Collect for Purity (said at every Mass)

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An Image of the City, Part V: Introduction to Power

Servant of God has greater chance of sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

—T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral

✠     ✠ ✠

Every man and woman has rights as an individual, yet every man and woman comes into existence through other individuals (their parents, grandparents, and so on), and is born into a society, that is, a web of preëxisting relationships. We are creatures with a context, a context that we cannot choose and can only partly influence; and, so much of that context being other people, it includes a substantial number of duties and obligations that, whether we like it or not, we were born into, as the child of a monarch is born into royalty.

Ikon of the Trinity, made at Clear Creek Abbey, OK

This is what we call society. But that word has to be fleshed out, because it has many different aspects: the family is a society, religions are societies, political parties, schools, ethnic groups, artistic movements, trades, municipalities are societies. Society is a vast web of intertwined worlds, and everybody belongs to many of them at once. A number of forces govern every society, and the one I want to examine—one that forms a major element in all Leftist political theory—is the structures of power.

I suspect that this, more than any other thing, certainly more than any ostensible Issue in politics, underlies the difference between the Right and Center on the one hand, and the Left on the other, in this country. The Right and the Center (which latter embraces much of the Democratic Party and most if not all relatively liberal Republicans) move very easily in the framework of rights, which considers every person as an individual; and there is a great deal to be said for that. Each one, the prophet Ezekiel said, shall die for his own sins. But what they tend to, and in some ways have to, leave out, is the context of the individual: the why behind the what of their needs, goals, and actions. And if the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that relationship is part of the essential fabric of existence, means anything, it means that context cannot be ignored. Context is, in fact, part of the text. Style is not overlaid upon substance, style is a part of substance. And it is the Left, not the Right or the Center, that grapples with this the most readily.

This is not to say that the Left is generally correct about … well, anything, technically (though I do in fact agree with the American Left about a good deal). It is only to say that they are addressing a question that most political discourse in this country has, whether ignorantly or cynically, mostly ignored since 1783.

This question of power structures is the motor behind a lot of contemporary progressivist movements and causes: Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, most queer rights groups, First Nations [1] advocacy, and so on. Now, I don’t claim to understand power structures very well—most of what I’ve learned about power has had less intersectionality and more safe words—but what I do grasp can be summed up thus:


1. Social power tends to be wielded by groups who share some kind of common social identity: wealth, ethnicity, religion, sex, and language are all popular social identity definers (e.g. the property requirements of the Roman Senate or the use of French by the English nobility in the Mediæval period).
2. Social power consists in the ability of a group to secure its interests and privileges. Most if not all groups tend to try to increase their privileges.
3. Although egalitarian power structures are possible, in which partnership is valued over dominance, both human selfishness and concerns about scarcity (real or imagined) tend to promote dominance hierarchies, in which power is distributed unequally among social groups.
4. Dominant social groups tend to appeal to theoretical justifications of their disproportionate share of power; these justifications frequently involve maligning other social groups in some way, making it their own fault (intrinsically or historically) that they are excluded from power.

Also known as the 'Should've Thought of That Before You Became Poor' Rule.

A few important addenda are worth noting: for instance, that social power is not intrinsically bad. Being able to secure your interests is a good thing; that’s why people want it. But of course we know very well from both history and daily life that people trying to get things they want don’t necessarily behave very well. It’s that tendency, not the fact of power, that’s bad.

Additionally, with regard to the fourth point about theoretical pretexts for inequalities of power, certain facts must be kept very firmly in mind. Firstly, the abstract truth of the pretext has little or nothing to do with its use by the powerful: typically they are not much interested in abstract truth (only scholars, artists, and sometimes judges normally have a taste for that), but are quite interested in effective tools for maintaining their social power. A justification might be entirely false, entirely unprovable, mixed and mangled, or even completely true: the socially powerful are still going to treat it as a tool, with all of the consequences that generally produces. These justifications are puppet monarchs, installed by foreign interests: the actual strength of the puppet’s claim to the throne is irrelevant; it could be a perfectly good claim, but the foreign interests will conduct themselves much the same way anyhow. I expect that any theoretical justification for inequality will tend to do more and more damage in the self-interested hands of the powerful, as the admixture of truth in the justification goes up. But any of them can do such a lot of damage anyway that this may not matter even if I’m right.

