Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Problem of Good

In the comments section of a recent Belmont Club post, just before the tsunami disaster in South Asia, a discussion began concerning Kevin Sites. Responding to one of the commenters, Wretchard wrote:
If Mr. Sites has been deleting critical comments, I would be very disappointed in him. Belmont Club is exhibit A in the policy of giving every opinion, short of incitement, the freedom of the site. Yes, even DoubleStandard. Paradoxically, I think criticism sharpens the quest for truth. What should anyone fear except error?

The real value of this blog is that it encourages readers to contribute their opinions. The process of thinking through a situation, writing out an opinion and then discovering that it is no worse and frequently better than the stuff dished out by talking heads is a powerfully liberating experience. It is the process, not necessarily the result that is really subversive.

The longer it goes on the more dangerous the revolution becomes. Someone compared the rise of the Internet to the invention of the printing press. When books were the province of a few you could only come to knowledge through someone else. When books became common, people could learn for themselves, which put quite a few mediocrities out of business. Doubtless there will be those, as happens with people who interpret scripture do-it-yourself, who will get it all cockeyed. But on the whole mass produced books were a good thing.

There are some who are shocked, shocked at the act of a private person musing out loud about what seems like a staged photograph. 'How dare you, how dare you raise these questions'. Yet to those who grew up on the Internet, this attitude is puzzling in the extreme. It's a natural as breathing, a wholly different tradition. There must be hundreds of sites out there saying I'm a jerk. So what? This blog is just a meme, that's all. I am nothing. I don't even have a name. There must be zillions out there who disagree with my ideas. But so what? If my ideas are wrong they'll die. If they are right, not even I can stop them. Scary when you think of it.

But I forget that people out there in the old media have got a consciousness of status which they value. Some may subconsciously think of yours miserably truly as a one of them wannabe. I can't even aspire to what I don't understand. Merry Christmas everybody.
Buddy Larsen then responded to Wretchard:

Merry Christmas to you, too, Wretchard. You've fought the good fight all along, but on this, you alone looked twice at that pic, and asked the right questions. The rest of us had already looked at it, registered it as hellish stuff, and moved on, a little sickened. Just as we were supposed to as always sheepishly do. What you did with your "Whoaaa, hold on a minute" was to give a real gift to the world. Pretty good work for a mere meme, a nameless entity in cyberspace.
Wretchard's response was:


The one thing Saddam left out of reckoning was the existence of people who wouldn't go along. When you think of it, the Problem of Evil is the dual of the Problem of Good. The chief problem with accepting the existence of God is the fact that evil exists. Yet the mirror problem afflicts those which would deny God. Why does beauty, why does superfluity of good exist? Against the ichneumon wasp there is the problem of accounting for a Francis of Assisi.

And so it is here. Men of good will are the problem from a certain point of view. They are the obstacle which must be removed at all costs. A little more money, intimidation and corruption should do it. But the bad guys are left scratching their heads in wonderment at why victory is denied them.

But they are part of the scenery; a curse, if you will. "For the Shadow was only a passing thing and Frodo knew there would always be truth and high beauty beyond its power to corrupt."
Pure goodness is always a surprise when it appears in the world. To cite a recent example:

A man walked into a homeless shelter in Denver last night and handed out 35-thousand dollars to the residents.

He gave five-thousand dollars to a family of six for housing. He passed out 100-dollar bills to 300 people.

One man who's been at the shelter since last month says, "It was like seeing Santa Claus and God all at once."
Or look at the way Western Civilization has responded to the tragedy wrought by the tsunami: relief efforts, spearheaded by Australian aid agencies, are entering the Indonesian province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra to begin the process of aiding the injured, bringing food, water, and clothing to the displaced, and stemming the inevitable onslaught of epidemics. As it happens, Aceh is a hotbed of Islamist activity, home to the Free Aceh Movement, which aims to create an independent Islamic state. This region has been a refuge for some of the terrorists belonging to groups that planned and executed the Bali bombing which killed so many Australians.

