History

The cruel irrationality of scientism

A common feature of human behavior is for people to take positions that are the exact opposite of their stated morality.

This isn't necessarily hypocrisy because hypocrites are necessarily aware of the contradiction.  The fact that the practicioners of what I shall dub "scientism" are blissfully ignorant of the truth of their position only makes them that much harder to convince.

It should go without saying that science is never "settled."  Science is a process, a method of truth-seeking and its core tenet is taking nothing for granted.  There are endless examples of "settled science" being overturned by subsequent discoveries. 

True scientists are constantly attacking the status quo and never resort to appeals to authority to settle disputes.

As a method of explaining the natural world and solving problems, science has done wonderfully well, but it is simply incapable of being turned into a philosophy or worldview.  When people say they "believe science is real," that's a statement of faith, not logic.

Nothing I'm writing here is either new or original (well, other than my peerless prose styling), and if one goes back a couple of hundred years one finds the Cult of Reason making all these mistakes in Revolutionary France.  Tens of millions of people have died thanks to "Scientific Socialism" in the 20th Century. 

It's interesting that people who blame religion for war seem completely unaware that in so doing, they're making a new religion - which is far more murderous.

I should also mention that "religion causes wars" is garbage warmed over.  People cause wars and they will sometimes use religion to justify their greed, wrath or other sins.   Wars happen because people want and enjoy them.  Violence is fun, as all of recorded history demonstrates.  Having decided to make a war, people will then try to appeal for divine assistance or some other cause.

This is not to say that some wars aren't necessary or justified, merely that picking a single factor as the reason for most of them is either ignorant or dishonest.

It's also unscientific.  To make that statement one would have to have a means of sifting through conflicts to determine the exact degree of religious scruple held by all the (long-dead) participants.

Since science needs extremely reliable data, it's always tentative at best.  Since data can shift, science can never provide a steady moral compass, and it's interesting to see that each generation brings new revelations on the horrors that science can inflict.  In fact, the more we empower science for its own sake, the most extreme these horrors become.

One doesn't need to go full-on Luddite and hate technology to understand that there are some experiments we shouldn't be undertaking.

That lack of any meaningful moral restraint is what makes scientism so scary.  Not long ago, there would have been near-universal horror and massive federal investigations of allegations that abortion mills were doing a thriving trade in infant body parts.  Instead, the investigators turned on the whistleblowers for exposing the enterprise and we were told that such grisly commerce is necessary for science to move forward.

Thus we come to the point where the same people who claim their opponents are Nazis have fully embraced the scientism of the actual Nazis.  History has a strong sense of irony.


A double dose of Easter

Okay, the headline may be a little misleading.  Don't think that I went to the vigil Mass and am now going to the Sunday one.

What I mean is that this Easter is really the culmination of our year-long Lenten journey.  It's been two years since an Easter Mass was said in our diocese and I'm really looking forward to it.

I think I mentioned that the turnout on Good Friday was impressive.  I suspect today will be even better.

Of course, it is still imperfect.  My extended family won't be getting together and my parents are still hiding out from the COVID, which appears to have targeted Michigan in particular.

Weird that we should be doing worse than "open" states what with our mandatory masks, limited capacity and other oddball measures the best people assured us were necessary to prevent exactly what's happening.  Must be wreckers and saboteurs. 

But enough about that, today is a day of celebration.  Christ is risen.   That's all that matters.

Have a blessed Easter.


A Very Good Friday

Today was the first time in two years I could attend a Good Friday service.  Traditionally these are somewhat punishing - longer than a normal Mass and with a lot more kneeling.  My kids refer to it as an endurance contest.

This year was different.  Yes, there were certain COVID-required expedients that shortened the duration, but I think in terms of hardship the mask-wearing more than compensated.

No, what I'm referring to is the joy at being able to participate at all.  As the songs say:  "You don't know what you got till it's gone," and that's certainly true in this case.

Our clergy seemed to feel the same way, and thanks to COVID spacing, we had a spillover crowd - not bad for noon on a Friday.  It was the most upbeat Good Friday I've ever had.

