Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why Poland?

As some of you who know me are aware, since I left my trading job I have been planning an extensive trip to Poland sometime next year. People have asked me why I plan to do this, and truth be told I have sometimes struggled for an answer, especially one that I can cogently explain.

Let’s start with two important facts of modern Poland. First, that during the later stages of the Cold War, Poland was the flashpoint of resistance to Communism within the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe. Much of the Cold War drama in the Eighties occurred there.

Second, that Poland was the native land of Pope John Paul II. And there are a few things in particular that I think are worth emphasizing. For the entirety of his priesthood, JPII was always an orthodox Catholic in doctrine and morals. But in addition, he built a large philosophical edifice for the subjectivity of the person. That is, that properly understood the human person is an end, not a means. And he is also, at bottom, the first cause of his actions. Things don’t necessarily "happen" to him, but he can and often does freely make his own decision and act upon it. Combining these, we conclude that any system or ideology that reduces the person to a cog in some societal machine is a profound anthropological mistake. This system of thought may not be completely unique to JPII, but he is clearly the leading exponent in its development.

JPII wrote several works in this area. Most popularly, he wrote Love and Responsibility when he was a university professor in Lublin, and he gave The Theology of the Body as a series of General Audiences early in his pontificate. These works are conventionally understood to be about sex and marital relations, and they are, but they are also informed by JPII’s anthropological stance of the person. Professor Wojtyla most completely developed this theory in Person and Act, by all accounts a very difficult work.

I for one am intensely curious about the relationship between these two things. What relationship is there, if any, between Wojtyla’s emphasis on the subjectivity of the person, and the Polish cultural resistance to Communism during the Cold War? Obviously the person of JPII was a profound symbol of resistance as pope, but what about his philosophical ideas? Recall that he propagated those ideas for decades as a priest, teacher, and bishop, in Poland, before he went to Rome. I suspect, though I don’t know, that this infusion of subjectivity into the Polish culture profoundly influenced the resistance to Communism and the formation of Solidarity in ways that have hit the popular consciousness. I am going to Poland, in part, to find out.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

State of Fear?

I read State of Fear, by Michael Crichton on the plane out to LA. After I was done, I realized one great thing about fiction is that for any idea you have, you can assign exactly the amount of credibility you wish it to have simply by carefully choosing which of your characters will propagate it. In State of Fear there’s John Kenner, the genius ass-kicker; Peter Evans, the well-meaning environmental naif; George Morton, the benevolent philanthropist; Nick Drake, the Lex Luther of the tree-huggers, and a few others. Whatever Kenner says is gospel, but Evans’ words are misguided do-gooderism. The plot twists might surprise, but the worldview of the author is obvious: the crises proclaimed by the environmental movement are overblown, especially global warming.

In a literary sense, this might be sort of a disconnect: what kind of eco-thriller is based on the premise that our environmental challenges are not that big a deal one way or the other? In a sense, that’s part of the genius of Crichton’s device. His thesis is that we should be worrying about malevolent political and cultural agendas instead. By comparison, people driving SUVs and minding their own business is pretty small beer. And if people have a problem with this for scientific reasons, it is well-justified historically. Whatever human ills may have been caused by environmental despoilation, they are certainly dwarved by the malevolent political agendas and those who have pursued them.

And it should also be obvious that the environmental movement is strongly attached to a political agenda that may well be a malevolent one. And whether it is or not is dependent on two things. First, on whether the disaster scenarios the environmentalists want to warn us about are, in fact, likely. I personally have a strong hunch that they’re not likely, but like most people, I don’t presume to pronounce definitively on the subject on way or another.

The second consideration is a little more subtle, but probably more important. Is the intent of the environmental movement to serve the human interest, or to dictate it? The cynics among us have little regard for the good motives of the activists, but the issue is unclear even among the environmentalists themselves. There’s a temptation that being in communion with Mother Earth is a more noble thing than the petty concerns of the small-minded people who happen to be our neighbors.

In an addendum, Crichton compares today’s environmentalists with the eugenics movement early in the 20th century. The comparison is unflattering, but at least somewhat legitimate. Crichton is correct to emphasize that at the time, eugenics was thought to have an irreproachable "scientific" pedigree, and in fact its enthusiasts never ceased of proclaiming it. Conscientious environmentalists who object to being lumped together with the eugenicists (which is all of them, I hope) should still allow that those who claim to speak with "scientific" accuracy cannot intimidate the other parties in the crucial cultural debates of our day.