Another facet of the problem is that the origin of these justifications can be deceitfully centered on the disadvantaged. The totalitarian government of Stalin was rooted in Marxism, which was specifically formulated to liberate the oppressed. Christianity, which was a faith of slaves and women in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, became first the backbone of that civilization, and then its weapon and the weapon of its European descendants. The white identity politics of our own day revolve largely around the idea that whites are in some way endangered—culturally, economically, or racially. We might have expected that these puppet claims would always be crafted by the socially powerful post facto, as justifications for a state of affairs that was crowbarred in by explicit force; but, although that certainly happens, it is not nearly so universal as we might have assumed. The powerful and privileged will take any theory that comes to hand, even one snatched from a beggar.

✠     ✠ ✠

[1]First Nations is (I understand) the generally preferred term for what used to be called Native Americans. In European colonial history, native has often been a derogatory word; and of course American Indian was always nonsense ethnologically speaking, based on a mistake Columbus clung to throughout his life despite evidence to the contrary.

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Year in Revue

It’s time for my annual New Year’s Eve arts review. Music was (for me) a little thin this year, except that Florence + the Machine released High as Hope, from which the singles ‘Big God’ and especially ‘Hunger’ were remarkable. The imagery of the music video for ‘Hunger’ is intensely eucharistic—a statue that seems to provoke religious rapture in multiple people, with holes in its hand and its chest (one person puts his finger into the latter, like St Thomas), from which plants are shown growing; a man whispering into another man’s ear in a wide, church-like building, irresistibly evocative of both confession and the intimacy of lovers; the use of arches, stained glass, and light falling from above; a kneeling man surrounded by men who have laid their hands on his shoulders, as if consecrating him; the very title of the song (originally rooted in her confession of an eating disorder, and then reworked as a reference to desire in general); and the overpowering line You make a fool of death with your beauty. Every time I watch it I am reduced to tears.

Van Hansis and Kit Williamson as Thom and Cal in EastSiders

Film and television were stronger. I actually went to theaters to see two different movies this year: Love, Simon and A Quiet Place, both of which I reviewed; Netflix’s Alex Strangelove was a fun, forgettable knockoff of the former. There were a number of excellent TV shows I discovered, though I was often late to the game. Kit Williamson’s EastSiders, a dark gay comedy set in LA which I think wrapped up its final season this year, has some of the best acting I’ve ever seen and a very biting humor; Ken Arpino’s The Queens Project on YouTube (a show I admit I only started watching for B. J. Gruber’s pecs), a light gay comedy set in New York, is a witty, endearing, ludicrous delight, and they had better make a fourth seasons or I will be extremely angry. Big Mouth is an animated surrealist comedy about adolescence, the brainchild of Nick Kroll and featuring John Mulaney among others: it released a mostly-disappointing and frequently disgusting (but not in a funny way) second season this year, but the first season was golden and I retain the hope that the third season will be a return to form.

Finally, the second and fifth seasons of American Horror Story (Asylum and Hotel) were quite engaging, and the seventh, Cult, was an outright masterpiece that proves that Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson between them should have all of the academy awards forever. Asylum, set principally in a Catholic institute for the insane in the 1960s, got rather squirrely and didn’t really seem clear on what arc it wanted for the monsignor’s character; on the other hand, Frances Conroy’s performance as the Angel of Death was beautiful, and Jessica Lange as Sister Jude was by turns infuriating, tragic, and winsome, a masterful execution of an exceptionally complex character. Hotel, which famously featured Lady Gaga in a leading role, was more cohesive, and showcased the wider talent of Peters and Paulson, as well as Mare Winningham and Kathy Bates; it combines vampires on the one hand with serial killers and ghosts on the other, with the rewarding effect of keeping both properly horrifying, striking the balance that Anne Rice successfully did (and that her successors have cheapened) between humanity and monstrosity which makes such creatures artistically interesting in the first place.