In many ways, the Lenten season of 2020 never ended, yet the promise of Christ's Resurrection remains.  No power on earth can change that.  I see this more clearly now and it is contributing greatly to this feeling of calm I've had over the last couple of months.

Easter is coming.  I can't wait.


Battle of the Bulge is objectively awful

My survey of war movies brought me into 1965's Battle of the Bulge and it's a terrible film.

Setting aside the fact that the whole story is fictionalized, there's simply a point where so many technical details have been compromised, the movie loses any historical relevance or feeling.

I was pretty sure I saw it before, but re-watching it, the first thing that struck me was that it was filmed in Spain.  The Germans are using Patton M-47 tanks and the Americans M-24 Chaffee light tanks.

So none of the equipment is accurate.

The terrain is also wrong - the Ardennes is heavily forested and the Battle of the Bulge took place in deep snow, but the climatic tank battle of this movie is resolved on a dusty, open plain.

In Spain.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really into Spain for some reason, and that's why the locations were like a giant red blinking light telling me that this movie was wrong wrong wrong.

The wrongness is just pervasive.  The German HQ is like a Bond villain's lair, complete with doomsday clock. 

Don't get me wrong, I know that sometimes period films (especially war movies) have to make do.  For example, I went easy on Tora! Tora! Tora! precisely because so few Japanese aircraft survived World War II and likewise the available ships for live-action shooting are more modern.

But if one shot a Pearl Harbor movie with jets and set it in the desert, people might complain.  And that's the big issue with Battle of the Bulge.

The acting is also really weak.  In fact, the whole thing's weak.  It's the kind of movie where if you don't know history and watch it hoping to learn something, you'll end up dumber than before you started.  Even the voiceovers get stuff wrong. 

Given that there were three people credited for the script, you'd think at least one of them would know that the British Eighth Army was in Italy, not France.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.


When the trends reverse themselves

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan that created something of a sensation and established him as the go-to guy for risk management.

The book wasn't long, somewhat repetitive, but it did make important points about human bias and imperfect information.  Basically, we don't fully understand risk and so we don't properly prepare for it.  The 'black swan' of the title was the discovery in Australia of actual black swans - something that exists nowhere else in the world.  In fact, when they were found, it was shocking because of course swans are white.

A "black swan event" is therefore a rare event with significant consequences that no one even thought about, let alone prepared for.  The fact that it is rare doesn't mean impossible, which was his point.  Taleb has gone on to talk about fragility and the ineptitude of the current ruling classes.  His politics are all over the place, but he's brought up important points.

One of them is that trends only last until they change, and it's not always obvious when that will be.  Trend lines themselves are backwards-looking and therefore prone to misleading people if a big change is about to hit.  He gives the classic example of a sudden change in the trend by charting the weight gain (and health) of a Thanksgiving turkey, which shows steady improvement right up until it becomes dinner.

The key point is that the turkey doesn't know when that will happen or even if it will happen.  The turkey just goes on eating and getting bigger. 

So it is with other trends.  For years it was assumed that globalism meant that manufacturing jobs have to go overseas and will never come back.  Then it became clear that this trend wasn't an impersonal force of nature but the result of deliberate policy choices.  Change those choices, and the trend reverses itself.

The Catholic Church has watched with alarm as the number of active priests dwindled over the years.  One argument was that the requirements were too strict for the modern age and the doctrine to antiquated.  Married priests and maybe female clergy were the only options open.

Pope Benedict XVI disagreed and instead focused on stronger doctrine and also raising the standards for clergy, including increased accountability to prevent future abuses.

The result is that more people are choosing the vocations.  Note that I said "people" because women are also choosing to join the holy orders in numbers not seen in my lifetime.  Even before my conversion I recall the closure of various abbeys due to lack of members and yet now new ones are opening up.

Interestingly, the new members wear the traditional habit, a departure from plain-clothes nuns of the 80s and 90s.

Overall, the trend is still downward because it will take years to make up for the 'lost generation' of priests, but it is now moving in the right direction.

