the bigger killer: Joseph Stalin or George W. Bush?

the invisible regime

Ross Douthat is trying this morning to bring some perspective to American liberals:

But the “open society” isn’t merely “experienced as” a regime; nor is it genuinely open. It is open to some ideas and some people that its predecessors were closed to, but newly closed to others. (In precisely the same way, people who talk about the value of “inclusion” are always including some formerly excluded groups while simultaneously excluding some formerly included groups. When you move the Overton window, the left and right sides of the frame shift together.)

Stanley Fish explained this long ago, in an essay I recommend to liberals willing to dispense with some of their illusions. The essay focuses on public education but is equally relevant to all public institutions. Read and heed:

The idea, then, is that the right kind of education, faithful to the First Amendment, gives you practice in making up your own mind about values and agendas, while the wrong kind of education captures your mind and binds it to values and agendas that go unexamined. The problem with this idea is that it is itself an agenda informed by values that are themselves unexamined and insulated from challenge. The name of the agenda is “free and open inquiry”; and despite that honorific self-description, it is neither free nor open because it is closed to any line of thinking that would shut inquiry down or route it in a particular direction. It is closed, for example, to most forms of religious thought (which it will stigmatize as dogmatic) or to any form of thought that rules some point of view — for instance, that the Holocaust did not occur — beyond the pale and out of court. To put it in a way that may seem paradoxical: openness is an ideology, in that, like any other ideology, it is slanted in some directions and blind (if not downright hostile) to others.

Now, to say that openness is an ideology is not necessarily to criticize it, much less reject it, but merely to deprive it of one of its claims. Openness (or free inquiry) may still be the ideology we choose, but if my analysis is right, we cannot choose it as an alternative to ideology. What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows serious discussion of that same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.

“the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

In this post I want to connect my earlier post about what needs to be done to reclaim the term “evangelical” with my frequently-asserted hostility to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a well-known passage from The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

If one side of this proper training is the delighted recognition of, and attraction to, the good, the other and equally necessary side is the instinctive recoiling from “the disgusting and hateful.” That second kind of response is what Leon Kass appealed to in his famous essay on “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion.

It is possible, of course, to feel that revulsion and then decide that it needs to be mastered. That is what has happened to many Republican politicians who have supported Trump: they let their political ambitions (in the worst case) or political loyalties (in the best) overcome their revulsion. Consider the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who as I write has just withdrawn his support for Trump, saying, “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be President of the United States.” That formulation is so perfectly accurate that I can’t help thinking that Pawlenty has been saying it in his head for quite some time now but has only today been driven to say it out loud.

I have little respect for politicians who ever, at any point, endorsed Trump, and none whatsoever for those who have not denounced him by this stage of the game, but I understand why they might have careerist reasons for doing what they do. We will set them aside, reflecting that verily, they have their reward — or their punishment, as the case may be.

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

There are many criteria we might apply to judge whether a given congregation (or for that matter denomination) is genuinely evangelical, here’s one of them: Is it raising up its people in such a way that they feel repugnance when confronted by truly repugnant ideas — like the idea of Donald Trump as leader of a nation?

What does a healthy response to the current controversy look like? We might turn to the editorial page of the Deseret News for an example. After incisively quoting Proverbs 29 (“when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”) they state quite straightforwardly their response to Trump’s sexual boasting: “What oozes from this audio is evil.”

My fellow evangelicals: listen and heed. Your very future depends on your ability to do so.

Trump and incommensurability

Dismayed by the recently announced list of “scholars and writers” supporting Trump for President, I sat down this morning to write a brief post explaining why I think supporting Trump is a very bad decision. But where to begin?

And then I thought: You all know who Trump is. You know that he’s a preening, vaunting, compulsively dishonest ignoramus with a mean streak a mile wide, whose only criterion for evaluating other human beings is: Do they like me? You are intelligent and well-informed. You can be under no illusions in these matters. And yet you not only will vote for Trump, you are warmly encouraging others to do the same.

Long ago Thomas Kuhn introduced into the history of science the concept of incommensurability: theories whose premises are so radically divergent that adherents of one theory simply cannot speak coherently and usefully with adherents of another. Alasdair MacIntyre would later, in After Virtue, apply this concept to debates in moral philosophy: “Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another…. It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable.”

If an intelligent and well-informed person is not only voting for Trump but also advocating for him as someone who can “restore the promise of America,” then it is clear that our premises about politics — about what politics does, what politics is for — are so radically different as to be incommensurable. (Ditto our notions  of what “the promise of America” is.) It was MacIntyre’s hope in After Virtue and the books that succeeded it to find a way around or through the impasse of incommensurability in moral philosophy. Until someone can do the same for the politics of this current election, there is no possibility of my even having a meaningful conversation with the people who signed that document. And as another philosopher has sagely counseled, What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge – Jason Brennan | Aeon Ideas

The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge – Jason Brennan | Aeon Ideas

Scholars & Writers for Trump – American Greatness

Scholars & Writers for Trump – American Greatness

I would have things as they were in all the days of my life, as in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.

Denethor, Steward of Gondor, the voice of esoteric Trumpism.

patriotism true and false

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

My own kind of incrementalism draws on a different attitude than a lot of what you hear on the right and the left for the past few years. I am not of the view that we are at an abyss and that if we don’t take drastic action immediately everything will fall apart. I’m of the view that we’re failing to thrive and that we’re allowing too many people to live lives that don’t enable them to flourish. That’s different. That means we could be doing a lot better. To me, the great tragedy is that we just allow this to happen. There are a lot of people on both sides of our politics who think in much more drastic, cataclysmic ways about this situation. They’ll say, ‘This election, if this doesn’t go our way, there’s no turning back.’ It seems to me that what it means to be a Burkean conservative is just not to believe that.

It’s hard to ignore the hideous character failings at the core of the man, and for this purpose maybe especially his fundamental infidelity toward all who rely on his word, which makes it hard to take seriously any assurances. He has sometimes shown himself capable of sticking to script or obeying the teleprompter, and when he does that he raises the possibility that he may be containable. But when Trump is given a chance to reveal something of himself, he without fail reveals a terrifying emptiness. The idea that such a man would be improved by being handed immense power simply refuses to be believed. Even wishful thinking supercharged by a justified dread of what a Hillary Clinton administration could do to the American republic can only go so far—certainly far enough not to vote for her, but for this voter not nearly far enough to vote for him. Neither major-party option in this election is worthy of affirmation, and no amount of wishing it were otherwise is likely to change that. All we can do, it seems to me, is hope and work for a Congress able and inclined to counterbalance a dangerous executive.

The Flight 93 Election

The Flight 93 Election

crooked neighbors

Onward we went, asking people everywhere we stopped about the Flushing Remonstrance. None of them knew anything about it. We ended up at the Macedonia AME Church, the third-oldest religious organization in Flushing, a block west of Bowne House, on Union Street, another ‘God’s Row.’ Partway through the service, we managed to wrest ourselves from the centripetal pull of the funky organ. On our way out we encountered a deacon who not only knew about the Remonstrance, but regaled us with reminiscences about growing up in Flushing with close friends whose surnames included Lum, Vargas, O’Neal, and DiVecchio. He saw in himself—part African American, part Native American—the story of the place. He told us that John Bowne had been an abolitionist, as were many of his descendants. For the deacon, the significance of the Remonstrance wasn’t whether it had bequeathed the diversity he celebrated. It was in providing a model for how that diversity could be preserved: A group of men stood up to defend the religious freedom of people with whom they disagreed, refusing to demonize them. They stood up for unity as well as diversity, just like the Chinese and Italian friends who’d come to his defense as a kid, when they would travel together to parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island where his skin color wasn’t welcome.

Catapult | Love Your Crooked Neighbour / With Your Crooked Heart | Garnette Cadogan. Another wonderful essay by Garnette, and more fruit of his ceaseless walking of New York City — despite the dangers of walking while black. The essay is, among other things, a reminder of just how prodigiously religious a city New York is: that’s the great hidden truth of the metropolis.

Garnette elegantly links the story of the Flushing Remonstrance to recent controversies in the city, for instance the whoile “Ground Zero mosque” kerfuffle of a few years back. When that was fresh I wrote a post about tolerance — and why George Washington didn’t like that word. I think it’s still relevant.

a question for David Gushee

My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?

But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.

It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.

And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:

Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.

A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well.

So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?

That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)

Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him? 

