30 January 2016

The New York Times is telling us what we already knew...

Anyone who has followed the Democratic side of the presidential race so far will have been puzzled by the overwhelming bias demonstrated in major media outlets (the Times, CNN, HuffPost, MSNBC, etc.) in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Senator Bernie Sanders.  Clinton is trumpeted constantly; Sanders is given periodic grunts of acknowledgment.

Today the Times Editorial Board published their formal endorsement of Clinton, in which they make their case for her candidacy.

Given so much bias, so liberally displayed over the past year, one would expect a strong argument. But when presented straight on, the Times's case for Clinton is full of "empty propaganda slogans" and bland campaign promises that fail to really distinguish her from Bernie Sanders in a positive way, or show that she is in any substantial way superior to him as a candidate.  Ironically, the comparisons they make between Clinton and Sanders end up putting the latter in a better light, since her vague (but un-described) "plans" are set against his very concrete proposals for economic and healthcare reform.

23 January 2016

Traditionalism and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

(This was written over the past few evenings.  The sequel will focus more on traditionalism in the context of contemporary philosophical responses to the democratic crisis of multiculturalism.)

One of the primary problems of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on pluralism and the free exercise of religion, is learning how to play host to groups with fundamentally different viewpoints.  How does a society maintain a well-ordered public square without either biasing the rules of discourse and behavior to favor a particular positive stance, or banishing all metaphysical claims from public discourse and enforcing a purely negative secularism?

In the US, the difficulty of mediating conflicts between rival belief systems and cultural commitments has been ameliorated by two factors: first, by the predominately Christian character of  both the government and its underlying population—including immigrants; second, by American culture, which tends to infect immigrant populations soon after their arrival, dissolving cultural commitments and identities into the melting pot of economic pragmatism.  In Europe, where the native populations tend to have stronger national and cultural identities and immigrant populations tend to be less diverse, the process of naturalization is less automatic.  Immigrants tend to maintain their own subcultures as open alternatives to assimilation, because the cultural cost of assimilating is higher and the difficulty of sustaining a vibrant expatriate community lower.

In Europe, problem of  democratic pluralism has taken on a new urgency in recent years, as the strident secularism of the French Fifth Republic comes into increasingly violent conflict with Islam. Even if this core problem of liberal democracy is less visible in America today than it is in France, it is no less real.  Part of living in an increasingly liberal and democratic world is dealing with an endless string of crises resulting from cultural shifts and the absorption of new populations.  It is a problem the American religious right is increasingly familiar with, as we come to terms with our defeat in the culture wars.

The Romans dealt with the problem of cultural assimilation by accommodating conquered peoples and integrating their local religions (in part) into the Roman Pantheon.  Roman paganism, like Persian paganism before it, offered a sort of quasi-universalism—everyone's local deities were welcome, cultural practices were allowed to continue in the main, and the important civic rites of the conquerors were merely annexed to each local cult.  Where this universalism was hindered, the sword lubricated its progress with blood.

Modern liberal democrats, however, are mostly uncomfortable using the sword to solve the problems of cultural assimilation.  This is not to say that military force has not been used to settle ideological conflicts (one need only think of the Reign of Terror), but that the civic ideals of liberal democracy militate against this kind of solution.  And when one looks at the world of European philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century, a preoccupation with the development of discursive (as opposed to martial) solutions to the problem of pluralism is evident.  Why?

For most of the first two centuries of modern liberal democracy, the majority of these democracies were culturally homogeneous.  Ethnic divisions were primarily among European groups, with non-Europeans making up small, often disenfranchised, minorities.  Whatever their religious differences, Europeans (and groups grafted into the European tradition through colonization) share a common Christian moral outlook and a deeply-rooted Latin cultural heritage, both of which create a common ground which served as the foundation for political negotiation.  Political disputes within liberal democracies have, with a few major exceptions, dealt with fairly modest social and economic adjustments, rather than the fundamental re-invention of the political order.

This common ground is essential to the stability and survival of liberal regimes.  In America the ambient political culture encourages us to believe that the stability of our system of government is primarily a result of the excellence of the written constitution. But even supposing the stability of the United States was made possible by its constitution, it is important to realize that the constitution in its very nature is merely an instrument of popular political action: if it has worked, it has worked because conditions in society necessary to make it work have been present.  And if the cultural conditions for the stability of the constitutional regime are removed, the constitution will not be capable of sustaining itself.

In the 18th century David Hume outlined a vision of  constitutional government based on his desire to eliminate the problem of political instability that resulted from feuding political factions and crises of succession.  Hume's ideas about procedural neutrality have formed the basis of modern liberal regimes: The state is organized not on specific conceptions of the good or beliefs about transcendent order, but around value-neutral mediating structures which provide a venue for rival factions and conflicting ideologies to work things out, or to exchange authority in periods of transition.  The principle that constitutional governments should be designed to accommodate conflicts and cultural instability is one of the founding principles of the American Republic, and is eloquently defended in the Federalist Papers.

Constitutional procedures are designed to function as a neutral framework which mediates political differences and allows for stable negotiation and transitions of power.  Logically, then, any constitutional regime will cease to function properly when the arrangement at the basis of the constitutional regime is somehow rejected by its member groups. This can happen in a number of ways, but I would like to consider two in particular.

If a given democratic regime survives long enough, an ancillary political culture will inevitably develop around it, based on the enshrinement of ideas related to its core institutions.  As populations migrate in and out of a given territory, the common ground shared by all factions of a given democracy will necessarily become thinner, in order to accommodate the cultural compromises required for common participation in republican government.  But as the consensus uniting the various factions thins, the one element being reinforced necessarily and across the board, to guarantee the stability of the liberal constitutional arrangement, is commitment to liberal democratic procedures.  These procedures gradually cease to be thought of as practical mechanisms for the mediation of political differences, and are transformed into abstract moral principles: the constitutional preference against an established church becomes a principle upholding the secularity of the public sphere; the constitutional need to allow rival factions to exercise political functions is transformed into a doctrine of universal toleration, and so on.  This is not to say that these ideas are spontaneously invented by the population, but that through the cultivation of civic piety and the development of a strong tradition of liberal government, they will tend to become more compelling to the population and more widely adopted.  What is important here is the transformation of non-propositional procedural mechanisms into value-laden moral claims: What began as a neutral playing field begins to become the property of a particular ideological faction.