My point is that its easy to get locked into a fatalistic approach on so many things and simply assume an outcome is assured based on trend.  A better approach is to look at why things are trending that way and whether it can continue.  I notice housing prices are now even hotter than they were in 2008.  People looking for houses tell me that listings sell the day they go up and people have to bid over the asking price.

That's another trend that can't last forever.

 


The Blue Max: George Peppard and the dark side of glory

My latest movie outing was The Blue Max, an off-beat war movie from the Sixties about World War I German fighter pilots.

The main character was played by George Peppard, known to my generation from his turn as "Hannibal" from The A-Team, but who almost became an A-lister back in the day.

He was good (but seriously "beta" as the cool kids say) in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and his career never really achieved super-stardom.  

Still, The Blue Max is an interesting film, exploring the issues of social mores, class, and the way in which "official heroes" are made. 

To be sure, World War I is something of an obscure topic, but in the 1960s it wasn't that far removed - it was in the same place as World War II would be in the 1980s.  It made sense for retrospective films to emerge, and The Blue Max is interesting insofar as it evokes both the chivalry of the era (including a nod to Manfred von Richtofen) as well as the mentality of total war.

Interestingly, the aircraft used were built from scratch - there weren't a lot of World War I aircraft still lying around, and they were simple enough to construct that it was financially viable to build replicas. 

Not that they got everything right - a deep dive into the topic reveals some anachronisms - but it was pretty darn close.

The worst moment (for those who care about historical accuracy) was where the German and British armies meet in pitched bayonet combat in No Man's Land, but it's a minor (if stupid) scene, and incidental to the plot.

Far more meaningful is the role of Peppard as the meritocratic social climber, willing to do whatever it takes to obtain status, power, respectability.  His struggle - and fate - is not without relevance today.

It's not in the first tier of war movies by any stretch, but it's worth a watch.


The Lord of Spirits podcast will blow your mind

For the last couple of weeks I've been catching up with the Lord of Spirits podcast.  This consists of two Gen X Eastern Orthodox priests talking about the spirit world - angels, demons, giants and so on.

It's a great listen and quite amusing because our hosts don't shy away from pop culture references in explaining their concepts.

There is too much to summarize in a single post, but one of their most intriguing concepts is that the spirit world not only exists, but is just as active as it was in Biblical times.  One of the difficulties in modern Christianity is reconciling both the worldview and the written record of ancient days with the world we see.

To the Hebrews and early Christians, the world was packed with spirits.  Angels were constantly dropping in to give messages and advice, and demons were running amok possessing people.  Modern secularists will tell us that these were merely natural phenomena turned into supernatural events by ignorant and superstitious people. 

Sadly, a lot of mainstream Christians also think this is true, including a great number of Protestants who reject the notion that there could be more than one spiritual rival to God.  In contrast to the Orthodox (and Catholic) view of seraphs, saints and cherubim, they see only the Big Guy and everyone should just talk directly to him - no need to bother with the receptionist, messenger boys or any of the other heavenly bureaucracy.

Obviously this is sweeping generalization but it is so common as to be the default. 

Opposing the secularist model, the hosts posit a new one in which the spirits are still there, it's just that people are trying to rationalize them away.  "I don't see angels, so there can't be any" seems to be the preponderant view.

At the same time, however, we see people turning to non-Christian faiths that are on far shakier ground in terms of standards of proof.  Neopaganism is a going thing, in part because it also meshes better with our identity-driving world.  If there can be no universal faith open to all (because Christianity is racist), the next best option is updating the old tribal gods.

Consider also the number of shows hyping ghost stories or supernatural event.  These things often feature high-tech gadgets to record distant voices, cold spots, etc. seeking to validate the spirit world in a scientific way.  Yet here again, no reference to religion is apparent - when spirits are encountered, the investigators simply try to talk or merely psychoanalyze them.

I'll have more thoughts on this in later posts, but for now I'll close by recommending that you give it a listen.

 


Tora! Tora! Tora! - A Balanced Look at Pearl Harbor

Following up on my Cornelius Ryan film adaptation kick, I watch another "docudrama" war movie, 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora!.