But Cult is head and shoulders above its predecessors. I can think of one plot problem; that is the sole charge I have to lay against it. Set during and after the 2016 election, it follows both a quasi-political cult centered on the charismatic but unbalanced Kai Anderson (played by Peters), and the terrorizing of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Paulson) by possibly hallucinatory clowns: partly as a nod to the unbelievably creepy real life clown sightings of 2016, and partly because come on, clowns are that disturbing. I won’t spoil it—unless you are a Patreon sponsor, in which case I’ve posted a spoileriffic review of the thematic links between AHS: Cult and the fairy-tale The Snow Queen, many of them revolving around the often-forgotten plot element of the evil mirror that lies behind the latter story: the mirror shows only the ugliness of the world, and has been broken into countless shards that are scattered through the world. The acting, writing, pace, and costumes in Cult are all extraordinary, which, given the complexity of the plot (much of which is rooted in 60s and 70s despite the contemporary setting) and of some of the principal roles (especially Peters’ and Paulson’s), is a laudable accomplishment. I recommend it to anyone who has any taste for horror.

The Snow Queen by Elena Ringo, 1998

And last of all, to my ten chief readerships the world over:

Happy New Year
С Новым Годом
Bonne Année
Щасливого Нового Року
Frohes Neues Jar
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Bhliain Nua Sásta
سنه جديده سعيده
শুভ ণববষ
Feliz Ano Novo

See you all in 2019!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What Is Side B Anyway?

And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the word of GOD,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the the good and ill that was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life ... 
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from 'The Rock'
✠     ✠ ✠

Given the response a number of people have had to the Q Christian Fellowship’s announcement about representatives of Side B at their upcoming conference, I thought it might be as well to outline what, exactly, Side B is and what its implications are (with a hat tip to the Liturgical Queer, who inspired me). I haven’t done this before, for the rather silly but simple reason that it never occurred to me. This is partly because I’d thought it was clearer than, apparently, it is.

For one thing, a lot of people think that Side B is just ex-gay thought, but without its guarantees of successful orientation change. This isn’t the case at all. Side B was formed as a response to, and a rejection of, ex-gay thought, just like Side A was. It’s true that Side B takes a traditional ethical viewpoint, in contrast to Side A; but in general the origin, culture, and identity of Side B bear more resemblance to Side A than they do to anything out of Exodus or NARTH.

For another, a lot of people think that Side B Christians want to convert everyone to Side B beliefs. I’ll concede that we are very eager to convert our own churches to Side B beliefs: which largely means, getting them to treat us with the love, respect, and solidarity they profess (to a great extent falsely) to have for us. But, while I’m certain there are individuals who consider it their mission to convert Side A people to a Side B viewpoint, I can’t actually think of any. Most of us are—or more accurately, would be, considering the suspicion of our heterosexual brethren—perfectly willing to live and let live, not because the truth doesn’t matter (it does) but because it is neither our business nor particularly effective to go around browbeating people with your beliefs. Within a given church, since it’s a community defined by belief, it may make sense to have such discussions, but that’s quite different.

Now, I don’t want to paint Side B with too broad a brush; there’s a diversity of views, to be sure. The essential parameters are these:
- a traditional sexual ethic (i.e., sex belongs in a one-man, one-woman marriage)
- rejection of ex-gay practices and narratives
That’s it.

This obviously leaves a lot of space for what a given Side B person might think. Like I said, there are different versions of Side B, just as there are different versions of being gay in general. A Side A transman might believe firmly in monogamy, where a secular lesbian might think there’s nothing wrong with sleeping with a different person every night. Are they both right? No. Are they both queer? Yes. Likewise here: I think what I’ve laid out is typical of Side B, but there are many skeins in the rich tapestry of the community.

Some representative areas where Side B and Side A can work together include:

1. Refugee and asylum sponsorship, advocacy, and work. There are still a lot of places in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, where is it dangerous to be LGBT. I’m talking about everything from socially approved harassment to execution by stoning. The worst places include: Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, in which men reputed to be gay are currently being shut in concentration camps; Iran, which executes adult men for homosexual behavior, but only requires 74 lashes for underage males; Nigeria, in which, if you get caught, you’d better hope it’s in the south and you merely have to languish in prison for a decade or so, because in the north they just kill you; Tanzania, which recently embarked on a large-scale anti-gay witch hunt; Saudi Arabia, which allows anything from an arbitrarily long imprisonment to flogging to castration to execution, and accents that last one for repeat offenders; Somalia, which allows the death penalty, but is at least chaotic enough that you can hope they forget to bother; and Uganda, which narrowly avoided instituting the death penalty in 2013 and settled for life imprisonment. Keep in mind, these are just some of the places in the world where your life and liberty could be endangered if you come out, or get outed by someone else, because everyone including the government will come after you. We know only too well that even ostensibly gay-friendly places like, say, Orlando can suddenly become scenes of horror and tragedy.

