Monday, August 29, 2011

Capitalism: A Love Story

Lambasting a film by Michael Moore is the simplest task an apologist for conservatism could ever be assigned. His films are so ripe with puerile absurdities and vulgar rubbish that they function as the perfect foil for a conservative critic. And while I would love to be the one to pen the definitive death knell for this film, I imagine a better conservative writer -- more intelligent and thorough than myself -- has long since beat me to the punch (though I haven't read [or searched for] any such reviews). However, having just seen the film, I would like to highlight some of the finer points that stuck in my craw.

One of the overarching problems with the film is that it fails to delineate what capitalism is, or when free markets are actually in play. Thus, in response to many of the film's supposed critiques of capitalism, one need only ask rhetorically "And what does this have to do with capitalism?" Very often the answer is: nothing at all.

For example, Moore spends some time on the issue of the housing market collapse and subsequent financial market bailouts, but never makes any salient connection between those events and capitalism. In fact, completely oblivious to what his own argument is, he details the events as if he's demonstrating the stupidity of capitalism -- aggressive re-financing of mortgages, people using the equity in their homes as banks, sub-prime loans etc. -- when he's actually merely demonstrating the stupidity of people within capitalism, as well as the stupidity of government interventions in the market (i.e. artificially low interest rates for decades, CRA, Freddie and Fannie's existence, political pushing for increases in home ownership, TARP/bailouts, etc). The latter being largely responsible for the former. In the matter of the people within the system making poor financial decisions -- setting aside the fact that such decisions were motivated, encouraged, underwritten and insured by the government -- what of it? No one ever claimed that the existence of capitalism ensures people will make sound financial decisions, or that they won't have to pay the consequences of poor ones. Yes, there are winners and losers in a capitalist system, and there are market fluctuations. Defenders of free-market capitalism only ever claimed that it's the most just system and that it's the most efficient at creating wealth and higher standards of living across the board. None of the facts surrounding the housing market collapse or the subsequent bailouts mitigates against this claim.

Speaking of the bailouts, Moore correctly points out that TARP was passed by stirring up fear and claiming that it was a financial emergency -- when it was not -- and that the bill was passed without Congress even having read it. This is, of course, pure insanity. What Moore seems oblivious to is that only a hard-line conservative, a pro-capitalist, can rationally oppose the taxpayer funded bailouts. The bailouts are Keynesian madness at work; the antidote is conservative sanity. Moore acts as if it's an egregious offense, and it is, but once again, what does this have to do with capitalism? What's the alternative, not bailing out the banks? Allowing them to fail? Of course this is the only alternative, and what of it? It's precisely this opposition to the bailouts that all true defenders of the free-market would (and did) advocate on principle. Yet Moore interviews a couple of Democrat congresspeople about the madness, as if it was anything other than a liberal policy that was put into place.

One might respond to this by stating "Well, yes, by shifting the burden to the taxpayers they are effectively socializing their losses, but they're privatizing their gains!" Keeping in mind that the gains are supposed to be private in a capitalist system, people did certainly make money when the housing market was booming, but the people who made bad investments would have paid for it if the market was allowed to run its natural course. So the problem with "socializing the losses and 'privatizing the gains'" is the first half of the equation. Keep both private and let the market work. Let the banks and financial tycoons take their lumps when the market corrects itself. Let those who didn't make bad investments, who smartly rented when they knew they couldn't afford to buy, who didn't write bad loans, come in and reap the rewards. The gall of Moore to attempt to co-opt this contempt for fiscal irresponsibility and taxpayer bailouts on behalf of the left is appalling nonsense.

To make the absurdity more pronounced, Moore affectionately depicts groups of neighborhood people  protesting someone in their neighborhood getting evicted. Moore and these neighborhood people apparently think you should be allowed to own things that you can't afford and haven't paid for. Why? To his credit, he doesn't even attempt the farce of a logical argument here; it's a pure, unadulterated emotional appeal that is transparently hollow.

