Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Materialism, Neuhaus, and More


For all the talk you hear of English being a language with a large number of words, I think we still end up wasting a lot of time because we have too few when it matters, causing confusion — as in the case of using “liberty” in about twelve different ways or “liberal” in eight or “libertarian” in two and a half. How different some of our political arguments would be (and how much clearer) if we had completely different-sounding words for different and easily confused senses of what are now identical words (likewise, I recently lamented that we don’t have carefully-stratified language for referring separately to things that are bad tastewise, bad morally, bad enough to warrant legal action, bad for some people but not others, etc.).

Likewise, terrible misunderstandings are bound to happen if you say you have a “materialist” worldview, as I certainly do — in some sense. With Father Richard Neuhaus’s memorial service taking place here in New York City yesterday, it wouldn’t have been a good time to gain sympathetic listeners in some quarters by calling oneself a materialist — but I think this is in large part because people lump the term together with ideas like those connoted by terms such as “materialistic” (in the sense of greedy — as if that weren’t itself a dangerous, loaded term) not to mention “reductionist.”

But one can see the world as material, physically-explicable, and devoid of supernatural elements of any kind without “caring only about shallow things and possessions” — and one can technically be a reductionist while taking the very reasonable Hofstadterian view that the interesting things in human mental life tend to happen at the level of abstraction, not the level of the atom.

And on a purely aesthetic level, I’ve written before that I agree, for instance, something is lost when vampires and werewolves — monsters born of our deepest fears about death and bodily integrity, which ought rightly to remain confusing and awe-inspiring — are revealed to be mere products of two virus strains, as is the case in the Underworld movies (but I’ll see Rise of the Lycans next week or so anyway). I’m not the sort of geek parodied in the great song “Future Soon” by Jonathan Coulton, recently mentioned in a comment thread on this site by my friend Chuck Blake. The “Future Soon” geek eschews psychological richness and conventional self-improvement in favor of thinking that sometime soon, through a few mere techno-fixes, “everything that makes me weak and strange will be engineered away.” At the same time, I do think genetic enhancement, cybernetics, and all that good stuff will prove helpful.

By contrast, the one time I ever spoke to Father Neuhaus, ironically, he was explaining to me — in my capacity as an associate producer for John Stossel, working on the last show of his I was part of, Tampering with Nature — why he was opposed to life-extending technologies, thinking that life should end with natural death, just as it should begin and be seen to begin, he said, with natural conception. (Strangely, as my then-co-worker Debbie Colloton and I have repeatedly noted over the years, a lot of people we talked to or did full interviews with at the Stossel Unit seemed to pass away a short time afterwards, from tiny car-airbag-mandate-resenting Violet Cosgrove to Atlantic editor Michael Kelly.)


I may have disagreed with Neuhaus somewhat about life-extending technology, but I admired his speaking ability (and felt stupid after first thinking “He’s a great speaker!” when I later remembered “Oh, right, he’s a priest — that’s his job”), both in an appearance I saw him do with Ramesh Ponnuru after First Things’ controversial “End of Democracy?” symposium and at a gathering of the Phillips Fellows (a few of whom I’m still hoping will grace our Feb. 19 Debate at Lolita Bar with their presences — but we’ll get someone to do it).

I was also entertained by the story of how Neuhaus came to fission off from the Rockford Institute, over their magazine Chronicles’ mounting opposition to immigration. Apparently, the Rockford Institute actually had the locks changed on Neuhaus’s offices at one point, not planning to let pro-immigration staffers in to do their cosmopolitan dirty work (jobs that could go to real, immigration-fearing, native-born Americans, I suppose). Eventually, the two factions just amicably parted, I gather, and Neuhaus edited First Things for years thereafter.

And I remain sufficiently tolerant of the Rockford Institute that when I was in Rockford, IL years ago for the wedding of Stossel producer Kristi Kendall, I tried to find out if the Institute had any activities going on that I could attend during downtime — and only after a disappointing, futile search for such activities did I remember the town is right near Chicago, where friends of mine lived and could easily be visited. This gives you some idea how nerdily I prioritize.

