The Middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts on Civility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To Know” – On Photo Leaks

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility, Outrage

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

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

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

1.) It’s just an aesthetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.B.) Civility prefers a particular framework.

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

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

And to whose benefit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimum Wage, “Failure at Life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio Interviews

I’m learning to use SoundCloud so I  can share some of my radio work with you guys. Here are a couple of pieces I’ve done with the excellent Pete Dominick, a most gracious host with great questions — who is humorous where I’m dull. Listen to him! And listen to these.

On being a pro-life liberal, and cultures of death:

On the common good, healthcare, and Christian political ethics:

The Girls Are Alright

On the Daily Beast, I had my response to some new GOP polling showing they don’t do so well with women voters. Over at First Things, there was quite a different take on the same study. R.R. Reno writes:

“Thus we have the seemingly odd political instincts of a single, 35-year-old McKinsey consultant living in suburban Chicago who thinks of herself as vulnerable and votes for enhanced social programs designed to protect against the dangers and uncertainties of life. Why would a woman whose 401K already exceeds $1,000,000 and who owns a condo worth almost as much be so concerned to expand public support for in-home care of the elderly? It’s because she’s not married and feels as though she’s going to have to take on all the responsibilities of life on her own—a prospect that is indeed daunting.”

Reno defines this as the dilemma facing social conservatives. He goes on:

“Put somewhat more concretely, the single, 35-year-old woman feels “judged” when I oppose gay marriage, because she intuitively senses that being pro-traditional marriage involves asserting male-female marriage as the norm—and therefore that her life isn’t on the right path. She resents this implication. Her problem, however, is that (statistically speaking) she wants to get married and feels vulnerable because she isn’t and vulnerable because she’s not confident she can. So (by my way of thinking) she needs a pro-marriage culture, but rejects it, or at least rejects the social and political defenses of it.”

There is a conflation of political interests here. The argument flows thus: women who are unmarried vote for welfare programs because they’re vulnerable in that they have no husbands (and thus no husbands’ incomes); therefore they also approve of same sex marriage and so forth, because any emphasis on traditional marriage (even as a substitute for welfare) makes them feel ‘judged’ and renews their feelings of vulnerability.

It appears to me it would be just as easy to say women should oppose same sex marriage because the affirmation of the marital standard would arouse the same feelings of judgement. You can, after all, oppose the ‘couple form‘ altogether. Of course this all takes place in the realm of speculative non-falsifiable stuff, but it’s worth pointing out that the ‘abolish marriage completely’ position has existed at the radical fringes of feminism for a long time, and it has still failed to gain a lot of traction. I doubt, though cannot prove, that large scale single woman support for same sex marriage is linked to self-doubt at women’s own singleness.

But suppose Reno is right about the economics, and women who go for the Dems do so because they have no man in the house, or fear they may not. Suppose that women who vote for social insurance programs do so because they’ve got no husbands, and thus no protection from the uncertainties in life. Reno recommends a pro-marriage culture as the response to this.

But is just having a husband enough to protect women and their families from poverty?

No. This is because at the lowest levels of income — where vulnerability is the most severe – marriage can actually make a woman more vulnerable. As men’s wages at the lowest levels have dropped precipitously, they have become liabilities rather than assets to women in their communities:

“Declines in men’s income for this group also help explain why working-class and poor mothers are not getting and staying married as much as their upscale peers. Because they tend to pair off with men who are similarly situated economically as they are, working-class and poor women are less likely to see the men in their lives as marriageable or worth sticking with. Indeed, the research tells us that men’s income remains a strong predictor of marrying and steering clear of divorce court. So, men’s money still matters when it comes to forming and sustaining today’s marriages and, unfortunately, the eroding economic standing of lower-income men means that they are less likely to be deemed worthy of marriage.”