As the ideology of liberalism develops, the proponents of this ideology cease to see themselves as subscribing to an ideology—after all, the thing they support is nothing other than the neutral middle ground, the very foundation of democratic compromise.  Soon every faction other than the liberal faction is identified as being anti-liberal, precisely because they have interests and beliefs distinct from liberal neutrality, which they want to bring to the constitutional bargaining table.  And the more dominant the liberal ideology becomes, the more easily the neutral procedures of constitutional government are co-opted by the liberal faction, so that the interpretation of constitutional provisions is adjusted to allow the exclusion of dissent from the public sphere.  What is most bizarre about the resulting situation is that, in effect, the constitutional regime will have collapsed (after all, it no longer performs its mediating function), but it is not acknowledged as having collapsed, because the people who have destroyed it see themselves as its perfect proponents, and all its central traditional elements are preserved intact.

Non-liberals in liberal democracies today are faced with a scenario increasingly similar to the one just described.  They may try to push back the rising tide of liberal ideology, and reclaim the procedural neutrality promised to them by the constitutional arrangement, but it's a losing battle, and this is clear for two reasons.  First, and most simply, because the conflation of liberal procedural commitments and liberal ideology is too easy, and in any stable democratic society the population will be primed to shift from one to the other without much mental effort.  Second, because liberals are ceasing to be willing to cooperate within a constitutional framework with people who do not share their convictions.  Those who refuse to buy into liberal ideology lack sufficient political common ground for their participation in government to be allowed, and even if they are not forcibly excluded, compromise and political negotiation become more and more difficult to accomplish.

The liberal endgame teaches us an important lesson—one many who stand outside the liberal ideological consensus in America have long refused to accept.  The survival of a liberal democratic regime, and its flourishing, cannot hang primarily on the integrity of its constitutional procedures or neutral mediating structures.  The Humean goal of creating a government procedurally designed to withstand cultural turmoil and regime change is admirable, and I think extremely useful in the contemporary world, with its gigantic states and massive populations.  But Hume's proceduralism, while good, is not only insufficient, but not even the primary stabilizing force in liberal regimes.  Liberal democracies, republics of the American sort, stand or fall on account of the integrity and stability of the culture of the underlying population.

(To be continued...)

20 January 2016

Let's Pour Coca-Cola on the Priest While He's Asleep

Listen to this, just for fun.

18 January 2016

Prolegomena to the Construction of an Argument Analogous to St. Thomas's Fourth Way

A reader wrote to me recently asking for a continuation of the dialogue given in this post.  While I never continued that dialogue, it was an expression of an internal dialogue I've been having with myself for the past few months about the natural knowability of the real order of perfection in things.  The topic emerged in the course of my work revising my commentary on the treatise De Deo Uno, questions 1-26 of St. Thomas's Summa Theologiae.  Below I present an excerpt from a draft of my commentary on Summa Theologiae Ia q. 2 a. 3, in which I lay the groundwork for an argument constructed along the lines of St. Thomas's "Fourth Way".  Allow me to emphasize that this is a draft and the line of thought is imperfect, though I think the rudiments are somewhat compelling.


One of the most ordinary things a person can do is make a judgment of something’s quality or value. “These oranges are bad.” “That movie was good.” “The traffic lights are poorly timed.” “These mosquitos are terrible.” In one way, these judgments of value can be thought of as mere expressions of our dispositions toward things. Thus, saying something is “good” or “bad” is just another way of saying that I like or dislike that thing. People make value judgments in this way all the time.

Suppose however, that you are a gardener, and the spring tulips are just coming up. You compare them all, find one that is most excellent, and cut it. Now, you have a perfect tulip. But what makes the tulip perfect? Is the tulip really perfect, or is it only perfect by virtue of the fact that you like it?

There are two ways of answering this question: subjectively and objectively. On one hand, suppose you are growing tulips in order to use their flowers in an arrangement. You have a set of preferences that determine whether you judge a tulip to be more or less perfect, and those preferences may be based on your tastes and needs, rather than something intrinsic about the tulip plants themselves. For example, maybe you want only yellow tulips, and not red ones, or tulips whose stems are a certain length. Granted, your preferences are limited by what is naturally possible for a tulip, but they are imposed upon the tulip by you.

On the other hand, we can talk about the intrinsic perfection of a tulip plant. What does that mean? Well, we observe among all the tulip plants in your garden a commonality of makeup, structure, or form. All of them behave in the same way, develop along the same lines, have the same general features, and so on. It is this common form which makes each tulip a tulip, and which defines the species to which they all belong. Granted, in each individual plant, what is common to all the tulips is instantiated differently, based on the particular variations in material circumstances, nourishment, and so on. But we have no real difficulty in recognizing the sameness of makeup and identity between all the members of the species.

Once we recognize the sameness or specific form which characterizes all of these plants, we can start to look at each individual plant, not just in terms of its own chance features, but in relation to the common structure or specific form that unites it with all the other members of its kind. In other words, we start to see the tulip in relation to its essence, instead of just seeing it through its particular visible features. And this understanding of a thing in terms of its essence makes it possible for us to judge how well the individual instantiates the common form of the species. Does this tulip have robust, green foliage? Is its stem strong? Is it blossoming? Instead of taking each of these facts indifferently, or as features that we happen to like on account of our aesthetic preferences, we can understand them as signs of the overall health or disease of the plant—clues as to whether that common form is well-instantiated in it, or is in the midst of decomposition. And we associate these characteristics, which are not subjective, but intrinsic to the thing in question, with an objective feature of the tulip as a tulip, which we call its degree of perfection.

The notion of an objective degree of perfection is quite extraordinary, because it tells us something real about the plant: that there is a real standard according to which we can tell whether a plant is doing “better” or “worse” objectively. In a way, this thought might seem very obvious, even trivial. After all, we talk about things being healthy or unhealthy all the time. But if we accept the reality of common forms and intrinsic degrees of perfection, this means that the notions of “good” and “bad” have at least a foothold of objectivity in the natural world. To put it differently, it proves wrong Hamlet’s famous dictum that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”^[William Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.] Of course, strictly speaking we have not proved just now the claim that there are intrinsic degrees of perfection, since a good philosopher would be able to raise a large number of objections to our analysis so far. The objections, to the extent that they are cogent, can (I believe) be answered, though the task of naming and replying to them is too much for the present. But at least we have shown how the notion of perfection integrates with the ordinary experience of reality, and makes sense of something very basic in that experience.

Degrees of Perfection Across Species

If we accept that there is an objective reality to the degrees of perfection of individual members of particular species, based on the fulness or strength of their individual instantiation of their specific forms, we have a universe full of different kinds of things, each with its own degree of perfection, relative to its species.

But an interesting problem occurs: in each case, the perfection of an individual thing is based on the comparison between that individual and the species as a whole. We judge something’s degree of perfection by comparing what this individual thing (a tulip, say) actually is, with what the best member of that species would be, as a member of that species. Does the tulip have wilted leaves? Well the best tulip would have very healthy robust leaves. Does the tulip have a strong stem? The best tulip would have a very strong stem. Can the tulip take in nutrients and reproduce? And so on. This kind of comparison, though, is always going to be relative to the species a thing belongs to. It makes no sense to judge whether a squirrel is perfect or not by comparing it to the ideal tulip. We cannot reasonably say “This squirrel must be diseased! It has no roots at all!” So this leaves us with a question: is perfection as an objective feature of things merely relative to individual species, or is there some sort of universal order of perfection, by which one species can be judged as more or less perfect than another as species?

