It happened today – November 25, 2015

On November 25, 1990, the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge succumbed to heavy Thanksgiving Day weather and sank to the bottom of Lake Washington. Now at this point you may be regretting the price of admission to this feature on the grounds that this event wasn’t really historical. Apparently it was pretty cool to watch, though, and as it happened slowly it was filmed and you can watch it if you like. But to me there’s an important sic transit gloria mundi aspect to it.

Speaking of the transitory nature of Earthly glory, my spellchecker didn’t even know that phrase and tried to make Gloria into a person. But it’s not just that the bridge, a much-ridiculed construction that worked pretty well for nearly 50 years then sank ignominiously, amusing rather than shocking the public. It’s Lacey V. Murrow.

Who? You ask. Well exactly. Who was this guy, completely and perhaps justly forgotten before the bridge named after him suffered its now largely forgotten fate? He was the brother of “famous newsman Edward R. Murrow” who may himself fast be slipping into historical oblivion but was certainly more of a public figure in his day than, um, did you say Lacey?

Yes. And he was in fact the Washington State highways director when the bridge was built. I don’t actually know why “Memorial” since he lived into the 1960s and I thought they generally memorialized you after you crossed a far greater bridge than that particular pontoon construction east of Seattle. I also think naming things after minor bureaucratic potentates in your own outfit smacks of obsequiousness and vainglory.

Murrow may have been a fine man and we shouldn’t just build monuments to the truly great, the successfully ambitious and the nightmarishly prominent. But at the same time we might choose, say, a soldier with no known grave over a functionary with no known achievement.

Remember Cato saying that when he died he would rather men asked why he had no statue than why he did. I feel that way about Murrow’s bridge and memory sinking slowly into obscurity, to the point that I can’t even figure out why a website devoted to important historical events would list this one.

As to why I decided to comment on this unsuccessful dredging up of the event, apart from being vulnerable to the modern penchant for watching pointlessly diverting rubbish online (admit it, you watched it), it’s to remind you that being “who dat” a half century after you die is not the sort of thing you should focus on during your time on Earth.

What really mattered about Murrow couldn’t be put on a sign, and what could be didn’t really matter.

Wish I’d said that – November 25, 2015

“Even if it were true that a hundred persons would experience more pleasure from torturing one person than that person would experience pain (in some dreadful utilitarian calculus), such an action would be an abomination. The person is never subordinate to the common good in an instrumental way. Persons are not means but ends, because of the God in Whom they live and Who lives in them.”

Michael Novak Free Persons and the Common Good


It happened today – November 24, 2015

On this day in history men descended from monkeys. Well, not exactly. But Nov. 24 is the day on which in 1859 Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. And life was never the same again.

Darwin’s insight about the selection of advantageous mutations as the driving force in changing patterns of life on earth was a classic, profound and yet “simple” in the sense that, although it was very hard to think of, it was incredibly obvious once explained and incredibly powerful.

It seemed to explain everything at once. And I do mean everything. It was recently voted the most important academic book of all time in an elaborate exercise in which publishers submitted titles to an academic panel that chose 20 to be voted on by the public. It wasn’t a “scientific” exercise but it was a carefully thought-out one and I happen to think the result was correct. Darwin didn’t just change biology, he changed philosophy and metaphysics and powerfully challenged religion.

Important is not, of course, a synonym for good. Because evolution seemed to explain everything about humans by reference to purely material random causes, it also seemed to unthrone God and reduce man to a beast, while reducing beasts to random products of a heartless universe rather than “creatures,” that is, products of a creator.

I do not think this interpretation is correct. I have met people who insist that we are just bags of chemicals whose intellectual processes are just the inexorable product of electrochemical reactions driven by the laws of physics and chemistry. Our emotions, our thoughts, all are adaptive mechanisms to help us propagate successful descendants. Our ideals are illusions, free will absurd, morality and religion just tricks to make us cooperate for the benefit of our unthinking, soulless genes.

The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that if true it’s false or at least unreliable. Our belief in evolution and materialism is not itself the product of genuine intellectual processes but just the random cast-offs of those inexorable processes that result when sodium meets chlorine and energy is released and so forth. If true, materialism it is true by accident and unverifiable. We have no independent reliable standard of rationality, no way to test our conclusions against truth, just a bunch of chemical reactions burbling away and hurling “thoughts” at us.

Or non-us. For in this way of seeing the world, we don’t exist. Our sense of self is just one more trick of the light particles. We do not decide, we do not choose, we simply react in extremely complex conditioned ways that, for some inexplicable reason, include the illusion of self-awareness.