One way a husband can be a liability is to have so little income and such a precarious job situation (construction, contracting, yadda) that if his work stops, the burden of supporting him pushes the couple or family into poverty. Note that this situation brings with it a cascade of other horrifying factors — a man losing his job can heighten the likelihood that he will perpetrate domestic violence, and domestic violence itself can lock women into a cycle of poverty. Even if a husband keeps his income, supposing it is as low as his wife’s, the meager combination of two very low incomes can still monkey deleteriously with poor couples’ security:

“Our results indicate that two incomes could lift many mothers out of poverty, but, at their current earnings, 46% of unmarried parents would continue to earn below the FPL (not including taxes and transfers) even if they were to marry. This is especially important because the economic benefits of marriage must be weighed against the loss of many means-tested benefits that may result from marriage. With welfare programmes that make it more difficult for two-parent families to obtain support when the market fails, marriage for unmarried couples might mean more rather than less vulnerability.”

(I know, I know: ‘programmes.’ UK authors, but the study is on the USA.) So the point stands: for many women, husbands are not a bulwark against vulnerability; they might even be a further danger. So what do we do about this?

I say we work backwards. Are we nabbing benefits from poor couples due to marriage? Do not do this. Moreover, so much of the general ‘hustling backwards’ problem could be cured with universal programs, like universal healthcare, a child allowance, low cost or free daycare, and so forth. Living wage laws would seem to go a long way as well, judging from the havoc dropping men’s wages seems to have done.  You can get money to people through the market or not; no research I could find considered the outcomes on marriage rates differentiating between the different methods (to be fair, it would be a hard study to conduct.) But this is the right vein of policy to work in: making individuals more secure so that they can enter into life as a couple without increasing their vulnerability. These fixes would suck the air out of the pretty convincing incentives against marriage on the financial end of things for the poorest, most vulnerable couples.

For me, this is the politics of a pro-marriage culture. But it’s not clear how Reno would approach the matter, seeing as he appears to view support for security-producing welfare policies as intimately linked with social liberalism. Though we can see that the social programs of strong welfare states do produce more traditional outcomes in some cases (women in the Netherlands like to stay home with their kids, for instance, and they can) it seems the ideological push to establish a connection between social liberalism and support for social insurance programs is stronger than the push to actually legislate policy that supports pro-marriage cultures.




All Kinds of Noble Lies

Strictly speaking, a noble lie is a large-scale communal deception intentionally perpetuated to maintain order. This distinguishes noble lies from, say, white lies, which are (theoretically) lies that spare feelings or other interpersonal discomfort. Noble lies have bigger social or political purposes than that in mind. They also require a lot of participation to advance: you can’t nobly lie on your own; you need a whole constituency to charade along with you.

The problem with noble lies is, of course, that they’re lies, and invariably somebody figures that out and refuses to cooperate with the fiction. This is why I’m a little distressed by the preponderance of weak ‘data’ and ‘evidence’ I’ve seen floated out in service of Christian ethical projects lately. A couple of examples:

Anti-abortion activist Lila Rose has obvious beef with Planned Parenthood; given her work, who could blame her? But she has taken a weird approach to attacking them in yet another ‘sting’ operation, wherein teenage girls asked Planned Parenthood counselors about trying kinky sex with their boyfriends. Some of the counselors recommended the “50 Shades of Gray” series for the girls as material to outline kinky sex safety practices, like safe words. Seriously: all of the advice the counselors gave was centered on ensuring the girls had kinky sex safely, but Rose takes this to be evidence of Planned Parenthood supporting rape culture. Her reasoning? Well:

“According to Planned Parenthood, “no” can’t mean “no” anymore; the word “can get mixed up.” So learn the “safe word,” and pray that your partner doesn’t decide that it’s not so safe anymore. When Planned Parenthood counselors train our girls not to expect that “no” means no, they disable a crucial form of protection for all women in a violent world…A world of compliant Ana Steeles and repulsive Christian Greys is nothing short of nightmarish. We all should turn away from any road that leads there.”

