At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.


You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

Healthy skepticism

Recently Rod Dreher posted about his concerns for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health. I commented as follows:

I join other commenters in wishing HRC a speedy recovery, and in being willing to believe the official story.

As for the issue, if (God forbid!) a president dies in office, the vice president takes over. Provided the vice president is competent and broadly in sympathy with the policies of the administration, that is not in fact a major national crisis, however much talk it may inspire, however much angling for jobs among Washington types it may inspire. Likewise, if a president becomes disabled and signs over the powers of the office to the vice president under the 25th amendment, that is no crisis. It just means that the vice president is earning his salary for a change.

What is a crisis is what happened in the White House in 1883-1884, 1919-1920, and 1944-1945, when the president did become incapable of carrying out the duties of the office and the palace guard closed ranks, denied there was a problem, and created a situation where it was not clear to anyone who was making decisions there. The same thing happened in Britain in 1953, when Churchill had a stroke and deputy prime minister Anthony Eden was also ill, and does happen with some regularity around the world. (Remember Leonid Brezhnev’s colds?) That’s why the real issue is the refusal of either major party candidate to release their health records, and their retainers’ increasingly absurd insistence that neither of them has any health problems at all. It is so clear that each of them is surrounded by people who are prepared to do exactly the wrong thing if they should fall seriously ill while serving as president. Especially clear about HRC, of course, but who can doubt that the people around Don-John of Astoria would behave in exactly the same manner?

Mr Dreher is far more interested in the state of HRC’s health than I am. The post linked above is the second of three he has put up about it in the last 24 hours. (I also commented on the first, in that case cautioning against over-interpreting the particular directions in which HRC wobbled when she was having her episode yesterday. Mr Dreher expressed suspicion at my note of caution, requiring me to add a further comment.)  Mr Dreher’s third post links to pieces by Damon Linker, David Goldman, and Peter Hitchens’ late (but still less interesting) brother.

Mr Dreher explains why he is so exercised about the particulars of this story in these paragraphs:

The Clintons lie. That’s what they do. Their pattern is:

1. It didn’t happen.
2. OK, it happened, but it wasn’t a big deal, and we’ve got to get back to work doing the business of the American people.
3. Only haters say it’s a big deal.

We saw the same pattern emerge from the Clinton camp over the course of Sunday afternoon, regarding Hillary’s serious health episode. Presumably we are now not supposed to be concerned about whether or not she is leveling with the American people about her health situation because if you start asking those questions, Trump will win. Therefore, we must not ask those questions, and demonize anyone who does. You see the same thing in institutions with serious wrongdoing to hide, for example:

1. Priests did not molest those children.
2. OK, priests did molest those children, but it was only a few, and it shouldn’t distract from all the good work of the Church going on right now.
3. Only anti-Catholic bigots say it’s a big deal.

Apply this pattern to any similar situation involving a public figure or an institution, and you’ll see the same thing.

Mr Dreher covered religion for the Dallas Morning News in the mid-2000s; he was Roman Catholic when he started working that beat, and became Russian Orthodox after writing his umpteenth story about Roman Catholic bishops covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests.  So I understand his sensitivity to coverups, and the urgent need he feels to uncover whatever has been covered up. In this case, however, I think he is getting ahead of himself.


Broken habits

The last couple of days there has been a lot of discussion about a minor incident on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. A Dominican priest named Jude McPeak, wearing the elaborate white habit his order dons on major occasions, visited campus and was mistaken for a Ku Klux Klansman. Here’s a picture of the gentleman in question:

indiana dominican

The Rev’d Mr Jude McPeak at a salad bar

And here is a picture of a group of Spanish Dominican priests wearing the full habit during a solemn procession in Seville during Holy Week:


Dominican priests in Seville during Holy Week


Perhaps you can see why Indiana University students, not all of whom have spent Holy Week in Seville, mistook the Rev’d Mr McPeak for a member of the terrorist gangs that for several years dominated politics in the state of Indiana and that still have a considerable presence in towns near the I. U. campus.

