The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Bible on capitalism
Tom Smith

Coveting is definitely a no no.  Wives, asses, houses, BMWs, you name it.

January 31, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (4)

Spooks think Iran prepared to attack on US soil
Tom Smith

Not so good.

January 31, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

A lady and her sloth
Tom Smith

Sloths are pretty cute but it's possible to overreact to that fact.

January 31, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 30, 2012

More evidence on bacon
Tom Smith

January 30, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Galston forsees close election between Obama and Romney
Tom Smith

Polls numbers also suggest Romney would be the much more effective candidate for the GOP.

January 30, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Anti-authoritarianism as a free speech principle
Tom Smith

A new paper from John Kang looks interesting.

January 30, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bishops take stand against Obama administration on health insurance
Tom Smith

Well, one could have seen this coming.  And if Obamacare is not repealed, what amounts to federal funding for abortions and whatever it is we are supposed to call death panels are both coming, I would confidently predict.  The bishops could have stopped Obamacare but didn't and instead did a deal with the, well, an imprudent deal.

But I'm nevertheless glad to see the bishops take a stand.  It seems an inevitable conflict.  If you say only insurance policies approved by Washington can be sold and that those policies have to cover certain things, that list is certainly going to include birth control, including kinds that count as abortion strictly Catholicly speaking.  If only the Catholic Church were a labor union, this whole thing could be avoided by issuing it one of those exemptions from Obamacare that are so popular among those who supported it.  Possibly the bishops will realize that smell of coal smoke and choo-choo sound are from the clue train pulling into the USCCB's headquarters.

How significant is alienating the Catholic Bishops so profoundly to O's re-election prospects.  I don't really know, but some swing states, such as Ohio, are pretty Catholic.  Most Catholic women do use birth control, and probably want insurance that covers it. But many Catholics will be offended to have the requirement shoved down the throats of Catholic institutions.  

This from NYC Archbishop Timothy Dolan.

January 30, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (6)

A New Blog: The Liberty Law Blog
Mike Rappaport

The Liberty Fund is one of the great organizations that promote freedom.  For those not familiar with it, it engages in a host of activities, including many conferences and the publication of books.  

For many years now, the Liberty Fund has been sponsoring the Library of Economics and Liberty website, which contains the great EconomicLog blog, the entertaining and informative Econtalk podcasts, and a variety of other content. 

Now, Liberty Fund has introduced a new companion website called the Library of Law and Liberty. It will contain a variety of content including a podcast series on law topics called Law Talk, essays with responses called Liberty Forum, book reviews, and a new blog, called the Liberty Law Blog.  

I have the privilege of being one of bloggers at the Liberty Law Blog.  My coblogger is the excellent Michael Greve of the American Enterprise Institute.

While I still plan to post here occasionally, I will be posting most often at the Liberty Law Blog.  I hope you will come over and take a look at the blog and the site. 

January 30, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tolkien's Medieval Conservatism
Timothy Gordon

Those in Thomistic and Aristotelian circles are familiar with the notion of the opus classicus, that is, a pagan idea which got subsumed into a generally Catholic framework during the Scholastic era. More specifically articulated, most of those ideas assimilated into the Catholic corpus have traditionally been both pagan and Greek, providing the basis for many to call Greece the ideological seat of the West. For example, St. Thomas was said to have “baptized” the ethics and metaphysics of Aristotle in his own philosophy, when he adduced the concepts of divine personality and a divinized ethics to Aristotle’s already bottom-up approach to knowledge of the “unmoved mover,” God, and His commands. Similarly, one can most effectively approach J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series as a sort of neo-Scholastic tome, embracing the two essential Homeric moments—a) nostalgic love for one’s homeland during a great war, and b) the sojourn to and from that war waged in defense of the land’s principles—while introducing the indispensable bonus, the Christian theme of bearing one’s cross in the face of hopelessness. In this capacity, LOTR is an opus classicus. And like any truly classical work, LOTR bears dimensions that are self-referentially conservative in the tradition of Western literature. This trilogy laments how “the days have gone down in the West,” beginning and ending with an emphasis on both literary and political conservatism in the most general sense, a conservatism that celebrates the ideas which made the West great. Yes, LOTR counts among the “novels of ideas.”

