Thursday, August 4, 2022

To Be Woke At a Wedding

 

I was recently back on the East Coast for my sister's wedding in Baltimore. On the ride there, I got into a conversation with my stepmother where she asked me for a clear definition of the word "Woke." I found myself struggling to come up with a definition that could pass an ideological Turing Test where it would not be obvious that I am opposed to Woke thinking. Part of the problem is that Woke arguments function dishonestly using motte and bailey tactics, switching back and forth between its innocuous and radical claims when convenient. The actual claims of the Woke quickly veer into Poe Law territory that defies parody. Just as I might have been tempted to invent a Westboro Baptist Church to parody Christian fundamentalism, my parody of Wokeness would have involved white people paying a white woman thousands of dollars to tell them that they are racist. The problem is that Robin Diangelo is not a work of fiction. The wedding itself ended up providing me with a useful framework with which to explain Wokeness. I noticed that almost all of the waiting staff at the wedding were black. By contrast, the vast majority of the guests were white. What might this mean from a Woke perspective?

First, to be Woke means to notice this fact that the people serving had a different skin color from the guests. As such, one should not be so literally colorblind as to not notice the different skin colors around you. Second, one should know enough about American History in general and about Baltimore in particular to recognize that this is not simply a coincidence. Black people are more likely to be economically disadvantaged to the point that they would find themselves working service jobs like being a waiter at a wedding.

These two aspects of Wokeness are fairly uncontroversial as so far all we have done is state an empirical and a historical fact. We have not made any value judgments about my sister, her new husband, and the hundreds of guests at the wedding. Furthermore, there is no particular course of action to be demanded beyond not abusing the staff or anyone with less money than you do. It is here that the radical nature of Wokeness shows its face. 

From a Woke perspective, the people attending the wedding are guilty of perpetuating systematic racism. It does not matter that the people attending may honestly feel no ill will toward black people, were perfectly civil to the blacks who served them, and never actively helped prop up segregation. Furthermore, it does not matter that most of the people attending the wedding are Jewish and that many of them are actually of Middle Eastern descent and not European. The claim that Jews have a history of being persecuted and were even victims of the Holocaust is itself a form of racism as it allows Jews to uphold their white privilege and not do the necessary work of dismantling white supremacy. (Note that Robin DiAngelo actually uses Judaism as an example of a defense mechanism used by people at her workshops to deny that growing up white in America makes you inherently complicit in racism.)

It is precisely when it comes to the question of what should be done that we sink into the realm of the Poe Law and Wokeness becomes a self-parody. Clearly, my sister needs to make more black friends. If need be, she should have hired black people to be her friends and come to the wedding. This could have been a form of reparations. Perhaps, she should have refused to hire black people. The fact that these people would not have had a job would help awaken their revolutionary consciousness to overthrow white supremacy. 

My wife and kids are people of color (POC). If we were properly Woke, we would have denounced my sister for having such a racist wedding where black people served white people. Furthermore, my sister showed her racism by inviting her brother's racially mixed family. Clearly, the only reason why she would have invited her brother to her wedding was so his family could offer some token diversity, rendering her racism less obvious to the not truly Woke. 

Of course, the fact that I married a POC also makes me racist. The fact that I am attracted to this woman could only be because I objectify black women and wish to pretend that I am not racist. As such, my wife should divorce me and take away my kids as to protect them from my racism. Even my wife, though, cannot escape the taint of racism. As a white-passing person, she benefits from white privilege while still being able to point out that she is a POC when convenient. The reason why she married a white man was in order to improve her standing as a white-passing person, thus perpetuating the white supremacist hierarchy with whites at the top and POCs scrambling to gain a higher place in the pyramid by making themselves as white-passing as they can and practicing white supremacist values like the traditional family and punctuality. She has spent her life being nice to white people, who are all racist, allowing them to pretend to not be racist by being friends with her. This has culminated with her marrying into my clearly very racist family, allowing us to pretend to not be racist.          

One of the hallmarks of the Woke version of racism is that white people are constantly going to try to pretend that they are not really racist by doing things that appear superficially tolerant like inviting their POC sisters-in-law to their weddings. This is a play on the Christian doctrine of total depravity. Part of being totally depraved is that even when you follow God's commandments, you are only doing it because you fear Hell and not out of love for God. The sinner loves sin so much that even with the fires of Hell raging beneath them they will not genuinely repent but will try to fool God with sham repentance. As such, their supposed good deeds are even more hateful to God than their sins. In Puritan thought, the believer needs to undergo a process where they almost despair of the possibility of ever being saved but continue to try to be virtuous. They might then find themselves filled with the knowledge of Grace and realize that it does not matter that they are the worst of sinners because God has arbitrarily chosen to save them through the death of Jesus. Similarly, in the Woke religion, being white makes you inherently racist, particularly when you try to not be racist. The only way to be anti-racist is to accept that you are racist and that there is nothing you can do to fix that. Unlike Christian total depravity, in the Woke religion, there is no black Jesus who is going to die to atone for your racism. To expect that of a POC would be, dare I say it, racist.        

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Voting Rights for Racists: The Case for Legalized Discrimination in Government Jobs

 

In the past, I have argued that discrimination on the part of private businesses should be a legally protected right. How could an educated person such as myself, who is part of a racially mixed family, support "hate?" I believe that opponents of Israel should be allowed to use BDS despite the fact that it is an anti-Semitic conspiracy designed to discriminate against Jews and ultimately to offer moral cover to people who wish to murder Jews. Universities should be allowed to accept black students over white ones regardless of qualifications. For that matter, schools should be allowed to operate programs and create spaces solely for people of color. I may find these practices to be morally repellent but then again I am morally opposed to Aryan coffee shops and strip clubs. These are examples of social crimes where patrons of a business do not cause anyone physical harm but are encouraged to inculcate values that I believe are ultimately detrimental to a well-functioning society and yet I still believe that they should be legal.  

As a classical liberal, I accept the horrific doctrine that people should be allowed to openly support socially destructive ideas to the point that they cause actual harm. The reason for this is that I assume that the tradeoff is going to be even worse. For example, while strip clubs teach men to objectify women and not get married, they are not going to cause nearly as much harm as government-licensed puritans armed with a modesty checklist who rely on government power as opposed to articulating a case to society (as well as themselves) why specific modes of dress (or the lack of which) should be opposed. If I can defend the right of businessmen to operate strip clubs, I fail to see how I can reject the notion that businessmen have the right to be racists and openly discriminate in their hiring. 

For a long time, I have accepted a distinction between discrimination carried out by private businesses and that of the government. This distinction increasingly seems strained to my mind. Imagine an election between evil billionaire Monty Burns and Lieutenant Uhura (may the memory of Nichelle Nichols be a blessing). Burns wins the election by openly appealing to the racism of voters. Furthermore, we are able to find enough voters to cover the margin of victory who confess that they voted for Burns not because they supported tax cuts for billionaires and the elimination of government oversight over nuclear power plants over more funding for linguistics and space travel but only because they refused to vote for blacks. As such, it is an objective fact that Uhura was discriminated against based on her skin color. Does this mean that what the voters did was illegal and the election should be overturned?

It is important to keep in mind that voters have the right to be idiots. Democracy is not about giving voters the best leaders. It is about giving them the leaders they deserve and giving it to them "good and hard." The racists who voted for Burns deserve whatever Burns will do to them and the liberals who voted for Uhura do not deserve much better as they agreed to be part of the same country as the Burns voters and have not tried to secede. 

Once we acknowledge that voters have the right to discriminate against political candidates, why not allow their racist elected officials to fulfill the wishes of their racist electorate by discriminating who is hired for government jobs? Why should Burns not have the right to fulfill his campaign pledge of paying for his billionaire tax cut by firing black teachers if that is what his voters elected him to do?

It should be noted that there are limits to this line of thinking. For example, it would not apply to the criminal justice system. If the district attorney would, as his closing argument, choose to lead the jury in a round of singing "kill the n-word," the conviction of the black defendant could be overturned. There is a difference between voters and jurors, mainly that jurors do not have the right to be irresponsible and follow their own bad judgment; they are required to follow a clear set of legal instructions given to them by the judge who in turn is bound by a code of legal ethics. Attorneys, unlike political candidates, are not allowed to use a wide variety of dishonest tactics to manipulate jurors. Defendants, regardless of their skin color, have a right to a fair trial and the burden of proof is on the prosecution and the judge to make sure they get one. Similarly, blacks cannot be kept from voting as they have a right to vote. 

All of this is distinct from a job, whether in the private or government sectors, as no one has a right to a job. By contrast, people have the right to discriminate and hand jobs to people for reasons that have nothing to do with qualifications or actual life choices. Your height and looks are based on your genetics. You never got to choose them and it is unlikely to be connected to your job performance. That being said, the reality is that people are discriminated against due to being short and ugly. It is certainly unfair but that is life. Why should we treat discrimination based on skin color any differently?                

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Does Reading Make Someone Less Likely to Be Evil?