I offered a comment about this matter in response to a blog post by Rod Dreher today; Mr Dreher hasn’t got round to approving comments yet, so I don’t know if mine will make the cut. Be that as it may, I’ll make the same points here.

Visual symbols, like spoken words, mean what people use them to mean. It is certainly a sad thing that the founders of the Ku Klux Klan copied the Dominican habit for the costume of their group, and that, to Americans, the Klan and its crimes are what that attire brings to mind. At what point does a group of people, entrusted with a symbol that is important to them, admit that abuse of that symbol by others has robbed it of the important, even holy, meaning that it once had for them? I don’t mean to disrespect the Dominicans; I realize that their order has a holy significance in their eyes, and that the connection to its history which the habit represents is precious to them. At a certain point, however, the only responsible thing to do is to acknowledge that the old meaning is lost and to move on.

It’s like an April Fool’s Day story I read in the news some years ago about a Swiss whose family name was Hitler. This man refused to change his name, saying that he had made it his life’s goal to rehabilitate the honor of the name by demonstrating in his own life that not all Hitlers were like the late Chancellor. Trying to salvage the good name of the Hitlers seemed like rather an overly ambitious undertaking.

That story was a joke. But other people are quite earnestly trying to detach from its association with the Nazis a symbol that calls to mind quite as effectively as does the name Hitler the horrors of his regime. The other day I was reading about some Hindu nationalists who have been working to rehabilitate the swastika. After all, people in India had been using it as a symbol of peace and prosperity for centuries before there was any such thing as a Nazi, and today, 71 years after the annihilation of the Nazi regime, India is home to over a billion people and one of the world’s principal civilizations. Nor is it just India; swastikas, also known as fylfots, can be found inscribed in the stonework of churches all over Europe from the millennium and a half when the bent cross was a significant Christian symbol. There’s even a town in Ontario named Swastika.

saint mary's great canfield

Saint Mary’s Church, Great Canfield, Northumbria

In India and neighboring countries, the swastika can still be used without evoking the Third Reich in the minds of most of those who see it. So this young lady, for example, is probably not a Nazi:

fylfot girl

Ready for Diwali

Nor is this one:

sleepy swastika

Ready for Diwali to be over

I don’t believe this gentleman has any desire to recreate the Hitler regime, either:

dalai fylfot

The Dalai Lama

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that all churches everywhere adorned with fylfots should mill them off the walls. But. Outside India, the swastika does bring the Hitler regime to mind. It may not be fair that it does, but it does. So Indian groups abroad do, as a matter of fact, have to be mindful of that association when they use it, and parishes with old church buildings do, as a matter of fact, have to at least put out flyers explaining what’s going on if they decide to keep their fylfots.

Now, if it’s Holy Week in Seville and you see a bunch of guys marching along in white robes with peaked white hoods covering their faces, it is reasonable that you should be expected to know that they are Dominicans. But if it’s southern Indiana, that outfit is a Ku Klux Klan costume and nothing else. It is a terrible shame that those morons were able to rob Dominicans in the USA of that form of their habit, but that is in fact what they have done. At this point, it is simply childish to pretend that it hasn’t happened and to walk around as if people are going to take you for anything else.

Trump voters want to live in predominantly white neighborhoods

The other day, Texas Senator Ted Cruz won a very wide victory in the Republican caucuses in the state of Utah, dealing a heavy defeat to loudmouth landlord Donald Trump. Most Utahns, including the vast majority of the state’s Republicans, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. Many commentators have tried to find in this result some aspect of Mormonism that makes Mr Trump’s anti-immigration message unappealing, speculating that the LDS movement’s nineteenth century experience as an unpopular religious minority has sensitized its members to Mr Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Some observers have placed a very different interpretation on the Utah results. So, Rod Dreher quotes at length from a correspondent who argues that Mr Trump attracts votes from people who either live in predominantly white neighborhoods and are worried that their lives will become less pleasant if those neighborhoods become largely nonwhite, or who live in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods and believe that their lives would be more pleasant if they lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. Since Utah is more than 90% white, predominantly white neighborhoods are not particularly scarce in the state, and so these concerns are not the powerful vote drivers they are among downwardly mobile whites in the South and in urban areas.

