Foolishness, Poverty, Mobility

Couple days ago Rod Dreher had a go at a poor teenager in New York City and his family. He titled the column, “Poor and Foolish.” It’s about all the things poor people do — like having children out of wedlock, taking jobs instead of going to school, and so on — that allegedly make them poor. The gist of the article is that poor people keep themselves poor, ostensibly because they’re stupid; if they weren’t so ‘foolish’, they would make better choices, and be less poor.

There is a lot to say about whether or not this is factually true. Will education actually undo poverty? Doesn’t seem like it: someone has to clean toilets, do week-long carpentry gigs, and mop up vomit in hospitals. If we all had college degrees from Ivy League universities, someone would still have to do those jobs. Furthermore, white high school drop-outs have more wealth than black and Hispanic college graduates — because wealth accumulates.

And those harlots having babies out of wedlock? They don’t actually do much better when they do get married, because poverty is a stressor that leads to divorce, and divorce hits women harder than men financially. Further, because women who get pregnant out of wedlock, especially as teens, are often already poor, teenage childbearing out of wedlock is actually not as disastrous (compared to poor teens who miscarry or marry) as one might presume. This doesn’t mean teen mothers do well, it just means that poverty is so terrible that whether you have a kid or not isn’t as major as whether or not you’re living in poverty when it comes to determining what your life will be like. Over the last few years, while rates of single motherhood have risen, the percentage of poor women who are not married has remained more or less flat, meaning single motherhood isn’t actually doing that much to shove women into poverty.

Of course, there’s more to the story here. Poor people aren’t stupid, they’re not irrational, and pretending that they are supposes what is open to a middle class or wealthy person is actually available to poor people. It severely underestimates stress and the cognitive effects of scarcity, and carries that snide air of I’d-do-it-better-myself. As for me, I’m not sure I would.

But that’s all really secondary; it just feels good to sass-talk people one perceives as less rational than themselves. It’s why there’s always this truly bizarre ejaculation of  “he put himself in harm’s way!!!” every time ISIS releases a videotape of a journalist or humanitarian’s execution. I sometimes suspect people who react in that way to terrible misfortune are like people who glimpse over a precipice and run several yards away, much further than is really needed to be safe from a fall. It’s comforting to know you’re really so far removed from danger, and to reaffirm it.

I also want to meditate here on worth. The notion that poverty is an obvious and appropriate end result of ‘bad’ decisions supposes the economy has a natural moral instinct, that the invisible hand that guides resources to people operates with respect to worthiness. But none of that is necessarily true. We know it isn’t, because there are plenty of rich people who do nothing but make horrible decisions and nonetheless remain rich, and because there are people who get rich through totally unscrupulous means. Further, social mobility is something we can measure, and we know different societies have differing degrees, and the ones with high social mobility are not the ones with a special investment in free market economies. Here again, then, we should be ensuring that the destination of resources honors human worth, not contenting ourselves that wherever resources wind up tells us who is worth what.

In Luke 6:24, Jesus says:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.

In the story of David and Bathsheba, we get basically the same report: God is angry with David in part for taking Uriah’s only wife, when David himself had everything he wanted. The situation is this: if you are well-to-do, if you have everything you want, what are you doing taking shots at people who have very little or nothing? The fact that one’s wealth is consolation means people without it haven’t been consoled, it means they’re hurting, it means Jesus Christ is aware of the pain of poverty, and condemns those who are wealthy and consoled and still indifferent to the suffering poor. This is attitudinal. For God, who made all creation for people to have in common, the stupidity, foolishness, or irrationality that supposedly leads to poverty appears to be of much less interest than the approach those who wind up on the fortunate side of things take to those who wind up on the unfortunate side.

If you take Christ seriously, then, and you imagine how you conduct yourself in this life to be preparation for the next, the really foolish thing is talking trash about the poor.


Or You Live as You Think

Paul Bourget wrote that “one must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one has lived.” The point being: it’s not really stable or tenable to maintain a values system that’s completely removed from how you actually live your life. Eventually you’ll either modify the values system or modify the way you live.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article out on Arnold Abbott, the 90 year old man who has been cited twice in Fort Lauderdale for feeding homeless people even after ordinances were passed to stop that. The CS Monitor wonders: “is this charity or a crime?” Well, both — but they mean crime in its normative sense. Is this charity, or is it something harmful?

Supporters of anti-homeless ordinances do say that rendering aid to homeless people is harmful. Their reasoning:

“The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier…Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they’re hungry or when they’re fed and happy?”

“Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness…Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”

The notion that homelessness is something that persists only so long as it’s ‘enabled’ is completely true, but the homeless persons themselves are not the agents of it. Societies that fail to provide an adequate accessible standard of living for all people — including people with mental and physical illnesses they can’t afford to treat, which constitutes a significant number of homeless people — are the agents that enable homelessness. The idea that homeless people rationally choose to be homeless thanks to the food they periodically receive from charitable sources is complete lunacy, and I’m not even sure the people who spew it believe it.

But there is a reason they go with that approach. The real reason cities ban homelessness (in effect) is because businesses demand that they do, in order to sell things to wealthier people. People who come out to stump for those ordinances come up with a rhetoric that works because ‘homeless people are business-killing eyesores’ is no longer an acceptable public sentiment.

The sentiment that is acceptable is that charity is wrong because it allows certain conditions of poverty to persist, that is, it allows poor people to keep being poor instead of enacting some (what?) heroic measures to join the ranks of the worthwhile. Now this is an argument with some oomph: it’s the exact same one being used to go after the earned income tax credit, for example; it’s often phrased in terms of ‘dependency’ or ‘reliance.’ It’s a punitive idea, a strategy that denies structural causes of poverty and proposes that poor people will quit being poor if you just make poverty hard enough for them. Tough love, without the love.

But here’s the curious thing: usually dependency narratives — like Joni Ernst’s recent stab — lament reliance on the state, but refer with all due nostalgia to a time when people relied on charities, families, and churches. So why would the rhetoric surrounding the ‘enabling’ of poverty apply here, where private charity is being condemned?

