Premodern Welfare Programs

Idealizing the medieval era is a trap a lot of people fall into. It’s not a new trap, either. One sees it as much with romantics and pre-Raphaelites as with contemporary theologians of a particular stripe, and every shade of reminiscer in between. I probably don’t need to go into detail to remark upon all the things about the medieval period that were not so great. Come see the violence inherent in the system, etc.

Nonetheless there are some interesting features of medieval history which can shed a little light on how we relate to, say,  what we now call ‘welfare.’ The typical conservative narrative is that the state should have little to no role in handling welfare because it’s a coercive tool, and that churches and communities should rather be responsible for caring for people who are struggling in some way. This project imagines a kind of voluntary commitment to a tiny local welfare regime on behalf of individual churches and communities; that is, for this to work, everyone would have to personally and freely commit to donating money to whatever organ they’d designated to caring for the destitute, and hope that it amounted to enough.

High hopes for the ‘man is irrecoverably depraved’ crowd. One question is: does that kind of regime have successful precedent? You can definitely create totally voluntary systems, there’s no question about that; the question is just: do they actually work? And further, given that the conservative mission is all about, well, conserving things from the past, we could equally ask: have the welfare regimes of the past reflected this voluntary ordering?

Here’s where medieval Europe gets interesting. For one, the Church absolutely could force you to pay taxes, and did, with gusto. Professor Thomas Pink, in his paper “Suarez and Bellarmine on the Church as Coercive Lawgiver”:

“At the heart of the canonical system, as understood by the Church, is the sacrament of baptism. Baptism, which all Christians share, conveys divine grace and gives membership of the Church. In the canonical system, understood as a system of obligatory law, in conveying Church membership, baptism also subjects the baptized to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and brings with it obligations specifically to the Church, which the Church can then legally enforce. In particular, baptism brings with it an obligation to faith – to belief in the revelation to which the Church bears witness – which is enforced through the canon law forbidding heresy and apostasy [...]

Enforcement of the canon law on heresy, as of canon law on other matters, historically involved not just the Church, but also the Christian state. But this involvement of the state was understood by the Church of Hobbes’s time not as the state’s voluntary cooperation under its own authority, but as fulfilling an obligation on the state to enforce the Church’s authority. Christian rulers were bound by their own baptism not only to meet canonical obligations themselves, but to help enforce them on their baptized subjects.”

Voluntariness here takes on an interesting valence. In the premodern context, before the liberal enlightenment, it seems the obligations of faith were taken pretty seriously by the state. (This is, in fact, what a lot of enlightenment figures spend their time complaining about, and not without good reason in many cases. But to limit us to our investigation, this is about whether welfare regimes based on voluntary contribution have existed, are native to the Christian tradition, have been especially effective, etc.) What this means is both that participation in ecclesiastic forms of contribution (e.g. tithes) wasn’t remotely ‘voluntary’ in the sense that, in modern times, you can just bail out on church and tithing and the offering plate and get away with it.

So with this dim view of voluntary participation in matters of faithful obligation, how were the poor cared for in the medieval era? It was a long period. But Of the 12th – 14th centuries, Professor John Gilchrist writes:

“The economic revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries created new problems, involving proportionately larger numbers than previously. Also, and this fact is often overlooked, the early Church’s provision for poor-relief* had been radically upset. The ancient system no longer held.[...] The papacy circumvented the problem in terms of ecclesiastical administration by encouraging the parish system, and it used the same foundation to provide poor-relief during the rest of the Middle Ages. In addition there was the charitable work of the various monastic orders and houses and of the religious guilds who tithed their income for that purpose. A useful source of income came from the restitution of ill-gotten gains, the incerta of the usurer, as well as of excessive profits made from trade. These various sources of income meant the thirteenth century had solved the problem of its poor. Nor was this type of relief regarded by the recipient as charity; instead he treated it the way that we  treat state maintenance today.”

So sources of Church funding for what amounted to medieval welfare regimes were as follows: tithes; extractions from usurers (people who charged interest on loans) and those with excessive profits; and the charitable contributions of religious orders. As for the *asterisk, what do we mean by the ‘early Church provision for poor-relief’? By this we mean, surprise, a disorganized and strictly voluntary regime. “In practice the early Church as a body, and Christians individually, recognized their obligation to provide for the poor,” Gilchrist writes, and “in the primitive Church episcopal and private charity sufficed.” But with the economic innovations of the medieval period, the number of indigent poor grew, and between widening inequality, geographic distribution, and population size, private and voluntary support methods could no longer be sustained. This is a condition which, with some seven billion people on earth, we have not recovered from. The medieval church coped with those revenues listed above, which Professor Brian Tierney details:

“These revenues came from three main sources: income from the land with which the Church was endowed; the oblations or offerings of people (in theory voluntary but in practice often fixed by custom for occasions like baptisms, marriages, and funerals); and, most important, the tithe, which was a tax of 10 percent on the produce of each parishioner.”

The tithe was, Tierney confirms, “a form of compulsory ecclesiastical taxation.” You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.* The state, too, patronized Church institutions that rendered welfare-esque projects to the public; in this way, your tax dollars absolutely supported the medieval welfare state. And as Pink notes, this wasn’t optional, it was just more circuitous than current taxation systems that support welfare regimes.

A primary source: Constitution 54 of the Twelfth General Council: Lateran IV (1215):

Tithes must be paid before the deduction of taxes. [...] But since the Lord, as a sign of His universal dominion, formerly reserved tithes to Himself by a special title, we, wishing to protect the churches against loss and souls from danger, decree that by the prerogative of general dominion the payment of tithes precedes the payment of taxes and other dues, or at least they to whom the taxes and other dues are paid before deduction for tithes, should be compelled by ecclesiastical censure to pay the tithes to the churches to which they are rightfully due, for property passes with its obligations.”

Ecclesiastical courts were no joke during the middle ages — they even heard, prosecuted, and sentenced criminal cases (largely infanticide, interestingly enough, according to the work of R.H. Helmholz.) So the warning that property comes with obligations shouldn’t be understood to be left off at mere persuasion; the implication is that this tax is compulsory, like all other taxes one is due to pay, and should take precedent due to the origin of its institution. This will all seem like a very narrow point of order I’m sure, and it is; but the point is that to fantasize about a Christian welfare regime that was totally voluntary and very effective is to gloss over the complicated relations between the medieval state and church and to severely underestimate the degree to which the medieval church could institute coercion.

Osteen v Francis

This was meant to go somewhere else, but…no such luck. So it’s here!

* * *

Joel Osteen, one of America’s most famous pastors, is under fire. Recently, Osteen invited his wife Victoria to address his Lakewood Church congregation, resulting in the following remarks:

“I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy…So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”

Since the brief monologue, the Osteens have been accused of all kinds of heresies plus blasphemy. Given the strength of the outcry, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the pastor and his wife, whose controversial ‘prosperity gospel’ inspired ministry has been the source of Christian suspicion for sometime. The media is prone to misunderstand Christian messages – just take Pope Francis, for instance, who was accused of trying to spark a tenth crusade – which means normal Christian speech will periodically be misconstrued as shocking or contradictory. But in the case of the Osteens, this slip-up is pretty much par for the course.

In fact, though the Osteens and Pope Francis share the media spotlight when it comes to popular Christian messaging with mass appeal, Victoria Osteen’s remarks demonstrate the sharp divide between the two brands of ministry. For the Osteens, Christian faith is about individual successes and private, personal solutions to life’s problems – all with God’s blessing, of course:

“I believe God wants you to prosper in your health, in your family, in your relationships, in your business, and in your career. So I do … if that is the prosperity gospel, then I do believe that […] I always talk about God rewards obedience. When you follow His way, the Bible says that His blessings will chase you down and overtake you.”

At first glance the Osteen reading of the Gospel looks promising: all God wants is your personal happiness in whatever you apply yourself to, be it relationships or business or your career. If you obey God, Osteen suggests, then you’ll get the outcomes you want – be they promotions or raises. But that leaves open a disturbing alternative. If you don’t succeed – suppose you’re poor, you loose your job, or you’re chronically ill – does that mean your problems are linked to disobedience? And can they be repaired by reforming your personal behavior?

