Health and Hope

Accentuating the positive:  Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield continue the fight against the over-diagnosis of depression-as-disease in their Op-Ed, “Sadness is not a disorder.”  They contend:

What’s wrong is this: Depressive disorder and normal sadness are different conditions with different prognoses and implications. In responding to intense sadness, psychiatry does a disservice by confusing it with depressive disorder and thus narrowing the range of options.

Indeed, psychiatry today almost seems to deny that any sort of intense sadness can be a normal and, ultimately, even a beneficial experience.

So let’s not overlook the healthy benefits of a good cry. 

And this story of the health care cost crisis for small business should bring tears to your eyes.  Here’s how it starts:

Frank Manzo keeps doing the math, trying to figure out how he can still offer health insurance to his employees.  His 28-employee tech-staffing company, Computer Methods Corp., charges clients $35 an hour for help desk workers. He pays them $25 an hour. Health insurance premiums proposed for 2008 for a family run nearly $12 an hour – up 30 percent from last year.

Forget about profit. Forget about rent on the company’s Marlton offices, the electric bill, or even paper for the copy machine.

The middle-class, college-educated people at Manzo’s company were on the edge of joining America’s 47 million uninsured.

“Where do I find the money?” Manzo asked, his voice rising in frustration. “What am I supposed to pay them – $10 an hour? At this point, they may as well go work for McDonald’s.”

Health insurance makes everyone miserable. But among the most miserable are small-business owners.

Well, we can’t lose hope.  “Zealously wishy-washy” Mark Bowden finds a good word to say about religion:  in a messed up world, it can give us hope:

Life can be seen as a brief sojourn between nothingness and nothingness, a chance to blink open your eyes and look around with wonder. Since we cannot know why, it is just as easy to believe the trip has a purpose as to believe it does not. To my mind, it is easier to believe the former, which, of course, doesn’t make it right. The religious man chooses to believe life has meaning. The best I’ve ever been able to manage is hope.

The fact that these three articles appeared in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer is not the only thread holding them together.  Let me try to grab ahold of it.

We use the term “health” as if we know what it means and how we should “care” for it.  But I wonder if we know what we’re talking about.  Recently, there have been a number of nay-sayer articles appearing (I’ve alerted you to a couple) that take issue with whether “depression” is really a “health” issue at all.  If depression means sadness, and sadness is an emotion, we might ask how an emotion becomes a syndrome or a disease.  If emotions are not diseases and therefore not a matter of concern for health care providers, perhaps we can drastically reduce health care costs by ruling out mental “illness” all together (after all, it’s really not illness). 

The pieces I’ve referenced on the topic don’t make this rather stark argument.  Instead, they’re concerned about the negative effects of thinking of emotions as potential illnesses and what might be called the “medicalization” of the soul or the person.  It’s the idea that we might be cheating ourselves of something (like a good cry) by medicating away the capacity for shedding tears.

Of course, when you are feeling miserable–say, about health care costs–you tend to want to not feel miserable.  Miserable is bad, less miserable is better, not miserable at all is good.  Now suppose that you come to the conclusion that the cause of your misery–say, the unaffordability of health care–is never going to go away, that neither the “left” or the “right” are going to find a solution, that it is a part of your life and always will be until you die.  Further suppose that I can offer you some relief from the misery that won’t otherwise go away.  Would you take it?  Or would it be enough to hope for the (impossible) solution to become possible?

Let me try another tack.  I agree with Horwitz and Wakefield that “sadness is not a disorder,” if by “disorder” they mean a purely medical condition.  If they are opposed to mean old Big Pharma’s medicalizing normal emotions for the sake of profits, then I am with them. It may well be argued that some of the latest “syndromes” we hear about in commercials during the nightly news are “manufactured.” 

