April 2007

The Moral Center: How We Can Reclaim Our Country From Die-Hard Extremists, Rogue Corporations, Hollywood Hacks, and Pretend Patriots.  By David Callahan. Harcourt. 272 pages. $24.

Throughout the boom years of the 1990s, the cultural elites who steered the Democratic Party away from the middle-class values of its leading urban pols convinced themselves that "values" were no longer a consideration for anyone other than right-wing fanatics. The exit polling of election night 2004 left them recoiling in shock. "Values voters," including those still found in the traditionally Democratic working class, were seen as the lynchpin to President George W. Bush's re-election. The leftist politicos went back to the drawing board to figure out how to win them back. David Callahan has made his contribution to the effort with The Moral Center.

In spite of the title, Callahan's book is not an attempt to find common ground between Left and Right. He makes numerous rhetorical nods in that direction, but always with an eye toward getting conservatives to agree with him, without any corresponding concessions on his part.

Callahan uses the soothing rhetoric of common ground as a Trojan horse to force-feed the cultural revolution down the throats of the working-class holdouts who remain annoyingly resistant. He asserts that political conservatives are not the only ones who identify "values" as a core concern, and goes on to cite polling data showing that roughly one-third of the electorate believes moral values are really about economic justice. Moreover, Callahan cites another poll that showed that Catholic voters define values in terms of personal integrity and the social contract, rather than in terms of abortion or "gay marriage."

But Callahan fails to recognize that some of us Catholics might define values in such a way while still considering abortion a greater crime against integrity and the social contract than whether the top tax rate is 35 percent or 39 percent.

If you can dig past all this, Callahan offers a very constructive critique of capitalism in general, and conservative free-market orthodoxy in particular. He argues that the unfettered market so beloved by the Right has placed tremendous social pressure on families and society. He reminds conservatives of something many seem to have forgotten — that with freedom comes responsibility, and that at least part of our cultural wasteland is a result of unrestrained capitalism, not solely left-wing flights of fancy. Look no further than the Fox cable stations, be it for news or sports, and witness the perpetual parade of indecent commercials promulgated by America's foremost neocon television network.

For the most part, Callahan resists taking on any liberal sacred cows. Yet there is one notable exception for which he deserves credit. He delivers a stinging critique of Hollywood, and expresses bafflement at why the Democratic Party will not take on the film industry — particularly given that it was not a right-winger, but Tipper Gore, who first began campaigning for stricter regulation of the entertainment industry. Callahan follows the money trail to find out why Democrats are silent. As much as the Left gripes about the National Rifle Association's influence in the GOP, it turns out that Hollywood has given eight times the funding to Democrats that the gun lobby has given to Republicans.

Callahan makes the obligatory liberal statement that "whatever one thinks of abortion, we can all agree that we want fewer abortions." But why would anyone agree on that? The liberals spend more time denouncing prolife activism than they do supporting the work of crisis pregnancy centers — the places that deliver the needed material and financial support to mothers who choose life. One might logically presume that such seemingly conciliatory statements are made more out of political expediency than actual conviction.

On the positive side, Callahan emphasizes the importance of getting everyone involved in the health care system — a step that not only has moral implications, but practical ones as well, in that it "de-links" health care from one's employment and makes it easier to be self-employed. He also calls for a generous expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, something Ronald Reagan called the best anti-poverty program ever seen. To his credit, Bill Clinton worked to expand the "EITC," but was resisted by the GOP Congress.

But beyond the interesting mix of policy proposals, this book's predictable attempts to perpetuate the liberal revolution leave the reader with a sour taste in his mouth.

- Dan Flaherty

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature.  By Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt. InterVarsity Press. 256 pages. $18.

Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt understand that the "crisis of the West" is not a product of artists and philosophers who have encouraged all manner of decadence over the past 150 years. The real source of the problem is that certain versions of science have patronizingly informed us that,of course, the world made itself. Darwin demonstrated this truth, don't you know, and his epigones in "science" are only providing the details to his 19th-century certitude. Wiker and Witt submit: "A poison has entered human culture. It's the assumption that science has proven that the universe is without purpose, without meaning." This is the primary popular assumption the authors tackle in A Meaningful World.

"The more comprehensible the universe becomes the more it also seems pointless," Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in physics, has famously written. Wiker and Witt point to this plenary claim because it encapsulates precisely the meaninglessness that undergirds both philosophical and banal cultural nihilism, providing cover for such historical figures as Epicurus and Nietzsche while justifying contemporaries from Sartre to Seinfeld.

