Friday, July 20, 2018

The Trump Challenge for Libertarians: Are We Willing to Man Up and Admit That the Republican Strategy Was a Mistake?

While I have for years recognized a distinction between mainstream libertarianism and Rothbardian libertarianism, recently that breach appears to be widening. Some good examples of this would be the controversy over the cartoon published in the name of Ron Paul as well as the conflict at the Libertarian Party National convention. I suspect that a key issue here is the presidency of Donald Trump, which makes it harder to pretend that a common set of values exist. On the one hand, mainstream libertarians are horrified by Trump and see him as a reason to rethink their Republican strategy. On the other hand, the Rothbardians see a Trump Republican Party has precisely the kind of institution that they can do business with. This requires a reevaluation of what this relationship was from the very beginning.  

Historically, Murray Rothbard (Ron Paul's mentor) argued that libertarians should ally with anyone who really hated the government. He calculated that the people who best fit this category after the civil rights movement were radicalized working class whites. This required tiptoeing around the issue that such people were likely to be hardcore racists. Mainstream libertarians tended along a similar if a more moderate line of thinking of trying to reform the Republican Party to make it more market-friendly while hoping to keep Christian-conservatives in check.

As long as both sides were pursuing these tracks, the difference would appear as a matter of degree and personal taste. Both sides accepted that libertarians, as a small minority, needed to appeal to some audience that was not libertarian per se but sympathized with elements of the libertarian agenda. Both sides recognized that the post-1960s left (whether justified or not) was premised on making white males pay for an expanding welfare state and that this offered an opportunity for libertarians to make the case for small government to white men. With the New Deal, we could pretend that the government was going to shake down wealthy businessmen for their benefit. Now government means that you, white men, are going to have to pay to support public school teachers, who hate your values, brainwashing your children for seventeen years (kindergarten through college) in order to convince them to vote for more welfare for blacks. (Note that I would consider this perspective to be, technically accurate, but highly misleading in its choice of focus.)  

If you are looking for white men who simply want to make the government smaller, you can afford to be a little bit choosy about whom to associate with. From this perspective, it made sense to join the William F. Buckley coalition that denounced open racism. If you are actually trying to overthrow the government then you are left with precisely the kind white men that not even Buckley Republicans would be willing to touch. That being said, in practice what we had was a spectrum without clear lines, leaving a lot of room for personal gut checks. Furthermore, as libertarians were never actually in a position to put their policies in practice, all of this was theoretical. So, like any good marriage, both sides were free to pretend that the other was whatever they wanted them to be. Some libertarians wanted to focus on reigning in the growth of government in the short run, while others looked to the long-term question of what to do about government as a principle. Alu v’alu divrei Elokhim hayim (both are the words of the living God).

Going after welfare made sense as long as the existence of a certain Overton Window could be assumed that made actual racism an anathema. If there were are no real racists outside of certain compounds (a position that sounded very reasonable considering that real racists felt the need to move into compounds in the first place), then one could, in good conscious, target the left for using welfare as a means of buying off black voters. If the left called that racist, well that simply demonstrated the extent that the left was not arguing in good faith and could safely be ignored. Similarly, if everyone recognized that legal immigration from Latin America was a good thing to be encouraged and expanded then it was perfectly reasonable to discuss certain border controls in the name of national security.
Long before Trump, I had already left the Republican Party, even as I continued to wish it well, because I stopped believing that it was serious about promoting a free-market agenda. As quaint as it sounds now, I did not even support Mitt Romney in 2012. That being said, I still trusted in the basic decency of Republican voters. I was one of those people who believed that Trump was finished the moment he went after Mexicans for “not sending us their best.” Over and over again, I was proven wrong whenever I decided to interpret Republicans charitably and continued to assume that Stephen Colbert was a comedian and not a demonstration of the Poe Law.

These days, even the Republicans who oppose Trump, I find to be dominated by this black hole of conspiracy thinking and hatred of the left. A useful test case for this is birtherism. To be clear, I have no particularly strong opinions as to where Barack Obama was born beyond the conviction that if there really was something to him not being born in Hawaii, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would have pursued it to the very end. The fact that any conservative would invest any of their moral capital in this venture even after Obama is no longer president suggests that, more than markets, what animates such people is a conspiratorial narrative that pits “true Americans” against the “left.” Such thinking is not inherently racist, but this acceptance of conspiratorial group narrative provides an important ingredient that allows a person to go from being politically incorrect/lacking proper sensitivity to being the actually dangerous kind of racist.  

Alternatively, consider the use of technical defenses that rely on particular definitions of words at the expense of the wider moral issue. For example, when a pro-Palestinian person responds to the charge of anti-Semitism by arguing that, as Arabs are Semites, he cannot be anti-Semitic. Putting aside the actual history of the word “anti-Semite,” we can readily grant the Palestinian his argument because he has already implicitly confessed to the charge. If he had an honestly worked out defense that allowed him to hold his political positions without being hostile to Jews, he would have given it and not tried to play word games. Similarly, when a conservative says that his views on Islam do not make him a racist because Islam is not a race, we can rest assured that whatever better more precise word we wish to come up with (and prejudice and bigotry have their problems as well), our conservative is guilty of it. If he had an honest defense, he would have used it. (Let me add that the real-life conservative who used this argument with me was a Jew, who then turned around and said that we Jews needed to ally ourselves with white nationalists.)  
To return to the Rothbardian libertarians, I do not see myself as any kind of perfect model of tolerance even as I do not think that there are many people who are much better. If you think you are, might I suggest that it has more to do with the gaping size of the blank checks you have prejudicially written out for yourself? For this reason, I am willing to wink and nod at petty venial bigotry. (The kind of sensibility of Mel Brooks’ “let them all go to hell except cave 76.") If the Rothbardians want to be less politically correct than me, fine. It is not like the left would hesitate to come after me with similar arguments so why make myself vulnerable by self-righteously denouncing them. 

In my experience, if you are tempted to accuse someone of bigotry, you will usually find something more to the point close at hand. How can it be that it is a protectionist like Trump who causes Rothbardians to move closer to the Republican Party? As a libertarian, I value free trade (and that includes moving people across borders) as the vital link between private property and freedom of expression. The government has no business interfering with markets, whether physical or ideological. If you are willing to get behind Trump’s rhetoric on borders then it does not just mean that you happen to be a bigot. It means that you value your own bigotry more than free trade.

A similar line of reasoning underscores my disillusionment with Ron Paul. I could forgive the newsletters, the cartoons and the bone-headed statements regarding Israel as long as I believed that Paul, whether I agreed with him or not, was acting out of a desire to pursue a sincerely libertarian non-interventionist foreign policy. Such a person would know how to draw a clear line between criticizing American foreign policy and engaging in apologetics for Putin. The fact that Paul seems unable to draw this line suggests that he is less a libertarian non-interventionist as he is a white nationalist who looks to Russia to save him from liberals.   

The path to the summit of Mount Liberty is going to be tricky and I do not claim to have fully worked out how to get there. It is possible that along the way, at some point, we are going to have to make a Faustian bargain with racists. It may be that a libertarian society will feature open racists, who use their freedom of association to discriminate. I am willing to consider such a possibility on condition that I am not having that conversation with people for whom the point of climbing Mount Liberty was as an excuse to sell their souls in the first place.  

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Scourged: The Price of Having a Character Who is Too Powerful

A few months ago, I used Brandon Sanderson's Second Law, which deals with the importance of non-omnipotent characters, as a means of talking about the Exodus narrative. Here I would like to further explore this with Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series, one of my favorites over the past few years. It is about a two-thousand year old druid named Atticus O' Sullivan on the run from deities from numerous pantheons. As far as I am concerned (and the evidence of a tournament suggests that there is a large fan base that agrees with me on this), the real star of the series is Atticus' wolfhound side-kick, Oberon. This is in no small part due to Luke Daniels' incredible voice narration. Largely on the basis of this series, Daniels has become one of those narrators that, barring a romance novel, I will read a book regardless of the author just because he narrates it.

I would like to discuss one weakness of the series and its ramifications for its ending in Scourged. Even (and perhaps especially) for a fantasy series, Atticus is simply way too powerful. There is not a single character in the series that completely outclasses him in brute magical strength. Furthermore, he is immortal thanks to a secret mix of herbs a regularly consumes as well as a special relationship with a death goddess, the Morrigan. In addition to moral problems about Atticus' decisions as to with whom he shares his herbs with, for all intents and purposes, Atticus being immortal makes him a god with all the narrative pitfalls that come with it.