The Hugh Hewitt argument

Vote for Trump because

IF he nominates to the Supreme Court one of the judges that he has put on his shortlist and

IF that judge is confirmed and

IF certain cases happen to come before the Court and

IF the the specific issues that the Court is asked to pass judgment on are the specific issues that conservatives care about and

IF that justice votes in the the way Hewitt expects and

IF at least four other justices agree

THEN certain unpleasantly liberal policies will be averted.

And it is on the grounds of his complete and unshakable faith in the stability of this astonishingly fragile house of cards that he ignores, and wants us all to ignore, everything we know about Trump’s ignorant and belligerent narcissism.

You can barely get a hearing anymore unless you plan to burn everything to the ground (as long as Twitter and Snapchat are left unscathed so the revolution can be broadcast). From presidential campaigns to campus politics to the entrepreneurial penchant for “creative destruction,” an almost flippant craving for revolution mobilizes voters, consumers, and even slacktivists who rarely consider just who pays the price for their revolution or that their revolutionary energy feeds on stability.

Lakoff on evangelicals

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.

Understanding Trump « George Lakoff. One of the most frustrating things about being an evangelical Christian is the frequency with which you have to hear yourself described by people who don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.

Lakoff’s post is noteworthy because it’s wrong about evangelicals at their best and equally wrong about evangelicals at their worst. As everyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of Christianity knows, evangelicalism has never in any of its forms taught that if you follow God’s commandments you go to heaven. It has traditionally held that no one follows God’s commandments, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” that “by grace are you saved through faith, not works, lest any man should boast.” These are among the most famous verses in the Bible, but clearly Lakoff is completely ignorant both of them and of the role they played in forming and perpetuating evangelicalism.

But do those verses characterize the foundational beliefs of most American evangelicals today? By no means. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have so exhaustively documented in multiple books — see especially Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers —Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals increasingly practice a religion that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And while the researchers’ focus is on younger people, “emerging adults,” MTD is not a position they have arrived at in spite of what they learned in church, it is the very model of how human beings relate to God that their churches taught them (whether explicitly or implicitly). The God of MTD and its twin, the Prosperity Gospel, isn’t interested in commandments and doesn’t send people to Hell, except maybe Hitler and a few others. He wants us to be happy and prosperous, according to our own definitions of happiness and prosperity.

In short, Lakoff’s imaginary Strict Father Religion, concocted in blithe indifference to the demonstrated facts on the ground — I think of C. S. Lewis’s old tutor Kirk: “You can have enlightenment for ninepence, but you prefer ignorance” — is characteristic of evangelicalism neither in its strongest (most historically and biblically grounded) forms nor in its desiccated Prosperity Deist forms. And, given that Lakoff wants to explain the popularity of Trump among evangelicals … well, the Donald isn’t exactly a Strict Father, is he? More like a sugar daddy, promising to use his unmatched personal charisma to make all the good white people safe and rich — the perfect Mortal God (to borrow a phrase from Hobbes) for Prosperity Deists.

Liberty! except for, you know…

The good news is that both libertarianism and the LP have roughly arrived at places where that kind of two-way tolerance is the rule, not the exception. America is a weird place. It’s filled with weird people who increasingly don’t fit into the traditionally dominant political cultures. Those people should know that there’s a big tent around the corner, waiting to welcome them in all their glorious individuality.

Matt Welch. Unless you’re religious, in which case Gary Johnson is happy to bring the whole force of the regulative state down upon you.

Alton Sterling and “thoughts and prayers”

Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A great many things will happen on social media in the next few days, almost all of them predictable, few of them encouraging.

One of the predictable things is that Christians will offer “thoughts and prayers”; another is that atheists will rage at them for doing so. We’ll hear a lot about the uselessness of thoughts and prayers, mainly from people who think deploying Twitter hashtags counts as genuine activism.

Christians are commanded to pray. We are told to pray without ceasing; we are told to pray for our enemies; we are told to pray even when we do not know what to pray for, because in such cases the Holy Spirit will intercede for us. I would ask my fellow Christians to offer prayer in the aftermath of Alton Sterling’s killing; but I would also ask them to remember that typing the words “sending thoughts and prayers” is not praying.

We can and should do better than that. For starters, we could say what we are praying for. We pray for God to receive Alton Sterling into His presence and comfort him and wipe away every tear. We pray that God will comfort the friends and family of Alton Sterling — and all the people of Baton Rouge, and all the people of color in this land who live every day in fear — and give them peace in their spirits and hope for better days in this world as well as that eternal hope that transcends all others.

We pray, Lord, that you will turn the hearts of those who kill to peaceableness; that you will lead them to repentance; that you will make justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Further: May we remember that prayer ought to be the fuel of the spirit, the fuel that gives us the strength and the hope that alone can sustain work for justice and peace. “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace” — make me an instrument. Set me to work. In these dark days let me at least light a candle.

Hear my prayer, O Lord; and let my cry come unto thee.

capitulation (2) 

Evangelical leaders: If you back Trump, for the rest of your days, you will be forced to live with having had a hand in fracturing our nation on the basis of race, discarding the sanctity of marriage, and scorning honesty itself — all for the chance, the remote chance, that Trump will make one or two decent Supreme Court picks. You will be selling your integrity for the most meager of returns.

Otherwise, you can fight all the way to Cleveland, and beyond if a strong independent candidate emerges. If the choice does come down to Trump or Hillary Clinton, you can instead reserve your vote only for those down-ballot candidates with the integrity to resist corruption from either presidential nominee. Faced with the choice between further debasing our politics and refusing to do so, you’ll emerge with your integrity intact.

Christians have had to take tougher stands in darker times before. They do so in other nations today. This decision, by contrast, should be easy. Trump is not worth your consideration or even one moment of your time. Let others bend the knee.

David French

empathy and leniency

Judge Aaron Persky empathized with Brock Allen Turner and could easily imagine what it would be like to lose sports fame (as Persky enjoyed), to lose a Stanford education (as Persky enjoyed), to lose the sort of easy success and high regard that a young, reasonably affluent Stanford graduate (like Persky was) can expect as a matter of right.  Judge Persky could easily imagine how dramatically different a state prison is from Stanford frat parties, and how calamitous was Turner’s fall.  That’s how Judge Persky convinced himself to hand such a ludicrously light sentence for such a grotesque violation of another human being.

But most people fed into the criminal justice system aren’t champion athletes with Stanford scholarships.  Most aren’t even high school graduates.  Most are people who have lived lives that are alien and inscrutable to someone successful enough to become a judge.  Judges might be able to empathize with having to quit their beloved college, but how many can empathize with a defendant who lost a minimum-wage job because they couldn’t make bail?  How many can empathize with someone more likely to sleep by a dumpster than exit a frat party next to one?  They can conceive of the humiliation of being on the sex offender registry after getting into an elite university, but can they conceive of the humiliation of being stopped, frisked, detained, and beaten with impunity because of the color of their skin?  Experience teaches that the answer is usually no.

This means that the system is generally friendly to defendants who look like Brock Allen Turner and generally indifferent or cruel to people who don’t look like him.  No high school dropout who rapes an unconscious girl behind a dumpster is getting six months in jail and a solicitous speech from the likes of Judge Persky.  Judges take their youth as a sign that they are “superpredators,” not as grounds for leniency.  If you tell a judge that they aren’t a danger to others, the judge will peer over his or her glasses and remark that people who rape unconscious girls in the dirt are self-evidently dangerous, and don’t be ridiculous.  Judges don’t think that a good state prison stretch will have too severe an impact – after all, what are they missing, really?

Ken White

on moderation in consistency

My liberal friends complain about my conservative views, my conservative friends about my liberal ones. Some of them seem equally puzzled about where I am coming from and where I am going.

The fact of that matter is that I find myself moving largely against the prevailing winds, which means that I cannot make intellectual progress except by tacking back and forth, back and forth. This is why my friends see me moving in one direction and and then another. But it also means that whatever direction I am headed at the moment does not indicate the general path I’m following.

The one trait that can never emerge from this method is consistency, and it is difficult to convince people that certain forms of inconsistency are features, not bugs. Twenty-five years ago Leszek Kolakowski pointed out the “unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we try to be perfectly consistent when we try to think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life. More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.”

