Monday, June 29, 2020

Frederick Douglass Needs to Go



Frederick Douglass, as part of his post Civil War career advocating for blacks to be granted the vote, said some problematic things regarding Native Americans and burned some bridges with former suffragette allies. For example, he argued that blacks were eager to embrace American culture as opposed to Native Americans, who he saw as inherent outsiders. These were not innocent comments as the 1870s were the height of the American government's attempt to destroy Native American culture everywhere on the continent. In regards to woman having the vote, Douglass argued that it was not a priority as women were already covered by their husbands and fathers. This was in contrast to blacks for whom the vote was a literal matter of life and death.

It seems that Douglass did this on pragmatic grounds. He recognized that there was a large segment of American public opinion that could be brought around to supporting blacks voting as long as it was decoupled from rights for Native Americans or votes for women. Even better, you could convince such people that blacks were natural allies against Native Americans or women's suffrage.

To my friends back in Silver Spring, MD. There is a statue of Frederick Douglass at the University of Maryland College Park campus. Douglass grew up as a slave in Maryland before he escaped to freedom. He did not return until after the Civil War. If you are not charging down this very moment to College Park to tear down that statue, you implicitly endorse the genocide of Native Americans and patriarchy. If you do try to tear that statue down, you are endorsing slavery.

My advice is to take counsel from Martin Luther and John Calvin. There is no way that you can truly be anti-racist here. No matter what you choose, you are a Nazi. I know that many of you, brought up to believe that you could be a good tolerant person through your own efforts, will find this thought disturbing. Once you can get past your initial horror at the idea that you are just as bad as Hitler, there is a great comfort. First, your attempts to be tolerant were always doomed to fail anyway. Worse, all that they were ever going to do was add the sins of hypocrisy and self-deception to your racism. Now that you know that there is nothing you could have ever done to make yourself a less racist person, you can save yourself a lot of heartache by not trying. This has the advantage of making you a less annoying self-righteous Pharisee to everyone around you. 

If you are a Lutheran you still have to work having faith in Jesus. You do this by openly admitting that you are such an irredeemable racist that only Jesus can save you. You must go so far as to be bold in your racism because you have full confidence that it does not matter as Jesus has already atoned for you. If you are a Calvinist, your job is much easier. You can completely relax as God has already decided, before creation, whether or not he was going to send you to Hell for all eternity for your racism. 

On a serious note, the social contract begins when we recognize that all of us are truly terrible people who have been complicit in mass murder. Justice demands that all of us should be executed for our crimes. The social contract allows everyone to be forgiven for their crimes. You will not get equality. There will still be systemic racism and all kinds of privilege. The good news is that you will be able to keep your lives. Those who claim "No Justice, No Peace" have never seriously considered what justice truly means. The only way to have peace is to reject justice.


Friday, June 12, 2020

Burn the Heretic


Some of you might think Tucker Carlson is a racist. I am afraid to tell you that he is something much worse.




At about the eight-minute mark Carlson states: "No child is born evil. Sin cannot be inherited. That's insane." What kind of Christian is Carlson? Of course, children are born evil and inherit sin. That is literally what Original Sin is. As a descendant of Adam, Carlson is tainted by Adam's sin. From the moment Carlson was born (or possibly since the sexual act of his parents in conceiving him), even before he ever told his first lie or lusted after a woman in his heart, he was a sinner. The only thing that is keeping Carlson from burning in Hellfire for all eternity is if he accepts the fact that Jesus Christ died on the Cross for him. This means surrounding all hope or pretense that he could ever deserve salvation through his own merit.   

The moment Carlson allows himself to reject Original Sin and believe that children are good even for one second of their lives, he must admit the possibility that there could have been someone, besides Jesus, who lived their entire lives without sin. For example, someone who died as an infant. This negates Jesus' sacrifice. Why should God have sent his Son down to die? God should simply have told regular people that they should have been perfect like that infant who died and, therefore, are now going to Hell.

This rejection of Original Sin endangers the salvation of all. Think of all the conservative Jews who watch Carlson. Having been told by a supposed Christian that non-sinful humans can exist, they will still hold on to a shred of hope that they could be saved through the Law and will not accept Jesus as their Savior, delaying his Second Coming. 

Good Christians cannot stand back and allow Pelagian heresy to destroy this country. There is no need to boycott his show. Unless Carlson and repents from his heresy, we should do to him what our forefathers from Geneva did to his spiritual ancestor, Michael Servetus.  

The Logic of Confessing to Be a Racist (or a Witch)





Here is an example of the kind of thing that scares me about the current state of racial discourse in this country. On the surface, these celebrities are coming out for important issues, sensitivity to others, opposing racism and stopping police violence. I agree with them on all of these issues. One might even say that I agree with them so much that I should ignore objections to some of the wording. These are clearly, passionate people whose hearts are in the right place.

What I see, though, is an attempt to confess to racism as a means of protecting oneself from the charge of racism. This is not taking responsibility for injustice in our society. If it were, these actors would be donating the vast majority of their salaries to charity. This looks like Pontius Pilating oneself and allowing other people, not as privileged, to take the fall for an absurd charge, mainly that if you told a joke that did not go over well or refrained from denouncing someone else, you are responsible for cops shooting black people in the street. What makes this line of thinking so convincing is that these privileged white celebrities seem to be admitting to their own role in this process and confessing. One might think that if they are admitting that they used to be at least a little bit complicit in racism then it must be true and this country must be awash in racism.
Any attempt to counter this argument by saying that it is ridiculous to claim that "black people are being slaughtered in the streets" opens one up to the accusation of covert racism. A true anti-racist would know not to get caught up in semantics in the face of the larger important truth that American society is racist. These celebrities care so much about racism that they are willing to say things that racists will jump on as factually incorrect. If they were interested in looking good, they would have been more precise with there words. Of course, only a racist would try to question whether some of the rhetoric is over the top in order to cause people to doubt whether racism is really a problem.

This line of thinking becomes significantly less convincing when you realize that it is the basic model of confession from witch trials. You are accused of something absurd like having sex with the Devil. Of course, the real charge is not a satanic orgy but whether or not you support the witch-finders' claim that eccentric and difficult old ladies are really witches in disguise. From this perspective, not only are these people really satanic but anyone who questions this fact is also with Satan. The witch-finders are such godly men that they open themselves to the mockery of skeptics, who are also secret Satanists. If the witch-finders were in it for themselves, they would have moderated their claims to make themselves sound more reasonable even at the price of not baiting the true witches into revealing themselves.

The fact that a witch trial is not really about factual guilt but about supporting the right team allows the witch-finder to argue that even innocent people should confess. Either you are guilty of witchcraft or you are not. If you are guilty then obviously you should confess and name other people. We will then forgive you as we are good Christians. If you are not guilty, you should still confess and name the people we tell you to name because that is what a truly innocent person who is really on our side would do. Denying that you are a witch is actually worse than being a witch. A witch who confesses at least is showing remorse. Claiming you are innocent simply means that not only are you a witch but an obdurate one at that who deserves to die. Your plan, even if it costs you your life, is to cause people to question whether or not there really are witches, allowing Satan to act unchecked. This is in contrast to the confessed witch who offers "undeniable" proof that witches exist. Why would someone confess to being a witch if they were innocent?

If this sounds implausible to you that the modern people untainted by superstition could operate like this understand that the Stalinist show trials ran on this logic. The Party, under the leadership of Comrade Stalin, has accused you of betraying the Revolution and of being a foreign agent. You deny this? Are you claiming that the Party made a mistake? That is even worse. You are denying the very essence of revolutionary solidarity and not just giving in to momentary treason out of greed and pride.

It has been suggested that many of the victims of the Stalinist purges consciously martyred themselves by confessing to ludicrous charges. They confessed and died rather than provide ammunition to opponents to anti-Communists who claimed that the Soviet Union was a tyrannical state that arrested innocent people. Instead, these former Communist leaders died to help strengthen the people's faith in the Party that it was always right even when it appeared to be wrong. Ultimate faith is when you declare your belief in something that so defies reason that only a person who has totally submitted their minds to the authority of a particular institution could successfully do it. You may have a difficult time believing that revolutionary heroes could be traitors but you know to have faith in the Party. And then, lo and behold, the accused confess. It must be true. Why would innocent people confess? You see, the Party is always right.

