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Archive for the ‘Arts & Letters’ Category

The Unmeaning of Uneaning

In Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Books, Humanities, Science, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 19, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in Chronicles. 

A computer was the victor on a popular television game show, easily defeating its human competitors; an arms race is under way involving militarized robots that can take the battlefield in the place of inferior humans; in Japan, artificial-intelligence software has outperformed college applicants on a standardized college-entrance examination.

Our machines are becoming a part of us, one of us.  Manufactured retinas have restored sight to the blind; the maimed and the crippled have regained their limbs and appendages in the form of robotic prosthetics; brain implants have alleviated problems associated with Parkinson’s disease; a company called EmoShape manufactures robots that display human emotions, including anger and fear and sadness.

But where there is human flesh, even a simulacrum of human flesh, there is the potential for eros.  The 2013 film Her explored the possibility that humans will attempt romantic congress with computer operating systems, reducing love to an algorithm and human sex acts to masturbatory exchanges with disembodied, computerized voices.

We have created our own reproductive anatomy—lab-engineered penises and vaginas—that soon will be tested on men and women with congenital defects.  Men may now visit virtual-reality brothels.  A baby recently was born out of a transplanted womb.

We are building more robots and killing more human fetuses than ever before.  Luminaries like Stephen Hawking warn of the dangers of artificial intelligence; futurists, on the other hand, celebrate the rise of cyborgs and the arrival of transhumanism and even posthumanism.  Synthetic biologists are learning, they claim, to direct natural selection through gene therapy and cell manipulation.  Silicon Valley’s brightest have announced that they are seeking “cures” for human aging.

In light of all this, the question of the meaning of human existence seems more urgent than ever before.

Edward O. Wilson purports to answer this question in The Meaning of Human Existence, his 30th book.  Wilson is one of the world’s most renowned scientists.  He is by all accounts a gentleman who enunciates his words in a soft, Southern drawl.  Raised in Alabama, blind in one eye, he developed a boyhood fascination with insects that eventually led him to Harvard, where he took his Ph.D. in biology.  He earned his reputation by studying ants and by writing popular books that are accessible to laymen.  On Human Nature, his fourth book, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1979.  He has, despite his atheism, drawn praise from conservative intellectuals.  In 1989, for instance, The Rockford Institute, which publishes this magazine, gave him the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters.

As titles go, Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is bold if not presumptuous.  Works that set out to establish definitively the “meaning” of human life promise more than they can deliver.  First, there is the problem of meaning itself.  Thus, Wilson begins with a short chapter titled “The Meaning of Meaning,” which, not surprisingly, raises more questions than it answers.  The meaning of meaning, according to Wilson, resides in the blurry overlap between two worldviews: the theological and religious worldview that locates meaning in the design and intention of an omnipotent creator, and the scientific worldview that locates meaning in the random accidents of history and in the nondesigned, adaptive, spontaneously ordered laws of nature.  These worldviews are tenuously linked, Wilson suggests, in their treatment of human free will and intentionality.

Wilson claims, for example, that intelligent organisms evolve associatively to combine their intents and purposes for their mutual benefit; their behavior grows more alike over time as together they respond to environmental imperatives and learn to commiserate and to cooperate as a social unit.  What was once merely the mechanical firing of brain activity in individual persons has become a behavioral trait among groups of humans.  Wilson provides an arthropodic example:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly.  That is the meaning of the web.  The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web.  Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense.  But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Meaning itself is not identified in this illustration: Wilson does not tell us what it is, only where we might find it.  It’s up to us to do the searching.

Despite his prefatory lip service to theology and religion, Wilson adopts a materialist worldview, which seems, the more he describes it, less and less compatible with the theological and religious worldview, until at last there is no overlap at all.  Wilson tells us that there “is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life.  Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance.”  He assures us that the “eternal conflict” between groups of people “is not God’s test of humanity” or “a machination of Satan.”  “It is,” he says, “just the way things worked out.”

Wilson is convinced that humans are for the first time in their history (“not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia”) leaving behind the process that, he claims, produced us—namely, natural selection—and entering into a new age of choice in which we have available to us a genetic “shopping list” to “direct our own evolution.”  He proposes that we understand our biological and evolutionary past in order wisely to shape our future.

One would think that a grounding in history or tradition would aid in satisfying this ambition, but Wilson makes clear that he is rejecting this kind of history and promoting a secular and scientific history that is not only stripped of providence, angelic intercession, heavenly statutes, and divine intervention but also antecedent to all written records.  “Humanity,” he avers to this end,

arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution.  We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own.  Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

Tellingly, Wilson does not define what it means to “save” or what we need to be saved by or from if there is no God, Hell, sin, Satan, or transcendental moral order to the universe.  He is apparently content in his belief that “[t]here will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above.”  “We have,” he adds, “only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.”