Kolakowski’s pawnshop metaphor is a brilliant one, but if I were to stick to my own, I’d say that it is the epitome of foolishness to decide, when trying to move against the prevailing winds, to pick a direction and stick with it. Either you become lodged in “dogmatic immobility,” or you drift insensibly backwards, or, worst of all, you pretend that a starboard tack is an established course and sooner or later run aground on the rocks.

Kolakowski calls his essays “appeals for moderation in consistency” and concludes that there are therefore “not edifying.” But surely this is to take too narrow a view of what is edifying. I can be edified by the awareness that I am homo viator, a wayfarer, one on the journey — one who knows my destination but has not yet arrived.

To change the metaphor once more: “Thinking too has a time for ploughing and a time for gathering the harvest,” says Wittgenstein. But there are also long periods in between, waiting for what one has so carefully planted to come to maturity.

liberalism as normcore

Attempts to demean the conservative temperament — even assuming that there is such a thing as the conservative temperament — bother me less than the attempt to insist that such demeaning is merely neutral analysis. And I’m not only referring to the popular press: this Vox post by David Roberts takes its chief talking points from recent scholarship, for instance this article from Current Biology.

Let’s consider a key passage from that article, one that Roberts quotes. It goes like this (footnotes deleted for clarity):

Conservatives respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This heightened sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with conservative orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala. Indeed, voting behavior is reflected in amygdala responses across cultures. We therefore further investigated our structural MRI data to evaluate whether there was any relationship between gray matter volume of the amygdala and political attitudes. We found that increased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with conservatism (Figure 1B) (R = 0.23, T(88) = 22.22, p < 0.029 corrected).

Interesting, no? But what if the research had been presented in this way?

Liberals respond to threatening situations with less aggression than do conservatives and are less sensitive to threatening facial expressions. This lowered sensitivity to emotional faces suggests that individuals with liberal orientation might exhibit differences in brain structures associated with emotional processing such as the amygdala. Indeed, voting behavior is reflected in amygdala responses across cultures. We therefore further investigated our structural MRI data to evaluate whether there was any relationship between gray matter volume of the amygdala and political attitudes. We found that decreased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with liberalism (Figure 1B) (R = 0.23, T(88) = 22.22, p < 0.029 corrected).

Precisely the same conclusions — but notice how differently the argument reads when it treats liberalism as a deviation from conservativism rather than the other way around. Note that the article says that the conservative response “might exhibit differences” — but from what? From the norm, of course. The assumption that liberalism is the default (and presumably rational) position, and that any deviation from that position is what requires scientific explanation, not that position itself, is deeply embedded in the article, and indeed in the ideological framework of American social science tout court.

So David Roberts thinks that in writing his article he and the research he draws on are totally neutral — “Whichever of these personality traits, or clusters of traits, you might prefer, the research itself does not characterize any as better or worse” — so when conservatives get annoyed by posts like his, it surely must be tempting for him and his liberal readers to attribute that to more of that good ol’ conservative “heightened sensitivity.” (You people can’t even tolerate neutral description!) And so the liberal ideological bandwagon rolls on, and on, and on, serenely confident in its neutrality, its clarity in seeing things just as they are, its normalcy.

Page 15 of the new student handbook of Cedarville University tells students to obey “the laws of the land.” However, there’s at least one law the Ohio evangelical college doesn’t support: the recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

Evangelical Colleges Still Discriminate Against LGBT Students Despite the Supreme Court’s Gay-Marriage Ruling. This is only scraping the surface: for instance, it’s legal in all 50 states to have extramarital sex, yet the behavioral codes of such colleges typically prohibit such acts. Lying, gossip, and general lack of charity are also forbidden, despite there being no legal prohibitions against such behavior, except in rare cases.

Moreover, American law clearly allows anyone who wishes to be an atheist, yet Christian colleges clearly do not support the legal system in that matter either, since they forbid atheists to enroll. Moreover, non-Christian theists — whose status under the law is clearly protected — are also often blocked from attending Christian colleges.

Indeed, the list of acts and beliefs explicitly allowed by the law and yet excluded from Chritian college campuses is very, very long. How has such blatant discrimination been allowed to continue for so long — in fact, only questioned in the past few months? This is a scandal of the first order.

Pour tenir dans la lutte qui oppose les deux seuls grands pays d’Europe restés démocratiques à un régime de domination totale, quelques formes que le temps puisse donner à cette lutte, il faut avant tout avoir bonne conscience. Ne croyons pas que parce que nous sommes moins brutaux, moins violents, moins inhumains que ceux d’en face nous devons l’emporter. La brutalité, la violence, l’inhumanité ont un prestige immense, que les livres d’école cachent aux enfants, que les hommes faits ne s’avouent pas, mais que tous subissent. Les vertus contraires, pour avoir un prestige équivalent, doivent s’exercer d’une manière constante et effective. Quiconque est seulement incapable d’être aussi brutal, aussi violent, aussi inhumain qu’un autre, sans pourtant exercer les vertus contraires, est inférieur à cet autre et en force intérieure et en prestige; et il ne tiendra pas devant lui.

Simone Weil, fragment written probably in September 1939. Words to the wise.

(As I work on my book I’m having to check all translations of Weil, which are notoriously variable in quality and accuracy, against the original texts. If you struggle to read this, welcome to my world. But it’s great.)

“The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is…”

The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is not primarily that he is an Adventist. My problem is that evangelicals need to stop platforming political candidates at denominational functions. This goes not only for Carson, but even for someone like former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.

By highlighting the political insiders of the week at Kingdom-oriented events, we keep giving the watching world the impression that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is inextricably connected to voting Republican. And that our talk about Jesus, grace, and forgiveness is really just pious window-dressing for a core political agenda. Annual denominational meetings for pastors should attend to issues such as the best preaching practices, evangelism, missions, reaching and discipling young people, praying for revival, etc. – isn’t that enough to do without giving keynote space to random presidential candidates?

—Thomas Kidd

Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to “banalize” all areas of discourse that were too fraught to discuss. He maintained that generations of satire of Catholicism had made the lampooning of it — and thereby, the legitimate discussion of it — unobjectionable, and he felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.  

That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that “Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,” preventing it from being lulled into complacency.  

The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.

I thought this business about “Wisconsin Republicans denying beans to the poor” was a partisan distortion, but apparently not. I haven’t voted for a major-party candidate in twenty-three years, and that’s not likely to change in the near future. Given Republican attitudes towards the poor and black people, and Democratic attitudes towards the unborn and (more recently) towards Christians, and the military adventurism and erosion of civil liberties enthusiastically endorsed by both parties, I can’t possibly vote for any of them. It’s way past time for an alternative to emerge.

How to Dispense with Conservatism in One Essay

This essay by Elizabeth Stoker Breunig is several things: a memoir, a moving tribute to a teacher, a celebration of Pope Francis, a denunciation of Pope Francis’s critics — and an attempt to describe conservatism.

One might have thought the last a bridge too far for an essay of fewer than 5000 words, but Stoker Breunig shows no hesitation. In order to define and dismiss conservatism, she briefly cites two essays by conservatives, then overrules conservative self-undestanding by briefly quoting a theologian — a smart one, I must admit, Alastair Roberts, though he’s wrong about the matter cited — and then (decisively!) Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. This eventually leads to the peroration:

Conservatives inside the Church and out will, in all likelihood, continue to rankle at Francis’s presence, his persona, his wildly successful evangelism. With every word, he offers an obviously superior approach to theirs, one that renders the conservative disposition as unappealing as it is impossible.

Well, there we have it! Pope Francis: “wildly successful,” “obviously superior”; the Pope’s critics and indeed “the conservative disposition” tout court: “unappealing” and “impossible.” (Not sure what “impossible” can plausibly mean in this context, but I suspect it’s not a compliment.) Done and done! And it’s not even tea-time.

Ross Douthat has already pointed out, in response to Stoker Breunig’s article, that even the conservative Catholic critics of Francis come in several distinct varieties from several distinct intellectual traditions; but I would be surprised if Stoker Breunig were to take this point as seriously as it deserves. Her inclination to cite Corey Robin as an authority in these matters is not a good sign, given the blitheness with which he waves away distinctions — “I use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary interchangeably” — in order to define conservatism with a lack of charity that seems to have provided a model for her own tone: “That is what conservatism is: a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Not “This is a recurrent element in conservatism” or “This is an eternal temptation for conservatism, to which it all too often succumbs” — statements that would have the double merit of charity and accuracy — but “This is what conservatism is.”