One of the signs of a witch hunt is that it quickly becomes clear that the issue at stake is not about particular facts on the ground but whether or not you are on the right side of some Manichean struggle. Unlike those on the Left who literally believe we are in danger of falling into a Fascist state and that if you disagree with their approach to handling racism, you are guilty of racism, I do not believe that Leftists are necessarily crypto-Stalinists nor do you have to agree with me on much of anything to not be a mass murderer. I believe that the world is a lot more complicated than good people who are on my side and the bad people who are not. There is no pledge of allegiance that you can say that will make you one of my good guys nor is there a confession you can offer that will take away the taint of being one of my bad guys. The good news is that you are not in danger of suddenly falling from my good graces. You are allowed to be a person doing the best they can with the limited amount of information and attention you have.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

I Am Traditionally Observant, Not Orthodox: My Religious Evolution (Part I)


In discussing how I went from being a conservative to being a libertarian, the critical subtext was my religious identity, which itself changed in ways that mirrored my political journey. It seems worthwhile to explicitly set forth that side of the story. Just as my high school self did not realize that he was not a conventional conservative, he did not realize that he was not Haredi. As he moved left religiously as he did politically in college, he was no longer able to ignore this fact. That being said, much as I never made a clean break with conservatism and my libertarian turn was an attempt to rebel without any desire to leave, my religious thinking has been dominated the simultaneous intellectual rejection of Haredi Orthodoxy and emotional desire to remain within the fold.

In retrospect, I was precisely the kind of kid one would expect to abandon the observance of Judaism. I did not fit in with yeshiva schools. Whether it was the Chabad Yeshiva of Pittsburgh in middle school or Torah Vodaath and the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in high school, I had a terrible relationship with my classmates and was actively bullied. Granted, this likely had more to do with my then undiagnosed autism than with Haredi Orthodoxy. (I first heard about Asperger Syndrome from my father at the end of high school but did not get a diagnosis until graduate school.)

Furthermore, I was an academically gifted kid with no interest in Gemara. Worse, by the time I reached high school, I developed a mental block for the subject to the extent that the several hours a day, I was forced to spend on the topic were a complete waste of time for me that I spent mostly starring into space and twiddling my thumbs. 

It was not as if the idea of abandoning observance was unthinkable. I had ready examples in my older brother and my mother, who both stopped being religious during this time. It was not as if this poisoned my relationship with them. So, why did I not end up like them? One factor was that neither of them had the kind of influence over me as my father, who stood for me as a model for me as to what it meant to be a sane and reasonable religious person. I saw the Haredi world through the lens of my father and never considered that he was a highly sui generis individual. 

With my mother, one could say that not being religious was good for her emotional health. For this reason, I never held a grudge against her for her actions. That being said, I never really imagined that I would be happier if I were not religious. The reason for this, and this is the crucial point here, is that I never felt wronged by the system and bore no grudges. Even if I was bullied by other students, the rabbis were always good to me. 

This marks a major difference between me and my brother. His yeshivas refused to allow him to consume secular media and threw him out when he did not comply. He was wronged by the system and was, therefore, justified in outright rebelling. By contrast, I was treated with great leniency. For example, when I was at Torah Vodaath, the dorm counselor wrote me a note to allow me to get a library card at the Brooklyn Public Library. Noone stopped me from reading books like The Godfather, Exorcist, and Pyscho. And it is not like I even had to hide the books. I had them out openly to see. An older friend objected to my reading a biography of Mother Teresa. Beyond that, no one said a word to me or tried to confiscate any of these books. 

I honestly had no idea that I was doing anything wrong even from the perspective of the school administration. This gave me a sense that there were different kinds of Haredi Jews. Some preferred to avoid secular books. I could understand why secular knowledge might not be good for everyone. And then there were Haredim like me whose strength was precisely in secular matters. We were all working together as part of the Torah camp. 

Even now, I do not think I was completely wrong on this point. The Haredi world is perfectly equipped to tolerate eccentric individuals with with peculiar interests, including secular books. For example, a Haredi relative once told me that he thought there was something about my soul that I needed to read things like Shakespeare. This position works as long as the individuals in question are personally observant and never organize themselves around any kind of movement with an ideology. 

So, I could have been an eccentric Haredi with an autodidact's academic education. As long as noone kicked me out or made me feel unwelcome, I was going to try to work within the system. If I had intellectual disagreements and doubts, I was going to work through them. Listening to Rabbi Avigdor Miller tapes in my room so I could yell at him did not challenge my faith because I honestly believed that I was the mainstream Haredi Jew and he was a lunatic cult leader. Haredim were people like my father. He did not raise me with Avidor Miller Judaism so it could not really be Haredi. I readily grant that it is the mark of insanity to insist that everyone else is driving on the wrong side of the road and that I, to this very day, have a particular talent for such arguments. Clearly, I was not looking for a reason to leave. On the contrary, I was set on finding a reason to stay.  

It probably helped that the Torah Vodaath dorm was not designed for policing the actions of a non-post-high school kid, from outside of New York who never had been made to feel guilty about reading books. Almost by definition, if you were a post-high school student there, you already bought into the school's ideology and did not need to have the rules explained or be forced to follow them. It probably also helped that, as both my father and grandfather were alumni of the school, the name Chinn commanded a certain respect. My brother had the misfortune of going to schools with no connection to the Chinn family, designed to police the actions of high school students and expel those who refused to comply.

There are two important lessons, I believe, that Jewish educators should take from my story. First, there needs to be a track for academically gifted kids that does not involve Gemara. You cannot have Gemara for every boy unless they are drug addicts in danger of falling prey to the streets. Second, do not underestimate the importance of making kids feel that Judaism is their home in which they are loved and accepted for who they are. I would even say that this is even more important than offering apologetics. I was a pretty intellectual kid but if my teachers had tried to convince me that Torah was true, I would have rebelled. Instead, I was offered a place in which I felt accepted. I did not need anyone to defend Judaism for me because I was already prepared to do it myself. Of course, Haredi Judaism was true. I was a good smart kid and I was Haredi so how could it be wrong? 

(To be continued ...) 



  

Monday, April 20, 2020

Can There Be a Video Game Too Immoral to Play?



In a Jonathan Haidt style exercise of asking disturbing moral questions that people feel strongly about even as they are unable to defend their positions, I asked a student of mine whether it is possible for there to be a video that would be immoral to play. He immediately jumped on the obvious liberal utilitarian response of no; simply playing a game, by definition, cannot, in of itself, harm anyone so it can never be immoral.

Level One: Wolfenstein 3D.




This classic game involves running around and systematically shooting people and dogs, who scream and produce pools of highly pixelated blood. Of course, the people you are shooting are Nazis (I guess the dogs are innocent) so pretending to commit mass murder is, perhaps, defensible.

Level Two: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR).




It is a feature of a number of Star Wars games that you can choose to turn to the Dark Side. This means that instead of light-sabering and blasting your way through stormtroopers (the moral equivalent of Nazis) you can murder innocent people on your path to becoming the Sith Lord ruler of the galaxy, bringing misery to trillions of beings.




In defense of KOTOR, the violence here is safely out of the realm of reality. None of us can use the Force (let alone become Sith Lords) or lightsabers. Perhaps, the distance from actual mass murder is enough that pretending to commit such horrors is not in bad taste.

Level Three: Grand Theft Auto (GTA).

GTA allows you to play a street-level criminal. You can commit crimes ranging from selling drugs to running over the prostitutes of a rival pimp and shooting police officers. Unlike Sith Lord, this is a plausible career choice for players. This raises the question of whether GTA encourages violence. Alternatively, a person who likes GTA is at least signaling that he might wish to behave like this in real life. Clearly, a game like GTA forces our utilitarian to hunker down on his insistence that direct physical harm should be relevant. He is particularly vulnerable here it is hardly obvious that banning the game would not reduce crime. By insisting on only direct harm, our utilitarian is showing that it is his liberal convictions that dominate.

Level Four: Racial Violence

It is my understanding that neo-nazis and others of that ilk have produced games that allow players to fight a race war against blacks, Jews, other "undesirables." Imagine a game where you can shoot your way through a black church and then burn it down with small children inside.

My student conceded that such a game would be immoral to play though he could not offer a reason why pretending to murder black people in church should be wrong while pretending to murder cops is ok. It cannot be simply that playing a racist game is itself racist and not just pretend racism. To be ok with shooting cops in a game also demonstrates a lack of concern for the lives of cops, particularly to the extent that you are not ok with shooting blacks in a game.

The stakes here are very high and not just for video games. Once we acknowledge that there are some things so horrible that you should not even pretend to do them, much of literature becomes endangered. Plato famously wanted to ban the Homeric epics on account of their immoral behavior. In defense of Plato, the fact that Achilles and Odysseus make lies, murder, and sexual assault appear respectable, arguably makes the Illiad and the Odyssey a greater moral threat to society than a racist video game.

