Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Disney at Peak Propaganda

It's generally taken for granted by most Christians and social conservatives that, when it comes to culture, Hollywood is a cesspool of liberalism and degeneracy which functions as the de facto propaganda wing of the secular state. Much of its messaging, especially as it appears in children shows and films, is subtle enough that many tend not to notice it and dismiss conservative concerns as paranoia. With Disney's Zootopia, the mask is off.

From the first frame to the last, the film advances from one liberal conceit to another without bothering to cloak its overt agenda.

Beginning with an account of the historical advance of society from primitive and savage times, when predators devoured prey and the animal kingdom was ruled by primal instincts, to modern animal times when predator and prey, having "evolved", live together in peace and harmony, the film traffics heavily in liberal mythology. From the opening scene, one is already immersed in an animal version of Whig history

To make matters worse, in the same scene a sheep with a rainbow on its head (clearly representing the LGBT community) appears and declares that, thanks to this advance from savage primal days to the days of reason, he no longer lives in fear of "coming out" from among the flock. The hetero reign of tyranny that is western civilization, in which aberrant sexualities have always been violently suppressed, is just an obvious truth. As obvious as the good of promoting the expression of said sexualities without any objection or reservation (which would be bigotry).

From there we encounter a common theme in Disney films, as our young, idealistic, protagonist female bunny, Judy Hopps, feels stifled by her hick-farmer parents, their rural life, and traditional values. From Ariel to Jasmine to Merida, petulant adolescent rebellion against parental authority and the wisdom of tradition has been a staple of the Disney animated film genre for a long time. It rears its ugly head again here, as the film openly mocks traditional ways of life -- represented by the carrot-farmer parents -- as closed-minded and "fearful." In contrast to this, the young protagonist's cosmopolitan adventurism is portrayed as a healthy rejection of her parent's way of life, and probably the only genuine way to live.

Following the motto of Zootopia (the large animal city, where predator and prey live and work together in blissful accord), a place where "Anyone Can Be Anything!", the young female bunny Judy heads off to the big city in order to become a police(wo)man, providing yet another example of the "strong female character" taking on a characteristically male career. 

Don't ask whether there are sensible reasons certain professions, like police officer, firefighter, and coal miner, are male dominated, while others are dominated by women. Assume with us, won't you, that it's the patriarchy oppressing strong women everywhere, forcing them into submission as pitiable domestic slaves. Also assume that there are no such things as characteristically male and female traits, virtues, skills, and weaknesses. Such thoughts must not be spoken here.

As we will see later, the film isn't presenting the city's exceptionally naive motto ("Anyone can be Anything!") as absolutely true, but the later circumspection merely modifies, rather than contradicts, the basic message which the motto represents. The self-esteem movement has created a generation of dysfunctional narcissists, yet cultural elites still refuse to abandon its fundamental conceit. Namely, that everyone is a special snowflake whose desires society should cater to and aim to fulfill.

Once in the big city, Judy observes an event in which a business owner (an elephant, which I'm sure just coincidentally corresponds to the animal which represents the GOP) denies service to a customer, citing his "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone" sign. Appalled by the sight of a business owner exercising his right of free association in business, our heroine -- while she doesn't pass a law that would force him to bake the cake (it's actually ice cream) -- threatens him with legal action on an unrelated matter, effectively pressuring him into serving the customer. Cultural cronyism at work. 

If that weren't preachy and condescending enough, in the very same scene a young fox thinks he is an elephant, a delusion for which he receives fawning adulation from surrounding adults. Trans-speciesism among children is something to be encouraged in Zootopia, let there be no doubt.

Crowning the suite of liberal propaganda points, certain predators in Zootopia (and only predators) have begun to "go savage", seemingly reverting to their bloodthirsty nature. Judy posits a biological explanation for why it is only predators going savage, and not prey. Her fox friend, a predator, is appalled by her speciesism, and the harmony of Zootopia subsequently devolves into inter-special resentment and distrust thanks to our heroine's Islamophob-- er, predatoraphobic bigotry. At this point I looked up the writing credits for the film, expecting to find Angela Merkel or Justin Trudeau. 

But fear not. Judy dutifully repents of her bigotry, genuflecting deeply before those she has offended -- even though her conclusion was eminently justified by all available evidence. But following the evidence is not always the preferred course of action, and can be misleading, as we later find out. It turns out that the fact it was only predators "going savage" was the result of a giant conspiracy! Prey can "go savage" too! Lesson learned: no matter how much reason and evidence point in a particular direction, there's always a more convoluted explanation which will account for less, but which nevertheless is in accord with liberal dogma. Think: "global warming is the primary cause of terrorism."

In a last-ditch and halfhearted attempt to moderate the film's liberal extremism, the closing monologue injects a dose of faux humility. Recognizing the Zootopian motto of "Anyone Can Be Anything!" to be overly idealistic, due to various weaknesses of animal nature (weaknesses like tradition and conservatism), the film trades 20th century leftist utopianism for a duly chastened 21st century liberalism. Utopia may not be possible as a destination (due to intractable reactionary forces forever opposing 'progress'), but as a goal, a steady advance towards utopia, along with a continual eradication of backwards-thinking conservatives and their ideology, is still always worth pursuing.