Sad to say, I’ve already seen a number of responses from the right to Stoker Breunig’s essay that make her argument seem open-minded and gracious — maybe I’ll get to those in another post, though they’re too repulsive for me to want to think about them further. But it was curious to me how many of them focused on her youth, as though that were somehow disqualifying. It isn’t. But in any case, as I read the essay I didn’t think of the author’s youth because, to me, it did not seem to stem from a youthful mind. It closed doors, rather than opening them; it treated ancient and fundamental questions about the political life as though they were (“obviously”) settled; it dismissed people whose judgments differ from the author’s with a rhetorical wave of the hand (“unappealing”), not bothering to inquire into what those judgments’ best representatives think or why they think it. The essay seems to me to be afflicted by the impatience with other points of view that I associate with old age. Its greatest flaw, in its treatment of conservatism anyway, is its utter lack of intellectual curiosity.

Understanding Father Neuhaus

I did not know Richard John Neuhaus intimately, or even well; we met only a couple of times, and corresponded a bit over the years. But I was involved with his magazine, First Things, for a long time, and read almost everything he wrote, and talked often about him with mutual friends. So I was excited when Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Father Neuhaus appeared, last month, and I read it as soon as I could. It’s a superb work, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the varying intersections of religion and politics, especially in America during the second half of the twentieth century and the first years of this one.

The book has been widely reviewed already, and I want to zero in on a couple of those reviews because I think they raise some important issues about Neuhaus and about those “intersections” I just mentioned. The first is by Jeet Heer and the second is by Damon Linker.

For Heer, Neuhaus was a “holy hustler,” a hypocrite: “when religion and politics clashed, Neuhaus chose politics…. Toeing the Republican party line seems to have mattered more to Neuhaus than bearing witness to the life and words of Christ…. Neuhaus tailored his Christianity to match GOP dogma, often wilfully ignoring mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels.” (For Heer “mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels” seem to be about “reproductive freedom, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights.” But never mind.)

Linker’s view of Neuhaus is expressed more gently but does not greatly differ: Neuhaus “decided to lend his considerable talents to encouraging the folly” of a political party that thinks and acts “like a church.” The general lesson he draws from Neuhaus’s support for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and for the Republican party more generally, is this: “When philosophical, theological, or historical ideas are blended with political passions and convictions, the result is very often a species of propaganda.”

Linker focuses on the Neuhaus of the early 21st century, because that’s when the two men worked together; Heer — and this may explain the angrier tone — reads Neuhaus’s later career as a betrayal of his early work as a political radical. (At one point during the Johnson administration Neuhaus said that the Vietnamese people were “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”) But there is a general picture of Neuhaus that both men share: he was a man who, possibly because of a love of power and influence, mixed religion and politics so thoroughly that he sacrificed the integrity of his theological and moral convictions, and lost the ability to bear politically-independent witness to Christian truth.

I don’t agree with this interpretation of Neuhaus, but in this post I’m not going to contest it. Instead, I want to assume, per argumentum, that it’s true. What then? What comes then, I think, is the question of how and why Neuhaus took this route. Linker doesn’t ask the question in his review, though he raises it in his book The Theocons; Heer just assumes that he knows the answer: Neuhaus’s lust for power. But that doesn’t explain why Neuhaus turned right; after all, he could have sought influence with the Carter administration, or later with the Clinton, and climbed the ladder of influence more quickly. So why did he make the political turn he did, when he did?

Some of the answers are in Boyagoda’s biography, for those willing to seek them out.

In 1961 Neuhaus was the pastor of a Lutheran church in Brooklyn with an overwhelmingly black congregation, and he did almost all his pastoral work among poor black people. To supplement his extremely meager pastoral salary he took a job as a hospital chaplain, and one day he came home from that job and wrote a letter to his dear friend Robert Wilken:

I just saw “baby boy Washington” enter life with a cry. He does not yet know how much he will have to cry about. His mother is unmarried and does not want him. He will be turned over to the city for a life of not being wanted. This is true for more than one third of all the hundreds of babies delivered here. I don’t think his prospects are very good for finding love, happiness, joy, purpose…. I am not depressed — only filled with wonder. Wonder at the glory and tragedy of life in this city. In a little while I will drive home and can count on being struck again by the New York skyline — a never failing object of adoration. The city and the potential of the civilization it represents — to this I am religiously committed. And to the ways of the God who brought it into being. “What is man, that you keep him in mind?” Little baby boy Washington — fear not, He has redeemed you. He has called you by the name you do not yet have, you are His! I cannot guarantee you that this is true. It may be a pious illusion. But it is better than what is called the truth by men, but just must be illusion. You are not alone.

Neuhaus believed that God “brings into being” each of those whom Jesus calls “the least of these”; that God calls them to Himself, redeems them — that God loves the unloved and unwanted; that every life, including life in the womb, is immeasurably precious to Him. In the 1960s he was a man of the left because he knew that the left was populated by many religious believers (Jewish as well as Christian) and because he thought that even the irreligious had in their secular way a care for “the least of these” that resembled his own.

Boyagoda shows very clearly that as the Sixties moved into the Seventies Neuhaus found his allies moving farther and farther away from him. The religious left became less and less willing to challenge even the grossest injustices and abuses if they emerged from their own end of the political spectrum. In 1975, “when he and a few others tried — and failed — to win broad support among his leftist colleagues for a public condemnation of the new Communist government in Vietnam because of its broad human rights abuses and specific targeting of religious minorities, he knew it was really over: for his onetime allies, leftist political solidarity trumped concerns over the higher dictates of religious freedom and human dignity.”

Moreover, the left with increasing insistence severed the cause of the poor from the cause of the unborn — something Neuhaus found tragic. Boyagoda again: “By the early 1970s Neuhaus began to understand his commitment to the rights of the poor and the racially oppressed as of a piece with his commitment to the rights of the unborn, which would occupy an ever greater primacy in the coming years. From the beginning, however, this integration of rights for the poor and rights for the unborn placed him at a critical distance from a Left in which private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.”

The point needs emphasis: not just the unborn were at risk from the left’s changing direction. In the 1970s Neuhaus wrote, as quoted by Boyagoda with clarifying brackets,

A distinguished medical proponent of abortion on demand once assured me that no one should be forced to be born who was not guaranteed “the minimal requirements for a decent existence” [essentially, the standard family, education, and economic elements of secure and stable middle-class American life]. When I [Neuhaus] pointed out that, by his criteria, most of the people I work with in Brooklyn should have been aborted in the womb, he responded with utmost sincerity, “But surely many, if not most, of the people who live in our horrible slums would, if they could be objective about it, agree with me that it would have been better for them not to have been born.”

So much for baby boy Washington, beloved of the Lord. Boyagoda rightly notes that this encounter “afforded [Neuhaus] his most visceral sense of why he could no longer be a clergyman of the Left.” Thus his long slow turn towards the right, towards the Republican party, where, Neuhaus came to believe, the moral language he thought essential could still be heard, as it no longer could in the Democratic party. (Thus also, though it’s not my subject here, his eventual move into Catholicism.)

Fast-forward a few years, to Neuhaus’s attempt to influence the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. When Bush professed reluctance to “lead with the abortion question” because of its political volatility, Neuhaus responded,

”The only way of preventing it from becoming the lead question is to settle it securely with your supporters to whom it matters most.” Here Neuhaus turned openly strategic: “Let me urge you as strongly as I can to view the pro-life position not only as a moral imperative but as a big political plus,” which he detailed by citing polling data that pointed to ultimately limited and soft support for hard-line abortion policies, which in turn would provide “a great advantage to any leader firmly and articulately supportive of the goal: ‘Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life.’” Having underlined this statement in his letter to Bush — who would use it repeatedly in his future presidency to articulate his pro-life policy goal — Neuhaus concluded by offering his prayers, and an offer of further assistance should Bush seek it.

And this, from an endnote:

After recalling their 1998 breakfast meeting, in which Bush assured Neuhaus of the strength and quality of his pro-life commitments, Neuhaus called it a decision that would “define the relationship of your Administration and of the Republican Party to the Catholics of America or at least to the great majority of those who are observant Catholics — and to prolife Americans more generally.” Thereafter, he issued a blunt warning to Bush, that even if “Catholics and prolife Americans have nowhere else to go in national politics” than the Republican Party, as Neuhaus knew some of Bush’s counselors were suggesting, “if you endorse the taking of innocent human lives, these people, and I with them, will lose their enthusiasm for your Administration and the Party.”

