On Making Things Right

In a post aimed at the late Andrew Breitbart -- of whom I know fairly little -- The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates cites the history of SNCC.  This was short for the "Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee," a fact which makes the history a little ironic.
In the mid-1960s, SNCC, one of the most important civil rights groups of its era, began to split at the seams. Since its inception, the group had committed itself to the eradication of white supremacy strictly through the twin pillars of nonviolence and integration. SNCC members, like their fellow activists throughout the South, endured threats, beatings, bombings, and shootings, all of which they greeted with Bible verses and song. The tactic ultimately succeeded by cutting through centuries of hate and accessing a basic sense of human decency. 
But nonviolence exacted a price and, in 1966, its success was not assured. That was the year Stokely Carmichael assumed leadership of the organization. Carmichael had spent much of the early 60s subjecting his body to beatings, tear-gassings, and water-hoses. Committed to integration and nonviolence, he had driven down dark and lonely Southern roads accompanied only by the knowledge that people of his ilk were being vanished there with some unsettling regularity. When Carmichael came to power he, and much of SNCC's membership, had changed their politics. They expelled whites from the group and rejected nonviolence. Eventually there was a quasi-merger with the Black Panther Party and a full-throated embrace of revolutionary violence.  
Among the SNCC members to reject that path, were Shirley and Charles Sherrod.
Mr. Coates may be right in the point he intends to make, which is that Andrew Breitbart treated Shirely Sherrod worse than she deserved.  This history, however, passes by another point of greater personal concern to me.

One of those "expelled whites" was a high-school teacher of mine, one of the best teachers I ever had.  At the time that the "Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee" became just the 'Student Committee,' he was cast out in spite of having served faithfully those ideals of "a basic sense of human decency" that eventually won out.

It's been a long time since I was in high school, but at the time -- as now, as always -- racial tensions remained somewhat high.  This teacher went so far as to offer a course on race and racism, from the perspective you would expect from a former member of SNCC.  It was a year-long course, but after a few weeks he was removed from instructing it by the demands of the black students, who were upset at the idea of a white man teaching on the subject of racism.  Political correctness, which was at the time a newly named phenomenon, repeated SNCC's injustice, lashing out at a good-hearted man who was only ever on their side.  These were teenagers who had inherited the success of the Civil Rights movement as a free gift, paid for by men like the one they scorned on account of his skin.

If we are going to speak of this history, we ought to remember that as well.

The First Day of Spring (Subjective)

Objectively, spring is still almost a month away.  Subjectively, it was eighty degrees and sunny today, and the pear trees have broken out in beautiful white blossoms.

What a fine day for a ride.

A couple of miles away, a neighbor's heraldic sign.

A Troll Valley-style house in Hartwell, Georgia.

A similar but nicer home -- sadly some of the details are obscured by the tree.  Note the Scottish Rampant Lion flying beneath Old Glory.

A fine day to wash your boots in the Savannah River.

Down by the riverside.

Currahee Mountain, on the return leg.

On 'The Ethicists'

Parents should be able to kill their newborns, argue a panel of ethicists in a new paper, because they are not actually people; they are only potentially people.  The core of the argument lies in the definitions:
“Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.  We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”
The academic use of "her" to avoid sexism is unusually appropriate, since the majority of abortions are of female children.

The argument sounds at first blush like the kind of argument I would expect from an ethicist with proper training, because the potential/actual distinction was important to Aristotelian theories of generation.  This arises from the form/matter distinction, and from Aristotle's theory of motion and change.  In Physics 1, he argues that in order for change to be possible, you must have two contraries and a substratum to move between them.  Thus, for something to become hot, hot must exist; and so must not-hot; and then there must be a third thing that isn't as hot as it could be, but moves towards maximal hotness.  That which defines how hot it is possible to be is 'the actuality of hot.'

In the case of generation, form and matter are joined; but the child does not have the full actuality of Man or Woman.  Obviously, at birth, the child still retains substantial potential, and it advances toward that potential over the course of its growth.  Thus, if we define an actual person on Aristotle's terms, we could say that a child isn't an actual person until the child achieves its full growth both in frame and reason.

The ethicists, however, aren't doing anything as interesting or subtle as that; they are proposing a binary standard rather than a sliding scale of acutality,.  Presumably a two-year-old would be 'an actual person' under this standard.

There are several things that I might say about this.

1)  On the history of the idea:  Aristotle himself viewed infanticide as undesirable except when the child was deformed, or in cases when population pressure made it necessary (both more serious considerations in the ancient world, when scarcity of food was a far more severe and immediate concern).  He opposed abortion after the child had developed sensation, not reason.  (Politics VII 1335b20-30, but see also History of Animals VII Part 3, which proposes based on dissection that male but not female children will have organs such as eyes -- that is, the necessary conditions for sensation -- at forty days' gestation.)

Interestingly, the 40-day standard was being enforced by the Church in Charlemagne's day:  a woman who arranged the abortion of her child after it was forty days' old in the womb was subject to three years of penance, while a woman who did so earlier was subject only to a year's penance.  The secular law, however, treated anyone who assisted in an abortion (as for example by providing abortifacient drinks) as a homicide.  (See Pierre Riche, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, page 50).

That was not the case throughout the Western world, however; some followed the Aristotelian view and some other views on infanticide and abortion -- generally, after the second century AD, alternative views were much harsher.