To seek answers to the meaning of human existence from this secular perspective in which man isn’t begotten by Adam but descended from Homo habilis and improved from organism to super organism, Wilson could have turned to the ideas of Emerson or Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell or Einstein or Ayn Rand, philosophers enthralled by the awesome powers of the human mind and dismissive of the doctrinal claims of religion in general and of traditional Christianity in particular—but he doesn’t.  Nor, thank goodness, does he turn to the close-minded, militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins (who is mentioned in the book) and Sam Harris.  He instead turns to “the biological evolution of a species and the circumstances that led to its prehistory,” professing that both our altruism and our instinctive, selfish urge to cooperate are explainable by science, which, therefore, is necessarily antecedent to, although participatory with, the humanities.  Wilson’s problem with the humanities seems to be that they retain the residue of theology, which was once the queen of the liberal arts.

Because in Wilson’s view human creativity and collaboration are the inevitable products of the impersonal forces of raw nature, he considers the “task of understanding humanity” to be “too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities.”  He maintains that “the humanities have not achieved nor will they ever achieve a full understanding of the meaning of our species’ existence” if they do not account for the “biological origins of human nature.”  He reasons that, since human nature has biological origins, and since creativity arises through competition and natural selection, we ought to embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment in which the humanities and the sciences were unified enterprises rather than distinct fields of operation.

Wilson blames Romanticism for the divorce of the humanities from science; rather than irreconcilable differences, he sees in this former marriage a powerful synergy that has since grown weak as experts in their respective fields have become hyperspecialized, the division of their labor increasingly alienated from the Big Picture.  The fact of the matter, he submits, is that the “explosive growth of scientific knowledge” has “everything” to do with the humanities, because “[s]cience and technology reveal with increasing precision the place of humanity, here on Earth and beyond in the cosmos as a whole.”

The meaning of human existence according to Wilson is found not in what we have created but in what has created us: a self-perpetuating, unthinking process of biological production shaped by genetic variety and the instinct for survival, not by a benevolent Creator.  The dust jacket informs us that this is Wilson’s “most philosophical work to date.”  But what we have here is a meandering series of essays that display with exceptional style an accretive learning arrayed from scientific theory.  And we also have a man, however gentle and unassuming, making grandiose claims based on mere supposition—not a call to arms but a triumphalist celebration that the war is already over.  Science has won; religion has lost.  Any seeming contradiction between religion and science must, he insists, be resolved in favor of the latter; any potential overlap between the two fields must, he reiterates, be dismissed.  He thinks that religion hinders knowledge, holds us back, and distracts us from real truths by enslaving us to fancy and superstition.  And he’s wrong.

His secular perspective isn’t unique, and it isn’t philosophical, either—at least not without some analytical backing or historical context.  Wilson supplies neither; he submits as fact what is open to interpretation.  When Wilson informs us that there is no God, as if that “reality” were as established as the laws of gravity, he undermines his credibility and throws philosophy out the window.  No need for proofs, second guesses, theological nuances, or even doubt.  His scientific faith in the unprovable—although politely conveyed—is on equal footing with religious faith in the unprovable.  Wilson doesn’t reject faith; he embraces it.  His faith is evident in his speculations that are unsupported by hard data—for example, that “[b]eyond the solar system there is life of some kind” (he admits that he lacks “[d]irect evidence” for this proposition but suggests that the evidence “may come soon, perhaps within a decade or two”), or that “life may have originated somewhere with molecular elements different from those in DNA and energy sources used by organisms on Earth.”  These claims aren’t provable, yet he believes them.  This is faith in the most rudimentary sense.

One would think Wilson would be more cautious after relying for so many years on “kin selection and its extensive inclusive fitness,” only to learn that “inclusive fitness was not just wrong, but fundamentally wrong.”  Wilson nevertheless evinces not even a modicum of doubt regarding the possibility of a Creator.  He seems blithely unconcerned that, having been wrong about one major premise, he might be wrong about another.  What standing should we assign to someone who faces Pascal’s wager and refuses even to hedge a bet in his own favor?  He is either heroically bold or foolishly proud.

His faith is more rudimentary than that he decries in theism, which recognizes an infinite, sovereign God, eternal and unchanging, Who permeates and controls everything and from Whom all material substance derives.  Wilson’s faith comes across as plain hope about what we’ll learn if the sciences can accomplish this or that.  His diversionary hypothetical speculations about extraterrestrial visitors and about how the humanities (to him, “the natural history of culture”) rather than the sciences would help us explain ourselves to these saucer-flying aliens might seem as radical or absurd to Christians as the doctrine of the Trinity or the nature of the Holy Spirit might seem to an atheist like him.  When Wilson states that the “interval between habitable and inhabited may seem like an eternity to the human mind, but it is scarcely a night and a day in the nearly 14-billion-year history of the Milky Way galaxy as a whole,” he doesn’t seem to realize there’s a scriptural equivalent to this dictum: that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Wilson’s hope about the knowledge-creating possibilities enabled by science sometimes collapses into optimistic but unprovable conclusions about what is real or actual; the distinction between what might be known and what is known remains, too often in his book, fuzzy.  He asserts without qualification that,

[i]n time, likely no more than several decades, we will be able to explain the dark matter of the Universe, the origin of life on Earth, and the physical basis of human consciousness during changes of mood and thought.  The invisible is seen, the vanishingly small weighed.

