There are many things to say about this new poll that shows, once again, widespread support for torture among church-going Evangelicals. More than anything else, this strikes me as a political issue decided along expressly political lines. Nonetheless, I think there’s a case to be made that we should view this as a genuine expression of some elements of the Evangelical outlook, albeit one molded by the last 50 years.

Its a tired but also true cliche that Evangelicalism is a religion of the heart, not the head. But just as much its one of the heart, its also one of the gut, of the instinct that draws one away from life-destroying behavior, the unquestionable feeling that ones old life and the outside world must be rejected, and the impulse that lies at the basis of all faith but is articulated most fully in evangelical non-theology.  There is a definite tendency in the evangelical imagination to conflate the gut with grace in this outlook, and the immediate implication is that fear becomes one of the central emotions by which evangelicals come to understand grace. In this outlook we are saved not just from hell, but from secularity and from ourselves: we need not be afraid, though the things to fear are legion.

What’s lost in this, as many many commentators have observed, is any religious response not grounded in fear, the most obvious casualties of this being generosity and guilt. To the extent that these are articulated in evangelical faith, they are always tied back to the fear of damnation, death, and the disgusting.  Those who wander from this fold (this means you Joel Osteen!) almost immediately begin to hemorrhage the hardened core that underpins the evangelical outlook, and they begin resembling their prime source of their converts, the now-shrinking mainline.

Evangelical support for torture can be read constructively through this lens. Because the core political concerns of the Christian right have been those where grace and fear can intertwine productively, it makes sense that torture should fail to stir the sort of rage that abortion does. A fetus cannot hurt you. A terrorist can. A fetus is innocent, if not without sin. A terrorist is neither innocent nor sinless. We can go down list, but the end story is clear: if grace is to be understood through the negative lens of reaction, then it cannot extend to one’s enemy insofar as he is a thing to be saved from.

The real quesiton, and one that many people are now asking, is not just what we are saved from, but what we are saved for. And that question stands at the core of why Christians must oppose torture.


Seneca on Excess

April 30, 2009

Building on yesterday’s post about Stoicism and the virtues of limitation, here’s a wonderful little bit from Seneca’s Medea that tickled me thinkin’ bone this morning. 

Now anyone who lives
high in excessive affluence, wallows
in constant streams of luxury, always
hungers and hunts for the unusual.
Then lust, ever the bad companion
of great success, slips in. Banquets become
routine and boring; so does ordinary
wine, buildings of reasonable size.

Why does this menace slip less frequently
into the poor man’s house, choosing instead
discriminating homes? And why is sex
held so scrupulously sacrosanct
in small houses, why do the middle ranks
among us keep emotions within healthy
bounds? Do modest means make moderate lives?
The rich, in contrast, levered up by power
seem to be hunting more than is decent
and right. Give someone too much power, and he
wants to control what lies beyond his power.
You see and know what is decent conduct
for a woman who occupies a throne.
Fear your husbands authority, for he
is king. Respect it.

He is coming home.

(disclaimer: no endorsement of roman patriarchy, implicit or otherwise, intended)

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the term “interesting” used pejoratively since moving to Minnesota, but this definitely tops the charts for sheer dumb passive aggression.

In the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and finally reading through a good chunk of the Roman Stoics, including their more literary outings alongside the more philosophical stuff.  There is something powerfully compelling about both their writing and the outlook that underpins it… They come across as being at once fully Western and yet fully foreign, and its fascinating to consider that despite our complete immersion in Christian culture, the Stoic undercurrent can still wield so much power. Going down the list of serious non-Christian thinkers of the last 500 years, it’s interesting how many of them eventually wound up espousing some form of stoic outlook.  Spinoza, Neitzsche, Camus: all of these people outside the theological field eventually drew of the virtues of the Stoa, even in the face of the void, unjust laws, religious persecution, etc.  The fact that its influence has persisted through a good 1500 years of apparent neglect really testifies to its power to shape us, for good and for ill.

One of the most exasperating features of the New Atheists, noted by many but especially notable in contrast to earlier atheists, is the absence of a world picture in which this part of the classical inheritance figures in a serious way.  Certainly there is a utilitarian concern, humanitarian impulses, arguments about moral intuitions, and an overarching belief in science’s power, not just to comfort but to transform human life.  All of these beliefs are articulated strictly against Christianity, but absent in them is the moral richness of prior atheists, a richness drawn, in large part, from the classical world, and from specifically Stoic influences. 

