Gnostics and good intentions; the school lunch legend


View 713 Thursday, February 16, 2012

Liberalism and neo-conservatism share some key elements; in particular, while their specific beliefs differ, each is convinced that they have the gnosis, the key knowledge that allows them to manipulate society to their benign ends, They also share the notion that when they do take action they ought to be judged on their intentions, not on the outcome. When things don’t work as planned – and usually they don’t – there are always good reasons.

I was reminded of this by a short article by Gene Callahan in the February issue of The American Conservative magazine. Entitled “Know Your Gnostics”, it is a short exposition on the concept of modern Gnosticism, with emphasis on the work of Eric Vogelin.

Back in my professor days I assigned Eric Vogelin’s New Science of Politics as one of the books to be read by my senior political philosophy students. Vogelin thought the world threatened by modern Gnostics, and predicted much from that analysis. As for example, when an economic policy, such as TARP, or the Keynesian economic stimulus program doesn’t work; or when the invasion of Iraq freed the people from Saddam Hussein but did not build the stable democracy of free men, there are always good reasons, and the blame must not fall on those whose honorable intentions failed in their noble missions. These are the men of action, who march in step with the flywheel of history. They are the midwives of the new and beautiful world – and when their actions fail, they must not be blamed. They meant well, and the world didn’t cooperate.

Of course there is another view: that we don’t understand the world all that well, and that our social sciences are mostly voodoo rituals. Neoconservatism grew out the Trotsky interpretation of Marxism, and modern Liberalism has deep roots in Fabian Socialism which was once known as Marxism with a human face – but which was able to overlook many of the horrors of the Soviet campaign to build a great society to transform the human condition. Young people now don’t remember that at one time communism was the hope of the world. Marx truly understood the world, and that knowledge was available to guide the actions of the Party as it sought to make a more beautiful world.

And when things didn’t work, there were always good reasons.

“The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immortality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should according to the dream conception of cause and effect.”

Eric Vogelin, The New Science of Politics

Of course Vogelin himself was the first to say we did not have a true science of politics. Gnosticism is alluring, but no one has ever discovered the gnosis; and many of those who, like Lenin and Mussolini thought they had, produced results they would not have chosen.

If you want more examples, you can find them among the architects of our current economic policies; or among those who sent the Legions to Iraq and Afghanistan.


Many have called my attention to this story:

Why are the food police inspecting school lunches?

It makes a great story – or at least a great headline:

  • Food Inspector Confiscates Kid’s Homemade Lunch
  • Preschooler’s lunch rejected by official
  • Food police reject preschooler’s homemade lunch… in favour of chicken nuggets
  • Food police confiscate 4-year old’s lunch, bill parents
  • Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Confiscated by Food Police
  • Nanny state report: NC school officials confiscate preschooler’s homemade lunch

Another version

A North Carolina elementary school forced a preschool student to eat cafeteria chicken nuggets for lunch on Jan. 30 after officials reportedly determined that her homemade meal wasn’t up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for healthfulness, according to a report from the Carolina Journal.

The newspaper reported that the four-year-old girl brought a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, potato chips and apple juice in her packed lunch from home. That meal didn’t meet with approval from the government agent who was on site inspecting kids’ lunches that day.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child Development and Early Education requires that all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs must meet USDA guidelines. Meals, the guidelines say, must include one serving each of meat, milk and grain and two servings of fruit or vegetables. Those guidelines apply to home-packed lunches as well as cafeteria meals.

Read more:

I have other versions, and lots of mail.

I was first told that an official inspected the child’s lunch, found it defective, forbade her from eating it, and instead provided her with a lunch of “nuggets” in the name of nutrition. If this all sounds vague, it is indeed, because the story had no details I could find. I searched but found no definitive account. We are told that the inspector was a “state agent” or a “federal agent”. If Federal there is often detail of which office of the Department of Agriculture except there is a variant in which the agent is from the Department of Education. We not only do not know the name of the agent, but the sex of the agent.

The story went viral, and a number of talk show hosts of different political opinions were outraged, but I still couldn’t find details, although I did get a lot of mail drawing it to my attention. Then, a few minutes ago, I found:

RALEIGH, N.C. — It was a tale of government meddling that outraged radio talk show hosts and a pair of Congress members: A 4-year-old was forced to dump her packed lunch and eat a state-dictated cafeteria lunch of chicken nuggets. Now school officials are blaming a teacher’s error in making sure the child had a nutritious meal.

The incident happened two weeks ago at an elementary school in Raeford, near Fort Bragg. The girl’s parents anonymously tipped off a Raleigh TV station and a conservative blogger after the girl brought home her packed lunch uneaten.

Alas a tempest in a teapot. A teacher or teacher’s aid at a local school was overly zealous, and those who first heard it were eager to find another example of the horrors of the nanny state.

Alas, while this one was blown up, horrible examples are not that hard to find. The bunny inspectors are real – and I note that no budget of any kind looks for silliness to eliminate. The budget is always larger, all the departments get more money, and the deficit grows. And the beat goes on.


I am still recovering from my afflictions. I should be in Boston for BOSKONE, but I am here at home. And I still owe you some mailbags. Perhaps I’ll get up a bit more energy before I go to bed.

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