In order to answer this question, we need to look more closely at the process by which we developed the idea of perfection in the first place. Our original notion of perfection was based on the commonness of the specific form shared between various individuals. This plant and that plant have the same structure, features, tendencies, and abilities. The integral makeup which constitutes the life (and life-cycle) of each plant is common to all the members of the species. Some investigative skill is necessary to identify this common specific form in the first place. We need to abstract what is essential from the peculiar features of each individual plant, and see the way different structural features, which are instantiated variously in the individuals, correspond to the analogous features and forms in other individual plants of the same species.

We can develop a more general notion of perfection by simply extending this analogical approach, and looking for greater or lesser degrees of unity and similarity across species. This oak tree may not be a tulip, but it shares with the tulip certain analogous forms and tendencies, such as the ability to grow and reproduce, or the possession of foliage and roots. By virtue of the real similarity of forms, we can group the two plants together, recognizing that while they may not have a common specific form, their like features unite them under the same genus or family of things.^[Note of course that our use of “genus” here does not correspond to the strict taxonomic use of the word among biologists, although the reader has probably noticed some similarity between them.] And once we establish a generic unity, we can use the strength of the generic community of species to identify trans-specific standards of perfection. For example, we might identify the genus “ferns”, and determine that one common feature of all the species which belong to this genus is that they produce spores. The particular features of the spores are left unspecified, but the general characteristic is known across the species as a definite sign of perfection.

As we expand the genera we choose to focus on, we can develop more and more universal notions of perfection. If we focus on “plants”, we can speak of autotrophy and photosynthesis. If we focus on “living things” we can speak of growth and reproduction. Finally we could generalize our consideration to substances as such, and we might identify unity or stability of form as signs of perfection.

However, as we follow this course, the usefulness of our analysis is progressively diluted by the breadth of the analogy. Though this method of forming trans-species standards of perfection does indeed give us a sense of what, across the board, makes things more or less perfect within their own species, we have a further question: Is there a hierarchy of species themselves? What would such a hierarchy be founded on?

Since the notion of perfection we have developed so far depends on the extent to which a thing stably retains or perfectly instantiates its specific form, one way to rank the perfection of species as such is by the way they possess their forms. For example, think about a heap of sand. As a thing, the heap of sand has certain determinate qualities: the arrangement of its parts into a whole, the material composition of those parts, the shape of the whole, its weight and density, etc. But the identity of the sand heap as an integral whole is not very robust. The sand heap has no ability to retain its form as it interacts with other things, or to restore itself, or grow, or reproduce itself by its own power. Nor does the sand heap as a whole add anything to the individual acts of its parts. As a heap, it is really just a collection of inert individuals.

Compare that sand heap to a plant. The plant is comparable to the sand heap in a number of ways: it has weight and density, is composed of a variety of distinct parts. But the plant’s form is sustained in the plant in a way that the sand heap’s is not. The plant is capable of taking things that are not part of it, and integrating them into its form. In contrast to the sand heap, being part of the plant genuinely adds something to the activity of these individual components. The properties of the plant’s parts are actualized by their participation in the plant’s life in a way that they would not be simply on their own, outside the plant. (For example, a single protein or bit of cellulose does little outside of a plant but decay, but within the plant it participates in a large number of extremely complex functions in coordination with the other plant parts.) Most extraordinarily, the plant is capable of perpetuating its form by reproduction. All of these features distinguish the form of the plant as a form from the form of the sand heap. We say that the form of the plant has more integrity as a form than the form of the heap—not only does the unity of the plant have more robustness than the unity of the sand heap, but the actuality of the plant in its natural behaviors enhances its material parts in a way that being part of a heap does not, and of course the specific form possessed by the plant has the ability to transcend its individual matter and communicate itself to the next generation.

This comparison between the formal integrity of a plant and a heap gives us the beginning of a hierarchy of perfections. Some things are more perfect than others, not just on account of the fulness with which they instantiate a common specific form, but also on account of the integrity of the form of which they are instances. The form of a plant is somehow more real than the form of a heap, in that it makes more of a real difference for the matter of the plant than the heap’s does for the grains of sand, and sustains itself with greater integrity regardless of the material conditions in which it finds itself, but perhaps most of all because it is partially independent of its individual matter. At the same time, the plant’s form contains in itself all the same sorts of formal perfections available to the sand heap—weight, substantiality, existence, etc.

Next, consider the difference between a plant and an animal, for example a cow. All the characteristics of the plant’s form that set it above the sand heap are shared by the cow as well: the ability to grow and nourish itself by integrating foreign matter into its own substance, the ability to heal, the ability to reproduce, the fact that being part of a cow elicits a variety of complex acts out of the otherwise inert components of the cow. But the form of the cow has a peculiar feature that the plant’s form does not—cows are capable of incorporating the forms of things around them into themselves not just by way of nutrition and growth, but also through sensation and imagination. A cow can be more than a cow, by seeing and hearing whatever is in its environment, and by retaining impressions of these things in its memory. Through perception and memory, the form of the cow becomes more than just the form of a cow, and also becomes the form of the grass, the places the cow roams, of other animals and people and things. Note that just as with the contrast between the plant and the sand heap, the difference here is not a simple amplification of a perfection already present in the the plant’s form, but the addition of a kind of formality not possessed at all by the plant. The form of the cow is in some way more real or more of a form than the form of the plant was, inasmuch as it rises above the form of its separate parts.

The cow is limited in its ability to incorporate the forms of other things into its own form, by its inability to analyze and abstractly understand its environment. If we pass from a cow to a rational animal, a human, we find not only the perfections which made the form of the cow more perfect than the form of the tulip—sensation, memory, desire, intention—but others as well. Humans are capable of understanding things not only in terms of their material forms, but also in terms of their structure, mechanics, essences, causes, etc. And they are capable of judging things not just in relation to their bodily appetites or fears, but in terms of their objective and intrinsic perfection. In other words, the abstract forms received in the mind of a human person are more real and capture more of the form than those received into the mind of a cow. They are not just sensory, but essential, and not just relative, but objective.