So what about all those people with “the blues” who say they have benefited from SRO’s and other depression medications?  These commentators believe that it is no more than the placebo effect.  There seems to be an unusually high rate of placebo effect with psycho-therapeutic drugs. (see this review of John Horgan’s book, The Undiscovered Mind for some thoughts on this)

I am not so sure this is easy to unpack.  Is depression the same thing as sadness?  Or is it that there is a frequent conjunction of the two, but that they are not identical?  It may be the latter.  Some principles we should bear in mind:  [1] Humans are biological beings, made of flesh, blood, bones, sinews, guts, and nerves; [2] Humans are meaning-bestowing beings.  We don’t just exist; we act and are acted upon.  And we don’t just act and be acted upon; we bestow meaning on our actions, the actions of others, and the goings-on in the world–even if at times these have no meaning of their own.  If [1] and [2] are true (and they are), then if one’s body feels a certain way, one will bestow meaning on that feeling.  If the feel (I’ll use “feel” and not “feeling,” which may be confused with emotion) in the body is the same or similar to how it feels when one is saddened by some event, then that feel will likely come to mean “sadness” to the person.  If this view of things is correct, then it becomes more difficult to unpack what is going on with depression and its treatment.  It may be that serotonin levels do affect the feel of the body.  But serotonin levels cannot really treat “sadness.”  The problem with clinically depressed people is not that they are “sad,” it’s that they feel sad without sufficient reason.  I realize immediately that “sufficient reason” is irreparably vague.  What I mean is that there is something like a compound problem.  Life creates misery (say, the unaffordable costs of health care), which in people of a certain body chemistry becomes compounded.

So what will fix the problem these people experience?  Removal of the misery-producing irritant.  Adjustment of serotonin levels.  Administering a placebo (the very fact of doing something, anything is therapeutic).  Talking therapy (professional or amateur), which might include being “talked out of” the idea that the problem is a real problem. 

You cannot often in this life do the first.  The second and the third might  turn out to have the same effect.  The last is almost never a bad idea.  In fact, it’s probably the world’s oldest solution (if there is a solution); it’s just that now it seems you have to pay for it.  Used to be people just talked to their parents, their spouse, their friends, or their ministers.  Somehow–you know the story–talking got professionalized.

Anyway, the question of what constitutes health in the first place needs to be addressed, and that means we need to think about what it means to be human person, as well as what it means to be in community, and even about the very notion of the good.  In other words, the public discussion that is going on regarding health care needs to become more philosophical than it has been.  Otherwise, there is no hope in contending with our problems.

Which brings me back around to the question of hope.  Suppose for a second Prozac “works” (either as a chemical or as a placebo).  I feel a certain, undesirable, way; I take Prozac; I feel a different, more desirable, way.  What happened?  Did Prozac make me into something I “am” not?  Or did Prozac remove an obstacle to my being who I “am”?  Which is the real me–pre-Prozac me or post-Prozac me?  In a similar vein, we can ask with Mark Bowden whether a believing me is “better than” an unbelieving me, and then ask which one of those is the “real” me.

Marx said, more or less, that religion was the opiate of the people, implying that religion drugs people into a docile and degraded state.  But what if religion is the Prozac of the people (at least some people)?  Is it like Horwitz and Wakefield might say, that we’d be “better off” just accepting and (not) dealing with the “nothingness” or “meaninglessness”?  Or would religion–so long as we don’t O.D. on it!–just make us “feel” and then perhaps even act better (whether “true” or not)?  We should not forget that placebos work.

I’ll let Bowden have the last words.  He’s been reading Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, Spe Salvi.  Bowden writes:

I recommend it. The pope is dealing with first questions here. He covers a lot of ground but zeros in on the kinship between hope and faith. If life has meaning, if the soul lives on after death in some way, if the Christian message is true, then the idea of an “afterlife” need not be any of the cheesy human attempts to imagine Heaven, Benedict wrote, but “something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality. . . . It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”

It may not be the bevy of virgins promised in one of Muhammad’s hadiths, but it sounds good to me. It sure beats simply fading to black. Religion can go bad, but it wrestles seriously with what matters most. Unlike the zealots training to blow up thousands in the name of their God, I might never achieve faith, but hope?

Hope I can live with.

Me, too.

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Depressed?! I’ll give ya’ depressed! (w/Robots)

Don’t worry:  you’re not depressed.  Will Wilkerson of the Cato Institute says so in the pages of Reason magazine:

The alleged epidemic of depression simply doesn’t exist. Horwitz and Wakefield are right: Millions who have been diagnosed with major depression never had it in the first place, even if their lives were nonetheless improved by the drugs they were prescribed. We risk our very real and very satisfying prosperity if the self-assigned stewards of public health insist on “treating” our illusory unease. That would be depressing.

So, c’mon…be optimistic! 

Then again….research suggests that perhaps “optimism isn’t always healthy.”  Go figure!