Getting LGBT people out of these countries and into safer parts of the world should be a no-brainer to everybody. It’s certainly a no-brainer to Side B. Rainbow Railroad is one organization I know of that does this. This of course goes hand in hand with our next point.

2. Supporting national and international legal reforms. This includes advocating legally classifying anti-gay crimes as hate crimes, for example, or supporting efforts to make gender identity and sexual orientation protected categories with respect to things like housing, employment, and access to public goods and facilities. Sodomy laws were of course struck down in the US as of Lawrence vs Texas, but they still stand in other places, and extending aid to those who are working to repeal them in other countries definitely qualifies.

I’d add supporting LGBT civil unions on an international basis, too. Some Side B folks do support civil gay marriage, since they consider their beliefs about marriage strictly religious. Some others, myself included, can’t unhesitatingly endorse gay marriage per se, but I think I’m right in guessing that an overwhelming majority of us are in favor of civil unions at the least. ‘Found family’ is one of the things that’s always laid at the heart of the gay movement, especially due to the fraught relationships so many of us have with our biological families; civil unions are a legal way of recognizing that. Adoption is in a distinct but analogous position here, and a Side B person can definitely support gay adoption (I certainly do).

3. Combating false and demeaning stereotypes about LGBT people, especially those that prevail among Christians. An example would be some of the more prejudiced reactions to the recent resurgence of scandal in the Catholic Church: calls for total bans on same-sex attracted men being admitted to seminaries were widespread, and remain a cause célèbre among many conservative or traditionalist Catholics. One individual, a rare instance of an uncloseted man with SSA (his preferred term), wrote an article published in First Things titled ‘Why Men Like Me Should Not Be Priests,’ asserting that chastity is disproportionately hard for homosexual men as such, and that we are accordingly unsuitable for such a demanding vocation. He adduced his own experiences struggling with chastity, and slipping into hookup culture at times, in support of his argument. The problem with these claims is not just that they’re detrimental to gay people (though they certainly are), but that they’re a bad reading of the evidence.

Traditional Christian culture, Catholic and evangelical alike, punishes not only homosexual acts, but homoerotic feelings, and deviations from quite rigid gender norms—a friend of mine, for example, was told that in order to be confirmed at his Anglican parish, he had to not only cut off all contact with his LGBT friends, but dress and speak differently (and this man was married to a woman). Moreover, while hookups can be treated as discrete, individual sins that can be repented and forgiven, anything that would humanize gay sex, like placing it in the context of a loving relationship, is typically treated as a more serious violation of chastity because it’s ‘living in sin’ instead of merely sinning. Without, quite, saying that the distinction has no value, I will point out that in this case, it makes hookups more appealing, not less: they satisfying both the craving of sexual lust for physical release, but also the intense psychological need that homosexual release should be a sordid and animalistic thing, without sincere affection or loyalty. A chastely celibate partnership between two uncloseted gay men is more of a threat to that identity than any number of anonymous blowjobs in a back room.

This is only one example of damaging preconceptions about LGBT people, and of how the shame and repression they inculcate can easily turn what was a calumny into a self-fulfilling prophecy. On wholly Side B premises with a thoroughgoing commitment to the most rigorous interpretations of Catholic sexual ethics, there is no reason to presuppose that a gay person is any less fit than a straight one to serve as a Catholic institution’s teacher, organist, secretary, youth minister, therapist, nurse, or priest. Each one of us must be examined not on our orientation, but on our merits—which is exactly what these positions call for anyway. Besides, given the incessant lectures we receive about how we shouldn’t reduce ourselves to our sexuality (from confessors and pastors, fellow parishioners, and total strangers in Christian media), it’d be nice if other people would stop doing it to us.

4. Demanding clarity from churches about how LGBT Christians can and can’t serve in them, along with the relevant circumstances and the justification. This alone is going to turn up a lot of homophobic subsoil. Vague assurances of ‘welcome’ are no match for a lived experience of exclusion, heteronormativity, and gaslighting., which I discovered through Twitter, is a great example of an effort to get churches to move from generalized affirmations of love to a concrete explanation of what their love is going to look like—which empowers LGBT believers of all sorts of convictions to make an informed choice about going to this or that church.