It isn't always obvious to me whether Moore's propaganda piece is being intentionally deceptive, or whether the filmmaker is simply oblivious to the massive holes in his own argument. For instance, he brings to the viewer's attention the case of a bread company, somewhere in the Midwest, that runs its operations in a quasi-socialist fashion. They make decisions democratically, management and factory workers get paid the same amount, everyone owns part of the company, and it is claimed that they are quite successful. In this case the question isn't "what does this have to do with capitalism" but "how is this not capitalism at work?" This company competes in the marketplace, it has an innovative internal structure that works, and it profits at the expense of its competitors who have inferior business models; the owners simply choose to generously distribute the profits more equitably than most companies. So what? How is this antithetical to any capitalist principle? How is this anything other than owners voluntarily being charitable with workers, using money supplied by a capitalist system? Which is precisely a principle at the heart of conservative, free-market orthodoxy; charity should be private and not public.

Moore speaks about the widening wealth gap and the shrinking middle-class, which are partially just myths, but to the extent that they are true, or that they may be true, is a widening wealth gap an inherently negative thing? Moore and the rest of the left speak as if this is self-evident, but it plainly is not the case. Consider the following hypothetical graphs:

I've shown 'Wealth' on the Y-axis, though a better indicator might be 'Standard of Living', as that is what really matters, though the two are obviously closely related. In any case, if both of the scenarios depicted in the graph are possible -- and they are -- then a widening wealth gap can be a fine thing indeed for everyone, and a narrowing wealth gap can be a terrible thing for everyone. So speaking about the 'wealth gap' outside of the all-important economic context is a misleading and disingenuous misuse of language. A widening wealth gap could be something to rejoice over, if indeed the "rising tide lifts all boats", as has been the case throughout history where free markets operate unimpeded. Yet the left's propaganda machine has convinced many that a 'widening wealth gap' is inherently bad, which is demonstrably false.

The last point I'll touch on is Moore's claim that being a Christian is somehow incompatible with being a proponent of capitalism. How does he go about demonstrating the truth of this contentious claim? He interviews three priests who all have a low view of capitalism. Well, that should pretty well prove it! Flimsy, irrelevant, anecdotal evidence of this sort is, of course, par for the course for Moore, but the absolute void of content in his interviews of the priests is astounding. One priest positively loathes capitalism, and claims Jesus (if you'll recall, a demonstrably apolitical Messiah, with very little concern for economic systems or the specifics of worldly governance, one way or another) would have shared his disdain. Oh, really, he would have agreed with you, you say? Please, tell me more!

The priest obliges: "Capitalism is a sin!"

"Father, I confess I capitalism'ed this past weekend."

"That'll be 10 Hail Marys and 20 Our Fathers, my son."

Of course, the assertion that capitalism is a sin is even more absurd than the claim that capitalism is an inherent good. As I've written elsewhere, capitalism is a blank slate; an economic space within which to operate that is the most free of violence and coercion. It is neither good nor evil inherently, it's simply free whereas other economic spaces are less so. The idea of collective sins -- which capitalism would have to be if it was any kind of sin -- is also antithetical to the Bible which teaches that only humans can sin. Abstractions can not.

I could go on. I haven't even mentioned Moore's demagoguery or hectoring tone. I haven't really broached the issue of the lack of supporting data for his claims. I haven't fully illustrated just how imprecise and vacuous the 'arguments' presented are. But I think you get the idea.

Capitalism -- though imperfect -- is the best, most just economic system yet devised by man which, whenever truly unleashed, radically improves the conditions of those living under the system, and every relevant piece of historical data attests to this fact.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Shared Blame Fallacy

In these politically tumultuous times you will often hear it asserted, in reference to certain problems, that "both parties are to blame". Very often this is a true statement. Sometimes it's not, but my interest is unpacking those instances when it is true. Does it then follow that some "sensible", centrist, non-partisan stance is optimal?

Not at all, and most often the opposite is the case; when there is a problem where both parties are to blame, it is usually a result of Democrats and Republicans both behaving like liberal Democrats. A good example is the housing market collapse, caused and underwritten by decades of federal government interventions in the market, starting with the Carter administration and spanning the course of several Democratic and Republican administrations that did nothing to stop the ruinous policies.

Were both parties at fault? Yes; they were equally guilty of behaving like liberals.