For the Osteens, it would seem so. Their focus is individualistic, meaning that the action of faith is played out on the private, personal level. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis addressed this brand of Christian thought:

“The Catholic faith of many peoples is nowadays being challenged by the proliferation of new religious movements, some of which tend to fundamentalism while others seem to propose a spirituality without God. This is, on the one hand, a human reaction to a materialistic, consumerist and individualistic society, but it is also a means of exploiting the weaknesses of people living in poverty and on the fringes of society, people who make ends meet amid great human suffering and are looking for immediate solutions to their needs.”

In other words, pop Christianity gets its traction by promising immediate, personal solutions to individual problems. Because the poorest people need help the most and have the fewest resources with which to seek it, messages like the Osteens’ are deeply appealing – but they may also leave vulnerable people empty-handed.

For Pope Francis, the action of faith is not only played out on the individual level, but also the community and global level. Thus, he writes “we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” Solving the problems that produce human suffering means, for Pope Francis, more than individual acts of worship and aid – though those are required. It means addressing the deeply rooted causes of poverty and unraveling them ourselves, as a community motivated by Jesus’ example and teaching. In some cases, answering structural causes takes much more than personal, private intervention, including political action.

While Osteen-style Christianity is about you, Pope Francis’ Christian message takes a much broader view: it addresses us. When it comes to addressing massive problems like poverty and inequality, it seems Pope Francis has the more promising approach. The only question is whether the people who need to hear him will, given the appeal of the alternatives.

Abortion Penalty Stuff

This is a very narrow post on a very narrow point of order.

By now you might have heard of Kevin D Williamson’s weird rant on how we should hang women who’ve had abortions. The fact that by Williamson’s lights we should have his ideal abortion policy (capital punishment) but not his ideal capital punishment policy (he says he’s torn on this) tells you that this is nothing but trolling. It doesn’t make sense. The National Review Online is a money-losing publication, not a money-making one; they rely on outbursts like this (recall his similar screed against Laverne Cox) for hits.

But this is similar to his run at Cox in that it’s tickling a certain conservative animus. The idea isn’t just to whip up the pro-choice contingency, but also to stroke the omnipresent conservative persecution complex. All Williamson needs to do is instigate an occasion for liberals to get righteously angry and then conservatives can feel righteously victimized and he can kick back with a drink while his links get littered all over social media. It’s a living, I guess. But the point is that this isn’t about a particular person’s strange ideation, but rather about the fact that it appeals on a visceral level to a certain set of people who are therefore willing to feel victimized when it’s attacked.

Conservative anti-abortion folks like Ramesh Ponnuru and his ilk are all very willing to commit themselves to thinking well of women who have abortions, and tend to become quite mealy-mouthed when pressed for penalties they would institute regarding abortion. Some conservatives on this branch of the pro-life movement will outright say they want no penalties for women who have abortions, that they would only penalize doctors who performed them, and usually then with very minor fines or license revocation.

What Williamson is willing to demonstrate here — and the sensibility he appeals to — is that you can’t really maintain both:

a) Conservative opinions about individual accountability AND

b) The position that abortion really is the destruction of human life, tantamount to murder AND

c) The position that the destruction of human life (as in murder) should be punished by the state AND

d) The position that women who have abortions should nonetheless not be penalized by the state whatsoever.

It’s possible to say, for example, that abortion is so thoroughly culturally entrenched and that social realities for poor women especially make it such a difficult option to turn down that even though (b) and (c) are true, women who have abortions aren’t really culpable in the same way that most murderers are.

Or you could maintain that women who have abortions are totally culpable (a), that abortion is definitely murder (b), but that the state shouldn’t really penalize murder all that heavily. Whatever you imagine should be the penalty for murder, though, would also have to apply to abortion.

Next, you could hold that women who have abortions are culpable (a) and that murder should be punished by the state (c) but that abortion isn’t murder because the fetus doesn’t qualify as a human life. This usually means you’re pro-choice. Alternatively on this same count you could say we don’t know if fetuses qualify as human life, and that we oppose abortion on the grounds that they very well could be. This means that while we oppose abortion and find it a moral wrong, it’s incorrect to identify it precisely with the moral evil of murder.

What is not logical is to say that, though women are totally culpable for having abortions, and though those abortions are murder, and though the state should always heavily penalize murder, women who have abortions (that is, commit murder) should be spared state penalty. The only reason a person would hold such a position would be for the sake of holding it, that is, the sake of being able to say: “yes, I am a thoroughly conservative anti-abortion advocate, but you need not fear my legislative activities, because my inconsistencies are such that they will not shake out in a coherent way.” This makes me very suspicious of this style of conservative pro-lifery. I don’t like being asked to rely on the idea that bad reasoning will continue being bad, not because bad reasoning usually becomes good, but because it often gets worse in unpredictable ways.

My concern here is heightened by certain red state legislation that does seem to adhere more to the Williamson logic than the disordered logic we’re promised by conservative anti-abortion activists. Take, for example, new laws in Tennessee that allow for the arrest and prosecution of mothers who give birth to babies harmed by drug use in utero. If fetuses are people, and people have rights, then drug use during pregnancy infringes upon those rights; what do we do with people who infringe upon the rights of others? Criminally prosecute them, of course. Women are already facing jail time under this statute, which should make you ask: if  lawmakers in Tennessee would criminalize drug use during pregnancy on grounds that it’s assault, why isn’t it homicide if the fetus dies? (After all, they evidently almost did classify fetal death related to drug or alcohol abuse as homicide under this law!) And if it’s homicide if a fetus dies due to drug use, which isn’t even intentional killing in most cases, then why not in the case of abortion? Based on the reasoning of the law, it’s very hard to say.

Our trust that conservative anti-abortion activism wouldn’t result in the incarceration of women (or worse, by Williamson’s bizarre lights) is therefore premised on the idea that they’ll continue to be schizophrenic about their reasoning, even when their passions very clearly pull them in the direction that Williamson goes. So this is why I prefer to insist on left pro-lifery, the type that recognizes abortion as a moral wrong that is in the arena of being opposed to life but isn’t necessarily murder (not all killing is murder); the type that is opposed to incarceration and critiques the penal carceral system relentlessly; the type that realizes the pressures that produce abortion and seeks to solve and reduce them. I’ll also note that this type of pro-lifery seems much more popular with woman activists who oppose abortion, while the other side seems largely dominated (at least in discourse) by men. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you (fair enough), but it certainly gives me pause.

“Distortion” Issues

I got a review copy of Chelsen Vicari’s “Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel & Damaging the Faith.” I’m not sure if I am actually going to write a full review. I guess I’m deliberating on that. I’m using this post to outline why I feel ambivalent about actually going forward with a thorough, critical review.

First, let me establish that Vicari has a tough job. She’s a young woman writing on Christian faith and politics, and that can be a rough gig. Trust me: I know. And out of a certain solidarity I hesitate to, y’know, totally lay into her work here. On the other hand, there is some ugly stuff afoot in her book, and I try not to let personal affinities get in the way of recognizing problems for what they are. There are a lot of problems here.

Point of order: I felt inclined to look at this book because it claims it is about the “new Christian left.” It is actually about three separate but similar contingencies, though it is not aware of the divisions between them. It is about new Christian movements in LGBTQ venues; it is about people who are vaguely affiliated with the political left who consider themselves Christian but do not necessarily see their leftism as directly motivated by their Christianity; and it is about young Christians who are disenchanted with Boomer-style Christian conservatism on climate change, war, etc. All this is to say: this book is emphatically not about any kind of sophisticated ‘Christian leftism’, e.g. a political leftism that claims its roots in Christian ethics. This book is totally ahistorical. It does not remotely realize entire parliaments in European and Latin American countries are wholly dominated by straight up Christian socialists. It thinks in terms of contemporary American political binaries — abortion-bad-free-market-good versus abortion-good-free-market-bad, basically — and cannot fathom anything much more nuanced than that. It conflates ‘socialism’ with ‘welfare programs’ in that callow, almost nose-thumbing way Sean Hannity does. So if you’re looking for any kind of dense, serious consideration of Christian leftism in its most robust formulations, you’re not going to find it here.

