Am I American Enough?

Am I American Enough?

Here's a pithy, gracious, thoughtful, and fairly accurate review of my most recent book by another conservative.  In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, I'll give you a generous taste:


In this stimulating collection of essays written while he served on the President's Council on Bioethics, Peter Augustine Lawler proves himself again one of liberal democracy's most perceptive friendly critics.....

In a culture of self-absorption built on doubts about our own self-worth, we desperately attempt to make ourselves appealing to others--dieting, exercising, nipping, and tucking--and appear as young, beautiful, and useful as all the bodies and faces that fill our magazines, billboards, and television screens. Biotechnology promises even more dramatic changes. 

He traces our unease to the father of liberal democracy, John Locke, and to his claim that what nature provides for us is "virtually worthless," becoming valuable only when mixed with our labor. If nature is worthless (though Locke never quite said this), then even our ownbodies are worthless unless we can make them appear productive, and nature itself offers no guidance for our pursuit of happiness....   

In a superb chapter on John Courtney Murray, Lawler defends the American founders' "implicitly Thomistic" liberalism (from which we've strayed), which, despite its debt to Locke, retained a conception of rights firmly grounded in natural law. Following Murray, he credits aCalvinist influence with tempering the founders' own liberal impulses, allowing them to build "better than they knew." He hopes that perhaps our politics may again experience a similarly fruitful tension between today's evangelicals and secularists.  

Ultimately, however, Lawler finds mere political goals--particularly "veneration" of the American founders--inadequate, implying that only "the perspective of genuine believers" can effectively secure human dignity. But these days it seems challenging enough to persuade 300 million of our fellow Americans to embrace the dignity of citizenship again without trying to convert them as well to Christianity. That we must leave to God's grace.

Most of you BIG THINKERS are wondering what's going on in this display of an intramural conservative dispute.  There are some conservatives who believe that we should teach the American founding as embodying absolute truth and worthy of a kind of religious veneration.  Through a kind of civic religion, we can restore the dignity of citizenship in the modern world.  My book, for the record, talks a fair amount about the dignity of citizen--and even of the nation--against the postpolitical fantasies so prevalent among our theorists and in Europe. 

But a big problem with using our Founding to establish the dignity of citizenship is that our Founding theory is mostly Lockean.  And Locke was pretty darn critical of civic consciousness and civil theology.  Locke was right, of course, that, deep down, we're not citizens, and a very close reader of Locke can notice that his articulation of the inwardness of personal identity actually supports the Christian insight that we're more than merely citizens.

I never say in the book or anywhere else that an adequate defense of who we are as free and dignified beings requires conversion to Christianity.  I do say that the Lockean view of who we are isn't adequately relational.  Such a criticism is often expressed on BIG THINK in the Darwinian mode.  I would prefer to say that Locke is right that we're free, and Darwin is right that we're social animals.  And there's a lot to be learned by letting Locke (or autonomous individualism) and Darwin criticize each other. Locke is better on the pursuit of happiness, Darwin on happiness itself. But  they both have their limits: For a Lockean, words, finally, are weapons for the enhancement of individual liberty; for Darwin, finally, they in some sense serve the flourishing of the species.  For us Thomists, the being with complex language is open to the truth about all things, including (incompletely) the truth about himself.  And being "conscious" in that sense is being relational--or knowing with others.

For me, one problem with teaching our Declaration of Independence as absolutely true is that it itself was the product of legislative compromise.  The Lockean draft of Jefferson and Franklin was modified by the more Calvinist or Christian members of the Continental Congress.  So the Deistic "past tense" God of nature of Locke became also the providential and judgmental "living" God of the Bible.  Our Declaration is a kind of accidental Thomism.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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