Thursday, June 28, 2007

Conrad Black's Catholicism

Black is a character of enormous interest and complexity, rivalling and perhaps surpassing the figures whose lives he has so ably examined. One aspect, little understood and only vaguely known is his Catholicism. In Chicago, he been rumoured to have had dinner with Cardinal George, whilst enduring his criminal trial. He was not always Catholic, however. In his middle age, Black, through many discussions and arguments with the late Emmett Cardinal Carter, became convinced of the truth of the faith- and deciding to convert, celebrated with a glass of champagne.

St. Raymond Nonnatus, raise up Conrad Black in your prayers!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jim Wallis and the Culture of Life

Jim Wallis is the founder of the journal Sojourners and the anti-poverty organization Call to Renewal and the author of God's Politics. He is the single most influential left-leaning evangelical around.

A recent Touchstone editorial strongly criticizes him:
When Jim Wallis advises pro-abortion politicians how to “neutralize” the life issue among religious voters—“neutralize” it, that is, without actually protecting the life and liberty of unborn Americans—he is playing a very old role in American politics: the political chaplain who claims divine sanction for a party’s existing policies.
The editorial also implicitly criticizes Wallis for allowing a female minister who wrote entirely unapologetically of her abortion to write on his blog. Now, I think Touchstone is entirely right on this matter.

As for the main criticism, I think we need to go back to the source of Wallis' comment, which was from a Washington Post story:
For Democrats to continue bringing in more religious Christians, experts agree, a key component will be to find a way to "neutralize the abortion issue" by "advocating for the drastic reduction of abortion," as Wallis puts it. To lessen the weight of the abortion issue, one option currently discussed in Democratic circles is the "90-10" push to reduce the abortion rate 90 percent in 10 years.
What is this neutralizing policy?
Abortion is one such case. Democrats need to think past catchphrases, like "a woman's right to choose," or the alternative, "safe, legal and rare." More than 1 million abortions are performed every year in this country. The Democrats should set forth proposals that aim to reduce that number by at least half. Such a campaign could emphasize adoption reform, health care, and child care; combating teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse; improving poor and working women's incomes; and supporting reasonable restrictions on abortion, like parental notification for minors (with necessary legal protections against parental abuse). Such a program could help create some much-needed common ground.
Liberal pro-abortionists are less than convinced that Jim Wallis stops anywhere short of the same completely pro-life policy that the "Religious Right" favours, and for good reason. Wallis is a signatory to "The America We Seek" an important pro-life statement where he joined Richard John Neuhaus, Chuck Colson and many others in a vigorous defence of the need for pro-life action.

How best, then to interpret his "neutralize the abortion issue" comment? First, we need to realize that it is a political neutralization of which he speaks, not a moral neutralization. Let us suppose that a pro-choice party presented a plausible plan to reduce abortions by 50%, and gave strong assurances that it would be implemented. The other party is fully pro-life, but will not pass the liberal plan, and its ability to limit abortion rights is severely constrained by judicial decisions. In such a circumstance, it is possible to see the pro-choice party as the more pro-life option (though, I hasten to add that it is hardly as simple as that- one ought to consider the negatives of giving the advantage of incumbency to a pro-choice legislator, of a reduced possibility for pro-life action in matters such as euthanasia, and of the impact on the judiciary). Such a neutralization is entirely defensible.

As it happens, I don't think much of Wallis' strategy- I am doubtful that any set of policies advanced by Democrats will have a meaningful impact on the abortion rate. I also suspect that Republican pro-lifers would be willing to put these policies into action if they were convinced of their efficacy. The indirect effects of putting pro-choice Democrats in office would be significant and likely outweigh any positive developments.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Dick Cheney & the Need to Protect

Ross Douthat has a very insightful post on how the pressures of the terrorism era may lead to inwardness and a lack of context for those evaluating multitudes of threats.
The Difference

I had someone I have some claim on as an acquaintance defriend and block me on facebook. The reason: I'm pro-life. Nothing more than that. No political discussion, no unwelcome invitation, nothing. And here is the irony: apparently, she "respects my views" but nevertheless insists on disassociating from me. The Christian attitude is rather the opposite- to love the person, even when their views are reprehensible.

