Monday, June 20, 2005

MH - The Discerning Reader

Ever since the Terri Schiavo case came to the forefront, the controversy has been raging in The Corner at NRO. It's mostly everyone vs. John Derbyshire.

Most of the time I really like Derbyshire - he's a witty, elegant writer who, like me, tends to be pessimistic about culture, about the future. But in his Schiavo posts it appears to me as if he’s increasingly taking sides with those who are doing so much to create the culture he so laments. Derbyshire's not what you could call pro-Catholic, and he's made it clear he's not a pro-lifer; I think the best you can say is that he tolerates us (some of his best friends are pro-lifers). Throughout the entire Schiavo situation he's sided with those who wanted to starve Terri - he could not accept that there was any value in her continuing to be kept alive (and, in fact, he said he wouldn't be opposed to the idea of a lethal injection to put her out of her, well, I suppose her "misery," although he would figure that being a vegetable, she wouldn't feel anything at all). And today, he suggests he'd contribute to a Michael Schiavo defense fund if one became available. In doing so, I find it harder and harder to make that identification with him, the kind of identification that is so important for a writer when he's trying to communicate ideas to his readers.

The problem with something like this, of course, is twofold. First, you begin to lose respect for someone as an individual. One of the reasons I got out of competitive politics (in much the same way as Jack Nicklaus retires from competitive golf; that doesn’t mean he doesn’t dabble in it or take interest from time to time) was that it tends to dictate your friendships and associations. It’s very difficult to stay friends with someone you disagree with over important points, not to mention the difficulty you have explaining these friendships to members of your own group. So in general I like to overlook political differences in personal associations, and the same goes with someone whose work I admire. But what happens when you’re at odds over such a fundamental concept of the meaning of life – the building blocks of your philosophy, so to speak? Presumably one can agree to disagree over the issue, although I increasingly find that difficult to accept – it strikes at the heart of your very understanding of life. However, when it surpasses a mere disagreement – when it becomes an active participation, as in Derbyshire’s suggestion – then it becomes nearly impossible to reconcile such actions and maintain any kind of relationship.

Second, you start to ask yourself whether or not you can depend on anything this person says, when you have such a fundamental disagreement over an important issue. You start to pick and choose your agreements cafeteria-style (something us orthodox Catholics have always criticized when it comes to teachings of the Church) with the result that you begin to wonder how much you can depend on this person’s opinion at all. After all, if you find someone's judgement lacking in one area, how can you say that this same person's judgement is superior in another area? John Cornwell wrote a book a few years ago that debunked charges that Pope John Paul I was murdered - but this is the same Cornwell who constantly attacks the record and character of Pope Pius XII. What's a person to do?

This brings me to this post from Michelle Arnold at Jimmy Akin's blog on what she calls "the purity tests," the idea that one would only read writers whose opinions conform to that of the reader. Rather than a purity test, Michelle suggests a "purity filter":
Learn the faith well enough from orthodox sources to filter out the impurities while still accepting and benefiting from the good stuff an otherwise problematic resource can offer. If there is a question about whether a particular idea or claim is valid or should be trapped by the filter, then call on orthodox resources -- such as Catholic Answers -- to help figure out what the Church teaches or requires on the subject. A particular resource may end up entirely worthless and be thrown out. Some stuff, though, may be problematic but still useful.

So what is the point of all this? Just that, as I've said so many times in the past, it is important for Catholics to be educated in the faith. We must learn to tell truth from fiction - to keep from being misled, to correct misunderstandings that others might have, and to hold our own in debates with those who disagree with us.

John Derbyshire is wrong, very wrong, when it comes to matters of life. It affects the way we read his other pieces, and the way we feel about him. We can try to convince him otherwise, although we may have limited success in that area. We can pray for him that he have an epiphany, although I think we'll have to pray hard. We can stop reading him all together, in which case we'll be safe from his wrongheaded opinions, at the risk of missing out on some of his good ones, and his generally genial disposition. Or we can meet him on his own terms - become familiar with the facts, counteract his mistaken opinions, and not be afraid to defend the truth by entering into debate with those who share his feelings. Just because you lose some respect for someone doesn't mean you can afford to ignore him completely. And as we all know, where there's life there's hope.

It's just too bad The Derb is committed to snuffing out some of that hope.

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