You know, kinky sex really isn’t my forte. I don’t consider this stuff a lot. But from a straight up logical standpoint, this argument is a mess. Rose argues that, by teaching girls that ‘no’ is often used in kinky sex as essentially a performative part of the sex play, they perpetuate a culture that ignores consent when it is not explicitly part of sex play. The trouble is that insisting on a safe word appears to be a very pointed insistence on consent: it just trades ‘no’ in for ‘cacao’ because ‘no’ is an aesthetic part of the sex performance. The ‘no’ never goes away, it just gets another shape, because the ‘no’ shape adds something to the sex play.

So Rose is a little confused on the merits. But suppose you believe there’s something inherently valuable about the n-o configuration. Now this argument is just a generalized argument against kinky sex; there’s no reason losing ‘no’ would be harmful when teens did it but not, say, consenting and married adults. This explodes the scope of Rose’s argument: we’re no longer really concerned with Planned Parenthood; after all, they didn’t invent kinky sex, nor are they even handing out texts on it — what we should really be concerned about is the 50 Shades of Gray series and its many, many, many inheritors and predecessors.

So with a touch of prodding, Rose’s argument seems to collapse. One gets the sense prodding wasn’t really intended. This isn’t hard-hitting investigative journalism or social science, it’s more like a noble lie — look here at this association between kinky sex and underage girls and Planned Parenthood, and participate in the fiction that there’s something uniquely and specifically evil going on because Planned Parenthood deserves to be shut down anyhow.

And there’s more. Consider this much-vaunted National Marriage Project study, “Before I Do.” The study has been loved on in forums from First Things to The Federalist, and offers conclusions such as:

“Those who have had more romantic, sexual or cohabiting partners before marriage are less likely to report a high-quality marriage than those with “less complex” romantic histories. For example, men and women who had slept only with their future spouse before marriage report higher marital quality than those who had other sexual partners as well. In addition, having a child in a previous relationship is linked to lower marital quality for women (but not men).

The intention (or lack thereof) with which the married individuals make transitions from one relationship milestone to another—by what the study terms “deciding” or “sliding”—is also linked to marriage quality. Those individuals who “slid” into relationship stages before marriage (including “hooking up,” cohabitation, and engagement) rather than “deciding” to do so with intentionality have lower quality marriages.

The greater the number of guests at the wedding, and the more formal the wedding ceremony, the greater chance that the marriage is of higher quality, even after controlling for income and education.”

Obviously the Christian ethical community is pretty excited about this. Yay, our standard appears to check out consequentially! But then again, as Noah Smith points out, the methodology here is just not really sound. Which is to say:

“…The second danger is omitted variables. These are things that cause both X and Y separately, but which the person doing the study didn’t think about. For example, the NMP study finds that people who wait to have sex later tend to have higher marital quality. That’s a correlation. Does it mean that if you choose to wait longer to have sex, you will have higher marital quality? Not necessarily!…

…the NMP study selects a sample of people who have demonstrated a tendency to break up — i.e., people who have had a kid in the past with another partner — and compares them to a random sample of the population. It very well might be the case that having experience with child-rearing, or with breakups, actually helps you form a stable relationship in the future, all else being equal. But because of selection bias, the NMP study would still tell you the opposite…”

Read Smith for the whole rundown, and then read this as well. Through and through, the methods here are not sufficiently strong to support their conclusions beyond reasonable doubt. It does not take a whole lot of training in quantitative methods to understand why the study isn’t as solid as it initially seems, and though (as Smith submits) this doesn’t mean its conclusions are wrong, it does mean we should hesitate to trumpet them as absolute factual proof that Christian sex ethics check out consequentially.

Smith has presented the study’s authors with these problems. In response, they have said essentially: “yes, we can’t prove causality, but it’s important to emphasize to people that their behaviors matter.” This is a species of noble lie. The idea is to put aside the intellectual problems of a case because the case itself is one that should be made: people should believe that Christian ethical practices will lead to the happiest possible outcomes, because that will encourage them to behave ethically, which is itself the desired outcome.

