The Child

On December 13, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, by marc

According to Whittaker Chambers (writing in Witness), in the 1930s committed American Communists were opposed to the notion of having children, seeing them as a distraction from the important work of fomenting revolution within the United States.  Chambers himself said that he”…took it for granted that children were out of the question.”

Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers

In early 1933, his wife informed him that she was pregnant.  After first assuming that an abortion would occur in order to avoid the inconvenience to the cause that a child would cause, it became clear that his wife intended to keep the baby.  Chambers goes on a bit later to describe the experience of meeting his daughter for the first time:

[my wife] was scarcely out of the anesthetic, and reeking of ether, when I sat beside her bed.  As I looked at her white, hollowed face and the deep, leaden circles under her eyes, and felt her feverish fingers, I thought: “What have I done to her?”  At that moment, I cared only for my wife and nothing at all for the child.

My wife kept urging me feebly to go and look at it  She wanted me, of course, to approve and love what had so nearly cost her life (the birth had been terrible).  I went into the hall.  Through a glass panel, I peered into the antiseptic nursery where banks of babies lay in baskets.  A nurse, with a wonderfully personal smile,  considering the miscellaneous fathers to whom she pointed out their babies, pointed out mine.  The child had been born long enough to have lost the puckered, red, natal look.  Her face was pink, and peaceful.  She was sleeping.  her long lashes lay against her cheeks.  She was beautiful.

I went back to my wife who was no longer only my wife but the mother of our child – the child we all yearn for, who, even before her birth, had begun, invisibly, to lead us out of that darkness, which we could not even realize, toward that light, which we could not even see.

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“a torturing thought”

On December 2, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, by marc

Whittaker Chambers, from Witness, describing the effect of Stalin’s purge on communists like him:

Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin: an architect, and eventual victim, of Soviet Communism

Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin: an architect, and eventual victim, of Soviet Communism

Since the purge, millions of men, women and children in the world have died violently.  the 20th century has put out of its mind, because it can no longer cope with the enormity of the statistic, the millions it has exterminated in its first fifty years.  Even among those millions the number killed in the Purge makes a formidable figure.  But, on a Communist, not only the numbers, but the revolutionary stature of the purgees, had a shattering impact.  To the Western world, those strange names – Rykov, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Piatkov, Rakovsky, Krylenko, Latsis, Tuchachevky, Muralov, Smirnov, Karakhan, Mrachkovsky – were merely tongue twisters.  To a Communist, they were the men who had made one of the greatest transformations in human history – the Russian Revolution.  The charge, on which they were one and all destroyed, the charge that they had betrayed their handiwork, was incredible.  They were the Communist Party.  If the charge was true, then every other Communist had given his life for a fraud.  If the charge was false, then every other Communist was giving his life for a fraud.  This was a torturing thought.  No communist could escape it.

More on Bukharin here, and his death cell letter to Stalin here.

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Books I Really Should Have

On December 1, 2009, in Books I'd Like, General, by marc

Witness

On November 23, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, by marc
Witness by Whittaker Chambers

Witness by Whittaker Chambers

Digging through the library here at work, I happened to stumble across a 1952 first edition of Whittaker ChambersWitness.

Two faiths were on trial.  Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.  At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it.  At issue was the question whether this man’s faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick  beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another.  At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts…

…On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time – Communism and Freedom – came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men.

This is a real gem; I wish there was a way for me to take ownership of this particular book, but that’s unlikely.  I’m looking forward to reading it, though; that much is sure.

More:

The deeper meaning of the Soviet underground apparatus, and all the apparatuses that clustered hidden beside it, was not so much their espionage activity.  It was the fact that they were a true Fifth Column, the living evidence that henceforth in the 20th century, all wars are revolutionary wars, and are fought not only between nations, but within them.

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“Liberal Fascist Economics”

On November 18, 2009, in Culture, Economics, Politics, by marc

One of the best – and creepiest – books I’ve read in the last year and a half was Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. I recall being very unnerved, perhaps surprisingly, by the chapter on economics.  A taste:

In Nazi Germany, businesses proved their loyalty to the state by being good “corporate citizens,” just as they do today.  the means of demonstrating this loyalty differed significantly, and the moral content of the different agendas was categorical.  Indeed, for the sake of argument, let us concede that what the Nazi regime expected of “good German businesses” and what America expects of its corporate leaders differed enormously.  That doesn’t change some important fundamental similarities.

