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Pulling Our Own Strings

Philosopher Daniel Dennett's analysis of free will and determinism is fatally flawed ("Pulling Our Own Strings," May). Based on his reasoning in Ronald Bailey's interview, "avoidance" is an illusion when the onion of causality is peeled back. With an evolutionary recursion, every event is contingent upon previous events. The fact that one can duck from an oncoming baseball only demonstrates how evolution (prior events) has wired the agent to duck. The evolutionary wiring in his brain compels him to do just that, just as gravity compels a raindrop to fall. The complexity of the wiring may mask the determinism, but it is indeed there. Free will? Forget about it.

And as for morality, pub-leeze. Whose morality? Dennett's? Why not Genghis Khan's? Where did that come from? With its claim of a universal brotherhood of man, the Enlightenment means nothing in a Darwinian context. Its philosophers merely threw out the baby (God) and improperly appropriated the bath water (an elevated sense of mankind's nature) because the only alternative was nihilism. A Darwinist can now offer that the rejection of the historic Absolute has released man to manifest his intrinsic, naturalistic behavior.

But you know what? The dominant, survival-of-the-fittest behavior may be decidedly tribal, materialistic, self-centered. So using Darwin, I can make an exact counterpoint to Dennett and argue that he is pushing on a utopian rope that contravenes human nature. Or is Dennett, full of hubris and conceit, the new god? Have he and his cohorts divined the new "moral" order that transcends even Darwin?

In the world of Darwin there is no morality, public or otherwise. There may be utilitarian reasons for specific social behaviors but not moral ones.

Steve Mack

Daniel Dennett and his philosopher pals are whistling past the graveyard of nihilism. They just haven't the cojones to admit it.

Washington, D.C.

Velvet President

It is rather ironic that Matt Welch's tribute to Vaclav Havel ("Velvet President," May 2003) should appear alongside Daniel Dennett's ruminations about "evolutionary morality,, ("Pulling Our Own Strings") and Jesse Walker's article on a particularly vapid form of spiritual syncretism ("Inside the Spiritual Jacuzzi").

The recently retired Czech president is the product of a distinctive Central European culture whose artists and intellectuals, through some 50 years of totalitarianism, were remarkable for their often naive but always courageous commitment to a free society. For most of the Cold War period, the philosophical expression of these freedom lovers in communist countries was neither widely known nor acknowledged in the West. Nowadays many would prefer to forget it, lest its memory serve as a reproach against those who were witting or unwitting apologists for appeasement.

In any event, Havel emerged out of this intellectual tradition, which included among its pioneers Tomas Masaryk, Jan Patocka, and Edmund Husserl. Husserl, interestingly, had the mystic Edith Stein as his assistant and exercised considerable influence on the phenomenological approach developed by a young Polish intellectual named Karol Wojty, who later, as Pope John Paul II, played a not insignificant role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

This school of thought argued that the condition for "living in truth" amid the totalitarian nightmare was openness to what Havel calls an objective "order of Being" acknowledged over millennia by all authentic human cultures, often quite independently of one another. The guarantees of human freedom and personal responsibility are to be found neither in programs nor in systems, but in "man's relationship with what transcends him, without which he would not be."

In a 1994 address at the Stanford University Law School on "The Spiritual Roots of Democracy," Havel argued that the fundamental crisis of the modern world is that individuals have lost respect for themselves, for others, and for "the order of nature, the order of humanity." When that respect is lost, laws and moral norms are undermined, as is a sense of responsibility: "The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority... [originates] in that which man has lost, his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect."

Havel contrasted this reverence for the "veiled mystery of Being" with the Marxist presumption that reality is governed by a finite series of laws whose interrelationships can be grasped by the human mind and reduced to formulae, an approach he characterized, pace Dennett, as "the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered."

In his commencement address at Harvard the following year, Havel explained that he does not argue for a single "universal key to salvation" so much as the recovery of the "archetypal spirituality" that is "the foundation of most religions and cultures," the "respect for what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of Being or a moral order that stands above us." It is each individual's constant quest to experience a part of this mysterious but objective truth--and not the "feel good" cafeteria-style dabbling of the "HotTub Mystery Religion"--that renders life truly human.

J. Peter Pham

New York, NY

Among the many powerful lines cited in Matt Welch's article, one in particular stands out in my mind as timeless, true, and deserving of my respect for Vaclav Havel, the incredible and brave gentleman whom the writer quite rightly identifies as the modem counterpart of Eric Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell:

"When the internal crisis of the totalitarian system grows so deep that it becomes clear to everyone...and when more and more people learn to speak their own language and reject the hollow, mendacious language of the powers that be, it means that freedom is remarkably close, if not directly within reach."

As for Christopher Hitchens, I admire his intelligence, powers of reason, and command of the language, and found his fine book Why Orwell Matters to be a persuasive and moving piece of work. But I somehow do not see The Hitch as the torchbearer of the Orwellian legacy. and while I also respect (for quite different reasons) the brilliant but not-so-gracefully-aging Noam Chomsky, who has he not railed against of late, apart from Ramsey Clark? It's become nearly a badge of honor for those on the right and on the left.