At the same time, Weinberg admits that at the quotidian, "retail level," scientists build satellites and accelerators and sit for endless hours "working out the meaning of the data." But, of course! As Wiker and Witt remind us: "Science is a meaningful activity precisely because the universe itself is meaningful and human beings have the strange capacity to understand it."

Wiker and Witt also confront Richard Dawkins's claim that a monkey with a Mac can write Hamlet. As it turns out, Dawkins's monkeys are all too monkey-like: For when six monkeys had a computer placed in their cage in an experiment at Plymouth University in England, they defecated on the keyboard when they weren't "bashing the hell out of it with a stone," being apparently "less interested in leaving their marks on literature than in leaving their marks on the computer." They did manage long uninterrupted pages of single letters — all "Ss" or "Gs"! — a genre of avant-garde poetry or aesthetic happening, no doubt.

It isn't that Dawkins and Weinberg aren't serious about their moonlighting in philosophy and social theory in the way that they are serious about their day jobs as scientists. Dawkins, for one, takes this monkey business quite seriously, devoting many pages of his published work to this as an analogy for what he regards as the creative process of natural selection. Such shallow thinking is buried in short order by Wiker and Witt.

As for the elegant beauty of mathematics, Wiker and Witt ask: "If the universe were random and did not have us in mind, and if our own reasoning capacities and love of beauty were likewise randomly produced, could we reasonably expect math to be the ethereal union of truth and beauty" that it is? Thus, Wiker and Witt demonstrate how Euclid, "by virtue of the universality of his demonstration" of mathematical truth, can appropriately be called the Shakespeare of math.

The American flag may have vanished from the front of our science classrooms, but the periodic table, that boxy configuration of letters and numbers, still hangs there. What appears as gibberish offers yet another tutorial on the symmetry of nature. Thus, the great 19th-century Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, began codifying the chemical elements on separate cards, according to their increasing atomic weight. He soon noted a periodic pattern, and "when there was a suspicious leap in atomic weight" between elements, he "boldly" anticipated that elements would be discovered to fill the gaps.

None of this is to gainsay the breathtaking accomplishments of reductionism as a tool in science. Of course, the telescope and the microscope have led to dramatic advances. Wiker and Witt say as much. But from embryology to chemistry, from mathematics to cosmology, life is a symphony, a Shakespearian play wherein "the drama of growth is determined by the overall plot."

In the story of the elephant surrounded by the blind men, each man specializes in the feature of the elephant that he touches. But what is often ignored in this parable is that there is an elephant, a truth that transcends individual perspectives. Wiker and Witt's plenary treatise reminds us of that, abundantly and elegantly.

- Terry Scambray

Citizens of the Heavenly City: A Catechism of Catholic Social Teaching.  By Arthur Hippler. Borromeo Books. 154 pages. $15.95.

It's a common understanding that the Ten Commandments are divided into two sections: 1-3 are about our relationship with God and 4-10 deal with how we treat our neighbor. Hippler's Citizens of the Heavenly City makes the case for a more comprehensive understanding. Yes, the first three Commandments are directed toward our relationship with God, but Hippler claims that these three also have significant and often ignored social implications.

The second Commandment forbids blasphemy; a sin that Hippler says includes "bad or false things said about [God's] Church, the saints, the angels, and other sacred things worthy of our reverence." But how are we to counteract blasphemy in a society made up of people of many faiths and no faith? How would this be enforced?

Throughout, Hippler seeks fidelity to Church teaching. In discussing the seventh Commandment, he achieves an uncommon balance: "Private Ownership and Common Use." Citizens have a right to private property, but it is not absolute. There is an obligation to share with the poor.

He describes the three sources of Catholic social teaching: the Bible, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and encyclical letters and speeches of the popes.

Hippler argues that there is no need for the term "rights." We should instead stress our duties. Most of these can be found, at times implicitly, in the Ten Commandments. He roots all social teachings in theology: the Kingship of Christ. Jesus is the King of all, and so "all rulers must have Jesus as their superior, or else they will rule unjustly." This Kingship is "the first goal for all Catholic social action, for Christ must reign!" This may sound great to the Catholic, but what does it mean for the non-Catholic living among Catholics? Hippler, unfortunately, does not address how this might play out in a pluralist society.

- William Perales

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