I agree with my student that there is an important line between GTA and racist violence games. If I were to defend this position, I would argue that even pretend racist violence is out of bounds because it violates a kind of social contract in ways that regular pretend violence does not. Chris Caldwell argues that the 1964 Civil Rights Act created a new constitution with the power to trump even the actual Constitution. Similarly, we can see American whites after the Civil Rights Movement agreeing to a new social contract with blacks. Since blacks had the moral high ground due to the fact that America's history of slavery and segregation was particularly embarrassing during a period of post-colonialism and the Cold War, they could demand not only technical legal equality but also that the American narrative should be reimagined to place the struggle over racism at the center. Blacks got to become an essential part of the American story and not just inconvenient historical quirk. Liberal whites got to be the whites who fought for equality. Now for a white person to now be a "good American" they must actively present themselves as active opponents of racism.

Part of what made this new social contract possible is that whites consistently underestimate the difficulty of living up to their end of it. It is easy to condemn racism as something other less enlightened people do. Truly opposing racism is actually quite impossible. For a white person to argue that they are free from racism is to demonstrate that they are actually racist as they fail to appreciate the true centrality of racism. To the extent that any white person can escape the taint of racism, it loses some of its centrality and reduces the relevance of blacks.

To be white in America is to be Tantalus, ever reaching for that reasonable goal of not judging people by the color of their skin and hoping that black people will give them absolution. If we only denounce other white people slightly less embedded within this narrative then that absolution can be ours. This game gains its highly seductive power precisely because it appears so reasonable. Racism is real and it should be denounced. Reasonable people should be able to agree that certain things, particularly within the context of the real horrors of American history, should not be said or done. So only a "racist" could reject this process. For example, I oppose the use of blackface and the n-word. I oppose Trump largely because he empowers genuine racists. Does this protect me against the charge of racism? To believe that it might would demonstrate that I am, in fact, a secret racist.

From this perspective, playing a racist game raises a different question from playing a murderer. For the American post Civil Rights narrative to function, we must see the murder of blacks as different from other kinds of murder to the extent that we would take racist murder as something personal that strikes at our very being. Anything else demonstrates that we do not truly buy into the notion that racial struggle is central to American identity or worse that we take the white-supremacist side. Regardless of how we really feel about a racist game, it is of even greater importance that we condemn other people for being open to playing such games. Who can resist the opportunity to earn a little absolution for racism at so little cost by taking a stance against a hypothetical game?

There is a certain irony here. Freedom of expression is an intrinsic part of American identity. As such, it would be considered un-American to condemn the playing of a game even one that advocates murdering prostitutes and cops. To even attempt to argue from the perspective of virtue ethics that such a game could corrupt one's soul simply and that one should at least be bothered by the concept demonstrates that one is not sufficiently embedded within the American notions of freedom of expression. To support censorship when it comes to racist violence becomes a kind of antinomian embrace of American values. You value the new narrative of defining America in terms of the struggle against racism that you are even willing to support censorship, risking your American identity.

As Haidt argues, our moral values are intuitively formed in our emotions and it is left to our intellects to justify our morality after the fact. My objection to racist games is honestly heartfelt. As a product of the post Civil Rights social contract, I was educated to not only oppose racism intellectually but, more importantly, to be horrified at the concept. Any attempt on my part to defend anti-racism on intellectual grounds is bound to feel contrived at best. 

So I put it to my readers, is it immoral to play a racist game as opposed to shooting cops in a game? If so, what intellectual justification are you willing to offer as opposed to strongly worded self-righteousness?




Monday, April 6, 2020

Toward a Meaningful Neo-Liberalism: A Historical Narrative


As a general rule of intellectual honesty, one should try to describe one’s opponents using their language as opposed to using loaded straw man language. This is an extension of the Ideological Turing Test. Can you describe a viewpoint you oppose without it being obvious you oppose it? For this reason, it is, in practice, counter-productive to call people racist or anti-Semitic unless they already embrace those labels for themselves. An extreme example of this problem with labeling is the term “neoliberalism.” While you can fill a library with books on neoliberalism, I know of no neoliberal thinker, someone who self-consciously embraces the label for themselves instead of using it as an epithet against others. Contrast neoliberal with neoconservative. Neoconservatism may have taken a hit with the failure of the Iraq War (which is part of the reason why I abandoned the system) but there still remain proud neoconservatives.

One of the reasons, one needs to stick to what people openly proclaim about themselves is that, without that grounding, it is all too easy to fall prey to conspiracy theories that say more about you than your opponent. Nancy Maclean is the perfect example of this. Her search for a secret agenda makes her incapable of engaging with the thought of the late James Buchanan specifically or of Public Choice in general. Instead, she falls prey to conspiratorial thinking that sounds delusional to anyone not already convinced in the existence of a Koch Brothers plot to take over the world.

This is not a unique problem for people on the left. Consider the state of conservative discourse on Marxism. In the case of Marxism, we are dealing with a concept that continues to attract open self-proclaimed, followers. Furthermore, Marxism, by its very nature, is a conspiracy. More so than any other political ideology, Marxism is not simply a set of beliefs but a methodology for seizing power by any means. Furthermore, Marxists pursue the dishonest strategy of framing their position in terms of their noble intentions as opposed to what they may have to do to bring about those ends. Despite all this being true, it is usually counter-productive to accuse people of being part of a Marxist conspiracy. (For one thing, not all Marxists are conspirators; many are not even political.) Such anti-Marxist thinking will usually backfire on the accusor, trapping them in paranoid delusions. Personally, I think Jordan Peterson is great until he starts talking about Cultural Marxism and equating it with post-modernism. The moment he does this, he stops engaging living people but his own fears. He should stick to Jungian literary analysis and preaching personal responsibility.

I would like to suggest a means to rescue neoliberalism from being a generic conspiratorial term of abuse for those not sufficiently on the hard left. We can us neoliberalism to refer to the political consensus that arose in the 1970s in England and the United States that combined a pro-business skepticism in regards to heavy welfare spending with a warfare mentality abroad and at home.  Underlying this was a cultural Christianity even as the shifts in society made openly theocratic politics implausible.

The key thinker here was William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, who fashioned late 20th-century conservatism as an alliance between social-conservatives, neoconservatives and limited government free-marketers. Getting such different groups to cooperate was possible because all three groups had a perceived common enemy in the 1960s liberal, who wished to use an expansive state to overthrow traditional values and undermine the United States military in order to allow the Soviet Union to win the Cold War. It was this brand of conservativism that defeated the post-war liberal consensus and fashioned a neoliberal consensus in its place.

The United States and England, after the Great Depression and World War II, were dominated by a "New Deal" consensus in which it was assumed the government would take on a greatly expanded role in running the economy and offer a wider range of welfare programs. In England, national healthcare was seen as a reward to the English people for the sacrifices they underwent fighting Nazism. Even if Churchill had been able to stave off the 1945 Labor landslide, there was no way that conservatives could have resisted the popular tide to offer a major state-sponsored safety net.

This did not mean that voters in either country rejected right-wing parties. One of the marks of a political consensus is its ability to draw in even the opposition to the point where, even as they criticize particular points of policy, they accept the fundamental premises behind those policies. This serves the ironic purpose of establishing the consensus as it makes it almost impossible to think outside of it. The Republicans in the United States under Dwight Eisenhower did very well for themselves. That being said, Eisenhower helped entrench the New Deal, perhaps with a more corporate spin. In England, Conservative prime ministers like Harold Macmillan or Ted Heath could succeed by being innocuous managers of the ship of state. Neither of them were ideologues with a vision to counter that of the Labor Party. As such, whether Labor won or lost, it was still Labor's agenda that was going to dominate; the only question conservatives were left with was to what extent specific Labor policies would be implemented.

This post-war consensus in the United States and England were made possible by strong working-class support. This collapsed in the late 1960s and 70s. In the United States, we see white disillusionment with the Civil Rights movement. The parallel for England, perhaps, was the end of the British Empire, which had the ironic result of England bringing the empire home with its liberal immigration policy for those from the former imperial holdings. This undermined a sense of common ethnic identity so important for consensus building. Both the United States and England faced the problem of transitioning to a post-industrial economy. As long as both countries benefited from the post-war economic boom and the optimistic belief that things were improving it was possible to paper over the differences in society, making compromise possible. A growing tax base would be able to pay for an expanding list of programs either in the present or at least in the near future. Without the economic boom and the optimism that it usually generates, such compromise becomes impossible as politics is reduced to a collection of tribes fighting over the remnants of a shrinking pie, each side trying to grab their piece before it is all gone.

