Thursday, September 30, 2010

Religious knowledge PWN

Even better than my annual civic knowledge results. (Sad life fact, but even though ISI asks exactly the same questions each year, I always get the same two wrong.) Notably, the most incorrectly answered question is the one about the First Great Awakening. Peeps clearly need to be schooled about Teh Great Jonathan Edwards, and conveniently, I am here to help. Call me, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What would Matthew Crawford say

...about Ikea? On the one hand, obviously not craftsmanship. On the other, putting their packed sawdust combinations together is the closest I ever get to working with my hands. I am thinking that if this grad school thing doesn't work out, I may try to peddle my services as an expert builder of every item in the Ikea Malm series.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Violations of my human rights

I have learned a new fakt in my human rights class: it turns out that my human rights have been violated! I was really excited to discover this when I read the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Apparently, it is illegal to deprive citizens of their nationality where doing so would leave them stateless because they have not acquired another nationality. But that totes happened to me. I am a victim! So, logically, my next question was, who can I sue about this?

Turns out, no one. For one thing, the Soviet Union never signed on to the Convention. For another, there is apparently no international jurisdiction for this kind of thing.

Kind of a disappointment. Now I have to return to my baseline belief that human rights are meaningless.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The semester of wasted time

It is my great hope that this will be my last semester of coursework, but in order to make that happen, I have had to settle for less in terms of course quality than even the (very low) Harvard average. (I have had several occasions in the past few weeks to marvel at how drastically grad school has diminished my reverence for the idea of the university.) This semester, I gave in and enrolled in the required statistics course I tried to evade last year. That's eight hours a week typing out incorrect variations of Stata code until I get one that doesn't generate errors. Then there is an undergrad class that mercifully has not required much attention yet. There is Calvin's Institutes, which I am plodding through at an embarrassingly slow pace and trying, so far unsuccessfully, to convince my neighbor to care about so I can have someone to discuss it with. And there is a class featuring my German nemeses, Kant and Hegel, in preparation for this spring's effort to convincingly mask my ignorance when examined about them. And finally, there is a class about something called "international children's rights."

Let me tell you about this class. The first thing one must consider is that it's in the Kennedy School. Therefore, enrollment consists almost entirely of former NGO workers who don't want to think very hard about the premises of children's rights and whether or not there can even be such a thing, but instead want to tell stories about the time when they worked in Sad Third World Nation and witnessed Horrible Scenes of Human Degradation and this inspired them to want Bring Justice to All the Oppressed Peoples of the World. The way to do this apparently is to make a list of as many nice things as possible (education, comprehensive health care, wealth, freedom of expression, protection and autonomy in the most desirable proportions, freedom from all coercion and feelings of unhappiness, puppies, rainbows, sunshine), call these things "human rights," or, where "human" seems to be too exacting, "children's rights" since people are more willing to give stuff to children, then mail this list to all the Sad Third World Nations, and check back every few years to lament how few of these demands have been fulfilled. Everyone agrees this is correct and will eventually be effective, and the only question is really what to do with the men of Sad Third World Nations, who turn out to be major heels who make less money, capitalize less well on their educations, care less effectively for their children, make worse investments, and contribute much more to crime, violence, corruption, venereal disease and general ill-health, and economic underdevelopment than women.

I don't know how to solve this problem except by the mass removal of men to forced labor camps, which I suggested (but was not taken seriously). Nonetheless, I need to produce a paper for this class. My great desire is NOT to write anything about any Sad Third World Nation or the Scenes of Human Degradation therein. I would like to focus on America. If necessary, I can expand to Canada. Worst case scenario, Mexico. But no farther out than that. It will need to relate to children and politics. So far the main contender is a long-intended paper on Dewey's educational thought, which is only very tenuously related to this course. Any other ideas?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Gnome home

Seen in my neighborhood:

Friday, September 17, 2010

A post on reactionary Puritans for FLG

FLG and I have been having a two-year long back-and-forth on the merits of Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards (which, if you ever look at Puritan genealogies, will establish him as the descendant of Every Important New England Personality Evar), head of the Connecticut Federalists, and president of Yale, and so I finally decided to put the debate to rest by crushing FLG with sheer verbiage and writing a paper in defense of Dwight. The benefit of such an undertaking is that it gives one opportunity to read up on New England theology and arm oneself with such terms as free sovereign grace, immediate imputation, antinomianism, Arminianism, and the possibly sophistic distinction between regeneration and election, so that if FLG tries to dispute my conclusions, I can clobber him with mah newly-acquired fancypants theological vocabulary which I myself barely understand.

I promised this post to FLG a long time ago, and then I wrote a lot of it, and--like I do with all my grad school papers--gave up midway through and forgot about it. Now that it's been about eleventy years since I initially promised it and since I wrote the paper, I'm going to do a terrible, unforgivable thing and copy and paste vast swaths of the paper to my blog. You might notice a shift in tone where that occurs.