I remember watching this on broadcast TV at some point, but I didn't remember how really good it was.  It's interesting to go on imdb.com and read about all the "goofs" that were largely using the wrong pieces of equipment.  This was common in the pre-CGI age, where one had to made do with substitutes for rare or non-existent weapons, aircraft, ships and vehicles.

Tora! Tora! Tora! does this a lot, because there's no other way to make the movie.  The Japanese Navy was wiped out, and not a single flying example of Japanese combat aircraft survived the war.  Obviously, substitutes had to be contrived.

Similarly the US Navy didn't simply preserve the fleet under glass (to say nothing of ships sunk during the course of the war), so more modern vessels had to be used.  Even the locations are oddly called "goofs" because - get this - some had visible monuments erected after the war.

All of which to say is that other than the props and sets - which are as good as they could be - the film is really well done.  It's a very rare thing - a big movie without a cast of big stars.  If the Cornelius Ryan movies had all-star casts, Tora! Tora! Tora! had an almost no-star cast, with the bulk of it made up of character actors playing specific roles.  No Robert Redford leading a river assault or John Wayne commanding paratroopers from a garden cart.

For those who don't know, this movie is really two films in one - it shows both sides of the Pearl Harbor attack from both points of view, and does this using two completely separate film crews.  The American portion is made with American actors and the Japanese scenes are filmed in Japanese by Japanese.  It's very effective, and Japanese portions reflect the power struggle within Japan, something not usually brought into the discussion.

The Pacific War doesn't get much attention these days because everyone want to fantasize about fighting Nazis, but it was a major theater of war, and well worth studying.  Given all the garbage movies that came out (including the unwatchable Pearl Harbor), it's worth going back and watching an overlooked classic.

 

 


Snare drums and monochrome: another look at The Longest Day

Last week I did a reconsideration of A Bridge Too Far.  This week I figured it would be appropriate to review it's "prequel" about the Normandy invasion, The Longest Day.

Both films were based on books by Cornelius Ryan.  His method was to tell the story through personal recollections and to do this, he would post advertisements in papers seeking to contact war veterans and people who had first-hand knowledge of the events under study.  A small army of assistants sorted through the replies and then Ryan could sit down and do interviews, which also had to be cut down and fit into the narrative history.

This is why his catalog is somewhat limited.  Each book took many years to produce, and they were monster best-sellers.  The Longest Day follows this pattern, moving between the personal experiences of individuals to tell the story of the D-Day landings.  Like A Bridge Too Far, it is packed with Hollywood talent, and also includes Sean Connery - this time as an Irish enlisted man providing commentary on events.

Because it is black and white, The Longest Day can utilize actual combat camera footage to help tell the story.  It helps explain while this film is monochrome yet at the exact same time the same studio (Twentieth Century Fox) is producing the lavish and highly colorful Cleopatra.

Cleopatra famously almost bankrupted Fox, and it remains the most expensive movie ever filmed.  Yes, I know, there are a number of contenders, but they rely on inflated dollars to claim their crown - one must use constant dollars to make a true determination, just as one must do the same for box office tallies. 

Both Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell took bit parts in The Longest Day since Cleopatra's production continued to drag on and they were bored.

But back to our film.  The soundtrack is heavy on snare drums, and much use is made of the title song, which is whistled, blared by a full orchestra, and even tinkled on a piano in a pub. 

Still, it works.  It is quite long, but I would rate it as one of the more comprehensive "battle" films, and it has a number of amazing scenes, including one continuous take showing a French harbor being overrun via an overhead camera.  It is very impressive.

It also does a good job of showing the German point of view - better than A Bridge Too Far, in fact.  One element I didn't mention in my discussion of that film is that the German roles were greatly condensed, with important army and divisional commanders being dropped (and their lines given to other historical figures included in the movie).

To put it another way, if you know the source books, you'll notice more wrong with A Bridge Too Far than with The Longest Day.  Perhaps because it was closer to events, the earlier film took less dramatic license.

Both are well worth a watch.


The Cruelty of Roman Discipline: Titus Manlius

For the past few weeks I've been working my way through Livy's History of Rome, one of the few books from antiquity that has survived reasonably intact.

