Friday, March 31, 2006

John Paul, Everyman

It has been almost one year now since John Paul has died. Right here in Krakow there is a more or less continuous vigil at his former home, the archbishop's residence. It was a poingnant thing. I have some pictures that I will add to the blog, if I can figure out how to upload them.

It's difficult to describe all the angles of his cultural impact. He was sort of a real-life Forrest Gump of the 20th century: whereever life was lived in our violent, turbulent time, he was there, as if to grace us with his presence. He dodged the Nazis as a young seminarian, and the Soviets as a bishop. He had a special connection with the vocation of the old, the young, women, married people, intellectuals, priests, and laymen. He is widely loved in his native Poland, of course, but also in Latin America and Africa. Who is it that one man could be so many things to so many people. Well, one gift of leadership is the ability to speak to many people, and have each person in the audience perceive that he is being spoken to directly, in the tenderness of our hearts. John Paul had that gift.

Very early in his pontificate, John Paul visited Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown. The local television news sent a crew to my elementary school to interview us tykes. Most of the students were completely ignorant of who the pope was, and truth be told I didn't know very much either, except that I was willing to talk to the TV camera for a couple minutes or so. As it happened everything I said was true. Except that the correspondent woman asked me if I were Catholic. I said that I was, but I wasn't, until a couple of decades later.

Whatever else might be said of JPII, we always recall his gift to touch people whereever they were. He was sort of man who would visit Des Moines, Iowa (just the name of it sounds like the very definition of nowhere in particular) just because.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The trip to Tesco

It is a bit odd that the words I would use (cultural center, juxtaposition of modern and old, etc) to describe my expectations of Krakow versus my actual experience of it so far are more or less the same, but still they are nonetheless are very different things. Compared to major metropolitan areas, the city and it suburbs are small in area. I have a theory that one can use a bicycle to get around most of it, so I went shopping for a bicycle a couple of days ago. I spoke to a woman on the street, and she told me to go to Tesco (a British grocery/department store chain) which had supposedly opened a few stores in Krakow.

Did they ever.

The size of the place, and the variety of things they sold there are easily the equal of any Wal-Mart or Super Target in the United States. I knew very well that modernization, capitalism and so forth had come to Poland, but I had no idea that they had come to that scale. Of course, if one goes shopping in a ex-Communist or Third World country or anywhere off the beaten path, you would expect that you can find things cheap, especially necessities for which the locals cannot afford extravagant prices. What I didn't expect to find was these same goods as high-quality, readily available items. I found the bicycle I wanted, close to the top of the line at the store, for 600 zl (that's a little less than $200 for you fans scoring at home).

Frankly, I'm suprised that I hadn't heard about it until I went there. It seems that there ought to be some sort of political mobilization against it, for a lot of the same reasons Wal-Mart in controversial in the US, especially since there are a greater number of small merchants who stand to be put out of business in its wake. Maybe there is, and I am just not aware of it.

Then, right there in Tesco I encountered the old Poland again. I had purchased my bike and walked to the service desk to cut off the tags and get ready to ride it home. Directly in front of the service desk, a wizened little babcia was making some sort of
disagreeable comments in my direction. Frankly, I don't the she was comprehensible for someone fluent in Polish, which is not me. As near as I could figure out, she disapproved of my new purchase, wondering what sort of wild extravagance would ever have somebody pay 600 zlotys for a bicycle. It's just as well that she didn't see me buy a new watch for about the same amount immediately upon leaving the service desk.

Of course, from a big enough picture the old woman has a point (cranky as she was). I could have had a perfectly fine life without that bicycle. It would be a crying shame for Poland to successfully navigate the trauma of Communism and its aftermath, only to fall victim to the same runaway consumerism afflicting the developed world. But even for that, there is something to be said for Tesco. People who don't have easy, reasonably cheap access to food, clothes, and other basics of life are not going to be thinking of much else.

With the advent of Poland into the EU, many young people are leaving, especially for the UK. In a lot of ways, they represent the first generation in 100 years who have the opportunity to set their own course in life, individually and collectively. I am very interested in what it will be.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Life in Krakow

Like anybody, when I was in college I had friends from many different ethnic groups. Some were born in foreign countries, others maybe one generation away. And during the time that I knew them, it seems that several of them became interested in the culture of their home countries. A Japanese friend studied Japanese, a Ukrainian friend traveled there, a Korean friend became active in an Asian Christian ministry, etc. And for me, whatever becomes of this Polish adventure I have decided to take, I hope that that is not it. Ie, that there is more to it than some ethnic exploration phase.