 

"I know that having a good vocabulary doesn't guarantee that I'm a good person," the boy said. "But it does mean I've read a great deal. And in my experience, well-read people are less likely to be evil." ...

There are, of course, plenty of evil people who have read a great many books, and plenty of very kind people who seem to have found some other method of spending their time. But the Baudelaires knew that there was a kind of truth to the boy's statement, and they had to admit that they preferred to take their chances with a stranger who knew what the word "xenial" meant, ... (Slippery Slope, p. 95-96).

I confess that would I be more willing to trust someone who knew what xenial meant or, for that matter, had read Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is because they have something in common with me. As such, it is plausible to imagine that they would be able to better empathize with me, which would make it harder for them to betray me. Of course, this line of thinking can easily be manipulated by con artists, who know that they can trick people into trusting them by convincing them that they have the same taste in art or religion or belong to the same ethnic group.  

Does reading actually help make someone less likely to be evil? If you are a humanities person, whose life and profession centers around books, there is much at stake in being able to claim that this is so. Consider the question, are plumbers less likely to be evil. The issue is irrelevant as society requires plumbers in order to function regardless of their moral quality. If studying to become a plumber had the same effect on one's moral development as spending a year on Korriban communing with the force spirits of ancient Sith Lords then so be it. It is not so obvious that society needs history and literature teachers if we cannot assume that they will contribute to the moral development of students. As such, those of us in these professions need to either be able to make a convincing case that we promote morality or confess that what we do is merely a hobby for people of leisure, much the same as gardening or video games.   

This renders book readers vulnerable to moral hazard. People's actual morality is likely to be inversely proportional to their belief in their morality. The more you think that you are a good person, the more likely you are going to be willing to justify doing bad things to your opponents. If they oppose you, they must be bad people who deserve what is coming to them. Why should a few bad people be allowed to stand in the way of all the wonderful things a good person such as yourself can do for the world. How truly dangerous must a person be whose sense of self is wrapped around books and needs to believe that these books have made them better people? 

The moral hazard goes even further. If people who read are morally superior then it makes sense that they should rule over the plumbers as philosopher kings. This goes to the heart of liberal arts. Historically, liberal meant "free." The liberal arts were those things that could be studied by the wealthy leisure class, who did not have to worry about developing a useful trade. To engage with the liberal arts itself was a justification to rule. The aristocrat, freed from the constraints of earning a living and allowed to study things simply to develop their souls, deserved to rule. Since they did not need to worry about money and personal gain, they could act for the "common good," which they learned through the liberal arts. This aristocratic ethos was later embraced by Roussoueauians and eventually Marxists. Neither of these ideologies are really about empowering the people or the working class. They are defenses for rule by intellectuals.    

There is a plausible case to be made that reading helps people expand their circle of empathy. Reading fiction and history allows one to enter the heads of people who are different from ourselves and recognize their humanity. If you can be emotionally moved by space aliens, perhaps you can be moved by the plight of refugees or even your next-door neighbor. This ability to empathize, though, would still require that the reader not believe that their reading is making them more empathetic. Otherwise, we fall back down the moral hazard hole, leaving us merely with someone who knows how to employ the rhetoric of empathy to claim the moral high ground and the right to rule. 

Has reading made me a better person? I enjoy reading as a means of coming to a better understanding of the world around me. My self-education through books has continued even after I failed to earn my doctorate when I could no longer assume that books would lead me to a position of respect and authority. Perhaps, my reading can be defended on the grounds that it has saved me from the sin of worldly ambition. Regardless, I will return to my joyously Sisyphean quest to get through my ever-expanding reading list.    



Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Civil War, Surrender, or Secession

 

I am often criticized for being a secessionist. I believe that states should be allowed to leave the United States. For that matter, I think it is a person's right to stand on their roof, raise their flag and declare that their house is now an independent country with the right to not pay taxes or obey regulations on the gambling, drug, and medieval surgery den in operation inside. Granted, there are all sorts of practical problems with actually doing this. I am talking about what a person has the right to do, not whether this is really a good idea. 

What most people miss is the extreme moral price to be paid for not accepting the moral and legal right to secede. Mississippi and California are both states that greatly differ from the rest of the country. Take the state that you sympathize least with. Imagine that the governor of that state got on national TV and declared that unless the Constitution was rewritten to suit them, they will secede from the United States. This would leave us with three options; we could fight a civil war, surrender to their demands, or accept their secession. 

The civil war option becomes deeply problematic if the secessionists have managed to seize military bases, gained the backing of elements of the military, or even the recognition of foreign countries. It is important to keep in mind that the American Civil War was made possible because the South had three months from December 1860, when South Carolina voted to secede, to March 1861 when Lincoln became president, where they could act with complete impunity. Not only did the lame-duck Buchanan administration not begin to call up troops to invade the South but they allowed the South to seize federal forts and armories. This would become important for the coming war as the South lacked the industrial capacity to manufacture the weapons it needed. 

Even if the state had no weapons with which to fight but simply blocked the roads with kindergarteners, could such a one-sided civil war be justified? Are we prepared to call a soldier who ran over a kid with a tank, an American hero who saved the Union? Note that if our opponents know that we have moral qualms about killing children then they will not hesitate to put their kids in danger with the confidence that we will back down and they will win even though they are outgunned. One thinks of the example of the Palestinians, who offer a master class on how to cynically put children in danger in the hope of a propaganda win. 

If we are not prepared to commit mass murder, we can surrender and give the states what they demand in order to remain in the Union. Mississippi might want an end to gay marriage and for abortion to be made a federal crime. California might want to make it a federal crime to misgender someone or impose a green plan on the rest of the country. Are you willing to consent to whichever one you find most distasteful? 

At a practical level, it is absurd to hear liberals and conservatives complaining about what the other side has just done. Take the example of the Dobbs decision. You liberals knew for years that conservatives were the kinds of people who would do such a thing and yet you agreed to be part of the same country as them. By not seceding, you signed a Faustian bargain in which you agreed to allow for the end of Roe in exchange for conservatives not breaking up the Union. If you had threatened conservatives to either pass an amendment to protect abortion or you would leave, would you have been confident that conservatives would have given in? 

By not openly demanding secession, you supporters of abortion demonstrate that your protests are nothing more than political theater. You do not really believe that women are going to be turned into baby making slaves. If you honestly thought this was the case, you would be demanding secession and threatening total Hobbesian civil war if your demands were not met. 

Extreme anti-abortion antics, while insincere, pose their own risks as conservatives might come to take them seriously as opposed to merely an opportunity to raise money and allow activists to feel good about themselves. If conservatives conclude that civil war with the left is inevitable, they might decide that their best chance of winning lies with starting the war with a preemptive first strike.    

If you find it implausible that states would threaten secession as a weapon to blackmail the rest of the country with in order to get their preferred policies enacted, it is important to recognize that early American history was dominated by the widely recognized fact that the South would only stay in the Union as long as slavery was protected. As such abolitionists operated under the limitation that they could not deny the fact that, if they ever were able to come close to turning their ideals into actual policy, the South would simply secede.

As the North and South developed very different trajectories regarding slavery, the South started demanding that the federal government not only refrain from eliminating slavery but actively work to advance it. For example, the Fugitive Slave Act made a mockery of state's rights when it came to the right of states to not tolerate slavery. Finally, with the victory of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1860, the South decided that they would not even accept being subject to a party that merely claimed to oppose slavery in the territories and they seceded.

The United States was founded on a Faustian bargain to tolerate slavery in the South. Considering this, what is so implausible about imagining that either allowing red states to ban abortion or allowing blue states to protect it might be a modern version of such a Faustian bargain that is necessary to keep this country together. If you are not willing to openly support secession then you cannot play innocent as to the price you have to be willing to pay in order for there to be a United States. The only America you can expect to have is one run according to the values of your opponents. Any attempt to balk on this reality leads, in practice, to secession if not the truly nightmarish possibility of civil war.     

Once we recognize that the options of civil war and surrender are so morally reprehensible, we are left with only one option, secession. I am not saying that secession is going to be easy. To be clear, my ideal situation would be for the country to remain whole under my terms. As a matter of pragmatism, I am willing to make some concessions to my opponents. That being said, there are people out there whose vision for society is so markedly different from mine that we can make no pretense that they ever will be able to make the necessary concessions to have a united country that would be mutually acceptable. This would leave, as the only options, fighting a civil war or allowing for the United States to be divided into a collection of new countries from the diverse groups, from the left to the right, that currently make up this deeply divided nation. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Why Conservatism Needs a Classical Liberal Foundation: A Response to Yoram Hazony

 

Yoram Hazony provides a useful example of the importance of the unwritten texts by which we read an author. On paper, there is much that I agree with Hazony. We are both traditionally observant Jews, who have been heavily influenced by Christian thought and therefore greatly respect serious Christians. We believe that religion of some sort will inevitably form the background of any political system and that any claims to be able to completely separate Church and State will prove unworkable or a cynical ploy to bring someone's preferred religion through the backdoor under a different name. (It is important to keep in mind that the various forms of leftism that have evolved since the Enlightenment down to modern Wokism are religions with their own metaphysics and a metanarrative about the interplay of good and evil throughout history and should be held to the same First Amendment standards as any traditional religion.) Both of us wish to protect small traditional communities from the larger forces of modernity. 

