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Tags: Technology

Mark Shiffman & Leo Strauss:the Limits of Limited Government



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Mark Shiffman, one of our friendliest rivals or least rivalrous friends at Front Porch Republic has posted some important reflections on Christian personhood and limited government.  Here’s a major take-away: 

Over the course of the history of “Christendom” the consensus of limited government has been developed and maintained by the fact that the communion of personhood which constitutes the human transcendence of the state’s purview is sustained and publicly acknowledged in practices belonging to “civil society” (i.e. non-state practices and institutions).  That consensus is now disappearing, because the practices that cultivate and sustain our experiential awareness of our transcendent personhood are ceasing to shape our souls.

This is very well said in my view, and for that matter, just plain true.   The trick embedded in this formulation is a fragile dialectic between transcendence and immanence, religion and politics.  Liberty depends upon “personhood” understood as grounded in a personal God who absolutely transcends the political realm (and its “civil religion”); but at this same time this ground must be “public acknowledged” — it must be anchored in beliefs and practices that are shared by and authoritative for an actual community.  ”Civil Society” is the apparently simple name that we use for this fragile dialectic which holds together the beyond and the concretely authoritative.  

It is worth comparing the nice statement in Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s recent Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy of Strauss’s classical grounds for modern limited government:

1-The limitations of the rule of wisdom and thus the practical necessity of the rule of law.

2-The mixed regime as the best strategy for moderating the respective claims of the few and the many.

3- Scriptural religion as the best means of education the people in moral restraint.  The Zuckerts write:

In the first stages of the development of modern liberal democracies, Strauss observes, the solution to this problem was sought “in the religious education of the people,” that is, in an education, based on the Bible, that led people to regard themselves as responsible for both their actions and their thoughts to a God who would judge them (“LER,” 15). (According to Strauss, “the premodern thought of our western tradition” thus supplies much of the content, as well as an emphasis on the necessity, of the education of citizens.)

Shiffman’s and Strauss’s perspectives seem to me to be complementary, but not easy to hold together in practice.  Strauss’s emphasis on moral restraint suggests a civic religion that understates the importance of a transcendent reference — not only the divine guarantor of a moral sanction, that is, but an openness to a higher meaning that provides purpose beyond the material (and technological) frenzy of a democratic society.  As Shiffman writes;

The practices of communion of personhood are those of prayer, penitential examination of conscience and acknowledgment of sin, an imagination of praiseworthy life shaped by reflection on the Bible and the Saints, liturgical and sacramental participation in worship, and in general the receptivity (actual or intended) to grace.

Religious Freedom emerged in a moment of marvelous (not to say perfect) equilibrium between the power of a personal truth beyond politics and the social authority of a moral-political truth.  (This is very well seen, by the way, in Steven D. Smith’s very important and very sobering The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.)  Mark Shiffman is very right that the transcendent dimension of this freedom is imminently threatened by the eclipse of transcendent Christian personhood.  And Leo Strauss was right that this moral-political truth is imminently threatened by the onward march of democracy-technology.

Tags: Marc Shiffman , Front Porch Republic , Leo Strauss , Person , Technology , Zuckerts , Steven D. Smith , Religious Freedom

Beyond Politics, America Enjoys an Era of Amazing Innovation



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From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

Is America Depressed?

Okay, so America’s seen some bad news lately. The economy stinks, and no one is confident. Mediocre economic numbers are greeted as a triumph. Obamacare’s a mess. The federal government is one cluster-you-know-what of venality and incompetence after another. The Millennials seem spoiled, self-absorbed and incapable of achieving in the modern workplace. Trouble is brewing from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq to Libya to the South China Sea to the Korean peninsula. Our allies are unnerved, our enemies acting bolder.

There’s a particular gloom among a lot of conservatives lately, too: The country has more takers than makers. Everybody’s addicted to “Uncle Sugar.” Too many Establishment Republicans just want to replace the Democrats’ crony capitalism with their own crony capitalism. Our popular culture makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like Mayberry. Time to start putting our savings into gold and shopping for real estate in Belize.

We can’t let our perspective of our fellow Americans get defined by every idiot on Twitter or the comments section. We’ve always had idiots. We’ve always had loud idiots. The good folks working hard, taking care of their families, and living the American dream don’t spend a lot of time arguing on the Internet.

This is still a country packed to the gills with innovative, driven, hard-working, ingenious, generous, kind-hearted folk of every race, creed, and color.

Don’t believe me? Here are some bits of good news you may have missed:

Faith in the future is returning; we’re making more new Americans – a.k.a. “babies” – again.

The newest child birth rate numbers have just been released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the report indicates that there were 4,736 more births in 2013 than there were the year before, which shows an increase that America hasn’t seen in five years.

We’re doing this while reducing teen pregnancy, births, and abortions:

In examining birth and health certificates from 2010 (the most recent data available), Guttmacher Institute found that approximately 6 percent of teenagers (57.4 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls) became pregnant—the lowest rate in 30 years and down from its peak of 51 percent in 1991. Between 2008 and 2010 alone, there was a 15-percent drop.

At 34.4 births per 1,000 teenage women, the birthrate was down 44 percent from its peak rate of 61.8 in 1991. The abortion rate is down too: In 2010, there were 14.7 abortions per 1,000 teenagers, which is the lowest it’s been since the procedure was legalized.