(Incidentally, I notice girlfriend Helen blogs about someone who hopes to meet Neuhaus someday in the afterlife — and Helen’s noted that she does not think there are now ghostly people wandering around in the afterlife but rather that a full, fleshy bodily resurrection of the dead will occur at some point in the future, which may well be standard Catholic theology but struck me as odd — then again, all y’all people who believe in the supernatural pretty much look the same to me.)


In one small way, if I wanted to be generous about it, I suppose I could concede that my materialism leads to wanting a minimal law code via a sort of indifference, but only in this sense:

Basically, I think people who are troubled to the point of legislation by what’s in other people’s heads (and thus want to censor or use law for culture-war ends) are whining about nothing — culture and symbolism is largely just neural firings that can be ignored or paid attention to at your leisure (look away from the porn, etc.). But once I’m threatened with arrest, it’s a different story. Hate me all you like, but only in so far as that hate leads to a likely risk of fisticuffs or gunplay does it really impinge on my freedom.

Thus my focus on econ, not cultural symbolism. Guns, not presidential speeches. Taxes, not our “conceptualization of the Other.” Regulations, not popular attitudes. (Also, though this is a slightly separate and more subtle point: policies that affect 300 million people in big ways, not so much policies — wrong though they might be — that affect only 1% of the populace, or just three artists, or just 300 terrorists in Guantanamo. I’m not saying those things don’t matter, but some attempt at a utility calculus in prioritizing these things is morally obligatory.)

Science and econ put us on the surest footing and affect the most lives, in real and visible ways. A lot of the rest is smoke and mirrors — and goes away the moment we change the conversation or shift our attention elsewhere. Presto! I have just reconceptualized my relationship to the Other, to Nature, and to the institutions of the patriarchy. Presto! Back to normal again. See, it doesn’t really matter without some resulting change in the physical world, does it?


And by the way, if I think the material world matters, is it really so strange (as Jesse Walker [CORRECTION: I may be thinking of another writer -- more tomorrow] seemed to find it in a recent article) that libertarians of my sort have tended to prefer the business-friendly right over the business-bashing left? At the end of the day, we need to eat, wear clothing, live in shelter, etc. Companies make these things. Government merely takes money away from the people who make these things — and no amount of blather about who inherited which aspect of the Enlightenment, which party is most hypocritical, and what Rawls would do if his head were stuck up his veil of ignorance any farther, etc., etc. can change that fundamental pro-business/anti-business dichotomy, which the right tended for a long time to be roughly, sorta, more or less on the correct side of, their largely-symbolic religious posturings notwithstanding.

But Jesse [unless it wasn't him in the first place, of course] is forgiven because of (1) this great piece bashing Thomas Frank, about whom I’ve complained a couple times on this blog recently, and because of (2) his previously-noted radio show at, which is moving to Tuesdays at noon Eastern, he says. Thanks to the miracle of radio, I will continue to listen in.


dave said...

In 1984, the oppressive government reduces the number of words, thus making their meanings more ambiguous. So maybe it makes sense that libertarian has a more precise meaning than liberal.

Jesse Walker said...

I’d mount a defense, but I’m not sure which article of mine you’re referring to. I mostly stay out of these “Is libertarianism left-wing or right-wing?” debates, which tend to turn on the fact that (picking up from your lede) there’s about a dozen meanings apiece for “left and “right.” My official stance on libertarian alliances is omnivorous.

Todd Seavey said...

OK, agreed — fusion across the whole board. Or, more humbly, a “marinade” of libertarian thinking wherever it’ll stick, to use Nick Gillespie’s term. We can’t really afford to be too choosy at this point.

Todd Seavey said...

As now noted in brackets above, I may have been attributing to Jesse a piece by someone else, so I’ll try to track down the article in question — which was a good piece, as I recall, though overly dismissive of the Republican strategy, so I hope I haven’t too badly tarred Jesse regardless, but I will try to verify and give credit where it’s due if I haven’t done so here.

Brian Doherty said...

Todd–I believe you have the Neuhaus/Rockford feud history a bit askew–it preceded FIRST THINGS and involved an earlier organization Neuhaus ran for Rockford, the Center for Religion and Society. After he was fired by Rockford, he launched First Things

Todd Seavey said...

Altered in bets-hedging fashion above now, on the assumption you’re correct (usually a very safe one).