One difference between us is that Hazony is clearly more willing to use the power of government against corporations that choose to pursue a leftist agenda. Even here my opposition is somewhat muted. I am torn as to how conservatives should respond to a left that no longer accepts traditional classical liberal norms. If leftists are willing to use government when they win elections to reshape culture in their image, it is only fair that conservatives respond in kind. 

It is this issue of classical liberalism, though, that highlights the key problem I have with Hazony. His recent book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, is an attack on fusionist conservatives like me who presuppose a commitment to a classical liberal unwritten constitution. Hazony blames the mainstream American conservative movement as embodied by William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer for not being willing to take a harder line in defense of religious values, having already conceded to the left the premise that religion was a private matter with no role in the public sphere. This turned the culture wars into a decades-long negotiated surrender where only the timeline for the secularization of society was ever in question. If conservatism is about preserving something, it would seem that the only thing conservatives have been able to conserve is the power of big business. This might have been a reasonable strategy at a time when it could be assumed that businessmen could be counted upon to support a socially conservative agenda in return for conservatives voting for free-market policies. Today, this is clearly no longer the case as it is corporate America that is the main force pushing for Woke policies. 

To respond to Hazony, it is important to state why a classical liberal framework is necessary particularly for conservatives. For better or worse, we live in a pluralistic society, full of decent people who have a right to live and vote in this country but are far from being conservatives even by the standards of National Review let alone Hazony. Assuming that we are not planning secession (a solution that I would support but Hazony would not) or civil war (which I hope that Hazony would not support), it is necessary to convince such people to vote for the Republican Party or at least not object too strongly when the Republican Party wins an election or a Supreme Court vote. Conservatives need to be able to offer such people certain guarantees that they will be able to live their non-conservative lives in peace. To operate within the classical liberal unwritten constitution is to have a set of values ingrained into you to such a degree that violating the legitimate rights of your opponents becomes unthinkable.   

Rod Dreher provides a good example of this sort of thinking when he challenges Catholic Integralists with what might be called the Edgardo Mortara question. If Integralists, somehow, were to take power, what, in their philosophy, would make it unthinkable for something like the Mortara case to ever happen. For those unfamiliar, Edgardo Mortara was a Jewish kid kidnapped by the Vatican in the 1850s because he had been baptized by a maid. This is a scenario that fills me with fear coming from the left. If you are on the left and you cannot explain to me why it is inconceivable that police will come to my house tonight or in five years to take my boys away because one of them told a teacher that they felt like they were really a girl but I refused to let them wear a dress then you can assume that political cooperation is off. Consistency demands that I respect the right of leftists to think along the same lines. If a political party animated by Hazony's ideals ever came to power what guarantees could he make to homosexuals that police will not come in the night and seize their children?

Democracies are inherently plagued with a variation of the prisoner's dilemma every time a new party wins an election. If Republicans win in November 2024, what is to stop Joe Biden from declaring the election a fraud and having Republicans shot before they can take power in January? This could even be declared a "defense of democracy" on the assumption that the Republicans would do the same thing if they lost in 2028. For democracy to work, not only is it necessary that all major factions respect the results of elections, it needs to be inconceivable to both sides that their opponents, whom they honestly dislike and think are bad for the country, would ever stoop so low as to overthrow an election. (Because of the events of January 6, this assumption can no longer be made about the United States.) 

The same logic applies to Supreme Court decisions. Will leftists, in response to the overturning of Roe, content themselves with mouthing off, marching, and trying to turn out voters for November or will they, instead, send out execution squads with proscription lists against conservatives? Make no mistake; this is the only reasonable option for anyone who truly believes that this country is in imminent danger of turning into the Handmaiden's Tale. Leftists have a plausible incentive to do so now that they can still rely on the protection of the Biden administration as opposed to a Republican administration that might come to power in 2025. What if the Court were to overturn Obergefell? 

It is the responsibility of conservatives like me to talk to the decent liberals in my life like my mother and mother-in-law to convince them that, contrary to what they might be hearing on NPR or MSNBC, there is no plot to establish a Christian theocracy. For good reason, they might not like conservative policies but that is the price of living in a country that has the GOP. For this to work, I need to be able to argue that there are certain lines that would be inconceivable for conservatives to cross. 

Here is where classical liberalism becomes important. It provides a collection of assumed red lines that can be built into the collective political consciousness of a society to never cross even at the cost of some short-term gain. Some hack writer is producing smut. That is their right. It does not matter if it has no social redeeming importance and may even be harmful. By tolerating indefensible junk, I signal to my opponents that I have no intention of coming after them even when they write books attacking me.  

As Hazony recognizes, part of being a conservative is the acceptance of norms, the most important ones being unwritten, that govern a society. One does not attempt to refashion society with a gun in one hand and a philosophy book in the other.  In the United States, a central part of our political norms is classical liberalism. This is an advantage of American conservativism. As Hayek argued, to be a conservative in America still means to be a supporter of liberty. The United States has no living tradition of crown and altar conservatism. Thankfully, the closest American equivalent, the slavocracy tradition of John C. Calhoun, lost all political plausibility in the 1960s with the defeat of George Wallace. When Hazony talks about the Anglo-American conservative tradition, he means Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Marshall. Even as Hazony denounces the "Puritan theocrats" of the English Civil War, he never suggests that Americans should return to absolute monarchy along the lines of Charles I.   

The United States is a large and complicated country, one that I personally think should be broken up. If I, somehow, was ever elected president here would be my message to my mother, mother-in-law, and all the decent liberals out there who profoundly disagree with me. There will be no more pride flags on federal buildings but the police will not be charging into homes to arrest adults engaged in consensual activities. I may be willing to allow states to ban abortion but I will protect abortion in those states where it is legal. As a guarantee of my sincerity, I will respect the right of every individual property owner to secede from the United States to create LGBTQ/abortion sanctuaries as you wish. 

As a classical liberal, I am willing to make serious good faith guarantees to my liberal opponents. What can Hazony promise? What lines will he not cross even though it will cost him the chance to build his conservative society? 


 

Monday, July 4, 2022

Brute Textualism For a Diverse Society

 


In any society, there is going to be a trade-off between the physical text of the law and the unwritten assumptions that we bring to the text about what purpose it serves. In theory, it makes sense to privilege the unwritten text as that will bring your legal system closer to the set of values you wish to endorse. The catch is that this can only work in a society where everyone shares the same unwritten constitution and a moral vision for what they want their legal system to accomplish. In a country where this is not the case, the only practical option is brute textual legalism. 

The reason for this is that we have every reason to assume that people have no intention of living under the authority of an unwritten constitution whose moral values they oppose and are likely, if pushed into an extreme enough situation, to reject the authority of the Federal Government, plunging the entire country into Hobbesian civil war. For example, imagine if the Supreme Court were to decide tomorrow that, in place of a right to privacy, the underlying assumption of the Constitution was white supremacy. Keep in mind that Taney made precisely this argument in Dredd Scott. In this reading of the Constitution, man is assumed to mean white men with blacks being given no legal protection. The Court then rules that slavery should never have been abolished and the modern descendants of slave owners should be able to reclaim the descendants of their ancestor's slaves as their rightful property. I would hope that my readers would support taking up arms to kill police officers who agree to round up African Americans even if this will plunge the country into civil war. 

From this perspective, being on the Supreme Court is a lot like being on a nuclear bomb squad. If the justices make a big enough mistake, they risk blowing up the entire country. In 1973, the Burger Court, in its hubris, put the entire country in danger by enshrining the sexual revolution constitution. This forced religious conservatives into choosing between living under a set of laws directly opposed to their values or taking up arms against the government. Conservatives worked for nearly fifty years within the system to overturn Roe. It very well may have been this belief that they could win legally that kept them from turning to violence. Over the years, we have seen individual actors assassinating abortion providers. How many conservatives out there secretly supported these murders at least in principle? If the liberals on the Court had gotten their way in Dobbs and crushed any conservative hope for victory, who knows what conservatives might have done out of desperation? 

Of course, Alito and the other conservatives on the Court are also now taking a risk in overturning Roe. It is possible that leftists will mount an insurrection of their own. We know of one person being arrested for trying to kill Kavanaugh after leading members of the Democratic party pretty much point-blank called for someone to kill a justice to save Roe. It is frightening to consider how close this country came to civil war because of one person. What do you think would have happened if the attempt on Kavanaugh had succeeded? Do you believe that conservatives would have simply accepted this "tragic misfortunate" action of a single "deranged" individual, not the work of the Democratic Party, and now, after coming so close they were not going to be able to overturn Roe?   

