Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cowardice on the Front Porch: Reason of the Age

Front Porch Republic is a curious amalgam. Jeff Taylor is an old-school Populist from a Protestant background with firm pro-life convictions. Russell Arben Fox borders on socialist convictions. Somehow, he and John Medaille, a rather pragmatic Roman Catholic, agree that the Mondragon experiment in Spain offers a healthy alternative to modern corporate capitalism, which indeed it does. Then there are the mystical Roman Catholics who long for the restoration of Papal Supremacy, over the whole world, modestly academic counter-parts to the more imminently violent jihadist vision of triumphant Islam.

What holds them all together, aside from the camaraderie of annual conferences and a vibrant web site, is something called “a sense of place.” Socialist, Papalist, or Populist, Republicans, Libertarians, or Other, there is a fascination with discrete local communities over large agglomerations of human activity and political power. Necessarily, they share a healthy (and justified) skepticism of liberals. They may or may not be conservatives. So far, the Republic has not attracted much interest from people of non-European extractions or darker complexions, but one would have to dig very deep to insinuate racial prejudice.

One fine day, 31 August 2012 to be exact, James Matthew Wilson, one of the younger Roman Catholic philosophers on the porch (his digital photo at least looks youthful) posted "Against Rationalism, Idealism, and Abstraction." The essay was noteworthy for the accusation that one evil of rationalism is the assumption, "If something cannot be known by everyone, it is not knowledge; only that which can be controlled and summoned on demand for everyone’s empirical inspection can be so known."

An occasional commenter named Siarlys Jenkins, who by some odd coincidence is the sole administrator and contributor to the widely unread blogger page called Fundamentals (this page), posed a rational alternative more friendly to spirituality, metaphysical inquiry, and worship of a divine Creator: "If something cannot be known by everyone, cannot be summoned on demand for everyone's empirical inspection, then it is not a fit subject for legislation and coercion."

It is not directly known what Wilson thought of this, because he did not say. But two brothers, or cousins, or something, by the name of Salyer jumped in as Wilson’s bulldogs, rather like Thomas Huxley fighting the good fight for Charles Darwin.

R. Salyer, by far the more incoherent of the two, set the tone for a good deal of the ensuing discussion by asserting that "One way to reduce conflict is to establish justice amongst groups… and another way is to simply deconstruct the value of the group such that the “members” are no longer willing to fight for it."  Jenkins objected to the notion of justice between groups, and indeed of consigning individuals, whether they will or no, to designation as subjects of a defined group.

It would be most unfair to try to summarize further what the Salyers had to say. It ranged widely across the various concepts the human mind is capable of toying with, and it is available in the original for any who wish to peruse it. The ensuing fray is difficult to follow coherently, since it is a meandering trail of ad hominem insinuations, with various straw men for landmarks to navigate by.

The premise which seems to have provoked the greatest ire is this:

If one person, or group of persons, wishes to coerce another person, then the burden of proof rests with those proposing to coerce another. Sub-premise: coercion is generally justified only by a credible assertion that the person (or group) to be coerced is inflicting demonstrable harm on others.

This the Salyers vigorously deny – naturally so, first, because their Roman Catholic faith, as they conceive it, demands the possibility of coercion. Further, they evidently advocate that if a strong man imbued with a passionate desire to coerce is able to impose his passion upon others, it is his right, his duty, his sacred honor, forthwith to do so.

R. Salyer in particular essentially argues that the premise offered above, or any premise whatsoever, is only one of many premises on which a social order might rest, and therefore no better than any other. By the crudest and most disinterested logic, this is unassailably true.

By this logic, there is no moral order to the universe whatsoever, as ANY moral foundation has a claim to allegiance no better and no worse than any other. This logic the Salyers vigorously deny, by fiat. Neither of the Salyers wish to follow their logic to its obvious and inescapable conclusion: that if no premise is better than any other, then ANY premise that a sufficiently strong person, or group, is able to impose, must therefore become The Good Premise by virtue of its success. In short, Might Makes Right.

While the author of the original essay, James Matthew Wilson, had nothing further to contribute, he displayed the courage of his convictions in one concluding act: immediately after his bulldogs offered their latest expression of wounded outrage, he closed the article to further comments, insuring that they had the last word. Cowardice such as this ill suits either a front porch or a republic. But some arguments cannot bear the weight of either facts or reason.

Indeed, the original essay was offered in direct opposition to reason. The entire cabal apparently worships the vigorous and brutal display of unreasoning passion that was the true hallmark of the middle ages. The music was beautiful, the standards colorful, the castles have a haunting beauty, now that they project no power upon the literate descendants of the over-taxed peasantry. Life, however, was no bed of roses, nor paragon of virtue.

I come from a long line of serfs, who left Europe for America to be free, and fought to establish that freedom. We are well out of all that Old Europe, really old Europe, imposed upon a weary and traumatized world. The age of reason has not been pure blue skies and bright sunshine, but at least the possibilities for humanity to flourish are greater than they were under self-righteous tyranny.

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