Anyway, my colleagues brightened up when they saw my earlier blog entry on health care reform which, to their delight, featured lots of “communist” ideas.  The following ought to bring them down:  Stuart M. Butler over at the Heritage Foundation has some ideas about health care reform, and the problems it causes for small business.  You can see how your state is doing regarding containing health care policy costs here.  John Shadegg and Mark McClellan sound the warning that government is not going to solve the problem–it’s part of the problem.  David Hogberg tells us that ‘”Medicare for All” Universal Health Care Would Not Solve the Problem of Rising Health Care Costs,” anyway.   And besides, you ought to have the freedom to spend your own money on medical care the way you want to.

So what will the next President try to do about it?  You can compare the major candidates’ health care ideas here, in a handy side-by-side comparison chart.  Ramesh Ponnuru opines that the Republicans are the real health care radicals.

Health care reform problem too depressing?  Okay.  Let’s figure out something to take our mind off it…for instance, sex with robots.  David Levy has a new book that argues it’s coming (ahem!).  Robin Marantz Henig, in her review of the book in the NY Times, says Levy argues

People used to be widely appalled by such variations as oral sex, masturbation and homosexuality, but today these practices are “widely regarded as thoroughly normal and as leading to fulfilling relationships and satisfactory sex lives.” All he wants is for us to open our minds a tiny bit more, and make room for the idea of having sex with the domestic robots that will soon be part of all our lives. In fact, he argues, the human/robot sex of the future promises to be better than most sex between humans is today.

I’m sure you have questions.  Like, what would an effective pick-up line be?  (“Hey, nice set of dual processors you have there.  Why not make a circuit with me?”  Regina Lynn has 10 reasons she’d rather marry a robot.  Yeah, and I’ve got 107 reasons why beer is better than women (no, I’m not linking to this; I’m kidding; google it yourself!). 

I don’t care what anybody says.  I’m depressed!


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Hospital Thoughts

After spending a bit of my weekend visiting a patient in both the emergency room and intensive care unit of our local hospital, I stopped by the bookshop to try to clear my head.  No luck.  Instead, I picked up an armload of magazines featuring a wide variety of essays on the state of health care in America.  Thought I’d try to develop a view of my own, but only ended up more befuddled than I started out.

The New Republic had a featured issue on health care.  In it, Jonathan Cohn wrestled with what might be the best case against single-payer health insurance, viz., the detrimental effect it might have on research and development.  The argument runs like this:  if the government uses its leverage to keep down the costs of physicians, procedures, equipment, and pharmaceuticals, then businesses in these sector will not have as much capital to invest in innovation.  Rationing, in one form or another, would inevitably occur, preventing some people from getting some care they might have otherwise gotten in the current system.  Cohn is not persuaded. 

The Nov-Dec issue of the International Socialist Review (yes, I really was in a mood this weekend!) also had a cover story on health care.  Nancy Welch reports:

Today, we are looking at what one activist following a screening of Sicko [Michael Moore’s documentary] summed up as a “perfect storm” with the power to demolish for-profit health care. Mainstream opinion runs strong for a national health program and against the war in Iraq. The insurance industry has been exposed and is reviled. With employers shedding the costs, and health care a leading cause of personal bankruptcy, the urgent need for a government program is evident to all. (Save the major presidential candidates who continue to admonish workers to shop around or argue that children may be entitled to a patchwork of health care benefits but their parents are not.)

Welch ties the prospects for universal health care to the reinvigoration of the labor movement.  I’m not sure I see signs of the rebirth of trade unions and the like, and I wonder at the wisdom of tying health insurance to paid work in the first place.

Cliff DuRand reports on the Cuban health care system (“Humanitarianism and Solidarity Cuban-Style”–subscribers only [socialists gotta get paid, too, ya know]) in Z Magazine.  Did you know that Fidel Castro offered over 1500 equipped physicians to help out the U.S. with the Katrina crisis–the so-called “Henry Reeve International Contingent“?  [Henry Reeve was an American soldier who fought in the 19th century for Cuba’s independence.]  The gesture was refused by the U.S. government.   But the really interesting point is that Cuba had some 1500 doctors to spare.  (Did I mention the lady who didn’t have anyone attending to her in the hallway of our local E.R.?)  Cuba has 5.3 doctors for every 1,000 people.  That’s the highest ratio in the world, and it is almost double the U.S. ratio.  Cuba exports its physician surplus to help out the world’s poorer countries.  It also educates people from 29 countries (including some low income Americans) to become doctors and other health care providers.  In fact, they’ve implemented a pedagogical system that works something like an community-based apprenticeship.  Med students start right away working with doctors, and then take that experience into the classroom for the formal training.  Cuba is not known for doing much right politically and economically, but they are on to something here.  Health care is viewed as a right, not as a commercial product, and the results seem positive.