This framework helps us understand the value of brute textualism. In a world in which one faction might turn around and try to murder the other half if they think the other half is trying to force their values upon them, the only sane solution is for justices to rule in such a way that it becomes difficult for their opponents to accuse them of simply engaging in sophistry to justify whatever policies they prefer. This can be done through textual style originalism. This allows judges to tell their critics: you may not like the ruling but your argument is not with me it is with the Constitution. Come back to me when you have passed an amendment to the Constitution and I will support you. 

A useful thought experiment is to ask whether a justice's legal philosophy will ever force them to uphold the constitutionality of laws they oppose or overturn laws they actually support. If the answer is no then their philosophy can be dismissed as ad hoc justifications to force their values on you. They have betrayed the Constitution, giving you a plausible moral justification to ignore their ruling or to kill the judge even at the risk of igniting a civil war. 

In a world where all relevant parties share a common set of values, it makes sense to allow a more flexible approach to law. For example, I am going to approach Jewish Law with a specific set of values. In my Judaism, rabbis should not agree to perform same-sex weddings but still insist that it is a sin to lift a finger to initiate harm against homosexuals or even to mock those who struggle with this issue. I recognize that, with this statement, I have likely antagonized Jews on both the left and right and both can plausibly argue that my position is not based merely on Jewish texts but on my personal values. That is ok; such people are free to form their own version of Judaism. I am not trying to force my values on anyone. 

The United States has over three hundred million people living within its borders. Most of them have little in common with each other either culturally or in moral values. It makes about as much sense to have people from Mississippi and Los Angeles in the same country and subject to the same Constitution as to have either of these groups joined to the residents of Islamabad. As such, I think the only practical solution would be to divide the United States or implement such vigorous federalism that the Supreme Court has little opportunity to interfere with States or enforce much of any personal unwritten constitution. 

The next best solution would be textualist originalism enforced with full brutality. This will lead to many horrific conclusions. Ideally, both the left and the right in this American marriage will be left incredibly unhappy. Whenever a textualist decision leads to results that you find obscene, console yourself with the understanding that you are making a compromise with the other side so that they will not feel the need to deliver the first strike in a civil war by massacring your side in the streets. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Unwritten Constitution: Why Roe Matters

 

I was at my wife's grandmother's place in New York when I saw a news flash on my phone that Roe vs. Wade had been overturned. Even as I had been expecting this result ever since the opinion leak, this still came as a shock to me. Throughout my life, Roe was one of those facts about American political life. Yes, Republicans dreamed of getting rid of Roe, but there was no way it could actually happen. As someone who has moved around a fair bit along the choice vs. life spectrum over the course of my lifetime, I have long found the passions aroused by abortion to be mysterious. Consider the no longer hypothetical situation we are in now with the end of Roe, what has actually changed about abortion law in America now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe? In truth, almost nothing. Here in California, abortion is as legal as it ever was. For those women living in states that are now banning abortion, what has changed for them is that they might have to spend a few hours on a Greyhound bus. Getting rid of Roe is not going to stop anyone from having an abortion so why did liberals and conservatives spend nearly fifty years fighting over Roe?

The key to understanding the importance of Roe lies in thinking of it in terms of an "unwritten constitution." No one ever interprets a text without a set of assumptions that serve as interpretive lenses for how to read the text. Conservatives are certainly correct in pointing out that, unlike the right to guns which the Court just protected, the Constitution never says anything about a right to abortion. That being said, this does not necessarily mean that it should be easier to buy a gun than to get an abortion. It all depends on what sort of unwritten constitution you believe in. If one does not approach the Second Amendment with the assumption that gun ownership is essential to citizenship in a free society then the right to bear arms becomes nothing more than a quaint text that should not be allowed to get in the way of public safety. From there it is easy to say that the Second Amendment only refers to members of militias carrying Eighteenth-century-style muskets. 

On the flip side, if you assume that the purpose of the Constitution is to allow people to pursue their own happiness in defiance of established sexual mores, then it does not matter if the Constitution never actually says this, this is what the Constitution really is. (Note that the Constitution says nothing about a right to pursue happiness. That is in the Declaration of Independence.) 

As strange as it may sound, it is the unwritten constitution that carries the greater authority. You can argue with a written text and attempt to limit it in all sorts of creative ways. The unwritten constitution is meant to be so thoroughly embedded in the thinking of society that it should be impossible for members to think in any other way. In fact, what is not written can serve as bait to draw out the heretic into revealing that they do not share the fundamental assumptions of the rest of society. For example, do you believe that the First Amendment establishes a "Separation Between Church and State?" If you said yes, you are factually incorrect. The Constitution says no such thing. As with the pursuit of happiness, that was Thomas Jefferson, who was not even part of the Constitutional Convention. If you are of a liberal disposition, this fact should not matter. On the contrary, the conservative who points this out has simply demonstrated that fail to appreciate the "soul" of the Constitution, i.e., they do not accept the unwritten liberal constitution. 

The battle over Roe was never really about abortion but the unwritten sexual revolution constitution that, following in the footsteps of Griswold, it furthered. In essence, the Court was saying that it was an essential right for young women pursuing college and a career to be able to have pre-marital sex without having to worry that, if something were to go wrong, they might have to choose between marrying the father or becoming single mothers. This is If you are committed to building a society where there is no stigma attached to women pursuing careers and having pre-marital sex then it is going to be necessary to remove the stigma attached to abortion by not just making it legal but enshrining it as a constitutional right in a similar sense as being able to stand outside the White House waving signs.  

When I last visited DC, I made a point of taking my son to see the wide variety of people protesting. It did not matter that I personally disagreed with many of these people. I accept that all of them, even the "smelly weirdos," were doing something positive. It is essential for me that we live in a country where it should be thought of as perfectly normal and uncontroversial to stand outside the White House and say bad things about the president. Note that if you were to tell me that none of this is in the Constitution, which only says that people can assemble to seek redress but not to insult politicians, you would be correct but you would also be demonstrating that there is a larger "soul" to the Constitution that you do not comprehend. 

Being able to publicly say bad things about elected officials (as opposed to strongly implying that you would not be particularly bothered if they were murdered) is part of my unwritten constitution. The idea that the secular state must be backed by a broadly religious society with strong families and a conservative sexual morality is also part of my unwritten constitution. By contrast, the sexual revolution is not part of my unwritten constitution.        

An easy way to see the role of the sexual revolution constitution in Griswold and then Roe is to consider what should be an obvious question. If people have the right to make decisions with their own bodies and in consultation with their own doctors, why is there no constitutional right for drug use or to sell their organs? To accuse people on the left of hypocrisy is, in a sense, to miss the point. There is no deep narrative entrenched within the mainstream left where drug use and organ selling become essential to who people are and to take their place as citizens. By contrast, birth control and abortion have this larger narrative that is more important than any technical legal arguments, which only serve to justify the sexual revolution constitution after the fact. 

Similarly, one can point to the claim of protecting women's rights. The Constitution does not offer special protection for women. The sexual revolution constitution, by contrast, does. In the narrative of the sexual revolution, women are a group oppressed by traditional sexual mores. In order for the Constitution to remain legitimate, it must be read in terms of the sexual revolution. Anyone who argues that the Constitution has no category of women's rights may be factually correct but they have also demonstrated that they are not embedded within the assumptions of the sexual revolution. 

It should be noted that it is possible to want abortion to be legal to a large degree without wanting it to be a constitutional right. I would consider myself to be within this camp. There are lots of things that I want to be legal but not to be expressed directly as constitutional rights. For example, I want adultery to be legal and oppose any attempt by the government to punish infidelity. Similarly, I want marijuana and even heroin to be legal. That being said, I do not wish for them to be declared constitutional rights. To do so would be to accept an unwritten constitution where extra-marital sex and drug use are accepted as positive actions in the same sense as peaceful protesting. 

I am fine with the Supreme Court saying that the federal government has no authority over what people do with their bodies as long as they are not causing physical harm to others. The right of people to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not causing physical harm to others is part of my unwritten constitution. This will lead to the de facto legalization of adultery and drug use. Once this has been accomplished, we can discuss whether this constitutional right to bodily autonomy includes abortion or whether fetuses, in some sense, count as living beings with a right to not be murdered.      

Certainly, in the short run, I do not expect the number of abortions nationally to drop. The importance of the Dobbs decision is that it takes away the moral high ground from the left. They no longer have the grounds to claim that abortion is a constitutional right. That being said, I do not expect leftists to back down and soften their rhetoric. On the contrary, we should expect an all-out attack on conservatives for daring to not accept the constitution of the sexual revolution and upon the legitimacy of the Supreme Court for acknowledging that there can be another framework for reading constitutional law. With the overturning of Roe, the stakes have been raised over the sexual revolution constitution. Either we must accept that a group of Gileadists has conspired to take over the Supreme Court and destroy the Constitution in order to enslave women into marriage and motherhood or that the Supreme Court was taken over in mid-20th century by leftists who rewrote the Constitution in order to enshrine the sexual revolution and that this unwritten constitution has now been rejected. Either way, I expect that there will be little room to make the practical good-faith compromises that might create a workable legal framework for abortion

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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Haredi Education and the Heroic Teacher

 


Abie Rotenberg's song, "Ninth Man" tells the story of a class of troublemaking kids who turn themselves around because their rebbe steps in as a replacement in their baseball game after the catcher breaks his leg. (One hopes that this was after the ambulance or the boy's parents were able to take the kid to the hospital.) Recognizing that they owe the rebbe a favor, the kids start paying attention in class and find that the material is actually interesting. It strikes me that this song is remarkably useful as an introduction to Haredi pedagogy. The yeshiva system relies on charismatic teachers, who are passionate about the Talmud in the hope that kids develop a close personal relationship with the rebbe and become interested in the Talmud as well. 