Among other things, it would be very ironic for me to try that because I am not really Polish. I only have a Polish name, and even that was poorly Anglicized a few generations ago. I have even spent the better part of my professional career in Chicago, but know very few Polish people there. So if that's not it, then what? I have a feeling that there is something about Polish culture which is relevant to all nations, developed or otherwise. And it is not just about the Church, the history of the Slavic people, or being a buffer state subject to the whims of stronger neighbors, though all of those things are important.

It's also about a nation that is doing its level best to make a go of things. For whatever Poland has suffered in its past, it is not geared toward grievance-mongering. Even though a Polish culture is geared toward the preservation of memory (there are memorials everywhere), it all seems to be forward-looking, with just a minimum of score-settling. It is not necessarily the same for other nations. To some extent, this may seem like a trite observation, but it is not. Directly to the east of here in Belarus, a quasi-communist strongman is arresting peaceful demonstrators as I write. Most of the Muslim world is defensively crouched against consumerist Western culture, American troops in Saudi Arabia, or Israel or whoever today's bogeyman is. Of course, in the West such attitudes are criticized, and deservedly so.

But we should also note that they are not entirely unreasonable. The world is a perilous place, and our societies are fragile, so there is a strong reactionary impulse to protect whatever we have by walling ourselves off from the that which we don't understand. And paradoxically, the less we have to protect, the more reactionary we have to be in protecting it. It takes a fair amount of moral courage to be willing to expose oneself to the world and make the best of what happens.

Poland (and other nations) have this courage. The world would be a better place if more did.

"Mainstream Conservatives" pt 2

Well, it should be obvious by now that the GOP has not helped the cause of limited government. In fact, it has taken a difficult situation and made it worse. Why has this happened? The GOP establishment likes to tell the mainstream conservatives that they are perceived as right-wing crazies and that they should defer to the Establishment's superior politcal savvy. On some days they probably even believe it.

Simply put, this is a crock. First of all, where there is a substantial difference between the conservatives and the Establishment, the conservatives' position is often much more popular, for example on immigration. But there is more to it than that as well. Today's politically-connected conservatives have their own media outlets, their own think tanks, its own interest groups. In other words, they have been around the block a few times. They understand very well the virtue of taking a half a loaf and living to fight another day. They also know that they care about things like abortion or Terri Schiavo much more than the typical American. Further, even fairminded Americans who disagree with conservatives on an issue like this will tend to cut them a little bit of slack because they can accept a differing opinion as an expression of principle.

No, the problem between mainstream conservatives and the GOP establishment is that the two parties happen to see a couple of very important things differently, most especially the virtue of limited government. Today, there is a GOP President, and GOP leadership of both houses of Congress, of which the Republican leadership in Congress is in substantial peril this November. Frankly, at this point GOP leadership in Congress doesn't do a whole lot for conservatives. If the D's regain power in this election, life will go on. The GOP will desperately need money, votes and enthusiasm from the base to keep its leadership. The mainstream conservatives should choosely wisely whethere they want to give it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Mainstream conservatives"

With all the hype over the crunchy cons floating around the blogosphere recently, it's important to emphasize that their main foil, the "mainstream conservatives", really do exist. To be more precise, their is a substantial coherence to conservative thought in political and cultural matters among American conservatives all over the country. The Crunchy Cons themselves are more defined by lifestyle, of course, and so that makes direct contrast to the mainstreamers a little more difficult.

In general, American conservatives are defined by a half dozen or so important issues: taxes (against them), abortion (against it), strong defense (for it), liberal immigration policy (against it), judicial restraint (for it), limited government (for it), War on Terror (for it). And here, uniquely in the United States, mainstream conservatives are intellectually and demographically strong enough to be a real force in the body politic. This doesn't mean that they control everything, in the fevered imagination of a few, but rather they cannot just be bulldozed away.

The real foil for the mainstream conservatives are not Crunchy Conservatives but rather the Republican political establishment. The GOP establishment agrees with us about some things, disagrees about others, but it should be clear by now to those who follow politics closely that they are emphatically not the same thing. In particular, George W. Bush is not a mainstream conservative, and emphasized that point in several ways in the primaries long before he became President. Of course, to the essentially apolitical American, they are the same, which is why us conservatives need to be able to clearly define ourselves against the GOP establishment when the need requires.