A second article in the same magazine by Paul Street (“Health Care Hokum and U.S. Political Culture”) rails against using the bogeyman of “socialsim” to stonewall health care reform.  He writes:

It is symptomatic of the United States’ debased and corporate-crafted political culture that no candidate with a serious chance of running a viable campaign is willing to endorse the most obvious, fair, progressive, and simple health insurance solution–an extension of the single-payer Medicare model to the entire U.S. population.  The policy would certainly be welcomed by a significant majority of U.S. citizens and would not involve the implementation of that new-McCarthyite bugaboo, “socalized medicine.”

Street’s last point is that “socialized medicine” would mean that doctors and other care-providers work for the government, and all supplies, medicines, and equipment come from the public sector.  That’s not what happens with Medicare, in which the government reimburses private sector providers.

The estimate is that there are 47 million Americans without health insurance.  That number might even be doubled if you consider those people who are without health insurance for only part of the year. I used to be one of those people.  I taught at a state-owned university as a (usually) full-time “temp” for 7 years, but every summer I was unemployed and without health care.  [BTW, you can’t collect unemployment insurance payments if you are an educator in this situation, because educators “have the summer off” and have every expectation of working again in the fall.  Now, roofers have the winters off and have every expectation of working again in the spring…but they can get unemployment.  Sorry.  I’m whining.  But when we treat educators like that, we ought to expect to get less than, in fact, we actually do get (thanks only to the virtue of most teachers).]

Anyway, as of about 3 p.m. local time today, the population of the United States is 303,514,067.  Conservatively, 45,000,000 of us do not have health insurance.  I would also guess that about 303,500,000 of us do not drive a Rolls Royce.  We are unequal.  Even those of us with health insurance do not usually get the “Rolls Royce” of treatments anyway.  Those are usually reserved for the richer (or just luckier) among us.  The question is whether we think of health care like we think of cars.  You can live without either, but usually not as well or as long (although a nice walk wouldn’t do you any harm…).  If you get bad health care or a bad car, you’ll likely end up dead (or at least “dead in the water” on the side of the road, going nowhere).  Most get cars, many don’t.  A few get great cars, most don’t.  Is health care like that?

And just to compound the problem, there is the question of what we mean by “health” in the first place.  For instance, consider Bruce E. Levine‘s point:

Not too long ago, a child who was irritable, moody, and distractible and who at times sounded grandiose or acted without regard for consequences was considered a “handful.” In the U.S. by the 1980s, that child was labeled with a “behavioral disorder” and today that child is being diagnosed as “bipolar” and “psychotic” — and prescribed expensive antipsychotic drugs. Bloomberg News, also on September 4, 2007, reported, “The expanded use of bipolar as a pediatric diagnosis has made children the fastest-growing part of the $11.5 billion U.S. market for antipsychotic drugs.”

Is “health” a manufactured product, something we buy and sell in fancy packages for a profit?  Anyone who watches the evening news (fewer and fewer of us, by the way) is ordered to “ask your doctor” (if you have one!) about a laundry list of brand-name drugs, often without a description of what the drug is supposed to be for.  How will we know what “health care” even means, let alone who gets how much of it?

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Chomsky on Students and Questions

The November issue of Z Magazine features an interview with Noam Chomsky.  The dialogue begins with Chomsky being asked about talking to students about world concerns and about the the societal role of the university in which they find themselves–universities that are increasingly implicated in sophisticated weapons development, technocracy, and corporate interests.

Gabriel San Roman:  How crucial is it, in your view, that students particularly understand this highly technocratic social order of the academic community and its function in society?

Noam Chomsky:  How important it is to an individual depends on what that individual’s goals in life are.  If the goals are to enrich yourself, ganin privilege, do technically interesting work–in brief, if the goals are self-satisfaction–then these questions are of no particular relevance.  If you care about the consequences of your actions, what’s happening in the world, what the future will be like for your grandchildren and so on, then they’re very crucial.  So, it’s a question of what choices people make.