For a story to have emotional power, the main characters need to change. A god, by its very nature, cannot change without destroying itself. The reason for this is that part of what makes change possible is confronting real stakes in which something important is at risk.  Gods are beings above the natural order of things including suffering and loss. Because of this, nothing that happens to a god can really have high stakes. Narrative events happening to a god as opposed to a mortal is the difference between playing a friendly game and being in the Hunger Games. Think of the Book of Job. What is a friendly wager between God and the Satan is a blood-soaked tragedy for a human being like Job. We can emotionally invest in a character like Job in part because there is actually something at stake for him. Will he or will he not get justice from God? It might be interesting to tell the story from Satan's perspective as he is playing a truly high stakes game of baiting God. As for God himself, he is fundamentally boring in his utter incomprehensibility.

For a god to be interesting as a lead character, as opposed to serving as a personified force of nature, they have to face change in the form of the destruction of whatever context they made sense in, the true meaning fo death for a God. The classic example of this is Norse mythology where the gods possess a tragic pathos precisely because they are fighting a battle they cannot win; their choices can only end in Ragnorak and their destruction. This is the essence of the Wotan character in Wagner's Ring Cycle. He is a god who is trying to cheat fate through his ability to make laws only to be undone by his own laws. The modern author who best comprehends this ethos is Neil Gaiman. Key to his Sandman series is the fact that Dream cannot avoid change. Ultimately, that means that he needs to die and his only real choice is the circumstance under which that happens. It is not a coincidence that in recent years, Gaiman has turned to directly retelling Norse mythology something that has been an undercurrent in almost everything he has written. What is particularly strange, is that Hearne is clearly a fan of Gaiman's and understands this principle. It is precisely for this reason, that he kills the Morrigan off in middle of the series. That being said, he refuses to apply this same logic to Atticus.

What is ever at stake for Atticus? He is already two-thousand years old. Even his death would simply be his long overdue fate as a human. For the series to work Atticus needed to embrace his godhood by sacrificing himself on the altar of facilitating change to a world that, even if it might be a better one, has no place for his kind of magic. Hearne, though, is too charmed by all of Atticus' power and his joking personality to write the kind of tragedy this character needed.

One never gets the sense that, over his long life as an immortal on the run, Atticus was ever any different from the wise-cracking twenty-something bookstore owner. Note that this would have been fine if Atticus had started the series off as precisely that without any backstory. Once we have trapped Atticus into his two-thousand year old self, it is difficult to plausibly get him to change. 

Going back to the very first book, Hearne had the option of killing off Atticus and making the series about Atticus' student, Granuaile. This would have had the advantage of giving Granuaile all of Atticus' challenges even, as a druid in training, she would remain distinctly ungodlike. This would not be any different than having Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter having to solve the problems of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Albus Dumbledore. Oberon would still be in the series and would now have a real purpose beyond comic-relief. In between trying to convince Granuaile to give him more sausages and tell him what a good hound he is, he could cough up some partial bits of wisdom remembered from his time with Atticus. Instead, Atticus is left as the main character of the series, despite the fact that he is too powerful to serve in that capacity. Granuaile is left to serve as Atticus' love-interest despite the fact that their power differential make them uninteresting together. This further wastes an opportunity as Atticus and the Morrigan would have made sense as a couple.

The critical turning point in the series was the third book. Much like Prisoner of Azkaban allowed J. K. Rowling to elevate Potter from a collection of clever jokes about school and mythology to a story with real stakes by having Harry make the mistake of keeping Peter Pettigrew alive with the consequences for the rest of the series, Hammered allowed Atticus to make the mistake that he spent the first two books being maneuvered into, leading an attack on Asgard to kill Thor. Having Atticus take on the consequences of getting one friend killed and causing another to eventually betray him in addition to setting Ragnorak in motion could have elevated the series to another level. Instead, Hearne treats this as an afterthought to training Granuaile and Atticus being his upbeat self despite the fact that this does not fit the story that needs to be told. This is similar to the Star Wars prequels in which George Lucas wanted to tell all kinds of stories except the sci-fi Paradise Lost/Faust sci-fi telling of the origins of Darth Vader that was needed.

The prequels trapped Lucas into telling a story he did not want to tell, the downfall of Anakin Skywalker, causing him to pursue it as an afterthought. Similarly here, Hearne cannot escape the need for the forces of evil, led by Loki. to break out and Atticus having to unit all the various pantheons in a last-ditch effort to save the Earth despite the fact that about the only thing the gods can agree upon is killing Atticus. This essentially is the plot of Scourged and Hearne has been building to it on the side when he has not been distracted by less important things.

The problem with Scouraged is that it has no sense that anything is really at stake. The only urgency here is to wrap the series up so that the author can move on to other things without angering his fan base. There is no sense that the good guys are outgunned and in need of something desperate and creative. On the contrary, one feels that Loki's forces are like the British soldiers of World War I about to cross the Somme after giving the Germans a ten-minute warning with the end of the artillery bombardment to get into position. Obviously, Loki stands about as much chance of winning as a James Bond villain, but the author owes it to the reader to allow for the suspension of disbelief that this is not the case.

Hearne clearly understands this problem that he has written himself into and tries belatedly to inject some consequences. Atticus loses an arm with the tattoos that bind him to the Earth and that serve as the source for most of his power. He ends up betraying Granuaile in order to keep her out of serious danger and she leaves him in the end. The allows for the Morrigan (a death goddess is never truly dead) to appear and offer Atticus the opportunity to join her in death. Atticus turns the offer down even as he acknowledges that there really is no drawback to someone like him choosing death. Even at the end, Hearne loves his super-powerful immortal Irish hippie too much to take him where he needs to go.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Autistic Hechsers

As those readers who are both traditionally observant and parents will surely testify, it is not so easy to get children's vitamins for kids that are kosher. The problem is that most kids vitamins have gelatin in them. So it was good to find Vitamin Friends Multi Vitamin Vegetarian Gummies with an OU. In addition to the OU though, there is an Autism Hope Alliance Autism Approved symbol, presumably due to the fact that in addition to not having gelatin, the gummies do not have gluten either. I guess this group is not made up of autistic warrior daddies fighting to save their children from neurotypicality through gluten diets. I checked the group's website and they openly say that they are the "first non-profit foundation for Autism to emerge from the natural foods industry." So they are not even pretending to be anything but a creation of corporations trying to make money by pushing health fads. This is like if Kellogs had decided to start the OU and its kids' outreach arm, NCSY, themselves in order to convince people to keep kosher by only eating cornflakes. Perhaps Maxwell House should not have stopped at making Haggadahs but should have invented their own Passover Seder ritual complete with four cups of coffee. It is bad enough having to deal with parents silencing their autistic children and forcing junk science down their throats, it turns out that the parents are, in fact, corporate shills. If only we had Big Pharma to support us.   

Friday, April 27, 2018

Not Worshipping Markets: Hating Government and Loving Liberty

There is a common misunderstanding about libertarians that we worship the market. We are supposed to believe that market solutions are perfect and if only the government would get out of the way, all our problems would be solved. Someone must have assumed that Adam Smith was not being ironic when he compared the market to an "invisible hand" and (foreshadowing Darwin) argued that it is possible to have an intelligent process without any kind of intelligent designer. The market is not providence. Libertarianism is a distinctly secular (in the classic sense of being neutral about religion) anti-utopian doctrine. We do not believe that anything resembling a perfect world is possible. Human beings are flawed, both intellectually and morally; any human creation, including markets, will inevitably inherent those same flaws to some degree. This anti-utopianism is balanced by an anti-nihilism. If a perfect world is not possible, a significantly better world can be fashioned through the use of reason.

It is because libertarians are such anti-utopians that, more than we have confidence in any Smithian hidden hand, we fear government. (Whether or not I can come up with a good alternative to government licenses, I do fear that the Trump administration will use them to round up opponents. Forgive me for taking liberal concerns over Trump seriously and not as mere political rhetoric.) It is government, particularly the kind that is willing to compromise on the checks and balances means for its own ideological ends, that possesses a utopian streak. Who but a utopian would be unable to imagine a day when the very institutions they created might be turned against them? If government means to use force, even murder, how can one justify committing such violence unless one is supremely confident that each specific government action would either lead to a significantly better world or at least to prevent a worse one from coming about? Furthermore, to agree to pay taxes means buying guns for anonymous people, who will then use them to kill people for reasons that you will never be told. The only way it can be morally justifiable to agree to such a deal is if you believe there is some moral guidance protecting government officials from ever making a mistake (something akin to nineteenth-century Catholic beliefs regarding papal ex-cathedra statements). Note that this is particularly true regarding democratic governments as monarchies and aristocracies deny that personal choice is even relevant to government decisions and claim no moral authority from them.

