Archive for July 2008
This weekend I took a day trip to the city of Aalst, Belgium — just a few miles west of Brussels.
I took the trip because someone suggested there was a dance festival in Aalst that day. But when I arrived no festival was to be seen; so instead I headed on lto the town center to explore.
Almost immediately I was struck by general ‘personality’ of the town. The people there seemed like the most hard-working and unpretentious I’ve seen anywhere; it’s hard not to like people like that!
The sight of an impressive church tower above the rooftops caught my eye and I headed that direction, soon finding the impressive church of St. Martin. American’s who haven’t traveled in Europe can’t imagine how many of these churches there are in Europe. It’s amazing. Aalst has a population of a little over 75,000. But the church is magnificent, filled with absolutely beautiful works of art. I wonder if anyone even knows how many of these “little” churches there are throughout Europe, each one worth visiting and inspiring in its own way.
Yes, visit the great cathedrals, too. But something about these smaller churches reveals more about the soul and heritage of the European people: generations of devout people, working, suffering great hardships by our standards, hoping, and moved by an inner conviction that somewhere things are, can, or will be better and more beautiful than in this ‘vale of tears.’
Near the church is a statue of Dirk Martens, a man renowned for having brought the first printing press to the region. A sad detail of his life is that all four of his children died before he did. Such was the way of life then.
Yet such people as this in olden times, despite their hardships, produced this remarkably beautiful and enduring church. It is their gift, their legacy to us.
A Church as the Image of the Soul
A writing project of mine, much delayed, is an essay “On the Magnificence of the Human Soul.” While other tasks compete with this for completion, let me use this opportinity to at least sketch the basic idea.
We are taught — and I think most people seem to accept implicitly — that we are made “in the image and likeness of God.” Few, however, really understand the full implications of that statement. For while we are not equal to God, to merely carry His image is something too wonderful for words. Now an image is generally considered to be inferior to its original. But here the original is Perfection itself. To be even a very limited image of Infinite Perfection and Infinite Goodness is — one can see by mathematics alone — very great indeed.
Simply put, to accept that we are made in “God’s image and likeness” is to admit a far greater view of human nature than people ordinarily acknowledge. The great mystics seem unanimous on this point: if we understood the true greatness of the human soul we might never cease rejoicing!
My aim with said essay is partly to produce something like a logical proof to demonstrate the magnificence of the human soul. Here let me supply just one piece of the entire argument.
It is supposed that the reader knows what it is to be awed by a beatiful work of art: to be struck, inspired, or reminded of the transcendant nature of Beauty by art. This is an experience which most cultured people share.
One may well praise artists for having the ability to produce such works. But praise too is due the viewer — for were our soul not innately beautiful, it would not resonate to the work of art.
Art cannot produce in us an aesthetic, emotional, or religious response that is not already latent within our nature. We have the innate capacity to recognize, appreciate, and respond to beautiful art. It is not something acquired or learned. It is intrinsic to us.
Moreover we have the latent ability to respond not just to works of art we *do* see, or *have* seen — but to any possible work that could ever be produced. Tomorrow, next week, or next year you will see some wonderful new work of art — and you will have a deep, immediate, aesthetic reaction to that. This can, and perhaps willl, happen over and over again for you. One-thousand or ten-thousand artists could produce as many great works of art, and each would produce in you a unique aesthetic experience. Each would reveal to you some new facet of who you are — who you *already* are.
This is a very Platonic notion. Plato repeatedly emphasizes the nature of anamnesis — an-amnesis or un-forgetting. His view is that, at some point, perhaps just prior to birth, our soul experiences something like the Goodness of God in all its glory. Or perhaps we accurately perceive the goodness of our own soul, which is the image of God. But either at birth or some time thereafter, we forget this all — it becomes unconscious. From that reservoir of latent knowledge our dreams are fed. But little by little, for the dedicated seeker, remembrance of one’s true nature comes back — one insight at a time.
Anyway, this is enough to explain the general nature of the “argument” I’m working on. If it is correct, my guess is that perhaps some people will see where I’m trying to take it.
Meanwhile, why not keep this idea in mind next time you visit a museum or a church like this. What is the art saying about the people who made and preserved the art? What is it saying about your soul? And what is it saying about God’s providential designs in history that people in one age are able to supply such a gift for those in another?