I say something about politics and something about religion. No sex or money, though.

I’ve recently been participating in two discussion threads at The American Conservative. In a thread on Noah Millman’s blog, I’ve been laying out a theory that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will either win virtually every state in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest, or he won’t win any states at all. It all hinges on whether he can pull an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. My comments are here, here, and here.

In a thread on Rod Dreher’s blog, I’ve been talking about how the request by the “Primates” of the Anglican Communion that the leaders of the Episcopal Church scale back their participation in the Anglican Communion’s policy-making structures raises questions about how we can tell whether formal organizational bonds are helping or harming efforts to unify Christians, and if we decide that a particular structure is doing more harm than good, how we can dissolve it without making matters even worse.  My comments are here and here.

I’m not going to vote for a Republican for president in any case, and I think Mr Rubio would do an especially bad job in the White House.  The fact that I have worked up a theory about his prospects, therefore, just goes to show what a political junkie I am.  The other topic is of more direct personal interest to me, since I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and I find some value in the “Anglican” label.  Still, I discuss that topic also in terms of political strategy.

Scope and Limits

When we started this blog, my attitude towards religion was very much that expressed by Philip Larkin in his poem “Church-Going.” Visiting a church on an empty weekday, the poet wonders “who/ will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was”; will it be someone looking for scholarly information, or for a nostalgic thrill, or for something to steal; or:

will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

In those days, as indeed in all my days up to that point, I was like my parents, a mellow sort of agnostic who had a sense that the grown-up thing to do was to treat all the world’s major religions with as much respect, and as little outright incredulity, as possible.  I was indeed Larkin’s representative, visiting churches and other houses of worship on occasion, not to humble myself before the God in whom I could not quite imagine believing, but as a step towards assuming an adult mien.

Nowadays I’ve become a mellow sort of Christian. But the last day or two, I’ve found myself reminiscing about my Larkin-like past self. What brought me back to this was the front page of yesterday’s New York Daily News:


I saw a blog post about this by Rod Dreher that got me thinking. I read Mr Dreher’s blog every day, largely because his views are very different from mine. He is a self-identified member of the Christian Right, while I would be considered an ultra-progressive Christian if I had joined almost any group other than the Episcopal Church. So, Mr Dreher regularly hyperventilates with rage and terror over developments that I find either unimportant or entirely desirable, and occasionally ignores or even praises developments that would move me to purple-faced fury. It does me a lot of good to look at him when he’s worked up and to realize that I would look as ridiculous to him or people like him if I were to choose to get on my high horse and get all worked up about my opinions as his profession of opinion writing requires him to do about his opinions.

Mr Dreher’s post yesterday wasn’t entirely free of hyperventilation, but it did include some very good bits. There were long quotes from an Atlantic Monthly piece in which Emma Green patiently dissects the understanding of prayer that seems to inform this “prayer-shaming,” contrasting it most pungently with a request for prayer that one of the victims texted while hiding from the gunmen. Mr Dreher also quotes to good effect an essay by mellow secularist Roland Dodds on why the Left needs a vibrant Christianity.

And Mr Dreher contributes several highly trenchant remarks of his own. For example:

This is not a post about gun control, about which I believe honorable people can disagree (though let it be said that not everyone who disagrees, on both sides of the issue, does so honorably). This is a post about liberals — ordinary liberals, not fringe folk like boob-choppers — who hate conservative Christians so much that they react to a mass shooting by denouncing those Christians for praying for the dead, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes” (unlike #SendOurGirlsHome, I guess).