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg

Consider, for example, the largely bipartisan and entirely well-intentioned Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, celebrated everywhere as a triumph of “nice” government.  The law mandated that businesses take a number of measures, large and small, to accommodate customers and employees with various handicaps.  Offices had to be retrofitted to be wheelchair compliant.  Various public signs had to be written in Braille.  Devices to aid the hearing impaired had to be made available.  And so on.

Now imagine you are the CEO of Coca-Cola.  Your chief objection to this law is that it will cost you a lot of money, right?  Well, not really.  If you know that the CEO of Pepsi is going to have to make the same adjustments, there’s really no problem for you.  All you have to do is add a penny – or really a fraction of a penny – to the cost of a can of Coke.  Your customers will carry the freight, just as Pepsi’s customers will.  The increase won’t cost you market share, because your price compared with your competitor’s has stayed pretty much the same.  Your customers probably won’t even notice the price hike.

Now imagine that you own a small, regional soft drink company.  You’ve worked tirelessly toward your dream of one day going eyeball-to-eyeball with Coke or Pepsi.  Proportionally speaking, making your factories and offices handicapped-friendly will cost you vastly more money, not just in terms of infrastructure, but in terms of the bureaucratic legal compliance costs (Coke and Pepsi have enormous legal departments; you don’t).  Plans to expand or innovate will have to be delayed because there’s no way you can pass on the costs to your customers.  Or imagine you’re the owner of an even smaller firm hoping to make a play at your regional competitors.  But you have 499 employees, and for the sake of argument, the ADA fully kicks in at 500 employees.  If you hire just one more, you will fall under the ADA.  In other words, hiring just one thirty-thousand-dollar-a-year employee will cost you millions.

The ADA surely has admirable intent and legitimate merits.  But the very nature of such do-gooding legislation empowers large firms, entwines them with political elites, and serves as a barrier to entry for smaller firms.  Indeed, the penalties and bureaucracy involved in even trying to fire someone can amount to guaranteed lifetime employment.  Smaller firms can’t take the risk of being forced to provide a salary in perpetuity, while big companies understand that they’ve in effect become “too big to fail” because they are de facto arms of the state itself.

Remember, this was all written well before stimulus- and bailout-mania, or the effective nationalization of GM and Chrysler.  There are certainly lessons in this passage for those on the right and the left – Republicans have a nasty habit of using the state to advance their interests, too.  But examining the current political philosophies popular across the spectrum, one has to note that when those on the right try to utilize the government to advance their agenda, they are usually acting hypocritically, because at least in theory, they believe in limited government and checks and balances.  In contrast, when leftists use the power of the state to push their agenda, they are actually following their principles. And that’s really what we’re seeing right now – the left has control of the levers of power in Washington DC, and is using the mechanisms of government to entrench and empower themselves, often at the expense of our individual liberty and well-being (as in the health care debate).

Lord Acton reminded us that power tends to corrupt; as responsible citizens, we need to remember that axiom when we vote, and must guard against the tendency to leave things we could – or should – do ourselves to people in Washington, or the state capitol, or anywhere else.

This reminds me – I need to dig back into Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and pull some quotes from him about the dangers of economic planning…

Herman Bavinck, from Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1 – Prolegomena. The following passage is from Chapter 2 – The Method and Organization of Dogmatic Theology:

Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck

The assertion that the religious and moral human being is autonomous is always linked with either deism or pantheism. Deism makes human beings independent of God and the world, teaches the all-sufficiency of reason, and leads to rationalism. Pantheism, on the other hand, teaches that God discloses himself and comes to self-consciousness in human beings and fosters mysticism. both destroy objective truth, leave reason and feeling, the intellect and the heart, to themselves, and end up in unbelief or superstition. Reason criticizes all revelation to death, and feeling gives the Roman Catholic as much right to picture Mary as the sinless Queen of Heaven as the Protestant to oppose that belief. It is therefore noteworthy that Holy Scripture never refers human beings to themselves and the epistemic source and standard of religious truth. How, indeed, could it, since it describes the “natural” man as totally darkened and corrupted by sin in his intellect (Ps. 14:3; Rom.1:21-23; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 4:23; Gal. 1:6, 7; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8), in his heart (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Ezek. 36:26; Mark 7:21), in his will (John 8:34; Rom. 7:14; 8:7; Eph. 2:3), as well as in his conscience (Jer. 17:9; 1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 10:28; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15)? For the knowledge of truth Scripture always refers us to objective revelation, to the word and instruction that proceeded from God (Deut. 4:1; Isa. 8:20; John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15; 2 Pet. 1:19; etc.). And where the objective truth is personally appropriated by us by faith, that faith still is never like a fountain that from itself brings forth the living water but like a channel that conducts the water to us from another source.