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to The Flying Dutchmen, the wonderfully diverse and fluid troupe of writers and poets of which I was a founding member, along with Herman Kluge, R.T. Castleberry, and Charles Harvey. The Flying Dutchmen were involved in what I consider to be some of the most important literary and artistic activities in Houston during the 1980s and '90s-and their imprimatur remains to this day a valuable part of that city's small but vocal "Orwellian" legacy. I tip my hat to the original spirit which brought that wonderful group together.

Ron Christian Welch

Austin, TX

I must say I greatly enjoyed reading the piece on Vaclav Havel. But I'm curious about this passage: "His open, though qualified, flattery of the U.S. is one reason Noam Chomsky considers him 'morally repugnant' and on an 'intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks."'

I haven't read a lot of Chomsky, but this surprised me. Where did these quotes come from?

Clay Young

Via e-mail

Matt Welch replies: In February 1990 Vaclav Havel gave his first U.S. speech in front of a joint session of Congress. Noam Chomsky, in a letter to Alexander Cockburn shortly thereafter, called it a "shameful performance" and an "embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon."

Later in the same letter, which is included in Cockburn's The Golden Age Is in Us (1995), Chomsky wrote: "So by every conceivable standard, the performance of Havel, Congress, the media, and...the Western intellectual community at large are on a moral and intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks--not an unusual discovery."

In a subsequent essay that appeared in his Deterring Democracy, Chomsky reflected on Havel's well-received reference to the United States as a "defender of freedom" by concluding: "There is only one rational interpretation: liberal intellectuals secretly cherish the pronouncements of Pat Robertson and the John Birch Society, and can therefore gush in awe when these very same words are produced by Vaclav Havel."

Gun Battles

I'm not sure why Julian Sanchez was given two pages to celebrate the major blow he struck against the right to bear arms ("The Mystery of Mary Rosh," May). I was going to say "minor blow," but that was before I looked up the matter on the Net. For example, in the March 20 St. Paul Pioneer Press ( "Lott has been largely discredited as a reliable source of information on gun policy."

Judging from his blog, Sanchez now thinks Lott's questionable statistic, on brandishing vs. using a gun, was somebody else's editing error. But that will not change matters. Liberals are utilitarians in ethics; in other words, they have no rule against lying for a "good" cause. Long before any scandal erupted, they were already doing whatever they could to discredit Lott.

Sanchez never mentions this, the real reason why Lott's venial sins were immediately seized upon and broadcast. Meanwhile, both academia and the major media circled the wagons to protect historian Michael Bellesiles, whose entire thesis on gun ownership in America was based on fraud. Indeed, that eventual finding was barely reported by the same outlets that had once praised him to the skies.

Jersey City, Nf

Taras Wolansky

Julian Sanchez replies: It's a bit odd to criticize ideological opponents for being willing to lie for a good cause and then imply that I ought to have done the same thing. This publication certainly has not been shy in exposing Bellesiles' far more egregious academic wrongdoing; see Joyce Malcolm's March cover story, "Disarming History."

In any event, Taras Wolansky is correct that Lott's pseudonymous pecadilloes are at worst embarassing. If his scholarly reputation has suffered, it's due to his own dodgy use of numbers-something others were already reporting on when I picked up the story. As for the brandishing survey, it's worth noting that if it existed, a question on which I remain agnostic, it was surely irresponsible to make a broad statement about national brandishing and firing rates without mentioning that the sample size was far too small to support such generalizations.

Bureaucratic Response

In "Bureaucratic Enrichment Zones" (May), Jesse Walker repeated the common fallacy that "by the time zone enthusiast Jack Kemp became HUD secretary in 1989, the idea had changed to the point where new federal subsidies were part of the mix."

Nothing could be farther from the truth. When I was at HUD, enterprise zones were designed to reduce tax barriers to employers who would locate and invest within the zone. The purpose was to demonstrate the efficacy of reasonable tax policy, with the added benefit of "green lining" specific zones to bring business and investment into economically distressed areas. This would serve two further purposes: to provide incentives for job creation and plant the seed for long-term community wealth formation and broader national reform.

Coincidentally, Empower America details the demise of the original intent of enterprise zones under the Clinton administration's Empower Zone/ Enterprise Community initiative in a new white paper, "National Enterprise Zones of Choice," available online at riseZones031903.pdf. Instead of continuing failed tax-subsidy boondoggles of the previous administration, we encourage Congress and the administration to embrace National Enterprise Zones of Choice, based on sound fundamental tax policy to demonstrate the power of tax reform and to illustrate policies that will help end economic dependency.

Jack Kemp, Director

Empower America

Washington. D.C.

Jesse Walker replies: Even before Clinton, enterprise zone proposals were bundled with federal spending. The "Weed and Seed" initiative that the first President Bush pushed after the L.A. riots, for example, specifically directed federal funding for police and social services to "areas designated Enterprise Zones." If Clinton spread the money further, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giant spenders.

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Date:Aug 1, 2003
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