So how does Australia respond? By coming to the aid of Indonesia, even at the risk of giving possible succor to some of its enemies.

Another quote from The Lord of the Rings is apropos: Frodo says, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." Gandalf responds, "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."


jinnderella said...

Baron, it is so kewl that you saved this. shukran.

truepeers said...

D & B, I'm enjoying your blog. A few odd questions are popping into my head; I hope this is not out of place as they are not quite in the spirit of your posting, but I am inspired by Wretchard's call to become a talking head.

1)The Bohemian Jewish side of my family, a bit confused as were many jewish bourgeois about their identity and how to fit in in the old A-H empire, has this tradition of baking Viennese Crescents at Christmas time - simple but delicious things, basically flour, butter, walnuts, sugar, I think. I believe these date from and were used as symbols during the siege of Vienna; I wonder if you know what they symbolized exactly - were they baked so that one could, as it were, eat the enemy? Or were they made in some kind of offering to the Turks? It seems it is the purpose of your blog to remind us of the symbolic side of this war; maybe America could revive this little delicacy.

2) I suppose you are using a page from the Koran as your backdrop. Am curious why.

3) Strategy. If we are in a religious war, must the Christians, and secular west, somehow proselytize the Muslims of the world? Can there be any other long term strategy other than building the walls high? And if we do have to proselytize, is, perhaps, western multicultural political correctness not, as our conservatives might think, the enemy of our better side, but in fact the more devious, underhanded, way of turning the world into something, culturally, like us? OBL & co. will never fall for it, but all our Muslim br..others, those who are a bit wary of fighting the superpower, might buy it - of course some in the west already are.

Baron Bodissey said...

Jinnji -- what is shukran?

truepeers -- I'll answer 2 & 3. Since Dymphna is the cook in the family, she'll do #1. She's researching it now.

2. The background is a little piece of Arabic calligraphy repeated over and over. I don't know what it says -- I just looked for a nice sample that was also in the public domain; unfortunately, the site didn't give an English translation. For all I know, it says "Post No Bills".

The Arabic script is supposed to represent the tide of Islam which almost enveloped Vienna in 1683, with the image at the top (of Vienna) representing Christendom.

3. It's hard to see Western Civilization being victorious on an entirely secular basis. Secular culture is based, in some ways, in "orthodox doubt" -- Truth cannot be known; we cannot be sure we're right; one version of morality is no better than another; etc.

What I would like to see is alliance of Christians and Jews, based on the commonalities of their respective faiths, to stand against the barbarians (both within and without). An example is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

truepeers said...

I hope I have not put Dymphna to trouble. It's odd, but there are still moments when I forget that Google is at hand and probably can find the answer I want. So what did I really desire in asking the cookie question? Conversation, information, but what is one without the other? I’ve just come to a realization: I'm getting hooked on blogs, less to share in the good works of trading information, than to justify time spent in intellectual pursuits as an act of faith, hopefully shared with others. The internet promises the dangerous possibility of an endless faith in one big conversation; what is the ethic to bring reality to bear here?

Which leads me to your point about "orthodox doubt". Certainly we have to criticize those who think one morality is as good as another. However, in my way of thinking, there is only one morality. Wherever you go, whatever time in history you consider, you see people are always recognizably human; what we recognize is universal morality, a reflection of our own fundamental intuitions about, e.g., reciprocity (the golden rule), the need to control violence, or the experience of sharing in language, in that which all languages share from their common origin. On this view, it is ethics that are relative to time and place. Universal morality gives us the ability to judge the inevitable shortcomings of historical ethics, and I think it is how we do this that is the question to consider in respect to postmodern secularism.