Into this gap left by the failed post-war consensus came neoliberalism as represented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Unlike their Conservative and Republican predecessors, they actually had an ideology. Limiting government spending in the name of free-markets served a practical purpose under the economic challenges of the 1970s. It also helped frame neoliberal policies as advancing the cause of freedom through limiting government. It is important to realize that neoliberalism is a product of a wider liberal consensus and, unlike traditional conservatism, was not about to take any kind of principled stand in favor of hierarchy.

Much as neoliberalism was not a defense of any kind of crown, it also rejected the altar of religious authority. As Victorian morality was an attempt to find a justification for religion in a world with Darwinian Evolution and Biblical Criticism, Neoliberalism was a product of the secularization of the public sphere and an acceptance of that reality. Neoliberalism still wished to fight a rearguard action to save religion as a cultural force. Beyond that, religion served to cement the 1960s liberal as the enemy trying to shove secularism down the throats of common folk. Abortion is a good example of this. Making abortion illegal was never a practical goal. Roe vs. Wade was the product of a growing wave to legalize abortion (ironically enough, helped along by then Gov. Reagan of California) even as the Supreme Court's decision counter-productively short-circuited the national conversation. The Court's ham-handed approach gifted neoliberalism by allowing them to campaign less against abortion itself than against Roe. The real story of Roe became liberals trying to force their values on the rest of society and as opposed to a woman's right to choose.   

From the earlier liberal post-war consensus and ultimately the Wilsonian tradition, neoliberalism inherited an activist foreign policy in the name of advancing democracy. Thatcher famously fought the Falklands War in 1982 to hold on to one of the last vestiges of the British Empire even as it served little purpose beyond taking a final stand in the name of Empire. What was different now was that this foreign policy was meant to be pursued in defiance of the hard left who rejected the Western tradition, seeing it as the source for imperialism and racism. So neoliberalism was meant as a war to be fought at home as well as abroad. One manifestation of this was the War on Drugs, which served to establish active drug users (in practice those on the left) as the enemy and gave the police the tools to wage actual war against this enemy.

Up until now, my description of neoliberalism has simply been late 20th century Anglo-American conservatism. Here is the twist; just as the post-war consensus did not keep conservative parties out of office as long as they were willing to play the moderate pragmatists to the dominant liberal ideology, neoliberalism offered a temptation to liberals to gain electoral victory as the moderate pragmatists, cementing neoliberalism as the reigning ideology. From this perspective, a critical part of neoliberalism was the rise of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. They were not a rejection of neoliberalism but the epitome of its power.

Both of these politicians criticized Reagan and Thatcher but from within a certain consensus. So conservatives were to be criticized for running up deficits to support tax cuts for the wealthy. Gone was the romantic notion of a welfare state that could transform society. In its place was an accountant's pragmaticism of getting the maximal utility for the taxpayer's money. Clinton was willing to fight for abortion but he did so from within a consensus that still paid religion cultural deference. Most infamously, he signed the Defence of Marriage Act. Clinton's foreign policy was a continuation of a neoliberal desire to see the United States as the global defender of freedom now being practiced without the Soviet Union as an excuse. Bush's Iraq Invasion in search of weapons of mass destruction was simply an extension of Clinton's use of the American military in a post 9/11 world. It was Blair who was Bush's most important ally in invading Iraq.

Just as the post-war consensus benefited from the post-war economic boom, which granted legitimacy to the dominant government policies, neoliberalism benefited from the computer and internet revolutions of the 1990s. How does one argue with policies that seem to work and seem to be creating a rising tide that should raise all boats? Just as the economic stagnation of the 1970s made the post-war consensus appear suddenly vulnerable, the economic crisis of 2008 made neoliberalism suddenly appear as the emperor with no clothes. The political fallout was slow in coming as the political class remained under its spell long after the general public. Barack Obama came from the same mold of pragmatic neoliberalism as the Clintons. Thus, he framed his policies in anti-Republican terms, ignoring the wider neo-liberal framework.

Donald Trump brought down Republican neoliberalism by demonstrating it lacked a real basis of ideological support. Similarly, David Cameron was brought down by Brexit, which demonstrated that his own Conservative Party base did not support the relatively free-trade and open-border policies of the European Union. Once neoliberalism fell as an ideology within conservative circles, there was no longer a reason for liberals to play pragmatic lip service to neoliberalism either. Hence the rise of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in England.

In the wake of the fall of neoliberalism, Anglo-American politics seems to be turning into a conflict between nationalists and democratic socialists. What the new dominate consensus will be remains to be seen. I suspect that it will be some version of a blatantly extractive state that attempts to bribe its voters with the right and the left simply disagreeing on who should be expropriated and for whose benefit.

From this proposed definition of neoliberalism and this history offered a few things should be clear. I discuss neoliberalism within an Anglo-American context, though I confess that I might be stretching things even to include England. How much more problematic to include other countries? I readily grant that one could draw parallels between Anglo-American neoliberalism and policies in other countries. Those who are more knowledgable than I am regarding non-Anglo-American politics should feel free to make those comparisons as long as they show proper caution. The more you stretch a term, the greater the risk of either distorting the reality on the ground or rendering the word meaningless. One thinks of the problem of talking about "feudal" Japan. Yes, there are certain parallels to Europe but it is risky to push those comparisons too far. Similarly, I do not think it is productive to call authoritarian figures like Augusto Pinochet of Chile or Deng Xiaoping of China neoliberals. Doing so risks distorting the differences between these countries and descending into conspiratorial thinking where Anglo-American neoliberals not only become people plotting to violently undermine democratic norms but also have Elders of Zion capabilities to rule the world.

Even within Anglo-American politics, notice the number of people who should be placed outside of neoliberalism. While Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek were influential figures in the rise of neoliberalism, one should not make a direct link between neoliberalism and libertarianism. Here, the War on Drugs is important. Nor should one equate neoliberalism with neo-confederates or white nationalism. On the contrary, neoliberalism grew out of a world in which open white nationalism was no longer politically viable and its fall has opened that door once again.

Because I have limited the scope of neoliberalism in time and place it appears much less all-powerful and sinister. Neoliberalism was a political ideology espoused by specific people in a specific time and place with a variety of policy positions some of which may or may not appeal to readers. My teenage-self was more supportive of this kind of neoliberalism than I am now. That being said, the fact that whatever is going to replace neoliberalism is likely to be worse, I do confess to being nostalgic for neoliberalism. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Maimonidean Solution to Antinomianism


With the number of religious leaders caught in some kind of sexual impropriety, it should be clear that antinomianism stands as one of the major threats to religion today. Antinomianism provides a spiritual blank check to violate any religious practice and say that not only is it ok but that is a mitzvah. In this, antinomianism should be seen as a virus that turns sins into commandments, hijacking religious faith against itself. Since antinomianism is not a rejection of the faith but its very affirmation, antinomians can piously perform all other commandments. This makes them hard to catch and increases the scandal when they are.

Antinomianism does not require any conspiracies of underground sects with sex rites as in the case of the Frankists. The logic of antinomianism is simply too obvious to anyone who has seriously thought about monotheist religious practice. A perfect God has no need for to you to keep his commandments. (The commands of an imperfect God can be completely ignored.) If I ate the Ultimate Traif Sandwich, God would still be perfect. Furthermore, God could command me to eat such a sandwich without sacrificing an iota of his perfection.

Does God want me to eat kitty stew? The fact that Leviticus and Deuteronomy imply that it is a sin does little to help me. Retreating into legal formalism simply makes the matter worse as it concedes the theological high ground. Since God is infinitely beyond human comprehension, it is impossible to truly fulfill his will by keeping any commandment. In reality, all food is traif as no person could ever eat in a way that replicates God’s perfect will. By eating kitty stew one at least has the virtue of not committing the blasphemy of pretending to fulfill God’s will.

Either I do not understand God’s will or I do. If I admit that I do not understand God’s will than I must remain neutral as to his opinion on kitty stew. If I do understand God’s will than I must be some kind of divine being myself and could never be held to words on a scroll. For a being so divine as me, could we even call it eating? Should we not rather call it the releasing of sparks of holiness trapped in the kitty stew?