Because you end up living as you think, after a while, and there really is no clear distinction between the enabling of poverty that arises from state assistance and enabling of poverty that arises from private assistance. Charity will be condemned with the same rule that condemns welfare, because the ‘dependency’ argument is an intentionally blunt instrument: it doesn’t really have an interest in poor people; it just proposes a premise on which to cease aid.

*(In case there is concern re: do you actually know homeless people and have a good sense of what enables homelessness? Yes, I do! It’s a topic that matters a lot to me.)

Moms & the EITC

What is the earned income tax credit? It’s a refundable tax credit that functions as a low income wage subsidy. Here’s how it works:

The earned income tax credit (EITC) subsidizes low-income working families. The credit equals a fixed percentage of earnings from the first dollar of earnings until the credit reaches its maximum; both the percentage and the maximum credit depend on the number of children in the family. The credit then stays flat at that maximum as earnings continue to rise, but eventually earnings reach a phase-out range. From that point the credit falls with each additional dollar of income until it disappears entirely.

The link features a helpful graph that will give you a sense of how it operates and what it is set up to do. The EITC is just behind SNAP as the biggest welfare program aimed at helping poor families. It does a good job of that: “The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, using Census Bureau data estimates that in 2012, ‘the credit lifted 6.5 million people out of poverty, including over 3 million children’” (see also the Poverty Calculator breakdown of EITC’s effect).

So all in all, a helpful program. And yet all is not well in the world of EITC policy evaluation; at National Affairs, Lawrence Mead has some concerns. Claiming that the EITC has been ‘oversold’ — that is, that its pro-work effects have been inflated by unrelated improvements in employment which merely provided the illusion of a dramatic work incentive — Mead lodges the following complaints:

“Even among advocates of work requirements, however, confusion reigns regarding how public policy can best encourage lower-income Americans to seek work. Increasingly, many on the left contend that we need not enforce work through the heavy-handed means that characterized the ’90s welfare reform — requiring welfare mothers to enter the work force and empowering case managers to make sure they did. Many liberals believe that it is enough to subsidize wages for those of meager means, and that the resulting incentive will motivate them to seek work on their own…

The chief evidence for this view is the supposed success of the Earned Income Tax Credit in lifting work levels among welfare mothers during welfare reform. The EITC subsidizes the earnings of low-income workers, thus effectively raising their wages. But its success in “making work pay” and combatting [sic] poverty among Americans who are employed has too easily been confused with success in causing more Americans to go to work…

….Further, work incentives assume that non-working adults want to work and will do so when the payoffs improve. First-hand accounts of low-income life, however, suggest that regular employment is usually not an immediate priority. Poor non-workers typically want to work, yet their lives are not organized around employment, as is true for the better-off. Single mothers are absorbed with family problems, while many men make money off the books without holding steady, legal jobs. Everyone struggles with immediate difficulties, mostly in private life, rather than working regularly to earn income….

…there are ways we might reform it [the EITC]. The credit as currently structured has no hour threshold, for instance, and that could be changed…Another way to help the credit promote work would be to support state-level staff to reach out to eligible people and persuade them to put in the working hours needed to claim the benefit…”

The whole story here, as told by Mead, is this: the EITC helps poor people absolutely, by giving them more money than they would have otherwise. What it doesn’t do as effectively as it’s been credited with, however, is force them to work. Mead is emphatic: the poor just constitutionally do not desire work; they fail to organize their lives around work, and instead become absorbed with what he appears to view as ancillary in their condition — family, children, and so forth. Therefore, by Mead’s lights, the EITC could make itself useful to the rest of us by forcing more work out of poor mothers punitively: take away the EITC from people who simply don’t work enough hours, and employ staff to ‘encourage’ them to work enough hours to acquire it. Arbeit macht frei.


It’s quite notable that in the first half of his piece, Mead frequently references ‘welfare mothers,’ ‘poor mothers’, and ‘single mothers.’ But in the latter part of his essay, when he is offering ideas on how to reform the EITC to force more work, he doesn’t mention ‘mothers’ — only ‘women’ and ‘men.’ You can sort of imagine why that might be.

For one, the notion that poor mothers aren’t ‘working’ is ludicrous. Remember when Ann Romney’s job was much, much harder than Mitt’s? The hardest job in the world, by some lights, never ends. You put in nine months of your own flesh and blood, then twenty odd more years of the same, and it’s a twenty-four-seven occupation. I don’t think the Romneys were wrong about this; it’s clear that in-home labor is work: otherwise, you wouldn’t be paying someone else to do it when you can’t or don’t want to. But as it stands, childcare costs money, and so do laundry services, private chefs, and maids. Poor mothers, like all mothers, work.

You don’t have to take it from me. Consider the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray waxing sentimental about all the amazing things women do when they don’t have full-time jobs. Community vitality, he argues, rests principally with women who don’t work full-time, and who can devote themselves to family and friends more fully. Totally agreed; sounds great, wish we actually took it seriously.

And this isn’t a purely rhetorical point. If poor moms aren’t caring for their kids, cooking their food, and washing their clothes, someone will be doing it, and the poor mothers will be paying them — that is, if they can. But this certainly means that poor women who are trying to work up to the EITC threshold that Mead proposes are in a really, really screwed up position: having to pay some service to look after their kids while they try to make enough money to qualify for the EITC. So they’re bleeding money while not even making enough for welfare.

That’s dystopic in itself. But we should further ask: is it either good or right to discount the in-home labor mothers do? Why on earth would we value market labor over in-home labor, if we’re serious about this “hardest job in the world” rhetoric? Why would we want to force poor mothers to work — especially low-income jobs, the sort that are least accommodating to motherhood in general? The wise approach to me would be to say: poor mothers (even so-called “welfare mothers”) are already working; if they collect welfare benefits without putting in a particular threshold-amount of labor market hours, that’s perfectly fine, because they’re not indolent, just occupied with more serious things. Mead appears to want poor mothers to ‘organize their lives’ around working, but this should strike us all as an absurd reversal of priorities, and one without any clear social benefits, unless you are, as Mead is, really attached to labor market work.

Coercion & Charity

Some people say this:

“Care for the poor should be handled by private institutions like the Church, because it is morally wrong for the state to coerce charity.”