This is pep-rally speak for scientists, and one has to admit, whether he is an atheist or a theist, that such talk is exhilarating.  Who doesn’t want more answers to these vexing elements of our phenomenal existence?  But when the stakes are so high, and the need for resolution and purpose so urgent, should we believe without hesitation a scientist who refuses to doubt his own suppositions, who goes far beyond rejecting the Genesis account of Creation to deny the possibility of any sort of creator altogether?

By the end of Wilson’s argument, readers are left wondering what, exactly, the title of his book refers to.  Wilson can teach us interesting facts—that some ant species enslave other ant species, for instance, or that the warrior ants are really a bunch of old ladies—but he can’t tell us the meaning of human existence because, in his paradigm, there can’t be any beyond the mechanical, chance desire to be altruistic in order to preserve and protect our “nests.”  Therefore, he reduces the meaning of human existence to this:

[I]t is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.

Our meaning, then, is a sequence of biological accidents aided or offset by our own deliberate choices—and nothing else, nothing at all, according to Wilson.

The mark of a good scientist is curiosity and imagination; when those cease, so do reliable answers to tough questions.  Wilson foregoes any discussion of aseity and fails or refuses to account for how the cosmos could arise out of nothing.  Certainly, there’s the Big Bang, but what caused that?  And what caused the things that caused that?  And why couldn’t there be a God Who created us to evolve?  The fact that this is but a short book is no excuse: If you’re predicating the meaning of human existence on the nonexistence of God, you must at least address or acknowledge the weaknesses of your argument.

Wilson wants to explicate the complex niceties of biology and then, having gained our attention, demands that we take him at his word that God is irrelevant to the meaning of our astounding, sometimes joyous, sometimes agonizing, and always confusing presence on this one small planet in this apparently enormous cosmos.  Follow him at your own risk.

The Antiwar Tradition in American Letters

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Religion, Rhetoric, Writing on October 12, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here at

A review of War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing.  Lawrence Rosenwald, editor.  New York: The Library of America, 2016.  838 pgs.

James Carroll, the novelist and Christian man of letters who has won numerous accolades over a long, distinguished career, sets the tone for this fine edition, War No More, in his short foreword.  “Wars,” he says, “have defined the nation’s narrative, especially once the apocalyptic fratricide of the Civil War set the current running in blood – toward the Jim Crow reenslavement of African Americans, further genocidal assaults against native peoples, imperial adventures abroad, a two-phased World War that permanently militarized the American economy and spawned a bifurcated imagination that so requires an evil enemy that the Cold War morphed seamlessly into the War on Terror.”

We’ve seen editions like this before – We Who Dared to Say No to War, edited by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods Jr. comes to mind – but the focus here is different and decidedly literary.  Lawrence Rosenwald, the editor, believes the “antiwar impulse” requires a rich “vocabulary” that’s “visionary, sensual, prophetic, outraged, introspective, self-doubting, fantastic, irreverent, witty, obscene, uncertain, heartbroken” – in short, that signals a range of human emotions and experiences.  Rosenwald promises that “[a]ll of those traits are on display here,” and follows through with essays and memoirs by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Kurt Vonnegut, Edmund Wilson, and, among others, Norman Mailer.

Rosenwald has also achieved a diversity of genre. He includes poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen Crane, Adrienne Rich, Herman Melville, Robert Bly, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Starbuck, and Walt Whitman; short stories by Ray Bradbury and Ambrose Bierce; a genre-defying piece by Mark Twain (“The War Prayer”); songs by Country Joe McDonald, Ed McCurdy, and Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson; a statement before a federal grand jury; letters and an interview; a gospel song (“Down by the River-Side”); a leaflet on the Vietnam War (the conflict with the most permeating presence in the book); excerpts of the prefatory articles of the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy; and more.

Women as a class are underrepresented in Rosenwald’s selections.  I count 104 men and 35 women among the contributors.  Are there fewer women involved in the antiwar movement throughout American history?  Or did Rosenwald ignore females because of his preference for particular writers and writings?  We may never know because he does not address the gender disparity.  If antiwar writers are, in fact, disproportionally male, then further study of that curious fact – or at least some speculation about it – seems warranted.

Multiple traditions merge in these pages:  John Woolman, Benjamin Rush, and Reinhold Niebuhr speak as Christians; Eugene V. Debs, Jane Addams, Arturo Giovannitti, and Howard Zinn as proxies for the Left; and Andrew Bacevich as a representative of the Right.  Figures like Randolph Bourne cut across trite political labels.  And writers associated with certain styles and forms demonstrate their versatility with other kinds of writing.  For instance, Robert Lowell, known for his poetry, shows his mastery of the epistolary form in his letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Rosenwald proves to be far more astute than Jonah Goldberg in his assessment of William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Whereas Rosenwald submits that this essay is “intended as oppositional” to war, Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review, treats it as fascist and accuses it of presenting “militarism as a social philosophy” that was not only “a pragmatic expedient” but also the basis for “a workable and sensible model for achieving desirable ends.”  Of course, Goldberg has been wrong before.