This is where I remembered my Larkin-like former self. Hashtag activism, like the #SendOurGirlsHome campaign, differs from prayer, as prayer is practiced in the world’s major religions, in that it is simply an attempt to make oneself feel powerful in the face of a situation where one is in fact powerless. Prayer can be used to do that, of course, as can any practice around which superstitions accrete.

But look at the most prominent prayers of the world’s major religions. When Muslims make their confession of faith, they say that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. To say that there is no God but God is to acknowledge that there are limits to the power of human beings. The state can’t raise the dead and deliver final justice, which is what “Fixing This” would mean in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  The market can’t, and the individual can’t. Those are all phantasms created by human beings in the course of their interactions with one another, by themselves as inert and as much a dead-end as were any of the idols of wood and stone that Muhammad busied himself destroying.  To say “Muhammad is his prophet” is to say that, limited as we are, we do have access to knowledge of our duties and we have been granted the power to at least try to fulfill those duties. So a prayer like that acknowledges both the scope and the limits of human power and of human moral responsibility.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying the works of the theorist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.) As I was when I was reading his works, Babbitt was an agnostic who believed that there were great truths to be found in the world’s religions. He embarked on a Perennialist project, finding that all of the great wise men of history, including the founders of every major religion, agreed with him on all the most important issues of morality, politics, art, etc. It’s easy to look at that sort of conclusion and chuckle, but it is worth pointing out that Babbitt’s students from China, such as the famous Lin Yutang, remarked that his understanding of Confucius was deep and that his learning in Confucian and Buddhist thought was comparable to that of experts in their homeland.

One of Babbitt’s great contributions to the study of Buddhism was his translation of the Dhammapada. In that translation and in the accompanying essay, “The Buddha and the Occident,” Babbitt stresses the contrast the Buddha draws between pamada, which Babbitt translates as “laziness,” and its negation, appamada, which he translates in a variety of ways. Since pamada is often characterized by frantic activity, it may seem odd to call it laziness- perhaps “procrastination” would create a clearer mental image. What one does in a state of pamada, one does as an evasion of the true work of adjusting one’s will to the higher law, the moral constants of the cosmos.

In this distinction, I think I see the same sense of the scope and limits of human responsibility that informs the Muslim confession of faith.  Our attempts to control the material world, to control other people, to remake the past, are futile, are pamada, because these things are not in fact within our power. We show true appamada only when we surrender our useless attempts to control the outside world and concentrate our energies on controlling ourselves so that we may conform to the supernatural order.  As we approach this conformity, we may become more active or less active in the world, but that activity is incidental to the great struggle within.

As for Christians, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we too acknowledge the scope and limits of our powers. “Our Father,” we call God- we are his children, not his servants, for the servant does not know the master’s business; but we know God’s business. If we are children, we are heirs, and heirs have the power and the duty to do the father’s business. But our knowledge is limited, and our power is limited. The prayer brings us up against those limits sharply. We are so weak and needy as to be dependent on God even for our daily bread; so broken that we are dependent on him even for the forgiveness we continually need to receive and to give, and for freedom from an infinite array of temptations, none of which we could resist on our own. It is his will that is to be done, not ours.

“Thy will be done.” I often think of a colleague of mine who, many years after earning his doctorate, after decades of toiling in low-paying jobs in and out of his his field, was finally about to receive tenure at a university. Then his wife, a nurse who worked with the severely disabled, was hit by a reckless driver and herself rendered massively disabled, physically and cognitively. He took early retirement to care for her full-time. He remarked “Sometimes it dawns on you just what those words we say every day really mean.” Thy will be done.

Whatever else it may or may not do, prayer does cure the state of mind which reflexively demands “Fix this!” in the face of death. It may be, as Alexander Schmemann so memorably argued, that the Christian does look at death with defiance, confident that God will fix this. But God will fix it in God’s own time, in God’s own way, which is beyond our power and beyond our imagining.