You raise the question of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Perhaps the great accomplishment of our monotheism is that it makes it possible to distinguish between morality and ethics. The God with whom Jews first made a compact to keep the faith, regardless of worldly success or failure, imposes a moral conversation inevitably separated from worldly ethics. Even as God demands I recognize all people as equals in creation, his call on my faith implies the unhappy realization that there is nonetheless a limit to the moral reciprocity possible in this world where all cannot be equals in wealth and power, time and patience. (Thanks G, however, for blogs where we can imagine sharing with strangers ignorant of our worldly status.) So we try to learn the ethics of each situation, and look to our conversation with God to mediate our resulting resentments and alienation.

In the Jewish mind, there can be a fear of other faiths that lead some to attempt to impose moral imperatives, whether the Christian kingdom, or the Muslim desire for a universal obedience to and recitation of eternal, Koranic truths. The God who tells Moses, "I am what I am" is demanding faith without any wordly guarantee. When my eyes first came on your "orthodox doubt", it was Jewish "doubt" about the nature of the unfigurable God that came to mind.

The secular postmodern world, which I am very desirous of moving beyond, is ironically a concession to the wisdom of Jewish thinking where the sacred center of our shared culture and morality must be left unfigured. Today, no value can be placed above another, no imagery or divine figure can be given sacred status - not even "Merry Christmas" messages in government offices. (Islam also rejects figures of the divine, though Allah promises the faithful a worldly victory over unbelievers.)

So why is postmodern, "secular jewishness" so offensive to me? Because half of my family/mind is Christian? No, I think because pomo depends on a relentless scapegoating of history for falling short of some ideal of egalitarian mutuality. Pomo may impose no privileged imagery, yet it still implies a universal morality as a project for this world, in relation to which all historical achievements can be criticized and the “white” guilt of the successful or privileged encouraged. But universal morality has always been with us from the start; history, however, is properly about ethical achievements, the innovative deals, markets, and compromises that allow us to live in a relatively peaceful world that is, over time, expanding the degrees of freedom and complexity in the system.

Baron, this is all a longwinded way of saying, I think we need to get back to some sense of sharing in a historical project, one that takes ethics and morality seriously, but as the basis for making us productive participants in a system that exists in the cause of freedom (with all the ugliness that can entai), not equality or universal morality.

We need to think about how to promote such a message. We will find sustenance in the shared texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But if we have already strayed beyond them, perhaps we have discovered certain historical limits therein. I would suggest we must also find our way by going beyond (which does not imply without)present-day Judeo-Christianity, and inquire into the original basis for the singular and universal morality of mankind. We need to inquire into the human or linguistic origins which all people share, as a way of opening up a historical conversation about our real differences in this world, even with the barbarians if we can.

As for my original comment that maybe there is a strategic role for politically correct multiculturalism, that was my doubt showing. Unlike pomo pc, the terrorists share in my desire for a renewed historical project. And the more I promote my vision, perhaps the more I encourage my rival in kind. The terrorists’ historical vision is, of course, driven by a resentment of the global market system and its freedoms, a system in which their countries have no realistic hope of competing in most fields any time soon. Take away the oil and gas, and the ME is a total backwater and a big risk to any investment, not unlike the violent world Mohammed knew. Faced with their peoples’ failings in the present, the terrorists, not unreasonably, are out to destroy the global market system and return us all to medieval conditions. In fighting that nightmare, can we do much to promote our own desires for renewed historical projects, or must we quietly play to the pomo myth that everyone can be included in the system simply by encouraging white guilt, criticism of Israel, the US, etc., and not privilege any more realistic historical vision? I mean, how to turn ordinary Muslims away from the terrorists’ project and towards a vision we can grudgingly live with, keeping in mind they have few realistic hopes at present, short of emigration/westernization/Sinofication(?), or a much better sharing in the natural resources that are still limited and will soon enough run out.

I’m sharing my greatest doubts and I welcome your call to shared faith. Best wishes for the New Year.