But, after nearly a century, it is important to understand just how LOTR engages conservatism with such timeless pertinence—through the unapologetic defense of the principles of the nation-state, predicable of any age, and conversely, through the depiction of what happens when those principles are abandoned:

"The old wisdom borne out of the west was forsaken, kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living, and counted the old names of their descendants dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry, or in high cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of Kings failed. The White Tree withered. The rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men."

If LOTR is a neo-Scholastic opus, then Tolkien is its poetic and prophetic “schoolman.” An Oxford philologist, Tolkien joined with fellow mensae magnae C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, a mostly conservative, anti-secularist group of Christian professors entitled “The Inklings.” Even as a card-carrying member of this troupe of “occidentalist” Oxford oxen (to carry the Thomistic metaphor a bit further), Tolkien managed to set himself apart stylistically by refusing to “immanentize the eschaton” within LOTR’s Middle Earth landscape—that is, by refusing to depict Middle Earth as a place completely “inside of” explicitly discussed religious revelation—while the trilogy does tacitly champion themes so thornily Catholic as to reduce Nero’s Rome to baptism in flame. That is, Tolkien broke with most fellow Inklings by forfeiting any claim to explicit mention of religiosity, in the production of Middle Earth’s ontological realism, even amid its cosmos of divinely heroic phantasmagoria. This is what allowed Tolkien such poetic and philosophic elbowroom, which contrasts against Lewis’s far narrower theological scope in, say, the Christian allegory, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Some may object by pointing up the messianic implications of the conditions of Aragorn’s life, which are more than playfully suggested by the title of the third installment, The Return of the King. But, as mentioned above, Tolkien goes no further than innuendo, choosing instead to focus on poesis, philosophical dialectics, linguistic construction, and most importantly, the highly layered plot. What’s missing in Lewis, besides Tolkien’s realism, is Tolkien’s understated, joyful treatment of the sublime minutiae of life on earth as a sensate, intellective being: “the taste of bread, the sound of the trees, the softness of the wind” (in Gollum’s lamentation), or even more aptly in Merry’s words, “everything that’s green and good in this world.”

Tolkien’s dedication to his craft was impressive. He was a wordsmith of the purest quality, and as much is readily reflected in his Anglo-Saxon-, Norse-, and Latin-derived creation of the different languages of Middle Earth. In fact, Tolkien himself described the entire etiology of his mythology of Middle Earth as the justification for the language, Quenmar, that he created just before the outbreak of WWI.

To begin with the Iliadic component of LOTR, we shall first examine the “War of the Ring.” It suffices to say that Tolkien’s treatment of war is, at the very least, quite gratifying, in its according of both honor and dignity back to warfare. The 21st Century reader is astounded to confront the “vir” in “virtue” once again with such unapologetic emphasis. Manly virtue did not, after all, die with the pagan expositors of it, since it certainly survived in the ink of one 20th Century Briton, whose treatment accurately identifies the source of the pathological “anti-war” phenomenon—cowardice, a vice—and then responds. For example, when the traitorous Saruman possesses the mind of King Theoden of Rohan, Gandalf makes an appeal to the King’s counselor, Grima Wormtongue (who is in secret allegiance with Saruman), to begin making preparations for a defensive battle. Wormtongue responds by accusing all who resist the Eastern onslaught of “warmongering.” This resonates meaningfully with most conservatives, since by habit, the conservative expects an anti-war rival to put the unctuous trick to use: call any defensive positioning in a war inherently offensive. In the LOTR plot, of course, both Wormtongue and Saruman have long acted in league with the Enemy, and so their charges of warmongering are not simply cowardly or misleading, but outright treasonous.

This latter element, also, tempts a contemporary application. At any rate, Gandalf’s response demonstrates both masterful understanding and outright impatience, each appropriate in conversations with anti-war interlocutors: “Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a witless worm.” Gandalf proceeds to make ready the men of Rohan for an outmanned fight. But Tolkien, through Gandalf, cautions his sympathizers to a more abstract truism: avoid futile dialogue with dishonest opponents, for it is impossible. Perhaps this ought to be counted as a precept for conservatives.