I find it weird this is trotted out as conventional Christian political wisdom these days, and often given the flavor of tradition, as though this were always the order of things and we’ve only now departed from it. I’m not so convinced myself. To break this down into constituent parts:

“Care for the poor should be handled by (1) private institutions like the Church, because it is morally wrong for the state to (2) coerce (3) charity.”

(1.) “private institutions like the Church

This part of the formulation is less about the identity of the Church and more about the methods the Church is presumed to have for funding her poor relief efforts. That is, I don’t understand people who argue the Church should be solely responsible for poor relief to be fixated so much on the institution as on its institutional limitations. In other words, they don’t think the Church actually has the teeth to get anyone’s money away from them, which is why they prefer it to the state. But we can test this hypothesis: do we all agree the medieval setup was better, when the Church ran  poor relief but absolutely could and did levy a compulsory tax? To quote a beleaguered professor I incessantly bother,

“The Church’s coercive role was seen, at least in the early modern Jesuit tradition, as part of a wider indirect temporal authority – indirect as exercised only for supernatural ends. That authority was part of a wider picture of the Christian community as essentially committed in respect of its temporal resources, both private and political, to the supernatural end.  And the obligation to pay tithes was very much part of this, enforced by both Church and by the state as the Church’s agent.”

Pink’s observation of the early modern period was even more true of the medieval, when the Church enjoyed even more widespread authority. (A few threads of which were arguably unpicked by the Black Plague and other developments at the close of the High Middle Ages.) Pink goes on, in his paper on Suarez and Bellarmine:

“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.”

This arrangement aligns well with Giles Constable’s explanation of the Church’s use of state apparatuses to enforce tithing in the early medieval period in Monastic Tithes: From Their Origin to the Twelfth Century:

“In view of the well-established precedent for tithing, it seems unnecessary to seek any more specific of elaborate reason for the civil enforcement of tithes than the general concern of the early Carolingian kings for the interests of the Church and for uniformity of practice throughout their realm.”

Medieval kings, in other words, had a very special role in relation to the Church; I’ve written on this before. Sedulius Scottus, the early medieval Irish poet of distressingly little exposure, captured this well in On Christian Rulers, writing in part: “indeed, a King is notably raised to the summit of temporal rule when he devotes himself with pious zeal to the Almighty King’s glory and honor.” If you have the crown, in other words, you’re obligated to use your talents and abilities for the benefit of the Church just like everyone else is; for Kings, this means, in part, the civil enforcement of tithes. At least this was understood to be the shape of things then: so the Church, as a private institution, absolutely had within its authority the capacity to enforce a form of taxation.

But I doubt the proponents of this line of thought are much desiring a return to this — most are, in fact, completely scandalized by the idea. And I’m not stumping for it either. I’m just putting forth the reality of the option to emphasize that this isn’t about the Church, or even about the Church’s privacy as an institution; it’s about the perceived limitations on the Church’s capacities. If you wipe those limitations out, suddenly there’s no more preference for the Church. So this isn’t really a religious argument in total: it’s more of a political one.

(2.) “coerce

Point of order: coercion is a normative term in this sense. It means the forced yielding of that which is rightfully yours. Christian wisdom holds that if the poor haven’t enough, then your excess is not actually yours.(Tithes aren’t yours either.) Augustine:

“But we possess many superfluous things, unless we keep only what is necessary. For if we seek useless things, nothing suffices…Consider: not only do few things suffice for you, but God himself does not seek many things from you. Seek as much as he has given you, and from that take what suffices; other things, superfluous things, are the necessities of others. The superfluous things of the wealthy are the necessities of the poor. When superfluous things are possessed, others’ property is possessed.”

“In this life the wrong of evil possessions is tolerated, and among them certain laws are established, called civil laws, not because they bring human beings to make good use of their wealth, but because those who make evil use of it become thereby less injurious.”

The law can’t force you to be good. But it can make sure your evil doesn’t inordinately destroy poor people. Some of these laws will be property laws, and insofar as they produce an incursion only on superfluity, they’re completely licit and you are not being coerced because what is being taken is not yours. Of course, since we’re only trying to produce order and a basic standard of living for everyone here, this doesn’t require we seek after all superfluity; just so much that all necessities are met.

(3.) “charity

The strangest part of the whole argument. Let’s all say it together: welfare is not charity and welfare is not trying to be charity and there are many forms of poor relief which are not charity and that is all okay.

It actually took a while for caritas to be conflated with alms-giving. Eliza Buhrer does a good job of tracking the original translation of Paul by Jerome that gave us caritas in the sense that would eventually become charity — a few hundred years later. So the two aren’t synonymous: caritas is only the underlying spirit that can be expressed in material alms-giving. As John Henderson notes in Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence:

“Poor relief throughout late medieval Europe was supplied by a series of interlinking systems from the Church and State to the craft guild, confraternity and hospital to more informal networks of parenti, amici, vicini (‘kin, friends, neighbours’). Underpinning all these systems lay the highest theological virtue, Charity, which provided the moral justification for the preservation of peace and the maintenance of order and the Buon Commune.

Buon Commune = common good, basically. Constable also notes in Monastic Tithes that tithes were also considered wholly distinct from charity, even though they were understood to be used for the care of the poor. The point here is that the theological virtue Charity (or caritas) is the justification for many different types of poor relief — but it is not identical to them, just as the justification for me being patient is the love of my neighbor as myself, though my patience is not identical to this love — merely a manifestation of it. Similarly, though we may see the State’s efforts to relieve poverty as a manifestation of the spirit of caritas, that is only because it is caritas that leads us to pursue order and justice. But when the state relieves poverty, it is not “charity” in the same sense as interpersonal alms-giving. And that is just fine.