With all this in mind, here’s (a simplified version of) my reading of Neuhaus’s political transformation: Over time he came to believe that the American left had effectively abandoned its commitment to “the least of these,” had decided that, in Boyagoda’s clear formulation, “private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.” The moral language that he had learned from his Christian upbringing and pastoral training and experience simply had no purchase in a party dominated by a commitment solely to the “private rights” of self-expression, especially sexual self-expression. He turned to those who showed a willingness to hear commitments expressed in that moral language, who appeared to be open to being convinced. In return he gave them his loyalty, his public support, for the rest of his life.

It may well be that this was a devil’s bargain, one that Neuhaus should never have made. Indeed, I am (most days, anyhow) inclined to think that it was. He who would sup with the Devil must bring a long spoon, and Father Neuhaus’s spoon wasn’t nearly long enough. He did enjoy rather too much the perks and privileges of influence; he did, all too often, turn a blind eye to the immense faults of the institutions to which he had pledged his loyalty.

But I think we have strong documentary evidence that Father Neuhaus made his bargain out of a genuine and deeply compassionate love — a love that pulled him all his life — for those whom the world deems worthless. In trying to realize this love in the medium of politics, that cesspool of vainglory and vanity, he sometimes befouled himself. But we all befoul ourselves; few of us do it in such a noble cause.

On Margaret Sanger

I may have said enough on Twitter about Rachel Marie Stone’s post on contraception and Margaret Sanger, but it’s hard to be perfectly clear on Twitter, so let me spell out my thoughts here.

First: the post’s title suggests that it’s a defense of contraception, but Stone described it on Twitter as a defense of Margaret Sanger. It would have been a better post if it had tried to do one of those things rather than both. Sanger is an immensely controversial figure — especially among evangelical and Catholic Christians, thanks to the leading role the organization Sanger created, Planned Parenthood, plays in providing abortions — so it is rhetorically disastrous, in a blog post written for a Christian magazine, to link advocacy of contraception to a defense of Sanger. As Stone’s post shows, we have in the lives of poor families around the world more immediate and convincing evidence for the value of contraception. Why bring Sanger into it? Her presence won’t reassure those already sympathetic, and will surely alienate those who doubt.

Unless defending Sanger, as Stone’s tweet suggests, is the main point. If so, then there’s another problem. Stone writes, “Sanger, like many medical professionals in her day, did hold eugenicist ideas. Eugenics were enshrined into compulsory sterilization laws in many U.S. states and supported by organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I do not mean to excuse Sanger for holding these views, but I do want to give the charge of ‘eugenicist’ a more complete background.” I’m not sure what Stone means by “a more complete background,” but this statement seems rather evasive — and that leads me (or will, eventually) to what I think is an especially important point.

Sanger wasn’t “charged” with being a eugenicist — she warmly claimed the title and devoted much of her long and highly energetic life to advocating for the elimination of the “unfit.” Indeed, a thorough reading of Sanger’s works suggests that her devotion to contraception was merely instrumental to the greater cause of cleansing American society of people she thought unworthy of life. When New York University released its Margaret Sanger Papers Project, David Tell summarized what those papers teach us about Sanger’s eugenicist and racist views:

Sanger did, in fact, endorse the federal government’s post-World War I immigration restrictions, during a Vassar College speech on “racial betterment” in February 1924, and she was “glad” the laws were “drastic” enough to help control “the quality of our population.” She worried, though, about the “increasing race of morons” already on our shores, and expressed disgust that the American people should be taxed to fund welfare spending for the “maintenance and perpetuation of these undesirables.” When we consider that “a moron’s vote is as good as an intelligent, educated, [thinking] citizen,” Sanger advised, “we well pause and ask ourselves: ‘Is America really safe for Democracy?’”

Sanger did, indeed, call the “morons” who so disgusted her “human weeds”; it’s there on page 386, and the book’s editors tell us she “often” employed the analogy. And she did, too, believe that “ethnic community” was something the race-betterment gardener should want to consider when he was trying to decide which “weeds” to attack with his hoe. “The Jewish people and Italian families,” she complained to the New York State legislature in 1923, “are filling the insane asylums” and “hospitals” and “feeble-minded institutions,” and it was wrong that taxpayers should have to subsidize the “multiplication of the unfit” this way. Better that the state should save its money “to spend on geniuses.”

At one point, Sanger classified eighty-five million Americans as “mediocre to imbecile.” At another, she proposed a total, five-year, nationwide moratorium on childbirth.

What I want to note about this summary — chilling enough in itself — is what it tells is about Sanger’s place in American culture, especially in the heyday of her influence (especially the 1920s). Sanger did not just “hold eugenicist ideas”; she was one of our nation’s most passionate and widely-respected advocates for those ideas. She’s speaking at Vassar, addressing the New York State Legislature, giving speeches around the country, writing popular books — including one in which she wrote, “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” Indeed, Sanger may have done more than any other single person to keep “scientific racism,” eugenicism, and persecution of the disabled in the main stream of America thought.

It was this ceaseless, tireless, and very successful advocacy for some very nasty beliefs and practices that sets Sanger apart from others who happened to “hold eugenicist ideas.”

In this respect we might compare Sanger to someone like George Wallace: racism was horribly widespread in the South in Wallace’s time, but unlike the people who simply breathed it in through the cultural air, he celebrated it, exacerbated it, and relentlessly incited and fanned the flames of race hatred. Few today would attempt to renew and defend populist politics by looking to the example of George Wallace. Maybe Wallace did have some good policies; maybe he wrenched some power away from the 1% of Alabama and empowered the (white) working class. Maybe; but who cares? Nor should anyone care: he hitched his wagon to the cause of a malicious and absolutist racism, and deserves all the opprobrium he gets.

The same should be true of Margaret Sanger. Did she do some good? Indeed she did. But those who want to further the good things she achieved should treat her leading ideas, the ideas she devoted her greatest energies to spreading, with the utter contempt they deserve, not dismiss them as mere peccadilloes characteristic of her time and place. Nor should people who simply note what Sanger actually and repeatedly thought and said be accused of “demonizing” her — something that I’ve heard more than a few times in the last 24 hours. That’s a smokescreen and an evasion.

The cause of contraception would be far better served by simply ignoring Sanger; that would have the further merit of being merciful towards her.

Surveillance and Care

Another day, another story about the legal trouble you can expect if you’re a free-range parent. This matters, a lot, and what’s at stake needs to be made clear.

1) The parents here are accused by the state of “child neglect,” but what they are doing is the opposite of neglect — it is thoughtful, intentional training of their children for responsible adulthood. They instructed their children with care; the children practiced responsible freedom before being fully entrusted with it. And then the state intervened before the children could discover the satisfaction of exercising their freedom well.

2) What’s happening here is fundamentally simple: the surveillance state enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care. The state cannot teach its citizens, because it has no idea what to teach; it can only place them under observation. Perfect observation — panopticism — then becomes its telos, which is justifies and universalizes by imposing a responsibility to surveil on the very citizens already being surveilled. The state’s commandment to parents: Do as I do.

3) By enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care, the state effectively erases the significance of all other forms of care. Parents might teach their children nothing of value, no moral standards, no self-discipline, no compassion for others — but as long as those children are incessantly observed, then according to the state’s standards the parents of those children are good parents. And they are good because they are training their children to accept a lifetime of passive acceptance of surveillance. The Marxist theorist Louis Althusser used to speak of the ways that culture can be transformed into an “ideological state apparatus” — that’s what our society wants to do to parenthood.

Antisemitism and Evidence

Freddie deBoer’s critique of Conor Friedersdorf’s post on European antisemitism is too careless. Freddie:

Friedersdorf spends the requisite amount of time showing Grave Concern about the increasing threat to Europe’s increasingly threatened Jews, who are threatened, at an increasing level. Near the end, he helpfully includes the caveat: “The degree of danger that Jews in Europe actually face is beyond my knowledge.” Or to paraphrase, the phenomenon that is the sole justification for my piece may or may not be occurring, I just don’t know. It’s an excellent little bit of postmodern maneuvering: I’ll take my Muslim-throngs-are-advancing-across-Europe clicks, please, but don’t take my word for any of this.

If you’re interested in looking at some actual facts about the constantly-expressed fear that Europe’s Muslims are creating an atmosphere of stifling anti-Semitism, rather than just read the assertion one more time, you might start here.