Let’s summarize our findings so far: first, we noted that it was possible to draw analogies across different kinds of things and find common standards according to which they could be said to be more perfect relative to their species. Then we compared four different kinds of things: a heap of sand, a plant, a cow, and a human. We found a common theme: some of these items have the characteristic perfections of others, but compound them by adding something extra: the plant can grow, heal, and pass on its form. The cow can add to its own form the sensible forms of things outside itself. The human can know and assess the real essences of things and their causes. The further we go in this series, the less attached a particular form is to the individual matter of a thing: the tulip’s form can endure after the matter of this tulip decays; the cow’s form is capable of receiving sensory forms of others into itself without becoming what it sees; the human’s form is capable of receiving the essences of things into itself, without losing its own essence. If we were to guess at a next step, it would involve something which was capable of overcoming the human dependence on matter (i.e. sense knowledge) to receive the forms of other things. Beyond that, a form which was in no way dependent on matter would be even more perfect.

Fortunately, we do not need to have a perfect understanding of the whole hierarchy of perfections in order to follow Thomas’s argument. The important points are (1) that there is a real hierarchy of species with respect to the intrinsic perfection of their forms, and (2) that the higher we go in this hierarchy, the more a thing’s form will have a reality independent of matter. However, our grasp of the hierarchy remains vague. Why should that be?

We can understand the intrinsic difficulty in mastering this universal hierarchy by thinking back again to the means by which we were able to establish a hierarchy of perfections in a tulip. We needed to have knowledge of a wide variety of tulips, and especially a knowledge of healthy tulips, in order to make any judgments about the relative perfection of any individual tulip. Supposing we only saw diseased tulips, would we be able to recognize accurately what constituted the perfection of a tulip? Only partially and indistinctly. Without having the highest element in this hierarchy of perfections available to analyze, it remains difficult to place all the other elements of the hierarchy relative to each other. And this is because in some way all judgments of perfection are dependent on knowledge of what is most perfect in a given genus.

To conclude, we will take up St. Thomas’s preferred example, and the fulness of the problem will become clear. In his statement of the Fourth Way, St. Thomas refers to the relationship between fire (which is essentially hot) and hot things in general. We compare the heat of one hot thing to another hot thing by implicitly holding them against the common standard of heat, which is fire. In St. Thomas’s mind, fire stands apart from all other kinds of heat, because for a fire, to be hot is part of the essence of what it is—you cannot have a fire without heat, since the rapid propagation of heat is what makes a fire a fire. Other hot things differ from fire in this respect: they have heat as an accidental attribute, but not as a constitutive feature of what they are.

Imagine a world in which we only ever saw things that were warm, but never any essential source of warmth, never any fire. We would have a sense that there was some ultimate source of heat, but nothing to refer back to, to explain the original warmth of all the cooling objects around us. Or imagine (as Plato famously has us imagine in his Republic) people whose whole experience in life consisted of seeing shadows of things dance along the walls of a cave. There might be a sense that something more real than the shadows lay behind them, but it would be difficult to grasp what that was.

With the universal hierarchy of perfections, we have exactly this problem: every perfection we witness in the world is relative to the being of a particular species or genus, and is therefore only a partial expression of absolute and universal perfection. We might find an excellent tulip, but that tulip does not embody perfection as such—only a certain tulip-like approximation of absolute perfection. And the same goes for all the other things we have discussed. But none of these things are perfect in and of themselves, just as none of them have the fulness of what it means to exist in and of themselves. And, once we realize this, we are ready to move to the final principle in St. Thomas’s argument.

15 January 2016

Early Morning Confusion

Most days the first thing I do upon waking is open up my laptop and run through my RSS reader and the front pages of the major news sites.  This morning I saw the following headline above an article by Sandro Magister:

When It Comes To Gay Unions, Bergoglio Doesn't Say No
They are about to become law in Italy, but the pope is discouraging Catholics 
from raising the barricades.

My first thought was "gay people are unionizing in Italy? Is this part of the 'gay lobby'?"

12 January 2016

Aphasia and Annual Updates

Occasionally it disturbs me that I have taken the name of a serious medical condition and used it as the title of my blog.  When I started The Paraphasic, it was called "Paraphasic Manifestos", the idea being that I frequently express myself poorly and fail to think things through to the extent that I should, so that the blog would be a collection of over-serious ideological declarations ("manifestos"), riddled with errors of speech and mis-expressed ideas ("paraphasic").  The wryness of the title doesn't really match the seriousness of actual aphasia and paraphasia, though, which makes it seem (perhaps once a year or so) like it might be irreverent.  I hope no one has been offended by it.

This morning I discovered several videos on YouTube dealing with forms of aphasia.  First there was this video of Byron Peterson, who suffers from Wernicke's Aphasia, a condition in which he speaks fluidly (and with normal intonation and gusto, even) but the words his mouth produces have little connection to the thoughts he means to express by them ("word salad").  Mr. Peterson's account of himself in this video is wonderful.  I hope that, should I ever lose language, I am half as easygoing and cheerful as this man.

Mr. Byron's video led me to a bunch of other videos, including several by a woman named Sarah Scott.  Ms. Scott suffered a stroke at the age of 18, with resulting aphasia.  Over the past six years she has recorded annual video interviews in which she discusses her progress, current difficulties, and what she's doing.  Here are the first and sixth of these update videos.

Ms. Scott's videos led me to another series of update videos, done by a man named Jack Hurley, who suffered a stroke at age 15, resulting in Broca's Aphasia, from which he has largely recovered.  Here is the first of Mr. Hurley's update videos, in which he gives an account of his stroke and personal difficulties.

These update videos seem to be common among people who experience aphasia.  It's a great idea because, as Ms. Scott explains above, progress can be very slow, and can seem non-existent, but it's relatively easy to notice differences in a video record.  The videos function not as diaries or annals so much as recorded demonstrations of a person giving an account of himself, so that one can see "where I was" in terms of speaking ability and fluency at a given stage.

It would be interesting to do the same thing, not on account of aphasia, but just to track one's life — once a year, a general account of oneself, one's difficulties, and one's present occupation.  Could be worthwhile.

11 January 2016

David Bowie

I would like to write up some thoughts on David Bowie.  I haven't formulated them yet, but I recommend this interview from 1999, which is really quite interesting.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (10)


The third volume of Robert Caro's Years of Lyndon Johnson is the longest of the four published to date (including notes, it spans 1191 pages).  This volume deals with ten of Johnson's twelve years in the United States Senate (1949 – 1958).  Johnson's tenure as Leader of the Senate Democrats seems to represent to Caro the one of the apexes of Johnson's political life, a time when his unique talents were perfectly suited to the office he held, and his personality was able to do the most to transform political institutions into instruments of personal power.  Master of the Senate is an incredible book, not only for the reason shared by all the volumes of this series — because it is a compelling and finely detailed biographical narrative — but also because it paints a portrait of the United States Senate as one of the great moderating institutions of the United States Government, an element of aristocratic oligarchy which preserved the American democracy from the violent tides of public opinion and offered a conservative bulwark for the interests of minorities against those of the states with the most people and money.  This volume stands on its own as an incredible study in the purpose and operations of the Senate.