What Churchclarity is doing, however, is (and professes to be) just one part of this. If, for example, a given church won’t hire LGBT employees or won’t ordain LGBT Christians because they believe they’re more prone to sexual misconduct, that’s a deeply problematic justification for a stance that is admittedly clear. My own Catholic tradition is particularly frustrating on this point: her teaching that homosexual persons, like all persons, are to be treated with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ is in theory straightforward; but then she goes and ruins it with a bunch of well-actually-ing about what does and doesn’t count as prejudice and unjust treatment. As a Side B person, I strongly advocate for reform in the Catholic Church’s attitudes and policies, and especially for an examination of the extent to which her pastoral habits have been formed by discredited psychological theories of homosexuality. (The ex-gay claims and personal licentiousness of Msgr. Anatrella, recently disgraced along similar lines to ex-Cardinal McCarrick, spring to mind, given his former influence with the Vatican.)

Calling every congregation, parish, diocese, synod, presbytery, and communion to implement policies that actually promote the dignity and well-being they claim to desire for LGBT believers is what’s at stake here. A church that wants to call itself Side B in its doctrine needs to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it doesn’t discriminate against homosexually attracted believers simply because of their attractions—by doing things like employing and ordaining qualified gay Christians, and treating our gifts as being just as valuable as those of straight brothers and sisters by allowing us to exercise them for the good of the body. If your policies demand that LGBT believers, even the ones who are in complete theological agreement with you and live out the chastity they confess, must assume the roles of dependent recipients of your gifts and never more, then whatever your stated beliefs, your behavior is homophobic. And it’s wrong.

5. Attending to medical and social issues that confront LGBT people. People think of HIV here, which isn’t totally false (especially when you had a creep like Martin Shkreli on the loose), though it is recycling a trope that wasn’t entirely true even in the 1980s. But of course, even with Truvada and other godsend medical advances, HIV is still an issue in the gay community. Similar half-truths abound with respect to suicide and substance abuse.

A more pertinent example would be homelessness among LGBT young people: studies over the last twenty years suggest that anywhere from 11 to 40% of homeless youth are LGBT (as opposed to around 3% of the general populace), and that domestic abuse or family expulsion are leading factors here. It is sad and infuriating to think that a minister should need to tell the parents among his flock not to savage, molest, or evict their children for their sexuality or gender identity; sadder and more infuriating that many do not. Drawing attention to this societal travesty, and urging believers of whatever convictions to open their homes and hearts to young people who need to get off the street, are fundamental responsibilities of Christian compassion.

6. Defending the legitimacy of LGBT terminology and identities for Christians. It still leaves me baffled that so many Christians have a problem with words like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian,’ especially since so few of them have a problem with the word ‘straight’ (or ‘bisexual,’ for some reason). Saying I’m gay is not a theological, political, philosophical, or moral statement. It is not an assertion about my sexual activity or lack thereof. It is not an assertion that this is the most important part of who I am, any more than any other I’m statement is such an assertion (I’m an American, I’m a teacher, I’m a nerd …). It’s just using the normal adjective that most speakers of English use to denote a guy who likes guys the way most guys like women.

That said, I personally am prepared to take it a step further and say that queer identities are not incompatible with even a robustly Side B Catholicism. Because what is identity? A lot of things. There are ontological identities like ‘rational agent,’ but when most people talk about their identity I’m prepared to bet they don’t have ontology in mind. Sense of self would be a closer synonym: a narrative of experiences, principles, relationships, ideas, and so forth that we find deeply important. Given that our sexual orientation has a profound impact on our experiences, emotions, and relationships, I see no reason to exclude it from identity in this sense.

And even beyond this, when we look at how groups of people work, we find that group identities are forged by shared experience and especially shared suffering. The early Christians, who were frequently persecuted in fact and could be persecuted at any moment in theory, are an example: the letter to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse are eminent examples of a kind of resistance literature, books that reminded the addresses of who they were, of the solidarity of the Church, of their purpose and their hope—in a word, of their identity. In a very different way, blackness in the US can be regarded as a social identity, forged primarily through suffering and chronic social injustice: ‘black’ isn’t an ethnic group the way Swedish or Korean are ethnic groups, but the shared historical experience of black people in the United States, regardless of their diverse ancestry, created a common identity that reflects a common history.