Pope Leo XIII (Papacy 1878-1903)

Pope Leo XIII (Papacy 1878-1903)

Rome, understanding perfectly well this impossibility of religious and moral autonomy, bound human beings to the infallible church on pain of losing the salvation of their souls. For Roman Catholic Christians the infallible church, and so in the final analysis the infallible pope, is the foundation of their faith. The words Papa dixit (the Pope has spoken) is the end of all back talk. History teaches, however, that this theoretical and practical infallibility of the church has at all times encountered contradiction and opposition, not only in the churches of the Reformation but inside the Roman Catholic Church as well. It is not unbelievers primarily but the devout who have always experienced this power of the hierarchy as a galling bond to their conscience. Throughout the centuries there has not only been scientific, social and political resistance but also deeply religious and moral opposition to the hierarchical power of the church. It simply will not do to explain this opposition in terms of unbelief and disobedience and intentionally to misconstrue the religious motives underlying the opposition of various sects and movements. No one has been bold enough to damn all these sects because they were moved to resist the church and its tradition. Even Rome shrinks from this conclusion. The extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) is a confession that is too harsh for even the most robust believer. Accordingly, the “law” we see at work in every area of life is operative also in religion and morality. On the one hand, there is a revolutionary spirit that seeks to level all that has taken shape historically in order to start rebuilding things from the ground up. There is, however, also a false conservatism that takes pleasure in leaving the existing situation untouched simply because it exists and – in accordance with Calvin’s familiar saying – not to attempt to change a well-positioned evil (malum bene positum non movere). At the proper time everywhere and in every sphere of life, a certain radicalism is needed to restore balance, to make further development possible, and not let the stream of ongoing life bog down. In art and science, state and society, similarly in religion and morality, there gradually develops and mindless routine that oppresses and does violence to the rights of personality, genius, invention, inspiration, freedom, and conscience. But in due time there always arises a man or woman who cannot bear that pressure, casts off the yoke of bondage and again takes up the cause of human freedom and that of Christian liberty. These are the turning points of history. Thus Christ himself rose up against the tradition of the elders and returned to the law and the prophets. Thus one day the Reformation had the courage, not in the interest of some scientific, social, or political goal, but in the name of Christian humanity, to protest against Rome’s hierarchy. Frequently, even in the case of the sects and movements that later arose in the Protestant churches, that religious and ethical motive is undeniably present. So-called biblical theology also defends an important part of religious truth. When a church and theology prefer peace and quiet over struggle, they they themselves trigger the opposition that reminds them of their Christian calling and task. Rome, in the name of the case, can never approve of such opposition and has to condemn it in advance. The Reformation is itself the product of such opposition and cannot withhold from others what it assumed for itself. And Holy Scripture, thought far removed in spirit from all revolutionary resistance, nevertheless, in Peter’s regal statement “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), legitimates the right to oppose every human decree that is contrary to the Word of God.

This passage especially caught my attention as I read today, most likely because on Saturday I attended my first Roman Catholic mass, which was part of a wedding ceremony for a family friend.  I have been struck for some time by the thought that Roman Catholicism is significantly different from the Reformed Protestant tradition in which I have been raised, so much so that I believe more and more that it is legitimate to refer to two entirely different religions – Christianity, which has Christ at the center and relies strictly on God’s word as the source of revelation, and Catholicism, which is much more oriented toward having the church itself as the object of religious devotion, or – in the best case scenario – some combination of Christ and the church, the Word and tradition.  From the Protestant perspective – at least of this protestant - the two systems are distinctly different, and not just over minor issues, but over the central issue of the Faith: and as such, it doesn’t make much sense to pretend that Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are simply different flavors of the same faith.  I’m glad to see that my thinking is at least in the same ballpark as such an eminent scholar as Herman Bavinck.

Lord Acton on Liberty

On November 13, 2009, in Culture, History, by marc

From his essay “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” taken from Essays in the History of Liberty: Selected Writings of Lord Acton Vol. I, edited by J. Rufus Fears:

Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race.  It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free.  In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902)

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902)

During long intervals it has been utterly arrested, when nations were being rescued from barbarism and from the grasp of strangers, and when the perpetual struggle for existence, depriving men of all interest and understanding in politics, has made them eager to sell their birthright for a pottage, and ignorant of the treasure they resigned.  At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success.  No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty.  If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws.  The history of institutions is often a history of deceptions and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away.