An impossible balance?

Yesterday, I posted this on tumblr:

I don’t exactly agree with what I said there, that we must not remember the twerp or his cause.  It’s really more that we have to strike a balance, and that balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

On the one hand, terrorists kill because they want to become famous and to gain publicity for their cause.  Therefore we should ignore them.  On the other hand, terrorists kill because they want to blind us to the humanity of their victims and to isolate the group of people to which the victims were targeted for belonging.  Therefore we ought to raise our voices and cry out about the violence, to remember what was done, why it was done, and face the facts which make it likely to be repeated.

So, we have to simultaneously ignore El Twerpo and examine him deeply, simultaneously dismiss his loathsome beliefs and search for their roots in our social order and their echoes in our own minds, simultaneously equate him with all that is weak and contemptible and recognize the bleak power that broods behind him.  How can we strike this balance?  The hell if I know.  But I am sure it must be done.

The Declaration of Independence as a Calvinist Tract

It would be quite an anachronism if the authors of the Declaration of Independence had not thought in terms inherited from Christianity

As part of a seminar the website Crooked Timber is conducting on Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Sam Goldman put up this post discussing Professor Allen’s interpretation of the theistic language in that 1776 document.  While Professor Allen concedes that a theistic reading of the Declaration is plausible, she argues that it is not necessary to arrive at agreement with the document’s central claims.

Mr Goldman is unconvinced of this, arguing that, while “Nature’s God” as described in the Declaration is not necessarily the Christian God, “the Declaration loses much of its original meaning if you leave God out.”  He spends several paragraphs discussing the sort of God the Declaration requires, showing that, for example, Spinoza’s pantheistic view might suffice to make sense of the bare language of the document, but that other evidence suggests that it would have repelled its authors, and that it would also defeat some aspects of Professor Allen’s interpretation.

I responded to Mr Goldman’s post.  I did not assert that the Declaration is necessarily a specifically Christian document, but that whatever God its authors had in mind was one who interacted with humans in much the same way as did the God Jean Calvin described in his theology.  Indeed, the reception of the Declaration in the civic life of the USA shows the influence of Calvinism on the American religious imagination.  I wrote:

“The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.” And also their idea that justice is reducible to rights, while rights themselves are not functions of specific social institutions, but are given to us by God for no particular reason that history can discern, are received by us without our doing anything to claim them, and are retained by us throughout all time no matter how many centuries may pass without our exercising them, defending them, or knowing that they exist.

The Declaration may not mention the resurrection or Jesus “or other specifically Christian doctrines,” but in these three aspects it is, I think, obvious that the God of the Declaration relates to humanity in just the way that the God of Calvin does. Unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the persistence of the saints are three of the five petals of the Calvinist TULIP, and the Declaration’s view of rights as our history-free endowment implies a barely secularized version of all three.

The other two petals of the acronym, total depravity and limited atonement, are not far to find either. Both the king, in the comprehensive corruption that the list of grievances reveals, and the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” show what humans are like when the Nature’s God does not so enlighten their understanding that the extraordinary claims of the opening paragraph become “self-evident.”

Even the very strange fact that the Declaration, which is a press release, became the occasion for the USA’s chief patriotic holiday shows the Calvinist influence. Not only do Calvinists tend to have rather a high respect for the market, so that an event in the marketing of the Revolution could become the paramount symbol of the Revolution, but also Calvinism’s emphasis on Biblical exegesis and the liturgy of the word prepared the Calvinist mind to look for the climactic moment of the Revolution, not in a battle or a treaty or in any other event where people gather and physical objects move between them, but in a presentation of abstract ideas to which people listen in silence.

This last point, that a particular configuration of the religious imagination is required to make a press release a fit object for national veneration, was in fact my initial response to the piece, as memorialized on Twitter:

“Saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

A century or so ago, G. K. Chesterton said “Journalism consists largely of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”  Social media has made that sort of journalism a pastime in which all of us may share.

