Thursday, September 09, 2004

Two Books

I read two books while on vacation. Both of them introduced me to subjects with which I am rather unfamiliar. One I borrowed from the library and finished while there: Body of Knowledge: The Semester of Gross Anatomy, the Gateway to Becoming a Doctor by Steve Giegerich (New York: Scribner, 2001). What an amazing story of how first-year medical students are transformed through the dissection of a human body! The author takes you along through the experience, from initial squeamishness and almost horror at the repulsive thought of cutting into this . . . this . . . body . . . , to the point of familiarity and equanimity.

Well, well written. I would recommend it highly.

The other book: True Tolerance: Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgment by J. Budziszewski. This is a horrendously tough book to get into. Even now (I have read some 160 of its 298 pages), I find myself too often feeling as if I’m barely able to grasp what the author is talking about. (I force myself to read such difficult books now and then to expand my horizons, force me to think new thoughts, and improve my ability to think. Like a hard physical workout, such hard mental workouts are usually highly rewarding.)

I began the book not for a mental workout. Indeed, I didn’t expect to have to work nearly as hard as I have. Everything else I have read by Budziszewski [I believe it is pronounced boo-CHEFF-skee] has been written at an extremely practical and popular level.

But he is a scholarly philosopher and political scientist (associate professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin). And by all indications after I began reading the book, it appears that this one is meant for a scholarly audience.

I have known Budziszewski from his writings in World magazine and, most especially, as "Professor Theo" in a monthly column, "Office Hours," published in Boundless magazine. He’s always been thought-provoking, just never thick, the way he is here.

Having said all that, however, I would like to plead with you to stick with me as I attempt to summarize what I believe Budziszewski is trying to say. The topic of his book is of extreme importance—and ever more so—in modern American society.

What is he talking about? The title reveals his theme: tolerance, true tolerance.

Many in our society say that if or when someone claims to make an ethical judgment, such a person, by making such a judgment, is being intolerant. And such intolerance is intolerable. Put another way: intolerance ought not to be tolerated: “there ought to be laws against intolerance.”

And, indeed, we are finding more and more such laws.

So what does Budziszewski have to say about tolerance?

First, that the leaders in the modern movement of “toleration” or “tolerance” are, in essence, demanding ethical neutrality and/or “indifference about what is lovable or praiseworthy.” And, second, that ultimately it is impossible to avoid making choices—decisions—based upon what one deems lovable or praiseworthy. Put another way, the modern demand for tolerance (in the sense of ethical neutrality) is, by its own definition, intolerant because it is neither ethically neutral nor indifferent. It says that at least one thing (tolerance) must be valued.

Moreover, not only is ultimate and true ethical neutrality impossible, it is pernicious, destructive, wrong. It is a bad goal to pursue.

But if tolerance, in the sense of ethical neutralism, is not the answer, then what is? Is Budziszewski arguing in behalf of intolerance?


He argues for what he carefully and lovingly defines as true tolerance. Ethical neutrality is false tolerance, an “imposter.” We do not tolerate what we are indifferent about. True toleration can only occur when we really care about something, when we truly value a particular viewpoint. Only then can it be said—under certain circumstances—that we are tolerating a perspective that we find offensive.

So, according to Budziszewski, how should a modern person—someone who desires charitable and tolerant attitudes toward those with whom s/he disagrees—deal with opposing viewpoints? He uses a practical illustration to describe the ways and means—and, most importantly, the reasons—of tolerant individuals within a tolerant society:

The ancient republics believed in firming the resolve of the good by disgracing the wicked. In other words, they dishonored persons as well as practices. [Truly tolerant people] draw the line at persons. Why? Because virtue is less important than we thought? No: because in some small way perhaps we understand it better, and at the same tmr are less inclined to credit ourselves with other kinds of understanding that we do not have. In particular: we can know what is disgraceful, but not who.

Suppose I have committed a crime. I have behaved disgracefully; I deserve punishment. But would you punish the disgrace of my conduct by disgracing my person? To know that I deserve some sort of punishment, you need only see my outward self; to know that I deserve disgrace, you would need to see my inward self, which is hidden from you and probably even hidden from me.

When you disgrace my person, you assume the pretense that you can see hidden things. . . . If I accept [your portions], I may come to believe that I am irredeemable. If I do not, I may come to be filled with resentment of an intensity that other forms of punishment could never incite.

