Monday, September 5, 2016

The Heresy of Solutionism

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 

Of the many currents seething beneath the surface of our social reality, one that is not often reflected on is our deep-seated commitment to solutionism. What I'm calling solutionism has significant overlap with pragmatism, as well as scientism and positivism, but it is more properly the belief that all problems admit of in-principle solutions that are ultimately discoverable by human reason and ingenuity.

Practically, most people in our culture think and speak as if this were true, even if they wouldn't cop to believing that all problems are soluble when the question is put to them. None of the platforms of any of the political parties in the United States, major or minor, contain any planks that read "there is not much that can be done about this, to be honest." Or "all available options in this realm are inexorably fraught with peril. Weep and gnash your teeth." Because secular theology has declared the centrality and dominion of man-without-God, and determined that if man is not yet omnipotent, he must become so.

Consider that most intractable problem: death and aging. While acknowledging that there are those intrepid, brash futurists out there who believe even these problems can be solved, let's grant that most people consider them insoluble. Do we actually behave as if they are? Do we obsess over diet and exercise, in lieu of loftier pursuits? Is cosmetic surgery a multi-billion dollar industry? Do women past a certain age refuse to state their age out loud? Do we make a cult out of youth and build large segments of our economy around it? Do we exile the elderly to spend their latter decades apart from their families, and denigrate their wisdom and experience as ignorant and backwards? Have we removed care of the dead and cemeteries from our churches and churchyards to more remote professionals and locations? None of these actions will solve death and dying, of course, but deep down that's what we hope we're doing.

In The Elementary Particles, which examines the problem of death and the urge to overcome it, Michel Houellebecq writes:
In contemporary Western society, death is like white noise to a man in good health; it fills his mind when his dreams and plans fade. With age, the noise becomes increasingly insistent, like a dull roar with the occasional screech. In another age the sound meant waiting for the kingdom of God; it is now an anticipation of death. 
Elsewhere in the book, he depicts the lengths people go to in order to turn down the white noise, and to push death to the periphery of their awareness. For want of a solution, at least at this date, we will deny the problem for as long as it's feasible.

If our actions reveal that we believe death can be solved, any lesser problem—and every problem is lesser—must not only be soluble, but comparatively simple. The planet will soon be destroyed by anthropogenic catastrophic global-warming, you say? We should have acted decades ago and it's too late, but still, we must "do something." We've enacted every gun restriction we could dream up, save confiscation, and people still get shot? It is imperative that we "do something" more. A just political order can only arise from a virtuous people, but we are corrupt and decadent? There must be an app for that.

The desperate anxiety of our society can in part be seen as the result of belief in the solubility of all problems, which in turn can be understood as the fruit of our Enlightenment addiction to rational certainty. Returning to The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq writes:
There is no power in the world—economic, political, religious or social—that can compete with rational certainty. Western society is interested beyond all measure in philosophy and politics, and the most vicious, ridiculous conflicts have been about philosophy and politics; it has also had a passionate love affair with literature and the arts, but nothing in its history has been as important as the need for rational certainty. The West has sacrificed everything to this need: religion, happiness, hope—and, finally, its own life.
Rationalism gives way to seeing technological mastery of the world as an end in itself and humanity's raison d'etre. Technological advances further feed the illusion of the independence and potential omnipotence of man.

Sober reflection on the human condition reveals that most of our perennial problems admit of no solution within the immanent frame. Technological and social advances often introduce new problems and unintended consequences. At best we're left navigating a system of trade-offs, with most of society's problems being insoluble. But this is cause for sobriety, not despair. The stuff of life is, blessedly, not found in solving the world's problems. If it were, no man to date would have lived.

For Christians, this should be rather obvious, because if we were called to implement societal reforms and build utopia on earth, Our Lord probably would have mentioned this to us at some point. As Nicolás Gómez Dávila puts it, "that Christianity may not solve social problems is no reason to commit apostasy except for those who forget that it never promised to solve them." Instead, Christ came preaching a gospel of repentance and obedience to His commandments, the fruit of which is salvation, fully realized only in the eschaton.

The process of repentance and keeping the commandments entails things like serving, and giving to, the poor, of course, but not with the world's end of eliminating poverty in view. Poverty never appears as an enemy in the gospel; wealth does. And, as Christ's encounter with the rich young ruler reveals (Matt. 19:16-22), the problem of wealth is solved by detachment from the things of the world, and attachment to the things of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom appears in the immanent frame, especially in the worshiping, sacramental life of the Church, by "laying aside all earthly cares", as we sing at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church. Solutions to the worst problems—sin and death—exist in Christ, but they are eternal realities and gifts from God, not worldly projects and designs.

The folly of solutionism was first clearly seen at the Tower of Babel. Its modern day analogs would be the Headquarters of the United Nations and the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.; its antidote—its solution—is the cathedral.

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.


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.


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