In the same way, LGBT people in general know what it’s like to grow up different, confused, maybe scared, often mocked or excluded, because of our attractions. We know what it is to realize that what we’re feeling for other boys is what they’re feeling for girls—the chasm that opens up in an instant between us and them, between us and the future we were raised to anticipate. We know collectively what it is like to live and move in a world that was designed by, and caters to, people whose relationships are to a large extent radically different from ours, even when we share their convictions.

These six points are general, exemplary categories, not an exhaustive list or some sort of authoritative confession. But I hope they help clarify for our more hostile or skittish Side A sisters and brothers why we are, precisely, sisters and brothers, both as Christians and as queer family; and that they rouse and spur our heterosexual fellow believers to treat us better.

✠     ✠ ✠

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

An Image of the City, Part IV: An Enumeration of Rights

At this moment the King, who had for some time been busily writing in his note-book, cackled out ‘Silence!’ and read out from his book, ‘Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.’
Everybody looked at Alice. ‘
I’m not a mile high,’ said Alice. ‘You are,’ said the King. ‘Nearly two miles high,’ added the Queen. ‘Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,’ said Alice: ‘besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.’ ‘It’s the oldest rule in the book,’ said the King. ‘Then it ought to be Number One,’ said Alice.
The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily. ‘Consider your verdict,’ he said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
✠     ✠ ✠

So then, the most essential rights of man, as outlined in my last, may be termed: the jus agnitioni, the right to be recognized as a human being; the jus vitæ, the right to live; and the jus factioni, the right to normal human activity. On hypothesis, all other rights are implications or outworkings of these three most fundamental truths about humanity. But these three ideas are the skeleton—it’s those other rights that flesh out the shape of right. So what are those other rights?

I. Jus Agnitioni

The right to be recognized is, first of all, a right to acknowledgment of one’s humanity irrespective of any other fact about oneself: age, sex, health, practical independence, intelligence, moral rectitude, criminal guilt, ethnicity, sexuality, politics, creed or lack thereof, class, nationality—all of that is secondary and all of it must be treated as secondary by the law, beside the bare fact that: this is a human being. Every human being is, in dignity, equal.

This carries with it a number of direct implications. The two most obvious, the right to live and the right to conduct a normal human life, form their own ‘families’ of rights; many more fall under the umbrella of equality before the law. We may enumerate:
· The right to liberty of thought, conscience, and expression
· The right to liberty of movement and conduct (as limited by others’ rights and liberties)
· The right to one’s merited good name
· The right to privacy and security against unreasonable interference
· The right to equal access to public goods and services
· The right to political participation in one’s home country
· The right to legal redress for injuries
· The right to an impartial trial when accused

These rights themselves may have further implications: for example, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, the right to an attorney, the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, the right to be tried publicly, and the right to face one’s accusers, may all be defined as instantiations of the right to an impartial trial (since revoking any one of these secondary rights would imperil the right to an impartial trial); or, the rights to liberty imply a right not to be a slave and a right to emigrate. Additionally, what we mean by some of the terms here could be defined with more precision: what, for instance, constitutes unreasonable interference with privacy and security, as distinct from putatively reasonable interference? Nevertheless, without claiming to have defined the jus agnitioni exhaustively, I dare say that these definitions are enough to move forward from.

With one proviso. The jus agnitioni prompts one definite question: given that lots of regimes, groups, and individuals have tried to delegitimize the humanity of certain groups—slaves, Romani,1 the unborn, the disabled, blacks, Jews—on what grounds is the jus agnitioni to be based?

I see no practicable alternative (in an age that is both scientific and scientistic) but to state that human rights inhere in any being that is, by species, Homo sapiens. This can exclude none of the aforementioned target categories, and applies without respect to capacities, origins, or any other quality. It applies equally to the stay-at-home dad, the Nobel laureate, the unborn fœtus, the autistic teen, the widowed mother of five, the comatose ninety-year-old, the penniless migrant worker, and the death row inmate. In other words, it applies to humans as such, not to a specific kind or condition of humans; just like rights are supposed to do.

This has implications vis-à-vis questions like abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia, among other things. Even if it doesn’t rule them out (which it very well may), it casts them in a particular light: that of dealing with our obligations to a fellow human being, and not solely of the most convenient solution to a philosophically problematic encounter of wills.