The first hundred pages of Master of the Senate are about the Senate itself.  Caro gives an outline of the Senate's history, focusing on the peculiarities of the institution, its governing ethos, and the major controversies and personalities that have occupied its attention since 1789.  The Senate was envisioned by the founders as a moderating force in the national legislature.  Because elections are held for all the seats in the House of Representatives every two years, and because representation in the House is proportional to the population of a given region, the House tends to be more sensitive to the chaotic motions of public opinion, and more subject to the imprudence of the masses.  The Senate was designed to counterbalance both the instability of the House and its inherent populism, being made up of fewer delegates, appointed by state governments (and therefore not popularly elected), for long, six-year terms.  Additionally, because representation in the Senate is equal for each of the individual states, regional minorities are given a stronger voice, making it possible for states with smaller populations to resist objectionable legislation from larger states — legislation which would pass easily in the House.

Of course, the issues of slavery and race relations were the central regional controversy in the United States for most of its first two centuries, meaning that the Southern States — which were in the minority by population — depended on the Senate for protection against Northern intervention.  Thus the Senate was, until the 1960s, traditionally associated with the North-South divide in the U. S., and its peculiar features functioned as a shield for white southern interests.  The Senate was the South, and many of the great political crises of the 1800s are simply battles over control of the Senate, and the protection it guaranteed to the South.  (In time, the West would join the South, not in its racist politics, but in its concern for the protection of regional minorities against the power of the large eastern states.)

The chief distinguishing peculiarity of the Senate as a legislative body is its lack of a rule limiting debate.  The fact that at any point during the legislative process the floor can be taken and held (and held, and held...) by one or several Senators intent upon preventing a piece of legislation from proceeding to a vote, swings the structural politics of the Senate even further in favor of minorities, and makes it an extremely powerful conservative force.  Until the introduction of cloture (through which debate could be terminated by a 2/3s majority vote) in 1917, a small minority of senators could coordinate to thwart the progress of a bill offensive to them, obstructing the legislative process until the urgency of other business prompted the Senate to drop the offending measure and move on.  Even after cloture was introduced, the filibuster was seen as sacred to many Senators from the South and West, and held as a safeguard to protect the unique interests of their states from interference.  After 1917, the 2/3s majority became the crucial question in any sufficiently controversial measure, and the vote for cloture was less a matter of party loyalty than desire to protect the filibuster.

The other distinguishing feature of the Senate, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, was its strict adherence to a seniority system and lack of unitary leadership.  Seniority, coupled with long terms and high rates of re-election, added to the conservatism of the Senate.  Caro describes the legislative body as an extremely solemn club for old men, a gerontocracy.  One would be assigned to a committee upon taking office, and stay on that committee, possibly for decades.  All power in the senate regarding legislation was held by the committee chairmen, who were the oldest men in the room, and who administered committee business.

I am not doing Caro's portrait of the Senate justice here, but I will conclude as he does with a few notes on the role of the South.  In the century after 1876, when the post-war period of reconstruction ended, the main concern of the South in national government was to protect a racist social arrangement from interference from the North.  Because the destruction of the South's strong grip on the Senate, and the end of the racist social settlement was one of the main achievements of Johnson's political career, Caro plays the issue up, and gives it some drama.  Civil rights legislation was not an invention of the 1950s and 1960s.  Northerners had been trying to pass civil rights laws since the Civil War, and (aside from the first ten years following the conflict) had failed continuously.  Caro lays responsibility for this fact on the high rates of re-election among southern senators, and their mastery of Senate procedure, and ability to use that mastery ruthlessly to outwit and outmaneuver their opponents.

Much more could be said about Part One, which contains a large quantity of condensed history, but I will end my summary here.

"How to be a Liberal in Lower Alabama"

The New York Times published an amusing column today from a liberal democrat in Alabama, talking about the difficulties of living as a liberal democrat in a social environment where everyone comfortably assumes you agree that liberal democrats are stupid or morally suspect.
"In some ways, [the conflict between liberals and conservatives has] the same story everywhere. But it feels different when you’re in the small, embattled minority. There’s a proud tradition of Southern liberalism, with some willing to take the heat at any cost, but given that people these days can be downright mean, ever more of my left-leaning friends prefer to express their convictions only when marking the ballot."
What I enjoy about the article is the extent to which everything in it is true in reverse for urban conservatives.  I know people who match the uncomfortable silence the author describes perfectly, but because they're religious conservatives living in a comfortably liberal Chicago.  I have been one of those people, many times.

10 January 2016

Good things from Francis

At Aleteia they have some excerpts from the Pope's upcoming book-length interview with Andrea Tornielli.  This passage was sufficiently excellent that I wanted to re-post it.  I may read this book.

“Corruption is the sin which, rather than being recognized as such and rendering us humble, is elevated to a system; it becomes a mental habit, a way of living. We no longer feel the need for forgiveness and mercy, but we justify ourselves and our behaviors. 
Jesus says to his disciples: even if your brother offends you seven times a day, and seven times a day he returns to you to ask for forgiveness, forgive him. The repentant sinner, who sins again and again because of his weakness, will find forgiveness if he acknowledges his need for mercy. The corrupt man is the one who sins but does not repent, who sins and pretends to be Christian, and it is this double life that is scandalous. 
The corrupt man does not know humility, he does not consider himself in need of help, he leads a double life. We must not accept the state of corruption as if it were just another sin. Even though corruption is often identified with sin, in fact they are two distinct realities, albeit interconnected. Sin, especially if repeated, can lead to corruption, not quantitatively—in the sense that a certain number of sins makes a person corrupt—but rather qualitatively: habits are formed that limit one’s capacity for love and create a false sense of self-sufficiency. 
The corrupt man tires of asking for forgiveness and ends up believing that he doesn’t need to ask for it any more. We don’t become corrupt people overnight. It is a long, slippery slope that cannot be identified simply as a series of sins. One may be a great sinner and never fall into corruption if hearts feel their own weakness. That small opening allows the strength of God to enter. 
When a sinner recognizes himself as such, he admits in some way that what he was attached to, or clings to, is false. The corrupt man hides what he considers his true treasure, but which really makes him a slave and masks his vice with good manners, always managing to keep up appearances.”

The Ethics of Dress

Many Bothans died to make this man's wig.
Many Bothans died to bring us this wig.

When morals and clothing come up together in religious circles, the connection usually has to do with debates over modesty (which seem to be restricted in scope, peculiarly, to women's clothing).  "How many times should women lash themselves for exposing an ankle to the weak eyes of a man?"  Etc.

That's not what I want to talk about.  Instead I'd like to talk about an ethical dimension of clothing which is a little bit more amusing and less commonly addressed: the nature of the relationship between the dignity of one's dress and one's personal moral integrity.