Roman: What makes students a natureal audience to speak to?  And do you think it’s worth “speaking truth” to the profesional scholarship?

Chomsky:  I’m always uneasy about the concept of “speaking truth,” as if we somehow know the truth and only have to enlighten others who have not risen to our elevated level.  The search for truth is a cooperative, unending endeavor.  We can and should engage in it to the extent we can, and encourage others to do so as well, seeking to free ourselves from constraints imposed by coercive institutions, dogma, irrationality, excessive conformity, the lack of initiative and imagination, and numerous other obstacles.

As for possibilities, they are limited only by will and choice.  Students are at a stage of their lives where these choices are most urgent and compelling and when they also enjoy unusual, if not unique, freedom and opportunity to explore the choices available, to evaluate them, and to pursue them.

I hope Chomsky is not right that only the traditional university student has the space and capacity to reflect on these questions.  In fact, I hope that all of us will always be students if “student” is defined as:  being at a stage of life where we find the choices facing us urgent and compelling and where we can ejoy the freedom and opportunity to explore, evaluate, and pursue our choices.  The first part of this definition is “existential.”  The second part is “institutional” or “structural.”  We have to work on both in any quest for wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity.

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There’s Hope…

Today, Pope Benedict XVI released his second encyclical letter, Spe Salvi – “In Hope We are Saved.” Here are just a few paragraphs:

Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering.

It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of redemption which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will also realize that the love bestowed upon him cannot by itself resolve the question of his life. It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death. The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then – only then – is man redeemed, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances….

In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life. Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God – God who has loved us and who continues to love us to the end, until all is accomplished. Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what life really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await eternal life – the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life. Jesus, who said that he had come so that we might have life and have it in its fullness, in abundance, has also explained to us what “life” means: this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we live.

I hope to say more about this soon.

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The Neurosciences of Religion

Hard at work over there in Sri Lanka, Metanexus Institute Founder Billy Grassie has just made available his latest essay, “The Neurosciences of Religion.”  He promises more to come, so stay tuned….

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Tariq Ramadan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

The Islamist question, in the forefront of European and American thinking, might be put this way:  Should support go to “enlightened fundamentalists” or to “Muslim dissidents”?  (I have some problems with referring to any believer as “fundamentalist”…)  Another way would be to ask, should we promote difference-based “multiculturalism” or resemblance-based “universalism”?

Pascal Bruckner unleashed a long, blistering tirade against the former–and a defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali–on  Here are a few snippets:

There’s no denying that the enemies of freedom come from free societies, from a slice of the enlightened elite who deny the benefits of democratic rights to the rest of humanity, and more specifically to their compatriots, if they’re unfortunate enough to belong to another religion or ethnic group.


It is well known that in the struggle of the weak against the strong, it is easier to attack the former. Those who resist will always be accused by the cowardly of exciting the hatred of the powerful.


Thus the defenders of liberty are styled as fascists, while the fanatics are portrayed as victims! This vicious mechanism is well known. Those who revolt against barbarism are themselves accused of being barbarians. In politics as in philosophy, the equals sign is always an abdication. If thinking involves weighing one’s words to name the world well, drawing comparisons in other words, then levelling distinctions testifies to intellectual bankruptcy. Shouting CRS = SS as in May ’68, making Bush = Bin Laden or equating Voltaire to Savonarola is giving cheap satisfaction to questionable approximations. Similarly, the Enlightenment is often depicted as nothing but another religion, as mad and intransigent as the Catholicism of the Inquisition or radical Islam. After Heidegger, a whole run of thinkers from Gadamer to Derrida have contested the claims of the Enlightenment to embody a new age of self-conscious history. On the contrary, they say, all the evils of our epoch were spawned by this philosophical and literary episode: capitalism, colonialism, totalitarianism. For them, criticism of prejudices is nothing but a prejudice itself, proving that humanity is incapable of self-reflection. For them, the chimeras of certain men of letters who were keen to make a clean slate of God and revelation, were responsible for plunging Europe into darkness. In an abominable dialectic, the dawn of reason gave birth to nothing but monsters (Horkheimer, Adorno).