The solution, then, is obviously not  modest centrism, but calling on conservatives to actually act like conservatives, while voting liberals out of office. Yet the rhetoric of "blame both parties" obscures this fact for those who don't bother to think through the implications.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Egregious Solecisms and Sam Harris

I would often be tempted to address the actual abysmal content of the recent blog post by Sam Harris on the topic of wealth inequality and taxation of the rich, but it seems like his readership is inflamed enough, and having just recently addressed the same issue as brought up by Warren Buffet, I'll let this one pass.

However, I can not let the following grammatical faux pas pass without comment. While I'm far from a Grammar Nazi and am usually charitable enough to allow even fairly significant slip-ups by ideological opponents to slide without comment, my more uncharitable side can't help but draw attention to this double solecism. Not only does he repeat the mistake, but the two mistakes are made in extremely close proximity to one another:

Many of people apparently do. However, I think they are being far too cynical about the motivations of smart, creative people. 
Finally, many readers said something like the following:
If you or Warren Buffett want to pay more in taxes, go ahead. You are perfectly free to write the Treasury a check. And if you haven’t done this, you’re just a hypocrite
Few of people are eager to make large, solitary, and ineffectual sacrifices.
[Emphasis Added]

My motivation here is far from pure. Sam Harris is the most strident and offensive type of New Atheist, and in these recent posts he has also taken to task conservative economic orthodoxy, making him a double offender against the sacred.  Still, for any educated person that is a pretty remarkable error to make twice in such a small distance. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rise of The Fountain

Extremely brief review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes was solidly-above-average summer blockbuster fare. The CGI and motion-capture work done on the apes, especially on the character of Caesar, as well as the underlying performance by Andy Serkis, were amazing both from a technical and emotional/character-development standpoint. Some fairly petty grievances (considering the genre) -- apes of average size jumping through shatter-proof glass as though it were paper without so much as a running start and emerging completely unscathed, primitively armed apes (providentially cloaked in fog) overtaking squadrons of human police without the police firing a single shot in retaliation, the faux-science etc. -- kept the film from being fully enjoyable for me. In the end it's a fun film, but not worthy of comparison to the original.

With that out of the way, the actual point of this post is to highlight some vivid parallels between large portions of this film and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. While some of the parallels could be seen as mere genre conventions and might be written off as simply coincidental taken individually, I think when the parallels are observed collectively it would be astonishing if the filmmakers weren't influenced by Aronofsky's film, consciously or subconsciously.

The parallels are wholly confined to the laboratory segments of both films. Beyond that there doesn't seem to be any influence at all, but within the laboratory sequences the films practically mirror each other.

In The Fountain, Tom, played by Hugh Jackman, is a highly motivated research scientist heading a team who are investigating possible cures for certain diseases, and who are experimenting on monkeys. Tom has a personal agenda because his wife has a terminal cancer and is likely going to die soon if he can't find a cure. He is embroiled in the politics and economics of the research work that he is doing, while not caring primarily about it. Tom's team of researchers stumble upon a compound that doesn't heal the cancerous tumor on one of their monkeys, but does reverse the aging process in the monkey. The results are beyond anything they could have hoped for, but weren't exactly what they were aiming for.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Will, played by James Franco, is an extremely driven research scientist heading a team who are investigating possible cures for certain brain diseases, and who are experimenting on monkeys. Will has a personal agenda because his dad is suffering the effects of Alzheimer's, and Will wants to find a cure. He is embroiled in the politics and economics of the research work that he is doing, while not caring primarily about it.Will's team of researchers stumble upon a compound that not only fights the degenerative effects on brain cells, from diseases like Alzheimer's, but actually increases brain function. The results are beyond anything he could have hoped for, but weren't exactly what he was aiming for.

It almost appears as if the creators of Rise watched The Fountain and thought "wouldn't this be a cool way for the apes to have taken over in a prequel to Planet of the Apes?"

Friday, August 19, 2011

David Foster Wallace on Abortion

If you recall the recent grammatical dust-up between David Bentley Hart and a few blogging descriptivists, Hart addressed the issue in his bi-weekly column yesterday. For some reason one of the editors at First Things included a link to David Foster Wallace's superb essay on American usage, which I promptly re-read. As riveting as grammar and usage wars are, this post addresses a short aside in Wallace's essay that has nothing to do with those topics.