Later on, Pippin (who counts among the meekest, most timid characters in the trilogy) describes the only sentiment which can even roundly attach any poise to hellish warfare: “I don’t want to be in a battle. But to remain behind when all my friends have gone to fight would be worse.” Merry, for all the theorists and cowards out there, has just adumbrated the idea of honor. At the beginning of a battle, it seems to be the singular item of incentive. There are things worse than death, Tolkien reminds us. And this idea is even older than the Iliad.

The sojourn to and from Mordor, represents The Odyssian component of the trilogy. And as in the case of the “long-enduring” Odysseus, Frodo must psychologically outlast the task before him. Psychological hardness is the key ingredient in the journey, even if this mere Hobbit lacks toughness of the physical kind. Also, Frodo’s goal entails a variety of conditional necessities: at times, dissimulation (cloaks, camouflages, and sometimes, even the use of the Ring); in the same vein, Frodo once even dresses as an orc (like Odysseus as the swineherd); at other times consultation and negotiation with lesser villains (Frodo’s fellowship with Gollum) becomes inevitable, just as Odysseus treats with Calypso; finally, the forfeiture of the Fellowship and the electing of the preordained, lonely road eventually becomes Frodo’s best option (just as Odysseus is the lone survivor to make the shores of Ithaca). That is to say, both Odysseus and Frodo begin their journeys with a host of loyalist and specialist companions only to wind up losing them or leaving them behind by necessity. And while Odysseus loses every last sailor to the man, only a single member of Frodo’s Fellowship fails to survive the War, which again points up salvific, Christian implications in LOTR which are simply not operative in the Odyssey. A further differentium lies in the fact that Frodo is rejoined by his most loyal companion shortly after they part. The Christian worldview, over against the pagan one, sees hope in what might be a mere dream in the secular world: the idea that a single soul may stand by your side even as the darkness falls. For Frodo, this soul is a fellow Hobbit: Samwise the Brave.

How are these Odyssean themes to be called “conservative?” Clearly enough, the dialectical defense of the just war (though it is highly questionable whether or not the Trojan war described in the Iliad was a just one), which is itself the defense of the nation-state, ranks among putatively conservative virtues. No squabbles are possible there. But admittedly, the parallels between LOTR and the Odyssey occur mostly at the level of plot, which is to say that amid each of these traveler’s tales, the similarities can at best be called universal traveler’s ethics. This is not sufficiently conservative. However, after the deconstructionist literary movement occurring during Tolkien’s day, the idea that a plot must, literally and figuratively both, “go somewhere,” became a Whig’s relic available only to those considered fusty and musty conservatives. And LOTR’s ecstatic movement is indispensable to its message. If you think this is a stretch, consider the animating forces for the deconstructionist argument: that there are no immutable principles or absolute ideas which are impervious to change or ubiquitous from culture to culture. There is only the subject, for the literary liberal, and only the purview of his bounding subjectivism. No writer should attempt to reify a topic other than man himself, never the actions or supposedly normative doings of man, and even the topic “man” himself should be restrained to one that is allowed by that particular man’s culture.

Over against this sort of reasoning, Tolkien’s literary conservatism emerges starkly, now at the level of structure. His story is structured against the static, rationalizing style of his own day, which almost exclusively produced “protagonists” sitting around dank apartments ruminating on agnostic, humanistic articles for consideration. For example, Albert Camus wrote The Stranger in 1942 in between the publications of The Hobbit and LOTR. Also, in 1954, the publication year of Return of the King, Jacques Derrida was publishing his dissertation; it is safe to announce that deconstruction was well underway. In Camus’ The Stranger, by way of contrast, there exists neither movement nor conflict, except those created by the main character himself, by his own nihilism. Conversely, LOTR’s structure evinces movement (especially the Odyssean aspect being discussed) and a conflict which is objectively motivated. Objective, externally impositioned conflict, we’d do well to remember, is known by a name which has also been rejected by deconstructionism: evil. Man himself doesn’t create all his own problems. He must react, and he must act morally in his reaction. Tolkien, the literary architect, is conservative, even if not every last aspect of his traveling tale is not (e.g. his environmentalism). If this still seems farflung, a final appeal may be made to the almost ubiquitous rejection of the classics by literary liberals. By their mark, both the Homeric volumes and those of Tolkien are deigned absolutist, paternalistic, and Eurocentric.