If you follow Freddie’s link you’ll see that that it’s to a piece about antisemitism in Britain and only in Britain, whereas Conor’s post is about Europe as a whole. Antisemitism could be a non-issue in Britain and still be a serious Europe-wide problem.

Moreover, Freddie’s simply wrong when he says that Conor merely asserts that antisemitism is rising in Europe. Conor links to this article which in turn links to several studies indicating significant upturn in antisemitic events in various parts of Europe. Conor even links to one of those studies as well. So Conor provides considerably more evidence by which one could assess these questions than Freddie does.

If you follow up those links, you’ll get the impression that antisemitic actions and attitudes vary considerably within Europe. All of the studies are relatively localized — at best national in scope. It is this variability that leads Conor to say “The degree of danger that Jews in Europe actually face is beyond my knowledge.” There’s not enough evidence at this point to make a continent-wide judgment — or if there is then neither Conor nor I know about it.

Antisemititic attitudes and actions are clearly real, and given what happened to Europe’s Jews less than a lifetime ago, it makes sense to be concerned about it — to investigate it further, to gather information, to study the information that has already been gathered. Freddie’s sneering about “Grave Concern” and “Muslim-throngs-are-advancing-across-Europe” is a sophomoric response to genuine suffering. And you know, compassion isn’t a zero-sum game: caring about Europe’s Jews doesn’t prevent us from caring about others who are also hated not for what they’ve done but for what they can’t help being.


“I condemn those heinous killings, but…”

“First i condemn the brutal killing. But…”

“No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But…”

“Liberty was indeed under attack — as a writer, I cherish the right to offend, and I support that right in other writers — but…”

“The victims of this crime did not ‘have it coming’. They did not deserve their fate. But…”

“Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But…”

It’s an interesting rhetorical quirk, I think, and one I could have illustrated by a hundred other quotations. How should it be read?

The first thing I note, at any rate, is a tone of exasperation: I can’t believe I have to say this. But why do you have to say it? Obviously: because if you didn’t, people would think, from the rest of your post or essay, that you don’t have a big problem with the murder of the people who worked at Charlie Hebdo.

And why would people get that impression? Because you’re not interested in saying anything that would indicate compassion for the murder victims. Now, you may well have compassion for the murder victims — I have no way of knowing — but it’s not a topic you want to indulge in.

And it’s not a topic you want to indulge in because such compassion would not further your preferred political narrative. In fact, the deaths of these particular people impede the success of your narrative: the people who worked for Charlie Hebdo are definitely not on your side, and once they become victims the risk increases of their becoming personally sympathetic, which could in turn lead to sympathy for their views and actions. The heightened emotions that inevitably follow a massacre threaten to send the narrative spiraling out of control — and that can’t be allowed. You’ve got to get the conversation back on point, you’ve got to make sure that you restore the status quo ante bellum. Sympathy must be pointed in the proper direction, as must judgment, blame, commendation … and right now human responses are weaving all over the place. This is a freakin’ rhetorical emergency, is what this is.

But you can’t seem callous; you can’t seem to be tolerating, much less enjoying, murder. That wouldn’t help the cause. So you say the right thing. You say it briefly, you say it exasperatedly, you say it impatiently. Nevertheless, you say it. Then: “BUT….”

Random thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

1) I don’t think the most important question about what happened is “Do we support Charlie Hebdo?” I think the most important question is, “Do we support, and are we willing to fight for, a society in which people who make things like Charlie Hebdo can work in peace and sleep in their beds each night without fear?”

2) Freddie deBoer wrote,

Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like “murder is bad” and “free speech is good.” None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal.

That last sentence is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The measure of freedom of speech in a society is not simply a matter of what laws are or are not passed. We must also ask which existing laws are or are not enforced; and what self-censorship people perform out of fear that their societies will not or cannot protect them. Freddie writes as though freedom of speech can be adequately evaluated only by reference to the situation de jure; but there are de facto issues that must also be considered.

3) One of the more interesting comments on this whole affair is that of Giles Fraser:

In one sense an iconoclast is someone who refuses the established view of things, who kicks out against cherished beliefs and institutions. Which sounds pretty much like Charlie Hebdo. But the word iconoclast also describes those religious people who refuse and smash representational images, especially of the divine. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images – which is why there are no pictures of God in Judaism or Islam. And theologically speaking, the reason they are deeply suspicious of divine representation is because they fear that such representations of God might get confused for the real thing. The danger, they believe, is that we might end up overinvesting in a bad copy, something that looks a lot like what we might think of as god, but which, in reality, is just a human projection. So much better then to smash all representations of the divine.

And yet this, of course, is exactly what Charlie Hebdo was doing. In the bluntest, rudest, most scatological and offensive of terms, Charlie Hebdo has been insisting that the images people worship are just human creations – bad and dangerous human creations. And in taking the piss out of such images, they actually exist in a tradition of religious iconoclasts going back as far as Abraham taking a hammer to his father’s statues. Both are attacks on representations of the divine. Which is why the terrorists, as well as being murderers, are theologically mistaken in thinking Charlie Hebdo is the enemy. For if God is fundamentally unrepresentable, then any representation of God is necessarily less than God and thus deserves to be fully and fearlessly attacked. And what better way of doing this than through satire, like scribbling a little moustache on a grand statue of God.

I would love to agree with this, but can’t quite. All iconoclasm is not alike. Reading Fraser’s essay I found myself remembering Mikhail Bakhtin’s great essay “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” in which he compares ancient and medieval parody with its modern equivalent.

Ancient parody was free of any nihilistic denial. It was not, after all, the heroes who were parodied, nor the Trojan War and its participants; what was parodied was only its epic heroization; not Hercules and his exploits but their tragic heroization. The genre itself, the style, the language are all put in cheerfully irreverent quotation marks, and they are perceived against a backdrop of contradictory reality that cannot be confined within their narrow frames. The direct and serious word was revealed, in all its limitations and insufficiency, only after it had become the laughing image of that word — but it was by no means discredited in the process.

By contrast, “in modern times the functions of parody are narrow and unproductive. Parody has grown sickly, its place in modem literature is insignificant. We live, write and speak today in a world of free and democratized language: the complex and multi-leveled hierarchy of discourses, forms, images, styles that used to permeate the entire system of official language and linguistic consciousness was swept away by the linguistic revolution of the Renaissance.” Parody for us is too often merely iconoclastic, breaking images out of juvenile delight in breaking, not out of commitment to a reality too heteroglot (Bakhtin’s term) to fit within the confines of standardized religious practices. I think Charlie Hebdo is juvenile in this way.

But feel free agree with that judgment or not — it’s not germane. As I said, the truly vital question here is not whether the magazine’s satire is worthwhile. The truly vital question is how badly — if at all — we want to live in a society where people who make such magazines can live without fear of losing their lives.

My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation.

The Quality Of Mercy « Andrew Sullivan. I’ve said it before, but maybe it’s worth repeating: no one ever holds the second position Andrew describes here without being very, very confident that none of their cherished views will fall afoul of the law. This goes for liberals and conservatives, the religious and the anti-religious, all parties on all issues. Those who are aware of the ebbs and flows of history will be reluctant to employ a weapon that could eventually be turned against them; those who believe in the permanent dominance of Our Side will move ahead boldly with their prohibitions.

my one and only post on religious liberty

I care very much about the future of religious liberty, and I don’t think, over the long run and in this country, there will be much of it. The Obama administration, and (as I understand it) American liberalism more generally, is committed to the idea that freedom to worship is sufficient, and is trying, gradually but consistently, to discourage Christians and other religious believers from acting out their religious convictions anywhere outside the walls of the church — at least, in any ways that might interfere with the power of the State to arbitrate and dispense justice and charity.

I suspect that this determination on the part of Democrats will drive many Christians more deeply into the arms of the Republican Party, but not me. I find most of the ideas of the GOP, those that reign and those on the margins, in foreign and domestic policy alike, so distasteful that I would almost prefer loss of religious liberty to seeing those people back in power. And in any case, the number of Republican politicians who genuinely care about religious liberty is small and shrinking. I have not voted for a major-party candidate in any election (except a few local ones) since 1988, and I don’t expect to do it again any time soon.