So with all that established, here is a review of a single chapter, “Unmasking the Social Justice Facade.” What could this mean? When you unmask a facade, is one mask actually wearing yet another mask? This is typical of the entire writing style. Christopher Hitchens once said if you gave Jerry Falwell an enema you could bury him in a matchbox. Similarly if it were possible to give this text an enema, you could publish it in a fortune cookie.

Vicari’s prose perambulates in a labyrinthine style. There is no sign posting. She is given to momentary lapses into personal narrative. Her chapter on “social justice” opens up with an anecdote about going to Haiti, and includes reminiscences on her college life: “it stunk to speak up in my political science classes and call for cuts in government entitlements.” My sympathy for political science professors has never been so strong.

Cut through the fluff of personal interjection and she has three major opponents in this chapter: Christians who are against war; Christians who are for racial justice; and Christians who are for “government overreach.” There is also a completely random slam against TCU (Texas Christian University), a pretty swanky college in Fort Worth, Texas. Vicari conflates anti-war Christians, Christians who are interested in racial justice, and Christians who support welfare programs. The conflation is unfounded: as many libertarians hate American wars of imperialism as do hardcore Christian leftists, and this becomes a major problem for her argument later on.

Vicari’s pro-war argument is that Christian interest in peace “typically blurs peace with the appeasement of ruthless regimes that oppose human rights and, at times, vilify the United States.” This will strike all thinking persons as oddly tautological. Of course regimes that are under attack by the US vilify the US, but do we attack them because they vilify us, or do they vilify us because we attack them? Vicari considers the matter settled and abandons it, but the takeaway is that American wars are justified by their American-ness. If nothing about this argument strikes you as remotely related to Christianity, you have stumbled upon the central conceit of this work.

Moving onto racial justice, Vicari reports the following: “Faculty from George Fox University presented a paper that attempted to establish parallels ‘between the oppression of the ancient Hebrews, the South Africans during Apartheid, and minorities in our current society.’ The presented concluded his abstract with a quote from Malcom X, a proponent of violence during the civil rights movement. Perhaps the presenter missed English class the day his professor reviewed irony.” For Vicari, this is symptomatic of what she calls “justice theology” a made-up term which she epitomizes in one Jeremiah Wright, a person of no fame or influence aside from that which right wingers wetly dream up. In her notes, Vicari sources this post, “Black Liberation Theology is Socialist“, rather than, say, the work of literally any black theologian who does liberation theology or social justice work. There is no Cornel West, not even any Gustavo Gutierrez; at one point Vicari explains that liberation theology “traces its roots back to the early twentieth century within Catholic and Protestant circles. Liberation theology,” she writes, “aimed to merge Marxism and Christianity largely in Latin America and Soviet Russia.” Vicari had better hope it’s no sin to lie, because that is flat out misleading right on the merits, and will immediately flag the attention of anyone with a historical knowledge of theology, whether their sympathies lean left or right. The simmering malice for black theologians should be enough to off-put the rest.

But another look at her passage here reveals basically the entire problem with her style of argument: Vicari cannot directly engage. Instead, she notes a tangentially related fact (“he quoted Malcom X, who is a bad man!”) and considers the actual argument (“racial oppression is present in the Bible and modern day and is wrong”) settled, even though she has not so much has touched it. This is how she proceeds with the entire ‘welfare’ section, such as it is.

Contra welfare, Vicari visits three arguments:

1.) “…the federal healthcare mandate’s infringement on Christians’ religious freedom by requiring taxpayers to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.”

2.) Citing Jerry Falwell: “[Jesus] never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor’s hand and give it to the poor.”

3.) “Let’s say I have a friend who is dependent on alcohol.”

In order, rebuttals:

1.) Your problem is with the specific layout of the ACA, not universal healthcare. It is also extremely strange to say your issue is what you’re being taxed to pay for, when the very next argument you produce is that it’s wrong to be taxed whatsoever.

2.) No, Jesus didn’t say ‘create social welfare programs.’ He also didn’t say not to. He did not provide the architecture of entire governments, just a moral guideline for just action. Social welfare programs fit just fine in a Christian ethical scheme of politics. Vicari addresses no such arguments, though, and in fact goes on to argue in favor of taxation so long as it supports Israel: “As American Christians we have a part in the Abrahamic covenant too. God said in Genesis 12:3 that He would treat nations according to the way they treat Israel.” He also said however you treat the poor is how you treat Him. But while taxing to militarily support an entirely different country doesn’t violate Vicari’s sense of “government overreach” versus “Christian outreach” (after all, you could argue Christians should simply voluntarily pool their money and donate it to Israel), taxing to support the poor does violate that sensibility. Clearly she is not concerned with the ethics of taxing or the question of ‘big government’; she’s just a Republican with the same schizophrenia they all have when it comes to the size of government.

3.) Even if you take the dependency argument seriously, it doesn’t do the work she thinks it does. Do people get addicted to healthcare? Do they quit working because there is parental leave? Universal kindergarten? She is out of her depth here, and cannot really articulate what welfare even is; she gives no examples of actual welfare policies that are in violation of Christian ethics in a demonstrable way. It is enough for her to argue by analogy of alcohol dependency, because her audience probably already agrees with her that the poor are, by and large, entitlement junkie welfare queens. To no neutral party would this analogy be otherwise persuasive.

So what is the way forward, for Vicari? Here is her closing salvo:

“A brighter future for Christianity’s social witness starts with a transformation through the saving grace of Jesus Christ; pursuing truth in Scripture; and caring for the orphan, the widow,  and the sex trafficking victim while behaving morally in accordance with the Word of God. Our goal should never be to let go of the truth in order to reach out to others; it should be to seek prudential justice through a healthy civil society based on law and liberty for all.”

In other words, the prescription is so vague and non-specific that almost nobody would disagree with it, but that’s exactly what makes it useless. It isn’t a path forward, it’s not a plan; it’s a lot of things that sound good but have zero political valence whatsoever, and that’s a problem when you’re trying to argue that your wisdom should replace social welfare regimes. The Christian leftist could just as easily argue Christian leftism gives us superior prudential justice in a civil society based on law and liberty for all. And how, one might ask, is this not justice theology? You’d never know: she doesn’t define her terms. You just sort of swim in an ether of dog-whistling and come away dazed but empty-handed, which is how propaganda should make you feel.

So I’m not sure there’s much here for me to review. It’s the type of book that will be forced upon youth groups or picked up by concerned soccer moms who’ve caught their sons with PeTA pamphlets or their daughters with posters of makeup-wearing nancy boys like Jared Leto. This won’t ever wind up on a syllabus, though I fear it will probably win its author plenty in speaking honoraria and whatnot. And alas, there’s nothing a mere blogger can do about that! But if you were thinking, “is this where I’m going to find a nuanced, historical, somber critique of Christian leftism?” then I hope I have at least saved you a sawbuck.



The Homecoming Queen

Someone wrote that football is a sublimation of the urge for violence, so that football itself is a symbolic reenactment of war. In Texas it’s rather the case that everything else is a symbolic reenactment of football.

When I won, as a high school junior, a state-wide essay writing competition, I was invited with sundry other academic winners to a celebration at the capitol. Rick Perry was to preside. All of us — champions in debate, calculus, physics, music, literary criticism, and more — gathered on the floor of the Texas state senate to accept Governor Perry’s congratulations.

Perry took the podium as he does, with all folksy gravitas, gripping its edges in each hand. But when he addressed us he didn’t talk about academic achievement. He talked about football.

“Everything you’ve accomplished here, y’know, it’ll carry you through life…it reminds me of when I was in high school, and I competed in six-man football.”

Perry said football made him the man he was, that it taught him what he needed to know to become the governor of Texas. It was our express privilege to be compared to football players. We all knew we didn’t really deserve it, that this was a gift to us. We’d all scatter at the end of the event and go back to our schools, where we would be vaguely ashamed of having won in our dorky events, which seemed not only stuffily lame but selfish in their inhospitality to spectators. It just isn’t entertaining to sit and watch someone write an award winning essay.