II. Jus Vitæ

The right to live is the next most essential, since no other right can be exercised if this right is not preserved. If it is to be applied to Homo sapiens, then—all else being equal—it applies from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. All else may not be equal: there are situations in which doctors predict confidently that a woman will die if she gives birth, or a man can only protect himself from a serial murderer by killing him first, or a garishly dressed alien can only rescue his interspecies girlfriend from a criminally insane real estate tycoon by sacrificing a junior colleague given to self-destructive cries for attention. But the existence of hard cases does not abolish the fundamental principles of right and wrong, any more than the existence of best solutions for hard cases turns them into easy cases.

Like the jus agnitioni, the jus vitæ carries additional rights in its train, rights to those things that we need in order to live. These include:
· The right to food, drink, and clothing
· The right to housing
· The right to health care
· The right to safe living and working conditions
· The right to fair wages and prices
· The right to self-defense
· The right to seek asylum from violence

The canny reader will have noticed that, while I mentioned safe working conditions and fair wages, I said nothing about a right to work. The right to work is of course intimately connected with these things, but I don’t think it is primarily derived from the jus vitæ. That is because, somehow, bringing work into discussions of the right to life always seems to smuggle in an idea that this right to live is conditional, upon a person’s pulling their own weight. Rephrased, that would mean if a person doesn’t pull their own weight, they deserve to die. As severe as I often am about moral principles, I am not prepared to espouse that view.

Besides this, working, as such, doesn’t really contribute to life. What it does is one of three things: obtain or create the goods necessary to live (harvesting crops to eat, weaving cloth to wear, bandaging one’s wounds, etc.); obtain or create superfluous goods to sell or barter; or obtain wages (whether in kind or in money). Work therefore falls properly under the jus factioni rather than here, and to that I now turn.

III. Jus Factioni

This is almost the same as what Thomas Jefferson expressed by the phrase the pursuit of Happiness, using a classical and Aristotelian understanding of happiness: i.e., well-being, human flourishing, a secure and contented human life. It is a right to those things we value about being alive: personal fulfillment, cultural activity, and pursuit of a calling or craft.

So what do we mean by human flourishing? I think a sufficiently catholic definition would embrace the following:
· The right to work
· The right to contribute to the common good
· The right to recognition of original inventions, discoveries, or creations
· The right to a family
· The right to fairly-acquired personal property
· The right to peaceable association with others
· The right to education
· The right to enter or refuse legally binding agreements

These rights are, naturally, the most difficult to detail, since—as both the medium and the fruit of human activity—they are wrapped up in the autonomy of everybody involved. Whether and how the right to education produces a personal obligation in an educator is, unavoidably, a tricky question to address. I hope to hammer out the hierarchy of these rights in a later post, which should help.

It’s also worth noting that I have specified personal property, which is different from public, private, or collective property. Public property is that which is owned equally by everybody; private property is that which is owned by an individual, but in excess of what they can actually use or enjoy; collective property is that which is owned by a group, like a company or a club, as distinct from an individual (government property is thus really a type of collective property, not public property). Personal property is approximately equivalent to what we call someone’s effects: property they can personally use or enjoy. I’m confident that there’s a right to personal property, but I’m not sure about the others, so I have left them off until I have more time to think.

But all of these rights are the rights of individuals. And individual people always exist in a context, a web of history and relationships that they didn’t choose (as well as others that they did). No Man is an Iland, intire of it selfe, and no society is a vacuum. Any serious theory of ethics and politics must account for the essentially social nature and origin of man—and therefore of every individual. Hence, before moving forward, we must ask what rights society as a whole has, and how they interlace with the rights of the individual.
✠     ✠ ✠

1A.k.a., Gypsies. Roma or Romani is, in general, the self-appellation and preferred name of the people; Gypsy is sometimes considered a slur.