Because interpersonal alms-giving and other interpersonal acts of charity will and should persist even though the state has a hand in the relief of poverty. One example: here in the USA, where not all people can afford healthcare, we see charities offering to pay for the treatment of children with cancer, we see charitable hospitals requesting funds on TV, we see campaigns for donations to individuals struggling to pay healthcare costs on twitter and facebook. But in the UK, where the NHS provides single-payer universal healthcare, you see charities offering to pay for families to stay at hotels near the hospitals where their loved ones are being treated. Point is: there are always needs to be met, even when a basic standard of living is provided via state programs. Christianity, as this little dip into medieval Christian history hopefully suggests, is a religion of fantastic imagination; there are all kinds of ways to help people out there, and the Body of Christ is pretty good at soothing its members. I don’t have any doubt that Christians will always be able to find ways to act in caritas, even with robust welfare states.

All of this comes to a rather modest point, which Christians in European and Latin American nations seem quite obviously comfortable with — there is nothing about Christian history or philosophy that inherently militates against any and all state relief of poverty.


Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

John Ashberry, “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat”

There’s a kind of rhythm to life you can sense when you’re leading a horse by the halter, a pace made up of your steps and his steps and the great turning-over of things. One day it was the heat of buzzing summer and I was learning to mount a thoroughbred seventeen hands high using just the stirrup, and the next it was autumn, and I was waiting to see if my SAT scores were good enough to get me out of Texas.

A sense like that doesn’t come over you instantaneously. It is no sudden thing, knowing in a very conclusive and final way that the place you were born and raised is not a place you can stay. It takes you slowly, like the seasons, and if it didn’t you would doubt it. I would have doubted it, if it hadn’t come on like that, because in Texas, as in many places where a good many people still time their lives by the doings of the land, that which comes on quickly is more suspicious than that which moves steadily. The indebtedness of Texas to the seasons instills, I sometimes imagine, that old Burkean conservatism: slowly, slowly.

But it had been in me for a long time. There were things that I loved. The way my hands looked, red-mottled with stings and nettles, after digging for easter eggs among Texas thistle and dry yellow grass on my uncle’s farm; the acrid smell, sulfur-and-sweat, of many fourths-of-July, which became for me a time of great expectation; the way that autumn was presaged by the arrival of football season, where the brown of the pigskin and the burnt orange of UT allowed the leaves to change in response, never vice-versa. I can’t tell anymore how much of this is fantasized.

I know a point eventually came where it became clear to me the things I loved were more easily uprooted than the things I didn’t, and shortly I understood that this was the way of things in Texas: you are always weaker than the grind. So I left.

* * *

The first thing is, I didn’t initially want to leave. I wanted to get deeper into it. I have told you about this before. It wasn’t an especially successful plan. The places I could find to fit in were open corridors to the outside, just vestibules to conduct yourself in before you could be expelled. One of these places was debate: to a person, not one member of our varsity debate team now lives in Texas.

Which is a little curious: Texas is known for having an especially brutal and involved debate circuit. Certainly my experience was formative; nonetheless I wondered even while I was there how a place that so thoroughly disliked its intelligentsia could produce such intense commitment to thought. ‘It’s because everybody’s trying to get out,’ someone told me, ‘and you can get scholarships for debate.’ It did feel that dire: like football for losers, my teammate said, and without celebration.

But debate is still marginal there, both in the competitive highschool sense and in the broader intellectual sense. Not much is actually debated. Next year, Texas will still lead the nation in executions. Little will be said about it. Medicaid will not be expanded, and poor people will die:

“As Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities, has shown, 9,000 Texans per year will die needlessly as a result of our failure to expand Medicaid. However, because dying patients are often too sick, exhausted and wracked with pain to protest, UTMB and states like Texas aren’t forced to reckon with the consequences of their policy decisions.”

Texas will still call itself business-friendly, and its very fine suburbs will grow and sprawl like annexes of Disney Land, where everything appears to be halfway between real and fake. Many of them will come with zoning restrictions that restrict subsidized housing and targeted building codes intended to keep black people out. Residents will speak fondly of these places, and people will move into them in droves. High school parking lots will gleam with pickup trucks, and they will construct simulation town squares, all brand new, Anthropologies and Sephoras and J. Crews and Ann Taylor Lofts, and some of the boutiques in between will sell jewelry with a longhorn theme. Journalists will write about the ‘complacency factor‘ in Texas gubernatorial races as though it weren’t a longstanding and much-celebrated institution.

But all is grist that comes to the mill. Texas is the stickiest state there is. Whatever it is, whatever your complaint, it’s just the way of things there, like the heat. There’s not much that can be done about it. And why try to change it now? You can push, but it’ll push back, probably push you out. I realized nothing good would come of me staying, and I left: all is grist that comes to the mill.

* * *

Yet marvelous is our world:
Crossing a field with a horse and wagon,
You drag yourself to the train,
Which tears like a demon over fields,
Depositing you into steerage;
You’re borne over water to downtown New York –
And that really is my only comfort,
That they won’t bury me in you –
My home, my Zlotshev.

Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, “Zlotshev, My Home

So it comes about that leaving wasn’t really your choice; you left because you weren’t right for the place, but you didn’t decide that, it did. It just sent you where it wanted you, somewhere else. In this way you never really blend in wherever you go. You are forever in Texodus, you are living in Texile. Somebody in exile is always looking back, waiting for the return call, or dreading it.

It is strange being an ambassador for Texas, because whenever I am asked about it I feel compelled to defend it. Every time I go back I am almost enchanted: there’s a certain parking garage in Fort Worth you can stand at the top of and see the courthouse where my parents were married and the hospital where I was born, and the silver snake of highway straight ahead leads, if you follow it, all the way to my house. The glare of the sun blazes out the distance even though the land is flat for miles. You forget where you are, and it doesn’t much matter. It will get you where it wants you to be.

The question becomes whether or not the politics are separable from the place. Sometimes my mom suggests I come back because, she says, the cost of living is so low there. But the cost of living in Texas is really very high, just not for the wealthy and white: “In 2010, the poverty rate in Texas was 14.4 percent. The rate dropped to 10.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites but soared to 27.1 percent for blacks and 24.8 percent for Hispanics, according to the Census Bureau.” Texas ranks fifth in income inequality, among all the states. Whether it costs you much to live there, figuratively speaking, will likely depend on which side of that divide you find yourself on.