But football is different. If you watch, if you cheer, if you wait all day for Friday night, you too can be a part of it. Football can elevate you, it can transform you, here are scholarships to change your class and  spiritual cultivation to change your nature; here’s community, here’s adulation, here’s affirmation, as long as you’ve got something to offer the team. And if you wind up used up and worn out at the end of it, you’re still lucky you had that one moment. Not everyone gets one, after all.

I’m still waiting on mine.

* * *

In every high school football film — Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, Friday Night Lights – there’s one stream of continuity: football is transformative. Football can raise people from different class backgrounds, races, or temperaments to the exact same level of glory. It’s all about meritocracy, or so the story goes; it doesn’t matter if you’re shy and sheepish and poor and black, if you’re Michael Oher, you can be part of a well-spoken wealthy white community insofar as you can play ball. This central conceit is the one that motivates so much dewy-eyed opining about football: it’s a window to opportunity.

In school districts all over the United States, this trope is played out in real life — to a degree. Poor black players are plucked from their communities and invited into the exclusive precincts of wealthier, whiter worlds, so long as they can win games. It’s an epidemic of sorts in the Washington D.C. area, and not remotely unheard of in Texas and Oklahoma. With scholarships on the line, football is touted as a pipeline to a stable future, for the motivated and skillful. Of course, it’s not often mentioned that those scholarships can leave players — especially poor, black players — just as precarious and vulnerable as they are seeking some path to security via football in high school.

Which is only if they make it that far. Most won’t. Of the ones that do, certain exchanges are made. A Texan district that nixed its athletics program certainly saw particular benefits:

That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, the no-pass-no-play proviso meant to keep academics on the radar of high school athletes is notoriously cheatable; even teachers are subject, it seems, to the powerful allure of football culture. Who wants to be the spoilsport who failed Johnny Football and screwed the whole school? But even if athletes aren’t exactly getting the futures they’re promised, and even if academics are often sidelined to a deleterious degree, there’s still something worse: mounting evidence suggesting the profusion of permanent injuries:

“…researchers led by Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University have discovered CTE in the brains of dozens of deceased football players. Among the youngest players found to have had the disease were 18-year-old Eric Pelly, who played a number of sports including football, and Owen Thomas, a college football player who hanged himself at the age of 21…Despite such concern, the authors found that “there is still a culture among athletes” that resists the self-reporting of concussions. Moreover, they noted, “youth profess that the game and the team are more important than their individual health and that they may play through a concussion to avoid letting down their teammates, coaches, schools and parents.””

It’s hard to see the sublime transformation of a truly meritocratic enterprise at work when vulnerable kids are being used like employees with fewer regulations regarding their health. It looks, rather, like the pageantry of capitalism at work: the veneer of mobility circling a core of exploitation that leaves black kids and poor kids at special risk for getting used up and tossed aside. That’s life, you might say, and it is, but what other form of exploitation earns such ardent theological esteem?:

“As a Christian, my view is completely different. My body is not me, but the temporary vessel my soul inhabits. And while I should obviously care for my body, the care and feeding of my soul — the building of my character — is by far the most important consideration. Does the sheer joy of athletic competition, combined with the necessity of overcoming fear in the face of real risk, build character? It can and does. Is it worth risks to the body to build character? Absolutely.”

When theology is comically bad, it’s usually a shill. And this, too, is a shill: this is the religious pageantry of capitalism, the point where the megachurch pastor takes the field in all the floodlights to pray his team wins, and to wild applause. If football were about building character, you could play it in the yard with your daddy and cousins on Thanksgiving and get the full effect. High school football is an industry, a money-maker, and guess who’s getting paid?

“Texas communities thrive on football of all levels, from the Cowboys down to local high schools. With so much value placed on football success, high school head coaches are paid to produce. Information requested from area school districts shows 46 area coaches make an average of $88,420 a year. At the same time, teachers in the North Texas region (for grades 7-12) make $51,452 a year.”

Some coaches make over $100,000 a year. That data comes from my hometown, Arlington, Texas, a place I look back on in exile; I was in exile, too, while I was there.

Read more here:

* * *

Homecoming is a fifth season in Texas. It asserts itself in hazy late summer and reigns until the depth of autumn. Traditionally, the boys give girls homecoming mums to wear, and the girls give the boys garters. The mums can cost upwards of $100, some larger than dinner plates, their ribbons trailing the ground. They sport miniature mascots, fake flowers, blinking lights, lashings of glitter and sequins, and each year grow more ostentatious. My mother has a collection of four from when she was a high school cheerleader.

I never got one. I never got asked to a homecoming dance, or prom. My mom tried to show me how to do my makeup.

It’s all in how you carry yourself…

It’s not, though. There is a sharp insider versus outsider distinction in high school football culture, and while the girls who are immortalized as the girlfriends of quarterbacks and the crown jewels of cheerleading squads may hearken to Friday Night Lights’ Lyla Garrity and Marcia Brady, that kind of cachet can come with a price. The people of Steubenville, for example, seemed to know exactly what the stakes in its now infamous rape case were the moment the news broke:

Rumors of a possible crime spread, and people, often with little reliable information, quickly took sides. Some residents and others on social media blamed the girl, saying she put the football team in a bad light and put herself in a position to be violated. Others supported the girl, saying she was a victim of what they believed was a hero-worshiping culture built around football players who think they can do no wrong.

You’re in or out, and silence is a membership fee. Given mature perspective it’s easy to imagine any one of us would distinguish the temporary from the permanent and recognize abuse when and where it took place. But the calculus run by girls in the position to report sexual abuse in football culture isn’t ridiculous. If you tell, there’s a lot to lose. In some jurisdictions, for instance, minors can incur penalties (including suspension from extra-curriculars) just for being present at parties where alcohol was served; when star players are involved, even single disciplinary actions can enrage entire communities.

And if you keep it to yourself, it could be you up there, under the arch of team colors balloons, your hair and shoulders dusted with flecks of glitter and confetti, with the floodlights gleaming on your crown. This is not a ridiculous desire. Even with all the heinous community backlash aside, it isn’t wrong to think if you miss this now you might miss it forever.

You might.

* * *

If the NFL is where all the toxic machismo, exploitation, and physical torment of football achieve their highest expression and form a culture of death, then high school football culture bears all of those seeds. Vulnerable kids are pawns for careerism and cash-raking they never see the benefits of, while the crowds cheer for a sport that’s all-American precisely because it promises extraordinary social mobility it doesn’t usually deliver. If it’s fun and character forming, then it’s not because of the injury and precarity and dislocation, but in spite of those things.

I knew all this then, when I was there, and maybe that’s why I was always outside of it. But I don’t hate it. On Friday nights I used to come back with my debate team from tournaments that lasted until midnight, and we’d pour out of the van exhausted into the empty parking lot that abutted our football field, and the stands would be littered with concessions packaging and the air would smell like popcorn and cotton candy, electric. Longing set in. It never went away.

And even now I entertain strange daydreams of going back to my hometown and covering a season of high school football, getting to know the players and coaches and finally being swept up in it like I always wanted to be then. Now that I’ve achieved a little, now that I’m better than I was back then — not exactly an enormous success, but I have a little bit of dignity — maybe, I imagine, I’d be good enough to join in this thing, uncritically, and be welcomed by it.

And that’s the allure, that’s the trick. It reproduces itself because we go on wanting it, and the reasons we want it are not cynical: we want it to be true that honest talent can get you ahead, that these things that inspire our communities are sites of genuine togetherness, that these moments strung together amount to something that is as meaningful as it seems. I confess I think I’ll peer into that world forever, longing.

The Middle

A while back on Michael Sean Winters’ blog, I was kindly addressed as a “rising magenta millennial“, which I agree with mostly — I am ‘magenta’ and ‘millennial’ anyway. More recently my ‘political homelessness’ was a feature of my interview with Solidarity Hall. (Part of a great series they’re doing, I might add!)