As for gun control, if it is a good idea, then surely prayers like those which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others say will incline them to support it, inasmuch as these prayers involve accepting that there is a sphere within which do have the power and therefore the duty to do good things. Most of the world’s population does, after all, follow one or another of the great religions, and in very few countries are legislators and rulers unable to find ways to pass the time.

What does induce culpable inactivity, I would say, is exhausted panic. Earlier today I saw a brief article in which Hamilton Nolan points out that, in all likelihood, “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” Of course the first comment identified “this pronouncement” as “basically the working talking point of every conservative politician ever” and extrapolated from it the idea that “People don’t ever really die in ‘mass shootings.'” As if people who do not actively believe that they personally are about to die in a mass shooting will not accept the reality of mass shootings or support policies that they were convinced would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, as if there was no space between panicked lunacy and sullen lunacy. Realism, as in the acceptance of the fact that human power is considerable but not infinite that prayer induces, creates such a space, while sentimentalism collapses it. So, I call for your prayers today.


Twilight of the Honkies?

I follow a number of right-leaning websites, largely because I like to get all points of view.  A few days ago, I saw a post on Steve Sailer’s blog about a study by Angus Deaton and Ann Case which indicated that death rates among whites aged 45-54 in the USA jumped significantly in the years 1999-2013, a jump which contrasted with steady declines in mortality among other demographic cohorts in the USA and elsewhere.  Mr Sailer has followed this post up herehere, here and here; the significance he finds in the topic can be found in the titles of his first and fifth posts: “#WhiteLivesDon’tMatter” and “Why Wasn’t the Big 1999-2002 Rise in Death Rate Among 45-54 Year Old Whites Noticed Until 2015?”  Other conservative bloggers have found great significance in the conclusions Professors Deaton and Case have drawn; for example, Rod Dreher sees in these figures signs that life is losing its meaning for poor whites in the USA, while Anatoly Karlin sees an ominous parallel to the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman points out a problem with the analysis on which Professors Deaton and Case have based their conclusions. In 1999, the median age within the 45-54 years old subgroup of US whites was a lot closer to 45 than to 54, while in 2013 it was much closer to 54.  The Deaton and Case study does not adjust for this difference in age distribution.  Deaton and Case give us this spectacular graph:


Correcting for age distribution alone, Professor Gelman produces this figure:


Which accounts for the entire effect illustrated by the bright red line in the Deaton/ Case paper.

Professor Gelman argues that the Deaton/ Case findings are still newsworthy, if not as sensational as their interpretation would suggest.  Why did mortality among US whites aged 45-54 remain steady in years when virtually every comparable demographic experienced a significant decline in mortality?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect it will turn out to be something pretty obvious. My first thought is base rate.  After all, middle-aged white Americans are, on average, one of the most prosperous large groups on earth, and have been so for a great many years.  That isn’t to deny that pockets of deep poverty like those which so concern Mr Dreher do exist among US whites at the left end of the income distribution curve, but the income level at the middle of the white American bell curve is quite high by global standards and has been for many generations. So, any easy measures that could move the needle up on average life expectancy among a population have probably long since been taken with regard to middle-aged white Americans.

The second thing that comes to my mind is obesity.  Americans in general are pretty fat; this animated gif that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a couple of years ago illustrates just how fat we’ve been getting, and whites are certainly not immune to the problem:

If the median white American gained as much weight as this figure suggests in the years leading up to and beyond 1999, it is a sign of extraordinary advances in medical care that the mortality rate among US whites aged 45-54 did not jump by at least as much as the original Deaton/ Case interpretation indicated.  That other groups actually experienced declines in mortality while undergoing equal or greater increases in obesity would support the base rate explanation to which I referred above, that African Americans and nonwhite US Hispanics, having on average lower incomes than US whites, were also on average later in receiving new forms of medical intervention and other benefits of modernity than were their white compatriots.