Given that Rosenwald purports to have featured the writing of “pacifists,” the inclusion of John Kerry and Barack Obama is deplorable.  True, Kerry’s statement against the Vietnam War is notable as a work of peace activism, but Kerry also voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush’s use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein, advocated U.S. military involvement in Syria, and appears at least partially responsible for the US backing of Saudi-led bombings in Yemen.

If opposition to the Vietnam War is now the measure of pacifism, then most Americans today are pacifists, there being, as of the year 2000, just 30% of Americans who believe that that war was not a mistake, according to a Gallup poll. Thus, Kerry is hardly unique in such opposition. Nicholson Baker, in his energetic essay for this volume, seems more attuned than Rosenwald to Kerry’s foreign-policy prescriptions, castigating Kerry for inciting military involvement in Gaddafi’s Libya.

President Obama, for his part, has overseen regular bombings throughout the Middle East, including in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia; ordered US military intervention in Libya; increased US troop levels in Afghanistan and escalated US military operations there; and urged Americans to support US military involvement in Syria. These positions are ironic in light of his warning, in his piece in this collection, against traveling “blindly” down “that hellish path” to war.

Rosenwald’s brief, personal introductions (he recalls hearing James Baldwin speak in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, for instance, and mentions a tribute he wrote for Daniel Berrigan) to each chapter engender an autobiographical feel. One senses that this book represents a patchwork of accumulated memories, that Rosenwald has recounted and repurposed old reading experiences for present political needs. Inviting Carroll to pen the foreword, moreover, was entirely appropriate and wise.  As this review opened with Carroll’s eloquent words, so it closes with them.

“Because the human future, for the first time in history, is itself imperiled by the ancient impulse to respond to violence with violence,” Carroll intones, “the cry ‘war no more!’ can be heard coming back at us from time ahead, from the as yet unborn men and women – the ultimate voices of peace – who simply will not come into existence if the essential American soul does not change.”  But all is not lost; Carroll remains optimistic.  “The voices of this book, a replying chorus of hope,” he says, “insist that such change is possible.”

Why Read? An Interview With Mark Edmundson

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 5, 2016 at 6:45 am

In the following C-SPAN Booknotes interview, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia discusses books, readings, the liberal arts, and more.

The Problem With Socialism

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Politics, Western Philosophy on September 28, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The Daily Caller.

If you’re looking for a short introduction to socialism that rewards rereading, Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Problem With Socialism is it.

Perhaps your son or daughter has returned from college talking about collective control of the means of production and sporting Bernie Sanders t-shirts. Perhaps you’re a political novice looking for informed guidance.

Perhaps you’re frustrated with America’s economic decline and deplorable unemployment rates. Perhaps you listened with bewilderment as some pundit this election season distinguished democratic socialism from pure socialism in an attempt to justify the former.

Whoever you are, and whatever your occasion for curiosity, you’re likely to find insight and answers from DiLorenzo.

A professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland, DiLorenzo opens his book with troubling statistics: 43% of millennials, or at least those between ages 18 and 29, view socialism more favorably than capitalism, and 69% of voters under 30 would vote for a socialist presidential candidate. Socialism—depending on how it’s defined in relation to communism—may have killed over 100 million people and impoverished countless others over the course of the 20th Century.

So why have the youth (full disclaimer: by certain measures, at 33, I’m considered a millennial myself) welcomed this ideology that’s responsible for mass killings, organized theft, war crimes, forced labor, concentration camps, executions, show trials, ethnic cleansing, disease, totalitarianism, censorship, starvation, hyperinflation, poverty, and terror?

Why have death, destruction, and abject destitution become so hip and cool? Because of effective propaganda and utopian promises of “free” everything.

The problem is, as anyone who’s ever studied economics knows, there’s no such thing as free stuff. Somebodypays at some point.

“What socialists like Senator Sanders should say if they want to be truthful and straightforward,” DiLorenzo thus avers, “is not that government can offer citizens anything for free, but that they want healthcare (and much else) to become a government-run monopoly financed entirely with taxes. Taxes hide, but do not eliminate, the cost of individual government programs.”

And these programs are far more expensive to society than they would be on the free market.

The predicable rejoinder to such a claim — repeated ad nauseam by television personalities—is that socialism works, nay thrives, in, say, Sweden. DiLorenzo corrects the record: “Socialism nearly wrecked Sweden, and free market reforms are finally bringing its economy back from the brink of disaster.”

Strong language, but DiLorenzo maps the history and supplies the data to back it up. “The real source of Sweden’s relatively high standard of living,” he explains, has “everything to do with Sweden avoiding both world wars and jumping into the industrial revolution when its economy was one of the freest, least regulated, and least taxed in Europe.”

Other common binary assumptions are reversed in these pages: socialism causes pollution whereas capitalism protects the environment; socialism leads to war whereas capitalism is peaceful; socialism consolidates power among an elite few whereas capitalism decentralizes and disperses power, which ultimately resides with individual consumers making small economic adjustments based on their particular needs.