But this is a backwards application of Christian ethics, and it doesn’t do much to strengthen the project in the long run, as I intimated earlier. For one, it wrongly associates Christian ethics with plain consequentialism, that is, it suggests the purpose of Christian ethical practice is to give you a happy life. This is Joel Osteen Christianity. It is weak foundationally and easy to get frustrated with and abandon.

Secondly, it provides really insufficient ethical parameters. Rose’s argument is a good example of how ethical cases can be imploded or exploded when they’re not direct, but rather perambulate around the point they want to get at. Hauerwas gives another memorable example with regard to teens having sex: when you tell kids to wait until they’re really and truly in love to have sex, you’re not actually going to delay them from having sex for a moment — it’s only disapproving adults who think these kids don’t genuinely feel like they’re in love. By telling kids to wait for genuine love, we think we’ll delay them, but that’s only because we already presume they believe themselves to be ‘hooking up’ in a kind of loveless pastime type situation; when we take into account that they honestly do see sex as an expression of love and commitment, we realize the ethics we’ve given them are really quite bad at getting us to the endgame we want.

This is equally true of the suggestion of the marriage study, which would put people off sex partners before marriage, for instance, in hopes of prolonging their marriage. But this could result in a couple of things: one, a person who has serious commitment issues just remaining abstinent until marriage, at which point they still have serious commitment issues and will not benefit a mite from not having had sex yet; or, obverse, a regular Casanova having sex with his whole community but then electing to commit to marriage and figuring he’s in the clear because the only point was having a high quality marriage, and he’s achieved that.

I think it’s better just to be straightforward and clear about your principled arguments. Otherwise we risk making it appear as though Christian ethical thought itself is weak, when in reality these are just some weak takes on a strong project. Christian ethics is kind of a hard pill to swallow, it’s certainly not the fun approach in most senses of the word, but that’s not exactly our criterion, either.


Tolle, Lege

Today is St. Augustine’s feast day, a lovely way to conclude August. I hope you had a wonderful one! To celebrate St. Augustine, I thought I’d make public a facebook thing in which we share the top 10 books that have changed our way of thinking. There are a couple of reasons I thought this made an appropriate celebration: first, that Augustine’s own conversion was related to a kind of mystical reading experience he had, in which he heard tolle, lege (“take up and read”) sung distantly to him in a garden in reference to a nearby Bible; secondly, because Augustine really was the figure to ‘spiritualize’ a theory of reading in the west, as Brian Stock convincingly argues, which has had a massive impact on our literary inheritance. So, I think he would approve of us celebrating like this!

I invite you to share your own top 10 on your blog, on twitter, or on facebook — wherever you tell people about things in writing. When it comes to the subject matter and content of books, we don’t have to come to the same conclusions — we don’t even have to feel the same now as we did when the books we list changed our ways of thinking. The important thing is to pay a little homage to the books that have shaped our tools for interpreting the world. So without further ado, here are the top 10 books that have made all the difference to me.

Note: some of these are essays that came to me in anthologies of essays by the author; I’m counting them as ‘books’ though they aren’t book-length.

1. The Kingdom of God is Within You, Leo Tolstoy

Like most of these books, Kingdom was a gift. A Quaker friend of mine passed it along to me when I was a freshman in college. For me its impact was mainly to demonstrate a Christian theory of social action, and a Christian view of ‘public’ ethics. For someone who had succumbed for a long time to the popular notion that Christian ethics are basically private and personal, this was a miniature revolution.

2. Unto This Last, John Ruskin

My introduction to the idea of a formal Christian socialism. I still turn to Ruskin for thinking on the Christian ethics of labor. But what really fascinated me at the time was the exegetical approach Ruskin takes in dealing with Christian texts which are often said to “say nothing about” matters of social economy. After Ruskin I became incredibly skeptical of the oft-proposed idea that Christian texts have nothing or little to say about politics, economics, and the social relations of work — and this idea is still one of the main obstacles to actionable Christian engagement on these matters (in some quarters anyhow.)