Baron Bodissey said...

truepeers -- Wherever you go, whatever time in history you consider, you see people are always recognizably human; what we recognize is universal morality...

Unfortunately, if there is a universal morality (and I believe there is), our enemies don't subscribe to it. The Islamist martyrs are idealistic and zealous, but their idealism and zeal are for something that I can only see as demonic -- a worship of death, a cult of destruction, and a bloodthirstiness that exceeds my understanding.

Since pc culture requires us to "tolerate" such competing ideologies and moralities, it also requires us to collaborate in our own destruction. Therefore the first task of our self-defense is to overcome the pernicious post-modern political correctness within our own Western Civilization.

M. Simon said...


Re: point #3.

You are exactly right. However, I think you are too timid in your conclusion. I think it means the end of Islam. Or at least the domination of the religion by the fanatics.

M. Simon said...

I meant of course the end of domination by the fanatics.


The export of secular culture would be a big improvement over Islam.

I do not know that secularism requires all cultures to be treated equally.

Certainly some secularists know that Nazi Culture is bad. That is a start. Then you have to figure out how to get people to take an honest look at culture. The problem is that the troubles at home no matter how small, loom much larger than big troubles far away.

Perspective is lacking or all too evident.

truepeers said...

Baron, we certainly do not have any obligation to partipate in our destruction. Self-defense is the primary moral imperative.

What I'm trying to develop for myself is a strategic vision of how to relate to people from other parts of the world, without any longer playing along with the apologetics of liberal guilt. I'm not sure white guilt, or victimary thinking, serves anyone very well any more. But to the degree it still works to integrate people into the global marketplace, there may still be a case to tolerate its hypocrisies, something I have yet to clear my mind on.

Whatever happens in the ME, it is going to be a lot of trouble for the foreseeable future, in good part because Islam does indeed fail to distinguish universal morality from the ethic that is specific to itself. My idea is that it will not be enough, strategically, to impose our own religion in opposition; but we will need to build a very confident vision of humanity that is to some degree post-religious, which is not to say anti-religious, one that recognizes the historical contribution of the Judeo-Christian tradition to overcoming the kind of sacrificial culture that the Jihadists are still immersed in, and to building the market society that is our hope for the future.

But there are two kinds of truth; the ethical truth is focussed on getting everyone participating in the system and buying into whatever myths are necessary to that objective. And then there is the moral truth that ruthlessly attacks all our pc ethical myths, just because personal experience has led to the resentful need to speak the ultimate truth, in hopes of expanding the freedoms in the system, so that one no longer has to tolerate the old hypocrisies and corruptions. In most social situations and most marketplaces, the group or market as a whole does not want to hear the fundamental truths underpinning the situation at that particular moment in time, because that is to ruin the tensions, to eliminate the volatility, on which the situation or market turns. And then you have to build the next game up from scratch.

So, if we want to reveal to our pc friends the truth that the relatively free world we live in is historical proof of the superiority of western culture, at least in the first era of globalization (in future we may have to integrate with eastern cultures, e.g. China, in ways we cannot yet foresee, in order to expand the dynamism of the system) we need to find a way to do it that does not just pile up the resentments against the western champions, but that clearly renews the game in a way that more and more can find a way to participate. We need a project of expanding freedoms, but it has to be one that can be bought into by all kinds of people.

jj mollo said...

Thankyou for this excerpt. Very thought-provoking. Belmont Club is one of the best.

Dymphna said...

Truepeers - re: Viennese crescents.

Ah, I wish we could simply revive old beliefs and customs; it would make life far simpler, would it not? But I agree with your intuition that it was about eating our enemies. We're not so civilized as we'd like to think.