In essence, what we have in the song is the heroic model of teaching. The rebbe proves to be a likable person, who cares about the kids and teaching Talmud. In the end, the students come to like him and therefore become interested in what he teaches. While waiting for that to happen, though, the rebbe spends months simply lecturing even though the kids are not learning anything. This itself is part of the education. The rebbe is making the point that he cares about engaging with the Talmud so much that it is worthwhile to do so even if no one is paying attention to him and he might as well be talking to the walls of the classroom. 

There is no attempt by the administration to regulate what the rebbe does in the classroom. The principal simply puts the rebbe in the classroom and then goes out of town. In the yeshiva system there is no set curriculum of specific things that students are supposed to have mastered by a certain time. An extension of this is the lack of organized testing. If there is no agreed-upon list of things that students should know and a timetable for when they should learn it, there is little point to test students to figure out if they are on task. Any testing that takes place is going to be largely symbolic, serving the need of putting a grade on a report card rather than any pedagogical goals. 

The point of a yeshiva education is not really about mastering material. The goal is to put kids in a room with a charismatic individual, who, if given enough time, might get the kids to want to be like him. Think of it this way. A student who graduates from a yeshiva without being able to read any Hebrew but comes away admiring the rabbis and wanting to be religious is a success story. The student who leaves yeshiva having mastered a decent amount of Talmud, which he then uses to enroll at JTS is a failure. 

It is important to stress for those who have not gone through the boys’ track of the Haredi yeshiva system, how utterly Talmud-centered it is. If you are a teenage boy who is not prepared to study Talmud for several hours a day, regardless of whatever genuine talents you possess, you are royally fracked. Whatever talented individual rebbeim are out there who understand that not everyone is going to fit the model, at an institutional level, yeshivas are not equipped to handle kids for whom a Talmud-centered education would not be appropriate. In a strange way, Haredi girls have an advantage here. Girls are not supposed to be studying Talmud in the first place so girls, at least as teenagers, have more flexibility as to how they can fit into the system. There is no we are going to continue to try stuffing you into our Talmud shaped hole and if we fail to remake you in our image, it is your fault.  

Considering, my own not particularly positive experience with the yeshiva system, it is strange to recognize the extent to which my instinctual style of teaching history is essentially a secularized version of the rebbe model. The students do not need me to memorize names and dates. They can get those from their textbook or the internet. Furthermore, I recognize that these bits of information are, in of themselves, going to be of little value to the students as they go out into the world. The important thing that my students should experience is the fact that I am truly passionate about history. History is not simply something that I talk about for a class period but what I live and breath. Catch me out of class and I am really the same history-centered person you see in class. Beyond telling me to stop talking, I do not have an off switch; even then my internal monologue will continue. 

Since my teaching is really an extension of the running conversation in my head, I am prepared to teach even when students are not paying attention. There are some things that are so important that they should be said even if no one is going to listen. One thinks of the Calvinist minister who preaches not because he believes that he will convince anyone, God has already decided before creation who is going to believe and be saved anyway, but to make sure that those listening will not be able to claim that they never heard the message. They were told the truth and decided not to pay attention.

This can be quite disturbing for many students but there is also a certain charm to it. My inclination is to teach what I genuinely find interesting and what I think is important to understand rather than check things off a curriculum. Admittedly, this leads to my getting sidetracked. It is my conviction that my tangents, particularly if initiated by students, are usually the most important part of any lesson. The fact that I find myself talking about something even though I did not plan on it and it is not part of the curriculum suggests that it really gets to the soul of what I am trying to convey to students. 

If I find something interesting, there is a chance that I will be able to convince someone else that this is interesting as well. At the very least, students are going to be forced to face the question of what it is with this history that has me so enthralled. 

Note that what I describe here is my inclination when left to my own device. This is not necessarily how I actually teach nor what I think makes for genuinely good teaching.

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Rights of Chazerphiles, Chazerexuals and the Chazerphobes Who Might Still Love Them


It should come as no surprise to my readers that I have never eaten chazor (pig). It is not just that I happen to have never tried pork. A major aspect of my identity as a Jew is my active refusal to eat pork. Since I lack positive cultural associations for pig and it is symbolic of so much of the "other" for me, you might even say that I am mildly "chazerphopic." Obviously, most of the world does not share my chazerphobia. In fact, there are many "chazerphiles," people for him the active eating of pork is a critical part of their identity in much the same way that a critical part of my identity is not eating pork. Think of all those Americans for whom the holidays would be imcomplete without their Christmas ham. Presumably, there are even ideological chazerphiles who consciously eat pork as a means of rejecting the God of the Hebrew Bible. Such people may view chazerphobes like myself as a threat to the building of a godless society and resent the idea that I "force" my chazerphobic lifestyle upon my children, depriving them not only of the delicious taste of pork but also of the freedom to not worry about whether some "old man in the sky" cares about what they eat.   

As a classical liberal, I acknowledge that both chazerphobes like myself and the chazerphiles who make up the majority of society have rights. I cannot use direct physical force to stop anyone, Jewish or otherwise, from enjoying pork to their heart's content. As a practical matter, I believe that the State of Israel should eliminate all restrictions on the selling and consumption of pigs. At the same time, we should be able to agree that I have the right to keep a kosher home free of pigs. Things get a little more complicted as we deal with cases in the middle and reasonable people of good will are going to disagree over where precisely to draw the lines between protecting the rights of chazerphiles and chazerphobes. Among other things, this will depend upon whether we assume that pork eating is simply something that some people like to do or whether some people might actually be chazerexuals and eating pork is inherent to their very being? If the later, then my chazerphobia might be deemed an act of hate against these chazerexuals that threatens their very lives. My chazerphobia should be given only the barest tolerance as some moral failing that I can indulge in the privacy of my home. I should have the decency to be embarrassed by my intolerant mindset and should make no attempt to expose my children or anyone else's to such a backward belief.  

I am raising my two boys in a non-pig consuming home. When they become adults and move out of my house, they are free to make their own choices, including becoming hardcore chazerphiles. What if they come out of the closet to me as chazerexuals and demand that I respect them for who they are by taking them to McDonald's, even going so far as to threaten to harm themselves if I fail to comply? If we do not believe that chazerexuals actually exist (as opposed to people who simply really like eating pork), then I can dismiss them as being insane and I am under no obligation to indulge the delusions of crazy people. I am not endangering their physical health by not enabling their pork consumption. If, God forbid, they end up harming themselves. That is not my fault. It is the fault of the mental illness and of any teachers or social media influencers who gave them the idea that they might be chazerexuals with the right to expect that other people will adapt themselves to suit their choice of identity.       

For the past year, I have been teaching in the Los Angeles school system. Do I have the right to tell Jewish students that it is a sin to eat pork? Do I have the right to wear a yarmulka, which might make a Jewish student feel guilty and inhibit their pork consumption? Be careful or I might ask whether a chazerphile teacher has the right to read students books that portray pork eating in a positive light or actively help Jewish students get over their inhibitions about eating pork? 

What if my school wishes to hold a chazer-pride month with a wide variety of activities designed to teach people that it is ok to eat whatever kind of ethically slaughtered meat they like. In truth, I would really wish to cooperate. My chazerphobia is really quite mild. It is not as if I have any truly intellectual objections to pig. As a Maimonidean, if I felt that it would not be in violation of the divine will to create a new religion, I would include some taboos on meat but the meat I would ban would simply be one that the ethnic group I was trying to teach about God was already inclined not to eat. As such, I would have no problem declaring pigs to be "kosher" and banning some other animal. 

I am inclined to believe that all peoples would do well to follow the ways of their ancestors. As such, it makes sense that non-Jewish Mexicans should maintain their ancestral customs and stick pork into everything. I wish to support them in this endeavor. 

As part of the school community, I would want to take part in chazer-pride in any way I could. I would be willing to wear a shirt with the chazor-pride logo and march with the other teachers in the chazor-pride parade. It even seems reasonable, assuming my rabbi would permit it, to make a contest that if my students read x number of pages I would agree to personally roast a pig on a spit with an apple in its mouth. 