I would go so far as to say that those who claim that libertarians worship the market are revealing something about their own worship of government. They are so enraptured with government as the solution that they cannot imagine someone questioning the legitimacy of government as an instrument of violence and therefore considering an alternative. They, therefore, attribute their own utopian faith in government to libertarians and accuse libertarians of being market worshipers.

A useful test as to whether someone tolerates government simply on pragmatic grounds or worships it as the key to man's salvation is if someone is inclined to accuse libertarians of market worship. It should follow naturally for government pragmatists, who believe that government is an inherently flawed institution, that a better solution is hypothetically possible and that other people will wish to pursue it. Such people might be wrong in regards to their proposed alternatives, but there is no reason to assume that they are motivated by a blind faith in markets.

Alternatively, we can examine if a person is willing to accept Max Weber's (not a libertarian) definition of government as a "monopoly on violence." A person who feels the need to dance around the issue that government is an act of violence is presumably doing so because they are so wrapped up in government worship that they cannot think outside of it. If government is people coming together for the sake of civilization, peace, and love while everything else is darkness, then government cannot be violent. On the contrary, it is those who reject government who must be violent as they are opposing civilization, peace, and love.

For all of my talk about hating government and that taxation is theft, I do believe it is important to recognize the limitations of such a position. A libertarianism whose hatred of government is not matched by a love of liberty will fall to nihilism and eventually authoritarianism. The rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump should make this obvious. Part of the blame for the alt-right and Trump lies within the Rothbardian libertarian tradition as embodied by figures such as Ron Paul, Walter Block, and Tom Woods. (To any Rothbardians out there, much as part of the problem with government worshipers is that they cannot imagine how anyone in good faith could think of them as violent, your inability to imagine how someone in good faith might think that you are enabling the alt-right is a big part of the problem.) I supported Ron Paul for president and highly recommend Block's Defending the Undefendable as a gateway into accepting the more radical implications of libertarianism. The Rothbardians deserve a lot of credit for keeping the libertarian focus on the immorality of government. Without them, it would be too easy to fall into making pragmatic compromises that would endanger the soul of the movement. Rothbardians are an important part of libertarianism and need to be kept as part of the family. That being said, the Rothbardian habit of focusing on opposition to the government to the exclusion of almost anything else led to the development of a certain blind spot for angry white men, who hate the government and even the Federal Reserve, ignoring whether such views came from a genuine love of liberty.

Ideally, there should not be any laws against private discrimination. This does not mean that libertarians should not be extremely wary of those whose main objection to government is that it bans discrimination. It very well may be that Donald Trump was not worse than other Republican candidates and that the liberal media hated him the most. This does not mean that one should form a Libertarians for Trump group.

This also has implications for dealing with terrorism and authoritarianism. There are good reasons to oppose US policy in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud are not libertarians. I would even go so far as to say that a large part of the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been caused by thinking in terms of states as opposed to private property owners, whether Jews or Muslims, coming to personal agreements, likely leading to some kind of multi-political entity peace plan. That being said, this does not mean that one should not actively be more against Hamas, Assad or Putin than Israel. As libertarians, we should not support intervention in Syria even if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. To go out on a limb to argue that he did not use such weapons and is merely the victim of a neo-conservative conspiracy (possibly true) is to signal that you are motivated by something other than liberty, likely a willingness to think well of anyone the CIA hates. That is an apology for authoritarianism and defending oneself by saying that libertarianism opposes tyranny, while true, simply means that one has completely betrayed libertarian ideals to the extent that libertarianism has become a dead letter ideology whose chief value now is to serve as moral cover for what libertarians should abhor.

You can justify supporting Trump on libertarian grounds (just as it would not be a contradiction for a libertarian to "feel the Bern.") There are also arguments to be made in favor of Hamas, Assad, and Putin. That being said, if, out of all the issues in the world you could have chosen, you go for one of these, I cannot take you seriously as being a libertarian in good faith. This issue is important precisely because libertarianism really can be used to justify anything in practice. Therefore, a libertarian movement requires that certain positions, a priori, render a person unacceptable for membership. Note that such a person might still be a righteous libertarian at heart even as I exclude him but not others who are ideologically less pure.

If one takes a step back to look at the Rothbardians, there is a deeper problem than Trump and other kinds of authoritarian apologetics. One is always going to have a lot of latitude in who to attack and who to defend when analyzed on a case by case basis. Inconsistencies are only going to appear when you compare who someone attacks with whom they defend. One of the curiosities of the Rothbardians is the paradox of both demanding strict ideological purity to the extent of attacking other libertarians with a willingness to tolerate figures from the alt-right. This apparent contradiction begins to make a frightening amount of sense if you take a party approach to ideology. If you assume that the point of libertarianism is to fight the government, you are going to have a problem in deciding between all the different ways of doing so. If you wish to maintain the pretense that your system is complete then you are going to need some kind of party to make decisions as to which of the many possibilities is the one true path. This means that party loyalty becomes the ideology. Under such circumstances, it becomes necessary to demonstrate party loyalty in an antinomian fashion by doing things that would otherwise appear to go against one's ideology. Rothbardians believe more in their party's strategy of courting angry white men, who hate the government than they believe in liberty. In the end, their libertarianism devolves into promoting non-libertarian ideas like "blood and soil" and claiming to be all the more libertarian for doing so.

A libertarian hatred of government needs to be matched with a love of liberty as an ongoing dialectic. For me, loving liberty means that each person has value as a narrative that they control through personal choices. People's choices matter all the more when we think that they are making a mistake. If it is not a mistake, then the choice has no positive value as a choice. Considering the limitations of human beings with their finite knowledge and lifespans, if people only remained individuals, their lives could have little meaning. Thus, the central choice of any human narrative is which society (if any and when) should a person submit themselves to. (Note that even Ayn Rand's heroes in Atlas Shrugged join a society.) To initiate aggression is to negate a person's choice, their very meaning in life. As government is the monopoly on violence, government stands as the de facto primary threat to choice. To equate government with society is to deny humans that most critical choice of all, what society to join and under what terms.

In loving liberty and not just hating government there is a challenge. If that love is expressed just in market terms, then it is going to look awfully like market worship. What is needed is an embracement of the full range of human choices, including ones that we do not approve of. It should be noted that just as this model celebrates the rights of individuals to defy society, it takes it as a given that there can be such a thing as something society disapproves of. Hence the celebration of choice has the paradoxical requirement of opposing the action. There can be no such thing as celebrating a choice you approve of. For example, I can celebrate the liberty of gay marriage precisely to the extent that I mourn the loss of traditional values. Similarly, I can celebrate the liberty of bakers refusing to bake gay wedding cakes as manifestations of intolerance. In both cases, I have paid the necessary "blood price" to allow liberty to have meaning. Note that this is not some utopian faith in liberty as leading to an ideal world. On the contrary, such liberty is founded on its tragic implications, one that ought to be avoided, human life having meaning be damned, if it were not for the fact that the government alternative is simply too horrific to accept.

Libertarianism is not some dangerous cult the encourages people to worship the market and be paranoid about the government. On the contrary, it accepts the sobering reality that government is an act of violence. The libertarian walks out from the ruins of his utopian dreams that he has abandoned with his rejection of government and seeks to learn to love the hard road of liberty. Hating the government is easy. Loving liberty, with all of its imperfections, is a challenge worth embracing.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Moshe Eliezer: Toward an Antifragile Judaism

This past Friday was my son, Mackie's, first Hebrew birthday. So I am taking the opportunity to post the speech I gave at his bris. This speech lays a framework for some ideas that I have been hoping to explore on this blog at some future point. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a concept called "antifragility." The idea is that, if you want to evaluate if a system is stable, you do not simply go by how well it handles everyday stresses. What is important is how the system handles extreme "black swan" events. Systems that are antifragile not only can survive a crisis but even gain strength from it. Part of what is counterintuitive here is that it is possible to end up rejecting the system that is superior based on what we can observe. Often, what appears as the day to day strength of a system is precisely what will bring it down in a crisis. This concept can be applied to Jewish survival. Passing on Judaism to the next generation means not becoming seduced by things that look impressive from the outside to the neglect of things that can survive a crisis. It is one thing to talk about how it is great to raise children in Brooklyn or Jerusalem and what is the best way to do so under those circumstances. The interesting and relevant question is how to raise children when Brooklyn and Jerusalem are not options. In the end, the only kind of Judaism that is going to survive, regardless of geography, is that which can make it outside of such places. 

