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.

Property & Plague

I probably don’t need to enumerate the many illnesses that are wreaking havoc worldwide at the moment, some with more traditionally plague-like features than others. I have followed with great distress the spread of the Ebola virus through west Africa and now to Europe and the United States, but have also been for sometime concerned with dangerous diseases long in our midst, notably HIV/AIDS. Please know this post isn’t intended to make something abstract and/or lighthearted of a very serious situation; I just thought since the topics are both current you might find it interesting. Without further ado, let’s keep this medieval ball rolling.

So I’d like to divide this post into three impacts the Black Plague (a.k.a: “black death”, “great plague”, “bubonic plague”) had on medieval Europe. The first point will consider how containment measures impacted property law. The second will consider how the changes in population and psyche inflicted by the plague changed labor and wages. The third will consider how the Church’s welfare regime comported with the effects of the plague.

1.) Containment Measures & Property Law

A common misunderstanding of the medieval response to the plague is that the medievals had only one misinformed theory of disease; in reality there were a variety of theories of disease floating around, one of which was more or less Galen’s theory of humors, while others tracked with different senses of ‘bad air’, ‘miasma’, ‘filth’ and so on. As you can see, attributing the source of disease to ‘bad air’ or ‘miasma’ isn’t quite right, but it isn’t totally demented, and it heavily impacted medieval plague containment protocols. If you’re a Foucault fan, you’re already aware of the ‘plague town’ of late 17th century protocol, the kind he associated with the unflinching gaze of the panopticon. Where the premodern response to leprosy produced an us-versus-them simple division, Foucault argues, the plague produced infinite segmentation. Each person was watched. Individual windows were shuttered, individual homes searched, individual pieces of property burned. This early modern plague protocol had medieval precedent in the earliest quarantines, which popped up in the sea ports of the Adriatic in the 14th century. Venetians set up 40-day quarantines for ships suspected of carrying plague infested crews or cargo, and since those, y’know, worked, Northern Italy went sort of hog wild with public health systems:

“Between 1348 and the 1500s — at least in Northern Italian cities — the idea of a plague as a contagion gained great force, and if governments were not yet ready to deny that plague was God’s visitation, in practice they took more and more measures designed to combat the spread of infections. Remarkable and intrusive systems of public health developed, which in turn gave rise to basic questions about the limitations of state authority exercised in the name of public good.”

So writes J. N. Hays in The Burdens of Disease. Now, the public health laws enacted in Northern Italian cities pertained in large part to the movement of bodies; they told you where you could go and when, based on the likelihood that you were infected. But as Foucault’s plague town intimates, there were also massive incursions into property: ships’ cargo could be detained or burned; the possessions of suspected plague-havers were equally endangered. It appears Milan avoided a major outbreak using these methods, which to be fair are panicky and draconian, but represent at least a glimmer of fascinating medieval intuition: your property rights are not even approaching similarity to your bodily rights and/or the right of others to life. This is contra, say, the Lockean impulse, which tries to equate property with body by suggesting a metaphysical admixture of person and property via labor-mixing, therefore extending the rights of the person’s body over the things they own. Not on your life, say the medievals. And, indeed, proprietary contracts mostly languished during plague outbreaks:

“Modern historical studies [of Northern Italian city states] all suggest that after a few months political and legal machinery once again functioned, and that in least some cases city governments tried to assist their populations in coping with the disaster. In Perpignan the persistence of will-making even at the height of the epidemic was impressive; a will written by professionals, with witnesses, was a “fairly sophisticated document, reflecting a rather high level of social organization” that did not break down in panic. When the worst months passed, legal documents reappeared in full flower, and their character reflects a community rebuilding itself: there were again estate settlements, disputes among heirs, restoration of dowries, and apprenticeship contracts as new workers were recruited to fill the gaps in trade.”

That the highly technical craft of will-writing persevered even through the height of the plague tells us a couple of things: first, that the revocation of property rights in quarantine procedure wasn’t a function of complete societal breakdown — that is, it wasn’t a symptom of the disintegration of moral order that permitted all kinds of wild abuse — but rather that it was just part of a set of procedures whose implementation by the state was deemed morally fitting for the most part given the circumstances. This also means the quarantine protocols weren’t a symptom of the seizure of power by tyrants among panic. But it also informs us that most formal proprietary arrangements appear to have become swiftly second-order, with only wills surviving — which makes sense when lots of people are dying and hoping to pass on information about their families and properties. But other functions of property appear to have been given relatively short shrift by the state during this period, and were then revived post-disaster. Medievals could prioritize certain functions of property, that is, given the circumstances; this reflects their general sense that property was for something, not just an empty category of rights.

