprising usefulness in teaching my daughter to stay the heck away from fire (Anakin's fate in Revenge of the Sith:"fire hot; give him bad boo-boos; I not touch fire") and electricity (Luke's torment in Return of the Jedi: "tricity hurt Luke; Emperr not nice"), the third and sixth episodes contain some perhaps useful object lessons about evil.

In particular, one of the thoughts I've had watching (and watching, and watching) all this Star Wars is that there are a two moments in Lucas' hexad that neatly encapsulate some of C.S. Lewis' insights about Satan.

First, consider the two main villains Luke Skywalker encounters in Return of the Jedi: first Jabba the Hutt in his palace and on his pleasure barge, and then Emperor Palpatine (along with Darth Vader, of course) on his Death Star. 

The corpulent Jabba looks like gluttony incarnate, and his palace and "pleasure" barge host his lustful, perverse penchant for keeping enslaved dancing girls. Jabba embodies the sins of the flesh. He's also rather easily defeated.

Now consider Palpatine. Hatred, pride, envy--those are the sins to which he tempts, enthroned in his cold technological lair. And defeating him is much, much costlier--Luke nearly dies, and his father does die.

That contrast in Return of the Jedi reminds me of this passage from Lewis' Mere Christianity:
The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
Second, consider the infamous "Do Not Want!" scene near the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine, the diabolical puppet-master of all six films, tempted Anakin Skywalker to the dark side by promising that if only he would give in to Palpatine's temptation, Anakin could employ dark arts to save his pregnant wife, Padme, from death during childbirth. Anakin turns to the dark side, chokes his wife nearly to death out of jealousy and rage, and gets himself brutally burned after pridefully challenging his erstwhile Jedi master in a duel. Awakening as a shell of his former self, mummified alive in a cybernetic life support suit, Anakin (now Darth Vader) asks, "Where is Padme? Is she safe? Is she all right?"

Palpatine replies with perverse nonchalance that, "It seems in your anger, you killed her."

Vader says, "I...? I couldn't have! She was alive... I felt it!" He bursts the bonds holding him to the operating table, and lashes out with the dark side of the Force to crush much of the bric-a-brac in the operating room--empowered to rage so, but impotent to bring back the woman, and the wonderful life, that he cast aside. As Vader yells "Noooooo!" in one of Lucas' tale's moments of deepest pathos (and film's moments of deepest bathos), Palpatine's cowl hides a smirk.

Despite the bathetic lapse in mood of Vader's endless "Noooooooooooooooo!", this scene is about the best cinematic representation I've ever come across of a key passage from Lewis' Screwtape Letters, in which the demonic tempter instructs another demon in the dark arts of temptation thus (keeping in mind that for Screwtape, "the Enemy" is God, and the "Father," the devil):
In the first place I have always found that the Trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the Peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest. The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. And it is also to be noted that the Trough sexuality is subtly different in quality from that of the Peak—much less likely to lead to the milk and water phenomenon which the humans call “being in love”, much more easily drawn into perversions, much less contaminated by those generous and imaginative and even spiritual concomitants which often render human sexuality so disappointing. It is the same with other desires of the flesh. You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart. And the troughs are the time for beginning the process.
Palpatine gets Anakin's soul and gives him nothing in return. Palpatine is among the most purely satanic characters on film. And miserable, duped Anakin among the better object lessons for us sinners.

Monday, June 1, 2015


For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
--Ephesians 6:12
In my recent post on our liber(al)tarian moment, I mentioned Charles Stross' idea that we live under a beige dictatorship in which representative democracy has been captured by corporate interests to the point where the U.K. political system under which he lives, like the partisan duopoly here in the States, and indeed like political systems throughout the developed world, no longer offers any real access to those actors and ideas that would really, truly rock the boat. In his post on the beige dictatorship, Stross links to another of his posts, in which he likens corporations to invaders from Mars; it's too insightful not to quote almost in full:
The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations. 
Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) 
Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy. 
Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies. 
Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes. 
For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered. 
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist. 
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
Stross' point about corporate personhood is well taken, and one to which I have been sympathetic throughout the years since I worked for the Nader-LaDuke campaign alongside a POCLAD activist. But I would caveat the point, not least to stress the value of constructive legal personhood for corporate bodies like labor unions, political parties, and the Church (which, of course, is in fact the corpus mysticum of Christ, and so a "corporate person" in a real as well as a constructive legal sense). Indeed, even the constructive personhood at law of joint stock corporations has allowed for economic dynamism that would not exist otherwise, and whatever the many Faustian horrors of Mammon-enabled scientism and science-enabled holocaust, we can and ought to thank capitalist modernity for the relief of man's estate.