Is this the fruit of relativism? That all views must be respected, but that people are to be reprobated for holding them?

Friday, June 22, 2007

High-Profile Convert?

Another report suggests that Tony Blair will enter the Catholic Church when he leaves office at the end of the month:
Tony Blair is "certain" to become a Roman Catholic shortly after he steps down from office next week, friends of the Prime Minister have said. They believe it will happen "sooner rather than later".
Blair has not been, while in office, sympathetic to pro-life or family issues. I hope catechesis and the sacraments will effect a change of heart.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Innocence of Conrad Black

Following up on my ill humour about the American Justice system, I thought I'd offer my thoughts on the Conrad Black case itself- namely, who is guilty, what the state of affairs is in the trial, and what actually happened.

First, a little background. Conrad Black and David Radler were partners who build the Hollinger empire of newpapers. At the relevant time, they held minority equity stakes in Hollinger International, a US company. Hollinger International, however, was controlled by Hollinger Inc., a Canadian company. Hollinger Inc. was controlled by Ravelston, a Canadian private company itself controlled by Black and Radler. Black & Radler ran all three companies as well as controlling them, and on an operational level, Black handled Eastern Canada and Great Britain, while Radler was in charge of the US operations and Western Canada.

Conrad Black lived the high life, and was a significant consumer of corporate perks- a corporate jet, an apartment, some of his social costs. It's fair to say that Black didn't have a strict division between his social and living expenses and his business expenses. At the same time, however, Black's life, particularly his social life was not easily divided between the personal and the business-oriented. What in fact we find are fairly reasonable divisions of costs between Black and Hollinger where there truly was a mixed personal and business purpose to the activities. Oddly, I'd have expected this element of the case to bring out some more egregious examples of billing the company. However, the prosecution didn't come up with stronger accusations, presumably because they don't exist. I strongly suspect these counts are only part of the government's indictment in order to attempt to generate a negative impression with the jury.

On to the meat of the case: non-competes. Beginning in about 2001, Hollinger International began to sell a great number of its North American papers. The first big deal was the CanWest deal, an enormous business deal. In that transaction, the buyers sought out non-competes from Black & Radler, and they were granted. Hollinger then began to sell off small American community papers, which were handled by Radler. In these transactions, non-competes were a standard term, but were not requested by the buyers. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that these non-competes were legally permitted to be inserted by the vendor, and the Hollinger audit committee repeatedly signed off on them. In other words, the non-competes were not illegal. Just as importantly, Black was not involved in the negotiations, and there is no evidence except the word of the self-confessed liar Radler that he conspired to insert the non-competes.

Finally, Radler sold a number of papers to a company that he ran, and that Black was an investor in. The evidence shows that Black agreed to be an investor because Radler didn't have the capital to buy all the papers, and that Radler deceived Black by effectively giving himself control of the new company. There was a non-compete in this sale as well, meaning effectively that Radler & Black were paying themselves not to compete with themselves. This appears criminal to me. However, again there is no evidence aside from that of Radler to show that Black approved or even knew about this arrangement.

In conclusion, I will be outraged if Black or any of his co-accused are convicted on any counts whatsoever.
My Blue Jays

In a complete change of pace, I'd just like to say that I think the Toronto Blue Jays are going to play better than .600 baseball from here on out, but still won't make the playoffs.
A Brief Observation on Ethics & Hypocrisy