In college, when I converted to Catholicism, I had the good fortune of converting in the context of a social group made up of some really odd (and very helpful) conservative Catholics.  This group of people was united by membership in a loosely aligned set of organizations.  Almost all were members of Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), the campus pro-life group.  Most were members of a conservative political debating society called the Tory Party, which revered Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, and professed a sort of aesthetic paleo-conservatism interested in the importance of manners and "pleasing illusions".  Many attended the Dominican-run local parish, St. Mary's, in preference to the liberal campus Catholic chapel, St. Thomas More.  And, finally, a number were intermittent members of a nightly rosary group.  All in all there were a couple of dozen people in this little network.

In any small group united by ideas, peculiar interests and emphases shared among any sizeable subset of the group tend to be incorporated into the broad mindset and culture of the group, sometimes in a way disproportionate to the representation of those ideas in any similar group with a larger population (intellectual founder's effect).  One of the amusing ways this happened with the conservative Catholic circle at Yale, in my day, was in the infusion of a vaguely Burkean aestheticism into the group, courtesy of the internal habits and emphases of the Tory Party and its members.  And because for these young people the moral and political order were intimately tied to manners and aesthetics, the cultivation of a 'conservative' personal style was quietly raised to the level of quasi-morality.

This is where things get fun.  My personal mindset at that time was minimalistic when it came to clothing.  Modesty, simplicity, and restraint were good, and an intentional poverty of style was also good.  (All of this came in large part as a result of the fact that I hated thinking about and shopping for clothes.)  For much of college I wore plain t-shirts, increasingly worn-out khaki pants, and sandals with white athletic socks.

So, in retrospect, both my personal habits and my inchoate moral ideas about clothing were challenged as I became a member of the conservative Catholic set at Yale.  Due to a severe case of late-onset social conformism, I failed to objectively appreciate the difference between my own way of being and that of the people I was spending time with, and therefore failed as well to appreciate the value of my established habits.  Concerned about the matter, I had conversations on more than one occasion with friends about whether dressing "well" was a moral issue.  The consensus reply was "yes".

Of course, dressing "well" is not a moral issue — especially not if we understand "good dress" to be defined by conformity to a conservative stereotype or a set of aesthetic norms based on arbitrary class standards accepted a couple of generations ago.  Clothing oneself according to haute bourgeois ideals (or refusing to do so) does not make one a better or worse person.  Wearing a tie and "presenting oneself well" do not have any bearing on moral integrity.

After departing from college, the aestheticism of that set lost its influence on a number of us, and some of its silly pretensions can now be seen as silly.  But having had the experience of belonging to a group where a certain type of clothing was broadly accepted as being morally superior to other types of clothing, not because of modesty but because of its conformity to a cultural type, it becomes easier to see echoes of that same way of thinking elsewhere in society.  There are all sorts of little sayings hovering around the topic: "dress how you want to be addressed" implies that personal dignity is a function of one's outward appearance, rather than one's actual behavior.  Conservative Catholics (even of non-traditionalist stripes) periodically lament the lack of "formal attire" among congregants at Mass.  Granted there's something to the lament, just as there's something to the idea that hygiene and clothing can indirectly reflect a person's self-image.  But the idea is worth questioning.

So here's a closing question: supposing the concept of "formal attire" were abolished completely, along with class stereotypes about "dressing well", so that class signaling could no longer sneak into the domain of morals by way of clothing, and arbitrary, inherited stylistic norms no longer held sway.  In this case, what would matter about one's clothes?  And what bearing would dress have (and be thought to have) on one's moral integrity?

09 January 2016

Note to Readers

I have a couple of posts in the works, including a continuation of the series on Robert Caro's Johnson biography and a long-ish article defending certain features of republican government from a traditionalist/Thomist perspective (well, from my own perspective anyway, which is at least vaguely traditionalist/Thomist).

I also have one further volume of Pastor's History ready for publication (except for the dust jacket) and eleven more which are only slightly behind that (they need page number corrections and re-scaling).

The layout of The Paraphasic has been up in the air for the past few days.  I like to change things periodically, in part because novelty is the spice of life, but also because I periodically want the blog to function slightly differently.  After some experimentation with Blogger's "dynamic views" templates, I've changed the site back to (more or less) the previous layout.  "Dynamic views" has some advantages, but it's also set up in such a way that makes tinkering harder for the user, and it wasn't really worth it.  Google could do a lot more for Blogger users if they cared to develop this service further.

I've begun adding keyword tags to my old posts.  Given that there are almost 600 published posts on this blog, this is a large task, and it will take some time.  As I progress, the keyword cloud on the right will become more usable as a means of exploring what I've written here over the past five years.  (The fifth anniversary of the blog will be in June.)

Finally, I'd like to extend a word of thanks to the people who read The Paraphasic regularly.  Back in the day, a few years ago, I knew pretty much everyone who read this blog.  At this point I no longer know the vast majority of you, but I see you trickling (and occasionally more than trickling) in via the blog stats.  There's an impressive degree of geographical diversity among the readership here, and it's odd to think that my morose ramblings might be interesting to people in Dehli or Sydney or Vladivostok.  (Hello to Dehli and Sydney and Vladivostok, by the way.)

Thank you for taking an interest, and I hope that I continue to supply you with whatever you're after.

08 January 2016

Have I mentioned?

Have I mentioned that PJ Smith at Semiduplex has been producing some really top-notch stuff for the past couple of months?  I hope he keeps it up, because he's got one of the most straightforwardly informative Catholic theology/commentary blogs around.

06 January 2016

I believe in love.

In the wake of the October darkness, I basically gave up writing about the Pope, and have tried to think less about him.  Please add this to the file, though.

Pius (1)

Pius woke, face down upon his bed, to the feeling of his vertebrae straining against each other.  He had turned onto his stomach in the night, so that the frame of his old body was twisted out of compass. Now, held in place by the sag of the mattress springs, he was stiff with a stiffness that, though painful, discouraged him from rising in his bed.  In his head he groaned.  But as the gears creaked into motion and the discomfort of his body began to register, another kind of stiffness set in — spiritual, not physical — and he realized he was tired.

Tired in soul as well as body.  He was stiff from the slack pace of retirement and the futility of old age.  No engagements, no responsibilities, no one who would really miss his contributions to waking life.  For a man of his age it was permissible to stay in bed.  Nature afforded little enough sleep to the elderly; he should take what he could get.  The pain in his back told him that a long morning in bed would be restorative, was a necessary concession to his bodily needs, was really, after all, the right thing to do.  What counter-argument was there to offer?