We have decided to name our son Moshe Eliezer in honor of my great-grandfather and my teacher, the late Prof. Louis Feldman. What they both had in common was a Judaism that was antifragile and could survive even under less than ideal circumstances.

My great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Shapiro, grew up in Israel but had to flee during World War I. He ended up as the rabbi of Atlantic City, NJ. Atlantic City in the 1920s was a relatively family-friendly resort town that inspired the game of Monopoly. That being said, this was never his plan for how he was going to lead his life. For example, my grandmother grew up going to public school. Things would have been much simpler if he could have stayed with his father, my namesake, in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he could have lived out a more ideal Torah lifestyle. Perhaps this is the origin of the Chinn family preference for out of the way Jewish communities. My father was raised in McKeesport, PA and I was raised in Columbus, OH. I now find myself raising my children in Pasadena, CA.

The character trait about Prof. Louis H. Feldman (Eliezer Tzvi) that most struck people who knew him was that he was so much more than the short old man in a baseball cap, crumpled chalk-stained suit, and sneakers that he appeared. At one level, his appearance disguised the fact that he was a genius and the foremost scholar of Josephus of his age. Feldman embodied humility; he honestly did not seek honor nor did he desire people to recognize his greatness. He was able to do this because it really was never about him. He wanted other people to know and love the classical world like he did. The more he could get others to see this and not himself the better.

To dig deeper, Prof. Feldman's scholarship disguised what a holy person he was. If he was not most people's idea of a great scholar, he was certainly no one's idea of a tzadik. What kind of nice Jewish boy would spend his life on Greek and Latin? Feldman was not just a classics scholar who also happened to be a religious Jew. Underlying everything he wrote, was an implicit apology for what Jerusalem had to do with Athens. The world of Philo and Josephus was a model for Feldman as to how to be a Jew in the modern world. Feldman's Judaism was never pure or ideal, but that was its strength; it was capable of surviving in an impure non-ideal world.

In his final years, I used to regularly visit Prof. Feldman. More than history, what he liked to talk about was growing up in Hartford, CT. If you are looking for the key to Feldman's unconventional Judaism, the place to start is in Hartford. As with Atlantic City, Hartford was not anyone's ideal place to raise Jewish children. Maybe that was the point. How could someone be a religious Jew in academia? The same way that one could be religious in Hartford and the same way that one could be religious in ancient Alexandria or in Rome; with unwavering values and a sense of humor.

Moshe Eliezer, welcome to the family. I can't tell you that things are going to be simple and I am sure you are going to have lots of questions but that is the Judaism that I am offering you. It is antifragile enough to survive even when things are less than ideal. There are challenges ahead here in Pasadena but you are capable of handling them. How do I know this? Because your roots run much deeper than just Pasadena. They go back to Columbus, to McKeesport, to Atlantic City, and to Hartford. If you dig deeper you will find that they go back to Alexandria and Rome. I look forward to teaching you about your classical heritage. If you stick with it, you just might find your way back to Jerusalem.   

Monday, April 2, 2018

Towards a Good Exodus Movie: Brandon Sanderson's Second Law

There have been numerous film versions of the biblical Exodus story, none satisfactory. In honor of Passover, I would like to consider what it might take to do the exodus right. We do not need Prince Moses discovering himself. As great an actor as Charlton Heston was, Moses should not be some macho superhero who is emotionally invulnerable. That being said, Moses should not whine or feel sorry for himself like in the Prince of Egypt. We do not need a cycle of repetitive big special effects plagues followed by a stereotypical stubborn Pharaoh refusing to let the Children of Israel go. We need Moshe Rabainu, the Jewish tragic hero.

The first thing to consider is the soul of the story, something that the exodus can offer like no other story. Harry Potter is about being taken to a magical place that you dearly wish actually existed. The exodus is about God exists and he cares about the downtrodden. The unjust moral order that you take for granted is about to be overturned. I do not care if you are an atheist, you desperately want this to be true. The exodus is about a good man, Moshe, living in a terrible world. He has given up trying to fix it. He is content to be a shepherd and a  family man. Then he receives the surprise of his life. Not that God exists (without God there can be no standard to judge the world as wicked) but that God cares about the scum of the earth Israelites that Moshe has tried to distance himself from. Now it is Moshe's task to get the Israelites out of Egypt and make them into a people worthy of God's love.

The critical challenge to telling the exodus is the fact the Moshe is simply too powerful. He has the power of God behind him. How can the story turn out any other way than him defeating Pharaoh, taking the Israelites out of Egypt and living happily ever after? This is predictable and boring. Furthermore, it does not challenge us. As with all stories, problems are opportunities to make something truly great. For this, we turn to Brandon Sanderson's Second Law of Magic; what a character cannot do is much more important than what he can do. It might be cool to imagine a character with all kinds of superpowers, but ultimately what gives you a plot are the limitations that even the powerful operate under. What kinds of problems can't the hero solve with their powers? Even better, what kinds of problems are created by these powers.

Moshe has a staff, his brother Aaron, God, and a whole battery of miracles to beat Egypt into submission. Here is what he does not have, the ability to force either Pharaoh or the Israelites to consent to anything. This is what makes Pharaoh an intriguing adversary. He has the power to thwart God himself. All he needs to is to harden his heart and be stubborn enough to allow the destruction of Egypt. As the plagues unfold, what is happening is not the wicked Pharaoh getting what he deserves. On the contrary, Pharaoh is winning. Egypt may be burning but for Pharaoh that is a small price to pay for him to beat God and prove that, in some sense, he is a god too. Despite all of Moshe's power, Pharaoh can lie and humiliate him with utter impunity.

In the end, Pharaoh does crack after the deaths of the first-born Egyptians, but he has one last card to play. He knows that the Israelites do not want to actually leave Egypt and become some kind of chosen people. All he needs to do is show up with his army and the Israelites will gladly hand Moshe over and return to Egypt. Pharaoh will have won and there is nothing Moshe or God can do about it. Pharaoh's plan is undone because the Israelites possess the faith to jump into the water and God is willing to differentiate between the Israelites and the Egyptians. As the Israelites sing at the shore of the Red Sea, it appears that God's miracles have not only redeemed Israel from Egypt but have led to a spiritual awakening to make them worthy of receiving the Torah.

I would suggest a corollary to Sanderson's Law; any hero who is sufficiently powerful must ultimately fail and come to a tragic end otherwise the audience would never believe that their weaknesses were ever genuine to being with. Think of characters like Oedipus or King Lear, all powerful in their domains with no plausible challenges. There is no way to tell a story about them that is not a tragedy. Oedipus and Lear need to fall not because anyone could beat them but because they self-destruct through their failure of understanding. Oedipus, the man who understands the nature of man, fails to see himself and accidentally murders his father and marries his mother. Lear lacks the theory mind to appreciate how Regan and Goneril could lie to him and fails to appreciate the value of Cordelia speaking a simple selfless truth that he does not want to hear. By this thinking, we must follow Moshe's success in Egypt and at the Red Sea with an act II in which everything falls apart.

Let us go back to Moshe at the burning bush as he tries to tell God that he does not want to be the savior of the Israelites. This is not the Hero with a Thousand Faces initially refusing the call of destiny (Luke Skywalker not wanting to abandon the family moisture farm to rescue the princess). This is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane saying "take this cup away from me."

(Jim Caviezel anchors the movie with the scene. For the passion sequences to work, Jesus needs to both suffer and transcend that suffering. Jesus and the audience knows that he is about to be tortured.  Here we are allowed to see Jesus be truly vulnerable in a way that you can't in the rest of the movie as he needs to always be moving forward without ever wanting to escape his torment.)

Moshe knows that he is being set an impossible task. It does not matter if he can twist Pharaoh's arm into letting the Israelites go. The Israelites are not worthy of redemption and any attempt to do so is doomed to failure. Moshe is being asked to undergo not twelve hours of torture, but forty years of abuse and humiliation all for nothing. He is going to be Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.