On 12 June, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a part-time college instructor named Rachel Dolezal, a person whose name, up to that point, may perhaps have been known to as many as 200 people outside the Spokane area, was revealed to be a white person passing for African American.  Suddenly, Ms Dolezal became the most discussed person on Twitter and Facebook.  Melissa Harris-Perry conducted a not-unsympathetic interview with Ms Dolezal, setting off a secondary social media firestorm from people upset with her for granting Ms Dolezal a platform.   Countless right-wing voices equated Ms Dolezal’s “transracialism” with the lives of transfolk; some right of center pundits showed themselves surprisingly perceptive in critiquing this equation.   Lefties objected that Ms Dolezal’s behavior trivialized the oppression that African Americans suffer.  Some expressed that objection in a gentle way (see Keith Knight’s cartoon on the subject,) some in an angry way (see Tak Toyoshima’s cartoon,) and some with frank mystification (see Andrew Stewart’s essay.)  Left, right, or center, gentle, angry, or confused, no one seemed to be able to keep quiet about this person who had been so obscure so short a time before that some commentators who had already said a great deal about her had the sudden, uncomfortable realization that they’d never actually heard her name spoken aloud.

One of the reasons so many rightists were eager to make a connection between Ms Dolezal’s racial passing and transgenderism was that the same US media that suddenly filled with Ms Dolezal’s story last week had, the previous week, been dominated by coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she no longer wished to be known as Bruce.  Most of this coverage had been quite celebratory of Ms Jenner as an individual and ostentatiously supportive of transgenderism in general.  Many social conservatives were upset that something which they regard as so unwholesome was receiving so much favorable publicity.  What struck me as strange was the fact that the long-retired athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner was receiving so much publicity.  After all, the last newsworthy thing she did was win a track and field competition in 1976.  I suspect that if you had asked a thousand Americans, a couple of months ago, what Bruce Jenner was up to, the most common reply would have been “Who’s Bruce Jenner?”  Certainly everyone under 40 would answer that way, unless their parents were antique dealers specializing in old Wheaties boxes.  The second commonest reply would probably have been “Didn’t he die years ago?”   All I can figure is that someone decided it was time to have a major transgender celebrity, and if the best they could come up with was a minor celebrity from decades ago, they would build that person up with all the force they could muster.

Day before yesterday Ted Rall wrote an essay on this general topic of “celebritization.”  It begins: “Even if you’re a news junkie, you probably never heard of Dave Goldberg or Beau Biden before they died. Yet both are at the center of a national mournathon.”  That’s a bit of an exaggeration; as a military lawyer, Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in October 2008, while his father was running for vice president, and that was very big news at the time.  Granted, that was almost seven years ago, but I think most people who were paying attention to that campaign would remember it.  Certainly it would be at least as fresh in the public memory as the 1976 Summer Olympics!  And Dave Goldberg’s firm SurveyMonkey, which Mr Rall calls “a relatively obscure Silicon Valley startup,” has been a significant part of life in the Acilius household for several years, since Mrs Acilius is a sociologist who uses SurveyMonkey all the time.  Still, it’s true that not a particularly large percentage of the US population were in a position to have experienced the deaths of either Beau Biden or Dave Goldberg as a personal loss.

Mr Rall goes on:

What’s weird – and make no mistake, it really is strange – is to see the deaths of unknown people elevated to national events simply due to their relationship with the rich and famous. If Biden died, I’d expect a state funeral. Sandberg merits an eighth of a page obit. Biden’s son and Sandberg’s husband? Not so much.

Until 2014, high profile deaths followed high-profile lives. Now, you don’t have to accomplish anything, at least anything that makes a public impact, to be grieved by the public.


If you want to be sad about someone you never knew about, much less knew, that’s your business. But I’ve got a question for you: when the celebrities go on and on and on about how fabulous the dead man or woman in question was, how on earth do you know if any of it is true?

I’d put the sudden celebration of the, until then, long-forgotten Ms Jenner and the outrage over the, until then, totally obscure Ms Dolezal in the same category as the mourning over Messrs Goldberg and Biden.  I’m inclined to be happy that so many people responded to Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction of herself to the world with warm expressions of support for transfolk, but how can we take those expressions seriously when they are bound up with the patently false idea that Bruce Jenner was still famous as late as this year?  I’m inclined to share the concerns that left of center commentators have expressed about Ms Dolezal’s performance of race, but how seriously can we hope that public understanding of those concerns will deepen when they are attached to a figure whose prominence is so obviously ephemeral?