In the meantime, what about you? Seeing how you have disgraced me may make me even more despicable in your sight than I was before. This may confirm you in your portions, and convince you that you are a higher being. Should these things take place to you and to me, no service had been done the cause of virtue; we had both been made worse.

I suggest (without pretending that believers have always been a good advertisement for it) that the distinction between dishonor to practices and dishonor to persons originates in the Christian maxim, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” But one need not belong to the Christian faith in order to acknowledge the maxim’s force, and it has been absorbed into the liberal tradition as a counsel of tolerance.

There is no need to be naïve about this. Certainly, if a practice is held to public dishonor, the persons who engage in it will find themselves at a disadvantage in polite society. If we object to this, we had better abolish the government; all civil and criminal law has the same effect. But it is different from passing judgment on souls. . . .

[As John Stuart Mill points out, i]t is one thing to avoid someone’s society; it is another to “parade the avoidance.” It may be our duty to warn others against him; it cannot even be our right to do so out of malice. The idea is that disapproving what he does must not be connected with a withdrawal of love for his person.

I am speaking of things I do not fully understand. But someone who understood them better, I think, might speak to us as follows. In fear you must tread the razor between connivance at my immorality, and the greater monstrosity of moral pride. If you avoid me because of what I do, do it because you are not good enough to be with a man as bad as me: not because you are too good. . . .

These then are the three alternatives: connive, give in to pride, or tread the razor. There is more for trembling here than liberalism has yet perceived, but this much our norms admit: true tolerance is treading the razor. (pp. 27-28)
Budziszewski, as I have suggested, keeps his discussion at an extremely high level. But he comes back to earth upon occasion. He does so in at least one spot when he explains the meaning of this term “treading the razor” and avoiding the sins either of connivance with evil or of giving in to pride:

[A] man who objects to skimpy clothing might, in principle, recognize that the motives of a woman who is wearing it are entirely pure. His objection may arise from concern, not for her moral good, but for his. To call the man lecherous is not only uncharitable[; it] misses the point. He knows that he is. That is why he objects to her display: he does not want to be inflamed, and wishes that someone would take thought for his effort.

The point is charmingly made by a conversation between two characters in one of the thousand classics we no longer read, Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678:

Now Mr. Feeble-mind [original meaning: faint-heart], when they were going out of the door, made as if he intended to linger. The which, when Mr. Great-heart espied, he said, “Come, Mr. Feeble-mind, pray, do you go along with us. I will be your conductor, and you shall fare as the rest.”

Feeble-mind. “Alas, I want [need] a suitable companion. You are all lusty and strong, but I, as you see, am weak. I choose, therefore, rather to come behind, lest, by reason of my many infirmities, I should be both a burthen to myself and to you. I am, as I said, a man of weak and feeble mind, and shall be offended and made weak at that which others can bear. I shall like no laughing, I shall like no gay attire, I shall like no unprofitable questions. Nay, I am so wek a man as to be offended with that which others have a [moral] liberty to do . . .”

Great-heart. “But, brother,” said Mr. Great-heart, . . . [y]ou must needs go along with us. We will wait for you, we will lend you our help, we will deny ourselves some things . . . for your sake. . . . We will be made all things to you rather than you shall be left behind.”
True tolerance, we see, cuts both ways: Feeble-mind endeavors to tolerate those who enjoy conduct which he knows to be innocent but which his feelings cannot bear, and Great-heart endeavors to tolerate Feeble-mind’s weakness, denying himself many innocent things so that Feeble-mind will not be left behind. In this mutuality, we are witnessing the co-dependence of the great virtue of tolerance and the great virtue of courtesy. (p. 83)
Budziszewski closes his book with a series of 39 “Counsels of Tolerance.” The following few particularly caught my eye:
2. Although diversity is not a good in itself, the good is diverse.

5. Part of true tolerance is remembering at all times that one is an object of tolerance to others. One should sometimes even deny oneself things that are innocent in themselves if others cannot bear them.

7. While avoiding connivance at the wrongs or faults of others, one must avoid the even greater monstrosity of moral pride. If you avoid me because of what I do, do it because you are not good enough to be with a man as bad as me; not because you are too good.