And then there is the slowness of things, the recalcitrance of them. What can be done about any of this? It doesn’t seem much. You’re not above the grind, and the grind moves the seasons and the time and the shape of all things. In the Bible the doomed cities Sodom and Gomorrah are called ‘cities of the plain’, which I think of every time I come in on some late flight to DFW, and see the whole expanse of Dallas and Fort Worth laid out flat on the prairie, lights and grids, long perimeters of highway. Lot’s wife was turned to salt for looking back at Sodom, because you don’t look back at someplace you’re leaving unless there was something about it that you loved.

* * *

It isn’t clear until the end whether or not you were let down in the right place, or how you would know if you were. It’s one thing to be settled down somewhere you’re comfortable, it’s another to wind up somewhere the good in you can make the space around you a little better. That’s the final test, the real requirement. Otherwise you’re just spending time. In New England I have done things I’m proud of, set up programs and worked with particular organizations and hopefully affected lasting improvement in some people’s lives.

But the haunting sets in. What is it to have left the place in most need to do good somewhere else? And after you have left, established yourself someplace else, is there any real possibility of coming back, remorseful, to try to carry out what it now seems you were meant to all along? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it.

“…When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived.”

Slowly the whole scope of the story is revealed. And I would want to go back there and do better than I did on almost every count, if it weren’t for the slowness of my understanding that leaving was probably not the right thing to do. The ebb of it, the way it sets in over the course of many months over many years, tells me that the regret has a certain Texan signature, a flavor of that old, Burkean conservatism. It’s a regret one is meant to live with, not a regret one is meant to immediately aim to redress. It comes somewhere in the rhythm of things, though I don’t know where.

Read more here:

Please Help

For  a comprehensive play-by-play of how the Ebola crisis in West Africa spiraled out of control, read this amazing piece at the Washington Post. It illustrates very clearly the severity of the circumstances in hard-hit West African countries, and demonstrates (I think) the importance of consistent resource flow to the lay reader. It appears to me that multiple state responses will be necessary to contain the spread of Ebola in West Africa, but the contributions of non-governmental organizations have been important as well, from the very large to the very small:

Operation Blessing head David Darg and his team of volunteers distribute much-need food to families in quarantine because they’re not able to go out and get supplies and no one is brave enough to go near them.

Volunteers carry sacks of rice, oil, flour, sugar, and other supplies.

Darg said they can’t take the supplies into the house so they leave it on the doorstep.

The recipients are so grateful.

“Thank you so much for your generosity! We highly recognize your generosity and really appreciate what you’re doing,” one grandfather, whose daughter and ex-husband died last week, said.

 “You are not alone. We are here with you,” Darg told him.

“We are never alone,” the bereaved grandfather responded. “We have Jesus with us.”

If you are able, please consider supporting the dedicated organizations combating Ebola in West Africa. Among them are:

Doctors Without Borders

The American Red Cross

Samaritan’s Purse

And Many More.

Thank you so much for reading and considering.

Prohibition, Affirmative Consent

California now has an affirmative consent law, which has been billed by some as the “yes means yes” law, as though at some point yes did not mean yes. The law mandates the following standard of consent to adjudicate accusations of sexual assault or rape on campuses receiving public funds in California:

“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.”

Supporters of the law, like Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, have mocked the living daylights out of anyone who suggests this law would proscribe most normal sex. Here’s Ryan:

“But the piece’s most ridiculous aspect is the assumption that following every sex act, thanks to this law, authorities will sweep in and subject both parties (but mostly the man) to an exhaustive cross examination on consent as the pair of lovebirds towel their bodily fluids off of each other in a panic. That isn’t going to happen.”

What Ryan means to say is: yes, this law would proscribe most normal sex. The way most normal people have sex does not include any measure to affirm ongoing consent. Such sex would paralyze you; ask any philosopher who has tried to define what an “action” is. If I go to the wall and flip the light switch, for example, what have I done? Have I simply turned a switch? Have I turned off the lights? Have I signaled to a conspirator in the hallway that now is the time? Have I stolen your ability to see? Maybe I have done all of these things, or maybe only some! This makes affirming consent to each individual ‘component’ of a whole sex act deliriously difficult; more challenging yet is the division of actions into pieces. When I flip the light switch, at what point have I gone from pushing it to pulling it? It’s hard to say. All of these critiques are genuine critiques; the dismissal of them comes not from their wrongness (that is, they do not misunderstand the meaning of the law) but from the fact that they will probably never actually be acted upon legally because 99.9% of people will ignore this law. That is what the defenders of the law are telling you when they say criticisms of how it would legally proscribe sex (whether that sex was ever prosecuted or not) are silly.

In that case, what is the purpose of this law? Freddie deBoer writes:

“…the purpose of this law is to effectively remove the presumption of innocence and shift the burden to the accused to prove that he sought and obtained consent in a sexual encounter. That the presumption of innocence is essentially the bedrock principle on which Western jurisprudence is built, thanks to a vast history of judicial abuse and overreach, is a fact too inconvenient to be mentioned in the realm of affective politics.”

He’s not wrong. Similar sexual assault policy changes at Harvard have spurred 28 Harvard Law professors to write a letter of objection, noting that due process and the rights of the accused are seriously threatened by policies that compromise the presumption of innocence and affirmative burden of proof. But those who defend the law likely have a legitimate complaint with the burden of proof as it currently stands: namely, people don’t tend to believe women when they claim they’ve been assaulted.

After all, that’s been one of the main themes of GamerGate, and as many other scenarios involving women victims of assault and harassment. Anita Sarkeesian says the most radical thing you can do when a woman says she’s been assaulted is to believe her. I agree: the fact that women are not generally perceived to be as credible as men is a real feminist issue.

The problem is that it is not an issue limited to rape or sexual assault or harassment. People don’t believe women when they say they’ve been assaulted, that’s true; people also don’t believe women when they say the place we’re going is 3 miles to the north, hang a left, then take exit 34b and a right off the access road, and you’re there. People constantly double-check women in ways they do not double-check men. When I say something about the research I do, I know at least half the reason I then have to spend a lot of time answering very, very unsophisticated ‘rebuttals’ is because it’s very easy to presume automatically that a young woman must be wrong, and that correcting her must be very easy. This is absolutely a feminist issue.