3. The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen

Nowadays I read periodically about the affinity of Catholic social teaching for Sen’s capabilities approach, or a method of evaluating social welfare. But back when I read Sen for the first time the idea was mind-blowing, and it still remains invaluable to me in thinking about the politics of flourishing.

4. The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde

Just fun, good stuff. When isn’t Wilde a real treat to read? Soul of Man proposes some problems, really, for a thoroughgoing Christian socialism — or it at least imagines socialism in a way that isn’t amenable to the usual categories put forth to outline Christian socialism. But this is why it struck me, I think, and it became a key text for a long time in my thinking about competing narratives in political ‘stories’ we tell via argument.

5. The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi

One of the first presents Matt Bruenig ever gave me. I knew it was a pretty special gift, since Matt did not have a lot of money at the time (we were in high school) but he still kept his copy and bought me a new one rather than handing his old one down. I’m glad we’ve consolidated books now. But when Colonizer came my way I hadn’t much experience in thinking about a) systematic, institutionalized evil (Arendt was helpful to me on this later as well) or b) the legacies of those institutions. This was the beginning, for me, of thinking about participation in evil systems (even the legacies of evil systems) as participation in a kind of matrix of moral hazards, which obviated the more tempting way of thinking of these things — e.g., “Well, I am not personally x, so…”

6. Theology and Social Theory, John Milbank

Ha, well, controversial, dense, sometimes seemingly intentionally so. But important insofar as it forms a very specific type of argument that I hadn’t been exposed to before in the world of theology. I still follow a lot of the academic debates begun with this book, and usually find them creative in terms of their theological imagination. One of the more interesting things about this text was the way it handles the relationship between the present and past — something I still meditate on quite a lot, theologically (more to come on that.)

7. The Invention of Capitalism, Michael Perelman

Firmly uprooted the idea that capitalism is the natural go-to for humankind, or that it somehow captures all innate human characteristics in their most fulsome incarnations. Argue about politics today and you’ll get the sense that before people were here capitalism waited for us. Not after this.

8. The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben

Probably the first serious book on political theology I read, which is rough, because it isn’t easy. But I muddled through and re-read over the years, and found Agamben’s arguments (and method of analyzing Christian concepts, esp. economy) as deeply informative on a number of levels. Probably not bedtime reading, and I wish now I’d read it with a group of people rather than on my own, but I’m still sensitive now to its attention to history, texture, symbol and relationships of meaning.

9. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

What a wonderful novel. It’s hard to really get at what all it means to me, because it was given to me by my mother and seemed to carry a lot of her dreams with it — about education, about travel, about faith. (Lo and behold, I really did grow up to study theology at a former medieval abbey.) But further, the thrust of the book is a good chaser to the ‘shot’ of books like Theology and Social Theory, which can tend toward an almost glib medieval nostalgia. What can we really recover of the past? And can we recover it, or can we only recapitulate it, acting out the shapes and sounds without the meaning that was there? If we say our solution is a turn to the past, can we get back what we had, or will the knowledge that it is past create a museum-like dynamic, in which all the ‘things’ are there, but the relationships between us and them are totally different? These are the questions of Name of the Rose, and the reasons I’ll probably keep reading it forever, and die with it in my purse.

10. Idolatry, Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit

Excellent exegesis, excellent history, and very serious consideration of the nature of the sin. Idolatry came to me at Brandeis when I was studying Judaism, and sticks in my mind as one of the most elegant, thorough studies I’ve ever read on sin and culture. It’s sort of my standard, now, for evaluating texts that consider sin, because it is so clear, so competent, and so broad in its thought. Very hard to outdo, and the imitators are many and pale.

Honorable Mentions: The Spirit Level, The Affluent Society, Confessions.

How about you?