Even socialized medicine proves more inequitable than market-based alternatives. Proponents of Canadian-style healthcare ignore the fact that “Canadian health care is actually far more expensive, and the quality far lessthan it would be if doctors and hospitals had to compete for patients on the basis of quality and price.”

Coloring his analysis with references to the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, DiLorenzo undertakes a variety of other issues implicated by socialism: egalitarianism, fascism, income taxation, wage and price controls, monopolies, public schooling, and more.

Had I been his publisher, I would have insisted that he also include disturbing, graphic, and gruesome images of real, dead human bodies stacked on real, dead human bodies, of ransacked churches, and of confiscated property—alarmingly tangible consequences and horrifying illustrations of pure, realized socialism.

Senator Sanders and most of his followers mean well, of course, and genuinely and in good faith advocate policies they believe to be in the best interests of the United States. Yet the history of the cause they champion is fundamentally at odds with their desired goals.

DiLorenzo has the courage to call socialism what it is: “the biggest generator of poverty the world has ever known.” For young students especially, his concise primer could make the difference between feeling the Bern, and getting burned.

A Conversation Between Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, British Literature, Communication, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Civilization on September 21, 2016 at 6:45 am

In 2012, the Royal Institution of Great Britain hosted Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton for an evening of conversation and debate.  Here is the footage of that event:

Just for the Summer

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on September 14, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following poem first appeared in Images in Ink and, later as a reprint, in Red Truck Review.

“Just for the Summer”

They traveled from the cold forests and towns
of New England and Canada,
spent the night in hotels in Atlanta,
and did not consider
the family they did not have.
They rented Fords and Nissans
and loaded their luggage in the trunk.
They bought maps at gas stations
and ate breakfast in the car.
They sipped their coffee,
blared Bossa nova,
discussed congressmen,
and made faces at locals in rest stops.
They snapped photographs at the Florida border
and rolled their windows down in Crestview.
They pointed at the peaches, oranges, and cotton.
They opined about old black men, overhauls, and fieldwork,
pointed at tractors and trailers,
and prattled about pesticides.
They were many, but they were two in particular.

The two who arrived
and kicked off their shoes,
and filled their blenders with ice,
their cups with gin and rum,
and said, “to hell with sunscreen.”
They walked hand-in-hand down the shoreline,
these two, marveling

at the baby-powder sand,
he chasing crabs,
she waving off seagulls.
They watched the sun sink
until they mistook where they were,
and, thinking back,
his arms around her once-little waste,
hers around his once-broad shoulders;
they became
in self-supplication, joined
in prayer to themselves.

It was not until the seventh hour
of the third day
of the second month
that the sadness broke in,
through the back window,
in the darkness,
and made off with joy.

He was told in his dream how he should awake,
she in hers how she should die.
On the day when the skies turned black,
and the waves pummeled the shoreline,
and the creatures stirred and scattered,
there they were, facing the darkness,
two people, vulnerable beneath the heavens,
remembering their future, forgetting their past,
knowing that they didn’t know
what cannot be named.
They stood nowhere
and for something not themselves.

When the winds swallowed them,
they could taste their souls in their mouths.

A Brief Conversion Narrative

In American Literature, Arts & Letters, Christianity, Essays, Writing on September 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The conversion narrative is an important genre in American history, one that played an indispensable role in the formation of our cultural and religious identity during the seventeenth century and the First Great Awakening.  The genre as a practiced form hardly exists today, although its iterations are evident whenever a Christian states his or her “testimony.”

Allow me to share mine.  The conversion narratives of two eighteenth-century American writers in many ways reflect my own Christian experience.

John Woolman, a Quaker, recorded his narrative in a series of journal entries.  As a young boy, Woolman intuited the existence of good and evil and felt the manifest presence of a superintending God in his everyday experience.  He learned of his own propensity for wickedness and felt shame and remorse whenever he sinned.  He came to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, through Whom he found love and repentance.  The teenaged Woolman, however, gradually abandoned his pious obedience to God.

“Having attained the age of sixteen years,” Woolman laments in his narrative, “I began to love wanton company, and though I was preserved from profane language or scandalous conduct, still I perceived a plant in me which produced much wild grapes.”  Only through God’s grace was Woolman saved from his backsliding and led back to the path of truth and repentance.

When Woolman began to backslide yet again, God visited sickness upon him.  “I was filled,” Woolman writes, “with confusion, and in great affliction both of mind and body I lay and bewailed myself.  I had not confidence to lift up my cries to God, whom I had thus offended, but in a deep sense of my great folly I was humbled before him, and at length that Word which is as a fire and a hammer broke and dissolved my rebellious heart.  And then my cries were put up in contrition, and in the multitude of his mercies I found inward relief, and felt a close engagement that if he was pleased to restore my health, I might walk humbly before him.”

Jonathan Edwards, a New England Calvinist and one of the last prominent American Puritan ministers, wrote what he styled a “Personal Narrative,” which opens with an account of his boyhood inclination for religious matters.  The young Edwards experienced an “awakening” in his father’s congregation.  “I was then very much affected for many months,” he says in his account, “and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul’s salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys, and used to meet with them to pray together.”  The power of God energized the exuberant, young Edwards.  “I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion,” Edwards intones about these early years.