I’m intrigued by this concept of magenta-ness, which takes its concept from bucking the usual red/blue political binary. Pope Francis has been called politically ‘magenta‘, for instance, for noting that abortion is tied up to a host of social problems, and is not the social problem, but one among many. This is seen as being between the ‘red’ (conservative) position on abortion (e.g. it is the paradigmatic evil of our age) and the ‘blue’ position on abortion (e.g. it is a valid reproductive choice.)

But I’ve got a bone to pick with the way ‘magenta’ is commonly read. I think because magenta tends to read as a nice balance of red and blue, it is imagined as a kind of midway point on a spectrum between far right and far left. This is often read as automatically more sensible than either extreme. But I think this is firstly a bad reading of how one can be ‘magenta’ for a couple of reasons, and secondly a facile take on the de-facto rightness of centrism.

1.) It’s not wise to think of any borrowing from poles as producing centrism.

This is to say, there are two ways to make magenta: you can arrange blue and red on a spectrum and ping the middle, or you can have a pot of red and a pot of blue and scoop out what you want from each and mix them. This will give you really different political results. You can have, for instance, someone who advocates for essentially socialist answers to economic problems and social problems, meaning that while they agree with conservatives on what social problems are (e.g. broken families, abortion, fractured communities, high incarceration) they don’t agree whatsoever on how to address them. Now, there are some who wouldn’t see those things as social problems at all (probably with the exception of high incarceration rates) which means that there are some grounds for saying that recognizing them as such is a ‘red’ tendency. But the actual praxis is ‘blue’ all the way. So such a person would be ‘magenta’, yes — but not remotely centrist.

2.) American ‘blue’ and American ‘red’ are not the only ideological poles out there.

For one, they’re reversed. American ‘red’ is conservative, while American ‘blue’ is understood as progressive — elsewhere in the world, red is associated with socialism, and blue with conservatism. In America, ‘red’ goes with Republican and ‘blue’ with Democrat — but of course, if you find yourself halfway between a Republican and Democrat, you’re a conservative.

I say this because American politics, while ‘polarized’, don’t have the same spread as politics elsewhere in the world. We don’t have, for instance, a communist party that gets an honest hearing, we don’t have a Christian socialist party, we don’t even have an (openly) fascist party — probably fortunate, on that latter count. The point is that there are some very basic political priorities that Republicans and Democrats don’t really dispute whatsoever; you don’t hear either party seriously campaigning for, say, single-payer healthcare, universal basic income, mandatory paid state maternity leave, etc. They tend to agree that most security should come through the market, that there should be recourse for those who ‘fall through the cracks’, and that part of America’s exceptionalism is tied up in that market preference. Say what you will about all that, but it does mean there are some people who don’t actually find an ideological home in either party.

So, yes: you can note that American politics are highly polarized (with a number of people being politically ‘homeless’ in that they’d like a little from each party) while also noting that the poles are actually pretty close together, and that there are a lot of people who are either further to the right than Republicans (libertarians et al) or further to the left than the Democrats (I think they call us emoprogs.) The point being that being magenta shouldn’t position you between Republicans and Democrats necessarily; I don’t think most political climates would recognize such a position as ‘magenta’ as much as a very cool-toned red, in the American language of political colors.

3.) Let’s not get too attached to the center just because it’s moderate.

There’s a kind of Aristotelian tendency in American politics and public discourse to suppose the moderate option is the best. For this reason you have a tradition in American politics of people trying to claim rightness simply by positioning themselves sensibly between what appear to be two extremes.

This is one of the many things that drives me up the wall about Christian political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. Niebuhr often wants to claim he’s neither an idealist who believes the state can solve everything and inculcate all goodness into all people solving all spiritual and material problems; nor a dreary pessimist who believes the state can solve nothing and inculcate no goodness into anyone and never solve any spiritual or material problems ever. This latter pessimistic position he attributes to St. Augustine. His reading of Augustine here is very wrong. (I wrote my master’s thesis on this, and it’s still kinda stuck in my craw.) But you can see in Niebuhr making his case why he wants to appear moderate, and why this leads to a terrible misrepresentation of Augustine.

He wants to appear moderate, in short, because he wants to tap into that American tendency to see the middle way as prima facie sensible. It’s a good strategy to make people huffy and embarrassed about refusing to hear you out. But it’s also sometimes pure rhetoric: many of Niebuhr’s political positions were and remain rather far to the left, regardless of what he may have wanted to do in order to make them seem politically palatable. This desire to depict himself as wholly moderate requires him to paint up a couple of poles to sit between. This means he wound up either intentionally or unintentionally reading Augustine’s political theology incorrectly. And what a shame: if he had been willing to see him as more an ally than the dude standing there with a sign reading “Niebuhr Is Not This Bad” he would’ve actually found an interesting traditional precedent for some of his own politics. So his political pragmatism damages his theological credibility.

And this is equally what’s frustrating about, say, the popularity of Jon Stewartish politics, which simultaneously poxes both their houses and suggests that despite the utter stupidity of both parties, what comes between them must be right. It would seem rather that if you have two horrible options, the mid-way option smack in the center of them stands a decent chance of just being a mixture of two types of horrible. But the really irritating thing about the smugness of the center is that it suggests wherever it locates its poles there must be extremity, when in reality that just isn’t necessarily the case. This has the effect of needlessly narrowing people’s political horizons, and convincing them when they do encounter something that falls outside the poles of the politics they’re used to, they must’ve encountered something extremely extreme and thus extremely nonserious and obviously insane.

So in closing — magenta, yes. Centrist, not at all. Defined by the polarity of American partisan politics? Not even close. I know, I know: go ahead, throw your vote away. You got me, Kodos and Kang.

Note: I know this is a light-hearted post on what is for many a very solemn and somber day. If you or yours are suffering on this very sad anniversary, please know that I hope peace and healing find you wherever you are.

Closing Thoughts on Civility

Since the discussion about civility I began in my last post has turned out very lively, I wanted to point toward some other good thoughts on civility, and to answer some criticisms I’ve received. To that first intention, Corey Robin has two good posts up on how civility is currently playing out in the case of Prof. Salaita; Matt Bruenig also has two posts on civility and the poor; Freddie DeBoer has a great post up as well.

If it feels a little odd that, while civility is such an extremely popular subject to consider at the moment, you’re seeing fewer female authors write on it than male, well — yes, that’s the nature of the beast. Principles of equanimity and grace are usually far more binding upon women than men. Men are always expected to have a little space for rude talk and banter, over brandy and cigars or whatever — women, never. So, one more point for the ‘Victorian stuffiness’ column, when it comes to civility.

But I’d like to keep the focus of the discussion where I began it. I never meant this to be a matter of whether or not it’s good/acceptable to be randomly vulgar. This isn’t about sexting strangers or whatever. This is about the issue of demanding civility in deliberative discourse, wherever that may be. When someone shouts slurs at you for no reason, it’s another thing altogether from someone impugning your character harshly in the course of a debate. That being established, here are some of the criticisms made to me re: the last post, and my responses.

1.) Don’t you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? You’re never going to convince people of the rightness of your position if you make them feel attacked and defensive.

I have no idea if anything I do is remotely persuasive to anyone. I know I have never personally verified that anything I’ve argued has persuaded anyone politically. Sometimes this is because people are proud and don’t want to admit they’ve changed their minds, I’m sure. But I also think it’s rare to find anyone who changes their mind right smack in the course of an argument. Usually people need longer to process than the time allowed for the course of a twitter spat. But for this one, two points of order:

1.A.) Being uncivil doesn’t mean people aren’t listening to your arguments whatsoever. Often, Matt and I argue the exact same things. But Matt is meaner than I am, and totally uninterested in civility. Between the two of us, Matt is understood to be the intellectual powerhouse, and I’m understood to be the nice one. So regardless of how he’s going about what he does, people really do seem to be acknowledging — however grudgingly — that he’s sharp. Meanwhile I, with the same arguments, come off more timid, more uncertain, easier to see as a confused person kind of fumbling around. I don’t mind being seen this way (sometimes it’s true, it’s certainly truer of me than him) but the point remains that uncivility coupled with sharpness can still translate to persuasion as easily as civility coupled with smartness can translate to well-intentioned but ultimately harmless and dismissable banter. There’s just not a clear winner here; people have all kinds of dispositions.