This is why affirmative consent laws and the way they are being handled by their defenders spell serious trouble for women. Affirmative consent laws will not actually address the problem that women are generally viewed as less credible than men. On the contrary, they seem to enforce the idea that the normal ways of determining consent don’t work when you’re dealing with women: that is, they legally codify the notion that you won’t be able to trust your gut when you’re with a woman, but that you must constantly probe her dark mysterious mind for absolute and concrete declarations of consent. All of the normal ways people determine sexual willingness and agreement — established relationships, past experiences, heuristic go-aheads — do not count in the realm of women. You just can’t trust them, you have to run them through the ringer a bit. This is already the problem.

Worse yet, the law’s defenders are prevaricating pretty openly by stating they do not actually intend for the law’s provisions to be enforced, but rather to accomplish a legal goal that, if presented nakedly, would never be acceptable. (That is, the presumption of guilt.) If you are thinking: “well, maybe some good would come of a law that helped out some victims in some otherwise difficult-to-determine cases, and the fact that its defenders are being a bit mendacious and that it makes women seem inherently confused and confusing won’t really stick”, I suggest you look at what happened with Prohibition.

Did Prohibition work? Actually, it sort of did! People generally obeyed it. And the benefits it promised really did come to pass:

“…alcohol consumption declined dramatically during Prohibition. Cirrhosis death rates for men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 in 1929. Admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis declined from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928. Arrests for public drunkennness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.”

Yet because women voters voted for Prohibition and people didn’t like it, women’s legal activity has been permanently stained by it. Talk to any misogynist long enough, like this fine specimen at Hello Giggles’ libertarian sister blog Taki’s Magazine, and you will find that Prohibition remains one of the great go-tos for people trying to establish women’s political naiveté and disingenuousness.  That it actually had some success in accomplishing its goals wasn’t ultimately all that helpful to women, because the greater effect was to cement the notion that women are prissy school-marmish killjoys with no understanding of politics or economics. I’m not saying by any measure this was right, I’m saying this is an example of how legislation that seems convenient for women can seriously undermine the bigger project such legislation is meant to serve, namely the elevation of women as a class to equal social standing with men. In the end, Prohibition was repealed, and women’s political reputation got left holding the bag.

In terms of women’s credibility, I fear the same thing could pan out with affirmative consent laws. Nobody is claiming rape isn’t wrong or that it isn’t a problem, but the fact is that it is already illegal, and much of the struggle against the failures of the legal system in handling rape cases will consist of destroying the delusion that women are not credible agents. Affirmative consent laws will be no help there, and may well do some harm.


A friend wanted me to look at this Daily Beast piece on ownership versus access. Very interesting! Here is what I understand to be the dominant argument:

“Without an ownership society, where citizens are prudent stewards of broadly distributed private property, freedom tends to become what it was in revolutionary France—an abstract ideal that can easily arouse destructive political feelings that know no bounds. That’s why the shift from right-to-own to right-to-access has the real potential to overturn centuries of cultural certainty about the foundations of liberty and its importance to human flourishing.”

To offer examples of how we have shifted contemporarily from a society based on ownership to a society based on access, the author provides the following examples: “The triumph of access over ownership has changed the way we think about rights. Rather than a right to health care or abortion, people assert a right to access those things.” He identifies the internet as another instance where conversations have shifted from ownership to access. This is a result, he argues, of the backlash against materialism that he identifies as having peaked in the 1990s, a reaction that resulted in people “[recoiling]  against the idea that the only way to secure [the material necessities of life] was to work hard enough and long enough to own them.”

It is not immediately clear to me how one ever owns healthcare, abortion, or the internet. This is because these are all services, not goods. Further complicating matters, “healthcare access” and “internet access” are both idioms for different things; “access” does not seem to be univocal.

I am further not sure that there is an athropological link between anti-materialism, a resistance to desert theories of property, and mild expansions of state services. My difficulty in forming an opinion here is increased by the fact that I can’t tell if the sentence on “[recoiling] against the idea that the only way to secure [the material necessities of life] was to work hard enough and long enough to own them” is meant to be normative or positive. Are we saying people began to recoil against the idea that it was possible to ever come to own stuff, that they began to believe it was just factually false? Or are we saying that people began to believe that, while it is sometimes possible, it is not possible in a general enough way to morally justify that style of ownership being the only game in town? I believe there is a distinction here, but I am not clear on how it plays out in the piece.

But as for the question of ownership versus access, I hope I can offer some clarity. Many, many words have stood in for ‘ownership’ and ‘access’ over time, including usus, dominium, proprietas, ius, possessio, and usufructus. I will spare you the Latin and assure you that each of these terms (originating from Roman property law) delineates subtle distinctions in the possession, ownership, dominion over, and use (just short of or including the total destruction) of property. Especially between the years of 1322 and 1324, when the Franciscan Order had it out with Pope John XXII over whether or not they owned stuff. Eventually the entire Order was declared heretical, which tips you off to how intense this argument was, and evidently continues to be.

Fortunately for us it is not necessary to rehash the Franciscan controversy. We can look instead at how Christians have dealt with the differences between ownership and access, and outline the relationship between the two.

First things first: you generally need both ownership and access to have the use of a thing. If I tell you that you own something on the moon but can’t get on a rocket ship, you still do not effectively own it, because you have no access to it. In that case ‘ownership’ is sort of an empty idea. But if you own the object on the moon and can get on a rocket ship, now your ownership has some teeth, because you have access to the thing in order to use it. So access is an aspect of use and ownership. But in this Daily Beast piece, ‘access’ appears to be used to mean ‘use’, or the benefit of a thing without dominion or possession of it. (This is the only way the inclusion of, say, healthcare makes any sense.)

But while use of a thing doesn’t exclude others from using it as well except in the case of consumables, ownership potentially means the exclusion of everyone from the use of a thing. So for Christians like Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Isidore of Seville, and Gratian, the question became: how to we justify the private ownership of property when the earth was obviously intended for the use of all people in common? Here is St. Clement I writing in the first century:

“The common life, brethren, is necessary for all and especially for those who desire to serve God blamelessly and who wish to imitate the life of the Apostles and their disciples. The use of all things that are in the world ought to be common to all men. But through sin one man claimed this as his own and another that, and so division was made among men.”