I would also hope the long, storied history of quarantines would cool the panic of some panicky conspiracy theorists who see abject tyranny in all public health measures. They’re not alone in their concerns, as the murmuring of some Italian jurists mentioned above indicates; but the plague protocols didn’t transform in their time to long-term domination, and I doubt ours will, either. And anyway if you take Foucault seriously, the plague protocols are already here, anyway.

2.) How the plague changed labor law and wages.

If you were a peasant and you made it through the various rounds of plague, you likely hit some paydirt. Tierney, Medieval Poor Law:

“The most immediate and obvious effect of the plague was to create an unprecedented shortage of labor. Workmen demanded higher wages and villeins clamored to be free of their customary services so that they could take advantage of the favorable labor market. Landlords resisted these demands and governments sought to outlaw them with repressive legislation. This in turn contributed to a growing bitterness between the classes which produced serious peasant rebellions in England and elsewhere in the 1380s.”

Come see the violence inherent in the system, etc. Heh, and the rich folk were bastards about it, too. Tierney goes on:

“The first reaction to the Black Death was the Ordinance of Laborers of 1349. Its main purpose was to prevent laborers wandering away from their work to seek higher wages, and, to render this provision effective, it forbade the giving of alms to able-bodied beggars under pain of imprisonment ‘so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.’”

Hooboy. From Mark Senn’s article, “English Life and Law in the Time of the Black Death”:

“These laws required people who were under the age of sixty who were able to work (with a few exceptions) to do so and to do so at their 1346 wage levels in the places they worked before the plague. These laws also prohibited employers from paying wages at higher levels and vendors from selling their goods at higher than 1346 prices.”

Uh huh. The sum of all this is a sort of enlightenment that came with the dark times. As Senn goes on,

“The importance of the laws that stabilized wages and prices is not only in their recognition of a crisis and their effort to address it. These laws implicitly acknowledged that the feudal bargain had vanished. They did not appeal to the personal bonds of loyalty and protection, but rather, they appealed to simple impersonal checks on monetary exchanges. A law based on status was ceding ground to one based on economics and the bargaining positions supply and demand offer.”

It does not surprise me that a natural disaster that so clearly demonstrated the substantive sameness of the classes (the body and its susceptibility to illness) resulted in a great deal of resentment over the artificial differences (class and status.) The state, acting to protect its wealthy, enacted a bunch of garbage laws, which the people rebelled against. Lesson: rebel, dudes, now is the time!

3.) Effect upon the Church and her welfare regime.

Sometimes you’ll read that the Church’s welfare system ‘fell apart’, resulting in the needs for comparatively brutal ‘poor laws.’ But it wasn’t that the system was just inadequate and broke down. Rather, the structure of the Church was especially vulnerable to the Black Death itself. Both Senn and Robert Palmer (English Law in the Age of the Black Death) note that mortality rates were higher among clergy than laity; Helen Cam writes in England Before Elizabeth that 17,500 priests, monks, nuns, and friars existed in a population of 3 million in 1300, while only 8,000 remained in a population of 2 million after the plague had run its course. Why?

Because, God bless them, the clergy tried to care for the sick.

With numbers vastly reduced, the clergy, which had beforehand administrated a very sophisticated network of assistance, was replaced with young, unschooled agents with far less proficiency. Tierney notes this led to an overall reduction in the efficacy of the medieval assistance regime at least for a time.

Unsurprisingly the role of the religious in the care of the sick is still a matter of contention. Recall this Slate piece, wherein an avowed atheist wonders at the oversight, capacity, and ethics of missionaries working with Ebola patients. His concern about the oversight issue is especially poignant (though, it’s not clear, as he submits, who would replace the missionaries and religious workers if they were to suddenly pull out) given that, as in the black death, religious workers have in this wave of Ebola suffered: a priest passed on after returning to Spain from Sierra Leone — after his repatriation he passed the virus on to a nurse; Texas’ own Kent Brantly was doing Christian mission work when he was infected. It’s heartening to see that, even after all these many centuries, Christianity is still a religion of suffering-with. On the other hand, we are trying to prevent outbreaks here, so some coordination of efforts and tempering of love with prudence probably isn’t a bad idea.