Let Them Eat Shame

This is just a conclusion to the fun we had this weekend with the slimiest Federalist post ever published, entitled “Bring Back the Welfare Stigma.” Here is the opening gambit of the piece:

“It’s bad enough that we’ll have more students belly up to the government food trough (if you’ve never had a taste of “free” government lunch, consider yourself lucky); instead, consider RPS Superintendent Dana Bedden’s positive gushing about the new program: “I like it for the health and nutrition aspect, but this also removes the stigma of free lunch. Everyone can eat.”

Ah, “stigma:” one of the last great impediments to full-blown government dependency. With all due respect to Bedden, he and the rest of Richmond Public Schools are doing a grave disservice by attempting to remove the “stigma” associated with free government handouts.”

The advocacy here is very simple. It goes like this:

  1. Using government welfare programs is bad; it should be stigmatized.
  2. But it is not always stigmatized. Example: poor children who get to eat free lunches stigma-free due to community eligibility.
  3. This is wrong.
  4. In a perfect world, poor children who get free lunches due to community eligibility would feel stigmatized.

Now, the author has tried to claim that he never advocated the stigmatization of poor children. There are two problems with this: one, as you can very plainly see in the text above, his advocacy cannot logically result in any other outcome. There is no way you can say we should stigmatize welfare, example: lunches, but that we also simultaneously shouldn’t stigmatize those things. It literally doesn’t make sense.

If what he wants to claim is that we should stigmatize *things* — such as the use of welfare — and not people, that equally makes no sense. Stigma is relational; you cannot be stigmatized in private, isolated in a world of your own. There are no taboos and no stigmas without at least the vestige of a society, a kind of Greek chorus — internal or external — suggesting social censure of some kind. Therefore even if we explicitly condemn the stigmatization of children while advocating the stigmatization of what they do to live, that is, eat school lunches for free, then the outcome is going to be the stigmatization of children. Since the Federalist crew has repeatedly claimed the author is not in favor of stigmatizing children, please consider this quote from the piece and try to conclude it’s arguing anything else:

Keeping welfare firmly in the stigmatized realm is not merely a conservative crusade; it’s good policy, too. There is strong evidence that welfare use is transmitted from parents to children; that is to say, a parent’s using welfare significantly increases the likelihood that the child will use it, as well. This makes Richmond’s “free lunch” program all the more troubling, of course, for it essentially bypasses all parent involvement, at least in the children’s eyes, and grants a government handout directly to the child himself.

Again, the logic breakdown:

  1. It’s good policy to stigmatize welfare.
  2. Free lunches are especially bad for welfare programs.
  3. Free lunches should be stigmatized.

There’s literally no other policy advocacy you can derive from this, unless he’s arguing that, though welfare should be stigmatized and though free lunches are especially odious welfare programs, they for some reason are exempt from the ‘good policy’ of stigma. But why? Why on earth, other than the fact that he got called out for it?

On the other hand, if the article is neither advocating the return of stigma nor reporting upon its goodness (with the understanding that to report on the goodness of a thing is to make some normative claim about what ought to be done), then I’m not sure what on earth it might be saying. As a matter of history, it’s absolutely wrong: poor people already feel very ashamed of being poor and using welfare programs. Want proof?

There’s plenty of proof. Poor people don’t like being called poor or impoverished, they prefer phrases that emphasize that they’re working hard to fix their lives. Kids who qualify for free lunches often don’t eat them because their peers make fun of them. When asked why they’re poor, poor people themselves cite a ‘decline in moral values‘ as a major reason at the same rates as rich and middle class people do. Stephen Pimpare’s A People’s History of Poverty in America cites a sundry of examples of lived shame in poverty, and anyone who works with people who don’t have enough to make it know that there’s more where that came from.

This notion that being poor and asking for help is now celebrated or looked kindly upon is just wrong on the merits. Nobody needs to bring back the shame of being poor and using assistance; it never went away. Matt and I posted a number of clips from the Frontline documentary ‘Poor Kids‘ this weekend quoting impoverished children talking about the shame they feel in being poor and needing public assistance. It’s clear no stigma needs to be brought back.