Halloween logic

Saul and the Witch of Endor, by Washington Allston

A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted some thoughts about séances, mediums, and the like.  This prompted me to arrange some thoughts about the topic as a formal argument.

  1. Either disembodied spirits operate in the world, or they do not.
  2. If they do not, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would not be able to deliver the service which they advertise.
    1. Moreover, any good we might incidentally receive in the course of our dealings with mediums would be, on the one hand, offset by the harm we would be doing by supporting a fraudulent business, and, on the other hand, would likely be available in other forms, offered by trustworthy psychotherapists or other honest dealers.
  3. If disembodied spirits do operate in the world, either they have intentions concerning our well-being, or they do not.
  4. If they do not have intentions concerning our well-being, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would in such a case have no messages to convey to us.
  5. If they do have intentions concerning our well-being, either those intentions are all alike, or they are not all alike.
  6. If they are all alike, either all of them are friendly, or all of them are hostile.
  7. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are friendly, the degree of suffering and injustice humans endure in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  8. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are hostile, the degree of prosperity and good feeling humans enjoy in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  9. If disembodied spirits are of little consequence in the world, we ought not to do business with mediums, as the information they offer is of insufficient practical value to justify the investment, not only of money, but of intellectual attention and emotional energy, which they demand.
  10. If disembodied spirits exist, have intentions concerning our well-being, and are of great consequence in the world, points 7 and 8 above show that some of them must be friendly towards us, while others are hostile.
  11. There is not now and likely will never be an empirical test to determine whether a particular disembodied spirit is friendly or hostile in its intentions concerning our well-being.
  12. Either there are mediums who can facilitate communication between us and disembodied spirits, or there are not.
  13. If there are not, then we ought not to do business with mediums, for the same reasons explained under point 2 above.
  14. If there are, then we ought not to do business with mediums, as we would have no empirical test to determine whether the spirit communicating with us through the medium was a friendly spirit providing information that would lead us to good, or a hostile spirit providing information that would lead to our destruction.
    1. Even if a friendly spirit did provide us with information that would benefit us, the success of that act of communication would likely bring us back to the medium for further consultations.  Since there is no test to distinguish friendly spirits from hostile ones, each further consultation would represent another opportunity for a hostile spirit to approach us.
  15. Therefore, we ought not under any circumstances do business with mediums.

I rather wonder what the relationship is between a logical construction like this and the sorts of games fortune-tellers play.  Games such as the Tarot, the I Ching, the Ouija board, etc.

Once, when I was in a logic class in college, the professor said something he usually had occasion to say at least once a week, “A valid argument is one where, if you accept that the premises are true, you must accept that the conclusion is also true.”  What made this occasion different was what he said next: “You may wonder where that ‘must’ comes from.  Who says you ‘must’ accept the conclusion of a valid argument if its premises are true? That would appear to be an ethical statement.  In that sense logic is a subfield of ethics.”  This remark was particularly striking coming as it did from a professor who taught only logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mathematics.  He never taught ethics or anything too obviously derivative of ethics.  But it did seem unavoidable to him that logic was ultimately rooted in the moral sense.

A culture might regard a particular divination game as a holy act of obligation.  It is certainly the case that many groups of people defined by religion look on each others’ practices as so much traffic with the spiritual forces of darkness.  Perhaps the rules of logic according to which I constructed the argument above would seem to some or other religious group to be as peculiar and as unwholesome as the rules of a séance would appear to me.

Civil disobedience works when it makes the authorities look like sore losers

xkcd 1431, from October 2014

A week or two ago, one of the biggest news stories in the USA was about a woman named Kim Davis, the elected Clerk of Courts in Rowan County, Kentucky.  Ms Davis became nationally famous by refusing to issue marriage licenses, claiming that her religion forbids her to issue such licenses to same-sex couples and acknowledging that the laws of the United States forbid her to treat same-sex couples differently than opposite-sex couples.  When the courts ordered her to do that part of her job, Ms Davis at first went to jail rather than comply, then returned to work, delegating the issuing and registering of marriage licenses to an assistant.