Like Woolman, however, Edwards began to backslide as he grew older.  “But in the process of time,” he says, “my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.”  Also like Woolman, Edwards was struck with illness, pleurisy, which riled him with inner conflict and compulsive introspection.  Edwards emerged from his illness both healthier and spiritually rejuvenated.  Although still immature in his faith, he “felt a spirit to part with all things in the world, for an interest in Christ.”

My grandmother led me to believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior when I was in the third grade.  She instilled in me an understanding of God’s grace and an equally important fear of his divine judgment.  As I grew older, I, like Woolman and Edwards, suffered from my own forms of backsliding.  I fell into the company of other boys who were not interested in religious matters.  During my freshman year of high school, my appendix ruptured, and I nearly died after waiting two days to visit the hospital.  At this time, fear for my life and the state of my eternal soul caused me to consult scripture and to pray to God with a renewed sense of urgency.

I was for a few years devout once again, attendant to God’s teachings and careful with my thoughts and actions.  Still I found myself in college—and the immediate years thereafter—drifting from God’s teachings even as I acknowledged their authority and believed that departure from them was sinful.  I delighted in Bacchanalian parties and festivities of a degree I can only imagine to have been comparable to those described by Augustine in reference to his own youth.  My immersion in unholy and rambunctious activity was so complete that I continue to struggle to witness to others, afraid they may discount my message in light of my past sins.

It was not until law school, when I was diagnosed with melanoma and treated with major surgery, including the removal of two lymph nodes, that I truly turned back to God, but even then the process of regeneration involved backsliding and psychological intensity.

Since my marriage and the birth of my two children, I have sought after the Lord with more discipline and seriousness.  I have matured in Christ and seek daily to understand the scriptures and God’s nature.  I have learned that sanctification is a complex process that requires correction and tenacity, and I have found joy in my relationships with other believers and in the awesomeness and enormity of life itself.  Like everyone, I am susceptible to certain sins.  But I believe in the power of God’s saving grace, and, after much study and prayer, attempt to exercise the ability he has provided me to overcome my inherent limitations and innate propensity for sin.

The Trial Scene in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”

In Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Shakespeare, Theatre, Western Civilization on August 31, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following excerpt is adapted from my essay “A Time for Bonding: Commerce, Love, and Law in The Merchant of Venice,” which may be downloaded at this link.

Act IV, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice involves the climactic court scene in which Shylock and Antonio confront one another, in person, before Portia, who will determine Antonio’s fate.

At this point Portia has already revealed to Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, her plan to “wear my dagger with the braver grace / And speak between the change of man and boy / With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps / Into a manly stride, and speak of frays / Like a fine bragging youth.” She and Nerissa will cross-dress, in other words, and once “accoutred like young men” will act as though Portia is a doctor of laws, or a law clerk, administering justice and adjudicating disputes in the Duke’s Venetian courtroom.

Bassanio attempts to settle the case on Antonio’s behalf by tendering Shylock double and then triple the amount of the original loan, but Shylock unmercifully insists on exacting a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia appears to support Shylock, saying, “[T]here is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree established: ‘Twill be recorded for a precedent, / And many an error by the same example / Will rush into the state: it cannot be.” Although she says that Shylock’s “suit” is “[o]f a strange nature,” she submits that “in such rule that the Venetian law / Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.”

Praising Portia as a “Daniel come to judgment,” Shylock demands that a judgment be entered against Antonio immediately: “When [the bond] is paid according to the tenour. / It doth appear you are a worthy judge; / You know the law, your exposition / Hath been most sound: I charge you by the law, / Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar, / Proceed to judgment: by my soul I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me: I stay here on my bond.” Antonio himself conveys a preference for swift judgment: “Make no more offers, use no farther means, / But with all brief and plain conveniency / Let me have judgment and the Jew his will.”

Portia readies the others for the judgment by telling Antonio to “prepare your bosom for [Shylock’s] knife.” That the bond calls for the pound of flesh to be exacted “nearest [Antonio’s] heart” draws attention to the metaphorical implications of the judgment and the plural meaning of the bond: it is not just the contractual relationship but the potential for friendship that is about to be carved apart.

Just before the judgment is to be perfected, Bassanio and Antonio profess their love for one another. Portia then explains to Shylock—turning his literalism against him—that the judgment calls for the removal of a pound of flesh but “no jot of blood.” If any blood should be drawn, then Shylock must forfeit his lands and goods to Venice. There being no way to cut a pound of flesh without drawing blood, Shylock finds himself in a precarious situation. Portia tells him that

The law hath yet another hold on you.

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,

If it be proved against an alien

That by direct or indirect attempts

He seek the life of any citizen,

The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive

Shall seize one half his goods; the other half

Comes to the privy coffer of the state;

And the offender’s life lies in the mercy

Of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.