The Maimonidean solution is not to challenge these arguments but to change the question. Instead of asking what God wants, a question that no honest monotheist could ever answer, we can ask what actions will benefit Judaism. Assuming that it is a good thing that a Jewish nation and religion continue to exist as vehicles for less false ideas about God, does my eating kitty stew make it less likely that I will be able to pass Judaism on to Kalman and Mackie? Here we are no longer operating in the realm of the divine, but the very human field of sociology. Jewish history offers a fairly convincing case that a Judaism that does not take “kitchen Judaism” seriously will not survive long in a meaningful sense.

I can eat kitty stew and make bracha on it without it negatively impacting my theology. How could kitty stew be more likely to mislead me about the nature of God than some kosher salami? Both are manifestations of materialism and thus both must either inhibit godliness or provide a means to find godliness with equal likelihood. In fact, the kitty stew would more likely benefit me spiritually by helping me get past my concerns about what other people think about me as well as trying to earn brownie points with God so I can make it into his Good Place. The problem with such a religion is that, while it may be incredibly meaningful to an individual, there is no way to pass it on to one's children.

Kitty stew could only be spiritually valuable to someone imbued with a deep love of kosher. It is only someone who honestly believed that his salvation depended upon keeping kosher could, upon reaching a higher spiritual state, realize that it is the exact opposite and then force himself to eat what remains truly repugnant to him. For someone not raised with an absolute commitment to kosher, there is no struggle and no act of keeping kosher, whether in its traditional or antinomian forms. A child raised in such an environment and taught to scorn legalism might appear, at first glance, to be spiritually enlightened. On the contrary, he never even reached the level of keeping kosher let alone transcending it. Without a foundation in the physical law, talk of the spirit is meaningless. A "true antinomian" must struggle with his violation. Anything less is simply discarding the yolk of heaven. 

Much as Maimonideanism can neutralize an academic criticism of Judaism by absorbing its premises into itself, Maimonideanism can, similarly, counter antinomianism not be refuting it but by accepting its premises and offering a different conclusion. One can accept that God is not a being that you can score points with by trying to fulfill his will and still find spiritual fulfillment in Jewish practice enough to try to pass it along to the next generation. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Of Hobbits and Muggles: A Study in Fantastical Creatures


To Kalman and Mackie, my Wizard and Hobbit. 



J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series both open by introducing us to a fantastical race of beings. Tolkien gives us Hobbits and Rowling gives us Muggles. One might respond, Hobbits are make-believe beings who live in the fantasy land of the Shire in Middle Earth. Muggles are simply humans who live on Earth so it is silly to compare them to Hobbits. On the contrary, the problem is comparing Hobbits to Muggles. One of Tolkien's chief virtues over Rowling is precisely that it is the Hobbits that are truly believable while it is Muggles who require the suspension of disbelief. What makes this possible is Tolkien's love for Hobbits in contrast to Rowling's contempt for Muggles.

"The Boy Who Lived" chapter is different from most of the rest of the Potter series in that most of it takes the perspective of Uncle Vernon. Baby Harry does not enter the stage until the very end. The rest of the series is told from Harry's point of view. Our knowledge of the Wizarding world is meant to closely match Harry's and much of the books' plots revolve around Harry trying to find things out. Vernon and the Dursleys are held out as the Muggles par excellence. They are a stereotype of 1950s bourgeois conformity who have somehow managed to survive into the 1990s. As with Dickens' villains, we can laugh at the absurdity of the Duriksleys and their cruelty but let us never confuse that with reality. Wizards are introduced to us as hippies, complete with eccentric tastes in clothes.

Mr. Dursley couldn't bear people who dressed in funny clothes - the getups you saw on young people! He supposed this was some stupid new fashion. ... his eyes fell on a huddle of these weirdos standing quite close by. ... Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren't young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak! The nerve of him! (3)

Later, when Harry is living with the Dursleys, one of Vernon's main objections to him is his hair.

About once a week, Uncle Vernon looked over the top of his newspaper and shouted that Harry needed a haircut. Harry must have had more haircuts than the rest of the boys in his class put together, but it made no difference, his hair simply grew that way - all over the place. (21)

As readers, we are never meant to identify with Muggles like the Dursleys. I do not know about you but I am not a Muggle. I am a Wizard who did not get his letter to Hogwarts when he turned eleven due to a bureaucratic snafu. I may be thirty-seven years old but I still am waiting for that letter that is rightfully mine and, when I do, everyone will finally realize how special I am. Here is where the series’ focus on Harry as the point of view character becomes important. Harry’s discovery of the Wizarding world becomes ours. Hagrid is showing up with our letter of acceptance and taking us to Diagon Alley. Potter's greatest strength was that it offered a magical world just out of reach that readers would desperately want to be a part of.

The dark side of this is a contempt for ordinary people, Muggles. We readers always knew we were different from the Muggles around us; we read books. We might not be able to tap the right brick to enter the Wizarding world but we can still look down upon the Muggles around us. This is ironic as the bad guys hate Muggles in general and Muggle-borns (Mudbloods) in particular. Were it not for the fact that the Death Eaters are clearly Nazis with their obsession with racial purity, readers could easily become confused as to whose side they should be on. (To Rowling's credit, the later books show a sophisticated understanding as to how a society could fall to Nazism.)

One of the advantages of being on the left is that you are granted a license to hate anyone who you decide is a racist. In practice, this means anyone not sufficiently on the left. This is not counted as hate. On the contrary, it is standing up for justice for all. This makes leftism the ultimate enabler of hate as a true leftist can never conceive of themselves as guilty of hate. In a similar vein, readers are never meant to question their hatred of the Dursleys even if Dudley finally shows some flicker of humanity in the end. On the contrary, we can take a righteous pleasure in our hatred; they deserve whatever pranks the Wizards pull on them. We are never meant to see any link between our response to the Dursleys and that of a Death Eater. 

It is worth noting that the recent Fantastic Beast films have introduced a positive Muggle character, Jacob Kowalski. What is so great about Kowalski and what makes him a necessary corrective for the series is that he is not simply a fall guy to get magical poop on his head. He is someone that the audience can deeply empathize with as well as a voice that the wizarding world needs. It is not for nothing, he gets the beautiful wizard girl in the end.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how Potter has inspired a generation of young activists with its anti-authoritarianism. I never read Potter as truly subversive of authority considering how much of the story rides on our willingness to trust in Dumbledore's wisdom and goodness despite his numerous mistakes. (To be clear, I consider Dumbledore's flawed sainthood and the need of Harry to still believe in him to be one of the strong points of the series. Rowling, in the later books, chose to make a point of Dumbledore’s fallibility instead of covering it up. Contrast this with how Stars Wars handled Yoda even as Yoda is far more guilty in the creation of Darth Vader than Dumbledore is in creating Voldemort.) My less charitable interpretation of how Potter has inspired a generation of youth activism is that it trained children to believe that they were special and to be self-righteous about it. They are Wizards forced to live among horrible Muggles with nothing worthwhile to teach them. Through activism, their magic specialness will become manifest. To be fair to Rowling, she has been a brave voice of sanity on the left for her willingness to defend Israel, attack Jeremy Corbyn, and leave herself vulnerable to the malice of supporters of transgenderism. That being said, I cannot help but feel a slight twinge of schadenfreude for how she made Dumbledore gay after the series was finished.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is hardly more likable or open to magic than Vernon. Furthermore, it is not as if Bilbo does anything useful like run a drill company. Bilbo changes but it is not a matter of Gandalf convincing Bilbo to abandon his boring Hobbit ways to open his mind to adventure just like the more interesting Dwarves. On the contrary, Bilbo’s Hobbit love of the simple things of life like hearth and home plays a critical role in protecting him from the greed for treasure that consumes Thorin Oakenshield. Gandalf was not trying to convert a Hobbit; he was looking for a Hobbit because there is something incredible about Hobbits. Gandalf's greatness is that he can appreciate Hobbits. This sets up Lord of the Rings, where it is the Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who save Middle Earth by carrying it to Mordor. Only a Hobbit could resist the temptation of using the Ring because Hobbits honestly would rather tend a garden with a beer and pipe of tobacco than to rule the world.

Belief requires something plausible that it might exist and something important enough to care. It is easy to believe in Hobbits. They are as perfectly ordinary as the corner grocery and should be as common. Tolkien's genius was to discover something incredible in this ordinariness. If Tolkien did not love Hobbits, Bilbo would have never become more than a comic foil for Gandalf and the Dwarves, nothing worth believing in.

It was with the Hobbits that Tolkien identified with as opposed to even the Elves despite the fact that the original purpose of Middle Earth was supposed to be for The Silmarillion, an epic about the Elves. Perhaps this is why Tolkien never finished it and it was only published posthumously. There is no doubt that if Tolkien could choose between being a Hobbit or an Elf, he would choose the Hobbit. Can you imagine, Rowling wanting to be a Muggle instead of a Wizard?