Christians and conservatives have never mistaken Hollywood for a friend, to our credit. The next step is recognizing it as the openly hostile enemy, the savage beast out to devour our children, that it plainly is.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

St. Ephraim the Syrian -- Intercession

Praying through the spiritual psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian (as compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse), the depth and richness of the prayers is astonishing. Sincere repentance, deep humility, and thanksgiving form the backbone of the prayers, which touch on all aspects of the spiritual life. Here St. Ephraim pleads for the intercessions of the Holy Saints of God.

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Who will not lament for me, who have renounced the eternal kingdom for the sake of meagre pleasures, ignoring the eternal fire? Having surrendered myself to the passions, I have destroyed the integrity of my soul and become like the unreasoning beasts.

At one time I found myself rich with gifts, but now I have come to love the poverty of the passions. I have become a stranger to the virtues and departed for the distant land of corruption. I am half dead; I have only a tiny remnant of life in me.

Because I am this way by mine own free choice, I cannot even raise mine eyes to the kindhearted Lord.

Lament, O blessed and righteous ones, for me who am caught in the embrace of passions and sin.
Lament, O ascetics, for me who am a glutton and voluptuary.
Lament, O merciful and condescending ones, for me who am hardhearted and cause much grief.
Lament, O God-pleasers, for me who strive to please men.
Lament, O ye who have attained meekness, for me who am irritable and wrathful.
Lament, O humble ones, for me who am pompous and arrogant.
Lament, O ye who have attained the nonacquisitiveness of the apostles, for me who, burdened by my love for possessions, cling to material things.
Lament, O ye who have loved lamentation and hated laughter, for me who have loved laughter and hated lamentation.
Lament, ye who contemplate the judgement that will come after death, for me who affirm that I remember the judgement but act to the contrary.

Pray, O saints of God, for my soul which is convulsed by all manner of passions. Inasmuch as you are able, help me, O saints of God.

For I know that if you beseech God, the Lover of mankind, all will be granted you from the sea of His kindness. And, like our man-befriending God, so also when I, a sinner, beseech you, do not despise my supplication; for I have not the boldness to pray to Him myself because of the multitude of my sins.

Your role it is, O saints, to intercede for sinners, God's role it is to have mercy on those who despair.
O saints of God, pray to the King on behalf of the prisoner. Pray to the Pastor on behalf of the sheep. Pray to Life on behalf of the corpse, that He might lend His hand to aid me and strengthen my humble soul in its feebleness.

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St. Ephraim of Syria, pray to God for us!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Being, Consciousness, Bliss [Review]

Astonishingly, given the somewhat deceptive (or perhaps inept) marketing of the book, this was David Bentley Hart's best book to date, which is saying something monumental. What neither the title, nor the jacket cover, nor even the blurb reviews reveal is that the book is primarily a relentless, blistering attack on the superstitions and credulous fideisms of materialism. Over and against this decrepit and impoverished philosophy of reality, and in response to its inept attempts to demystify the world, Hart turns to the common deposit of theistic metaphysical tradition for the arresting and compelling antidote. 

In the mystery of being, in the mystery of consciousness, and in the manner that they blissfully coinhere as a surfeit of physical reality, the Supernatural, the Absolute, the Good, Beauty -- in a word -- God is immediately present to us in every moment. Yet we dull and numb ourselves to this reality in innumerable ways, but especially through the barbarisms of the 'mechanical philosophy' that we have inherited from 'the Enlightenment'. 

As for the attempts of naturalism to sweep away such an obvious reality, Hart is insistent all such attempts are pitifully incoherent and suffer massive -- almost certainly insuperable -- explanatory deficiencies. While the traditional metaphysical arguments for God -- arguing from contingency to a necessary and absolute ground of being, for example -- are comparatively sublime with scarcely any of the objections lodged against them being worth serious consideration.

According to Hart, most materialistic attempts to deal with the question of being either try to dismiss the central question -- namely "why is there something rather than nothing?" -- as a fallacy of grammar or as ultimately unintelligible (it clearly is not), or to posit that the sum total of contingent, physical reality might somehow (magically and irrationally) add up to the source of its own being, and not itself be contingent. And that's when they're not being really sloppy, confusing cosmology for metaphysics and making simplistic category errors such as mistaking a quantum vaccuum for 'nothing.'