1.B.) But more importantly, in many cases the person you’re arguing against is not the same as the person you’re arguing with. In my last post, I talked about my exchange with the Federalist author who argued we should shame poor children who eat free lunches. When I asked him why he wanted to bully poor children etc., he immediately scoffed and said that wasn’t his argument at all. Of course it was, it’s plainly written. But he never owned up to it, because why would he? What does he have to gain from arguing what his audience of rightwing nutjobs already agrees with? All he needed to do was engage enough to get exposure, and that’s precisely what he did: denied he argued such a thing, tweeted back tiny little “oh calm down” responses, and kept obsessively retweeting every mention of himself. His editor got in on it too, for those sweet pageviews. Point is, they were never at any point arguing, and this isn’t uncommon.

Consider Matt’s “Capitalism Whack-a-Mole” game. The game is this: ask someone why they support capitalism, establish a framework, produce a conclusion with that framework they don’t like, and watch them scuttle to another framework. The mere fact of their scuttling shows the framework commitment is a ruse. All they’re committed to is capitalism itself, and all arguments are just rituals to demonstrate commitment to that ultimate conclusion. There is no chance they will actually concede and change their minds; they’re not really arguing. So why bother in either scenario?

1.B.I.) Because sometimes the point is to demonstrate that [position x] is not in keeping with the qualities of a virtuous person. This is especially true of certain rightwing economic commitments, like libertarianism, which a number of Christians find themselves drawn to ostensibly because such an individualistic, self-sculpting philosophy relies heavily on virtue. But it does not actually create the virtues it relies on, to gloss Michael Gerson. When I’m fully aware my interlocutor has no interest in changing their mind, I still press on with pointing out that they’re a bully, a poor-hater, an enemy of poor children — because it’s worth it to me to demonstrate to anyone looking that this system, which boasts such a noble reliance on virtue, fails to manifest those virtues in its loudest adherents.

1.B.II.) Because if a system’s great boast is its logical impenetrability, that’s where you smack it. If the lure of a system is that it’s a very smart system for very smart people and you should join and flex your Vulcanesque logic, then the right place to tear it open is from that core. That’s Matt’s game with the whack-a-mole. Anytime you’re shredding up a claim to a certain identity, it’s not going to be pretty — but again, for the onlooker, informative.

2.) Doesn’t incivility play to the lowest common denominator? Doesn’t it make discourse more emotional, less rational?

2.A.) Discourse is already emotional. It is rife with assumptions that are produced by little more than moral sentiments. Especially in politics, you can very clearly see when you’re dealing with a matter of sheer pragmatism (where ought we build a water treatment facility?) versus matters of value, which are always already emotional (ought we execute convicted serial murderers?) I have little hope of ever squeezing all the emotion out of discourse. And I wouldn’t want to, anyway. Simple point of order: you can’t tell me to approach everyone, as a Christian, with love — and then tell me not to be emotional in discourse. Doesn’t wash. Nor am I really convinced (per Hume) that you can produce a form of political reason that is devoid of any sentiment. You can make the sentiment more or less visible, and again, the use of that is going to have to do with what kind of argument you’re having: remember, I’m the one who said different arguments in different contexts call for different levels of civility.

2.B.) Your base instincts aren’t necessarily misleading. Nor is appealing to them necessarily wrong. One of my favorite pieces of uncivil writing is the obituary Matt Taibbi wrote for Andrew Breitbart. It opens:

“So Andrew Breitbart is dead. Here’s what I have to say to that, and I’m sure Breitbart himself would have respected this reaction: Good! Fuck him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.”

The whole piece had the effect of making two simultaneous points: first, that one of Breitbart’s redeeming qualities was that he was pretty good at taking what he dished out; second, that his good humor was redeeming insofar as his politics were so horrible there was much to be redeemed. And the obituary is pretty funny. This is a case where incivility humanized what would otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill response to a celebrity death; we all know the kind. It was mean, and it made its point, and it rendered very fleshy and human the best parts of Breitbart, insofar as they tended to accompany the worst. All in all, pretty successful.

Was Taibbi wrong to be rude, wrong to be funny about this? Considering the context, I don’t think so. And I see a lot of cases where a similar dynamic plays out in discourse. Umberto Eco’s Jorge de Burgos hates laughter ostensibly because it’s a base, animal response and undermines strong faith — and yet laughter is often argued to be a component of the most human, robust expressions of faith. All of this is to say, sometimes our base instincts are useful, and oftentimes informative.

3.) Well, that’s not at all what’s meant by civility.

3.1.) Civility is intentionally squishy. This argument is actually in my favor, because it’s a piece of a point I’d intended to make the first time around but decided not to because things were getting too long. (Uhh oops.) Anyway, one of the chief defects of demands for civility is that they rarely elaborate as to what they mean by civility. In fact, it is an ever-expanding circle. Sometimes civility is just a series of add-ons: say whatever you were going to say, but with all due deference, introducing your opponent as your friend and respected partner, shaking hands, calling everything a good question and a good response and a good point even when it’s a heap of junk. This is just pageantry. And on other occasions, civility is a series of subtractions: say what you were going to but with no foul words, nothing personal, nothing that could be construed as snark, nothing offensive…Once you make every possible subtraction and addition, you’re very likely communicating a much different point than you initially wanted to. And once you do say: “My honored associate [Person] is a heinous excuse for an individual,” because that’s precisely what you intended to argue, you’re still going to be accused of incivility.

3.2.) And not all ideas should be treated as though they’re equals. It’s tempting to imagine a Magister Ludi-like scenario where smart people go around all day in fraternal disagreement, catching each other dreamily by the sleeves when they pass in the airy stone colonnade, saying: “Hey, friend, didn’t you mention you’d like to make poor children feel terribly ashamed of themselves for eating free school lunches? You know I’ve often thought that was a favorable notion, but I have found myself lately wondering…” But not all ideas are really so noble, not all ideas even have an ounce of goodness in them, and we do ourselves no good by pretending people who want to shame poor kids are ultimately fine Joes who have just got some odd ideas, and should therefore be treated with the utmost sweetness. You might be a fine Joe in other respects, but when it comes to your ideas about children, you’re a terrible Joe. You will be treated, on this account, as a terrible Joe. I’m not saying I’d not be kind to you outside this discussion, but as a matter of deliberative discourse, your fine Joeness has been found wanting and will be noted as such.

I used to belong to a crowd that was all about being a very open intellectual community. I liked it, but it began to occur to me that our discussions were a lot more like AA meetings than debates: we were so invested in affirming the inherent value in having an idea that we wound up over-affirming people who had terrible ideas, and they persisted in the keeping of these ideas because while they had been shown they were wrong, they had never been made to feel they were bad. I realized then that there’s actually a little danger in the affirm-first, question-later approach.

All this being said, I don’t default to incivility, in part because I’m usually not good at incisive uncivil discourse (even when uncivil, an argument still has to be well done to work); and in part because I just don’t like disappointing people and getting them upset with me. I’m much better at trying to put things clearly and softly because that’s kinda the register I exist in. But I still want to defend other registers for other arguments and subjects, and I hope these reasons have shown why.

“To Know” – On Photo Leaks

This was gonna run somewhere late, but the Labor Day holiday put me all behind schedule and it wound up being a tad late. D’oh! But I still thought it was a point worth making, so I’ve put it here.

* * *

The good news about the leak of nude photos belonging to several female performers is that we all seem to agree that what happened to these women was wrong. The bad news is that there is still some ambiguity over where to assign culpability for the leaks, at least to a degree. Those arguments have mostly been carried out via analogy.