Not that I’m fit to formulate such a schema, and the medieval period can’t tell us much more about one than what not to do. What it can do is tell us that our concerns are not new, which will hopefully provide some cold comfort for those who find themselves increasingly panicked by this state of affairs.

As Sir Walter Scott wrote: “Come he slow, or come he fast/It is but death who comes at last.” Even the great medieval cities whose plague containment procedures spared them from the worst of it are all dust now. We remember the best of them, and let’s try in these very upsetting times to make ourselves memorable for good reasons: for our empathy, our tenderness toward the ill, our willingness to help, our refusal to stigmatize the sick or the survivors, our calm and our faith.

Alternatively, a peasant rebellion also sounds sort of cool.

Relating to the Past

The gown I wore at Cambridge — a thick black robe with gathered, drapey sleeves — now hangs useless at the back of my closet. Sometimes I can feel it when I sift through my coats. What is it doing there, why hang onto it? Sometimes I imagine I’ll wear it again for some ceremonial occasion. I can’t throw it out, though, because once I felt naked without it.

These memories now seem absurd to me. At the time they did not seem absurd. Then, in that place, at that moment, the experience of being without my robe was morbidly serious. I can still put the robe on, but I can’t feel the gravity of it anymore. I can remember that feeling, but it has no meaning for me now. I can explain it to you, but it can’t move you like it did me, then.

It’s an object of the past. And it presents the same problem all of the objects of the past do, even those once imbued with a great deal of meaning: you can’t just slip them on again, at a much later time and place, expecting them to perform the same function they once did. Thus The Name of the Rose finds its narrator Adso returning to the monastery burnt at the conclusion of the greatest episode of his youth, searching for meaning:

“The two outer towers, over the cliff, appeared almost untouched, but all the windows were empty sockets whose slimy tears were rotting vines. Inside, the work of art, destroyed, became confused with the work of nature, and across vast stretches of the kitchen the eye ran to the open heavens through the breach of the upper floors and the roof, fallen like fallen angels…

Along one wall I found a bookcase, still miraculously erect, having come through the fire I cannot say how; it was rotted by water and consumed by termites. In it there were still a few pages. Other remnants I found by rummaging the ruins below. Mine was a poor harvest, but I spent a whole day reaping it, as if from those disiecta membra of the library a message might reach me…

I spent many, many hours trying to decipher those remains…At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.”

How do we know the work of nature, the sequence of events as enacted without much purpose or necessity, from the work of human intent? Time blends the two seamlessly. One book survives, another doesn’t. Our vision of the past is made up of the kind of fragments Adso obtains, and others; but they’re all fragments. And they come to us through chance, and they were not created with the intention of speaking to our present day: their auteurs had no idea what our present day would be like, or what it would need to be told, or how it would be able to listen. When you speak to posterity, you whisper in the dark.

Nonetheless there is a tremendous impulse in the face of modern innovations to try to reclaim the objects of the past and use them the way they were then, to affect that time and way of being. As Freddie deBoer writes,

“There’s an even deeper problem, though, for men who explicitly embrace traditional masculinity: there’s nothing traditional about knowing you’re embracing tradition. Whatever their virtues or vices, the manly men from long ago that these bros imagine they are emulating didn’t spend all their time thinking about what it meant to be manly men. Indeed: it’s precisely the unthinking acceptance of the gender hierarchy that gave these men the “confidence” (read: entitlement) that neo-masculinists want to emulate. But you can’t think your way to an unthinking prejudice. [...] They are told that they only have value if the embody an ideal they cannot think their way into.”

You obtain all the trappings of the past — wear the clothing of the past, use the words they used in the past, smoke the cigars your grandad did and do your hair like Fred Astaire — but the objects of the past no longer produce the meanings of the past. They don’t mean to us what they meant to them; we know this in part because they were using the objects, not intentionally using them to perform something. True to form, the response to Freddie’s piece came from dudes who do try to live like that, ones who write with intentionally archaic diction, like so:

“The act of being a man is realized when all such things are put under the rule of his will and are broken with a rod of iron; when he is no longer driven by his lusts as the Greeks would term it, or the flesh as it would be known among Christians, but rather commands them. Such is the dominance which is to be acquired by the power of his will and reason, and the acquisition of such dominance is called among us “virtue,” which is merely Latin for “manliness.””