Moshe takes on this battle that he knows he cannot win. He undergoes his tribulations with Pharaoh and a few altercations with the Israelites to hint as to what is coming. They get through the Red Sea and on to Mount Sinai. Just as we are tempted to think that this might all work out after all, we get the Golden Calf. Here we get to the crucial moment for Moshe. He has proven that he was right about the Israelites all along. Even God now agrees and is going to destroy the Israelites and let Moshe off the hook. Moshe puts himself in harm's way to save the very people he despises by threatening God that if God will not save Israel, he does not want anything to do with God. More incredibly still, Moshe succeeds at doing what Pharaoh could not, forcing God to change his mind.

Despite Moshe saving Israel, things do not really improve. The Israelites demand meat, the spies convince them not to go to Canaan and Korah rebels. Eventually, when the Israelites demand water, Moshe just snaps; he yells at them and hits the rock. God punishes Moshe and refuses to let him into the Promised Land. Moshe dies standing on Mount Nebo looking down as the people under Joshua prepare to enter the Land. We know that this is not going to turn out well. We have hundreds of years of the Israelites sinning against God, culminating in their expulsion from the Land and the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians.

As with most good tragedies, there is transcendence and hope. Long after the pharaohs have gone, those Israelites who rejected Moshe time and again still keep Moshe's Torah. Every year, they gather around a Passover seder to remember their teacher as parents tell their children the real greatest story ever told. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Horrific Doctrines: Being a Cartoon Libertarian and Accepting Jesus as My Savior

Let me first state, that I think Markets Without Limits by Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski is a fantastic book. Their argument that anything you can do for free you should also be allowed to do for money offers a useful means of talking about market morality within the general society. The price that they pay for this argument is that this is not a libertarian book. The authors, to their credit, make a point in avoiding the argument that anything consensual should be considered moral or legal. For example, they would morally oppose me posting nude pictures of my children on the internet regardless of whether we were paid for them. This has the virtue of not only being intellectually honest but also avoids allowing their argument to become confused with the non-aggression principle and rejected by the people who do not accept it. 

That being said, I was bothered by a passage that stated: "we did not write that book because neither of us agree with libertarian political morality. We have classical liberal sympathies, but we are not cartoon libertarians." (23) Obviously, Brennan and Jaworski do not have to accept libertarian political morality and, as I will argue later on, there are good reasons to reject it. My problem is that they seem to equate libertarian political morality with being a cartoon libertarian as if that was a bad thing. It is almost as if they are saying that it is ok to be a libertarian as long as you do not take libertarianism too seriously to the extent that it defines your political morality. Anyone who does that is a cartoon and not to be taken seriously. In that spirit, I wish to defend being a "cartoon libertarian;" you know that person who seems to reduce all politics to government is force and taxation is theft.  

I readily acknowledge that there are some serious limitations to running around saying "taxation is theft" a lot. For one thing, that is not enough to be a libertarian. One cannot theorize a full libertarian philosophy, let alone any kind of well thought out public policy proposals, merely by trying to proceed logically from that one premise. Furthermore, saying "taxation is theft" is likely to alienate people, including many libertarians. It is a horrific doctrine. Most people in government really mean well and some of them even honestly do good things. It is monstrous to truly believe that a politician standing up and saying that he has a plan to help sick children and the elderly get badly needed medical care is really the moral equivalent of a masked gunman who robs a hospital. Is it morally ok to shoot the politician? (In principle yes, even if it is unlikely to ever be practical.) If you are not bothered by this claim, you have either not properly thought it through or you are a sociopath, not someone who can be accepted as a member of the liberty family in good standing. That being said, I do defend the notion that taxation is theft and that it is important to be very open about it, even if it will forever banish us to the political margins. The reason for this is that, without the belief that taxation is theft, no libertarian movement will survive long in a meaningful sense as libertarians will all too easily be co-opted by other movements.

To understand this, it might be useful to consider the example of Christianity. At the heart of Orthodox Christianity is the belief that Jesus is the savior of the world. As I think even most Christians would agree, this is a horrific doctrine. (In its Calvinist form, it descends to Lovecraftian levels of horror.) I like to think of myself as a good person. I try really hard and I usually do the right thing. I need Jesus, because without him, no matter how hard I try and no matter my good intentions, I will never make myself right with God. No matter how many good deeds I might perform, I am not truly better than Hitler. Both Hitler and I are depraved sinners and deserve to burn in Hell. The only thing that might save me, in the end, is that Christ died on the cross as atonement. Even if no honestly decent person were sent to Hell, this would still be a horrific doctrine as it denies the possibility of personal righteousness so critical to how most people live their lives.   

Now, as a Jew, I might like me might be tempted to look down on Christians for their "unenlightened" views and I think there is something to be said for how Jewish parochialism, in practice, is far more universalistic than Christianity. (The fact that Judaism is about God's relationship with a particular group of people opens the door to recognizing that God has all kinds of relationships with people that have nothing to do with Judaism. The fact that Judaism was never designed as a universalistic religion allows it not to be and for us to respect other people for being the righteous non-Jews, who are still right with God, that they are.) I suspect that even most practicing Christians would agree with me. (Please do not write to me to tell me that you are a Christian, but do not believe that I need to accept Jesus to avoid burning in Hell. You may be right, but that is beside the point.) That being said, Christianity would not be better off if only it took a more "ecumenical" view. On the contrary, such a Christianity would not long survive. It would simply be too easy for such a Christianity to be chopped up for parts. If you are on the political left, "love thy neighbor" is really a Jewish concept and it is likely that Buddhists might fulfill this commandment better than either religion. If you are on the right, you can be a Republican and still be a hypocrite about family values. None of these things require Jesus. It might serve the interests of those on either the left or right to continue to use the label "Christianity," but Christianity would cease as its own ideology, incapable of influencing Christians let alone the world. 

In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis argued that Christianity was the one religion that needed its miracle no matter how much that might trouble the modern scientific mind. If the life of Jesus was not some earth-shattering miracle of God becoming flesh, there would be no point to the religion. Jesus as a wise rabbinic teacher is useless for Christianity (hence Lewis' famous trilemma). You might as well be a Jew or practice some other ethical monotheistic religion, perhaps a stoic philosopher. Just as Christianity needs its miracle as embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity needs its horrific doctrine that this miracle was necessary in the first place.   

Over the past few decades, it has been a strength precisely of Evangelical Christians that they have been willing to insist on the necessity of accepting Jesus as your savior despite the fact that it turns so many people off. Perhaps it has been their tragedy that they have not insisted hard enough and allowed themselves to be co-opted by the Republican Party to the extent of Evangelical leaders being willing to endorse Trump despite him being the most blatantly non-Christian major candidate in our country's history. They will pay a steep price for this as millions of Evangelical kids will turn around and ask their parents how they could endorse Trump for president and not endorse them for their lapses in Christian living such as pursuing an openly gay lifestyle. (One thinks of Shelby Steele's argument that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was fueled, in part, by white parents lacking the moral authority to denounce their children's sexual behavior on account that they had, at least passively, been complacent in the much greater evils of segregation and racism.)

Insisting that Jesus is the savior may sound simplistic, but there is an advantage to simplicity. Consider the example of the slave Tom from Uncle Tom's Cabin. First, it is important to recognize that, contrary to what the name has come to imply, there is nothing weak about Tom. A person who allows himself to be beaten to death rather than give up information is anything but weak. The key to understanding Tom is that he is simple. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's hand, what sounds like a negative stereotype is turned on its head as Tom is fashioned into a model Christian. Tom knows one truth that his soul was bought and paid for on Calvary with the blood of Jesus. There are two corollaries to this claim. First, it is Christ's will that Tom is sent into slavery in order that he preach this Gospel truth to everyone, black and white. Second, while Tom might be obligated to obey orders, the white man is not his real owner. This is Tom's truth and he never allows himself to become distracted by other issues. If Tom were a more gifted theologian, read Augustine and learned to separate the political from the spiritual realm, he likely would have fallen either into despair at his circumstance or into flattering his masters. If Jesus did not send me to save the soul of even a wicked man like Simon Legree, I should probably do the world a favor and kill him while he lies drunk at my feet. Alternatively, maybe, if I speak nicely to the white man and tone down the plain truth that to own slaves is to deny Jesus, he will be good to me and might even set me free. Tom's last breath is to reject young George Shelby's attempt to buy his freedom. Shelby might want, in today's language, to be a "good white ally" of slaves, but if he were a better Christian, he would have realized that just as he never really had the power to enslave anyone, it is not within his power to make anyone free, Jesus already accomplished that. 