My own political preferences are largely for what I would call Modern Distributism, that is, a version of Distributism emancipated from naïve idealizing of the Western Middle Ages. Distributism, I might say, for people who think the Reformation was not merely tragic and modernity not wholly bad, but who also have a deep resistance to the corrosive effects of the so-called free market on the social order and especially on the poor and weak. (One day I’ll write about all this. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.)

I could defend and explain all of these claims, but I’m not going to do so here, because I’m just stating my basic political position as a preparation for making my chief point.

It’s possible that in the coming years there will be at least a temporary slowing in the erosion of religious liberty, but I can’t see the long-term trends altering. All Americans, including those who call themselves conservatives, are gradually growing accustomed to the elimination of the “third sector” of civil society and will find it increasingly difficult to understand why either the free markets or the State should be restrained from exerting their powers to their fullest. I expect that quite soon most Christians will cease even to ask for anything more from the State than freedom to worship.

For those of us who believe that civil society should be stronger, not weaker, and especially if our primary concern is for the health of religious institutions as the most important mediating forces in society, this change will pose a wide range of problems. For instance, the removal of tax breaks for religious institutions will surely be complete within a generation, and a range of policies will discourage charitable giving, which will make generosity harder — but not impossible for most of us. That’ll be a way for us to discover what we are made of.

But there may be stronger challenges. I suspect that within my lifetime American Christians, at least those who hold traditional theological and moral views, will be faced with a number of situations in which they will have to choose between compromising their consciences and civil disobedience. In such a situation there are multiple temptations. The most obvious is to silence the voice of conscience in order to get along. But there are also the temptations of responding in anger, in resentment, in bitterness, in vengeance. It might be a good exercise in self-examination for each of us to figure out which temptation is most likely for us.

My friend Ashley Woodiwiss used to teach a course at Wheaton College called “Gandhi, King, Havel.” It was a course about multiple strategies of nonviolent resistance to varyingly coercive regimes. I think in the coming years Christians would do well to study those thinkers and other like them, and to spend a great deal of time reading and meditating on the Beatitudes. After all, it’s not likely that there can be any political or social environment in which such reflections would be without value.

Erasmus and Machiavelli

(What follows is a post I wrote this morning for one of my class blogs, which are private.)

Erasmus is sometimes referred to as Erasmus of Rotterdam, but that’s primarily to distinguish him from his namesake, St. Erasmus of Formia, also known as St. Elmo, patron saint of sailors. (That Wikipedia page also says he’s the patron saint of abdominal pain, whatever that means.) But our Erasmus really wasn’t of Rotterdam at all, even if he was born there. He considered himself to belong to that international group of scholars and writers that would later come to be called the Republic of Letters. His “countrymen” were Thomas More, who happened to live in England, and Aldus Manutius, who happened to live in Venice, and Johannes Frobenius, who happened to live in Switzerland.

Centuries later, as World War II was breaking out, the poet W. H. Auden would write of that same sense of connection with people separated by citizenship in the modern nation-states:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In contrast to this highly cosmopolitan vision, we should be aware that Machiavelli is much more aware of himself as a citizen of one particular city, Florence, whose greatness he wishes to restore. He is as local and particular as Erasmus is universal and general.

And yet, when Machiavelli was in exile from Florence he wrote of how central to his life was his reading of, his conversation with, the great writers of the past. Here he sounds like the truest possible humanist:

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.

Machiavelli was a complicated guy.

When you’re homeless and you’re spending your days in the local park, sleeping off the previous night’s alcoholic binge, or just trying to get some rest, inevitably someone from a local social service organization will come by and attempt to interest you in its services. The truth is, these centers really only track or monitor the homeless; they offer few services designed to change a person’s life. This is especially true if you are living outdoors, eating what you can and when you can, putting all of your energy into survival, and trying to maintain at least some degree of good hygiene.

Believe me, personal hygiene—which so many people take for granted—is not a simple thing for a homeless person. Finding a place to shave, take a shower, or just brush your teeth can take up much of your day. The social service organizations inevitably emphasize personal hygiene, but their facilities are always filthy and overcrowded. It can take hours to get cleaned up. Often, I simply choose to go without, or I do a birdbath sort of cleanup in a public washroom. Even this is difficult; people tend to frown on seeing a homeless person try to wash up in the sink.

Everyone frowns at the sight of a homeless person. And it’s this that really gets to you—the awareness that you are being judged immediately, without consideration for contributing circumstances, by everyone you pass, everyone who sees you in the crosswalks, everyone who pretends not to see you. Even when they turn away, in avoidance or disgust, they are judging you—for your clothes, your lack of hygiene, or the bag of supplies and clothing you carry with you. Very few affordable public storage spaces exist. It becomes easier to simply carry the things you need. Yet this bag, these bags instantly identify you as a homeless person. And it’s always the same look, the one that you know holds the same thought: “There goes another one of those homeless people. Something should be done about them.”

— from a remarkable essay (paywalled) by Theodore Walther on the experience of long-term homelessness

the intimidation of Glenn Greenwald

And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London. The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face. Two comments to make here.

First, I’m fascinated to see how nakedly the UK government is attempting to intimidate Greenwald. There is no even remotely plausible alternative explanation for their behavior, which suggests a couple of possibilities: they may be supremely confident that they cannot be touched or restrained in any way from their violations of civil liberties; or they may feel desperately helpless to stop the ongoing leakage of knowledge. Possibly both.

Second, as Alan Rusbridger points out here, their actions are utterly pointless, unable to achieve any of their desired goals. I’m reminded of how, in the 1530s, the Bishop of London gathered up copies of William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and had them burned in public places. He thought that by so doing he had eliminated his problem, but only because he failed to understand that he was creating more sympathy for Tyndale, and that the reformer’s sympathizers would soon send much more money to Amsterdam where more and more and more copies of the English Bible would roll off the presses. The bishop was assuming that book-burning would have the same effect in the age of print that it had had in the manuscript age. He completely failed to grasp that new technologies were changing the rules; and today’s London laptop-smashers aren’t getting that message either.

T. S. Eliot on persecution and discrimination

Christians are still persecuted but nowadays not usually overtly on the ground that they are Christians. They are persecuted because they do not hold the approved political views; or one church is recognized and controlled, and those Christians are persecuted who belong to the wrong church; or being Christians, they are denounced for having collaborated with the Germans during the war, or perhaps with the British or the Americans after it. In the West these things do not yet happen. But persecution is only the extreme limit of discrimination. People prefer to associate with the like-minded to themselves; those who rise to power tend to favor and to promote those who resemble themselves; and when a man who is not a Christian has an appointment to make, or a favor to bestow, he may genuinely believe that the candidate who is of his own kidney is more worthy than another candidate who is a Christian.

Thus the profession of Christianity might become, if not exactly dangerous, at least disadvantageous; and it is sometimes harder to endure disadvantage than to face danger, harder to live meanly than to die as a martyr. Already, we say, we are a minority. We cannot impose our standards upon that majority when it explicitly rejects them; too often, mingling with that majority, we fail to observe them ourselves. Like every minority, we compound with necessity, learning to speak the language of the dominant culture because those whose language it is will not speak ours; and in speaking their language, we are always in danger of thinking their thoughts and behaving according to their code. In this perpetual compromise, we are seldom in a position to pass judgment on other Christians, in their peculiar individual temptations: it is hard enough, reviewing our own behavior, to be sure when we have done the right or the wrong thing. But we can and should be severe in our judgment of ourselves.

For most of us the occasion of the great betrayal on the clear issue will never come: what I fear for myself is the constant, daily, petty pusillanimity. I shall no doubt do and say the wrong thing again and again; but the important thing is to be conscious of the error or weakness and of its nature, and then to be sorry about it. For penitence and humility, as is suitable to remember at Mid-Lent, are the foundation of the Christian life.

— T. S. Eliot, sermon preached at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1948; as quoted by Maurice Cowling in the first volume of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Very relevant to a conversation I had on Twitter this morning, and a reminder to me to be more charitable towards those who find their burdens hard to bear.

It turns out that the NSA’s domestic and world-wide surveillance apparatus is even more extensive than we thought. Bluntly: The government has commandeered the Internet. Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we’ve learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it’s easier that way.

I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight.

Do you remember those old spy movies, when the higher ups in government decide that the mission is more important than the spy’s life? It’s going to be the same way with you. You might think that your friendly relationship with the government means that they’re going to protect you, but they won’t. The NSA doesn’t care about you or your customers, and will burn you the moment it’s convenient to do so.