Pius offered no counter-argument.  He did not hash out the prudential or moral considerations which made getting up the better thing to do.  He did not trade pros and cons with his aching back.  He simply acted.  Against the dispositions of the flesh and the protestations of the spirit, he shifted his body onto its side, lowered a foot to the floor, and sat up.

While it was strictly true that Pius had no necessary engagements that day, it was only strictly true.  Necessity belongs to the fulfillment of essential material needs and the performance of various civic, familial, and religious duties.  Of these, Pius had none to worry about that day, or none that demanded prompt attention.  But he did have engagements of a non-necessary variety — commitments to complete certain tasks of his own, the daily upkeep of his house, and one or two dispensable social arrangements.  Pius did not need to argue against the Siren's song of his bed,  because through the long years he had managed to train himself not to make certain choices, and certainly not to make them on the spur of the moment.  If one does not bother to choose, one does not need to deliberate, and without deliberation no temptation stands a chance.

The bedroom was small and rectangular.  The bed was set along an exterior wall, lined with windows.  On the opposite side of the room were three doors, all painted a stiff, leaden white.  The walls were that shade of blue-gray that can absorb years of dirt and dust without seeming filthy.  Out of bed, he walked to the middle door, took one of several large terrycloth robes off a hook inside it, and went into the bathroom to shower.  Emerging some time later, swaddled in the robe, he headed to his doorstep to collect the daily papers.

He subscribed to these papers, not so much because he believed in the news, in its objectivity or importance, (he did not), but because the news represented to him a faint echo of the life of the world. Pius liked to keep a finger on the pulse of things, and even if the quiet rhythm was frequently drowned out by superficiality and hysteria, he reasoned that the papers were still the best way to keep abreast of the times.

He filled a pan with water for tea.  While it was heating on the stove he dressed, then toasted some bread.  Today he drank a black tea, lapsang souchong, and savored its bitter aroma.  Sitting with mug and buttered toast, he spent the next hour methodically skimming every column of the three papers.  Someone unfamiliar with this practice might assume the old man was searching for something; the way he flitted from article to article with, he could not have actually been reading the paper. Pius already knew to his own satisfaction the gist of the stories before him. The daily papers were an endlessly reshuffled catechesis on the affairs of men and the interests of editors, and he was a old student of both.  The death of a famous designer.  Military developments in a far-away country.  Morally tinged social analysis along the lines currently in style.

He took note of things while he read, though not normally the headline stories or major concerns of the papers.  He noticed patterns of places mentioned and places left unmentioned, running themes in film and literary criticism, hints of new trends of journalistic interest.  Today he noticed a story about recent "acts of hate", which mentioned a graffiti incident at a local synagogue.  He wondered what distinguished domestic terrorism and vandalism from "acts of hate", and supposed that hate was going to become a popular topic again soon.

03 January 2016

The Man in the High Castle (TV Series Review)

For the past four years, my parents and I have brought in the New Year with a jigsaw puzzle and some American history documentaries.  One year we watched (listened to, really) Ken Burns's Civil War, another year the American Experience series on the Presidents.  Last year we did The Rockefellers and The Art of the Steal, followed up by a foray into drama with the BBC's Broadchurch.  The job of choosing viewing material is usually deputed to me, and this year I was at a loss for quality documentaries to watch, so I decided to suggest the Amazon produced TV drama The Man in the High Castle, which is loosely based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick.

The show opens on a false note with a faux German performance of Rogers and Hammerstein's Edelweiss.  Aside from the fact that Edelweiss is extremely cheesy and was written by R & H as an anti-Fascist song, the worst thing about the song is that the singer, director, etc. seem to have been under the impression that Germans can't pronounce the letter "s", but only "sh".

The result is a painful track — which is sung at the opening of every single episode — in which a woman lisps "bloshom of shnow may you bloom and grow ... Edelweisch, Edelweisch, blesh my homeland forever".  Given that the show is largely a conjectural alternative history about Nazis in the US, the fact that this very basic level of familiarity with the German language was missing did not encourage my hopes for the show's writing quality on the whole.

And indeed, the Germans shown in The Man in the High Castle are basically a pastiche of Nazi clichés.  The writers stick in as much heel-clicking, "Sieg Heil"-ing, euthanasia, antisemitism, "entartete Kunst", "Arbeit macht frei", etc. as they possibly can, without any subtlety or interest in the question of how the Third Reich might have developed during the years from 1933 to 1962 (when the show begins).  On the West Coast, where the Japanese have taken over, the caricature is much along the same lines.  Apparently Japanese culture consists of Emperor worship, Aikido, committing Seppuku (so much Seppuku!), racism, "Wu", and the I Ching (so much I Ching!).

The Man in the High Castle focuses immediately on two people in their late twenties, each being landed with a mission to carry illicit film reels into the non-occupied "neutral zone" (basically the Western Plains and the Rockies) in service of the "Resistance", who will eventually deliver them to "The Man in the High Castle".  Sounds like a great set-up for an adventure story, right?  Not so fast.

The biggest fault of the show is its plot pacing.  Many readers of this blog are probably familiar with the famous paradox of Zeno, according to which it is impossible to cross a room: in order to cross the room, first you would have to cross half the room, then half the remaining distance, then half the distance still remaining, etc.  And, because any distance can be subdivided into an infinite number of parts, and an infinite series can never be completed, it is impossible to cross the room.

The Man in the High Castle feels like it was written by a disciple of Zeno.  As mentioned, the show begins with two characters trying to carry illicit film reels into the "neutral zone".  This plot point invites several basic questions: (1) Why are these film reels so important?  (2) What happens to the film reels once they get to their destination?  (3) What is the "Resistance" trying to do? (4) Who is "The Man in the High Castle?"

Believe it or not, despite being shown several films at different points in the first season, by the end of the tenth (and, for now, final) episode we still have no idea what the point of the films is.  Not only do we not know, apparently no one knows what the point is, because no indication is given that anyone has any clue why they're important or who they're important to. ("The Man in the High Castle"!  Who is...?)

In fact, none of the questions are answered, at all, through the entire first season.  None of them.  Instead, we are given an array of subsidiary distractions: The boyfriend of a protagonist is Jewish and his family gets into trouble.  The Japanese trade minister is trying to trade nuclear secrets with the Germans.  The SS group leader (ostentatiously referred to as Obergrüppenführer about five times a minute, or so it feels) who recruited one of the protagonists is almost assassinated, and finds out that his son has a degenerative nervous disorder.  The Jewish boyfriend almost tries to assassinate the Japanese crown prince, but doesn't, but is wanted for it anyway.  Etc. etc.  Meanwhile none of this tells us anything about the basic questions listed above.  Why should we care about the anticipated euthanization of the Obergrüppenführer's son?  What does that have to do with anything?