There are two places that I think this stands out with particular force. The first is the question of limits. Stoicism developed the notion of human limitations in powerful directions, spending considerable effort on the question of how we understand appropriate behavior, and what that understanding entails for us, our way of life and the shape of the world we live in. Their constant opponents (the bogeymen of classical philosophy) were those who rejected the notions of the limit, of boundaries to proper behavior, and sought to increase their pleasure without limit.  More than a few people have pointed out that these hedonists came as close as anything in the classical world to embodying the modern utilitarian outlook, the outlook which rejects restraint as the central issue in human well-being, and it is precisely this tradition, the counter-stoic, counter-christian rational hedonism of the enlightenment that the New Atheists cite as their inspiration. Even the Elder Atheists of the most modern persuasion recognized mortality and limitedness, albeit in very different ways than their predecessors, as being one of central features of the human condition, one which reason could accommodate us to, but never practically alleviate. (I want to talk more about their very conceptions of scientific reason as another expression of the modern unlimited, but that’ll have to wait till another post.)

The second area that the New Atheists fail is on the question of rituals role in human life.  Most of the Stoics recognized the centrality of ritual to the stability of the polis, and later the empire.  It was ritual, taugh Cicero, that inculcated virtue, and even if mythological, it could encourage morality and protect the values that made the state coherre.  Many if not all of the Elder Atheists rejected ritualized religion in one form or another, but their rejection was usually accompanied by an understanding that something was lost in the process, that there were real, concrete social and moral consequences for this: consider, for example, Camus’s Meursault, who spends most of The Stranger wandering through one ritual context after another, finding each more meaningless than the last, until he kills an Arab, undergoes a final meaningless ritual of rejected confession, and is executed.  Clearly there is an awareness of the consequences of God’s death here; even Nietzsche recognized that the loss of the world provided by religion was a world historic event with the potential for moral disaster.  Their awareness of ritualized belief’s importance was shaped by thinkers in the classical world, and I think can plausibly be said to thus fit into their inheritance of themes from classical, including Stoic, thinking and being.  This too, the New Atheists have neglected.

Now I want to hedge my argument here a bit at the end: Not all atheists with something profound to say recognize these issues, and there are a huge range of ways in which they can be dealt with. (Spinoza being a really interesting one.) But looking to polemical attacks on religious belief from the past few years, their modernity, for better or worse, emerges most powerfully at the points they turn from these themes which formed the bedrock of classical and Christian civilization.

Ralph Hancock over at Postmodern Conservatism has offered his stab at the pomocon outlook in outline.  I think much of its correct and even its fine print is worth considering,  but there’s a key part of this picture that I think his approach and its self-conscious conclusion misses. Specifically, its not just that modern reason is not merely tyrannical, it is hubristic, and beyond its tendency to develop in totalitarian directions, there are a huge number of ways in which its project can implode via simple overreach. Stock bubbles, epidemic flu, global warming, the creation of culture which inflames religious sensibilities worldwide: all of these stem not from a suppression of the good, but from an overestimation of reason’s capacities to achieve any and all goals regardless of external considerations. As we consider the world scene it’s this kind of overreach, and not the  nihilism implicit in the modern project (represented by communism, fascism, etc.), that poses the greatest threat to the human self, the stability of social order, and the future possibilities for philosophy. 

Which isn’t to say there’s not something to be gotten from looking at reason through its own suppressed tendencies or from building an outlook that takes reason’s tyranny seriously, particularly given the ways in which hubris and tyranny inevitably intersect. But the analysis should and must go beyond what reason thinks to what reason can do, particularly given the world we live in.

2 quus 2 equals 5.

April 28, 2009

Via Mark Thompson, it seems that someone at Fox News must have been reading Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.

How does the number 183 become 5?  Easy – redefine the verb “to waterboard” as meaning only ”sessions of waterboarding.”  Similarly, how does the number 83 become “8 to 10″?  Easy – redefine the verb “to waterboard” as meaning only “long pours of water.”  The good news is that at least we’re moving away from trying to restrict the meaning of the word “torture” to trying to restrict the meaning of the word “waterboard.”