The believability of Hobbits is a challenge. Until my letter comes, my Wizarding career will have to stay on hold but I will still not be something so absurd as a Muggle. But maybe I could be a Hobbit, an ordinary hero. If I fail, it will not be because someone forgot to send me a letter but because I am not worthy of such a title.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Holy Poverty: Finding the Language for Religious Aestheticism


Holly was a homeless woman who used to station herself on the corner of Lake Ave. and Green St. in Pasadena. There, she would spend the day sitting in her chair, reading, telling people that God loved them, and that they were going the wrong way down a one-way street. (For those readers unfamiliar with Pasadena, Green goes east and Union St. goes west.)  I used to regularly stop to chat with Holly on my 3.5-mile walk to the Chabad of Pasadena on Shabbat. As a conservative libertarian, I learned a lot from Holly as she failed to fit into the usual stereotypes of the homeless. She was always polite, never yelling at anyone. Also, she never struck me as anything less than perfectly sane. She was not some kind of lazy parasite living off of society. On the contrary, she gave more to us who interacted with her than we ever gave to her.

It is important not to glamorize Holly. There was nothing easy about her existence. Furthermore, from what I could piece together from what she told me about her life, she came to her situation through a combination of unfortunate circumstances and poor life choices. Doing her justice requires that one keeps from either pitying her or making her into some kind of saint. She deserved respect on her own terms as someone who actively chose to be where she was, seeing her daily routine on the street corner as having value.

It speaks to our spiritual poverty that it is difficult to categorize Holly. My model would be the apostolic poverty of the medieval Franciscans, combining extreme aestheticism with community engagement. The Franciscan rejected personal property but instead of living in a monastery would go out into the world to live on alms, modeling himself on Jesus' first followers. Critical to Franciscan success was that, while apostolic poverty proved to be a hand grenade in the face of the Church, one should not think of the friars as a straightforward rejection of the growing middle class of lay Christians from whom they drew most of their members. On the contrary, by supporting the friar as the embodiment of true Christian living, one could take part in the life of Christ in a way that most could never accomplish themselves. (How many people could ever literally take up the Cross and follow Jesus, suffering as he did?)

It should be clear that this model of holy poverty is distinct from Haredi poverty. For one thing, holy poverty could never be the basis for a society but only the free choice of individuals. As an extension of this, holy poverty, as a charisma granted to individuals, cannot involve marriage or children. What kind of monster could inflict such poverty on a child?

The medieval world would have known how to appreciate Holly. Medievals could understand that the poor were blessed as incarnations of godliness. Holly could receive a habit so that anyone who saw her on her corner would immediately know that she was doing important religious work and was not simply a bum leeching off society.

We moderns have to overcome not only the wall of secularism but also the Protestant Reformation. Secularism affects even people who consider themselves religious by getting them to think in terms of religious and secular spheres. Religion is something you do at home or in Church. Where can Holly fit in except as an object of pity and charity? It is not as if she was a missionary for some denomination. She was engaged in her own spiritual project of embracing the poverty God granted her with love.

It is Protestantism that bears ultimate blame. Luther, the Augustinian friar, declared war on religious orders in the name of the equality of all believers. He could not stand the notion that some people were better than others and that there can be spiritual heroism that us regular mortals can only stand in awe of. Everyone had to be equal in their inability to perform works and their complete dependence on grace. The irony is that Luther wanted to bring the sacred out of the cloister and elevate everyone to the level of priest. What he brought about was the wiping out the kind of sacred space that could illuminate the mundane. The fact that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church has effectively ditched the notion of special sanctity for those in religious orders means that Catholics today are also spiritual orphans.

I do not know what happened to Holly. I hope that she got into some housing program and is off the streets. That being said, the selfish part of me misses her. Some people are too valuable to waste on something other than sitting on street corners, informing drivers about God's love and that they are moving in the wrong direction.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Teaching Latin at a Chabad School


Dr. Jacob Ackerman attended a Chabad grade school in Newark, NJ during the 1950s where he served as the editor of the school newspaper. As an example of what he wrote about he mentions, "Mr. Posner, the Latin teacher, was out for three days because of a cold." So it used to be acceptable for a Chabad school to teach Latin. I am curious as to what texts they read. There is not a lot of Latin literature left if you exclude sex, violence and the gods. For me, that was what made Prof. Feldman's Latin classes fun.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Can the Benedict Option Survive Nationalism?

Previously, I discussed Yoram Hazony's defense of nationalism as an alternative to universal empire. I believe that people in the liberty movement should take Hazony seriously as someone working within the classical liberal tradition. From my perspective as a libertarian anarchist, I fail to see where the dividing is between a tribe and a nation or between a nation and universal empire. If Mormons in Utah wished to leave the union, would that be tribalism or a nation trying to break free of empire? Clearly, our Mormons have less in common with liberal New Yorkers than liberal New Yorkers have in common with liberal Canadians.

Rod Dreher is another writer I respect who has joined with the New Nationalists. As someone who, like Hazony, attempts to pursue a non-authoritarian live and let live form of nationalism, Dreher is vulnerable to similar lines of attack. Moreover, as the author of The Benedict Option, Dreher's embrace of nationalism seems particularly suicidal.

A foundational premise of classical liberal political theory is that you should assume that any system of government you create will be taken over by your opponents. In a similar vein, Dreher's starting point is that it is the other side who has the power. Christians and other religious conservatives have lost the culture wars and are facing a society that is actively hostile to them. Because of this, Christians should abandon politics, as not even the Republican Party will save the situation, and concentrate on building strong local community institutions such as private schools so that their children will have a chance at resisting the lure of secularism.

I am reminded of the anarchist criticism of Ayn Rand. How is Galt's Gultch not an anarcho-secessionist state? Galt and his followers reject the United States government for its interference with private enterprise so they build their own community in complete defiance of federal and state law. Similarly, I fail to see how any Benedict Option community can avoid being stridently anti-nationalism and even pro-secessionism.

I could understand if Dreher was a conventional social conservative activist warning of the need to stop liberals by appealing to a "silent majority." Under such circumstances, there would be a nation to appeal to. For Dreher, though, the real America consists of liberal elites who see Christian sexual ethics as the moral equivalence of Nazism and conservatives who reject the left but have already become untied to their heritage. In a battle between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Christianity will lose. Dreher reluctantly supports Trump on the logic that he gives Christians several more years before Democrats can point-blank ban them from openly working in the public sphere.

I can understand if Dreher wants to support Hungary as a nation-state as there is a plausible case to be made that there really is a majority of Hungarians who identify with Hungary's Christian past. Even if they are not active churchgoers, they can be rallied, under the right leadership, to resist being turned into a mere province of the European Union. (To be clear, as the grandson of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Hungarian nationalism terrifies me.) Whatever Dreher's hopes for Hungary as a conservative Christian nation-state, this is not an option for the United States as a whole (as opposed to individual states if they seceded). Where are the Christians inspired to bring about new great awakening built around Calvinist republican virtue or Methodist evangelical populism and not merely the desire to "own the libs?"

A Benedict Option community can only survive if it rejects not only nationalism but even the very identification with the country itself. If your children think of themselves as Americans, what are you going to tell them when National Pride Day becomes a Federal holiday? One thinks of the example of Haredi Jews in Kiryas Joel or New Square. They do not think of themselves as Americans. They live in the United States and are grateful to God that are not persecuted but the outside world is "goyish" and is to be ignored. Keep in mind that, Historically, Jews were not citizens of their host countries. Instead, Jews belonged to semi-autonomous kehillot, which negotiated with and paid taxes to the non-Jewish authorities in exchange for protection. One is on far better ground, Jewishly, advocating for the return of kehillot or the Ottoman millet system than Hazony is when engaging in apologetics for nationalism.

On a side note, let me add that I hold little hope for Modern Orthodox Judaism to survive under Benedict Option conditions. Modern Orthodoxy has always been the dream that one could be a doctor, lawyer and even a public intellectual (like Yoram Hazony) and still be an openly practicing Jew. The moment that Modern Orthodox kids are no longer accepted in the Ivies, Modern Orthodox schools will be discredited as the teachers will have failed to deliver on their promises to students. The only options left will be the abandonment of Judaism or Haredism.

