Monday, January 4, 2010

Standing Against the Utopians

You may not have ever heard of Jean Francois Revel, but you would do well to make his posthumous acquaintance. Revel was (he died four years ago) a French intellectual who was perhaps the greatest French defender of American democracy and capitalism since Tocqueville.

In a century in which it was fashionable for French intellectuals like Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida to embrace socialism and disdain the bourgois capitalism of the United States, and indeed to disdain the United States itself, Revel stood stout against the wooly-headed utopianisms of his leftist peers. His books included How Democracies Perish, The Totalitarian Temptation, Anti-Americanism, Without Marx or Jesus, and The Last Exit to Utopia.

This last work, written in 1999, has recently been translated into English and is reviewed in City Journal by Guy Sorman. Sorman writes:

[Revel] could never solve the ultimate puzzle of the Left's blindness, however: why would educated scholars elevate utopian fantasy above reality? The failures of the Soviet Union, its mass cruelties, had been known in the West since the 1930s: Andr� Gide had denounced them in his book, Return from the USSR. Scholars and journalists in the West did not need to wait for Solzhenitsyn to learn about the existence of the Gulag. Yet these truths had little consequence. Leftist intellectuals rationalized any bad news by explaining that the Soviet Union did not practice "real socialism." After the Berlin Wall came down, many on the left took the event not as a rejection of socialism but as an opportunity at last to build true socialism, free of Russian perversion.

Revel tried to explain this utopian yearning through Rousseau's influential doctrine: man was inherently good, society bad. Therefore, as Rousseau had it, reforming society-starting with the suppression of private property-would allow man's fundamentally good nature to shine forth. Another source of the utopian fantasy, he believed, came from the European Catholic canon: good intentions count most. Even after learning that the Soviet Union and the Third Reich killed approximately the same number of their own citizens, leftist intellectuals rejected any comparison between the two regimes; after all, the Soviets' intentions were better than the Nazis', and intentions trump results. Revel could barely contain his ire at leftist scholars who refused to discuss the matter honestly.

He believed, with excessive optimism, that reasoning could eventually persuade socialists that they were wrong. His philosophical superiority was rooted in this commitment to reason, but his political weakness was to underestimate the power of myths, ideologies, and religions in shaping (and hardening) people's views.

Revel's books are thus deeply relevant to the current American debate on the future role of government: should good intentions (like "health care for all") take precedence over the predictable bad results of such measures? Should political myths (the benevolent state) be fought with facts, or by promoting counter-myths (like the libertarian utopia)? America's loud and disgruntled demonstrators, from universal health-care activists to Tea Partiers, would benefit from an encounter with this great defender of the free society.

The utopian impulse is very much alive in the contemporary edition of the Democratic party, but we must not forget that such impulses have invariably led to the loss of freedom and not infrequently to oppression. It was Revel's great contribution to western civilization that he would not allow the Left to promote their collectivist, dehumanizing schemes unchallenged.


Good Advice, Mostly

Brit Hume offers some good advice to Tiger Woods on Fox News Sunday, but I have one reservation:

My concern is with Brit's assertion that Tiger can make a complete recovery by turning his life over to Christ. I'm not sure what he means by "complete recovery," but if he means that Tiger can eventually work his way back to the top of the golf world and recover his family as if nothing ever happened, I don't think that's how things work. Our choices, our conduct, have consequences that cannot be erased just because we have turned our life around. Even if Woods followed Hume's advice he'll still have to live with the hurt and devastation he's caused his family and admirers. He still has to live with the fact that it will be very hard for anyone close to him ever to trust him again. He still has to live with the fact that he's become a butt of jokes which will be around for a decade or more. He still has to live with the damage he's done to his reputation.

There is redemption in Christianity to be sure, but many who have all but wrecked their lives and subsequently found forgiveness in Christ have also found their lives reoriented in directions they never would have anticipated. Chuck Colson comes to mind. It may be that part of Tiger's redemption is that he never golfs competitively again, but that, like Colson, he finds himself moving on a path of service rather than a path of personal financial success.