Tom Baker saying “the United States of America”

Some time ago I came upon this video clip of a decades-old interview with actor Tom Baker, and have been trying ever since to imitate him when I say “the United States of America”:

Full circle

I just logged onto Twitter and saw these two images, one on top of the other:

In the Twitter stream, I saw the top half of the first image above the lower three quarters of the second image, forming a single circle.  Somewhat like this:



Perhaps one of the young Jesus’ questions was “What is rickrolling?”  I’ve heard the term for years, have no idea what it means, and can’t imagine caring enough about it to click on the link and find out why I should be against it.  Anyway, an interesting accidental image.

Biohorror in recent web comics

Two of my favorite comic strips dealt with similar topics recently:

Robbie and Bobby, 7 May 2015:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 21 May 2015:

The clean and the unclean

A few days ago, I left a long comment on Chris Dillow‘s blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”  Mr Dillow had posted about a controversy that began when someone participating in a march protesting the results of Britain’s recent general elections (results which I predicted with less than total accuracy) added these words to a war memorial:

The controversy took on a life of its own after journalist Laurie Penny tweeted about it:

The furore that greeted Ms Penny’s remark reminded Mr Dillow of a book that I happened to have read just the other day: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  I’d heard about this book more or less continually, from various people, since its original publication three years ago, and had been meaning to get round to reading it ever since. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist, argues that moral reasoning is best understood not as any one thing, but as a network of six interlocking systems.  These systems are the ways we have learned to differentiate between Care and Harm, Fairness and Cheating, Sanctity and Degradation, Loyalty and Betrayal. Authority and Subversion, and Liberty and Oppression.  According to Professor Haidt and his fellow advocates of “Moral Foundations Theory,” analyzing the opinions people express about what is right and wrong in terms of these six systems and of the relationships among them enables researchers to give more accurate accounts of the concerns of people who differ from them in class and culture than do other models, especially models drawn from reductionist philosophical projects such as utilitarianism.

Excerpts from Mr Dillow’s post:

The left and right don’t understand each other’s conceptions of morality, and don’t even try to do so. This is the message I take from last night’s row about Laurie Penny’s reaction to the vandalism of a war memorial….

“Destruction” isn’t entirely hyperbole. The Tories’ proposed £12bn cut in welfare spending is equivalent to £45 per week per working age benefit recipient. That would impose horrible hardship upon many.

Instead, Laurie’s mistake consists in doing exactly what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind accused the left of: she’s seeing morality as comprising just one idea whereas the right sees others.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that there are (at least) five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. The left, he says, stresses the first two of these but underweights the last three.

And this is just what Laurie was doing. She was emphasizing the care principle, whilst being blind to the sanctity principle – to the idea that we believe that some things, such as vandalizing war memorials, are wrong because they break taboos even if they don’t do material harm to anyone…

Which brings me to the problem. Far too many – on left and right – are so wrapped up in their own narcissism and so quick to condemn others that they fail to understand (or even try to) where others are coming from: the virtue of Haidt’s framework is that it facilitates such understanding.

What’s being lost in all this is Mill’s classical liberal idea – that there is a strong case for cognitive diversity. For me, Laurie’s voice is a welcome contributor to this diversity. If the herdthink that rushes to condemn leads to her being more inhibited, something valuable will be lost.

My comment was largely directed at earlier commenters who were too fired up about the issue to address the material about Professor Haidt’s theories that Mr Dillow had raised, and so consisted largely of an elaboration on some points Mr Dillow had already made:

Just the other day I finally got round to reading The Righteous Mind, and here you bring it up.