Livy was writing well after the fact, and like many historians of his time, saw his task as using the past for moral lessons about the present as well as a chronicle of things that had gone on before.  Where the two collide, drama and story generally win the day over unpleasant facts.

One celebrated episode in Roman history took place in 340 B.C. when Rome faced enemies on multiple fronts, the most dangerous one being a revolt of their Latin allies.  A stern man, Titus Manlius (love the names they had!) was elected consul for that year and his task was to crush the Latins.

I should mention that under the Roman Republic there were two consuls -  executives elected to one-year terms.  The idea was to prevent a return of monarchy and the consolidation of power into a single individual.  The Roman solution to this frequently was to create two identical offices which shared responsibility.  In times of great danger, however, the Senate could appoint a dictator (their term) with absolute power to defend the state, but only for a limited amount of time, usually six months.

In practice, the dictator was assigned a specific task and then expected to surrender their authority. 

Anyway, back to our story.  Passions are running high, and the Romans are eager to get to grips with their enemy.  Titus Manlius is worried that a chance encounter - say a duel among patrols - could lead to a skirmish and escalate into a battle, wrecking his plans.  He instead wants to maneuver the Latins into a position where he can crush them decisively.

He therefore gives an order that no one is to engage the enemy without his orders upon pain of death.

Naturally, this is tested and the example historians give is that his own son (also named Titus Manlius) was baited into battle by insults and totally defeated an enemy champion in a duel.

Manlius Junior not only wins the fight, but strips his fallen enemy of his weapons and armor (a big deal in ancient times) and brings the trophies back to his father.  Daddy Manlius looks at his son and orders the army to form up, presumably so he can give his son an award in front of them.

The troops fall into their ranks and then as expected, Manlius Senior announces that his son has distinguished himself in battle and awards him a medal.  He then announces that the duel was against orders and has his son beheaded.

This sends a shock wave through the whole army, which hitherto had been a bit lax about discipline.  After watching the general execute his son, they get serious about it.

I mention this episode because it is celebrated in Roman history.  Livy is writing more then 300 years later and he tells the story in a way that indicates that his readers already know it, they just don't know the context and the exact time period.  He's basically saying "Okay, so this is when that famous Titus Manlius thing took place.  We all know the basics of the story, but let me get into the details."

There are of course countless other variations of this storyline where a soldier disobeys orders in order to save lives or win a battle and gets simultaneously rewarded and punished, but this is to my knowledge the oldest version of it.

In more modern variations, the reward and punishment are less severe - a soldier gets promoted for valor and then demoted for insubordination, for example.  Or he wins a medal and is then put in the stockade for a few months.  The Romans, however, took pride in what they considered to be firm discipline.  To us, it looks cruel.

Objectively speaking, it is, and while the Romans (and Greeks) had many of the same virtues, their pagan culture was decidedly weak on mercy.  They knew it as a quality, sometimes praised it, often begged for it, but rarely granted it.  In the pre-Christian era, mercy was optional, something one might do to win a reputation or perhaps because it strategic value.

What I'm driving at is that there was no particular requirement for it.  Over the last few decades, Christianity has been subjected to heavy cultural criticism for supposedly being patriarchal or oppressive and (of late) even racist.  All of this is nonsense, and we're already getting a glimpse of the cruel morality that is intended to replace it - a "cancel culture" where apologies are demanded but never accepted and mercy is shown only to those who have sufficient clout to merit it.

Every moral question is reduced to the classic "who, whom" formulation, where there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, merely a question of who derives benefit.  If it's your team, it's okay.

Titus Manlius is an example of who one can take the virtues of discipline and courage and turn them into something absurdly cruel.

I should add that Game of Thrones was another great example in the popular culture of just how vicious a non-Christian world can be.  Some of the nastiness was simply low-talent writers trying to paper over their plot holes with salacious materials, but at its core the story has no real heroes.  Everyone remotely admirable gets killed or turned into a villain.

Even a cursory glance in Roman history shows that this isn't all that far-fetched.