Conservative commentators have tended to submit that the hackers behind the leaks are to blame, but have generally tacked on the addendum that if women don’t want their nude photos stolen, they either shouldn’t take them or shouldn’t keep them on their computers. As conservative columnist S.E. Cupp writes,

“Just as it is rational and reasonable to suggest protecting your credit cards and expensive things from fraud and theft, it is rational and reasonable to suggest the same of your nude photos. Rational people actually do suggest you don’t use credit cards in places like Internet cafes or public Wi-Fi spaces where stealing them is easier […]”

Cupp’s response is targeted at commentators from the left, who have largely used the same theft analogy to point out the lunacy of critiquing the victimized women for taking or possessing nude photos. But the comparison of nude pictures to the general category of material property is just that: a response. Left to their own analyses, writers on the left have tended to argue that the hacks should be understood as a type of sexual assault. But as Time’s Charlotte Alter points out,

“While the theft and humiliating distribution of these photos is an enormous violation of personal privacy and sexual autonomy, it is not the same thing as a physical sexual assault. It is is not the same as being raped, or forced to perform oral sex, or molested as a child, or beaten. It’s not a question of “more or less awful,” because both scenarios are horrific examples of how women are treated in our society. But they’re different, and it’s especially important to be precise when we’re talking about violence.”

In other words, the distribution of these hacked photos is absolutely a violation that’s sexual in nature, and it’s akin to sexual assault in that it has a distinctly sexual character and it involves the criminal, non-consensual abuse of one person by another. But it isn’t exactly like rape, molestation, or other violent forms of sexual abuse. And the difference isn’t one of degree – no one is arguing that the release of these photos is less bad than other forms of comparable sexual assault – but of kind.

And the property analogy is similarly inadequate when it comes to understanding the nature of these leaks. Yes, it is fair to expect that people who own particularly conspicuous property should take some measures to protect it, and one can even find themselves sympathetic, at times, with thieves: thus the trope of the lovable pickpocket a la Dickens’ Artful Dodger, and the tragic figure of Hugo’s Jean Valjean. It is much more difficult to imagine a sympathetic hacker of women’s private photos, precisely because the vast majority of material goods are simply different – not in degree, but in kind – from intimate photos that are of immediate personal meaning and represent a person’s private sexual life.

Nude photos might have a financial impact on women’s lives when they’re illicitly released, but the damage is only secondarily one related to income. (As Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian demonstrate, careers can be built off these releases as well, meaning the harm isn’t strictly tied to its impact on a woman’s earnings.) But neither can the damage be measured along the same lines as the damage done by violent sexual crimes. Measured in that way, these leaks really would come out looking fairly tame – which they aren’t.

What the theft of nude pictures reintroduces into public life is the idea of carnal knowledge, an archaic term for sex that arose from the Biblical use of ‘to know.’ But there is something significant about the knowledge of another person that comes from sex, and pictures communicate a walloping dose of information that unwelcome viewers are neither entitled nor invited to. The leak of nude pictures grants to millions of anonymous viewers something that can’t be summed up in proprietary terms because it doesn’t operate under terms of scarcity and use, and shouldn’t be measured in the same way as forms of violence because the damage it does isn’t exactly bodily. It has to do, rather, with a kind of privacy that isn’t about safety so much as secrecy: sexuality, and the sharing of one’s sexual self, gets part of its thrill from its exclusivity, and the exclusive knowledge of the other person one gains from those encounters. When that knowledge is wrongly gained, the damage done can only really be summed up rightly in those terms. Other analogies come out looking a bit incomplete.

And perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to talk about the abject evil of this brand of violation without resorting to imperfect analogy. We live in an age of constant access, especially to celebrities. Everything is meant to be knowable, and knowledge is always good or neutral. But the broadcasting of intimate images represents a kind of evil only newly available in its scale and scope, and summons a kind of uncomfortable old truth: there are some things we aren’t meant to know. The way a person looks, feels, behaves with their intimate sexual partners – that all falls into that category, something analogies to property and violence don’t properly encompass.

Civility, Outrage

In the grand scheme of internet things, I don’t think I’m a particularly harsh interlocutor. While I sometimes happen into them, I don’t like twitter  fights. When I argue I prefer to keep the points neat, discrete, and narrow. This is to keep things topical and non-personal. That’s just how I prefer to argue in public — keeps the headaches to a minimum.

Nonetheless I am still from time to time accused of being uncivil. This is usually in the context of me writing about something odious someone has said, like when that Federalist dude said we should shame poor kids, or when Erick Erickson said poor people negotiating better working conditions are “failures at life.” In these cases critics usually don’t take exception with what I’ve argued, they just suggest it would’ve been better if I had done so differently — usually that means in a kinder, gentler, more soothing way.

But I’ve gotten suspicious of this brand of criticism — which is not uncommon — and so I’ve put together a list here of reasons I seriously question the cult of civility.

1.) It’s just an aesthetic.

What I mean by this is that ‘civility’ isn’t actually hooked into a common sense of etiquette or formal public behavior anymore. There may have been a time when there were actually formally coded speech expectations dependent upon gender, class, rank, etc. Except for some pretty rough parameters, that’s not true for us anymore. So rather than civility relating to what is actually deemed appropriate to the ideal type of a person — e.g., a gentleman, a countess, a lord, a lady — it’s a very hazy know-it-when-you-see-it type affair.

This means that it’s more about adopting the style of a particular class of discussion than anything else. When people call for civility, what they mean is that you should take whatever it is that’s being said, and rephrase it and reorient yourself until it comes off as similar in style to a kind of salon-esque neutral debate between equal arguers. This has several problems.

1.A.) No case is ever actually made for the wholesale superiority of this style of argument.

This is to say: sometimes, neutral, disinterested debate is appropriate. You can see it making sense in matters of, say, where to situate water treatment plants. You can pretty well establish a criterion for figuring out what the best location would be like: convenient, safe, cheap, yadda. But there are equally situations in which disinterested, neutral debate is not really sensible — this is usually the case when you’re arguing across frameworks. Consider this:

You’re a Christian who’s really interested in developing a ‘culture of life.’ You notice someone arguing we should shame poor kids in order to reduce welfare participation. Arguing that it wouldn’t reduce welfare participation is one route, and you do this — but there’s something else you want to argue against, too: the idea that being a person who shames poor kids is acceptable. So you let the interlocutor proposing this idea know he’s a bully picking on people who aren’t present to defend themselves, and that the proliferation of characters like him in politics is a cancer on society and antithetical to building an authentic culture of life.

Have you been uncivil? By most accounts, yes: you’ve made personal attacks, maybe even the dreaded ad hominem — saying that the speaker’s lack of virtue is in direct relation with his wrongness. But you’ve also argued exactly what you meant to argue, where the strictures of civility would’ve forced you to give up not only the way you wanted to argue, but the very thing you wanted to argue. So it would appear the ‘civility’ approach was just never the right one for these stakes, this situation, these opponents. And there’s another problem.

1.B.) Civility prefers a particular framework.

It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.

And to whose benefit?

1.C.) Civility benefits the same people every time.

If you don’t know how to ‘talk the talk’, if you’ve grown up speaking in slang and playing the dozens and you’re not really clear on the delicacies of civility, you’re going to be ruled out of the discourse at every turn. Not for any real reason of course, but because you can’t speak the way upper class parlor sitters do.

I mean, consider the absurdity of that Federalist situation: a man writes an article saying poor kids should be stigmatized for eating free lunches, I call him out on it as a bully and a poor-hater, and he writes this faintingly exasperated post about a return to rational, civil discourse. But who has said the indecent thing here? Why is it legit to tsk-tsk over calling a bully a bully, but there’s nothing much the matter with arguing for the harm of children? It’s just a matter of preferring the pretense of abstract, neutral discussion — but of course, poor children are real, and there’s nothing morally neutral about arguments like his.

2.) Civility exists in a horrible dyadic relationship with outrage.

When you see calls for civility, what’s going on?

Outrage. For the arguer who considers himself an authority on civility, there’s really only one response to an uncivil opponent: aggrieved astonishment at the lack of civility. So many breathless rants and blog posts do nothing but lament the sheer indignity of having argued with someone who said things in a mean way. This has several horrible outcomes.

2.A.) It means an argumentative position will be conflated with the prima facie ‘wrong’ of being uncivil.

It doesn’t matter how right someone is: if you can establish that you were civil and they weren’t, you’ve gone a long way to damaging the possibility that their argument will be credited as the better one, and their position preferred. You can write an entire article about what a jerk someone is, arguing (essentially) that they shouldn’t have been punished for it, and still come off looking much more supportive of their punishment than not, purely due to the invocation of civility and politeness. There’s sleight of hand here that is very subtle and very effective.