Ms Davis described her actions as a principled case of civil disobedience, comparing her arrest to the arrests of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks for defying regulations that enforced racial segregation.  Her opponents compared her to the officials who ordered those arrests and to other last-ditch defenders of de jure racial segregation.  As a supporter of gender-neutral marriage, I am inclined to be unsympathetic to Ms Davis, and being aware of my bias against her I hesitate to endorse an unflattering characterization of her.  But there is in fact a strong resemblance between what she did and what the defenders of Jim Crow did in the 1950s and 1960s.  After the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the case of Brown et al. vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the slogan among Southern white politicians was “Massive Resistance,” and that “Massive Resistance” did indeed include just such acts by elected officials as Ms Davis has committed.  Most spectacular of these acts of defiance was Governor Orval Faubus’ 1958 decision to shut down Arkansas’ entire public school system rather than allow black and white students to attend the same classes.

Orval Faubus started defying the laws of the United States after the federal courts, national public opinion, and the consensus of the country’s corporate and financial elite had turned against his side.  While his office gave him considerable power, for example enabling him to keep the schools in Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock closed for a whole year, his actions therefore struck most Americans as petulant and childish, ultimately dooming his own political prospects and bringing his side of the civil rights issue into disrepute.  In other words, he came out of the controversy looking like a loser, and segregationism came out of it looking like an ideology for losers.  The first rule of politics is that people don’t want to follow a loser, so Faubus’ actions were costly to his side.

Ms Davis is in the same position.  Most Americans support gender-neutral marriage.  That majority has been growing rapidly, and in a very few years, if present trends continue, it will be as difficult for a person who openly opposes gender neutral marriage to be elected to public office anywhere in the United States of America, even Rowan County, Kentucky, as it now is for a person who openly opposes race-neutral marriage to be elected to public office.  Therefore, if elected county clerks were to be granted the power to decide what sorts of couples would be allowed to marry, that would be of little benefit to opponents of gender-neutral marriage.  Indeed, as opposition to gender-neutral marriage takes on the same stigma that has long attached to opposition to race-neutral marriage, county clerks might find themselves tempted to play for popularity by refusing to register marriages that began with weddings performed by clergy who will not marry same-sex couples.  That may be illegal, but it would be popular now for a county clerk to refuse to register marriages that began with weddings performed by clergy who will not marry interracial couples, and doing the same thing to anti-gay clergy will very probably be popular in the near future.  The only worldly hope social conservatives will have once they become a small and unpopular minority is the hope that other small and unpopular minorities have, which is that public officials will scrupulously follow the law.  By refusing to follow the law herself, Ms Davis and the politicians who have embraced her have ensured that social conservatives will look ridiculous when they demand that officials respect their legal rights.  Looking ridiculous is another form of looking like a loser, and as such a step towards political extinction.

Blogger Rod Dreher is a social conservative, opposed to gender-neutral marriage on religious grounds, and he sees all this very clearly.  I’ll close by quoting some remarks of his from a recent post on the same theme as the paragraph above:

Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have a column out ripping the Supreme Court, the Kentucky governor, and the federal judge in the Kim Davis case, but the piece also makes a very important point about religious liberty and prudential judgment:

[W]e must recognize the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancingtest is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.

We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.

I can’t make the point more strongly or clearly than these Southern Baptists — both conservatives — have done here. If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously.

Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant. The Kentucky Pentecostal county clerk who refuses the gay couple a marriage permit in principle legitimizes the California Episcopalian county clerk who refuses to record marriages performed by ministers of churches that don’t marry same-sex couples.

Is this really what orthodox Christians want? You had better think hard about it, because we are on the losing side of the same-sex marriage question, and on gay rights in general. Louisiana is one of the most socially conservative states in the country, but a generation from now, gay marriage will be the majority opinion even here.