Butterflies And Tipping Points

Matt Wrechard at the Belmont Club has been characterizing the Terri Shiavo situation as a “butterfly effect” in that it will have far reaching and currently unknown effects well beyond its absolute significance. One specific section at the end of his posting struck me.

Even the symmetry of political orientation was momentarily broken. Robert Novak at the Chicago Sun Times noted that “nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus members who voted on the Terri Schiavo case last weekend supported the Republican-sponsored bill”. Some will take this as evidence that this is not part of the culture wars, but I think the opposite is true: it suggests that even the old and stable invariances are no longer preserved. It is probably the greatest of ironies that street scenes the old Left had dreamed of unleashing came to pass — not because of the War on Terror — but over the death of a single woman. When something comes so abruptly out of blue it is usually a sign of cumulative stresses, long ignored, reaching a tipping point; it is a possible indicator of broken symmetry.

Cumulative stress and tipping points as a result of broken symmetry all point to the possibility that factors that previously stabilized our national culture (religion and the moral values it engendered) and gave it the ability to come through upheavals relatively intact may no longer apply. It looks like we are no longer a “buffered” culture (like buffered solutions that can absorb a certain amount of acidic or basic solution and not lose their stabile ph). As a result, even a small impetus can lead to an unexpected and radical reaction.

For many years, especially since World War II, our relatively stable cultural milieu has been under attack by a myriad of forces, but at the root of all the assaults (at least from my admittedly biased perspective) has been the denigration of religious belief, especially the overarching Judeo/Christian heritage of our shared memory. It has reached the point where the forces of secularism argue for absolutely no input from the venue of belief within the public sphere. Religious belief, if it is allowed at all, is relegated to private expression and any attempt at bringing it into the public arena is seen as improper discrimination and an illegal and unconstitutional attempt to inforce the tyranny of religious dogmatism (one wonders what has changed since the original supporters and interpreters did not see this as true).

This legislating of religion and specifically Christianity out of the public square and behind the doors of the habitations that surround the square has created tremendous pressure on our social fabric. On the one hand we have a popular culture that seeks ever-creasing freedom from any and all limits while on the other hand the majority of the people touched by that culture still avow values and religious sensibilities that demand limits be placed on our behavior.

One thing is evident, however, Terri Shiavo’s case has created responses well out of proportion to the actual event (this is not the first such case of its type). If Matt Wretchard is correct, the Terri Shiavo case is the butterfly flapping its wings which will cause a hurricane in our culture and what it will leave behind no one knows for sure. I for one will keep a vigilant eye on the fallout from this apparent tipping point and I expect Matt to do likewise.

One last thought. For me the thing that is different for Terri’s case has been the blogosphere and the Internet. Never have so many people been so energized and rather than this being an exception, it is becoming the norm. It is entirely possible that, at least for a while, the blogosphere and the Internet will prove to be mechanisms that facilitate the destruction of the remaining ability of our culture to be at all buffered. For a while talk radio has been looked at, in some circles at least, as a safety valve for radicalizing opinions. However, the blogosphere and the Internet seem to be able to tap into a hidden reservoir of discontent that with each new crisis, threatens to enter a self-reinforcing loop that carries things well beyond their expected threshold.

Will Terri Shiavo’s case be the first loop to spiral out of control? I don’t know, but while we as a culture are adjusting to this new, self-reinforcing environment, one cannot help but wonder if there is a Pandora effect, lurking in there somewhere, just waiting for its optimum moment?

9 thoughts on “Butterflies And Tipping Points

  1. A couple points …

    First – what gives you the idea that Wretchard’s first name is Matt, or that Wretchard is his real name? Do you know him personally? I just did a Google Search for ‘Matt’ and ‘Wretchard’, and there are very few hits. You’re half of them. There’s nothing from ‘the real world’, like professional links or old college records. He’d show up on the Harvard alumni page, or whichever “Cambridge, MA school of government” he attended 😉

    Ok, that’s just a minor point. On to the topic at hand …

    Den Beste noted that the greatest inventions of the history of the world were the ones that allowed information to flow more efficiently between humans. They were, in order (IIRC) the spoken word, the written word, the printing press, and the transistor. Something like that. Anyway, they’re “the greatest” because they introduce a new era of human information growth. New ideas are easier to pass around and be tested for validity. The blogoshere is just the transistor coming into its own, much like the printing press did before it with the publishing of Protestant bibles.

    Den Beste also said (although I’d heard it said elsewhere previously) is that the 1st Amendment is the most important phrase ever written in English. Its protection of speech means that the meme-expression technologies (speech, writing, printing, and now the Internet) can never be contrained by law, and therefore reach the highest potential that humans are capable of granting them. Every idea, from Communism to Judeo/Christian philosophy or whether or not pot is bad for you is always open to debate. Now, with the internet, that debate is just faster and more efficient that it used to be. To you this appears to be a loss, but to me it is a great gain. It means that bad ideas are exposed as bad more quickly, and that good ideas are propagated to as many people as possible equally quickly.

    You feel that Judeo/Christianity is under assault because it is – but not because it’s being singled out. All ideas and philosophies are under assault at all times. The 1st Amendment means that no beliefs can be decided as right for all time – everything is always up for review.

    The good news is that if Judeo/Christianity is really as worthy as you apparently believe (and as many others do too), then you should be confident that it will win all bebates today and into the future. After all, if it’s really the best, people will see that in time.

    Of course, maybe J/C is both “good” and “not as good as some alternative.” In fact, I believe this to be the case. J/C has many fine attributes (ones I deeply agree with), but it also has deeply dysfunctional ones. American Catholic’s regular ignoring Rome’s edicts on such matters as birth control are just one example. There are many more – enough to convince me and many others, anyway.