In our age, numerous factors combine against traditional moral values and ethical imperatives. As we have become a far more secular society, many have lost the ability to think rationally and systematically about ethics. And so we witness perpetual liberal accusations of hypocrisy heaped upon social conservatives:
  • "How can you defend war, and the inevitable civilian casualties, and oppose abortion on the basis that it's wrong to kill an innocent human being?"
  • "How can you oppose same-sex marriage because you say children are an essential part of marriage but allow infertile couples and older couples to get married?"
  • "How can you be against abortion and in favour of the death penalty?"
  • "How can you be pro-life and not support universal health care/increased welfare entitlements/foreign aid?"
Now, for the record, I support universal health care, oppose the death penalty, and take a skeptical approach to the utility of military intervention. Yet these questions expose a very basic moral illiteracy in our society. The distinctions between the innocent and the guilty, between intended acts and unintended consequences, between natural inability and unfortunate deprivation, between the logically required and the prudential judgement are all lost to many of our fellows. Alas, this does not lead to any reflection on what principles underlie ethics, nor an examination of moral intuitions, nor even a prudential determination to shrink back from moral boundaries that one cannot locate. Instead, people without a way to analyze ethical claims merely give up on ethics entirely. These supposed conundrums are deemed proof of the foolishness of any ethical reasoning whatsoever. And thus it is that we live in an age of eroding moral understanding and practice.
American Justice

I've been following with great interest the case against Conrad Black currently in closing arguments in Chicago, and I am increasingly outraged at the manner and system in which Black is being prosecuted. My knowledge of the American justice system had largely been limited to civil and constitutional issues- and this first in-depth look at the criminal justice system has been a rude awakening. Firstly, the system of plea bargains clearly lends itself to abuse, as I believe it has in the Black case. The ability of prosecutors to determine sentences, while not absolute, is much broader than that in Canada. Combine this with the extremely high sentences available (Conrad Black is facing over a century of jail time), and there results an extremely strong incentive for those involved to implicate others in order to reduce the penalty they incur, regardless of truth.

This is combined with an biased court procedure where, contrary to Canadian and English practice, the prosecutors get the last statement in closing arguments. In the Black case, the independent directors were going to be subject to SEC investigations- their testimony became favourable, and the threat of SEC sanctions vanished. Again in relation to the Black case, the theory of the case presented by the prosecutors was that Black was in charge of the supposed frauds, the mastermind. Nevertheless, the judge will instruct the jury with a so-called "ostrich instruction" which calls them to convict if they believe Black merely to have been willfully ignorant of the fraud- a theory sprung on the defence at the end of the case.

While the procedure of an American case is hardly inspiring, the enormous power wielded by prosecutors with little judicial oversight is what is most concerning, and which is most likely to lead to injustice.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Rights & Wrongs of the English Civil War

My Godfather gave me a book entitled "The Tyrannicide Brief", which recounts the life of John Cooke, the prosecutor of Charles I, and who himself was executed for regicide. Geoffrey Robertson, the author and a barrister himself, is an able advocate for Cooke, Cromwell, the Parliamentary cause and republicanism. Cooke himself, though in the wrong politically, was an admirable advocate for legal reform, and a man of deep faith and principle.

Still, the facts of the matter remain far too adverse to justify the trial and execution of Charles I. The reign of Charles I can be criticized in many areas- the operations and judgments of the Star Chamber could be cruel; he was willing to pressure the courts; he censored the press and suppressed political dissidents. Charles I favoured the High Church party in the Church of England, which resulted in the exclusion of congregationalist and presbyterian elements that had hitherto remained within Anglicanism. The Puritans, thus excluded from Anglicanism, became subject to discriminatory laws.

Nevertheless, Charles I was the sovereign. If sovereignty has any moral content, it is that the laws of the sovereign ought to be obeyed unless they command something intrinsically wrong. While one can argue that rebellion and revolution is justified where sovereignty becomes enormously unjust, Charles I's failures of policy and justice were rather mild for his time, and certainly far below the standard under which rebellion is justifiable in any age. War creates enormous suffering, and that injustice that can justify it must be extremely grave (which was not the case) and outweigh the likely suffering caused by war (again not the case). In resisting the power of the King when he came to arrest certain of their number, Parliament attempted to usurp at least part of the sovereignty of the King- the ability to control territory and administer the laws. Both sides thereafter prepared for war, a war caused by Parliament.