So, to return to Zeno, season one of The Man in the High Castle is like trying to cross a room.  At the beginning, after the first step, we point over to the opposite wall and say "Hey! I'd like to go there."  Then, a smaller step is taken.  And, the more steps we take, the more pointless subdivisions are inserted to slow the progress of the plot — token demonstrations of fascist evilness, antisemitism, emotional upsets, random characters who are somehow planning something or are concerned — so that, by the time we run through our ten episode season, we've thrown up our hands and said, "Gosh, I guess it was impossible to get to that initial goal after all!"

Fans of Lost know that this sort of delayed gratification can be enjoyable.  But Lost got away with the perpetually deferred plot resolution on account of two factors: (1) the huge question mark hovering over the basic premise of the show (was everyone dead? were they on a magical floating island? was it all a corporate conspiracy?), and (2) the engaging character drama, with mini-storylines introduced and resolved by way of flashbacks.  The Man in the High Castle has neither. (1) The writers hit us over the head ever thirty seconds with a reminder that the Axis won WWII and that's the whole idea here; (2) the characters are (almost without exception) bland young people whose situation in life could be amply summarized in two or three sentences each.

The worst thing, the absolute worst thing about the show, is a hint, given in the last episode, that really this isn't an alternative history drama, really it's some sort of inter-dimensional crossover sci-fi series.  Suddenly we're seeing the protagonists executing each other in newsreel footage, and the Japanese trade minister uses his meditation-powers to cross over into a different version of 1962.  To any viewers who actually wanted to know what was going on with the films at the beginning of the first episode, these revelations are mind-blowingly obnoxious, because they simply introduce another cascade of complications and unanswered questions, which now we will have to wait through another ten episode season simply to discover that the writers aren't going to resolve for us anyway.

Could the show redeem itself in the second season?  Maybe.  Will it?  I doubt it.  Given the flat characters, the poor story structure, and the habit of leaving basic questions about the plot and background perpetually unaddressed, as long as the same people are making the second season, I expect more of the same.

Of course, it's still watchable as background noise while you work on a jigsaw puzzle.

01 January 2016


(I'm on a spree writing about TNT's alien invasion family drama Falling Skies, and it's been great fun, so I don't want it to end.  This is my seventh post dealing with the show in some way. Here I'm continuing the line of thought begun in the post on "Social Alienation".)

After I finished Falling Skies a few days ago, I wanted something else to watch.  Not finding anything appealing on Amazon Prime, I started rooting around for other things the cast of Falling Skies have starred in.  And, by a long route, I ended up discovering the 2012 Canadian independent film Blackbird.

Blackbird is about a goth teenager in a small town, whose fantasies about revenge against his classmates are intercepted by the authorities and interpreted as a serious plot to commit a massacre.  The film tracks the origin of the evidence against the young man, the court process, his time in a juvenile detention center, and his struggle to readjust to life in society.  (It's a pretty good movie, by the way, and worth seeing.)

The film is cold and morose, with much of the content communicated through silence and tense gestures (a flinch while using a public restroom, hesitation over whether to pick up a ping pong ball, etc.).  One striking aspect of Blackbird is its treatment of the protagonist's goth identity.  The satanist logos, the spikes, and the black leather, come across as elements of a carefully constructed social performance.  We read scrawled on the protagonist's bedroom door an endearingly (or embarrassingly?) high-brow admonition to "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE".

Being "goth", with all the implied paraphernalia, is an aesthetic expression of the protagonist's understanding of himself — he sees himself as an outsider, as someone who cannot participate in the life of the community, and so he cultivates an identity based on signals of his rejection by the community.  This explains why the goth performance doesn't persist after the protagonist has been released from jail, because his outsider status is already abundantly marked by the community, and no longer needs to be actively announced.

The actor who plays the troubled teen in Blackbird, Connor Jessup, also plays the middle Mason son, Ben, in Falling Skies.  Being a post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama, Falling Skies lacks the cold social realism of Blackbird.  Falling Skies is, all things considered, a relatively up-beat post-apocalyptic family drama, which outsources most of its need for trial and tragedy to the six-legged invaders and the struggle to survive.  The Mason sons have more pressing problems (like extraterrestrial brain worms and six-legged monsters) than being bullied by the hockey team or having crushes on backstabbing young women with unpleasant fathers.

Nevertheless, Jessup's character in Falling Skies (Ben Mason) is just as much an outsider as his character in Blackbird.  Ben is absent from the show for the first half of the first season, having been kidnapped by aliens and harnessed with a large spinal parasite which doubles as a mind-control device.  When he is eventually recovered and the harness is removed, its roots in his nervous system remain, leaving him medically abnormal.  He has an accelerated ability to heal, apparently endless energy reserves, and greatly increased endurance.  He also has a (much exploited) telepathic connection with any aliens that get close enough.

Having been transformed into a Super Soldier by the aliens, Ben Mason would seem destined to become the human resistance's very own Captain America.  But the writers of Falling Skies were too interested in social dynamics to allow that to happen.  Instead of becoming the resident hero, Ben spends the entirety of the next two seasons as an object of fear and suspicion.  Perhaps he's a sleeper agent?  Maybe he's secretly leaking information to the aliens?  Is he still human, really?  Aren't the aliens still in his head?

What originally prompted this post, and the previous one, was my appreciation of the way the writers of Falling Skies have Ben Mason deal with this suspicion and alienation from the community he should, in theory, be welcomed into.  He doesn't reject the community, or hate them for their fears, but he remains intentionally aloof and works on its edges.  He vanishes periodically, to pursue his own projects, and returns.  He is never at odds with the 2nd Massachusetts or its broader goals, but as long as the leadership has no use for his talents, he makes use of them himself for the benefit of the group.

You see, people like Ben Mason are extremely rare in real life.  One of the points I wanted to make in my last post was that being excluded by society tends to destroy a person's sense of personal integrity or value, precisely because so much of our self-understanding is derived from the underlying sense we have of what is expected and reasonable for "people" in general.  When I am shown repeatedly to be an instance of what is not to be expected, what is unreasonable or undesirable, according to general social standards, my own self-evaluation according to those primitive norms becomes an exercise in despair.  Nothing I can do can save me from my failure not to be a freak, or from my inability not to fail.  The pain of such a state of mind is one of the reasons people will go to such lengths to find communities within which their behavior and patterns of thought are considered reasonable and acceptable.

(Exile and execution are remarkably similar, and there is a profound reason why the Egyptian monks chose the solitude of the desert as a fitting replacement for martyrdom.)

I'll probably continue this line of thought again, but that's enough for tonight.


I have not seen this movie, and based on the plot summary I read I'm not sure I will (werewolf romance / single parent drama?), but this scene is unbelievable.  Watch it a few times, and enjoy.

Note: The music is by Takagi Masakatsu, who also did the (excellent) soundtrack for the documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.