To bring this back to libertarianism, the claim "taxation is theft," like "Jesus is the savior," may be a horrific doctrine that alienates most people, including libertarians, but it protects the movement from being captured by outside interests. In a sense, the very alienation created by saying that taxation is theft is valuable as a signaling device. Anyone with an outside agenda would be kept away precisely by a doctrine so abhorrent to anyone who is not a libertarian today. 

All libertarians have other allegiances, whether we come from the left or the right. A thick libertarianism that allowed itself to become distracted from "taxation is theft" would quickly lose it relevance. Left-libertarians can support civil liberties and right-libertarians can support property rights, while each side ignores the other part. Furthermore, one can always defend distinctly unlibertarian policies on libertarian grounds. Forcing Christians to bake gay wedding cakes or banning Muslim immigrants might, in the long run, serve to create a society more open to libertarian ideals. Thus, libertarianism can easily be infiltrated and used to support other ends. By insisting that "taxation is theft" be placed front and center of the movement we force everyone, left and right, to surrender any claim of using the government to advance even explicitly libertarian causes. Left or right-libertarian, I will find a way to work with you. You are allowed to accept the reality that we have government and, certainly for the near future, there may not be a better option. That being said, if you are not deeply troubled by the very concept of government action, you need to leave the movement.   

All ideologies have their horrific elements in that one is going to have to accept the equivalent of a pile of dead children. This is simply a matter of consistency. If you have not figured out how your beliefs lead to dead children or worse, you have not thought them out properly. There is a practical value to being open and honest about one's horrific doctrines. It allows you to keep out those who are merely trying to use you for their own ends. If they reject your horrific doctrines, you can assume that they have rejected other parts as well. So here is to the cartoon libertarians with their simple faith that taxation is theft. Your doctrine is horrific and you will never be more than a despised minority. You are also the reason why the libertarian movement will survive another generation and you are the reason why it is worth having a libertarian, movement, even one that is a despised minority, to begin with.  

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Rhetoric of Critical Theory and Intersectionality: A Review of Authoring Autism

Melanie Yergeau is an old friend of mine from my Ohio State days (though she has since gone over to the School Up North). She was the driving force behind the founding of the Columbus chapter of ASAN. I would describe our relationship as she led, I followed; I spoke loudly, she got things done. (You can say that I was the Emerson to her Peabody.) 

She was a very quiet person, but that quietness masked a very sharp tongue that did not suffer fools lightly. When I got into trouble with the central ASAN office over my understanding of rights, she had my back. Of the two of us, she was the one to actually finish her doctorate and enter academia. (Just in case you were wondering which of us is the better dysfunctional autie.) So it was with great pleasure that I read her book, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness.  

The book perfectly embodies Melanie's ability to get you to underestimate her soft-spoken nature until she knocks your teeth out. In a sense, Melanie offers a more sophisticated autism narrative designed to demonstrate that behind the peculiar autistic quirks lies a serious intellect. This personal narrative serves as a vehicle for self-reflection on the role of narrative in crafting personhood. The central thesis of the book is that autism is a form of rhetoric to express oneself instead of the non-rhetoric of the missing person stolen by autism. 

There is a lot to recommend in this book (besides for the fact that I am mentioned in the acknowledgments). Melanie's fighting personality comes across throughout and never allows the book to get boring. I cannot think of an academic work that has more cursing in it (and I have read books about the history and psychology of profanity). This is a rare example in which the profanity is appropriate and adds to the book. This is not some abstract analysis of autistic rhetoric, but a primal scream of someone who has lived with the specter of being shut down and denied a voice. It is only proper that the author's voice ring out uncensored for good and ill. This is not a rose-tinted view of autism, but an honest one, literal and metaphorical poop included.  

Melanie notes that many in the medical profession would dismiss what she has to say about autism on the grounds that her ability to communicate and write a book precludes her from "truly" understanding autism. Of course, if she was unable to write she would not be able to communicate her autie experience.  I particularly wish to call attention to Melanie's use of Zeno's Paradox as a means of describing the rhetorical trap we face. If you constantly gain fifty percent on someone, you will never catch up. Similarly, auties live in a world in which, no matter how hard they work, they are endlessly running to live up to neurotypical standards of behavior and can never catch up. The problem is that neurotypical have been placed in a position of judgment in the first place, from which they can always find reasons why you do not measure up to their standards. 

I am reminded of something Trevor Noah brings up when talking about South African apartheid. One of the reasons why the white minority was able to rule was that there existed a wider population of coloreds, who were placed above the black majority. Whites held out the promise to coloreds that, if they met certain arbitrary bureaucratic standards, they too could become classified as white. Hence you had a colored population forever chasing acceptance for themselves while also keeping blacks down at of a fear of being tainted by them. 

The problem with Authoring Autism is that it feels the need to place itself within the structure of critical theory and intersectionality. Despite the fact that people on the autism spectrum face very real violence, Melanie often seems far more concerned with denouncing as violence any time other people have power over her. Even though our cause would be just even if we lived in a world that lacked oppression otherwise, Melanie feels the need to attach autism to other causes like LGBT rights to the point that it often is not clear which one she is advocating for.
Obviously, it is reasonable to be both pro-autistic and LGBT rights. That being said, they are distinct and any attempt to confuse the two is not only intellectually dishonest but likely to cause harm to both sides. Consider the example of libertarianism. I am an autie libertarian. There are a number of us out there and there is certainly a lot of overlap between the two. That being said, they are not the same. Furthermore, it is inevitable that a conflict of interest will arise and one will have to choose between the two. Even when I choose to be a libertarian over being an autie, I have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge what I am doing. Even here, I benefit the cause of autism by not writing myself a blank check to piss on autistics and pretend I was doing otherwise.   

Much of the book is an attack on ABA, which is perfectly legitimate. The practice can easily cross the line into physical abuse. Such abuse is facilitated by an attitude that delegitimizes the personal lives of autistics. If you view people on the spectrum as suffering something akin to being dead then it logically follows that any attempt to “cure” them, no matter how extreme, is acceptable. One can imagine even agreeing to play Russian roulette with autistic lives; either we cure them or they die, which would still be better for everyone involved.  

For some strange reason, Melanie seems intent on connecting ABA to gay conversion therapy programs. While I am inclined to see gay conversion as the more problematic of the two, it almost seems as if the real crime committed by the founders of ABA, in Melanie’s eyes, was supporting gay conversion therapy. Furthermore, whether it is ABA or gay conversion, Melanie seems less concerned with physical abuse than with the very notion of people in power making judgments about those in their care.  

This need to declare autism professionals guilty of every non-autism related charge leads to some comically absurd conclusions, such as that autism organizations are racist. According to Melanie: "Even a cursory glance at the boards of major autism advocacy organizations reveals white supremacy at work." (158) The reason for this is that they are "surprisingly white." For example, in 2013, Autism Speaks had twenty-five white men and only one person of color on its board. As someone who dislikes Autism Speaks greatly and has repeatedly denounced racism on this blog, complaining about the racial makeup of their board seems beside the point. 

Lack of diversity on a board is a problem as it strongly suggests a lack of openness to alternative points of view. This marks an important step on the road to actual racism, but in of itself is not racism. If you wish to say that this is a symptom not of white supremacists but of a white supremacist society, you may be right. That being said, it makes everyone, from me to Melanie, racists and renders the term useless in the fight against actual racists.

Efforts should be made to make autism organization boards more diverse, but that is hardly a top priority. If Autism Speaks made a serious effort to recruit more minorities, I would not see them as any less dangerous. Quite the contrary, as the Me Too movement has demonstrated, a general support for progressive causes can coexist and even facilitate highly abusive behavior against women. Similarly, if Autism Speaks were to unveil a front office made entirely of black Muslim lesbians, I would suspect that they were trying to create the ideological cover for themselves in order to blatantly call for eugenic policies against autistics.   

If we are going to be accusing autism professionals of heteronormative thinking and downright white supremacy, it is only reasonable to also throw in … (can you guess it?) neo-liberalism. Thus, we learn:

… cognitive rhetorics quantify both behavior and free will and gain their rhetorical traction through neoliberalism. The productive subject reigns, and mental hygiene is a paragon of productivity. What neuroplasticity lends to capitalism are rhetorics of improvability and calculability. … under neoliberalism, we will always need more of these things, and it is our individual responsibility to acquire them. (130)

I confess to being uncertain what this passage even means. I think it has something to do with condemning anyone analyzing society from a rationalist perspective and believes in individual self-improvement.