Anyone with a mind to contend timidly that liberty is indivisible, that the life of a human being has the same value everywhere, that amputating a thief’s hand or stoning an adulteress is intolerable everywhere, is duly arraigned in the name of the necessary equality of cultures. As a result, we can turn a blind eye to how others live and suffer once they’ve been parked in the ghetto of their particularity. Enthusing about their inviolable differentness alleviates us from having to worry about their condition. However it is one thing to recognise the convictions and rites of fellow citizens of different origins, and another to give one’s blessing to hostile insular communities that throw up ramparts between themselves and the rest of society. How can we bless this difference if it excludes humanity instead of welcoming it? This is the paradox of multiculturalism: it accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. Instead: recognition of the group, oppression of the individual. The past is valued over the wills of those who wish to leave custom and the family behind….


Out of consideration for all the abuses they may have suffered, ethnic, sexual, religious and regional minorities are often set up as small nations, in which the most outrageous patriotism is passed off as nothing more than the expression of legitimate self-esteem. Instead of celebrating freedom as the power to escape determinism, the repetition of the past is being encouraged, reinforcing the power of collective coercion over private individuals. Marginal groups now form a sort of ethos-police, a flag-waving micro-nationalism which certain countries of Europe unfortunately see fit to publicly support. Under the guise of celebrating diversity, veritable ethnic or confessional prisons are established, where one group of citizens is denied the advantages accorded to others.


The Enlightenment belongs to the entire human race, not just to a few privileged individuals in Europe or North America who have taken it upon themselves to kick it to bits like spoiled brats, to prevent others from having a go. Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied – as is so often the case – by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn’t guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the “calamities” of progress.


Multiculturalism is a racism of the anti-racists.

And that’s just a little taste.  Bruckner spends most of his essay defending the free-thinking Hirsi Ali from what he sees as patronizing European critics, particularly Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Baruna, and reserves his most acid shots at Ramadan mainly in the footnotes.

But is there another side of this story? offers an array of responses to Bruckner’s piece.

Garton Ash’s rejoinder takes issue with just about every one of Bruckner’s claims.  It starts like this:

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names.

For instance, Garton Ash turns the essence of the critique back on Bruckner.  Bruckner has railed against the tactic of branding any critic of Islam as “Islamophobe racist.”  Fair enough.  Yet, says Garton Ash, Bruckner makes the same move by disqualifying Garton Ash’s disagreement the the Somali woman Hirsi Ali as inherently racist and sexist.

As so often happens in these sorts of debates, most of the response concerns disputes over ad hominems and about what Garton Ash has written.  But on the central philosophical and political question, “multiculturalism” or no, Garton Ash writes:

Having commented in my New York Review essay that “I regard it as a profound shame for Holland and Europe that we could not keep among us someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali” I went on to suggest that her approach “is not showing the way forward for most Muslims in Europe, at least not for many years to come. A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic. If the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European.” I continue to insist that this is an obvious truth, and an important criticism of the position adopted by both Ali and Bruckner.

While defending the fundamentals of a free society, such as freedom of expression, with an iron will, we also need a large tolerance for cultural diversity, the essential insights of Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, and an acknowledgment that religious believers can at the same time be reasonable persons and good citizens. In short: less Bruckner, more Pascal.

As it turns out, Bruckner’s original piece makes a similar point, this time in the guise of Enlightenment (Modernity) and Romanticism.

The entire history of the 20th century attests to the fanaticism of modernity. And it’s incontestable that the belief in progress has taken on the aspect of a faith, with its high priests from Saint Simon to August Comte, not forgetting Victor Hugo. The hideous secular religions of Nazism and communism, with their deadly rituals and mass massacres, were just as gruesome as the worst theocracies – of which they, at least as far as communism goes, considered themselves the radical negation. More people were killed in opposition to God in the 20th century than in the name of God. No matter that first Nazism and then communism were defeated by democratic regimes inspired by the Enlightenment, human rights, tolerance and pluralism. Luckily, Romanticism mitigated the abstraction of the Enlightenment and its claims to having created a new man, freed from religious sentiment and things of the flesh.

Today we are heirs to both movements, and understand how to reconcile the particularity of national, linguistic and cultural ties with the universality of the human race. Modernity has been self-critical and suspicious of its own ideals for a long time now, denouncing the sacralisation of an insane reason that was blind to its own zeal. In a word, it acquired a certain wisdom and an understanding of its limits. The Enlightenment, in turn, showed itself capable of reviewing its mistakes. Denouncing the excesses of the Enlightenment in the concepts that it forged means being true to its spirit. These concepts are part and parcel of the contemporary make up, to the point that even religious fanatics make use of them to promote their cause. Whether we like it or not, we are the sons of this controversial century, compelled to damn our fathers in the language they bequeathed to us. And since the Enlightenment triumphed even over its worst enemies, there is no doubt that it will also strike down the Islamist hydra, provided it believes in itself and abstains from condemning the rare reformers of Islam to the darkness of reprobation.