Who knew linguistic skepticism had so many practical uses?

On the subject of Quincy Jones’s proposal to create an Art Czar, there’s a great deal that could be said for and against it… Although I’m by temperament opposed to the idea of governmental bodies imposing culture (though not funding is,  as JL Wall pointed out) I think there’s still a case to be made for it; not from the perspective of a positive good, but from a recognition that the arts are seriously underrepresented in the executive relative to any other number of concerns.

In some respects, this situation boils down to a classic arms race scenario: Each of the major departments, be it Labor, Agriculture, State, or Treasury, founds their legitimacy on the importance of having a representative and regulatory body at the level of the Executive. Those areas which do not fall under the categories of other departments thus have a substantial incentive to find some way to get representation, but the field is necessarily limited and hence the number of frivolous departments will be kept low. But still, everyone wants to get in there and those who don’t will fall behind, regardless of the potential dangers posed by having federal level posts for any of these areas.

So would an Art Czar be a good addition to the representative arsenal?  As I see it, there are a number of trade-offs at play here. First is cost: this is an issue that deserves a post of its own but I think that since the role of the department would likely be one of organizing and not itself funding initiatives, this would not be prohibitive.

The second issue is the balance between things gained by a department level post, i.e. greater representation and organizational coherrence, and things lost, i.e. local autonomy, the risk of bureaucratic incompetence, monied interests coming to dominance, etc. To someone who follows the really atrocious behavior of the Department of Agriculture, those concerns must be the central question, particularly given the scale of the art market these days. (How many billion, exactly?) Though there is no art-world equivalent of Monsanto, its not out of the question that an art Czar could become a puppet organization for some concerns over others. 

There is also the risk of politicization, as we’ve already encountered with the NEA, and we are all familiar with the kind of debacle that arts funding divorced from community standards can lead to, Piss Christ being but one example.  On the other hand, I think concerns that this kind of post could turn into a Soviet-style tool for domination are incredibly silly. These are artists we’re talking about here.  Still, I wince to imagine the uses such a post would have been put to under the Bush administration. If, as Jones seems to suggest, this post is acting in a co-ordinating role, the potential for damage would limited, but still, I don’t like to think about what would happen if those Colbert Report rejects who designed the new passports were let lose on the culture at large.

But still, the original concern nags: the arts are a huge industry, and the fact that they lack a cabinet level position is a bit surprising and maybe even unfair, given that many smaller industries are finding representation through the other departments. So even if we don’t like the idea of an Arts Czar, we still have to ask the question of whether it would make sense given the federal situation.

 But its a tricky issue, most definitely. Thoughts, dear readers?

In some respects this seems a little silly, but to someone currently slogging through the transcendental deduction, silly is exactly what the doctor ordered:

[The] Critique of Pure Reason enjoys the rare distinction among philosophy books of having featured in a Hollywood movie. It appears in the scene in Superman III in which Lorelei Ambrosia, the ditzy blonde bombshell, is seen secretly reading it. “But how can he say that pure categories have no objective meaning in transcendental logic? What about synthetic unity?” she squeaks – showing some mastery of the jargon – before hurriedly covering it with some girlie trash as her gangster boyfriend enters. Director Richard Lester’s choice was perfect: surely no other book could be such improbable reading for Lorelei and also be recognised as such by the audience.

If you ever wondered why Superman III needed to exist, now you know. Best of all possible worlds indeed.

Walking Away From Shame

April 25, 2009

Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic notes an uptick in visits to a post he wrote about Walk Away, the company that helps homeowners foreclose on homes they cannot afford. A bit from the interview he cites:

Kroft observes to real estate agent Kevin Moran. “There was a time, I think, when people felt really bad about not paying off a debt.”

“Yeah, I think in those days, loans were made by your local banker or building and loan associations or savings and loan,” Moran replies. “They were guys you saw in the grocery store. They were on the little league team with you, the PTA, the school. And I think as mortgages became securitized and Wall Street became involved, they became very transactional and there was no relationship built with the borrower and the lender. And I think that makes it easier for someone to see it as an anonymous party at the other end of the transaction and just walk away from it.”

“Just a business decision,” Kroft says.