Neoliberalism is a term that, in practice, can mean anyone from Donald Trump to Ta-Nehisi Coates, anyone not Prof. Cornel West. (I am sure, though, that someone, at some point, has accused West of being a neoliberal. Who else, but a secret neoliberal, would so recklessly accuse others of being neoliberals?) There is a certain irony to this. In a book premised on the notion of people have a right to their own discourse and not to be defined by others, a word like neoliberalism is used even though epitomizes not allowing people to define themselves. Neoliberalism is not a word people use for themselves.  It is an epithet used to define other people with little sense of what they might actually believe. Let us be charitable and assume that Melanie was simply mentioning how other people have attacked neoliberalism because she needed to cross off neoliberalism from some checklist.

This leads me to a more personal complaint. Melanie mentions an incident with the autism book club we both were involved in that used to meet at the Barnes and Noble on High St., near the OSU campus. The members were a mixture of people on the spectrum, mostly boys in their late teens and early twenties, and people involved with autism social work. There was a vote between Catch-22 and the Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight. Incident of the Dog won largely because the non-autistics in the group voted for it. From Melanie's perspective, it was not just that the book was badly written or that it failed to accurately portray autism, the book itself was oppressive. The fact that non-autistics dared to vote at all was bad enough, but they used their vote to "make" us read this book. 

I confess to not remembering the vote. I cannot recall what book I voted for. I do remember reading Incident of the Dog and that we later read Catch-22. Let me state for the record that I did not like Catch-22 and thought it was over-rated. I was ok with Incident of the Dog largely because, having previously read it, I had no large hope invested in it. It was a humorous book, but hardly the book I would have recommended to people trying to understand what it means to be on the spectrum. My teenage self had little in common with Christopher and the same could be said with the other teenage boys in the group. 

The non-autistics were in the book club to better their understanding of autism and one of the virtues of the club was that it allowed them to interact with us in a non-hierarchical manner as opposed to a more professional setting. I don't think anyone was trying to force us to think of autism in any particular way. It was only reasonable for them to be curious how autistics would view what had by then become a classic novel on the topic. Let me state for the record that I am very grateful to Dr. Renee Devlin, Hillary Knapp Spears and the others who took part in the club over the years. I find their implicit treatment here to be unfair and downright insulting. 

I believe that autistics have a voice and are capable of rhetoric. For that voice to be heard, it is necessary to take control of the autism narrative away from parents and professionals, even well-meaning ones. Melanie is a powerful force on this front and I look forward to reading her future work. That being said, Authoring Autism is a cautionary tale of how critical theory and intersectionality can taint even a noble cause. I look forward to the day when auties can engage in their own rhetoric, unfettered by the boxes that others, whether parents, professionals or modern liberalism, wish to place us in.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

No, Nancy MacLean, Autistic People Do Not Become Libertarians Because They Lack Empathy

I must confess that since reading Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, my opinion of her has only lessened. To move away from her incompetence as a historian or an economist, I would like to discuss her views on autism. As always, whenever suggesting that MacLean might not be completely correct, it is important to confess, right from the start: I am a Koch minion so you should ignore everything that I say. All arguments against her simply prove how deep and nefarious the "not exactly a conspiracy" against her is and how desperate her enemies have become now that she has revealed the truth about them. (Also, as an Asperger, I have no sense of humor and am incapable of sarcasm.)

This is a video of a speech given several days ago by historian MacLean about her book. At about the hour mark, she speculates that James Buchanan and other people who share his libertarian politics (or his desire to take over the world) are autistic as they do not "feel solidarity or empathy with other people." This is a further jump from her attempt, in her book, to make something out of the fact that Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economist, is involved with the autistic advocacy. Now she is going so far as to diagnose Buchanan, a man who never identified himself with the neurodiverse community.

Whether Buchanan really was on the spectrum or not, this is dangerous slander, particularly for the casual way in which she frames it, as if it was a truth that everyone knew that people on the autism spectrum lacked empathy. Such "casual truths," by their nature cannot easily be refuted by simply pointing out the facts because people are not going to think that it is even a matter for debate. You can actually see this in action a few minutes later in the video. A person in the audience runs with MacLean's statement and jokingly starts talking about autistic libertarians trying to take over law schools.   

The principle of rational ignorance teaches us that there is no reason to expect MacLean to educate herself about autistic people or care about what we might find offensive. It is generally not productive to get worked up about someone (even a university professor) being wrong on the internet. My justification for this is twofold. First, her account of Buchanan's life is an exercise in trying to tar someone as a racist on the vaguest kinds of guilt by association. (Contrast her case against Buchanan with the kind of evidence that Prof. Deborah Lipstadt and her team had to produce when sued by David Irving.) It is a losing proposition to simply attempt to defend Buchanan. It is inevitable that at some time, over his career, that he walked within a mile of a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. It is necessary, therefore, to hold MacLean to her own standards. The fact that she fails, robs her of the authority to prosecute her case and demonstrates that she does not care about tolerance, but merely uses it as moral cover for her progressive agenda. (If Buchanan was guilty of all of MacLean's charges, but was a progressive in his politics and economics, would this book have ever been written?)

Second, there is a wider case to be made against modern liberalism, which gains much of its moral authority from its claim to universal tolerance. This is connected to modern liberalism's claim to knowledge of some objective "public welfare." It is impossible for anyone to be universally tolerant or to grasp the public welfare. Inevitably, much like G. K. Chesterton's insane rationalist, reality is chopped up to fit the limitations of the human mind. Tolerance for certain people must take precedence. In practice, this means that liberals are terrible at considering problems of justice the moment they have to step outside of their narrow index card of privilege scoring. (What do you do when the villains are not white Christian heterosexual men?)

There is an even larger problem in that the liberal's belief in the ultimate value of tolerance makes it difficult for them to ever question their own prejudices. This is similar to how formal religion has a tendency to work against actual spirituality. How can a person whose very notion of self is equated with their relationship with God ever question the genuineness of that relationship? (The dark night of the soul, by its very nature, is something that only God, not the human seeker, can initiate.) Likewise, since the liberal defines himself as tolerant and it is this tolerance that gives him moral authority over all the "less enlightened," any attempt to question that tolerance challenges the liberal's very being. By contrast, both religious people and liberals might agree that it is a virtue to be slow to anger. That being said, acknowledging that one is quick to anger (something I am quite guilty of) is not that serious a problem as it does not challenge anyone's central narrative of themselves nor undermine anyone's moral authority.  

Are libertarians likely to be on the autism spectrum? In my experience, there seems to be some truth to this. If I were in charge of a libertarian organization, I would make a special point in reaching out to autism organizations on the assumption that they contained likely converts and vice versa. (Admittedly, as a libertarian on the autism spectrum I am biased to notice people like me.) This is not because we lack empathy; whatever the very real challenges of being on the autism spectrum, lacking empathy is not one of them. I suspect that autistics come preconditioned to make the kind of Faustian bargain necessary for ideological libertarianism (as opposed to simply being socially liberal and fiscally conservative). Libertarianism offers the prospect of being right and logically consistent, but the price you pay is irrelevancy. Note that I am not claiming that libertarians are right or consistent; on the contrary, to even seriously consider libertarianism you have to be willing to surrender relevancy and you may never turn out to be right or consistent.

I confess that this is a limitation of my own thinking. A politically conservative relative recently compared reading this blog to a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. You can count on Calvin being logical, but nothing he says has anything to do with planet Earth. I write in order to have my own little universe that is rational and where the things I care about matter. There would be no point in writing if I lived in a world that actually reflected my mode of being. 

In politics, this leads to voting for Gov. Gary Johnson in the last election even though he only got three percent of the vote. (Not that Johnson was some kind of perfect libertarian. Furthermore, voting for him did not make you one and vice versa.) I voted for Johnson precisely because I refused to make the practical consideration of whether Trump or Clinton was worse than the other. I simply voted for him out of a desire to stick to my principles, to live according to a set of values that exist only in my head. I readily grant that, by doing so, I chose to make myself irrelevant. Not that I have any regrets, but I threw my vote away and neither of the two parties has any reason to take me into consideration.