Similarly impotent are the physicalist accounts of consciousness, which Hart sees as an undeniably immaterial datum, and the most primordial one of them all, present to each of us in every moment and upon which all other realities that we perceive are dependent. Hart claims there is an infinite qualitative abyss between the neurochemical events which consciousness is dependent upon and consciousness as experienced, such that no number of purely quantitative mechanical steps could ever give rise to this peculiar and fortuitous subjective interiority, which each of us owes all our knowledge, experience, and awareness to. Hart writes:
Most attempts to provide an answer [to the question of consciousness] without straying beyond the boundaries of materialist orthodoxy are ultimately little more than vague appeals to the power of cumulative complexity: somehow, the argument goes, a sufficient number of neurological systems and subsystems operating in connection with one another will at some point naturally produce unified, self-reflective, and intentional consciousness, or at least (as strange as this may sound) the illusion of such consciousness. This is probably just another version of the pleonastic fallacy, another hopeless attempt to overcome a qualitative difference by way of an indeterminably large number of gradual quantitative steps. Even if it is not, it remains a supposition almost cruelly resistant to scientific investigation or demonstration, simply because consciousness as an actual phenomenon is entirely confined to the experience of a particular mind, a particular subject.
With this being the case, materialist accounts of consciousness reek of magical thinking. Even if we grant that one day neurobiology will exhaustively map every aspect of the brain, science will have not come a step closer to puncturing through the veil and entering into the content and interiority of the purely subjective conscious mind. One can only deny that such an immaterial, or supernatural, reality exists -- if one can at all -- by sacrificing reason itself on the alter of materialism in a self-immolating act. A high price to pay, indeed, if one is to prize 'reason' and 'empiricism' above all else, as so many scientistic materialists putatively do. 

Just as impossible to account for on materialistic terms is the innate human longing for the Good and the concomitant abhorrence of evil, which materialists must deny as being in any sense 'real' in favor of them being illusions in a deterministic universe (though few of them seem willing to fully come to terms with this logical inevitability). If you can't but do what you are bound by the laws of physics to do -- as you are no more than matter in motion -- no materialistic morality can ever amount to anything more than nonsense. As Hart puts it:
A naturalist morality is a manifest absurdity, something rather on the order of a square circle, and it requires almost heroic contortions of logic to make the notion seem credible. Fortunately, the human will to believe is indefatigable.
Attempts to ground morality in evolutionary incentives (once materialism has cleared the hurdle of being and consciousness, which it necessarily can not do) are ultimately tragically resistant to empirical verification, and must always remain just-so fables. This doesn't mean that it's completely false that certain evolutionarily advantageous 'moral' traits are preserved and passed along via natural selection acting on genetic material, but this hardly is an account of the actual nature of human morality as it exists. From a materialist perspective what would be called 'moral' can't be other than that which is evolutionarily advantageous, and our genetic so-called 'self-interest' (wherever it comes from, and whatever it is exactly), is tied to the interest of, for example, our tribe. Hence a degree of selflessness and cooperation (at least within the tribe, though usually not between tribes) is more likely to ensure the passing on of our genetic material. This hardly explains the origin of the moral impulse, however, rather only its transmission within the species. And even then, only to an incomplete degree, when we consider the many ways that the moral impulse far exceeds, and often contradicts, the dictates of evolutionary incentives. The evolutionary explanations of this phenomenon are quite clearly ludicrous attempts to force the data into a conceptual scheme which has no room for it. 

Central to Hart's argument is the claim that most of the contemporary debates surrounding God do not have as their subject the God of traditional theistic metaphysics, but rather some particularly potent cosmic demiurge, or watchmaker god, or an especially large and benevolent gentleman who is perhaps the first of a long series of causes, but not Being as such which gratuitously donates being to beings. Not the God who is utterly transcendent and fully imminent, filling all things, yet beyond all things. Not the fullness of actuality, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. etc. Once such a confusion is eliminated, and the content of the concept of God is understood as it has widely and traditionally understood by the venerable contemplative theistic traditions, most of the contemporary debates melt away into utter irrelevance.

Hart covers a great deal more than I've hinted at here: teleology and intentionality in consciousness as necessary elements of reality, and without which we can't begin to reason; the self-defeating and demonstrably false assertion of scientific empiricism having an exclusive claim to genuine knowledge; qualia as a datum inexplicable by naturalism; the materialist failure to dispel with free will; the manner in which being, consciousness, and bliss interrelate and are not only metaphysical explanations of God, but also phenomenological explanations of the human encounter with God; the absolute poverty of materialistic aesthetic accounts; mystical experience visa vis contemplative prayer and asceticism as the only 'empirical' means for investigating 'the God claim'. Just to name a few. 

Rising above the nature of the current debate on such issues -- both sides of which usually share covertly atheistic presuppositions -- Hart's lucid argumentation, acerbic wit, and stellar prose masterfully combine to produce one of the most stunning, potent, holistic, and engaging arguments for belief in God and against materialism that I've ever read.

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P.S. In one of the blurb reviews advertising the book, Hart was said to have been advocating an 'ecumenical theism'. Happily, that's not exactly accurate. To an Orthodox -- or any religious particularist, really, but especially to Orthodox -- such language can sound like syncrenistic sloppiness, if not heresy. Hart makes clear in the introduction that in attempting to define 'God' as precisely as possible, and in accordance with the overlapping metaphysical wisdom of all the venerable theistic traditions, he isn't advocating a milquetoast relativism or against particularism, and certainly not denying the truth of the full revelation of God in Christ. Rather, he is only attempting to provide clarity to an essentially philosophical debate that is desperately in need of it. He is quick to note that, such philosophical knowledge about God, is not the same as union with God or knowledge of God, in accordance with Orthodox teaching.