Once you no longer identify with the state, either intellectually or even emotionally, it is hard to avoid falling into the "heresy" of secessionism. What is Dreher's plan for when the government (or Google) makes the Benedict Option illegal, say by demanding that all children attend LGBTQ approved schools? If he intends to pursue civil disobedience he will implicitly be accepting the anarchist premise that one's personal conscience is more important than the Law. The only reason why the American Civil Rights Movement never came to advocate the kind of anarchism that is explicit in writers like Thoreau and Tolstoy is that it was still premised on the notion of sympathetic white Americans who could be reached by rhetoric couched in American terms. This is something that a Benedict Option community, by definition, could never do as the whole reason we are pursuing the Benedict Option in the first place is that we no longer believe that our ideas can get a fair hearing in general society.

I agree with Hazony and Dreher, perhaps too much. The problem is that it seems as if I am willing to take their conclusions in the opposite direction. This has troubling implications. As someone who still identifies emotionally with conservatism, I wish to believe the best of the New Nationalists that they still fundamentally believe in personal liberty and in markets. I am a big tent kind of person, who believes in allowing many different kinds of projects to operate even if they seem at cross purposes. This is only possible as long as all parties accept the right of everyone to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not engaging in physical violence. I do not want to believe that the New Nationalism is a conspiracy to force conservative values on other people. For a non-authoritarian nationalism to work, at some level it must reckon with secessionism. The New Nationalists are free to follow their path as long as they are willing to grant me the freedom to follow mine.





Thursday, February 6, 2020

Does the YMCA Objectify Women?

The sign at my local YMCA features a woman in a tank top and a bra with the caption: "free motivation with every membership."

Let me start by being charitable to the Y. I assume the intention of this ad is that the Y offers professional trainers to help you reach your fitness goals. Of course, I am enough of a heterosexual man to consider an alternative explanation. Come to the Y where you can find motivation by staring at beautiful women who are just slightly underdressed so you do not have to feel guilty about it. (Unless you are of a prudish disposition. In which case, the site of such a picture bothers you enough that you feel motivated to write a short blog post.)

The problem here is that I have a hard time believing that no one at the Y involved in this promotion considered the latter interpretation. If this were really about the first interpretation, the point could have been made with a sweating fat guy. So the Y cannot play innocent here. I am not so naive as to believe that, in the 21st century, the Young Men's Christian Association cares whether young men have sinful thoughts. I would have thought, though, that they cared about objectifying women.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Epicureanism of The Good Place's Finale

(Spoilers Ahead)

As much as I love The Good Place, its ending struck me as anti-religious in much the same way that Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol is anti-Christian. At first glance, it sounds preposterous to consider a Christmas Carol anti-Christian. What could be more Christian than a greedy miser having his soul saved through the power of Christmas? This is true until you realize what is missing from the story, Jesus. We can assume that the mean Scrooge at the beginning of the story has not accepted Jesus as his savor. The kindly Scrooge at the end of the story does not seem to have accepted Jesus either. In keeping with the Victorian era, Dickens subversively offered a Christianity stripped of anything actually Christian.

Likewise, on the surface, Good Place sounds like a straightforward religious tale. It is about the afterlife in which people are judged based on how they lived on Earth. From the beginning, it is made clear that we are dealing with a non-denominational heaven where no one gets in simply for having been a member of the right religion. This is a minor issue compared to the absence of God.

When our heroes finally get to the real Good Place, they are faced with the problem that this heaven is actually not much of an improvement over the Bad Place. A world in which every wish is granted and every pleasure instantly gratified becomes mind-numbingly dull and its own form of torture. Eleanor's solution is to allow the residents the option of ending their own existence when they have had enough. This sets up the inevitable final episode (one of the finest in the history of television) where the characters, after however many Jeremy Bearimys, come to that state of peace with themselves where they have done all they could ever want and make the decision to walk through the door and move on.

What we have here is the standard argument against pleasure, all pleasure is ephemeral, simply applied to the afterlife. The show's solution is merely the Epicurean solution to not having an afterlife. By accepting that you will cease to exist, you can find meaning in your limited lifespan and even cease fearing death; if death is merely a natural part of life, it is not evil to be rejected but a good to be embraced. Jason's going away party for himself, in fact, reminded me of David Hume's last few months. Even though he knew he was dying, Scotland's most infamous unbeliever remained in good cheer and dining with friends. He wanted his death to be a model of serenity even without the hope of an afterlife.

What is missing here is the existence of a deity and the possibility of having a relationship with him. To believe that God created human beings means that humans can only truly be happy in him. This does not mean that material pleasure is bad. On the contrary, as God also created the world and everything in it as a means of bringing us to him, nothing worldly can be, in of itself, bad. The problem comes the moment we value something, besides for God, for its own sake then it becomes an idol and needs to be smashed.

The same problem that applies to earthly pleasure also works for heavenly pleasure. Jason wanting to play the ultimate game of Madden Football receives no elevation when it is carried out in heaven. The same applies to Tahani wanting to make a Nick Offerman approved chair or even to Chidi wanting to become a great moral philosopher, teaching the ultimate class of Ethics of the Afterlife to a room full of philosophy professors. All of this will eventually become meaningless without God, leaving suicide as the only option.

In truth, this makes sense for a show about ethics as ethics is fundamentally in conflict with theism. As we know from the Euthyphro dilemma, ethics can only be meaningful if it is a system outside of God that God is answerable to. Anything else is simply God's will. The more repulsive the action, the more we are being "truly" ethical by submitting our will to his (think the Westboro Baptist Church). The show referenced Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and that it is about taking a leap of faith. What bears mentioning is that this leap of faith is precisely the rejection of the ethical.

This conflict is at the heart of the Old Testament. Abraham is morally superior to Noah precisely because he challenges God's morality in destroying Sodom. The prophets challenge the sacrificial cult under the banner of justice for the downtrodden. This raises the question of the purpose of ritual. A God who values righteousness should not care at all about ritual. How do you build a religion around such a God?

Come to think of it, perhaps this could have been the basis for a good continuation for the show. Our characters, having nothing meaningful to exist for, walk through the door and meet God, who offers himself to them now that they have exhausted all alternatives. (God should not be depicted. Instead, we should have a place of supreme beauty and the people living there should describe voices in their heads as if the place is speaking to them.) Chidi goes full-blown Lucifer because he cannot submit himself to a force outside of his ethical framework. He then recruits Sean to help him create an alternative heaven for those whom God has cast aside. By the end of the show, this alternative heaven will have turned into the Bad Place with the inmates being tortured with philosophy lectures and extreme ethical conundrums.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Liberal Lisa and Shylock’s Dilemma


In an earlier post, I talked about Shylock's dilemma that the very act of pursuing Antonio makes Shylock vulnerable even as he is right on the facts and is justified in demanding a pound of flesh to be cut from Antonio's body. Here I would like to consider the implications of this concept for our contemporary political discourse. I would argue that Shylock offers us a lesson on how to attack modern liberals.

The prototypical modern liberal has very little obviously in common with a bitter old vengeful Jew like Shylock. Instead, we should think of Lisa Simpson. What makes her tick is that she is a child who is not only smarter than the people around her but she is also aware of this to the extent that it forms the basis for her self identity. As both the town of Springfield and the Simpson family are both highly flawed, it is not difficult for Lisa to articulate a critique of her society and even suggest ways to improve things. That being said, it is hardly obvious that a Lisa run Springfield would be an improvement and there is even an episode in which Lisa is part of a triumvirate of the town’s smartest people with disastrous results. Despite this fact, Lisa sees herself as morally superior. Her intelligence and her support for change become the equivalent of if she really is making the world a better place. Since she believes that her ideas would improve things, it is the fault of those people not submitting to her genius that things have not worked so it should count to her credit as if she had done what she imagines she can.

This self-righteous confidence, above any particulars of her arguments, make Lisa a formidable opponent. Like Shylock, she has the moral advantage of being right in her essential claim. No one can seriously defend Springfield as any kind of ideal. Unlike Shylock, she has the advantage of it not being obvious that Lisa getting her way will lead to cold-blooded murder. Ultimately, Lisa is likable and charming; the kind of person others might submit to of their own free will.

This Lisa model explains how many people come to the left as teenagers who believe that their ability to criticize society not only makes them right but also grants them moral superiority even if they do nothing productive to combat the ills they see. It also explains the left's veneration of literal teenage activists like David Hogg and Greta Thunberg and the widespread belief that such people are going to change the world despite the dismal historical record of child-led crusades going back to the literal Children's Crusade. This is how the world is supposed to work so it must be true.