And for this, there is essentially one arrow in the quiver: total mobilization. National Review and other organs can publish countless editorials about this or that. None of them has the remotest impact in comparison to sustained political action, especially if it is directed against the GOP. It is important to emphasize that this doesn't happen very often. The opposition to Harriet Miers was the last time, any by my reckoning the last one before that was the "bourgeois riot" against Al Gore's legal inanities in the Florida recount. In this way, the prescription drug benefit was a substantial missed opportunity, in my opinion. A strong mobilization against it might have actually done some good.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Crunchy Con smackdown

Jonah Goldberg takes the Crunchy Con thesis and its proponents to the woodshed to today:

Frankly, they (in particular Rod Dreher) deserve it. Even though I am sympathetic to the underlying sentiments (as is Jonah). In fact, just reading his lengthy critique (without the usual complement of sophomoric jokes even) lets us know Rod has hit a real nerve. I could write something similar from my own perspective, and if the spirit moves me I might. But for now I think I can get at the essence of my gripe with the Crunchy Con thesis in many fewer words.

Rod is fundamentally correct that red-state America, the American Right (and the American consumer in general) need to cultivate and exercise more spiritual discipline and take greater care in avoiding the trap of comfortable suburbanish consumerism. But everything I have read from Rod so far regarding how Americans ought to reorient their lives toward that end is seriously misguided.

I recall a cartoon from Doonesbury many years ago where some academic pooh-bah and his lackey are sitting in the Dean's office working over some budget numbers. The lackey suggests saving some money by cutting university administration, whereupon the Dean replies, "I said we cut some fat, not bone marrow." Like our college administrator friend, Rod makes no real effort to sort out the difference between what is essential and what is superfluous. If someone did make such an effort, it would be a very valuable thing. But what is between the covers of Crunchy Cons is not it, even if its essential premises are correct.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Karol Wotyla, once more with feeling

I will leave the topic of the philosophpy of JPII soon enough, but there is at least one more thing which needs to be said before I go. Walker Percy once said (I only remember this well enough to paraphrase) something like, "Before I die, I want to give a definitive refutation to the mind-body dualism which has infected all of Western culture for 400 years, and write a decent novel. Frankly, I suspect the latter one will be more difficult."

I thought of this, in the context of Peter Simpson's talk at the conference last weekend, in some ways the most profound of of the presentations. His immediate subject was the phenomenology of Wotyla in regard to the foundation of democratic polity. For Wotyla the most important phenomenon is 'I act'. A person's act shapes the person as well as external world. Because there must be some sphere where a person is free to act, in this way he attains his right to self-determination in the philosophical sense. Therefore, a pluralistic polity is in principle legitimate because, in granting a sphere for self-determination, it is true to the anthropological nature of the person.

But, the underlying phenomenology of Wotyla has much wider application than that, arguably even more important ones. The phenomenon 'I act' has priority over 'I think' which is where Rene DesCartes left us. DesCartes said "I think, therefore I am," the cornerstone of mind-body dualism. Ie, the mind and the body are separate things which have some relationship, maybe even a tenuous one, to each other. The problem with this is that in this scenario, it is only the mind which is really alive. To the extent that the body is animated at all, it is animated by the mind and is quicky dead when that source of animation is gone. If this is so, life is a more or less antiseptic flow of ideas and mind-games, which many fear is where we stand today in the West.

But if we follow Wotyla, we see that we are constituted in our acts at least as much as our thoughts. Our bodies define us at least as much as our minds, inasmuch as the two can be distinguished. We truly have the freedom to be whole persons.

As an aside, Prof Simpson claimed at the beginning of his talk that Wotyla was one of the very leading lights of 20th century philosophy. John Haldane spoke later, and denied this. That is, that the contributions of Wotyla were important, and worth discussing, but in the context of 20th century philosophy he was not on the A-list. Neither man elaborated on this in any detail, but my guess is that this is a function of a difference over the nature of philosophy as opposed to a difference over JPII. That is, at one level philosophy is the opposite of utilitarianism. It cares not one whit for the practical application of anything, but rather is an inquiry into the world motivated by the love of truth, and the repudiation of falsehood. But nonetheless this does have utilitarian consequences, because a person armed with the truth can do more things, be a better person even, than one without.

And the application of this different understanding of philosophy relates to this particular subject above. As 20th century philosophers go, Wotyla did not build the complex intellectual edifice of others. Certainly he less influential in the contemporary academy than at least a few (eg, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Heidegger, Rorty, Rawls). But for what his work means for the good of the human person Wotyla is at least the equal of anybody.