What Greeks? Which Christians? Who uses these terms in this way, unless they’re trying to speak in the way they imagine the person they want to be would’ve spoken? But the orator would’ve known precisely what Greeks, and which Christians. By now those imagined referents no longer really exist; they’re just symbols. Writing like John Locke isn’t going to put your girlfriend in petticoats, nor revoke her right to vote. The trappings of the past can’t take you there; the moment is gone, and all we have are fragments.

But more than any other hero in all of literature, my heart aches for Adso, because he’s faced with the task of trying to make meaning out of things which no longer contain it. The remainders become almost totemic for him:

“The more I reread this list the more I am convinced it is the result of chance and contains no message. But these incomplete pages have accompanied me through all the life that has been left me to live since then; I have often consulted them like an oracle, and I have almost had the impression that what I have written on these pages, which you will now read, unknown reader, is only a cento, a figured hymn, an immense acrostic that says and repeats nothing but what those fragments have suggested to me, nor do I know whether thus far I have been speaking of them or if they have spoken through my mouth.”

This is the problem with the reactionary type of conservatism that supposes what we need is a healthy dose of back-then, that we can pick up the things they put down and use them again like they did. This was the caution I intended to convey when I wrote at the top of the medieval pieces that there’s a serious risk of idealizing the medieval era. There is: one of the central dangers is presuming that, by referencing the medieval period, we mean to resume whatever habits its Christians had carried on and presume doing so will revive in us whatever Christian sentiment has been lost to time. I do not believe this. My intention with this medieval stuff is not to suggest we try to reach back through time and adopt their practices, though this is a surprisingly easy theological habit to slip into.

My goal is only to destabilize the myth, usually propagated by reactionary conservatives, that Christianity inherently holds a particular liberal view of property and welfare, and to suggest otherwise is to misrepresent Christian doctrine. To this I pose the medieval Christians as evidence that their story isn’t as common-sensical as they suggest; that’s a historically dependent version of Christianity that could really only arise from a political circumstance that requires that kind of Christian statement. Christian doctrine, in other words, doesn’t demand libertarian property ethics; libertarian property ethics occasion a vein of Christian thought that comports nicely with it.

Which still leaves a lot of work to be done. What the medievals thought of property and Christian doctrine matters to us; it has to. We can look back to it for guidance and inspiration, but it’s too clumsy to try to import it directly and graft it where it no longer makes sense. This is like putting on a fedora and supposing now you’re traditionally masculine; doesn’t work, looks silly. The problem isn’t that conservatives do it, but that it doesn’t work. All this is to say: my medieval interest isn’t a form of reactionary conservatism, it’s an attempt, as Sean McElwee positions it, to shake open an old myth about what sort of practice Christianity simply must produce, by the lights of some contemporary conservatives.

And perhaps you already sensed this. But it is an oddly widespread problem, the tendency to forget that between the time that a certain way of doing things was lost and the time it took you to realize that was a mistake everything changed to such a degree that it isn’t possible to revert back to the way of doing things you now realize was a better one. Rather, an altogether new thing has to be made, which might be inspired by that former thing, but can only have its ghost, and will suffer for trying to find in it a mirror.

Medieval Insights into Modern Charity

My internet life has begun to bleed into my real life. I am now invited from time to time to argue with people about social insurance and Christianity. Without fail a feature of those arguments is as follows: my opponent on the political right leads with a correction to my view of them. They lament in a sort of victimized way that I have depicted them as not caring for the poor. This is uncharitable, they say: of course they care about poor people. It’s only that they feel charity must come from the heart, not from the state; they point out that charity just doesn’t count unless it’s voluntary, and that my argument that the state should provide some standard of living for its citizenry is therefore misguided, attempting to produce charity out of bureaucratic statecraft.

This is probably the most common argument contra social insurance or welfare that I get out of the Christian right. Sometimes it’s formulated as purely scriptural, e.g. “Well, Jesus said care for the poor, but he never said we needed to use the state to do it.” But it’s always the same basic argument, e.g. that welfare is an attempt to legally force charity, thus rendering the charity spiritually bankrupt and invalid.

State programs may affect the same people that private acts of charity affect, but state programs are not and are not intended to be‘charity’ as such. Just states that provide robust social insurance regimes may be seen as formed in the spirit of caritas, but that doesn’t make their social insurance programs anymore ‘charitable’ than, say, their water treatment plants or public school systems.

So those who confuse social insurance programs with charity make two mistakes: (a) they believe that the directive to give charitably can only be expressed as material charity on the individual level; (b) and they believe that government programs that offer benefits are only in danger of infringing upon charity when they are used primarily by the poor. This means that they believe, however implicitly, that charity is mainly for the poor .

