May 2022

Selected essays, including Galen Peterson on wild fire in the American West; Erik Hoel on why A.I. art is not art; and several authors on the origins and implications of conflict around abortion.

California's Vestal Flame

Galen Peterson in Palladium on fire's importance to the Californian ecosystem and the antagonistic relationship between wild fire and the modern Californian way of life, suggesting that man's fundamental separation from nature is at the root of our most misguided conservation efforts.

Even prescribed burns are no solution in themselves. As Stephen Pyne discusses in his book World Fire, wildfire management is a paradox in its search for what he calls a “vestal flame,” referencing the ancient Roman practice of keeping an eternally lit fire within the city center to guarantee prosperity and the fortune of the gods. Just as the extinguishing of the vestal flame portended bad omens for the city’s fate, so too have the suppression-heavy fire policies of the twentieth century bound California’s environmental policies into a Gordian knot. Decades of absolute fire suppression, deemed in the past as the “number one priority” for any forester, have created an increasingly hostile fire regime that can’t simply be legislated or mulched away.

The fires of old California were vestal, without destructive intent or capability, relational to the interactions between human, landscape, and fire. Fire doesn’t carry a morality. It burns what it will under the correct conditions—yet the effect of the fire regime upon the land itself is a partial litmus test for the health of that relational landscape.

Although the destruction of homes and livelihood does not directly correlate with “unhealthy” land, it indicates that our relation to that landscape has been broadly forgotten in a particular form of separation that presents itself as conservancy. It puts us in a position where we, as a result of our own works, do not know how to integrate and live with a terrain that has grown uncompromising with our ways of life.
The problem is no longer that we see our forests as standing reserves of timber to be exploited. Now, they have become places meant purely for sanctity and beauty. But this creates a sterile landscape wherein both of those traits are actually lost, because all the other flashpoints of volatility and chaos have been ignored or  suppressed. A “natural landscape” becomes one where the human is removed from the picture in order to please the human eye.
Our sense of freedom is intimately tied to our land. The ability to move around in whatever direction we please, and the feeling that anything can happen so long as we put our minds to it, characterized the sense of freedom that America’s settlers felt. But a more publicly-minded notion of freedom understands society as made up of people who belong and owe something to the land. Stewardship comes from a sense of responsibility over what is given to us.

America's Warring Faiths

Malcom Kyeyune in Compact observes that the two hostile factions in the conflict over abortion in America are best understood as distinct faiths, each with genuine religious beliefs, and each failing to recognize this depth in the other.

Right now in America, neither side of this growing divide can afford to suggest that the other is motivated by anything but human vice and sin. To one side, the story is that their opponents believe in killing babies and refusing responsibility. But the fact that one of the most striking features of the progressive left (and the socialist left in particular) is the veneration of dead martyrs (hardly something one would expect from nihilists!) should strike Christians as odd. Yet their certainty that the enemy is selfish and nihilistic dissuades them from any closer examination.

On the progressive end, the situation is no better. The left thinks the opponents of abortion are merely interested in controlling women and making nonbelievers suffer; the idea that the enemy is in possession of a genuine faith in the Christian creed and this faith subsequently motivates their actions is as unthinkable—not to mention blasphemous—as people having “genuine” belief in Odin or Perun would be to a Spanish inquisitor. Both sides consider their cause not merely philosophically and ethically just, but also holy, on a very basic metaphysical level.

In what may very well spell disaster for America, the much-hyped stories of its fading religiosity will likely prove themselves to be overblown in years to come. Rather, America is today home to two fundamentally hostile faiths incapable of recognizing any historical or ideological kinship between them. Each has begun to muster the faithful to arms against the other. We will be shocked by the savagery of the fighting and the displays of fanaticism that lie ahead. Sadly, ominously, foolishly, no one in America thinks the other side believes in anything at all.

Understanding the Human Cry Behind the Pro-Abortion Cause

Alexandra DeSanctis in National Review reflects on the most compelling pro-abortion argument – that men and women, alike, must retain control over their personal destinies, at any cost – and reminds us that the lack of control common to each and every human soul is, in fact, a source of "unmerited beauty."

None of us, man or woman, controls our own destiny. This is perhaps the most fundamental truth and frustration about being human. We have agency and free will, to be sure. But our choices are no guarantee of outcomes; our desires have no power to predict what the future will actually hold.
The argument at the root of the pro-abortion cause is compelling to so many because it comes straight from the depths of every human heart. The temptation at work in abortion is a temptation we face every day, in big and small ways: to reject our human nature, to make ourselves like God, to claim for ourselves the power to decide good and evil, life and death.

And as it was in the beginning, it remains a lie. None of us can control our lives, and though our lack of control so often results in unexpected, undeserved suffering, it so often results in unexpected, unmerited beauty.

Family Policy After Roe

Gladden Pappin in Compact argues that, after the demise of Roe v. Wade, conservative politicians should step up to promote family life by, among other things, easing the burden of home ownership for married couples.

While right-liberal conservatives can hum a good tune about the importance of the family, they tend to wring their hands when it comes to using the levers of power to make family life financially possible. The family-policy approach, by contrast, seeks to make possible the choiceworthy.

A home is the physical, material heart of family life. Young couples contemplating marriage will despair if the goal seems elusive, and they may pause childbearing if it burdens their ability to keep a roof over their own heads.
While homeownership itself isn’t the be-all and end-all of family policy, families won’t form if it seems impossible. Marriage and the family flourish when young couples see a hopeful path ahead.
In the post-Roe world, the GOP will have to find new ways to keep the allegiance of socially conservative voters whose economic lives are growing ever more precarious. If it does, it can transform a coming electoral victory into a new synthesis of pro-family and pro-worker policies.

AI Art Isn't Art

Erik Hoel in The Intrinsic Perspective makes some compelling claims about art in the context of DALL-E and other A.I. art generators, and speculates about what art and life will be like in an A.I. saturated future.

I’m well-aware that since the dawn of time whatever the latest wave of art is it has been described as “not art” by some crotchety elder. But all those previous times the artist wasn’t being replaced by gigantic excel spreadsheets trained as autoencoders, so perhaps historical analogies aren’t very useful here.

And the close connection between art and human consciousness is older than civilization itself. The early hand paintings from places like Chauvet cave, back to 30,000 BC are not merely images, but communications: “I was here.”

This communicative property of art is irreducible to its extrinsic properties (like color, form, etc), and instead concerns the significance of the artwork to the artist and their communication of that significance to the viewer.
In the future world, at the movement of a hand or the giving of a sign, images or audio or text will appear as if pulled from the non-conscious ether. Therefore, rather than talking about the “mechanical production” of art, in our new age we must be concerned with the “non-conscious production” of art.

Art, having lost its aura of originality through mechanical reproduction and now its aura of communication through AI-art, will change, will warp, under the influence of these AI-artists. What should we expect art’s future to be under this new regime?