Here is the excerpt (which seems to have been excised from the version of the essay on Harpers' site. I got this from the version in Consider the Lobster):
In this reviewer's opinion, the only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-life and Pro-choice.

Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.

At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.
For someone immersed in the culture of liberal academia, it's admirable that Wallace even allows himself to reason his way to this moderate position. However, he can't quite bring himself to go all the way, possibly for fear that his exquisite reasoning has lead him to a standard, conservative, privileged, white, American, male position on an issue that liberal academic circles would be especially prone to suspecting such biases for being the true source of the conclusion, rather than the flawless reason. Indeed, a subsequent passage indicates that just such an insecurity is very likely in play in Wallace's thought.

The point is that the appropriate, logical conclusion of the two Principles that Wallace has formulated is that abortion is wrong because the first Principle overrides the second. The right to life trumps the right to 'choose', and Wallace states no reason these two principles should carry identical weight, which is what he must demonstrate to conclude that an exactly centrist position is best. Additionally, the second Principle is grounded in some "irresolvable doubt" that Wallace has quietly smuggled in. Whence such doubt? The first Principle was formulated with "inarguable soundness." Presumably the doubt comes in because of the second Principle, but the second Principle can't be formulated apart from an extant doubt. Thus the second principle is circular and the real logical conclusion, when these two principles collide, is a Pro-life one.

Not to mention that this Pro-life conclusion is arrived at even while accepting Wallace's claim that a) the origin of human-being-ness question is inadjudicable and b) that the crux of the issue is human-being-ness. Neither of which are compelled by evidence. If we state the principle that destroying a unique, innocent, human life -- all of which a just-conceived embryo is necessarily -- is wrong, then issues of personhood or human-being-ness are superceded. Which only strengthens the argument for a Pro-life conclusion, which is already firmly established by the two principles.

Wallace is one hundred times more intelligent than I am, but I have the occasionally-useful advantage of never having been within 100 yards of a liberal arts or humanities department, and am entirely immune to the unfortunate political correctness that it breeds.

Interestingly, later in the essay Wallace shows that he is acutely aware of just such instances of being technically, indisputably correct about something (just as his argument in favor of Pro-life would be, were he to follow it through), but having the PC, liberal academic machinery rear its ugly head forces him to yield some ground. Not going so far as to admit he's wrong, but that he was perhaps clumsy or insensitive. All this, however, took place over the comparatively emotionally dry topic of the English language:
A vividly concrete illustration here concerns the Official Complaint a black undergraduate filed against this rev. after one of my little in camera spiels described on pages 53-54. The complainant was (I opine) wrong, but she was not crazy or stupid; and I was able later to see that I did bear some responsibility for the whole nasty administrative swivet. My culpability lay in gross rhetorical naivete. I'd seen my speech's primary Appeal as Logical: The aim was to make a conspicuously blunt, honest argument for SWE's [Standard Written English] utility. It wasn't pretty, maybe, but it was true, plus so manifestly bullshit-free that I think I anticipated not just acquiescence but gratitude for my candor. [44The problem I failed to see, of course, lay not with the argument per se but with the person making it — namely me, a Privileged WASP Male in a position of power, thus someone whose statements about the primacy and utility of the Privileged WASP Male dialect appeared not candid/hortatory/ authoritative/true but elitist/high-handed/ authoritarian/racist. Rhetoric-wise what happened was that I allowed the substance and style of my Logical Appeal to completely torpedo my Ethical Appeal: What the student heard was just another PWM rationalizing why his Group and his English were top dog and ought "logically" to stay that way (plus, worse, trying to use his academic power over her to coerce her assent [45).
If for any reason you happen to find yourself sharing this particular student's perceptions and reaction, [46I would ask that you bracket your feelings long enough to recognize that the PWM instructor's very modern rhetorical dilemma in that office was really no different from the dilemma faced by a male who makes a Pro-Life argument, or an atheist who argues against Creation Science, or a Caucasian who opposes Affirmative Action, or an African American who decries Racial Profiling, or anyone over eighteen who tries to make a case for raising the legal driving age to eighteen, etc. The dilemma has nothing to do with whether the arguments themselves are plausible or right or even sane, because the debate rarely gets that far — any opponent with sufficiently strong feelings or a dogmatic bent can discredit the arguments and pretty much foreclose all further discussion with a single, terribly familiar rejoinder: "Of course you'd say that"; "Easy for you to say"; "What right do you have ...?"
It should be obvious how such an environment could lead one to temper his position considerably on the much more emotionally charged issue of abortion, even when possessing the indisputable truth that is uncomfortable for many in liberal academia  -- especially females -- to hear or deal with.