I think Professor Haidt gives us a very clear vocabulary for explaining, among other things, why religious freedom is so hard to maintain. Different religious groups have different conceptions of sanctity. What one person sees as deeply holy another person might see as purely functional, so that Laurie Penny’s comparison of the welfare state to a war memorial might be unintelligible to someone who regards the welfare state simply as a set of policies and institutions to be evaluated by their effectiveness at helping poor people get on, rather than as a transcendent force that sanctifies society. Likewise, the depth of horror that many people feel when a war memorial is vandalized is unintelligible to those who regard that memorial in purely functional terms; clean it up, and it sends the same message it sent before. The uncleanness that bothers those who are most horrified is a ritual impurity, not the marks that bleach or acetone can remove.

What really makes it difficult for people with different senses of the sacred to share a homeland is that something which one group regards as the most sanctified of all things might strike another group as the vilest of all pollutions, and vice versa. Go to an old church and look at the niches from which the Puritans tore the visual artwork during their days of iconoclasm, and think of all the other religious conflicts in history.

War memorials are very much part of this kind of thing. They appeal to Professor Haidt’s Loyalty and Hierarchy axes, but to Sanctity as well. So, if you regard a particular war as an abomination, a particular cause as hideously unjust, then a memorial commemorating those who died to advance that cause may strike you not only as a symbol of disloyalty and subversion, but also as a pollution of the space it occupies. Imagine if a memorial to the Kouachi brothers were erected outside the front window of the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Would it be enough to drape that memorial with a cloth so that no one could see its message? Would it be enough to remove it quietly and replace it with a flagpole flying the Tricoleur? Or would you feel an urge to destroy the memorial as noisily and dramatically as possible and to put some object on the site to which the Kouachis would have objected (perhaps an obscene image of Muhammad)? Indulging that urge would hardly be necessary to display one’s loyalty to France, and would likely involve violation of the hierarchy of the French state. It would make sense only as an attempt to exorcise the ritual impurity that association with the Kouachis would bring upon the site.

Now, the protestors who scrawled “Fuck Tory scum” under the words “Women of World War Two” were probably not objecting to the women of World War Two, not even to those among them who took Tories with poor hygiene as lovers. Still, to the extent that the war memorial is a symbol of the state and the Cameron government has come to be identified with the state, presumably they would have seen the memorial as an unclean thing and their graffiti would be an attempt to purge its uncleanness.

In fairness to Ms Penny, I should probably mention that she does seem to be more aware of these issues than either Mr Dillow or I have implied in the remarks above.  So the first tweets she posted after the one that caused all the trouble describe her grandmother’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s efforts in the Second World War and the role that the postwar development of the welfare state played in improving her lot.  Ms Penny tells us that her story and those of women like her consecrate the welfare state as a monument to the memory of the “Women of World War Two,” and that the Cameron government’s policies are a desecration of this monument:

So Ms Penny explicitly acknowledges the importance of the Sanctity/ Degradation axis as part of moral reasoning.  For her, that axis may be subordinate in its importance to the Care/ Harm axis and the Fairness/ Cheating axis.  But those who responded to her tweet in ways like this:

don’t seem to be treating the Sanctity/ Degradation system as an independent thing either- calling Ms Penny a “cunt,” libeling her late grandmother, etc, are not obvious ways of increasing the overall holiness of Twitter.  For these tweeps, Sanctity seems to be a function of Loyalty and Authority, Degradation a function of Betrayal and Subversion.  Perhaps healthful dialogue between people who disagree on moral questions requires, not only that we all acknowledge the full spectrum of moral concerns, but that we respect each of the six systems on its own terms, not trying to reduce the concerns of one to the terms of another.

Alison Bechdel is pretty great

Putting everyone in the picture (click for source)

Cartoonist, memoirist, and Broadway legend Alison Bechdel has found herself involved in the controversy over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo.  She explains her mixed feelings about this situation, and why she took the action she took, in this blog post.

I added a comment to that post, in which I expressed my admiration for Ms Bechdel (she really is quite admirable!) and briefly rehearsed some of the points I made in posts here and here.

Chronicles, May 2015

The latest issue of this Old Right journal bears Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ (circa 1465-circa 1495) lovely painting “The Holy Kinship” on its cover.

Last month’s issue featured an article in which Claude Polin traced the intellectual influence of Calvinism in the early USA.  A letter in this month’s issue objects that some of the Calvinist ideas Professor Polin discussed there were not representative of John Calvin’s own thinking.  Professor Polin’s response to this is a succinct and admirable statement of one of the basic tenets of intellectual history:  “Either there never was any true Calvinist besides Calvin, or Calvin generated an attitude that was not his, but was logically derived from his writings.”