In other words, Hume is right that Woods' best hope is in the life-changing power of the Gospel, but no one should think that just because one has been rescued from a burning building that their own burns will be miraculously healed. Instead, we often have to learn to live with their pain even as we are filled with gratitude that we were rescued before we were completely destroyed.


Let's All Grow Up

In the company of friends on New Year's Eve I asked if I was wrong to think that our national media was acting reprehensibly in reporting on Tiger Woods' personal life. What business is it of anyone's what he does, I asked? He's not paid by tax dollars, he's not accountable to the people, what right does the media have to humiliate him by reporting on the sordid details of his dalliances with women other than his wife? What right do they have to humiliate Woods' wife and children by exposing their husband and father as a sex-addicted philanderer?

Someone in the group replied that that's just what those people do, they see it as their mission in life to destroy people's reputations and lives by publicizing personal details about them to a public which is only too eager to revel in the scandal and to make them the butt of jokes and mockery. The media feeds our, and their, basest instincts, and we lap it up like a cat at the milk bowl. It makes some in the media, and many of their subscribers, feel better to know that other people are no better, and maybe a lot worse, than they are. It confers a feeling of moral superiority on the viewer and reader to see the famous and the popular brought low.

Woods' behavior, as awful as it was, is none of the media's business and none of our business. Eliot Spitzer's was. Mark Sanford's was. Max Baucus' was. John Edwards' was. Bill Clinton's was. These are people who were, in one way or another, misbehaving on the public's dime. Woods wasn't. The media have no more right to probe into his life than they had the right to malign Joe the Plumber or embarrass Sarah Palin's daughter.

There are so many stories that need to be reported, but the media, at least the left-leaning media, ignores them in favor of satisfying their fixation on trying to uncover dirt on whoever they think they may be able to destroy. Compared to the reporting on Tiger Woods how many stories have appeared on the nightly news explaining exactly what's in the health care bills? How many accounts have been written in newspapers about President Obama's "safe schools czar," the execrable Kevin Jennings? How much reporting has there been in the dominant media on the fraudulent manipulation of data, and the attempt to silence opposition, by global warming climatologists?

When did journalists abandon the idea that their profession, their calling, was to inform and edify the American public about things that really matter? When did news media professionals begin to think that their responsibility was not to educate but to titillate and gossip? It seems that many journalists no longer aspire to expose corruption in high places. Rather they give the impression that their dream story would be to report that Tiger Woods' latest mistress was Sarah Palin's daughter and that their tryst took place at Dick Cheney's ranch.

That, it too often seems, is too many journalists' idea of a blockbuster story.


Another Blow to the Global Warmists

One of the arguments that has been used to support the claim that humans are causing the earth's climate to change goes something like this:

The earth is warming as evidenced by retreating glaciers. Increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by humans, could account for that warming. We know that gases like carbon dioxide have been produced in greater quantities in the last two centuries by human activity. Therefore, human activity must be causing the earth to warm.

A study reported in Science News, however, kicks the props out from under this argument. The study shows that, despite increases in CO2 production since the industrial revolution, the accumulated CO2 in the earth's atmosphere has not changed in the last 160 years and thus cannot be the cause of whatever climate change there has been over that span:

To assess whether the airborne fraction [of CO2] is indeed increasing, Wolfgang Knorr of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol reanalyzed available atmospheric carbon dioxide and emissions data since 1850 and considers the uncertainties in the data. In contradiction to some recent studies, he finds that the airborne fraction of carbon dioxide has not increased either during the past 150 years or during the most recent five decades.

The CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere is reabsorbed by green plants, particularly algae in the oceans. If Knorr's findings are correct it seems that the earth has a far greater capacity to handle the carbon dioxide load than had previously been thought. Before we spend trillions of dollars to fix a problem that doesn't exist, i.e. overloading the atmosphere with CO2, perhaps we should look elsewhere for the cause of our retreating glaciers.