Buffet, The Super-Rich and Taxes

After reading a recent New York Times article by Warren Buffet (whom I like to affectionately refer to as Warren Buffoon) titled Stop Coddling the Super-Rich, I immediately thought "Yes, please do stop coddling super-rich tax-policy dilettantes by giving them platforms like the NY times to vent their opinions on matters which they demonstrate not the slightest understanding of."

If that sounds harsh, it's meant to be. After all, Buffet possesses no credentials on this particular subject that would render his opinion any more valuable than some member of the super-poor who thinks the super-rich should pay even less in taxes than they do. But because he's a prominent figure, and because he's advocating a policy that goes against his own self-interests, it's imagined that his opinion should be given special consideration. And I might even agree with this, if the substance of what he had to say wasn't so absurd. For starters:

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.
I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off.
Frankly, this demonstrates clearly that Buffet doesn't even understand what the theory in question states. The theory is not that they'll cease investing completely, but that higher tax rates on gains will affect the risk/reward calculus and will render certain investments (not all of them) unprofitable that otherwise would have been. This is not really a contested theory so much as a completely obvious fact, despite Buffet's encyclopedic knowledge of all the investments that people he knows didn't make -- which he doesn't actually have. His assertion as to the behaviors of he and his peers is anecdotal and irrelevant, not to mention very likely not even true.

It's highly doubtful that there exists a single super-rich person who will make an investment knowing that it is rendered unprofitable because of higher tax rates on the earnings. Granted, said super-rich person would probably never cite capital gains taxes as the reason for his not making the investment, and it's possible he might not even consciously consider them, but this doesn't mean they are not a factor in his decision. Because taxes are a variable that are out of his direct control, and because they remain fixed for extended periods of time, it's quite possible to never speak -- or even think -- of them and still have them affect your economic decisions and behavior. Buffoon is foolish enough to think that this lack of testimony amounts to a lack of influence on behavior, which is clearly mistaken.
And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.
Yes, 1980-2000 saw such an increase in job creation largely due to a historic reduction in taxes, primarily on the top earners, that took place when Reagan entered office in the early 80s. As opposed to the comparatively small decrease of the Bush tax cuts, and their continuation under Obama. Admittedly, though, tax cuts don't function properly when accompanied by out of control spending and debt, which are the actual culprit here.

The one saving grace of the piece is that Buffet has the decency to limit his proposal for increased taxes to the millionaire club, rather than Obama's quarter-millionaire club. Still, this isn't a feasible solution to our dilemma, and it's an unjust one.

Should rich people in this country, especially super-rich people, do even more than they are to help the poor? Certainly, and Buffet and all of his friends are completely free to give as much of their wealth to the federal government as they wish at any time. I understand Mr. Buffet is quite charitable with his money already, and God bless him for that. Why he would want to redirect his charitable efforts away from the needy, and away from reputable charities, to the federal government -- a most disreputable steward of his money -- is anyone's guess. But he's free to do so at any time. Your tax burden was only 17%? Increase it voluntarily, then, if it pleases you. Convince all your mega-rich pals to do the same. Please don't make it a requirement though, some people want to actually do productive things, possibly even good things, with their money.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The New NIV and Matthew 4:19

While I didn't have a strong opinion on the recent controversy surrounding the 2011 translation of the NIV and its use of gender inclusive language -- as I didn't think it had much significance one way or another -- the issue has hit home for me now, in some small measure.