The real root of the issue though, Deneen suggests, is the lack of a culture of shame that would take the decision to foreclose beyond just business:

As the Greeks well knew, the vital ingredient for shame – and, correspondingly, honor – to function in society was immediacy and care for the people in one’s polis, their views and opinions, the esteem they bestowed or withheld. Elites were honored in our society to the extent that they were themselves exemplars of the virtues that they both preached and expected of others in turn. The current widespread hostility to all these elites – Wall Street, lawyers, doctors, politicians – reflects the breakdown of a covenant of respect and honor. As our economy has become more abstract and distant, as our “communities” are compared to bedrooms (or perhaps, more aptly, hotel rooms), as our sense of continuity between past and future has been undermined by rampant mobility, impermanence and instability, there can be little wonder that “shamelessness” has spread like a contagion through our society. Such lack of shame and disregard of honor began at the top and now ripples downward through the feeding chain of class and status. Indeed, the idea that one would walk away from a house requires just such a perspective – it’s just a house, made of cheap 2×4 studs (that aren’t even 2×4 anymore, but a bit smaller) and drywall. We live not in homes, a vital part of a neighborhood, a town, a community – but in cheap structures without inherent worth. Just as our economy has shown us no sense of obligation and concern, so too in return are ordinary people shucking off the social norms or covenants that bound us in communion and fidelity. There is a great unraveling taking place, and at times I do truly fear for the future of this great nation.

I was fairly suspicious of this explanation when it ran back in February, and now that I’ve got an excuse to revisit it there’s a lot I think could be said about it.  To begin with, although buyers definitely played an enormous role in creating the crisis, I think describing them as shameless is pretty callous; is certainly without shame, and I think anyone would be rightly horrified at their approach to marketing themselves. But to suggest that we have a crisis in the very institution of shame seems a bit hasty; what we have is a crisis in how shame operates collectively, and where it emerges in the public discourse. There are certainly some who would follow the vagabond-speculator ethic Deneen suggests, but that kind of homebuying-as-hedgefund stupidity only emerges when the bubble is at its apex, when people stop buying as homeowners and start buying as highly leveraged speculators, and when a large number of poorly informed, but basically well-meaning home-buyers have already entered a market they should never have been in in the first place. For many of these people, the experience of loosing a home is a tragic and shameful thing with real consequences that go beyond a lowered credit rating, and I was a bit surprised to read Deneen suggesting that sub-prime borrowers lack this sense. (Particularly given that the interview is with a real estate agent, who has definite reasons to downplay his role. Yeesh.)

But this isn’t to say that the question of shame doesn’t have a place in this analysis, and on that front I think Dennen is absolutely spot on. The question though, is not one of absent shame but of shame channeled in new and different directions, a question not whether defaulting is shameful (it is) but how it is shameful. Home-buyers who default have plenty of  guilt in their lives, but its the guilt of,  say,  not being able to co-sign on their children’s student loans, not being able to replace a broken car, or, obviously to find a place to live on a permanent basis. What’s key is that all of these forms of shame exist solely in the private realm, between family members and the very limited extended networks they operate under. Where it is notably absent is exactly the place Dennen points to, the business sector, which has in recent years become an impersonal shell of the vital institutions that once laid the groundwork for the average American’s economic being.

Setting aside the foreclosure issue, I think there’s another important ramification of the privatization of personal economic life, particularly under the conditions of economic disturbance. It is, one could argue, at the root of American’s resurgent sense of class warfare as well: that if we are to rage against mortgage lenders, it is against no particular lender, but abstract conglomerates, executives we have never met, entire tax brackets, but rarely someone we know personally, or who could be the subject of our contempt in anything other than an objectified abstract sense.  It’s this anonymous aggression on the part of Teabaggers and anti-Bailout activists, and the equally anonymous looting of AIG execs, that may be the biggest cost of this crisis; without trust – and shame – building the polis will prove exceptionally difficult.

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentleman, Chris Dierkes has an interesting post considering the prospects of Red Toryism becoming (a) tyrannical or (b) another lame consumer option.  Read.

The only way I think that form of hegemonic liberalism of the kind Blond decries ever could be dethroned would be a structural matter.  i.e. the decline/fall of the nation-state as the primary means whereby liberalism has been historically enacted (e.g. negative climate scenario/energy shock, collapse of the financial order???).