One nice thing with living in Brussels the chance to meet interesting people.
For example recently I met and spoke with someone who worked for a Non-governmental organization (NGO) that advises the EU government on policies that benefit young people (children and young adults). The conversation was most informative and uplifting, even to a degree one might even call ‘angelic’.
This has me thinking: what are the needs of Europe’s young people? This certainly falls in the domain of cultural psychology — the aim of this weblog.
This problem has concerned me for several years. For example, while living in Spain, the plight of youth there seemed evident: there is, among them, a lack of ambition, hope, and vision. Students ask, “why study hard, why work, when there will be no job or secure future anyway?”
The Population Problem
One main issue affecting the young people of Europe we could alternatively call the “population problem”, the “immigration problem” or the “economy problem” — for they are all related.
Let’s begin with a section of text found in the Call for Papers of the European Sociological Association for the upcoming conference,
Youth and Youth Sociology in Europe.
Europe is an ageing continent, which urgently needs immigrants to maintain or to establish basic structures of welfare society. The need for increased immigration has coincided with growing concerns regarding internal security and the coherence of European societies. The EU as the major political and economical actor in Europe is trying at the same time to attract well-educated immigrants and to reduce the inflow of poorly educated immigrants. Managing diversity is, therefore, one of the most pressing challenges for all European societies. Targeted multiculturalism has been the main management strategy of diversity in Europe. This strategy has lead to different and consequently unequal treatment of minorities and caused an increase in tension between different ethnic, cultural and religious groups.
This brief passage reveals quite a bit. First, it clearly states the problem that Europeans are not replenishing themselves — the European birth rate is low and declining.
That is a problem by itself. And, especially, one must consider that this is much more than an economic statistic. One must consider the human dimension as well. People are not, as cynics might suppose, neglecting to start families because they are selfish. They are suffering economically and lack the stability and security that one usually associates with the decision to marry and start a family.
So it is not a matter of, as one writer put it, “Europeans having lost the will to reproduce.” It has nothing to do with personal motivation and everything to do with the economy. When people used to a high standard of living are reduced to borderline poverty, and can barely manage to buy food, no wonder they aren’t thinking about getting married!
The quote above also notes that, in response to declining birth rates, and in order to maintain its “welfare society”, Europe has resorted to attracting immigrants.
Again, this dry fact masks the deeper humanistic dimensions of the problem. Let’s not mince words. What’s happening is this: the European model is that of a “welfare state”, with high taxes, a lot of social programs (and, consequently, a huge amount of government waste). In practical terms, citizens work for the government, instead of the other way around as in the US. The incentive (i.e., “bribe”) everyone has to play along is that some day they will get a nice pension. But who will pay the pensions of people now 40-50 years old if there are too few children? Answer: immigrants.
There you have it. Never mind questions like “how many immigrants are good for European culture as a whole?” That issue — cultural integrity — has little effective weight on the policy decisions. One reason is that, whereas governments are (sometimes) good at making economic decisions, they are not very good at making decisions about “intangibles” — and the integrity of European culture is such an intangible. Yet it is precisely the intangibles of life that are most important: love, joy, peace, happiness, friendship, hope, soul, and so on.
The last time I checked, most people agreed that money can’t buy happiness. Yet European governments are willing to sacrifice the things which traditionally have brought happiness — family, cultural cohesion, tradition, connection with the past, vision of the future — for the sake of funding pensions via massive immigration.
Incidentally, I don’t see even the slightest hint in the quote above that the European Sociological Association or its members recognize the main humanistic dimension of the problem — that young people are personally bfinding it difficult to have families. That the solution is immigration and everyone had better get used to it seems taken entirely for granted. As usual, the academic community can be counted on for extreme myopia and “political correctness.”
There are, however, alternatives. Note that even if it solves the purely financial issue, drawing in immigrants (besides creating new problems) won’t solve the original problem — that Europeans are finding it difficult to have families! That ought to be seen as the main issue; the financial issue is only secondary. If it came down to it, older people should be willing to make a few sacrifices in return for the satisfaction of seeing their own children have children of their own!
With these considerations in mind, here are three concrete suggestions aimed at helping Europe’s young people.