The single supra-Homeric moment in the trilogy, its “baptism” if we may, occurs at the level of Frodo’s transcendental self-overcoming. Neither Achilles, nor even the headier Odysseus, trade in the currency of personal transcendence. The noblest acts of Achilles and Odysseus accrue personal honor for the actor. By contrast, Frodo passes through the dark night of the soul, and out of it, by performing what he must, and without a view to the glory or honor that animated the Homeric heroes. Instead, Frodo is animated by a sense of moral imperative and unsung self-sacrifice.

So, we see, Frodo’s act of self-sacrifice differs from, say Patroclus’s (since neither Odysseus nor Achilles lost their lives in the war), in terms of its animating principle: the former act forfeits a life in the name of neighborly fellowship—the highest Christian ideal—whereas the latter act forfeits a life in the mere name of the greatness of Greece—a materialist idea fisse. The latter fails to transcend strictly materialist terms. Of course, as in any tribulation or struggle, Frodo experiences doubt. But Gandalf remains always nearby (at least, for the reader) to rejuvenate both Frodo’s willing spirit and the overridingly optimistic tincture of the trilogy: when Frodo complains that he fears he doesn’t possess the chutzpah to do what is asked of him, Gandalf reminds him that “so do all who live to see such times, but all that is for us to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

The Homeric palimpsest is only bettered with the realistic hope of salvation. The very best pagan principles remain inscribed intelligibly alongside the intrepid new Christian hope, and yet this element of salvific hope must nevertheless be considered a conditio sine qua non in extricating the great from the small. Anyone who has ever beheld Rome’s Pantheon knows as much: however magnanimous the temperaments, treatments, and carvings of the pagans, it is only after the yawning oculus had been directed toward a singular Lord, and away from the manifold of tempestuous pagan gods, that the building achieved its end. Great art works consist of this formula: ecstatic hope directed by tempered realism. To those who have remarked that all great Western literature tells tales of great wars or great journeys, we cannot but agree, with a single caveat: Christian hope is an indispensable third element in great storytelling. Neither the Christian allegory which turns a cold shoulder to Homer’s virtues, nor the Homeric tale which antedates Christ, achieves a hope that manages to be realistic. Only the forgetful blue of Lethe awaits the Homeric reader, however the passing fugues of inspiration fleetingly overwhelmed her while considering the once-great nobilities of Achilles. Tolkien’s stories, by contrast, have mastered a realistic balance wrought of both lasting hope and despair. In Sam Gamgee’s words, “those are the stories that have really mattered,” because only those offer an explanatory bridge between the acts of nobility in this life and the motivation thereto in the next. This balance of solemnity and hope truly constitutes a Medieval-styled conservatism in Tolkien’s texts, mostly forgotten now.

January 29, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The strange world of world religion
Tom Smith

For those of us of a certain age, it is hard not to believe that the world is getting more and more secular and eventually everybody will be some sort of progressive atheist.  I would sometimes tease LWJ by calling this "the global  matriarchal termite society of the future." Now sociological evidence suggests secularization is not triumphant after all.  In terms of global numbers, the world seems to be getting more religious and more Christian as well.  The sort of Christianity that is spreading is conservative, supernaturalist, often evangelical. If I read this blog post by Peter Berger correctly, he says Africa is now a majority Christian continent, which I find shocking.  Christianity is now strongly weighted to the global South, presenting the prospect of a reevangelization of the North by the South, which you can already see happening in parts of San Diego.

It seems like there is some sort of Great Awakening going on in Africa.  It's being "burned over" as they used to say about the parts of the US through which revivals swept in the nineteenth century.

On a somewhat related note . . . MRI study suggests Apple products manage to activate same areas of brain in fans that religious images do in the religious.

January 28, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (2)