Your comment brought back that old story re Viennese crescents; hadn't thought about it in a long time. Some dismiss the tale as a myth but I'm not so sure. There are grains of truth in the old story and this one may have more than just a few bits of historical accuracy embedded here. Here is Bartelby's view of the whole matter, including the eventual rise of the familiar croissant:


(...Old Frenchcroissant, the equivalent of Latin crescens, came to mean "the time during which the moon waxes," "the crescent-shaped figure of the moon in its first and last quarters," and "a crescent-shaped object." In Middle English, which adopted croissant in its Anglo-Norman form cressaunt, the first instance of our English word, recorded in a document dated 1399-1400, meant "a crescent-shaped ornament." Crescent, the Modern English descendant of Middle English cressaunt, owes its second c to Latin crescere. Croissant is not an English development but rather a borrowing of the Modern French descendant of Old French croissant. It is first recorded in English in 1899. French croissant was used to translate German Hörnchen, the name given by the Viennese to this pastry, which was first baked in 1689 to commemorate the raising of the siege of Vienna by the Turks, whose symbol was the crescent).


Another version of the story has a brave Jewish baker uncovering the Turkish attempts to tunnel into the city. In this story he notifies the city authorities, they quell the invasion and in gratitude commission the couragepus baker to make "Hornchen." This story has all the events happening in Budapest, not Vienna, and in a later century.

At any rate, Viennese crescents are still a Christmas favorite, though they have evolved over the years from a simple almond paste cookie with no flour to the recipes of our day, which closely resemble a nut-shortbread batter. Here's an old one, from The Royal Cookery Book by Jules Gouffe.

Almond Paste Crescents

Blanch, peel, and pound 10 oz. of almonds; add 10 oz. of pounded sugar, and moisten, to a stiffish paste, with some white of egg; Sprinkle a pasteboard with fine sugar; roll the paste on it to a 1/4-inch thinckness, and cut it out, with a 1 1/2-inch round cutter, into crescent-shaped pieces, 3/4 inch wide; Bake the crescents in a slack oven*; and, when cold, glaze them with some Glace Royale, flavoured with Kirschenwasser; strew some coarsely sifted sugar on the top, and dry them in the oven for two minutes.

*Those of us who puruse old cookbooks for the fun of it know that a 'slack oven' means one that is moderately warm. We would instruct the cook to preheat the oven to 350 or so.

truepeers said...


“But I agree with your intuition that it was about eating our enemies. We're not so civilized as we'd like to think.”

Yes we so want to forget our victims: it’s your enemy until you bake and eat them, and then by the mystery of sacrificial transformation, the crescent becomes a good symbol, something sweet and lovely to remember childhood fondly. (Could there be a higher proportion of middle European baking in blue states?)

Thanks for taking the time; now I shall have to go get some almonds.

Dymphna said...


About eating our enemies: in Catholic Christianity the doctrine of transubstantiation (as a child, I won a spelling contest on that word)has it that we eat our friends, too. When you think about it, that's a shocking thing to do...

Reminds me of a story I heard in an interview with Maurice Sendak. He recounted his correspondence with a young reader, who laboriously printed out his praise for Mr. Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are. S. was so moved by his expression of love for the book that he impulsively sent a postcard reply to the boy, thanking him for his praise. Several weeks later, Sendak got a request from the boy's mother: could he possibly send another card? The boy had so loved Mr. Sendak's response that he'd eaten the original.

Communion and participation is what that was. Ask any Christian theologian. Or any anthropologist for that matter. We do indeed eat our friends as well as our enemies...

BTW, though I gave the --perhaps-- original recipe, I think a modern one which uses flour in place of or in addition to the ground nuts would be more palatable. I've made these latter cookies often enough to know that they turn out well.

Eric said...

On a side note, I visited Kevin Site's website again (curious to see if he'd added anything to his apologia to the Marines) and I discover that he's now covering the Tsunami disaster.

I used to have some respect for reporters like Sites, always going in harm's way to get their story, but I've now come to the sad conclusion that they are, in effect, a sort of psychological vampire, needing to feed off of conflict or disaster. (Irrespective of any reporting they might do along the way).