18. Contempt travels easily under the mask of tolerance. To accept the unacceptable is to tell a child that nothing about him matters.

22. Teachers should present not only the ideals of their own tradition, but also the ideals of the significant alternatives to it—including the traditions against which their own is in part a reaction.

26. If any person proposes a policy, he shows his tolerance for others by honoring their demand to know on what understanding of the good his proposal rests.

29. Expressive tolerance must be observed not only by individuals, but also by the state. Thus, discursive reasoning and the communication of information that republican citizens might need in order to carry out their constitutional responsibilities should be granted absolute protection.

33. Government should be prohibited from coercive enforcement of belief in an officially approved ultimate concern.

34. Government should be prohibited from coercive enforcement of outward acts of affirmation of such belief.

35. Government should be prohibited from coercive enforcement of outward acts for the support of an organization officially designated for promulgating these beliefs.

39. A sincere petition by the state for the blessing of whatever God may be thought to exist is not a violation of true tolerance. However, the state may not “use” religion as a Noble Lie for its own ends. (pp. 269-276)
What do you think?

I encourage you to get Budziszewski’s book. It is, as I said, difficult to read. But if you can handle philosophical arguments, you will be well rewarded the effort.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Amazing History--From Afghanistan

This was a final "Day at Sea." With nothing else to do, Sarita borrowed a book from the ship's library and read a kind of personal-history, Afghani-perspective book. She asked me to type up the following passage from the book. It sure blew me away!

The book itself, from what she has shown me, is well worth reading. It’s called West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story by Tamim Ansary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

Here’s the quote:

In San Francisco not long ago, I saw a high school world history textbook that covered the Ghaznavid Empire with a single picture and a short caption, but in central Asia, it was a mighty big deal for a hundred years. It stretched from India to the Caspian Sea, covering an area perhaps half the size of the United States. Its kings, or sultans, loomed large as patrons of the arts. Sultan Mahmud had nine hundred poets living at his court, plus innumerable historians, philosophers, and the like. The Book of Kings, the major epic of Persian literature, was originally written for him.

The Ghaznavids and their successors, the Seljuk Turks, presided over three hundred years of art and thought every bit as vital as the Italian Renaissance. The Renaissance, however, segued into “the European expansion,” which became the main stem of world history. The first Islamic civilization of the Turks, Arabs, and Persians was cut short and buried by the Mongol holocaust.

At this remove, Genghis Khan registers as romantic to many. “Great conqueror. Great strategist,” the textbooks say, forgetting to add, “Mindless destroyer. Brutal butcher.” Genghis Khan destroyed so utterly, on such a scale, that no one today can know what Islamic civilization was about or where it was going then. Imagine if a massive force of slobbering boors had invaded Europe during the Renaissance and erased from memory Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Erasmus, Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Rome. That’s pretty much what the Mongols did to Islamic civilization. In Afghanistan alone, the Mongols dumped the once-celebrated library of the now-forgotten city of Balkh into the Amu, a river so broad, you can’t see from one bank to the other, and yet the library of ancient Balkh dammed its waters for three days (and then washed away).

The Ghaznavids established a regional capital in that hellish desert, where they built enormous irrigation works that used the Helmand River to create, according to legend, “the breadbasket of Asia.” But Genghis Khan didn’t like bread. He thought people should herd sheep and eat meat. So he tore up the irrigation systems, killed every living thing in the local cities, right down to the dogs and cats, and then sowed salt in the soil. The region never recovered. (pp. 55-57; NOTE: This reminds me of something a woman we met at one of the evening shows said. She was born in Iran and lived through Khomeini’s “revolution.” Now, 22 years later, she says the country/civilization—not quite “can never” go back to what it was, but it will take a huge, very costly, and very prolonged effort to ever bring it back. All the women who once were free have moved on and out. And now all the new generation knows is the oppressive environment in which they grew up.)

Sarita showed me the "Post-Epilogue" email that Mr. Ansary wrote on September 12, 2001 immediately following—you guessed it—9/11. Ansary was responding to the proposals some were making at the time that “we” (the United States) “bomb Afghanistan back to the stone age.” . . . As an Afghani-American, he wanted to reply to that suggestion. So he wrote an email. And then he wrote his book.

I look forward to reading the book.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Messina, Sicily, Italy--September 1st

Photos to come . . .