Friday, November 30, 2018

An Image of the City, Part III: Jures Hominis

Father D’Arcy will forgive me if I take one example from his book, which exactly illustrates what I mean. He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers. Also, being a trained priest, he is naturally accustomed, not only to suffer fools gladly, but (what is sometimes even harder) to suffer clever people gladly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. ‘A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences. For St Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and … a thing must first be, to be intelligible.’
Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the ‘remarkable difference’ seems to him to be that St Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand.
—G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox
✠     ✠ ✠

As I mentioned in my last, I was surprised to learn (years ago) that the notion of a hierarchy of rights is not a standard element of most versions of human rights theory. To me, this seems like a baffling omission, because it’s so obvious that there are cases where one person’s rights clash with another’s. If, for the sake of argument, a severely dehydrated man could only stave off death by stealing a drink from Lady Marchmain’s fountain, which takes precedence: the landowner’s right to property or the dehydrated man’s right to life? If they are equal, there’s literally no right answer.

The common-sense answer is that obviously a man’s right to live outweighs Lady Marchmain’s proprietary use of her fountain. I think the common-sense answer is entirely correct, but it wants to be worked out into a coherent system.

Remember that negative rights are essentially rights against being interfered with, while positive rights incur obligations in others. The right to life is a negative right, and pretty much means the right to not be killed; the right to health care is a positive right, obliging those who can care for others’ health to do so for those who need it (obviously, this is not a thorough explanation). The principles I use to work out the system are these:

1. If exercising right A necessarily requires a person to enjoy right B, then B is the more fundamental of the two—or, to switch metaphors, right B is higher in the hierarchy. Another way of saying this is that B conditions A, i.e. creates the conditions necessary for A’s existence and/or enjoyment.
2. If exercising right A in practice requires some other thing B (which may be another right, a resource, or something else), then this entails a positive right to B. For example, humans need water to live, so if there is a negative right to life, then there is a positive right to adequate water.
3. The more a given right is conditioned by other rights, the lower it will be in the hierarchy; the less conditioned it is, the higher it will be.

So, what are the baseline rights we can plug into this system? What is their hierarchy among themselves? And, with respect to both questions, why?

At first I thought that principle 1 meant the right to life was the most basic of all rights, but as I’ve continued thinking it out, I have revised that belief. The morass of genocides in the twentieth century teach us with crystal clarity that recognition of other human beings as human, tautological though it sounds, is the bulwark upon which the right to life itself depends. It is that mutual recognition that conditions all other rights, including the right to live; for if a given person doesn’t really count as human, then every other right of theirs can be violated; or rather, violating their rights stops being a real thing, because they lack the context of human dignity in which those rights exist. Everything from the three-fifths rule to the Holocaust to ‘eliminating Down Syndrome’ depends on this refusal to deal honestly with the fact that every other human being is, precisely, a human being.

Therefore, I have made bold to classify what I call the right to recognition as elementary. All other rights are related to it, one way or another. If humans are not first of all human, in the long run, nothing else is going to matter.

The more I tried to think about rights in some structured pattern, the more the rights that the Western tradition usually enumerates seemed to coälesce into three groups, one surrounding this right to recognition, and the other two surrounding the right to live and to do things with one’s life; systems or families or rights, as it were. Being a former Classicist and a show-off, I shall give these systems Latin names to distinguish them from the individual rights they imply, and shall use said Latin names both for clarity (kind of) and to avoid having to type the word right over and over and over and over, especially since in some contexts it would be confusing.

The systems of rights are these:

I. Jus Agnitioni, the right to recognition. This means recognizing the fact that a person is a person, and that fact intrinsically means they have the same dignity as every other person. It undergirds the other two rights, and also implies things like a right to equality before the law, a right to autonomy and privacy, and so forth.
II. Jus Vitæ, the right to live. This, since it conditions every right except the jus agnitioni, is the second-nearest to the zenith, and comes from and realizes it.
III. Jus Factioni, the right to activity. This one is easier to express concisely in Latin than in English—though come to think of it, the Jeffersonian phrase ‘pursuit of happiness,’ if you give happiness the Aristotelianized meaning of eudaimonia, isn’t far off. The jus factioni springs from and details the jus agnitioni and jus vitæ; it embraces things like education, work, and marriage, the stuff that we do with the recognition and life at our disposal.

It is not coïncidental that these families of fundamental rights are three in number, nor that the first is rooted in being, the second is ‘the life of men,’ and the third proceeds from the first two. I expected—although I did not foresee this pattern specifically—that the rights proper to humanity would take a trinitarian form, because man is the image of God.

Outlining the further implications of these rights, to the best of my ability, will be the subject of my next.
✠     ✠ ✠