Last night, while reading to my daughter from her new NIV Adventure Bible, and without the recent controversy even crossing my mind, I read Matthew 4:18-19 aloud: ".. and I will make you fishers of me- .. er .. people?"

Clearly "men" in this context was always meant to be understood as all people, so while the new translation is unobjectionable in this sense, I take issue with it on other grounds. The first reason is precisely because the use of "men" in this verse is already understood to be effectively gender inclusive, due to the context and usage, and therefore I see no real need to alter it. No one reads the verse and honestly thinks to themselves "Are they only going to preach the gospel to men and not women?", because the meaning is clear despite the use of the masculine. On the other hand, one can make the argument that the pervasive use of masculine terms to describe gender-neutral humanity can subtly signify an inequality or inferiority of women in God's kingdom, which can also be problematic. This is why I had no strong opinion on the matter in general, because reasonable arguments can be made both ways, and in the end it doesn't seem to make a huge difference, whichever way you go.

However, the specifics of the context of this verse made me cringe at the use of the gender inclusive "people". Compare the two translations.

Matt 4:18-19, NIV 1984
   18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 
Matt. 4:18-19, NIV 2011
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”
The new translation seems tone deaf to the literary symmetry of taking "fishermen" and making them into "fishers of men". You could also retain that symmetry by taking "fisherpeople" and making them into "fishers of people", but that seems a bit silly. While the meaning of the verse is unaltered in the new translation, the quality and vibrancy of the expression is injured. For this reason, in the case of this particular verse, I strongly prefer the translation in the old NIV (and just about every other translation) to the new NIV.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Writing is Understanding

I've never been one to do much writing about writing, mostly because I don't know the first thing about writing. My formal education on the subject consists of high school English and a few freshman-level college courses, while my informal education consists of reading a fair bit. The only writing I've ever done outside of school has been on message boards and on this blog. However, there is one significant thing that the act of writing consistently has taught me, and it is just how integral writing is to the process of learning, organizing and understanding.

While the writing process can actually inspire new thoughts and ideas, or illuminate something for yourself that you hadn't been able to grasp before, that isn't primarily what I'm talking about. What I'm addressing is the way that writing forces you to really intimately understand something -- not necessarily some entirely new idea, but some thought or idea you may have always had but never attempted to communicate fully -- in order to attempt to express it in a way that will be cogent, compelling and convincing to readers.

While you may understand some idea in your own mind, if you've never attempted to give the idea written form there's a tendency for these ideas to be loosely understood or poorly anchored to fact or otherwise sloppily constructed. In the process of writing you may discover contours, dimensions and idiosyncrasies in your thought that you weren't even fully aware of. You may locate weaknesses in your beliefs or ideals that you didn't know were there, and be forced to adjust them accordingly. You may stumble upon a felicitous expression that fills out a thought or makes it more robust.

What I've found, over and over again, is that once I've written on a subject, my thinking on that subject is clarified and given a solid structure it didn't have before. Once this happens, it becomes much easier to express myself in conversation on a particular matter. Because I've already gone through the process of formulating my private thoughts into something that is intended for someone else, it now becomes much easier to do so again when conversing. We humans have a tendency to get lost inside of ourselves, and writing for an audience forces us to externalize in a way that we know will be open to evaluation.

You might say that simply socializing with people can do the same thing, and that is true in a sense, but the rigor that is required when formulating entire thoughts into written form is never present in the same way in conversation.

As with so many things, I didn't come to appreciate the lesson I was being taught when being forced to do book reports until much later. While it's possible to read something, never write about it, and largely comprehend what you've read, the process of interaction with the text by way of writing is a more concrete, reliable way to train ourselves to think clearly. My teachers knew that writing is understanding, and now I know what they were getting at.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Danger of Expertise

On a recent episode of Bill Maher's show astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was a member of the panel, and on the subject of government he began to pontificate that one of the problems with American democracy was the high percentage of lawyers (and businessmen) who go into politics, compared to the relatively low percentage of experts in other fields. His concern was that lawyers are, in a sense, professional debaters, and their job often involves making an argument that they themselves don't have to be entirely convinced of the validity of in order to make the case. The obvious implication being that this inclination to argument-making contributes to the divisiveness and inefficiency of government. His observation has some value, but it's limited, and it raises some related and broader issues.

