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.