(a) The directive to give charitably can only be expressed as material charity on the individual level.

Historically, Christians haven’t understood charity to mean purely material gifts of subsistence per se. John Bossy, in Christianity in the West 1400 – 1700:

“It would be idyllic to suppose that medieval charity was a relationship into which money did not much enter. But it was not relevant to the majority of the situations where charity was in question, and all the ‘corporal works of mercy’ (feeding, clothing, hospitality, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead) could perfectly well be carried on without any money changing hands. This was in keeping with the sensible if unheroic view expressed in the canon law that charity was better directed to those with whom one was in some actual relation (that is, one’s kin or neighbors) than to perfect strangers.”

Charity begins, it seems, in the home; it’s also best expressed in these relational ways. This turns the conservative objection to welfare on its head: where conservatives would say giving out assistance through the state saps charitable interactions of their relational qualities, the same is equally true of any charity given to a stranger. So your massive private organizations doling out assistance would be no different, on that count, than the state doing it. If you give money to Doctors Without Borders, that’s great! And it’s private. But it’s no different than a tax the state converts to welfare in that you’re still just giving money to someone else that is eventually passed on to the needy. Similarly if you give money to a food bank, that’s a wonderful thing to do! Do that. But it is no more relational than being taxed and having that tax money eventually fund SNAP. In either instance, the person who gets the food has no more relationship with you than they did before.

Which means, at the end of the day, charity as a relational function is going to occur equally whether assistance is run on a massive private scale or massive public scale. You’re either going to go sit with your sick neighbor or you aren’t, visit imprisoned loved ones or not; but the point is that big structures will always be equally impersonal. Which is fine, because charity can be carried out perfectly well without a strictly material basis. So that charity must be conducted on an individual level is true, but it’s not an argument against public assistance programs: the private ones that would take their place would be just the same on that count.

Addressing these arguments in turn:

(b) State programs only infringe upon the charitable mission when they primarily aid the poor.

You just will not find arguments against public school, public water treatment, public roads, or public parks saying that they violate the principle of charity. That is because those things are used by everyone. But the same ethos that produces all of those public works produces social insurance: the idea that it’s just that there are common things available to support the common good. Or, as Gilchrist explained of the medieval welfare recipient: “Nor was this type of relief regarded by the recipient as charity; instead he treated it in the way that we treat state maintenance today.” The widespread relief programs available in the medieval era, such as they were (variable and somewhat spotty), weren’t identified precisely with interpersonal acts of charity. They were another expression of concern for the total society, and so too should we imagine social insurance today.

States formed in the spirit of caritas feature all these contributions to the common good, because they all support the health of the whole society. Here’s Pope Francis, speaking on caritas:

The growth of inequality and poverty threaten inclusive and participatory democracy, which always presupposes an economy and a market that does not exclude [people] and which are equitable. It deals, then, with overcoming the structural causes of inequality and poverty. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium I wanted to point out three basic instruments for the social inclusion of those most in need: education, access to health care, and work for all (cf. n. 192). [...]

The principle of Caritas in veritate is extremely topical. A truth-filled love is, in fact, the basis on which to build the peace that today is especially desired and necessary for the good of all. It allows one to overcome dangerous fanaticisms, conflicts for the possession of resources, migrations of biblical proportions, the enduring wounds of hunger and poverty, human trafficking, injustice, and social and economic disparities, imbalance in collective goods.

Education, healthcare, work — these are all things which the state in some form or another has a role in the provision of, or can, and perhaps should in the American context. As Pope Francis points out, these are all beliefs he comes to through the principle of caritas-in-veritate, or charity in truth. This means there will of course be a charitable impulse behind the formation of a state that provides services that support the common good, but it doesn’t mean that all charity will be identified with those provisions, or that those provisions should be understood as fulfilling the duty of charity we’re all charged to carry out in our relationships.

And it also points to another notable truth: charity isn’t just for the poor, and the poor using something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily charitable. We can support the poor, for instance, because a failure to do so damages our participatory democracy; this isn’t charity as much as the type of state maintenance Gilchrist references. Similarly we may for the same reason fund education and sanitation in a public way, but these aren’t acts of charity but acts of order and justice, (though caritas underwrites our love for these things in the first place.) The charitable impulse should and can apply to all, while individual acts of charity do seem well suited for the relational, and we can have all these things simultaneously, without any damage to charity.

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.