For me to cooperate with chazerphiles like this, though, I have to honestly believe that they support my chazerphobia and are not conspiring to undermine the keeping of kosher. In this, it is important to keep in mind the halakhic concept of "shas ha-shmad." One is allowed to violate most commandments if someone threatens to kill you but in a time where there is an organized plan to destroy Judaism, you need to be willing to die even over petty things like shoelaces. For example, normally you are allowed to eat pork to save your life. That being said, during the Antiochian persecutions of the second-century b.c.e., the Seleucid authorities tried to get as many Jews as they could to eat pork as part of their plan to destroy Judaism. Pork eating Jews were being proclaimed as having rejected the God of Israel. The casual Jew on the street, upon seeing pious Jews agreeing to eat pork, would conclude that it is ok to simply throw away all of Judaism. As such, it became necessary for there to be truly committed Jews willing to pay the ultimate price to demonstrate that they still followed the God of Israel. If there are some Jews willing to die for kosher then the majority of Jews might still be willing to try to keep kosher even if it is just in their homes.

If the chazerphiles in charge of my school made no attempt to pressure me in participating in chazer-pride and made it clear that I would face no consequences for openly opposing chazer-pride, I would be inclined to be as cooperative as my rabbinic authorities would allow me. What if the school would declare that chazerexuals existed and needed to be supported to the extent that anyone who refused to celebrate chazer-pride by not putting on the chazer-pride logo was guilty of hating chazerexuals? What if I suspected that the chazerphile administrators, in their desire to build a "community for all" and not offer a home to "hatred" of any sort, would retaliate if I refused to wear the chazer-pride logo? If the chazer-pride logo is something so important as to threaten my job over, it must be because the chazerphiles actually have an ideological agenda such as a wish to undermine the keeping of kosher. If observant Jews like me can be bullied into wearing the chazer-pride logo then the less religious will come to the conclusion that it is ok to eat the chazer-pride roasted pig on a spit. 

Under such circumstances, I would feel compelled to actively oppose chazer-pride even if it cost me my job. I may not believe that chazerexuals really exist, but those who claim to be deserve empathy even though should not be encouraged in their delusions. I love and respect chazorphiles and do not wish to stop them from enjoying pork. That being said, I am a Jew and, as a Jew, I am proudly chazerphobic. I oppose Jews eating pork for no rational reason at all. I simply believe that Jews eating pork would not be consistent with the will of the creator and prime mover of the universe. 

 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Racism and the Fundamental Attribution Error


I recently started listening to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s fanfiction series Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality on audible. There is an episode where Harry explains the fundamental attribution error. Living in our own heads, we are inclined to recognize the role that circumstances play in our behavior. I got angry and shouted not because I am a bad person who hates other people but because I just received some really distressing news. If did something good, it is likely because I did not find it so difficult to do so I felt it was my responsibility to offer a hand. When it comes to other people, though, we are less inclined to acknowledge such complexity. Other people act the way that they do because it is fundamentally who they are. Either they are wicked satanic sinners who act out of a conscious hatred of the good or they are heroic saints deserving of veneration. The practical implication of this mistake is that, if you believe that people act according to their fixed nature, then what people do is who they are. A person who does bad things is a bad person. 

It occurred to me that racism can be seen as an extreme version of this fundamental attribution error. Not only is Aleksis, in all of his complexity, going to be reduced to a liar, instead of someone who might shade the truth depending on the circumstances, but now we are going to say that Latvians, an entity that is millions of times more complicated, are liars. It should be noted that the claim that Latvians are liars is an indisputable truth. It may also be true that Jews, Hungarians, and transgender Manhattanites are liars as well along with the entire human race. Let us not get sidetracked here; I am talking about Latvians.  

What is really interesting is that it is not just racists that make this fundamental attribution. To be an anti-racist also requires making the fundamental attribution error. In reading someone like Ibram X. Kendi, one cannot escape the Manichean logic of either you are a racist or an anti-racist. This follows the larger critical tradition as we have seen with Paulo Freire. There is no sense that people say or do things based on particular circumstances. 

It is not practical to truly escape racist or otherwise prejudiced thinking. Everyone has a narrative about why the world is not a better place. This usually implies some sort of villain. Since the problems of this world clearly go beyond the lifespan of any individual person, it is inevitable that people will place some group or institution as their villain such as Latvian Hungarian Jews. If you are Richard Weaver, the big bad is William of Occam and 13th-century nominalism along with minor bads such as 20th-century jazz. One can hope that, with the help of a classical liberal education, a person can come to construct ever more intelligent narratives with factually more plausible groups of villains and even gain a degree of skepticism even over their own narratives. That being said, just as every person shades the truth from time to time, everyone will make reductive statements about other groups that are less than charitable and demonstrate a lack of awareness or empathy of that group's historical circumstances. 

To make things even more difficult, any attempt to make a pro-tolerance statement about a particular group means that you are not making statements about other groups and, as such those groups are of lesser importance. For example, to put up a "Black Lives Matter" sign in your yard is not just to say that black lives matter but to say that, in some sense, black lives matter more than Uighur lives. To be clear, it may be ultimately defensible to argue that black lives may be more relevant to your situation as an American and therefore you have constructed a narrative in which blacks are the victims even as you lack a similar narrative to wrap your head around Uighur history. That being said, this is hardly an innocent claim. 

The anti-racist needs to take all of these very real human foibles and label people as either racists or anti-racists. It is the same temptation as racism to wish to simplify the world into either good or bad people. Clearly, people are not one thing or another. As with every other virtue and vice, people exist along a spectrum and do better or worse depending on the particular circumstance. 

Obviously, the anti-racist cannot denounce say the Trump voter as racist without making themselves vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In the case of Kendi, he holds up Angela Davis as a model anti-racist. This is a person who defended jailing Jewish Soviet dissidents. In a sane world, Kendi could be forgiven for being a non-Jew who never eternalized the history of Jewish suffering into his psyche. If we are to play by Kendi's rules, both Kendi and Davis must be rejected as anti-Semites. 

The traditional leftist solution to this problem is to engage in special pleading. Firstly, only certain kinds of blanket statements regarding racial groups really count as racism. It is not racist to declare white gun owners responsible for a Hispanic teenager going on a shooting spree because white people are responsible for most of the evil in this world as all true anti-racists know. Second, the anti-racist redeems themselves through leftist politics.   

My purpose is not to say that, since everyone is a racist to some degree, it is ok to be racist. The fact that everyone lies and that society requires the grease of some judicious "manipulating of the truth" does not make lying ok. Whether we always know precisely where to draw the line, we can still recognize, at least in theory, a difference between the person who makes the honest attempt to be truthful and the person who no longer holds that they have a moral responsibility to society to tell the truth. Similarly, even if the wheels of society need to be greased with some prejudice, there is a difference between a person who imperfectly tries to still expand their circle of moral responsibility and the person who does not believe that they have moral obligations to members of the "wrong" groups. Can I tell you, in every case, who belongs in what category? I have no wish to fall into the fundamental attribution error any more than I have to. People exist along a spectrum. I will stand up for my imperfect sense of what is right and I will leave it to everyone else to judge their own hearts. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Fighting Star Wars: The Battle That Never Ends


Our first introduction to the deeper lore of Star Wars occurs in New Hope when Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke Skywalker that for thousands of generations the Jedi stood as guardian over the Galaxy until the dark times of the Empire. In essence, once upon a time, the Galaxy was a reasonably good place. The fact that this is no longer the case must therefore be the fault of some villain.

There are clear political implications for this version of galactic history. If only that villain can be removed, the Galaxy will once again become a good place. If only Luke would be willing to abandon his moisture farm, help Obi-Wan rescue Princess Leia, blow up the Death Star with his x-wing, learn to use the Force, and put Darth Vader into a position where he has to choose between betraying Emperor Palpatine or watching his son be tortured to death with force lightening over the course of three movies then the people of the Galaxy will be able to live happily ever after. As such, Luke is morally justified in trying to do these things even though there is only a small chance of success. Furthermore, his actions will lead to a galactic Civil War with a body count escalating presumably into the billions the closer he comes to his goal.

From the Expanded Universe, we learn that Obi-Wan’s version of galactic history has as much validity as what he says about Luke’s father. Instead, the Jedi and the Sith have been locked in a cycle of combat that has gone on for thousands of years. Neither side can ever win this struggle because they are both trapped by their own ideologies. To be a Jedi means to obey the Force and not attempt to use the Force to take over the Galaxy even if it is done to refashion the Galaxy into what they think is a better place. Any Jedi who tries to "fix" the Galaxy by actually trying to eliminate the Sith will inevitably become a Sith Lord themselves. Thus, the cycle will continue even if the Sith Lord in question is defeated. We see this in the examples of Raven, Exar Kun, Ulic Qel-Droma, and Jacen Solo, all of whom become Sith Lords themselves precisely because they tried to fight the Sith. It is the Sith who believe in using the Force to refashion the Galaxy in their own image. So, anyone who tries to directly fight the Sith has already tacitly admitted that the Sith are right about fixing the Galaxy by killing a whole bunch of people. The only thing that remains is accepting that the Sith are also right about the relatively minor details such as wiping out the Jedi and destroying the Republic.  