This primitive Christian communism was a popular ideal for a very long while, and it remained so with the Franciscans, but by the medieval period the canonists had come to see some good in the institution of private property (mainly its Aristotelian virtues: the prevention of tragedy-of-commons and greater productivity), and moreover, realized they couldn’t do much to defeat it anyway. So they tried to bring the good of common use to comport with the widespread institution of private property by arguing that all ownership comes with obligations. The Daily Beast piece refers to “prudent stewardship”, and these are both terms that came out of this marriage of right ownership and right use. For the Christian, prudent stewardship is more than successful administration of one’s own properties; as St. Basil writes (then glossed by Ambrose and later Gratian):

“But you say, ‘where is the injustice if I diligently look after my own property without interfering with other people’s?’ O impudent words! Your own property, you say. What? From what stores did you bring it into this world? When you came into the light, when you came forth from your mother’s womb, with what resources, with what reserves did you come endowed? No one may call his own what is common, of which, if a man takes more than he needs, is obtained by violence. . . Who is more unjust, more avaricious, more greedy than a man who takes the food of the multitude not for his own use but for his abundance and luxuries? The bread you hold back belongs to the needy, the clothes that you shut away belong to the naked, the money that you bury in the ground is the price of redeeming and freeing the wretched.”

The medievals read this Patristic take on property very carefully. If the problem with property comes when it is excessively hoarded and others suffer via exclusion, then it is not the case that property should be wholly dispensed with, but that the exclusionary aspects of it should be severely castigated. Therefore property was understood to come with obligations, one of which was ensuring that property would be freely given up to those in need. It is therefore the obligation to give others access that underwrites, for the Christian canonists, the whole institution of private property. Thomas Aquinas ST II-II q.66 a2:

“Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. . . . The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): ‘Charge the rich of this world . . . to give easily, to communicate to others,’ etc.”

Ownership, in other words, is possible as an ethically upright institution insofar as use is readily available to the needy. If you have excessive property which you do not render to the needy, then you no longer have any right to it. Right ownership, then, should be understood as a function of correct access: only if you have met the criteria for correct use can you have legitimate ownership. So there is no conflict between access and ownership; rather, the latter depends on the correct arrangement of the former. We have always had both an ownership and an access society, in that the two are obviously folded together; what the argument needs to concern is what people should have access to, which is a point this Daily Beast way seems to shy from, though it is probably really the only relevant normative question.

The Shape of Things

In high school I went through a Cormac McCarthy phase. When I read books I read reviews of them obsessively, mostly to see if there’s anything useful about them I’m missing because I’ve trained myself to read for a particular thing. When I finished McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, I kept reflecting upon this 1998 New York Times review:

“But by continuing to write in the grand style, McCarthy sometimes gives the violence in his books a grandeur it doesn’t deserve. Of the horror stories that have become a staple of McCarthy’s fiction, the Texas writer John Graves once observed: ”They’re dust-mote-sized when you compare them to the violences two wars in two generations have wrought among our race. I once saw 4,000 Japanese stacked like cordwood, the harvest of two days’ fighting, on one single islet of one single atoll awaiting bulldozer burial.” Graves’s message — that all misery is local — is not so different from McCarthy’s. But the plainness of his prose is more eloquent about the pitilessness of history and fate than McCarthy’s often portentous rhetoric. If we’ve learned nothing else about suffering in the 20th century, it’s that it’s ordinary.”

Overall it is a positive review. I am always disturbed on a visceral level by suggestions, though, of an alteration in style; this is not to say I am suspicious of critiques of function (“the style obscures the story”) or personal taste (“I hate long sentences, they bore me”) but that I am concerned by normative style arguments. This is the wrong style; this style is bad. This style is doing bad things.

Statements like those are not always wrong. But they’re almost always much more profound than they’re commonly credited as. This is because they are attempting to regulate discourse, often discourse that is attempting to make some contribution to the status quo, either for or against. Style is quite often part of the contribution. So when we say: your style is bad, we are often saying: the effect you’re trying to achieve should not be achieved. This reality is especially weighty when your job is to contribute to discourse, when you’re someone who is a part (however small) of the way public discussion is shaped.

So much hinges here on the last word of the review, ordinary, the signifier of the status quo. Mosle says violence is ordinary; therefore McCarthy’s style is a bad one, because it makes it seem like something it isn’t. This tells us that by ‘ordinary’ she doesn’t mean common, because McCarthy makes violence very common. What she means is something more like meaningless, hinted at by both the shape and content of pitilessness. McCarthy’s style gives violence a kind of meaning, a real cosmic presence and its own kind of awe. But this is not an accident; he hasn’t merely misapprehended modernity’s evaluation of violence and made the mistake of imbuing it with more meaning than its currently thought to be due. It is, rather, part of his entire objection to modernity: that violence gets a particularly stunning treatment in a series of novels about the loss of a rich civilization to a comparatively sterile age is totally natural, probably necessary. It’s a part of the point he’s raising. You can’t rob him of that and leave him with the same project.

When your profession is to contribute, even in very small ways, to public discourse, you’re obligated to evaluate how your style comports with the ordinary. This is because public discourse helps us settle out what we should think of as the ordinary, the regular, the status quo. It’s in these conversations that we determine normalcy. Corey Robin, on Arendt and careerism:

“The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.”

This is poignant, and it struck me especially in terms of people who make or present ideas for a living. Certainly the expectation is to comport yourself with a certain mannerliness, to perform even opposition within a kind of collegial parameter that suggests, as I have argued before, the equality of positions even when you don’t believe in such a thing. The threat that presents itself when you express yourself in one of the non-friendly, non-gentle, non-civil styles is this: you won’t have a career. We’ll all stop listening to you, you’ll be seen as a nutty ideologue, or if you’re a woman, just another purveyor of catty ‘snark.’ Ditch the snark; say it like we want you to say it.