Steve Sailer (known to some who read this blog simply as “the hated SAILER”) writes about Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the system of land ownership and property registration in the early USA, a system which Mr Sailer argues has given the USA a crucial advantage in economic development.  Mr Sailer’s argument that the abstract nature of the grid plan along which Jefferson led the USA’s lands to be surveyed made for a far more efficient structure than the more concrete metes-and-bounds system it replaced makes a odd counterpoint to Chronicles‘ editor Thomas Fleming’s column, in which he declares Jefferson’s similarly abstract, anti-historical views on inheritance to be of a piece with the exaltation of the nuclear family that has enabled the destruction of traditional kinship bonds and therefore of traditional community structures and traditional gender roles in today’s world.  Both Mr Sailer and Dr Fleming agree that Jefferson’s ideas have led to the rise of capitalism, but while Mr Sailer’s chief concern is extolling the prosperity that capitalism has brought, Dr Fleming’s emphasis is on capitalism’s destruction of those bonds and identities that have traditionally ennobled human life.

Clyde Wilson, editor of The John Calhoun Papers and an unreconstructed defender of the Old South, may be the last person you would expect to speak up in favor of the view that agents of the US government killed Martin Luther King, Junior, yet that is precisely what he does in his review of John Emison’s The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up.  Professor Wilson seems to believe that the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated the assassination, pointing out that the agency had a file on small-time criminal James Earl Ray, the supposed gunman, and that the two federal judges who were, “years apart,” poised to reopen the case died of sudden heart attacks, which are “a standard tool of the CIA.”  Professor Wilson also refers to two other notorious 1960’s-era activities of the American national security state, Operation Northwoods, a Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to carry out terrorist acts in the USA and blame them on Fidel Castro, and Cointelpro, a Federal Bureau of Investigation project overseen by W. Mark Felt, who was among other things the FBI’s liaison with the Joint Chiefs.  For my part, if there was a high-level conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King, I suspect Mark Felt was its mastermind and the offices of the Joint Chiefs were its nursery.  Professor Wilson closes his review with a lament about all the crimes whose true provenance we will never know because high US officials saw to the destruction of evidence, the intimidation of witnesses, and the railroading of convenient suspects; his first example is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Many documents connected with the assassination of Martin Luther King are sealed until 2029; until they have been opened and examined, I think it is premature to put the King assassination into the same baleful category.

Scott Richert writes about Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which, unlike the federal law and the many state laws of the same name, does not apply only to civil suits to which the government is itself a party, but to a wide variety of lawsuits between private citizens.  Mr Richert, responding to the widespread fear that the law would enable unjust discrimination against sexual minority groups in Indiana and the consensus in favor of legal protection for such groups against discrimination which this fear revealed,* argues that the growth of civil rights protection for sexual minorities is the result of a strategy on the part of big businesses in the USA.  These businesses want the benefits of a reputation for friendliness to sexual minorities, but don’t want competitors to carve out a niche in which they could exploit any costs that such a reputation might entail.  So, big businesses want to advertise their own “gay-friendly” programs, while outlawing or stigmatizing any “unfriendly” programs competitors might come up with.

*I commented on the Indiana law here when it was first passed.

The argument from design at its best

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, philosopher David Hume concluded that the classical arguments for the existence of God, even if they were logically sound, would not in fact prove what believers want to have proven.  The characters Cleanthes and Demea set out to demonstrate to the existence of God, and find themselves unable to satisfy their friend Philo.  After Cleanthes has made the case for believing that the orderliness of the observable world demonstrates that it is the creation of a supernatural being, Philo responds with a series of conclusions that follow at least as logically from Cleathes’ arguments as do the conclusions which he would like to draw.  The final item in this series is the following:

In a word, CLEANTHES, a man, who follows your hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions: but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think, that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.

This passage came to mind when I read yesterday’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Zach Wienersmith has sharpened Philo’s hypotheticals a bit:


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