2)  On the proposed standard of the ethicists:  Indeed it may not be obvious that the child has substantially more or less moral standing ten minutes before birth or ten minutes after; no more than wine in a pitcher is substantially different ten minutes before being poured into a glass than it is ten minutes after (unless, of course, it has been drunk; in that case, it has achieved its most blessed state about that time).

Some objections:  before the umbilical cord is cut, the child is factually dependent on the mother for survival; afterwards, it is not.  It has the capacity (but not the actuality, to stay with that distinction) of being independent long before then; but if the actuality is what counts, it does not yet have it.  If independence is what counts, though, the child will still die without someone's care -- but it need not be the mother's, after that, so perhaps that is why she loses the right to dispose of the thing once it is born.

Alternatively, we might note that the experience of childbirth is a traumatic passage for everyone involved, not easily dismissed as meaningless.  It may be that the act of birth is something that is important to our society as a rite of passage:  and the child, having survived it, has thus passed into personhood ritually.  In that case, the ethicists are barking up the wrong tree:  the personhood of the child is nothing to do with the child, but with the rites of society.  That would be coherent with many human cultures, in which rites of passage are just so abrubt:  a child goes from a boy to a man in a day, or a week, or an instant, but the rite once complete is absolute.

3)  The question of value is interesting.  The child (according to them) does not itself value life; and so, if no one else values its life, its life is without value.  That is a remarkably capitalist position to take on human life.

4)  If we do want to return to a form/matter concept regarding the child, science has provided us with a genuine idea of what the form of a man or woman would be.  It is their DNA structure, which does exactly what Form in the ancient sense is supposed to do:  it organizes and structures the matter.  This is a living principle, which exists from fertilization and begins to work as soon as the zygote begins to divide.  Thus, we learn from scientific inquiry that there is not the movement in childhood from 'potentially Man' to 'actually Man.'  Rather, the Form of each individual is unique, and it is actually possessed by -- and only by -- the child from fertilization.

If possession of an actual human Form is what distinguishes an actual human being, then the child is actually human from the first moments of its life.

Bellavia for Congress

One of our own has apparently decided to hang it out in the wind.

His book on Fallujah is the best book I know of on that part of the Iraq War.  If you want to help him out, go here.

The Sacred

I've begun watching the early episodes of a show called "Breaking Bad," about a high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque whose response to a life crisis is to start cooking meth with one of his ne'er-do-well ex-students. I thought it would be a nihilistic exploration of a disintegrating personality, but instead the script turns at every point on the central character's convincing moral choices under unbearable pressure. Not good moral choices, but believable ones, and demonstrated with economy in a fine script.

The main actor spends very little time explaining himself. His sidekick, the young student, is struggling harder to put into words what one human being owes to another. In one episode they face two tasks, one even more horrifying than the other. After quarreling for a bit over who should do which, the young man suggests a coin toss, which the teacher loses. The young man takes care of his own horrible job, only to find the older man procrastinating about his, which provokes the outraged outburst that "coin toss is sacred, man." When you expose yourself in good faith to the outcome of a tool of chance, you live with the result. You hang onto that moral precept even though you seem to have left the world of virtue far behind, and the coin toss is about profound crimes that are disintegrating your identity.

In some part of us, we know there have to be moral laws even if we ostensibly think the universe is a vast, materialist, meaningless void.

The Joust

Several of you have written to ask if I've seen the new "Full Metal Jousting" show on the History channel.  I hadn't, although I was aware of it; but now there is a full episode online if you want to watch it.  I hope the sport takes off, and I will be glad to watch it once it is a sport instead of a reality-TV show about people trying to start a sport.  Once it's more like PBR, I'll be glad to spend an evening with it.

By coincidence, I was doing some research yesterday and came across an article that says that re-enactment Medieval tournaments were very popular in the American South both before and after the Civil War.  The author began his career as a Marxist historian, but apparently his studies of Southern conservatism converted him.  In any case, it's an excellent article that shows how significant chivalric literature was to the education of Southerners in the 19th century; it's on EBSCOhost if you don't have JSTOR, and if you have neither, you can probably get it via your library.  Ask at the reference desk.

In any case, at the time the tournaments were roundly mocked by those outside the South.  Then as now, New York journalists were only too eager to explain how ridiculous it was not to be up with the latest progress.  Our historian relates:
John Houston Bills, a planter in western Tennessee, whiled away his spare hours early in 1866 by reading tales of the crusades, and in October he reported: "To day the great and long expected 'Tournament' comes off--1200 to 1500 persons attend it--the Tilting is Very spirited, a dozen or more Knights enter the Contest-Brewer of Holly Springs wins the prize, a fine horse--Betty Neely was crowned queen of Love & Beauty."
The editors of the Nation, then as now exemplars of New York provincialism and effrontery, exploded:
Any country in which it is the custom, in our day, to assemble in great crowds to watch men doing these things in broad daylight, dressed up in fantastic costumes, and calling themselves "disinherited knights," " knights of the sword," "knights of the lone star," and pretending to worship a young woman from a modest wooden house in the neighborhood as the "queen of love and beauty," and to regard the bestowal of a shabby theatrical coronet by her as the summit of earthly felicity, we need not have the least hesitation in pronouncing semi-civilized.
The editors of the Nation could not be contradicted. What, after all, could be more absurd[?]
Think of their bad taste in treating young ladies from modest wooden houses as if they were queens of love and beauty.
 Yes, think of that.