But it is the concept which runs alongside the constant and essentially unconsented gathering of data which is most mendacious: the contention that privacy is a luxury, a bygone; an unnecessary and even regressive notion in a technological age of openness and a hinderance to the safeguarding of a just society. It is precisely in a technological society that privacy emerges as a central, vital plank of legitimate democratic function. It might be different if openness were universal, if we could scrutinize the choices of our leaders and hold them to account; if we could get unvarnished access to information about the things we buy and the services to which we subscribe, and know the probable consequences of our decision rather than be soothed with pablums and misdirections; if we were encouraged and enabled to participate in the creation of the world, rather than sidelined as the governed, the consumers. But this is not an era of radical transparency across the board. It is not an era of growing direct democracy. It is the era of transparency for the masses, of autocracy dressed as liberty. The powerful are concealed by law and contract, and by power. The rest of us are exposed and encouraged to think of this exposure as freedom.

— From “Transparency For The Masses” – on Medium. (via theblindgiant)

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked. To be blunt, it makes you feel crazy. That is why, if you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t make friends with security analysts: they tend to get drunk and describe the ways in which your phone can be turned into a listening device until the skin on the back of your neck starts to crawl, because it’s their job to know about such things. There is a non-zero cost to this sort of awareness.

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard”. Self-censorship is significant in a world where, increasingly, as the tech journalist Quinn Norton observes, “falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same: it looks like typing”.

How can we distinguish between better and worse surveillance states? Balkin identifies and contrasts two. The first is an authoritarian surveillance state, while the second is a democratic surveillance state. And the recent scandals clearly reveal that we live in an authoritarian one.

What do authoritarian surveillance states do? They act as “information gluttons and information misers.” As gluttons, they take in as much information as possible. More is always better, indiscriminate access is better than targeted responses, and there’s a general presumption that they’ll have access to whatever they want, at any time.

But authoritarian surveillance states also act as misers, preventing any information about themselves from being released. Their actions and the information they gather are kept secret from both the public and the rest of government.

Even though the paper is from 2008, this description of an authoritarian surveillance state fits perfectly with recent revelations about the Obama administration. The information that the National Security Agency has been seeking, from phone metadata to server access, is about as expansive as one could imagine. Meanwhile, the administration’s war on whistleblowers, which received public attention after revelations about the surveillance of AP reporters, shows a lack of interest in measures of transparency and accountability.

The Code of the Streets, a term popularized by the hip-hop duo Gang Starr and the sociologist Elijah Anderson, is the code of men who have come to feel that they have nothing to lose. Much of the struggle with young black boys and teenagers today lies in getting them to see all that violence endangers. At 13, I could imagine not going to jail, not getting shot, being a responsible father. I could not envision much more. I could name careers and other paths, but I had no real sense that it was possible for me to get there, or how. Somehow I got there. And on arrival, I found myself in the company of others like me: an entire fraternity founded on the need to comprehend the folkways of a world we had never been sure we’d see.

Some people come up expecting to win. We came up hoping not to lose. Even in victory, the distance between expectation and results is dizzying for both. The old code remains a part of you, and with it comes a particular strain of impostor syndrome. You have learned another language, but your accent betrays you. And there are times when you wonder if the real you is not here among the professionals, but out there in the streets.

Along with all of the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with – in income, in wealth, in access to politicians – we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.

— Chris Hayes, quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of “American exceptionalism,” the sanctimonious and blood-spattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal fonts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.

What will American Christians do as their fraudulent Mandate from Heaven expires? They might break with the imperial cult so completely that it would feel like atheism and treason. With a little help from anarchists, they might be monotheists, even Christians again. Who better to instruct them in blasphemy than sworn enemies of both God and the state? Christians might discover that unbelievers can be the most incisive and demanding theologians. As Critchley asserts, ” ‘God’ is the first anarchist, calling us into struggle with the mythic violence of law, the state, and politics by allowing us to glimpse the possibility of something that stands apart.” By inciting us to curse and renounce the homespun idolatry of Chrapitalism, Critchley and Graeber can point Christians back to a terrible but glorious moment in their history: when the avant-garde of the eschaton were maligned as godless traitors. We’ll need that dangerous memory in our frightful if doubtless very different time.

— Love Is Stronger than Debt | Books and Culture. A sublime rant from Eugene McCarraher.

the contraceptive mandate and Gnostic religion

Our organizations, and we ourselves, do not all share the same view of the moral acceptability of the contraceptive drugs and services that comprise the contraceptives mandate. We have varied views on the adequacy of the “accommodation” that the administration has promised for religious organizations with deep objections to the contraceptives mandate but that are not eligible for the narrow religious employer exemption. Our organizations are involved in different areas of service. We belong to different faiths.

But we are united in opposition to the creation in federal law of two classes of religious organizations: churches—considered sufficiently focused inwardly to merit an exemption and thus full protection from the mandate; and faith-based service organizations—outwardly oriented and given a lesser degree of protection. It is this two-class system that the administration has embedded in federal law via the February 15, 2012, publication of the final rules providing for an exemption from the mandate for a narrowly defined set of “religious employers” and the related administration publications and statements about a different “accommodation” for non-exempt religious organizations.

And yet both worship-oriented and service-oriented religious organizations are authentically and equally religious organizations. To use Christian terms, we owe God wholehearted and pure worship, to be sure, and yet we know also that “pure religion” is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). We deny that it is within the jurisdiction of the federal government to define, in place of religious communities, what constitutes true religion and authentic ministry….

Secretary Sebelius, we believe that there is one adequate remedy: eliminate the two-class scheme of religious organization in the preventive services regulations. Extend to faith-based service organizations the same exemption that the regulations currently limit to churches. This would bring the preventive services regulations into line with the long-standing, respected, and court-tested provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act [§§702, 703(e)] which provide a specific employment exemption for every kind of religious organization, whether they be defined as “a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society.”

I had been planning to write something about why I support my employer’s decision to join lawsuits against the HHS contraception mandate, but this excerpt from a letter sent today by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance makes the case clearly. My concern is not about the use of contraception, but about the government’s claim of a prerogative to decide what is and is not intrinsic to the free exercise of religion. The government’s position suggests a move to confine freedom of religion to freedom of worship, but all authentic religion is far more than worship: it is also a set of practices in the world, practices which the U.S. Government is constitutionally bound to protect. Moreover, as the letter points out, the two-tier system established by HHS clearly violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

So the mandate is, in my judgment, both illegal and wrong. It threatens to confine religion to a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought. Even those who support abortion and contraception should not want to see the government defining religion maximally as private thought and belief. The social costs of that restriction will, in the long run and perhaps even in the short, be catastrophic, because churches and other religious institutions have long been attentive to “the least of these” — the ones that government habitually neglects or even tramples underfoot. Again, contraception is not the key issue here. Contraceptives of all kinds were available in the U.S. before this mandate appeared and they will continue to be; many social service agencies distribute them freely. The key issue is the freedom of religious organizations to define and carry out their own missions in the way that they have throughout most of American history. That is a freedom worth contending for.

P.S. I am anything but a policy wonk, but the one policy issue I have read a good deal about is health care, and especially the plusses and minuses of a universal single-payer health care system. I believe that while all systems are flawed, our current one is shamefully neglectful of those most in need, and a national system resembling the ones used in France and Canada would be far better. Such a system, by taking the responsibility for providing health care out of the hands of employers, would make this current dispute completely unnecessary. But we’re stuck, for the time being, with the current system, and therefore with the current debates.

Those Southern boys are all boys, and they are all white. And having tackled Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the world they would have plunged the whole of it into a regime built on black slavery. Their dream is the continued prosecution of a two and half century old war against black people. The dream of the Confederate cause, is the dream of the Ku Klux Klan. There is not a whit of daylight in between. To think otherwise is to think that the battle-flag re-emerged in the South in 1962, the year George Wallace won in Alabama, by mere coincidence.

I can’t go much further, because I risk giving up my article. But the point I’m driving at it’s very tough to consider Gettysburg, as its commonly rendered in the American imagination, when you’re black. And yet in point of fact, perhaps more than any other battlefield in the country, the folks at Gettysburg have done a really good job in making clear that the war was about slavery. What struck me more than anything was the film in the visitor center. It was narrated by Morgan Freeman. There were quotes from Frederick Douglass. You really couldn’t watch it and think the Civil War was about anything else.

To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?

— W. H. Auden, “Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier”

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