What limits the Sith and stops them from conquering the Galaxy and destroying the Jedi is simply the fact that they are all a bunch of Sith Lords. They will inevitably stab each other in the back in order to claim the mantle of supreme Sith Lord.

The Sith Lord who understood the best was Darth Bane. He recognized that the Sith could never defeat the Jedi in head-to-head combat no matter their superiority in starfighters or lightsaber duelists. His solution was to wipe out all the other Sith Lords and establish the Rule of Two. There should be a Sith Master and a Sith Apprentice. The purpose of the Master is to train the Apprentice to be powerful enough in the Dark Side to kill them. If the Apprentice fails, they will die and the Master will find a new student. If the Apprentice succeeds, they will become the new Master and be tasked with finding an even more powerful student to kill them in turn. Following this logic, the Sith Lords of the Bane tradition left the Galaxy in the hands of the Jedi for a thousand years until Darth Sidious was able to take ever the Galaxy as Emperor Palpatine by baiting the Jedi into fighting the Clone Wars.

Recognizing that there is no defeating the Sith allows one to put a different twist on the original films. It should be noted that neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda ever bother to directly fight the Empire. Instead, they submit themselves to the will of the Force and trust that the Sith will naturally be their own downfall. (Whatever Disney is planning to do with the Obi-Wan series that does not fit with this should be rejected as a retcon done in the spirit of greed and not out of faithfulness to the original.)  

When Luke comes to him with R2-D2 and the message from Leia, Obi-Wan agrees to leave Tatooine not to fight the Empire but to train Luke in the Force. Rather than fight against Darth Vader, Obi-Wan allows himself to be killed, teaching Luke the pacifist lesson that it is better to allow the Sith to kill you than strike them down and risk becoming a Sith Lord yourself. Obi-Wan guides Luke in destroying the Death Star. This is an act of self-defense and not designed to fix the Galaxy. Of true importance here is that Luke learns to trust the Force to fire the torpedo and not his ship's computer.

Later, in Empire Strikes Back, Luke wishes to go rescue Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids. Both Yoda and Obi-Wan warn him not to go. It is more important that Luke stays in a swamp studying the Force than to try saving his friends on Cloud City as this will likely lead him to the Dark Side. Luke does not listen to this advice and because of this loses his hand. On the plus side, he does gain a father.

Discovering the truth about Vader forces Luke to internalize the lesson that Obi-Wan and Yoda had been trying to teach him. He cannot defeat the Sith in a lightsaber duel. To win such a fight, killing his own father, would actually be a worse outcome than dying as it would turn him to the Dark Side. Luke, though, still wants to help the Rebel Alliance destroy the Second Death Star so he agrees to join Han and Leia on their mission to Endor. Sensing Vader’s presence, finally causes Luke to realize that there is nothing he can do to help the Rebellion. His only option is to surrender to Vader in the hope that he can either convince Vader to run away with him or that both of them would be blown up in the Death Star along with the Emperor when the Rebel fleet arrives. 

Taken before the Emperor, Luke finds himself forced into a fight with Vader that he knows that he cannot allow himself to win. Of course, the Emperor is relying on the fact that Luke is not capable of simply standing back, allowing the Rebellion to be crushed, without trying to swing his lightsaber at something. Even here, Luke tries to avoid fighting Vader until Vader baits him with the possibility that Leia might turn to the Dark Side. Without the Rebellion to use against the Empire, Leia would have no choice but to turn to the Dark Side to continue her fight. That is unless Luke is willing to sacrifice himself to the Dark Side in order to defeat the Empire. While Luke initially gives in (leading to my all-time favorite Star Wars moment as Luke beats down on Vader to somber vocals), he refrains from striking the killing blow. Palpatine tries to seal the deal on Luke's downfall by making sure that Luke murders his father with the full knowledge of the consequences, but this causes Luke to step back. Luke realizes that killing Vader would not do anything to bring down the Empire but would simply make himself Vader’s replacement at the Palpatine’s side. He, therefore, gives himself over to the Force and throws his lightsaber away, knowing that Palpatine is going to kill him. In the end, Luke is saved because he refuses to fight the Sith. Instead, he allows the Sith to destroy themselves as Vader both finds his redemption but also fulfills his duty as a Sith Apprentice to kill his Master.   

This perspective on the original Star Wars films offers us a window on part of what was wrong with the prequels and sequels and how they could have been done better. The prequels should have been about Anakin's fall to the Dark Side. Rather than focusing on Anakin's relationship with Padme, we should have been given Anakin's relationship to Senator Palpatine. (The novelization of Attack of the Clones actually tries to fix this problem.) Anakin should not have gone to the Dark Side suddenly in the second half of Revenge of the Sith out of a desire to save Padme. Instead, Anakin should have spent most of the prequels faced with the problem that the Republic and the Jedi could not save the Galaxy even from petty slave dealers on Tatooine let alone from the Separatists. The only person who can help Anakin is Palpatine. Once Anakin realizes that Palpatine is a Sith Lord, he makes the choice to submit himself to the Dark Side, sacrificing the Republic and the Jedi in order to save the Galaxy. 

In the sequels, having Luke refuse to fight the First Order was fine. That being said, he should not have turned on the Force. Luke's decision not to fight to protect the New Republic should have been what drove Kylo Ren to the Dark Side. He knows that Palpatine is out there and the Republic is not capable of standing up to him. The only solution is to use the First Order to conquer the Galaxy so there is a united Galaxy to fight Palpatine. Kylo Ren is even willing to kill his own father, Han Solo, simply to more fully submerge himself into the Dark Side. He believes that only by giving himself completely to the Dark Side, no matter the personal cost to his soul, can he possibly be able to stand against Palpatine. This would explain his adoration for his grandfather Darth Vader. From his perspective, Vader was the true savior of the Galaxy. He became a Sith Lord to fight that evil from within. 

When Star Wars is at its best, it features not just space battles and lightsabers, but a profound moral question. Is it possible to fight evil without succumbing to it? As with Return of the Jedi, we should see tens of thousands of people fighting in space over Republic or Empire, a few dozen on some mission and it all comes down to one Jedi trying to save himself from becoming a Sith Lord.     

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Walking With Aslan: What Only Art Can Convey

 

In the previous post, I talked about the idea that art is needed to express those things that the artist cannot express in formal words. If the artist really understands what they want to say they should simply come out and say it otherwise what you have is mere propaganda. I wish to further explore this idea. One of the primary things that formal writing cannot express is an emotional connection to an idea. 

Consider the example of Aslan from C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series. On the surface, Aslan is simply a stand-in for Jesus. He is the Son of the Emperor across the sea. He takes on physical form as a lion to come among the animals of Narnia. In the early medieval understanding of the purpose of the passion, Satan had a deal with God where he had the right to all sinners as long as he never took anyone innocent. Jesus came down to Earth and lived a perfect life before being executed. He then tricked Satan into trying to take his soul. By doing this, Satan nullified his agreement with God, allowing Jesus to rescue the souls of all believers from Hell. Similarly, the White Witch has a deal with the Emperor that she has the right to kill all traitors including the human Edmund. Aslan makes a deal that, in exchange for giving up her claim on Edmund, he will take Edmund's place. The Witch kills Aslan. What she does not realize is that killing the innocent Aslan will break the Stone Table upon which her agreement is written and bring Aslan back to life. Aslan is then able to free all the creatures that the Witch had turned into stone. 

If Narnia could be boiled down into Aslan equals Jesus, there would be little point to the books. Lewis could have simply explained the doctrine of atonement in a straightforward child-friendly manner for kids to either accept or reject. What Narnia offers that no lecture on Christian theology could ever possibly convey is that emotional connection to the event. To me, the most profound scene in the entire Chronicles is when Aslan allows Susan and Lucy to accompany him to the Stone Table. There is that moment where Aslan's shoulders slump and asks the girls to put their hands on him. It is as if even the mighty Aslan struggles with the enormity of what he is about to do. The reader then joins the girls in surprise and horror as Aslan allows himself to be captured, humiliated, and murdered. We get to experience their despair, seeing that everything is now lost, followed by their joyous surprise to see Aslan standing alive before them with the Table broken. 

This emotional connection to the drama of the Cross is a central concept for Christian art. One thinks of the example of Michelangelo's Pieta. One of my personal favorites is the hymn Stabat Mater, which contemplates Mary's suffering at the foot of the Cross. 


This is not something that you can argue someone into. The biggest challenge to faith, even above any intellectual arguments, is the simple fact that even children raised within a particular religious tradition are still cut off from its artistic culture. You can give a kid all the Sunday school lectures in the world, but it is not going to help unless they are emershed within Christian art so they could contemplate the living faith that could compel an artist to produce such work. Narnia is not a trick to get kids to read about Jesus and make him look cool. It is an invitation to emersh oneself within a larger Christian artistic tradition where the mourning of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday are not just theoretical concepts to be believed in but tangible realities to be felt. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Hitchhiking Pilgrim's Guide to Progressing through the Multiverse

 

I recently finished reading an advanced copy of the Postmodern Pilgrim's Progress by Kyle Mann and Joel Berry of the satire site Babylon Bee. As satirists, I take them very seriously. Whether or not conservatism has a future is going to come down to whether the next generation of conservative activists have properly internalised what the Bee offers. As a reviewer, I come to this newest offering of theirs from a fairly unique perspective. I am a Jew who has read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, C. S. Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress as well as Douglas Adams. 