When it came to execute Charles, then, it is entirely clear that those who presumed to judge him were in fact guilty of precipitating the war, of wrongly usurping sovereignty and, it needs to be said, of abusing English law and the Constitution (even as wrongly comprehended by the Parliamentarians) to determine a new crime to try the King, and erect a new court in which to do so. Whatever the failings and wrongs of Charles I, it must be acknowledged that Parliament both wrongfully brought about the Civil War and murdered he to whom they owed obedience.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

More on Politics

As I mentioned in my last post, I was intrigued by the abscence of any consideration of the problem of government coercion from a lively discussion about liberalism. What undergird the actual conversation was the problem of pluralism- how can we accomodate within a political society divergent viewpoints? The chorus of voices crying "Theocracy! Theocracy!" claims that in order to accomodate, the particular truth claims of various communities within society must be confined to the private, non-political world- in other words, the public square must be naked, denuded of discourse that is inaccessible to any part of society, in Richard John Neuhaus' famous phrase. Some secularist liberals would go so far as to say that any policy favoured on account of private religious or ethical beliefs is illegitimate.

Broad-minded liberals like Neuhaus himself argue that such restrictions queer the pitch of political discourse, inevitably favouring secularists, since their mode of discourse, but not their opponents is permitted in the political realm. Instead, Neuhaus proposes an equal access to the public square- where any viewpoint may be argued and supported, regardless of the form or presuppositions it rests upon. There is no official basis on which the political order rests or is sustained.

Such pursuit of neutrality is unnecessary. One can have a firm and principled basis for a political order that allows for pluralism and co-existence so long as that foundation itself permits sufficient flexibility in policy and political engagement to allow other communities to operate politically without undue restriction. The Christian idea of government provides precisely that- while it recognizes the essential underpinnings of society, it also recognizes the inherent dignity of all people, irrespective of their religious commitment. As such, it accords everyone the right to participate in the political order of society, and allows for the accomodation of differing communities. At the same time, there is expressed an understanding of the moral foundations of politics. Even where minority communities disagree with the Christian foundations of the political realm, they will usually find more in common than with the secular order which denudes the political realm of any underlying principles. Sikh, Buddhist and Jewish communities all have more in common with a Christian understanding of the public realm and the public good than with secularist orders. Even for non-religious people, the moral foundation of society expressed in Christianity is an easier structure in which to engage than the relativism that underlies secularism.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rumblings about Politics & Liberalism

The death of Richard Rorty (who I know very little about) has yielded an interesting discussion between Damien Linker, Matthew Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan. And while I don't have anything to say about that discussion aside from the fact that Sullivan again misstates his opponents argument.

But it did prompt a few thoughts. Firstly, it is interesting how the political philosophies discussed by Linker, Sullivan and Yglesias all ignore the central problem of political philosophy- the problem that creates the need for political philosophy, in fact- that of coercion. Any government rules at least in part by force. Establishing the moral basis for this use of force is an essential task, and one that originally liberalism attempted to answer.

Both social contract liberalism and Rawlsian liberalism attempted to address this problem. Social contract theory failed due to the innate fictitiousness of the supposed contract. Rawls' effort, while noble, required everyone to shuffle off their particular principles and beliefs before considering the requirements of justice, producing consent only by our theoretical selves, rather than our real selves (If I were other than I am, I would agree to x, therefore I must agree to x is not a compelling argument).

Tories have a simple solution to this problem- we believe that God ordered society to be subject to government, and all powers proper to government are thereby legitimate. A simple answer, but the best one and the correct one.
Thoughts on Arguing with Atheists

The popular view of atheism has been all over the place in the last few years. A mere couple years ago, Alister McGrath contended that atheism was largely a spent force, and the recantation of atheism by Sir Anthony Flew, perhaps the most rigourous living defender of atheism appeared to confirm his judgement. But today, with the books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others, atheism is said to be on the rise.