I think the main question in our dispute is whether Dwight is an extremist nutjob based on “The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis,” his 1798 sermon arguing that the French Revolution was the seventh vial prophesied in Revelations, the millenium is nigh, and in the meantime, everyone should fight the forces of infidelity (those being, the French, the Enlightenment philosophes, and, most importantly, the Freemasons and the Illuminati) which are secretly trying to destroy America by de-Christianizing it and eventually turning it into revolutionary France. The best way to fight these evildoers is, it turns out, by going to church on Sundays. Readers of Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics will be familiar with this sermon since it is briefly noted in the beginning as an early example of the paranoid style. But Hofstadter was totally wrong and there is no such thing as an American paranoid style.

My view, after considered reading of some of Dwight's vast corpus is that, while Dwight was not a very good poet, he was definitely not crazy. The paranoia about the Masons and the Illuminati has been covered in a previous exchange, but even his skepticism about Enlightenment rationalism has roots in a conservative strain of Congregational theology of this period (the New Divinity, for anyone who cares) that saw the potential danger behind natural religion and rationalism, and watched them issue in the French Revolution.*

Some contemporary historians [and FLG], finding Dwight's style too inflammatory and his politics too reactionary for their tastes, have dismissed his argument against infidelity as mere Federalist opportunism, or as evidence of a fundamentalist impulse to turn New England into a Puritan theocracy. But Dwight’s sermons are a testament to the winding complexity and—-to modern eyes-—contradiction of Calvinist theological and political commitments in the early republic, which could not be classified either on the left or the right, even after their opposition to the French Revolution. Dwight’s sermons draw on a distinctly Calvinist logic of opposition the Revolution--one that is forward-looking, reformist, and ultimately millenarian--and illuminate the distance between European reaction to the Revolution, and the strangely un-reactionary resistance of American Puritans. [endpaperexcerpthere, sorry guys!]

The best way to read Dwight is, I think, to consider him in his theological context. (If he were a greater writer, this might not be necessary, but he was not.) His theology is the product of half a century of incessant and intense doctrinal contest in America, starting with the First Great Awakening. In fact, the contestants in these feuds mirrored with uncanny accuracy the arrangement of the parties in the French Revolution. The evangelicals of the Great Awakening fought with the orthodox Calvinist "Old Lights" over the legitimacy of their conversions, eventually won (in part because many of the Old Lights adopted versions of Deistic natural religion and rejected Calvinism altogether), then themselves split into two camps--the radicals (separatists and universalists on the frontiers of New England who became Baptists and Methodists) and the moderates (the New Divinity) who took over many of the pulpits in southern New England.

In other words, Dwight had seen the French Revolution and its disputes--over hypocrisy, antinomianism, subversion, etc--play out in advance in the realm of theology (and New England had established churches at this point so this was not an indifferent issue politically). But theology demands certain limits on these questions that are absent in the determinedly secular politics of the Revolution. You can't send a man to the guillotine for falsely believing he is saved--the state of his soul can only be known for certain by himself and by God, and other men can no more than suspect that he is lying, but they have no authority to go further. But the Committee on Public Safety could transform sin into political crime committed by enemies of the Revolution, whose “unconverted” souls found their correction not in God but in the guillotine. In secular politics, as Arendt points out, accusations of hypocrisy encounter no limits. Thus, for Dwight, that “Three millions of Frenchmen have perished in the Revolution…The siege of Lyons, and the judicial massacres at Nantes, stand, since the crucifixion, alone in the volume of human crimes.”

What is most interesting about his opposition to the Revolution is not that it's reactionary or conspiratorial or anything like that. It's rather how different it is from European opponents like Burke and de Maistre and Barruel, from whom he actually cribs much of his material on the Masons and the Illuminati. It is so intensely Protestant. The past has no authority for Dwight, and he does not want to go back to a more orderly, pre-Enlightenment epoch, but rather into a more orderly, post-Enlightenment millennium. Like Samuel Hopkins, who was a prolific anti-slavery writer in addition to writing some of the foundational systematic theology of the New Divinity, Dwight looks to social reform as the appropriate response to decaying faith. This seeming immunity to the traditionalist impulse runs through the most otherwise conservative of late 18th century Puritan divines, and while it is baffling to me, it is neither absurd nor delusional. And it seems in some way quite important to understanding contemporary American conservatism and its continuing distance from its European counterpart.

*I know that everyone and his brother will jump down my throat now to insist that the French Revolution was not Rousseau's fault, and Rousseau would even have condemned it and if only people had read Rousseau more carefully and reflected on it better and blah blah... I agree that all this is true and good, except that it hardly stopped anyone from misreading Rousseau and cutting off heads. In any case, Dwight's enemies were primarily second-rate English rationalists--Tyndal, Chubb, Shaftesbury, and also Hobbes. In earlier sermons on infidelity that were not targeted at the French Revolution, this is more clear.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


Well, that was a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again.