According to the CDC, the numbers are going in the right direction for life expectancy, heart disease, and cancer death rate:

Americans are living longer than ever. According to the report, in 2010, life expectancy at birth for the total population was 78.7 years — 76.2 years for men and 81.0 years for women. Between 2000 and 2010, life expectancy at birth increased 2.1 years for men and 1.7 years for women. The gap in life expectancy between men and women narrowed from 5.2 years in 2000 to 4.8 years in 2010.

The report also notes a 30% decline between 2000 and 2010 in the age-adjusted heart disease death rate, from 257.6 to 179.1 deaths per 100,000 population. But in 2010, heart disease was still the most lethal disease in the US, with 24% of all deaths, the report says.

The age-adjusted cancer death rate decreased 13% between 2000 and 2010, from 199.6 to 172.8 deaths per 100,000 population. Still, in 2010, 23% of all deaths in the US were from cancer, close behind heart disease. In 2012, 18.1% of adults aged 18 and over were current cigarette smokers, down from 23.2% in 2000.

The Mayo Clinic just scored “complete remission” of a form of previously-untreatable cancer using an engineered measles virus in a human being. Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute recently announced that adult stem cells from bone marrow tissue can specifically target and kill brain tumors.

The hunt for a cure for AIDS continues, but treatments have become effective and widespread in ways that were simply unimaginable a generation ago. It is a much less deadly disease:   “The age-adjusted HIV death rate has dropped by 85% since its peak, including by 14% between 2009 and 2010.” There are indications that some people can be “functionally cured” of HIV.  There are other beautiful anecdotes: A Vancouver, Canada hospital repurposed its AIDS ward because the number of cases dwindled so rapidly.

The scale of the U.S. energy boom is jaw-dropping: “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of new jobs in the oil and gas industry (technically a part of mining) increased by roughly 270,000 between 2003 and 2012. This is an increase of about 92% compared with a 3% increase in all jobs during the same period. The BLS reports that the U.S. average annual wage (which excludes employer-paid benefits) in the oil and gas industry was about $107,200 during 2012, the latest full year available. That’s more than double the average of $49,300 for all workers.”

We’re on the dawn of the era of private spaceflight: “SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are building new manned spacecraft with the goal of restoring U.S. human spaceflight capability by 2017.”

Yes, it’s a dangerous world. But our men and women in uniform, the companies that supply them, and the researchers that equip them regularly produce breakthroughs that sound like science fiction. The Pentagon is developing a hypersonic missile that can hit anywhere in the world in 30 minutes.  They’re developing brain chips to treat PTSD. There’s some mysterious plane – allegedly a stealth transport  — flying over Texas. University researchers may be on the verge of developing functional invisibility. And, as Kevin Williamson notes, brainwave-driven exoskeletons may help the paralyzed rise and walk.

As David Plotz lays out, there has never been more news published than there is today; web sites of media organizations from the New York Times to Fox News publish literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of new items a day. Sure, you can say a lot of it’s crap. A lot of anything is crap. But the barrier to entry in the news world is obliterated. We’re no longer in an era where the number of pages and column-inches in the New York Times, and the time limits of the nightly news, set the limits for what the public sees and reads. Despite the commencement mobs and the political-correctness enforcers, this is a golden age for free speech.

In fact, things are going so well in the apolitical or non-political aspects of American life… all that talk about a second American Century may not just be happy talk or tired campaign rhetoric. We just have to get our government to work better – and in many circumstances, do less, and get out of the way! – and our best days may indeed be ahead of us.

So cheer up, conservatives!

Tags: Technology , Innovation , Politics

Please Join Me In Loathing Gary Turk’s ‘#LookUp’



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Gary Turk’s “Look Up” viral video makes me feel lonely, but not for the reasons described in the video. It makes me lonely because by now an estimated 100 percent of people I know have forwarded, posted, or retweeted Turk’s sprung-tetrameter rhyme, usually with notations about how it really speaks to our era or says it all or will be deeply moving to the viewer. And for me there’s something alienating in the feeling that everybody seems to be enchanted by something that only makes me say, “You like this garbage?”

Just to be clear: I didn’t say that at first. I don’t like to gainsay anybody’s bliss, and apparently Gary Turk’s anti-technology doggerel is meaningful to them. So when “Look Up” started pushing its way into my face last week, I held my peace.

But Gary Turk’s “Look Up” just keeps coming, like a workplace harasser refusing to take no for an answer, insisting it knows your inner emotional landscape better than you do. By now you may be among the more than 27 million people who have viewed it, but just in case you haven’t suffered yet:

I find a lot to hate in this video. I hate the guy’s tone-deaf spoken-word verse. I hate his simpering, purse-lipped look and his modest brown sweater. I hate his stupid accent. I hate his sanctimonious argument. I hate his moral superiority. I hate his presumption that he’s understanding life on some deeper level than the rest of us. I hate the meet-cute-for-a-lifetime storyline that’s already been used in a million commercials for toothpaste and pregnancy tests but here is supposed to be a profound statement on How We Live Today. I don’t wish bodily harm on anybody — so I don’t really wish this — but I do sort of think idly about what it would be like if Gary Turk looked up an instant too late and got run over by a truck. Excuse me: by a lorry.

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Social Networks , Technology , Luddites

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