In which predicament, I say, though stand’st;

For it appears, by manifest proceeding,

That indirectly and directly too

Thou hast contrived against the very life

Of the defendant; and thou hast incurr’d

The danger formerly by me rehearsed.

With these words, Shylock is defeated. The Duke pronounces that, as a consequence of the legal proceeding, Shylock shall render half his wealth to Antonio and half to Venice, but Antonio pleads that he will forego his share if Shylock converts to Christianity. The Duke concedes; Shylock acquiesces. The litigation comes to a close.


Five Poems by Simon Perchik

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Poetry, Writing on August 24, 2016 at 6:45 am

Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik is an American poet with published work dating from the 1960s. Perchik worked as an attorney before his retirement in 1980. Educated at New York University, Perchik now resides in East Hampton, New York. Library Journal has referred to Perchik as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” Best known for his highly personal, non-narrative style of poetry, Perchik’s work has appeared in numerous books, websites, and print magazines, including The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Nation, North American Review, Weave Magazine, Beloit, and CLUTCH.
You still land belly-down
though the mailbox has no key
—what you yank is an envelope

and your hand already in flames
—why now these patrols
waving the children back

while you gag on the gust
and what’s left from your hand
—why only in the rain

then headlong the way each step
moves closer to the sea
becomes those rocks that expect sacrifice

and where you can be found
terrorized by streets boldly in print
yours and theirs, waiting in the open

—you vomit as if its stench
could clog the wound all these years
between one letter and another.


Now that the sky is homeless
you make your own season
and each morning for just a minute

the snow is not mentioned
—even in summer you set aside
one window for tracks, covered over

and the wind hiding in bells
—you use this makeshift silence
the way a rifle is still aimed

with a deep breath and hold
—it’s not for long, your season
sets up and from its rivers

a blackness flowing, gathering
first as a rain that is not the sky
—it’s new for you, a sister-season

open and bleeding :a minute
rescued from the others
and at each funeral it shows up

ready to party, still young
though you cry out loud for a mouth
for the air that will not come.


What more proof do you need! jagged
left behind—a beautiful stone
torn to pieces and near its heart

a tiny rock half drift, half moonlight
that blossomed to become the opposite shore
—all these years in the open

though every wave still smells from stone
the way this sea from its start
was never sure, even now a doubt

splashing as your blood or throat
or better yet next time at breakfast
reach out with just your breath

and god-like touch the boiling tea
hold up the evidence, the first wave
and the emptiness it counted on.


Runners train by it, both my fists
and at the finish line
snap open the way each new moon

still unbeaten uses this flourish
to poke inside these stones
—you can’t hide much longer

and years mean nothing now
dropping back from exhaustion
dragging the dirt behind

—wherever you are I can find you
handful by handful broken apart
for just two fingers calling out

and in front the unyielding ribbon
suddenly dark I can snatch
the breath letting me through.


Battered though its wings
disappear under your eyelids
and more smoke—this lever

lost its touch, wants out :rusts
the way this wall is kept in place
pulled down on all sides

by old wiring and wrong turns
—always one slice that can’t be saved
though you wear gloves

yank the smoldering cord
so that still warm jacket
is torn open, lets the sun fall

as rain and later—this toaster
reeks from your head thrown back
to see if both eyes move

and the other slice the North Sea
pressing against your hand
for a little more time.

Make America Mobile Again

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Politics on August 10, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The American Spectator.  Note that some of the references to the presidential election are now dated but were timely when this review was originally published.

This election season has proven that, regardless of who becomes the Democratic or Republic nominee for president, the American political landscape has been reshaped. Candidates expected to have a smooth path to their party’s nomination have met, instead, a bumpy road. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as viable candidates reflects the growing feeling among ordinary Americans that the system is rigged, that they’re stuck in conditions enabled and controlled by an amorphous cadre of elites from Washington and Wall Street.

Income inequality is higher today than it’s been in nearly a century. Middle and lower class citizens of other First World countries enjoy more economic mobility than do middle and lower class Americans. The United States has fallen behind managerial and quasi-socialist governments in Europe in empirical rankings of economic freedom. The gap between the so-called 1% and the rest of America is growing, and recent college graduates, saddled with student loan debt and poor job prospects, are financially behind where their parents were at the same age.

Things don’t look promising. But one law professor, F. H. Buckley of the freshly named Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, outlines ways to repair structural, systemic burdens on the American economy. His new book, The Way Back, published today by Encounter Books, provocatively advocates for socialist ends by capitalist means.

Although the word socialism recalls revolution, stifled competition, attacks on private ownership, abolition of the price-system and sound economic calculation, hunger, mass-murder, off-brand goods and low-quality services, among other demonstrable horribles, Buckley has something less vicious in mind. By socialism, he does not mean a centralized government that replaces the market system with economic planning and state control of the means of production. His “socialism” is not socialism at all.

Leaving socialism undefined, he suggests that free-market economics (a term he avoids but implies) and the dismantling of the regulatory state will do more than actual socialism and its variants to lift people out of poverty and maximize their quality of life. The Left, in short, has asked the right questions about income inequality and economic mobility but supplied the wrong answers or solutions. “Sadly,” Buckley complains, “those who loudly decry income disparities often support policies which make things worse.”