First is the question of what could be done to remedy the situation. We can't stop lawyers from running for office and we can't stop people from voting for them. Neither could we very easily convince scientists, historians, and poli-sci majors  to go into politics en masse, or necessarily convince people to vote for them if they did. With the "problem" being primarily located on the running end, rather than the voting end, there's virtually nothing to be done except to hope that fewer lawyers run and more 'everyone else' runs, and then support those people if they ever do run, while ceasing to support lawyers. Though this is a bit silly because once someone has decided to run for office, voters usually only consider whether or not they've been successful in other endeavors, they don't care much what the endeavors were. Voters are -- sensibly enough -- much more concerned about the person's character, integrity, governing philosophy, past success, agenda, values and beliefs than their previous career (as long as it is some kind of 'respectable' career).

The much more interesting question that arises -- somewhat tangentially -- is whether or not we should desire to be ruled by a cabal of experts, of any kind, even if it were a practical possibility. There is a temptation to think that if we simply transfer power to the most highly educated among us, or those with the most education on matters pertinent to governance, our situation would improve dramatically, but history tends to attest powerfully against this assumption.

In his book Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell catalogs the many failures throughout history of just this kind of consolidation of power among experts. Two of the many problems that Sowell highlights are: a) when experts are trusted on matters that are outside the realm of their expertise, especially while in a position of power, or in a position to influence those in power based on their expertise and b) when the consequential knowledge that they possess is assumed to be large, but is actually very limited compared to that of the masses.

Not accidentally, an example of the former is what I chose to begin this post with. And while the danger of the former may be intuitive enough, the latter is a more subtle point and could use further explanation. Here is Sowell briefly introducing these ideas:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Two Sentence Testimony

Bart Ehrman was on the Christian radio show Unbelievable? this week discussing his book Forged. After listening to the program, I went back and listened to two earlier appearances of Ehrman on the same program. In one of them he debates Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne on the problem of evil, and I found Swinburne's 10-second testimony to be one of my favorite testimonies of all-time:
Well, I don't remember a time when I was not a Christian, though my parents were not Christians. Where I first imbibed it, I really have no idea.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Christocentric Weltanschauung (Don't Worry, I Define It)

 In reading Angus Menuge's excellent essay on the Christocentric 'Weltanschauung' (which is defined as a comprehensive view of reality, or a worldview) of John Warwick Montgomery, in the collection of essays on Montgomery titled Tough-Minded Christianity, I was reminded of a line of argument contained in David Bentley Hart's stellar Beauty of the Infinite.

Menuge describes Montgomery's view as building upon Luther's "bottom up" approach to theology, as contrasted to some theologians' -- like Aquinas's -- "top down" approach. Luther thought it was most productive to begin theology with the life of Christ and work your way 'up' from there, where Aquinas' natural theology uses reason to discern divine attributes and he proceeds to work his way 'down' from there. While both end up in the same place, so to speak, where you start does make a difference and Menuge -- visa vis Montgomery -- goes on to demonstrate why the "bottom up", Christ-first approach is ultimately the more fruitful.