In essence, what Mann and Berry have given us is the Bunyan classic if it has been written by a Christianized Adams. In the role of the pilgrim Christian, we have the unbeliever Ryan Fleming, who agrees to attend a church service because of a last request from his teenage younger brother who died of cancer. Ryan then finds himself transported into another world called the Dying Lands where he is given a quest to wake the king and save the world. As Bunyan's original has a companion named Faithful, who helps keep him on the right path, Ryan is joined by a woman named Faith. All of this is told by an angelic narrator who is essentially the Book from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Ryan is modeled after Arthur Dent. He is a perfectly normal unexceptional person who finds himself in an insane world and insists on being his reasonable self. For example, he tries to point out to the people in the City of Destruction that, if they bothered to look up into the sky, they would see a storm of meteorites coming to destroy them and is frustrated when everyone continues eating their bread and cheese. (Granted, Ryan does find the bread and cheese to be quite marvelous and almost fails to escape himself.)  


Jordan Peterson argues that true art requires that the artist has an idea but one that they cannot directly put into words. If the artist understands the message they wish to convey then they should come outright and say it. If the artist consciously tries to smuggle a message into a story then what they have is propaganda and the inherent dishonesty of the process undermines its artistic value. What makes the original Pilgrim's Progress work, despite the fact that it is a Puritan sermon crammed into story form, is that it is so blatant and earnest as to be above the charge of guile. 


Bunyan's message that he makes no attempt to dress up is the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. To understand it is to recognize that it is a horrific doctrine that no one would willingly accept unless they were forced to through divine revelation or the reading of scripture. You are a totally depraved sinner and there is no action that you can perform that can make you less deserving of eternal damnation. That being the case, Jesus still died to save you despite your fundamental unworthiness of salvation. To be justified through faith means to walk that tightrope and simultaneously believe both of these things at the same time. 


Christian's primary struggle in the early stage of his journey is with this balancing act. He comes to know that he is a sinner living in the City of Destruction by reading a book written by the creator of the world that tells him this fact. Christian, therefore, abandons his wife and children even to the point of covering his ears and shouting "eternal life" as he runs away from them. Evangelist tells him to stay on the road to the Celestial City as that is the only way he will eventually be able to be relieved of his burden of sin. What repeatably gets Christian off of the path is the temptation to believe that there might be an alternative way to escape his burden, such as following the Law, or despairing of ever being redeemed. 


The purpose of Bunyan is not to convince us to accept justification by faith by making it sound attractive or reasonable. On the contrary, Bunyan wants us to recognize that we need to accept this belief no matter how much it violates our every moral intuition simply because it is true. It also should be noted that Christian's struggle is not over his belief in God. The king's existence is an assumed fact. The only question is whether he can internalize the logic of justification by faith so that it carries him all the way to the end.  


This can be contrasted with Lewis, whose John utterly rejects the Landlord. It is not so much that John does not believe in the Landlord, though he is relieved when Mr. Enlightenment informs him that the Landlord was invented by the stewards, but that John rejects the sort of relationship the Landlord offers where, if you follow his rules, and you can live in his house with him forever but if you violate the rules you will be sent to his scorpion pit. John does his best to keep away from anything connected to the Landlord. His primary companion is Vertue (Kant) who insists on not caring whether the Landlord with his bribes and threats might exist. Instead, John seeks to find his island (joy). What John slowly is forced to accept is that, if he wants to cross the canyon of Peccatum Adae and reach his island, he is going to need the Landlord in the form of Mother Kirk.


In essence, Lewis was a 19th-century style romantic who came to accept that, in order to salvage this romanticism, he needed to ground it within a Christian worldview. Jesus, for Lewis, was all the best of mythology made real in human history. Lewis was not interested in the question of salvation let alone whether one could be saved through faith or works.




The big question for Lewis was whether one could maintain the enchanted worldview in the face of modernity that would allow someone to relate to God as a real individual as opposed to a mere theoretical proposition. Part of the appeal of Lewis, unlike Bunyan, is that his writing was designed to not antagonize readers. Anyone, even a Jew like me, could embrace Lewis as an exercise in attempting to maintain, with a straight face, that there is more to the universe than simple materialism. 


Lewis was a fundamentalist, not in the modern sense of holding particularly conservative theological views but in the sense of the early twentieth-century Christian Fundamentals pamphlets. Lewis was not interested in rehashing the early modern debates within Protestantism and ultimately with Catholicism, but in offering a few basic principles for a wide spectrum of Christians to rally around, what Lewis referred to as "mere Christianity." For Lewis, this primarily meant accepting that the God-Man had entered history in the person of Jesus in a completely factual and literal sense.  

 

With this in mind, we can begin to explore a major challenge of using Adams to make Bunyan work for a modern audience. The key to translating Bunyan is that there is no way that you can make him acceptable to most modern readers. Considering the amount of time that he spent in prison, it is not as if his message was all that acceptable to seventeenth-century ears.  


Bunyan was too earnest to do satire. I do not read Pilgrim's Progress as any kind of absurdist comedy. The book needs to be read with full salvation or damnation seriousness. The only thing absurd is why would a sinner like Christian be given so many chances to get back on the road when he did not even deserve to make it out of the City of Destruction. By contrast, Lewis can be seen in a comic light as wished to mock his own highly roundabout path to Christianity and he offers a romp through modern philosophy. 


Absurdity was something essential to Adams and it connected to his atheism. His point was not the conventional Dawkins style atheist polemic to render religion as absurd and atheism rational. Rather, he embraced a world that was absurd. The question then becomes, if the world is absurd no matter which way you turn, might it make more sense to accept a world that is absurd in its lacking of meaning than one where there are beings in charge who are ridiculous. 


Mann and Berry struggle with striking the right tone in their writing and ultimately in finding the purpose of their book. The book could have been a self-acknowledging satire of themselves as the kinds of people who read Adams and yet have somehow remained religious Christians. Alternatively, it could have served as a vehicle for the authors to explore something about their worldview that defies straightforward exposition. Much of the strength of the Babylon Bee is that it captures certain truths that could only be expressed by satire. If readers take nothing else from the Bee it should be the simple question of how is it that a satire site consistently offers a more thoughtful analysis of the world than CNN.  


The Postmodern Pilgrim offers some genuinely excellent moments with ideas that are best expressed through the surreal allegory of Pilgrim's Progress. The random people getting killed by falling meteorites in the City of Destruction offer a powerful response to Ryan's struggle with theodicy. We are tempted to turn the unfairness of children dying against God when it should cause us to contemplate the fact that we may randomly die at any time. People living in the time of Bunyan had a certain spiritual advantage over us as they were constantly confronted with dead children. There could be no pretense that life on Earth could be perfected as an end in itself. 


We have one of the best versions of the Devil since Screwtape. There is this delightful ambiguity to him because he tempts Ryan with what Ryan honestly wants, mainly to escape his miserable situation and get back home to his life. Ryan's Arthur Dent personality works well in these scenes. He knows better than to make an agreement with the Devil yet also sees nothing wrong with just talking to the Devil and struggles to say no when the Devil turns out to be so unfathomably reasonable. 


Similarly, there is Ryan and Faith's visit to Urbina. Readers of the original will be familiar with Faithful's martyrdom in the city of Vanity Fair, which is modeled after Jesus' passion. As such, the narrator offers the spoiler that Faith is going to die. Even though I was expecting Faith's death, how it is done still managed to be poignant. 


What I loved is how the authors make use of the issue of abortion with Humanist demanding that the travelers murder a child as the price of staying in the city. The scene captures why abortion is so important for religious conservatives. Living in a secular society that offers ever greater material comfort and seems to also make moral progress all without religion, where does one find the moral grounding to resist? If a person can truly see a fetus as a living being then the moral authority of modern secularism simply collapses. At the center of secular society is the mass murder of children. Without this murder of children, secular society, with women being able to pursue careers and sexual fulfillment as opposed to family and children, would not be practical. If people on the left demand that conservatives deny that abortion is murder and instead celebrate abortion as a constitutional right and as the liberating act of a woman freeing her body from the control of patriarchal society as the price of being accepted into secular society, then conservatives need to accept that they cannot be part of that society.  


This is a good book that makes for a fun read whatever your religious beliefs. I think it could have been a better book if the authors had been willing to spend the time giving it a more consistent narrative. The angel fails as a character because he does not advance the narrative and ends up as a distraction. One should not confuse making references to popular culture with actually being funny. The final meeting with the king certainly suffers as a McGuffin. Perhaps, instead of writing The Postmodern Pilgrim as a book, the authors could have used the travels of Ryan and Faith as a regular feature of the Babylon Bee where the Devil could offer us updates on their travails and progress.