Students are supported in such thinking by liberal teachers whose belief in the mythical child remains untainted by their daily interaction with actual children. Thus, students can enjoy the anarchic thrill of taking on the establishment while enjoying the full protection of that establishment, fostering the morally dangerous habit of believing in one's righteousness without ever having to pay the price for it.

What can Shylock teach us about the vulnerabilities of Lisa Simpson? Like Shylock, Lisa's moral power lies in our willingness to allow her to play her game of justice advocate with house money. If we agree with her policies all the better. If we disagree with some of the specific policy details, we are supposed to still admire her fierce idealism.

What happens to Lisa's moral credibility if we not only refuse to count her idealism as a virtue but even turn it against her? A person who is quick to pass judgment on others should be held to the strictest standards of rectitude without charity. Shylock is ultimately trapped by his very claim to justice. The more he claims that his side is just to the point that he should be able to take Antonio's life the more Portia has cause to examine him with all the ruthlessness of justice. The slight problem of shedding Antonio's blood is enough to bring down the entire edifice of Shylock's cause. Similarly, Lisa's very idealism puts her on trial. The moment we disagree with Lisa about anything, we become justified in rejecting her in totum. She is someone who has dared to consider themselves wise and righteous enough to claim authority over others without ever having paid the price to make such claims meaningful.

Imagine a world in which idealists were held to such a strict standard where they could be rejected for even minor mistakes. For example, human rights activists would have to either make no mistakes relevant to their cause or be a hostis humani generis. Under such circumstances, no sane person could ever risk taking up such a cross. Our political discourse would essentially be left as a struggle between Burkean conservatives and libertarians. As both sides take, as their starting point, that they lack the personal righteousness to be entrusted with revolutionizing society. Burkeans argue that we should follow tradition as something less morally corrupt than themselves. Libertarians counter that, while they are also too corrupt to be trusted with power, it is their right to be left alone to suffer the consequences of their own flaws.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Secret Surprise Ending to The Good Place: They Accept Jesus as Their Savior



Critical for this fourth and final season of The Good Place has been the discovery at the end of last season that no one has managed to get into the Good Place for hundreds of years. As society has grown more complex, it has become impossible for humans to calculate the full consequences of their actions, inevitably leading to mistakes. While the show has avoided directly talking about Christianity, this revelation fits well into a Christian critique of the Pharisaic model of reward and punishment in which one attempts to perform good deeds and avoid sins in the hope that, in the afterlife, one will have earned enough points that God would owe them an eternity in heaven. Once we admit that all of us are sinners and can never earn our way into heaven, it becomes pointless to talk about being righteous. Critical for Christianity is that it is impossible to be a good Christian. There was one good Christian in all of history and he was crucified on Calvery. If another such good Christian existed, Christianity would be refuted as Jesus' death could no longer be justified. All of humanity would have to be told that, in theory, they could have been perfect like this one human and must be damned for failing to live up to this livable standard.

With this in mind, it would be fantastic if the show could end with a Christian twist. The attempt to rewrite the rules of the afterlife fail and the Bad Place people convince the judge to let them have control over humanity with the promise that if some human managed to achieve some impossibly high score then they would agree to renounce their right to torture all the humans in their clutches.

Eleanor: If only there could be a perfectly righteous man (or woman), who would lead a totally perfect life and save all of us.

Chidi: That is impossible. No human could possibly be so perfectly righteous. Someone that righteous could no longer be considered a person. He would be God.

Jason: Oh, I know. God should totally knock up some chick. That boy would then also kinda be God and a dude at the same time. So he could then do stuff like be perfect for all of us. I mean, I tried once to be good one time back in Jacksonville. It was hard.

Tahani: Don't be ridiculous. That would be like the time my friend Harry married some American and moved to Canada. "Look at me, I am just a common millionaire like the rest of you."

Michael: How much love would God need to possess in order to give over his only Son so the world could have forgiveness?

Janet: I know everything and not even I know the answer. It is clearly a lot.

Sean: I would just love to see God try. We will make his Son live in a Middle Eastern country for thirty-three years among lepers and tax collectors. Then we will have the humans betray him and hammer nails into him. By the end, he will be calling out "my God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?" Let's see him love those humans torturing him and pray for their forgiveness.

Eleanor: I love you. But if someone were to be tortured to death and go to the Bad Place for my sins, I would totally accept them as my savior.

Chidi: You know, I actually agree with you.

Not that I expect any of this to happen but it would certainly surprise people.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Please Take My Wallet: I Do Not Want to Kill You

This post is in honor of my sister and her husband at Masada Tactical in Baltimore.

I prefer markets to government action not just on the practical grounds that markets usually produce better results but on the moral principle that there is something inherently violent about government, even liberal-democratic ones, in ways that markets are not. Arguing from principle is important here because, for most things, I really have no idea what would happen if markets took over from the government. If the FDA were abolished tomorrow, all drugs were legalized and all people in jail for drug-related offenses were released with their records expunged, what would happen? It very well might fail. If that is the case I would still want to try as a noble, if Quixotic experiment, because not threatening to kill people over what substances they put in their bodies is the right thing to do. We will learn from our mistakes in order to do better next time.

This idea that markets are non-violent while governments are inherently violent goes against the hard left which sees the actions of democratic governments as inherently peacefully as they represent the will of the "people" in contrast to markets which offer people the "liberty" of sleeping under a bridge and starving. From this perspective, the Soviet Union, despite murdering millions of people, was a noble experiment whose mistakes should be learned from in order to try socialism again. 

A further argument can be made that markets certainly can make use of literal violence. Shylock demanding his pound of flesh for Antonio's failure to return a loan, made under free-market conditions, is threatening violence. So what makes government actions inherently tainted by violence to the extent that even a politician wanting to raise taxes to fund education for children is the moral equivalent of a gangster because he risks having to use violence when businessmen can also find themselves having to use violence to enforce market agreements.

It occurred to me that my sister and her husband provide an answer. They teach martial arts to both police officers and civilians. You might think that the purpose of their training is that you should go around trashing bozos. Certainly, you should beat up a mugger who demands your wallet as it is your moral duty to defend your property, right? On the contrary, students are explicitly told to hand over their wallets. If someone tries to abduct you that is something else but for a wallet, it is not worth you getting killed or you killing the guy. Keep in mind that the legal right to self-defense is not any kind of blank check. As a private individual, you are obligated to not be a vigilante looking for trouble and when trouble finds you, you are supposed to try to back away.

Being in the market allows you to step back and not demand your full "pound of flesh" rights. You have the option and even the imperative to let the mugger have your wallet even though he is a thief. Similarly, if someone cheats you, the solution is not to do business with them in the future. Now, this is important; you are not trapped into needing to make higher moral points. We are not concerned that if thieves are allowed to get away their crimes people will lose their respect for property. It is alright to be "selfish" and only be concerned with the fact that blood feuds are bad for your bottom line.

This is different from government action where police officers are obligated to risk violence even to stop petty crimes. A private citizen can and should walk away from a situation before it degenerates into violence even at a financial loss. A police officer has no such choice. He must be willing to stop unruly motorists even knowing that such a confrontation may lead to killing that person. This concern is particularly true when dealing with secession. A government that is not willing to gun down unarmed children in order to stop a secessionist movement is not really a government. Government officials do not have the option of saying we disagree with secession and we wish you stayed with us, and we are really in the right, but keeping the country united is not worth killing for.

This distinction was made particularly clear to me with the recent attack on the American embassy in Iraq. If it were a private corporation like McDonald's under attack, no one would question the reasonableness of McDonald's simply shutting its doors in Iraq as the country is simply too dangerous to do business in. Why can't we close the embassy and pull out all American personnel from Iraq? Whether we should or not, staying clearly means killing and not just people attacking the embassy but bombing the Iranian backed militias and possibly even Iran itself. Yes, the United States can pull out instead of pursuing mass retaliation, much as Reagan pulled out of Lebanon, but the political price is real. This is not the case with McDonald's which can operate in Iraq, despite the danger, without any assumption of failure if it pulls out its staff instead of going to war.

My point is not to bash the police and the military. They do a necessary job by putting themselves in harm's way and, for that, they deserve the respect of society. But it is the fact that their job is defined by them placing themselves in situations where they may have to kill that needs to always be kept in focus. We must always be willing to ask the question of "why" to those members of the political class who put our servicemen into danger.

I am not a pacifist. I am willing to defend myself when backed against a wall. That being said, I can interact with other people without the subtext of threatening to kill them because if you choose to not cooperate I will back away and let you win even when I am right. The government does not have that moral luxury. It can never back down. It must always assert its right even at the cost of human life.