    That being said, I must challenge your basic assumption that argument and social debate are “spiraling out of control.” There have always been strong and lively debates in this country, and generally they result in the best answer eventually coming to the fore. The only “self reinforcing loop” at work here is the OODA Loop of social progress. The internet just means more people are participating at a faster pace. That’s good.

  2. Thank you for commenting [direct answers are to Carlos].

    Re: Matt Wretchard – I consider it an alias, not his real name, since the site is licensed by Richard Fernandez who is not necessarily the author of The Belomont Club either. I got the name from a web search myself. My bad for not following through with an email to ask him though I wouldn’t expect an answer.

    My point was that our national symmetry was to a large part built around our Judeo/Christian heritage and worldview. As that dissapates, in a large part due to actual direct attack, the glue that sustained us as a nation is desolving and I think, along with Wretchard (note, not Matt ;-)) at least as I read him, believe there is sudden severe reaction coming.

    My point of observation is that the Internet and the blogosphere is what makes this different and self-reinforcing. The printing press ushered in the Enlightenment and the Reformation, both of which caused titanic and bloody shifts in Western Civilization. Yet even those moments of change were moderated by time and limited distribution. Our instant access and the immediate feedback loops of blogstorms don’t always allow enough time for us to digest rather than react.

    Absolute freedom of action and expression can be like nuclear fission, uncontrolled and potentially distructive, especially when it occurs in a critical mass. We have not yet learned, at least from my perspective, to balance this freedom with the necessary restraints or even yet defined what they should or could be.

    Let me also say that you assume the truth will win out (the good news is that if…) in time. History has proven that while truth may win out in time, in the mean time radical distruction can occur and millions upon millions of lives can be lost, as well as whole civilizations destroyed. So I am not as laissez faire as you appear to be.

    I will close by saying I don’t think argument and social debate is “spiraling out of control” but asked if this was a possibility. And I have to disagree with “the best answer eventually coming to the fore.” That is demonstrably not true and even if it were, sometimes the answer comes too late to be of value for what was destroyed.

  3. Your religious beliefs seem “under attack” to you because as the we move further into the information age, it becomes more and more obvious that Christianity (as well as Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and every other established religion) are demonstrably false fairy tales, and that people who call themselves “Christian” engage in all manner of evils and rationalize their actions through a massive set of permutations of “Bible interpretation”.

    Remember, for example, that Nazi germany was a Christian nation and that Hitler acquired his power in large part through appeals to Christians.

  4. Dick, your opinion is noted but I cannot agree with you as to the “fairy tale” comment. However, I do agree with you about Christians engaging in all manner of evils, since we are all sinners, including yourself.

    As to Nazi Germany being a Christian nation, that is not supportable except on the most liberal of interpretations and Hitler made it his mission to destroy Christianity.

    Why are you so mad at God?

  5. I read Cardozo Bozo quite a bit on Wretchard’s site and I find him/her interesting. However, when I read the frisson-like comments that he and others, who preened, wholly dismissive of faith on the Terri Schiavo’s “Butterfly” thread, I was reminded of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, “On Looking Into the Abyss.”

    On page 25, she writes the following:

    “When Nietzsche looked into the abyss, he saw not only real beasts but the beast within himself. ‘He who fights with monsters,’ he warned his reader, ‘should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss [will slowly turn its hideous head and with rictus shewn yellow fangs and] will also gaze into thee.”

    I added the parts in brackets since after reading Ms. Himmelfarb’s book, it seemed to better describe the evil that so many in this culture miss. Her point is a “cold-cock” to the one who doesn’t realize, until too late, that he is in a fight; it is “blind-sided” to those without peripheral vision.

    Culturally, it is the pride and confidence of those who welcome the elimination of faith in our culture. Because they do not understand it, they will not until too late, realize the veil of protection it affords us all. The thread, “Butterfly 2” was loaded with dismissive comments about Christians as so much, not an annoyance, but a scourge, to be eliminated. Bozo, I don’t believe, would be party to a violent reaction to Christians; neither would he much oppose it. After all, to some so aligned…it is but a “fairy tale.” But when it is completely “gone” it will bring a chaos. And few (very few) will have the insight to conceive of it’s genesis as it rolls over them.

    Like the tsunami. I don’t believe that “I wonder where that came from,” was much in the minds of beach-goers seconds before a three story wave swept them to their deaths. Brilliance is a wonderful gift, but there are some wonderful insights available to us more dim-witted Christian types, for which “the temperature of the water” in which we are immersed, is thought about each and every day. We then compare it to a “standard” that informs us what temperature is allowable to sustain life.

    It’s getting awful hot in here. Ribbit.


  6. Indeed it is, Cameron, indeed it is.

    Re: Ribbit. I think neither you nor I are slowly roasting frogs. The only question when is the time, if ever, to “flee to the mountains’? We have considered moving from the Baltimore/Washington corredor to Idaho Falls. It came up as our ideal place when we took a web quiz that tells you your ideal place to live.

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  8. can someone tell me where in the bible butterflies are mentioned & if they are. thankyou

  9. Joanna, butterflies are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible that I know of and neither Strongs, Young, or online Bible sites show any results. Sorry.

    However the concept of reaping what you sow, often a hundred fold, is a good example of the “butterfly effect” where even a small action can cause large results, such as the offhand conversion of three women discussing their Christian lives within the earshot of John Bunyan spurred him to become a Christian and as a result we have some of the classics of Christian literature.

    Grace and peace.

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