As Buruna writes in his own rejoinder to Bruckner, none of those who are arguing for dialogue and accommodation of difference are supporters of practices like revenge killing and oppression of women.  They are hoping to find a balance and a measured progress.  They worry, as an earlier generation worried over Marxist thought, about the dangers of the ideology of inevitable progress.  If the revolution is inevitable, why wait through all these historical stages?  If libertarian freedom is inevitable, why tolerate even so much as discussion of views critical of libertarian freedom?

Is the perfect the enemy of the good?  Or does resting comfortably with half-measures unnecessarily and unjustifiably deprive us of our ultimate fulfillment?  If you think the latter, the result will likely be Terror.  If you think the former, the result will likely be accommodation, compromose, homogenization, lowest common denominator, and eventually political correctness…which, itself, is well on the way to Terror.  Rock and a hard place….

Readers should also take a look at Paul Berman’s piece from the New Republic, “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” (linked to by Dissent).

But if I have to answer the question, Tariq Ramadan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?, (and I am not sure I do…), I would say:  Both, please!  And then some.

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Reading and Intelligence

After lugging two big suitcases filled with books back from the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting (not to mention, especially to my wife, shipping back an additional big carton of books as well), I find this disheartening story on the harmful effects of the decline of reading.  You can read (if you can read) the full report from the National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence (.pdf).  Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, puts the matter:

To Read or Not To Read is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture, but instead is a call to action – not only for parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and publishers, but also for politicians, business leaders, economists, and social activists.  The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem. If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.

And yet, our IQ seems to be rising.  But what does that really mean?  William Saletan at Slate is thinking it over in a series of essays.

Synchronicity:  today my mom tells me that she got an invitation to a holiday celebration that will feature “hours devours” followed by “desert.”  Sorry I’m going to miss it.

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Peripatetic Potpouri

Slavoj Zizek reminds us that resistance is not futile (in the London Review of Books):

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on infinite demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an infinitely demanding attitude presents no problem for those in power: “So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.” The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

James Seaton critiques Jeffrey Hart’s version of “prudential conservatism” in The University Bookman:

It is true that prudence is a great virtue in politics, and there is a good deal to be said in favor of “prudential conservatism.” Unfortunately, however, when prudence is detached from principle, it becomes mere expediency. The effect of Hart’s lively book is to commend a “prudential, effective conservatism” whose effectiveness would, one fears, be measured not by its success in putting conservative principles into practice – prudently of course – but simply by its success in winning elections.

Roger Kimball throws prudence to the wind, daring to speak ill of the dead (Norman Mailer).  Not so Jurgen Habermas on Richard Rorty.  Rorty would have certainly agreed with Mailer when he (Mailer) said in a recent interview:

The point is that the purpose of life may be to find higher and better questions.

This might make good advice for a (possibly) “great infidel,” Simon Blackburn, featured in a piece in the Financial Times, who’s a smart guy who proves he’s not immune from the unsubtleties of fashionable (and literarily lucrative) atheism.  Blah, blah, blah…

Carlin Romano reports on philosopher Anita Allen, and the situation in philosophy for African American women like herself.  Allen says,

“I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don’t think it has enough to offer them.

“The salaries aren’t that great, the prestige isn’t that great, the ability to interact with the world isn’t that great, the career options aren’t that great, the methodologies are narrow.

“Why would you do that when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy?

“I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it’s losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power.”

“I don’t think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy Why? What’s the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don’t worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color.”

There you have it.

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ACPA 2007 Conference on “Freedom, Will and Human Nature”

This past weekend, I attended the annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in Milwaukee.  Of particular note were the plenary paper of John Rist on “Freedom and Nature among the Greeks,” the session that centered around the work of Robert Kane on freedom of the will, and the incredibly prolific Nicholas Rescher’s address on being awarded the Aquinas Medal.  Here’s the complete program, along with the call for papers for next year’s conference on “forgiveness,” to be held at Creighton University.

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