1. Affordable housing
Real estate prices are sky-high throughout western Europe. No wonder young people aren’t having families when they can’t afford homes. Developers don’t routinely consider young families in choosing projects. There’s more profit made in building a 500.000 euro home than something for 80.000 euro. You can’t blame builders for that — it’s a simple matter of profit-margins and the economics of building a house. But governments can help by providing tax advantages to builders who supply affordable housing. They can also help by developing regional plans that include sufficient affordable housing.
2. Better access to higher education
It is almost heartbreaking to see the difficulties young people go through today to get a higher education. Sadly, it is more difficult to get a university education today than it was a generation ago. That is unjust, shameful, and absurd. Europe (and the US) should set a priority on supplying a free university education for every serious and suitably motivated student.
3. Lower income taxes
Now we come to the crux of the matter — the central problem. As noted, the European immigration problem has resulted from the need to support the high-tax, welfare state economies.
Yet, ironically, this very economic system has produced the low birth rates. It should come as no surprise that the reason people are delaying or not having families is because they are too poor. They are too poor because (1) they pay too much of their salary in taxes, and (2) there are too few jobs.
The latter, however, is also a direct consequence of the welfare state model. With high taxes, businesses keep fewer profits, giving people less incentive to start new businesses. Fewer businesses, less jobs.
Questioning the Welfare State Model
The question Europe must ask itself is why the United States has a stronger, more productive, and more resilient economy, and an equal or greater standard of living, without relying on Welfare State economics?
Some respond that the US system lacks a fair “social security net” for the disadvantaged. But is this true, or merely an assumption? In fact, retirees do well in the US, relying upon their national social security payments after age 65 and their Medicare health insurance.
What about health insurance? We hear “American lack universal health coverage.” Yes, this is a problem, but it is exaggerated. First, only 16% of Americans lack health insurance. (I am one of them, in fact.) But second, because health care is reasonably priced, and because Americans, unlike Europeans, keep most of their income instead of having it taxed away, one can simply see a doctor and pay cash. That’s what physicians prefer. The paperwork associated with health insurance claims is costly and a nuisance for all parties concerned. If we simply paid “cash for service” for most routine medical costs, everyone would benefit. A sensible US national health plan would be two-tiered: national insurance for catastrophic illness and hospitalization; but, say, to get a prescription for an antibiotic you’d pay out of pocket (but only about $50).
So the argument that, “the US lacks universal health insurance” is over-rated. I don’t know if anyone’s done the economics, but my guess is that if the US added basic universal health insurance for all citizens, Americans would still end up paying much less income tax than Europeans.
The bottom line is that the welfare state is a dinosaur. It doesn’t work. It robs people of the incentive to work and to produce. The very fact that western European countries are trying to prop things up with massive immigration demonstrates this.
We should look with hopeful anticipation at the experiments of former eastern-bloc European countries like Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which have adopted low flat income taxes. Hopefully, if the liberals in those countries give the systems time to work, it will stimulate their economies.
If only we could get countries like Spain or Germany to follow suit!
I am a citizen of the United States and a representative of the American Nation of people. The US Government is merely an administrative unit which has vastly overreached its legitimate powers. Unfortunately most Americans — and perhaps most people elsewhere — confuse the US Government with the American Nation. The former is nothing. It is a puff of smoke, an idea, a structure, a system of rules and regulations, a soul-less machine. Unfortunately it is a very dangerous machine (so is a virus).
The American Nation, on the other hand, is a living and breathing thing. It is the collective of human beings — bodies, hearts, minds, and souls.
The US Government seeks war. Thus this vast machine perpetuates itself, grows, and, through fear, seeks to impede the intelligence, good will, happiness, altruism, and vision of the American people; otherwise the American people would rise up and replace the Government.
George W. Bush and the US Congress represent the American Government, but I, in my way, represent the American Nation. I am a graybeard and have both that right and responsibility. Moreover, I am quite likely one of the few who even bother to claim this right.
Therefore in response to recent US Government saber-rattling towards Iran, I offer a different message: one of friendship and respect towards the Iranian People (but not towards the Iranian Government, which has, to the people of Iran, roughly the same relationship as the US Government has to the American people).
On July 4, American Independence Day, I placed this webpage online:
dedicated to the noble tradition of Islamic and Persian Neoplatonist philosophers. May Western and Middle-Eastern people come better to understand our common intellectual heritage. Better still, may we come to understand that God has providentially granted that we may collaborate in activities such as philosophy for the advancement of humankind, to His glory.