What are the best arguments against atheism, and which are weak? Allow me to suggest, firstly, that atheism is often as much a deep-seated emotional reaction as it is an intellectual conviction, and dealing with that is a matter for which I am unqualified to address. On the intellectual side of things, the great advantage of atheism is that it appears to give a full understanding of the world around us. The strongest argument then, is that the world described by atheism is not a world we can recognize. Arguments about evolution, intelligent design or the anthropic principle attempt to fight the battle on athesim's favourite field of battle, and don't truly address this central issue of accurately describing the world we know.

Instead, I think the best strategy is to discuss facts of life we all know or think we know: consciousness, morality and free will. The existence of consciousness is a powerful argument against materialism, but oftentimes too abstract to be subjectively convincing. While there is no theory under which the physical world produces subjective experiences, atheists often have a touching faith that eventually science will explain the existence of consciousness. This can perhaps be useful to demonstrate the extreme faith necessary to believe in an atheistic universe.

The existence of morality is a little weaker in argument. While no atheist would seriously deny the existence of consciousness, there are many that deny an objective morality. Nevertheless, very few individuals do not implicitly believe in objective morality. Few would claim rape and genocide to be merely subjective or relative evils, and it usually fairly easy to demonstrate a belief in objective morality. Nevertheless, an objective morality does not pose a fatal problem for many atheists- while they typically recognize that such an objective morality is not a natural quality, many are content to merely assume an objective moral order without recourse to God. Moreover, disputes over morality often lead Atheists to accuse Christians as founding their understanding of morality on the commands of God, which is ultimately arbitrary. While an unconnected theory of morality does not have anything but belief supporting it, it at least is not arbitrary in the manner in which atheists often interpret religious theories of morality. In fact, of course, Christianity does not teach a divine command theory of ethics, but rather that goodness is an intrinsic part of the divine nature. As such, God cannot "command" other than he does; but neither is this an ethical theory that is unmoored from the rest of the Christian world view, as the assumed standard of ethics is from the otherwise materialist atheistic world view.

The existence of free will is to my mind, the greatest problem for atheists. Nearly everyone assumes and believes they possess this kind of liberty of action, but atheism provides no means to understand how we could possibly possess it. Indeed, provided atheism is a materialistic or naturalistic view of the universe, there is no manner in which free will could be true. Our understanding of the material world is rooted in causality. Every action is caused by previous actions; and under this view, there is no room for the possibility of having true freedom: external stimuli, genetic traits, and brain chemistry determine the choices we make rather than any independent faculty. Nevertheless, there is often a great deal of misunderstanding: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the notion of quantum flux or randomness are invoked to maintain free will. Yet neither Heisenberg's uncertainty principle nor randomness help to establish free will in any way. Instead, randomness and the uncertainty principle only demonstrate that at a certain level, some causes cannot be perfectly defined, and some evetns are merely random. But free will posits independent agency to human beings- and neither uncertainty nor randomness can provide that. The loss of free will also implies either the non-existence of ethics or that we can do nothing to fulfill ethical requirements. Either way, the view of man as a creature subject to morality is frustrated.

I think these three thrusts- consciousness, morality and free will, can be employed in tandem, and that these methods are the simplest and best way to establish the insupportability of the atheist position.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Much-Delayed Return

After being largely absent for the past year, I think I'm going to return to semi-regular blogging. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Archbishop Miller

I don't have time for a full post, but I must note the appointment of Archbishop Michael Miller as Coadjutor of Vancouver. You can find posts on the new Coadjutor Archbishop at Open Book, at Rocco's Whispers and at Dilexit Prior. John Allen also has a post up.

I'm very excited, but we should also take note of the faithful service Archbishop Roussin has performed over the last five years for the Archdiocese. Despite ill health, he has nurtured and strengthened the Church here, while standing forthright for the family in the public square. He, of course, will continue to serve as the ordinary at least for the time being, but I imagine he will hand over the reins within the year, and when that occurs I am sure he will continue his ministry in another form.