The best version of a communitarianism I can find (one that so far, though its very very early doesn’t show tyrannical aspirations) is the movement oftransition towns/resilient communities.  This movement is not a top-down led process via a large government. [Blond may have put in his affiliations with the wrong crowd??].  It’s hallmark is its more spontaneous formation and rather chaotic (in the scientific sense) way of being.  Trying to enforce communal spontaneity is like commanding someone to relax: they will try to relax and therefore create tension/stress causing them to tense up.

If Red Toryism ever comes to power it needs to think long and hard about that paradox and whether there is a way not around it but perhaps through it.

Wait a minute. Structural Transformation? Economic Crises? Utopian schemes? Specters over Europe, Batman! It’s implicit Marxist political economy at work again! (Maybe. Bear with me here.)

Not that this is a bad thing, at least in the ways that its usually bad;  in fact, its been a given in most discussions both of history and of radical anti-liberalism, left and right, for so long that its easy to pass over…  I’m guessing that anyone reading this probably doesn’t need to have the Manifesto spelled out for them, but for the sake of argument, we can say that the Marxist line boils down to two core historical/sociological assumptions: first, that liberal capitalism was inevitable given the existing class structure of Europe, and second, that anti-liberal sentiment would ultimately drive in a  Utopian direction stemming from a shift in underlying structures on par with those that brought about liberalism. This outlook, for better or worse, has framed the entire way we understand the emergence of capitalism and often our place in it, and has informed pretty much everyone with any sort of radical leanings.  If there is to be change which truly challenges liberalism, which tames its excesses and rebuilds the bonds the capitalism severs, it must be tied to structural changes in the base of society. Political actions, be they piecemeal or gargantuan, are not sufficient to bring about real change; real change must be from the foundations up, period.

Its a dramatic idea, and its certainly piqued the imagination of many on the far left.  What I’ve really come to appreciate in recent weeks is how this same picture seems to underlie the crunchier part of the anti-liberal spectrum, albeit in more subtle ways;  in fact, the recognition that cultural dissolution is explicable only in the context of consumer capitalism is one of the things that marks off crunchyredtorycons from other branches of conservatism more generally.  

What the crunchyreds are relying on here, though, goes beyond a general recognition of the importance of the economic base to the assumption that substantive change at the level of culture requires a change in the base itself.  The agrarian leanings of many in that wing of the movement are the most prominent example, though there are others.  The question I’d raise is whether Red Toryism need have such strongly radical tendencies. If the form of anti-liberal resistance is to be traditionalist villages or the Dreher’s Benedict option, then we are consenting to the model Marx originated, albeit implicitly.  The ways that Chris is suggesting that the issue be approached seems to entail it; either society as a whole must be transformed (opening up the obvious  concentration of power issues) or we must strike out and find alternative modes of living in which liberalism can genuinely be opposed. Failing this, genuine conservatism will only be one lifestyle amongst others ala the final chapter of Anarchy, State, Utopia.

What’s interesting about this kind of thinking and the historical narrative that underlies it is that it generally isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, in many cases it’s outright wrong. Liberal capitalism, in all its variations, emerged in a scatter-shot manner, and the movements which eventually brought its extremes under control were carried out by a wide range of people in a lot of different theaters using a lot of different means, all attempting to restore some measure of the more humane agrarian order that predated capitalism  (As Polanyi  famously argued.) So if the fear is that the only alternatives to liberalism will be either hopelessly faddish, in danger of becoming tyrannical, or anti-worldly utopian, then maybe Red Tories ought to imagine themselves as playing a fundamentally different role in society, that of the reformer working at multiple levels on sometimes disparate projects addressing problems as they arise in the model of earlier reformers of capitalism, rather than the radical striking off in new and potentially totalitarian directions. At a bare minimum this leaves lots of room for critique and changes of direction should power become concentrated and ensures that the direction is towards society as a whole, not just towards a consumer demographic or isolated Utopian communities. It also puts them in a position to draw on the best parts of the leftist and conservative inheretence, which can be a pretty priceless thing if building up an intellectual synthesis is the order of the day.

One almost wants to say,”The point is not to enforce spontaneous communal action. The point is to be spontaneous communal action.” But the point is to not be faddish, so one probably shouldn’t.