Which is another way of putting: discuss this as though it’s ordinary. Some people were upset about the Rand post, saying that the way in which it was written was too mean or too severe, too snarky, bitchy, un-funny; uniformly arguments of bad style. The good style, one concludes, would have all the opposite elements: detached or passionate in the genteel way of friends who debate in pubs; subtle, searching, uncertain, just one proposal among many. That’s the way people tend to like to read about positions in politics, because that style makes everything seem very ordinary. If we’re discussing Christian attachment to Rand in the way that we discuss things which have merit, which are part of the landscape of valid and legitimate opinions, then it’s perfectly fine that Christian politicians can claim both Jesus and Rand. In that case, the pro-Jesus+Pro-Rand crowd is part of the schema of the normal, a regular feature of the status quo. Nothing to see here, nothing to change.

But it’s madness. Maybe this is what McCarthy would say about the type of atonal, blithely bland violence you can get out of any old modern marvel that sells the faux-profound non-shocker, “hey man, violence is whatever, it’s just how the world is.” Ordinary, in other words — but this just isn’t the way he sees it, not so far as I can tell. And I don’t think Christian Rand apologia is legitimate or valid, and I don’t want to write as though it might be among those things we can reasonably disagree about, and I don’t want anyone to see it as ordinary. Maybe I don’t have any real control over that (probably not) but I do have to account for how I present what I do, how I play my teensy tiny role in making up the ordinary. Yeah, there’s a certain careerist impulse not to be dismissed as, y’know, another catty-snarky lady blogger, but I’m comfortable that’s not what I am, and I am aware of the service careerism does for particularly brutal forms of ordinariness. For me certain positions don’t belong in the canon of the regular, and I try to use style to advance that.

Given how strenuously people object to style, it must be doing something.

The Many Lives of Ayn Rand

Sometimes I think the fact that so many Christians slavishly devote themselves to Ayn Rand is part of her infernal punishment. I imagine Satan periodically delivering her reams of praise for her work, all of it penned by delusional Christianist libertarian types. Thumbing through it on the way to her cell, I suspect the Prince of Darkness would be pleased, in part because the arguments so weak, and he loves lies; and in part because Rand is still doing the work of the devil posthumously, convincing Christians of her corrupt worldview. “Thanks for the hand, Rand,” I imagine him saying, while she despairs that all her would-be Galts are just doughy Christianists who hate income taxes.

I’ve long wondered: what is it about Rand that captures so many Christian imaginations? Is it the terrible prose? The lumpy bathos of Interview With the Vampire is at least suited to its material. Or is it the wanton, militantly atheist, libertine individualism? If that’s the case, why not go for the Marquis de Sade? His sex scenes are better, and he detested radical Jacobins with all kinds of zeal. My confusion is magnified by the fact that many defenders of Rand seem not to have read her trash; for instance, they will periodically claim her book exhibits ‘conservative values‘, by which I presume they refer to all the glorified adultery and non-procreative unmarried screwing in underground tunnels. Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture also has a scene like that, so I guess she’s a paradigm of conservatism by equal measures. (This point is contested.)

Of course, when conservatives apologize for Rand, they usually just ignore the terrible sex ethics. This can be frustrating, but it’s a gift to leftists: it means they acknowledge traditional sex ethics don’t have to come along with right-wing economics. The latest round of Rand-apologia comes from The Federalist, the literary equivalent of a landfill in reverse:

Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all reasonable targets of critique for a variety of good reasons. Let those arguments continue to be made, though perhaps with less rancor. But it is important to be clear about the charges for which Rand should not have to answer. She was an atheist and clearly had an insufficient appreciation for (and accounting of) human solidarity, but she loved freedom and she understood the importance of work for human flourishing. And finally, although some accused her of fascism, she ardently opposed the cut-rate philosophy that makes an idol of the state. Ayn Rand deserves some of the opposition she has received from Christians and many others. But she also deserves better.

Why less rancor? Seriously, do you know what you’re dealing with here? For one, Rand’s libertine ethos (here expressed as a merely ‘insufficient appreciation for human solidarity’ and a ‘love of freedom’) produced more than an adoration of capitalism. In fact, the form of ‘freedom’ she embraced doesn’t even remotely comport with the sort of ‘freedom’ Christianity imagines. For instance, take Rand on abortion:

An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn). Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”

And moreover, what’s this nonsense about appreciating the use of ‘work’ for ‘human flourishing’? Rand didn’t regard work as a moral good insofar as it led to human flourishing; for instance, she didn’t have Oscar Wilde’s view that artistic production would be a great way to spend all our time, so we should funnel all income through state socialism. For Rand, the value of work was in its capacity to generate wealth, which is why the weasely author of this piece can point out that she would’ve thought the hard working factory laborer superior to the shiftless rich do-nothing. True, but she would’ve thought the enterprising rich venture capitalist superior to the factory laborer, which is where her ethics crash and burn in terms of Christian appraisal.

But the really interesting thing is this: if all you have to do is show some love of freedom, who can’t Christians apologize for? If you can claim that Jesus Christ himself was an immoral agent for sacrificing himself, which Rand did, and still earn the pathos of Christianist political types, who must be condemned by that logic? Is there any figure who we can dismiss?

Not really, no. And Rand’s appeal, I think, will continue to be refreshed by these seemingly unlikely fanboys precisely because their adoration of her is not related to the ways in which her ethics could — in isolation from their total system — periodically be forced into some kind of accord with deracinated Christian ethical principles. Rather, their love of Rand is specifically premised on the ways in which she is un-Christian; they like the elements of her work which flatly militate against Christian reasoning, and are willing to dress them up as vaguely Christian-esque in order to smuggle them past honest onlookers. So it’s not much use for me to say: hey, Rand was virulently anti-Christian and Objectivism is not only silly but evil. They already know that. The game is to confess as much and then try to reclaim a few seemingly small principles from her work, pardoned by their evident acknowledgement that the vast majority of them are evil.

But the principles they try to reclaim are not small, and they are all evil. If justice is poetic, Rand’s fans will be sealed in with her for eternity, she embittered by their love, they tormented by her rejection. And all the while her work will produce fresh crops for the inferno for ages to come.