2.B.) It means outrage over incivility supplants actual arguments, and style wins over content.

This is related to the point above, but what I want to point out is that the style of argument (civil v.s. uncivil) becomes a value in and of itself. Whatever value you were arguing in favor of — justice, freedom, whatever — you are now burdened with another value, civility, which may make it fundamentally difficult for you to maintain the one you’d intended to defend. This is a real boon to the person with the more terrible argument, because it means so long as they can win on style, they’re free to carry on with their awful content. So long as they can comfortably default to outrage over their opponent’s incivility when it arises, the actual substance of the original argument does not really need to favor them.

So much of history has played out this way, with a particular class disguising its savagery with its preferred style of discourse, all the while abusing and dominating the remainder of society whose etiquette and habits were deemed meaner and coarser. There’s an almost Hannibal Lecter-esque brutality to the total insistence upon civility in argument, especially in the weaponized form it’s nowadays often deployed. As usual the solution I have in mind is provisional, but:

I think the wise thing to do is to not treat all arguments, arguers, or subjects as identical. The ‘civility’ code seems to suggest that there’s one style that’s appropriate to all frames, all people, all subjects, all stakes — and I’ve tried to show why I think that’s inadequate and often harmful. A better approach is to distinguish between cruelty and love; it’s one thing to want to defend poor kids from stigmatization, for example, because you love them; it’s another to bash someone who happened to argue for the stigmatization of poor kids because you already disliked them, and see this as a mere opportunity to gain some ground. Obviously it’s a little challenging to judge motives like this, but usually significant social or political stakes should tip you off as to whether a very fierce line is worth pursuing. In this realm I also include ethics having to do with relative power and status; don’t break, as it were, a bruised reed. Don’t punch down.

None of this is to argue for being cruel, vulgar, intentionally insulting, etc. But there’s a peculiar tyranny of ‘civility’, and it’s to argue that the good of civility should be judged according to the particular conditions of argument, and should always be balanced against the stakes of the actual content of the debate. We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues. But we should also see that love is at times bracing, especially when it is operating in defense, and that a little rupture and agonism are sometimes necessary for an honest reconciliation.

Minimum Wage, “Failure at Life”

As a guest host on Rush Limbaugh’s show, RedState editor-in-chief Erick Erickson made the following comments regarding minimum wage workers:

“What’s going on here — by the way, more than 90% of Americans make more than minimum wage. The minimum wage is mostly people who have failed at life, and high school kids. I don’t mean to be ugly with you people, but…If you’re a thirty-something-year-old person, and you’re making minimum wage, you’ve probably failed at life. It is not that life has dealt you a bad hand. Life does not deal you cards. It is that you’ve failed at life.”

He goes on to remark that he’s not a libertarian, believes in some level of a social safety net, and thinks hard work is good. Now, people responded pretty angrily to these comments, which Erickson seemed to fully expect and even happily anticipate in the clip. The angry response gave Erickson the opportunity to gloat and play the victim over at RedState, where he reiterated:

“If you are working your tail off and doing the best you can and, perhaps you have to rely on family, friends, charity, or government to get by, as I said on Rush’s show, that’s not failing. That’s working. And work is rewarding. But if you are in your thirties, making minimum wage in a career, and standing on the street demanding the government do something about it, yes, yes you have failed at life…In fact, the people most upset with me missed the part about me specifically saying more than once that I was referring to 30 year old minimum wage workers who are blocking traffic demanding the government force their employers to pay them more. Those people have failed at life.”

Amusingly, much of Erickson’s post is just whining about being attacked for what he said, and then submitting a series of provisions that he thinks answer all criticisms: he’s not a libertarian, he excludes seniors and kids, he still thinks work is good. So what’s the problem, right? What’s with us savages?

After all, what he’s really saying, he clarifies, is that you’re failing at life if you’re a poor person who’s striking for better wages. This is in reference to the fast food strikes going on now. (If you’re interested in following them, Ned Resnikoff has offered characteristically good coverage.) Is this argument — explicitly calling people who are asking for better working conditions failures — better or worse? Let’s examine:

1.) Whatever it is, it’s both strange and stupid. Strange in that, while Erickson means his specified critique to encompass fewer people than his broader statement on Limbaugh did, it actually appears it would capture more. Why? Because all he’s arguing is that people who are trying to get the government to enforce contracts that result in higher pay are failures — that is the criterion for failure, he now says: trying to get the state to enforce contracts for higher pay. But as Rich Yeselson points out, that’s not a practice exclusive to unions (these strikes are union-organized), or exclusive to minimum wage workers:

Finally, contracts are not unilaterally imposed at gunpoint upon terrified managers. They are bargained between two institutions who have both common and conflicting interests. If the terms of the contract undermine management interests, they are free to try to change the terms of that contract when it expires. We’re seeing a similar kind of contract fight today between a company, Amazon, and one of its suppliers, Hachette.  Union-management contracts are no different.”

In other words, all that’s going on when workers agitate for improvements in working conditions is a prolonged and somewhat public negotiation between employee and employer. It’s no different than what goes on between businesses that negotiate contracts between themselves, or individual workers who negotiate contracts with their employers or customers. If The Week says they’re going to pay me $500 an article (how I wish) and then they turn around and refuse to pay me after I’ve submitted work they’ve used, who do you imagine I’m going to turn to in order to enforce our agreement? I’m certainly not going to go to their offices in New York and try to enforce it myself. This is true of all kinds of workers and employees. So if Erickson is just indicting people who want the state to enforce employment contracts, then we’re all failures at life.

But of course, he’s not really upset with everyone who expects the state to enforce the employment contracts they negotiate. He’s specifically angry at those who are making minimum wage, because — why? And here’s where we discover that his walk-back at RedState doesn’t actually retract or change anything whatsoever. The strange anti-contractarian argument is nonunique (encompasses almost everyone) and the only defining characteristic of the people he maligns is that they’re poor, and are trying to improve their working conditions.

2.) And this is why, yes, the Christian critique of Erickson’s comments stands, even with the clarification that he’s only attacking labor. The Christian critique at life is this: ‘failure’ or ‘success’ at life isn’t measured in material terms. It’s very clear what Erickson means by ‘failure’ is that thirty-year-olds working in minimum wage jobs “as a career” rather than deigning to dabble in low-income work for a time before advancing on to higher paid work should see that lack of advancement as ‘failure.’ If this were just about strikes, there would be no need to include the chronological argument he makes: either striking is a failure or not, why would it be a failure for a 30something but not a 20something? So clearly what’s going on is a measure of success in life that involves higher income work — a material measure, in other words. This is not how Christians measure ourselves, as per John Chrysostom:

“You [rich] are often idling at the theaters all day, or in the council-chambers, or in useless conversation. You blame many — but you fail to consider yourself as ever doing anything evil or idle. And do you condemn this poor and miserable person who lives the whole day in entreaties, tears, and a thousand difficulties? Do you dare bring him or her to court and demand an accounting? Tell me, how can you call these things human?”

It’s a bitter pill, but the measure of a life in Christian thought is relational, not material. It has to do with how you relate to Christ and your brothers and sisters. If you’re wealthy enough to spend time idling and yet you detest the poor who labor and, yes, entreaty for better conditions, the material measure of your life is totally and completely irrelevant. You’ve come up short by nature of your terrible relation to others — especially those who are poor and vulnerable.

All that being said, one thing I found odd about this interchange is that people spent a lot of time whining about how mean the liberals were being to Erickson. I was reminded of this quote:  “I wouldn’t have that happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” It comes from Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. I think about it every time someone incessantly harps about civility in debates like these: politeness and courtesy can sit atop the horrifically ugly. Demands for politeness are, in cases like these, usually a cudgel against the real strength of the counter-argument that needs to be made. Erickson doesn’t reserve respect for low-income workers, so why should we pretend there’s anything decent about that? If you don’t like to see people attacked, then denounce the smearing of low-income workers: trust me, they need your defense, especially in political discourse, more than Erick Erickson does.