Consider libertarian principles like "taxation is theft" and "the state has no special moral authority." These are great for those on the spectrum as it offers the chance to turn political science into geometry with beliefs that logically follow clear axioms and theorems. Trying to beat neurotypicals' heads with these ideas is unproductive as they do not relate to their lived experiences. We live in a world of states that claim the moral authority to tax and do anything else for the "public welfare." The state is so ubiquitous that it is meaningless to seriously analyze it as an instrument of power. Unless you can produce something tangible with it, neurotypicals are not likely to make the moral jump and reject the state. To mentally live in a world where you have rejected the government from your own head has no meaning for them.

This leads us to a certain irony in MacLean's accusations of a Koch backed libertarian conspiracy. Much as anti-Semites would have never dreamed up the Protocols of the Elders of Zion if they only had spent time with Jews and saw that Jews could not plot through a kiddush, if MacLean understood either libertarians or autistics, she would have realized that we have no master plan and, if we had to come up with one, it would be much better than the one she invented for us. Buchanan, whether or not he was on the spectrum, wrote as an academic for people living a century in the future, not guidebooks on overthrowing the state.

Autistics are often accused of lacking a theory of mind. In essence, this is a more sophisticated version of the lacking empathy libel. It has the advantage of sounding more clinical and offers the fig-leaf of pretending not to be prejudiced. What is funny about MacLean is the extent that she seems to lack any theory of mind regarding her opponents. Conspiracy thinking is fundamentally about lacking theory of mind in the sense that you assume that your opponents claim what they claim, knowing that it is false, for some sinister purpose as opposed to accepting that, whether they are right or wrong, they honestly believe what they say.

History is about getting into the mind of your subject. If MacLean honestly wanted to write a biography about Buchanan, she should have, for the purposes of the book, started with the assumption that public choice economics is correct. Furthermore, that progressivism, the New Deal, and the 1960s marked wrong turns for this country. If you were an academic who believed this, how would you have responded? Now you have a story worth telling regardless of your political affiliation. The fact that MacLean failed to do this does not mean that she is autistic; she simply lacks the moral imagination to be a good historian.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Needing the Secular World: A Thought Experiment and Some Rodney Stark

In the last 
post, I discussed the idea that Haredim, while they might possess individual scientists, are incapable of creating their own genuine scientific culture. This brought up an argument from the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the necessity of being able to fill out all jobs required by a society. It is not enough for Haredim to say that other people should be doctors or lawyers and, for that matter, policemen and garbage collectors; Haredim need to be able to fill these positions themselves. The fact that Haredim cannot do this, in the long run, poses a major ideological challenge far beyond any particular scientific argument. I would like to further develop this idea with a thought experiment and consideration of the Rodney Stark model of conversion. 

Imagine a town divided between secular people and Haredim. No one has a political advantage to allow them to force their values on anyone. Both Haredi and secular parents are keen to pass on their values to their children and keep them from going over to the other side. One major advantage that secular parents would have is that, ironically, it would be easier for them to raise their children without ever interacting with the other side. The reason for this is that there is no job that they require that they cannot simply fill in with their own people without recourse to Haredim. They can make sure that their children only visit secular doctors and have their trash picked up by secular garbageman. Haredim, for all their talk about maintaining their purity, are forced to lead relatively open lives. Every day Haredi children will walk past secular policemen and garbageman. If they get sick, they will be hard-pressed to make sure that they are seen by a religious doctor. It will not only that these people happen to be secular, but the children will be conscious of these facts as they have been taught to think of these as non-religious jobs.  

Haredim, of all people, should be able to instinctively appreciate how such casual contact with the outside world can become spiritually dangerous. To understand the problem at an intellectual level, it is useful to turn to the sociologist Rodney Stark and his model of conversion. Stark argues for the importance of social relations in causing people to convert to a different denomination or even to move outside of one's religion. People are unlikely to be converted and even more importantly stay converted due to some argument made by a stranger in the street. By contrast, they are very open to their friends and family. 

There are two major reasons why a personal connection is so much more valuable than an intellectual argument. Human beings are social creatures. Even if we wanted to, we are unlikely to be able to change our lives around an argument, even one we believed. By contrast, we do readily change our behavior to match those around us. Furthermore, it is social relations that are going to keep a person within a movement. An argument can be countered with another argument. By contrast, you cannot will a new set of social connections into place; it takes years of work (particularly if you are not a neurotypical).

A good example of this kind of thinking can be found in Mormonism. The LDS Church, decades ago, recognized that having missionaries try to "cold call" strangers was essentially useless. By contrast, having a potential convert meet with a missionary at the home of a Mormon friend was very effective. Hence the LDS Church has now built their entire missionary program around this premise. 

Everyone has their moments of crisis. People with a strong spiritual sensibility are likely to have more of them and they are likely to involve their chosen faiths. Keep in mind that, if you never expect much from your religion, it can never disappoint you. It is precisely the true believer who can become disillusioned. When that happens it can only benefit the LDS Church if you have a Mormon friend that you can find yourself falling into a theological conversation with. This friend can then suggest that perhaps you might want to come over to his house sometime to continue this conversation with some of his other "friends."

This idea that people are ultimately converted by their friends leads us to a particular narrative of conversion. There is a first stage in which a person "socially" converts in the sense that they take on a group of friends, who happen to follow a particular religion. At this point, there is nothing intellectual involved. In fact, the person would likely insist that they have not converted or changed in any significant way. That being said, this is the truly crucial stage. At some point, a person is going to realize that he has come to associate with people from a particular religion and that religion carries a particular ideology that needs to be taken into consideration. A person who fully converts is likely to look back and reframe their narrative to make themselves seekers who found their faith when, in truth, it was the religion that found them.  

This idea of social conversions can be seen in Chabad. The society around a Chabad house consists of a series of circles. At the center is the Chabad emissary couple. Around them, you will have some observant people. But most people at a Chabad house are not Orthodox. You can have people who have been associated with Chabad for years as an important part of their lives without ever becoming Orthodox. They like the Chabad rabbis and perhaps recognize some need for Jewish spirituality, but have no interest in being ritually observant. 

This state of affairs is possible because Chabad emissaries tend to be both remarkably nice and tolerant. Non-religious Jews are amazed at how tolerant Chabad emissaries are and want to be friends with them. In the long run, this model has proven to be incredibly effective even if that is hard to see on a day to day level where it appears that what you have is an observant rabbi surrounded by a non-observant congregation just like you would see in a Conservative synagogue.

My wife an excellent example of this. As a teenager with a non-Jewish mother, she started going to the Chabad in Pasadena on Friday nights mostly as a matter of convenience as it was easier to get there by bus than the Conservative Temple. Her taking on ritual observance and then realizing that, if she ever wanted to get married, she needed an actual Orthodox conversion was a process that took years. This process was made possible by the kindness and tolerance by the Chabad emissaries for someone who was not halakically Jewish.

As to ideological conversions, consider the example of C. S. Lewis. The most dramatic moment of Lewis' journey from atheism to Christianity was a late night conversation with a number of religious Christians, including J. R. R. Tolkien, in which Lewis argued that the main ideas of Christianity came from ancient paganism and therefore should be taken with equal seriousness. One might enjoy Greek and Norse mythology and even see it as a source for great moral teachings, but one cannot be expected to seriously believe in these religions. The response was that the ancient pagans intuitively understood certain truths that were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. 

Now what can easily be lost in this story is that Lewis did not simply walk up to some random Christians at his favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, and start an argument with them. At this point in his life, he had started believing in God largely because the writers he most identified with were theists and that he found that he could not disassociate what he admired from that theism. He had even started going to church as an exercise in being part of the theism team. This led him to become friends with a number of intellectually serious practicing Christians and it was with these Christian friends that he had his famous late-night conversation about pagan mythology.    

To bring this back to our earlier thought experiment, in order to keep their children in the "faith," both the secular and Haredi parents are going to have to keep an eye out for alternative social circles as opposed to some guy handing out leaflets. The secular parents have nothing to worry about as there is no reason why their children would consciously ever have to interact with Haredim. They will know that Haredim exist as theoretical abstractions walking in the streets in strange clothes almost like philosophical zombies. There will never be a reason to take them seriously as individuals with names. Haredi parents will be able to work with no such advantage. Their children will have to interact with secular people, such as doctors and policemen, as individuals with names. This can form the basis for a friendship or at least enough of one that, when that inevitable moment of crisis comes and they feel frustrated with the Haredi community, that they might think to go talk to that secular person in their life. The moment we cross that line, the child might still be a long way from leaving and may have no conscious desire to do so, but his soul is now in play.