It must be an illusion in the materialist vision because the chemicals are doing the “thinking” according to unchanging mechanical scientific laws. At no point can “we” step into the chain of reasoning, or out of it, and make a decision. There are no forks in the mental road, only equations with inevitable solutions. If we knew the initial position and velocity of every particle, we could predict everything including all your thoughts. Or, again, non-thoughts, because thought, as a deliberate self-controlling process of sifting truth from error, has no place in this vision. It cannot get in anywhere. There are no cracks.

In that sense, as C.S. Lewis once put it, arguing with a materialist is absurd because you are arguing with a man who insists he’s not there, and passionately defends as truths mental patterns his own theory insists are just useful conditioned reflexes. That includes Darwin, who downplayed his own commitment to such metaphysics for public relations purposes but accepted them privately and who is, ironically, buried in Westminster Abbey.

To say all this is not to dispute evolution in the narrow sense. I believe it is the principal mechanism driving the propagation and differentiation of life on Earth though I grant that there are some compelling critiques of its details, especially the question how such a complex mechanism as vision could “evolve” when the multiple independent steps necessary to complete an act of seeing are useless except in sequence which makes it very hard to grasp why they would have been selected as advantageous one by one. But I do not think that evolution is incompatible with the notion of a Creator directly concerned with his creatures on whom He has bestowed free will.

Many people disagree with me. And in doing so, in convincing many people that they are merely beasts, devoid of rationality, souls or dignity, they have helped to make them act that way. Thus Darwin’s impact was greater than that of any other abstract thinker, and helped shape the ghastly 20th century. But not in a good way.

In the face of evil, true evil, including the evils of Naziism and Bolshevism, we recoil in horror, knowing that our reaction is not just a conditioned reflex designed to help our DNA spawn mindlessly and pointlessly. Darwin was right about many things, but quite wrong about the biggest one.

We are not beasts. Indeed, we must either rise above monkeys or descend far below them. For when we act like brutes we sink below our true nature, which is not random products of clashing chemicals whose noblest aspirations are strange illusions. Westminster Abbey still stands above Darwin’s bones. And so it should, because we are here and we must choose.

It happened today – November 23, 2015

On this day in history, Nov. 23, back in 1499, Perkin Warbeck was executed for not being Richard IV. Or for trying to escape. Or for being in the Tudors’ way. Or for not grasping that someone named Perkin cannot seize a throne. Or for actually being Richard of Shrewsbury, younger son of Edward IV. It’s not entirely clear.

It’s not clear because here we have one case where the victors did write the history. And the victors were the Tudors, specifically the cold, cunning and ruthless King Henry VII, who seized the throne by killing Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Part of Henry’s claim to the crown, bolstered by propaganda from the brilliant playwright William Shakespeare, who I admire in virtually every other way, was that Richard III had himself usurped the throne by murdering his two nephews, Edward V and his younger brother Richard, sons of Edward IV.

It is not clear that Richard III did any such thing. Josephine Tey makes a convincing case to the contrary in my opinion in The Daughter of Time. And it’s also not clear that Perkin Warbeck was Perkin Warbeck. He originally claimed to be Richard and only changed his story under torture by Henry VII’s henchmen.

Of course he might have been a fake, whether he really had the unroyal name of Perkin and came from Tournai in Flanders or was Bob from Bristol or anything else. The fact that Henry VII said a man wasn’t king of England doesn’t automatically mean he was, though on at least one occasion it did. (Nor does the fact that Warbeck/Richard was declared the real deal by Richard’s aunt, Margaret of York, who may have been lying ot try to get rid of Henry VII before he got rid of her. She also supported the claims of Lambert Simnel, whose name alone was again surely a bar to any hope of royal achievement.)

Likewise, the fact that “Perkin Warbeck” he was executed for trying to escape from the Tower of London doesn’t mean he really was trying to escape, or that he wasn’t. But basically all we have is Henry VII’s word for it, which I trust as far as I can comfortably spit a rat.

Still, if his name was Perkin, he should have found some other ambition. No one has ever been crowned King Perkin and no one ever will be. If he was Richard IV, it just compounds Henry VII’s villainy which to my mind would be absolutely in character for the man.

I do feel that there’s a certain pitiful haplessness about this particular lunge for the crown. If he really was Richard IV, it’s a sad comedown. If not, it’s a predictable comeuppance. As for Henry VII, well, he got away with it, and wrote the history of it as well.