It’s the aristocratic elites, in Buckley’s view, who benefit from mass bureaucracy, the welfare state, a broken immigration and public-school system, trade barriers, a flawed tax code, and a general decline in the rule of law. These unjust institutions, policies, and conditions, with their built-in advantages for a select few, cause and sustain economic immobility. They solidify the place of aristocrats — what Buckley also calls the New Class — at the top of the social stratum. Those with high levels of wealth game the system through special favors, government grants, shell companies, complicated tax schemes, offshore banking, and other loopholes designed to ensure that the 1% are excluded from the regulatory barriers imposed and administered by government at the expense of the 99%.

The aristocracy that Buckley targets is not the natural aristocracy celebrated by certain American Founders for its virtue and political disinterestedness. It’s an artificial aristocracy that has little to do with merit or talent. The Founders — probably all of them — would have been appalled by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton: figures who became multi-millionaires through partisan politics. The Clintons embody the new artificial aristocracy. They amassed their wealth by championing programs that have slowed economic mobility while purporting to do the opposite. The Founders, by contrast, believed that benevolent aristocrats would be free from economic pressure and thus would not succumb to the temptations to use government positions or privileges for personal gain.

The Founders would have cringed to learn that public service has become a vehicle to riches. For all his many faults, Donald Trump appeals to disenfranchised Americans because he declares he’s financed his own campaign and admits that a rigged system — exemplified by our federal bankruptcy laws — has worked in his favor. He knows the government system is unfair and claims he wants to change it.

“America was a mobile society for most of the twentieth century,” Buckley says, citing statistics and substantiating his claim with charts and graphs. Trump’s supporters no doubt long for those days of economic mobility that Buckley locates in the exuberant 1950s.

When Trump announces that he wants to make America great again, people stuck at the bottom of the rigid class divide respond with enthusiasm. On a subterranean level, they seem to be hoping that America can once again become a mobile society, a place where a lowly pioneering frontiersman like Abraham Lincoln (Buckley’s favored symbol of social and economic mobility) can rise from humble beginnings to become the President of the United States. Buckley believes that “the central idea of America, as expressed in the Declaration [of Independence], became through Lincoln the promise of income mobility and a faith in the ability of people to rise to a higher station in life.”

Class structure is more settled in America than in much of Europe. Yet America has always defined itself against the European traditions of monarchy, aristocracy, dynasty, and inherited privilege. Buckley states that “America and Europe have traded places.” The trope of the American Dream is about rising out of your received station in life to accomplish great things for yourself and your posterity. What would it mean if U.S. citizens were to envy, instead, the European Dream? What if America is now the country of privilege, not promise? If the American financial and economic situation remains static, we’ll learn the answers to these questions the hard way.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique feature of Buckley’s book is his embrace of Darwinian theory — including the genetic study of phenotypes and kin selection — to explain why American aristocrats combine to preserve their power and restrain the middle and lower classes. In short, people are hard-wired to ensure the survival of their kind, so they pass on competitive advantages to their children. “American aristocrats,” Buckley submits, “are able to identify each other through settled patterns of cooperation called reciprocal altruism.” People organize themselves into social groups that maximize the genetic fitness of their biological descendants. If certain advantages are biologically heritable, then “a country would have to adopt punitive measures to handicap the gifted and talented in order to erase all genetic earnings advantages.”

Eugenics measures were popular during the Progressive Era, before we learned about the horrors of Nazi genocide and eugenics, but surely the Left does not want to return to such inhumane and homicidal practices to realize their beloved ideal of equality. Yet Buckley reveals — more subtly than my summary suggests — that biological tampering is the only way for egalitarians to transform their utopian fantasies into a concrete reality.

To those who might point out that Buckley, a tenured law professor living in the handsome outskirts of D.C., is himself a member of this self-serving aristocracy, Buckley declares that he’s a traitor to his class. Without bravado or boast, he presents himself as the rare altruist who recognizes the net gains realized through reasonable cooperation among disparate groups.

Trump and Ted Cruz ought to have Buckley’s book on hand as they make their final case to the electorate before this summer’s convention. Buckley explains why conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans alike should care about economic mobility and inequality. By ignoring the problem of economic disparity, he warns, “the Republican establishment has handed the Democrats a hammer with which to pound it.” Buckley identifies the types of cronyism and economic barriers to entry that have caused social immobility and inequality. To resolve our troubles, he advocates “easy pieces of useful and efficient legislation” that he dubs his “wish list.”

The final section of his book describes this “wish list” and sketches what Americans can do to reinvigorate their economy and make their country mobile again. By facilitating educational choice and charter schools, streamlining the immigration system, curtailing prosecutorial overreach and the criminalization of entrepreneurship, and cutting back on the financial regulations, tax loopholes, and corporate laws that are calculated to benefit rather than police those at the top, Americans can bring back the conditions necessary for the proliferation of individual liberty and prosperity — or, in Buckley’s words, restore the promise of America.

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