But even with those caveats, Stross is right that profit-driven corporations function in our global society as autonomous superorganisms who rule us with a cold, calculative agenda not our own. In this, they are apt tools of the Prince of this World. Thus, when we struggle for social justice, against the porn-ification of pop culture, and for a humane, distributist local economics, against these corporations, our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.

But however useful the capitalist corporation is to the Enemy, the most useful way for Christians to conceptualize it is perhaps as a variant of Less Wrong's "Clippy." Named for the annoying, failed A.I. that used to pester Office users with useless suggestions, Clippy is a thought experiment popular among the motley extropians, transhumanists, singularitarians, etc. who spend time over at Less Wrong being catastrophically wrong about metaphysics and ethics, exaggerating the value of Bayesian statistics, being a cult (er, "phyg") with a creed, and (most relevantly here) worrying about unfriendly A.I. and trying to prevent it and thereby save the world. Like so much the endearing oddballs at Less Wrong come up with, the present Catholic oddball finds Clippy pretty thought-provoking. (Indeed, for all their oddity, the Less Wrong folks are some of the most interesting, intelligent people thinking and writing right now.) Of Clippy, Less Wrong's community wiki tells us that
The paperclip maximizer is the canonical thought experiment showing how an artificial general intelligence, even one designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity. The thought experiment shows that AIs with apparently innocuous values could pose an existential threat. 
The goal of maximizing paperclips is chosen for illustrative purposes because it is very unlikely to be implemented, and has little apparent danger or emotional load (in contrast to, for example, curing cancer or winning wars). This produces a thought experiment which shows the contingency of human values: An extremely powerful optimizer (a highly intelligent agent) could seek goals that are completely alien to ours (orthogonality thesis), and as a side-effect destroy us by consuming resources essential to our survival.
Note that unlike Clippy, Satan hates you, personally, in just the way described by C.S. Lewis in Perelandra:
What chilled and almost cowed him most was the union of malice with something nearly childish. For temptation, for blasphemy, for a whole battery of horrors, he was in some sort prepared; but hardly for this petty, indefatigable nagging as of a nasty little boy at a preparatory school. Indeed no imagined horror could have surpassed the sense which grew within him as the slow hours passed, that this creature was, by all human standards, inside out - its heart on the surface and its shallowness at the heart. On the surface, great designs and an antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within, when every veil had been pierced, was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness content to sate itself with the tiniest cruelties, as love does not disdain the smallest kindness.
But the profit-maximizing corporation, like Clippy the paperclip maximizing A.I., is merely indifferent to you: as the Less Wrong wiki's article on Clippy quotes Less Wrong's maharishi, Eliezer Yudkowsky,
The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.
A.I. is not a proximate danger. But we live under the beige dictatorship of corporate capital right now. And like Stalinism before it, late capitalist corporate hegemony is an idolatrous perversion of economic justice, a "god that sucked." So it matters if corporate capital is Clippy. And it is Clippy: the fiduciary duty of corporate directors under modern law is to maximize profits, period. Just as Clippy would mindlessly convert the whole planet into paperclips, indifferent to the consequences, so the corporation is legally mandated to mindlessly convert the whole planet into profits, indifferent to the consequences.

Does getting kids addicted to junk food maximize value for agri-business and food manufacturing shareholders? Then do it.

Does getting teens addicted to porn and to semi-pornographic popular entertainments maximize profits? Do it.

Do strip mining, tar sands oil, Dickensian sweatshops, conflict diamonds, cocoa grown and shrimp caught by slaves boost profits? Just do it.

Like structural racism and media bias, our corporate-corrupted economy, culture, and politics are not a single, conscious human enemy. Like Clippy, global capitalism is a mindless algorithm, indifferent rather than malevolent. But the Prince of this World is the puppet-master of all such structures of oppression, and he is malevolence itself.

So resist the "alien invaders." Resist the Enemy. Follow the King.