In tracing the development of Montgomery's thought, Menuge quotes Luther's commentary on Galatians:
[Paul] wants to teach us the Christian religion, which does not begin at the very top, as all other religions do, but at the very bottom ... [If] you would think or treat of your salvation, you must stop speculating about the majesty of God; you must forget all thoughts of good works, tradition, philosophy, and even the divine Law. Hasten to the stable and the lap of the mother and apprehend this infant Son of the Virgin. Look at Him being born, nursed, and growing up, walking among men, teaching, dying, returning from the dead, and being exalted above all the heavens.
This quote, and the further development of the idea, brought to mind David Bentley Hart. Hart (as we will see shortly) seems to come to a very similar conclusion to Luther on this point, though by different means. Hart's thought originates in Eastern Orthodox tradition and develops through various epochs of secular and  Christian philosophy (Late Antiquity, Medieval, Modernity, Late-Modernity, Postmodernity), cataloging the ultimate triumph of rhetoric over dialectic and surfaces over essences. The point he arrives at is that Christian thought is, and ever has been, a truth that is best understood as a kind of rhetoric, as contained in the aesthetic, surface plane of reality, rather than in the rational 'ground' or 'foundation' that modernity sought (which is compatible with the postmodern critique of modernity). Namely, that Christian thought begins with -- or at least centers on -- the rhetoric of the form of Christ, with 'form' meaning the totality of Christ's works; the incarnation, his life, his actions, his miracles, his character, his interactions, his words, his death, resurrection and ascension. From there the 'argument' that Christianity puts forth is a further development of that rhetoric, in the form of the Church on Earth, and the Holy Spirit working through it. In The Beauty of the Infinite, Hart's magnum opus, Hart says:
What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of 'rational' arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may 'command' assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty.
This conclusion seems to mirror that of the Christocentric Weltanshauung of Menuge-Montgomery-Luther, though with a different intellectual pedigree.

None of which is to suggest that Hart, Luther, Montgomery or Menuge reject the value or the just role of reason in evaluating truth claims, only that they all seem to suggest that at the heart of the Christian claim about reality is a story, or a rhetoric, rather than an 'argument'. Other arguments can be marshaled to defend the truth of the story, but the story -- especially the element of the story concerning Christ -- comes first, and there is no argument stronger than the story itself.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Worldly Wisdom

God's wisdom is not the wisdom of this world. It is a wisdom that is for this world, but not of it. The wisdom of the world is something else entirely. The Bible teaches this pretty clearly (1 Cor. 1:19-21, 1 Cor. 2:4-5, 1 Cor. 3:19, James 3:15, Colossians 2:8). What sometimes seems misunderstood by Christians is that warnings like these are lodged against the wisdom of the world. These verses, and others like them, don't warn of the danger of worldly foolishness, for example, but of actual wisdom. 

But isn't wisdom, in any form, a good thing? Isn't understanding something always better than not doing so? It's easy enough to understand that the ways of the world are sometimes -- if not always -- foolish. We know this from first hand experience. But when the world is wise, what harm is there in recognizing, or even adopting, that wisdom as our own? Shouldn't we be able to discern between the world's wisdom and its foolishness, and separate the wheat from the chaff? But if this were true, why warn against worldly wisdom at all? Why not simply call the ways of the world foolish and leave it at that? The fact that this isn't what Paul (primarily) does must have some significance. So what are some examples of 'worldly wisdom' and what are some of their potential dangers, viewing them from a Christian perspective?

  •  Scientism / Evolutionism - There's nothing wrong with science or 'evolution' (properly defined), as both are studies of God's creation, and we know from scripture that it pleases him when he delight in his works. Problems arise when this natural and healthy wonderment at creation metastasizes and becomes an end unto itself. When the economy of immanent causation is idolized and elevated as a god of its own, or as the proper 'stopping point' when it comes to causation. Note that, from a wholly worldly perspective, this isn't stupid or wrong, it's completely wise. 
  •  Political Thought - While it is important how we decide to organize and run our governments -- if and when we actually have a say, such as in a democracy -- these considerations are secondary to how we live as citizens in the Kingdom of Christ. Again, the potential for idolatry is great. Even the most venerable impulses in political organization, which aim to achieve justice and compassion for humanity, are often prioritized wrongly, or the state is elevated and viewed as final arbiter and authority. 
  • History and the Bible - If history is conceived of as the unfolding of events at the hands of blind, material causes, rather than as the unfolding of the providential creation of a loving God, this results in two very different views of the world. This will dramatically affect your view of what history is, what the Bible is, and what Authority is. Working with the first view of history you can reach various reasonable conclusions, within that framework, that aren't wrong per se, but which are only wise within that system that necessarily excludes God, or at least deems God irrelevant.
  • False and elevated view of Humanity - Worldly wisdom dictates that there is nothing inherently 'wrong' with humanity. Rather we simply what we are. Our nature, the things that we tend to do, whatever they are, are neither good or bad. Contrast this to the wisdom of the Bible which teaches that our initial state is fallen, broken and sinful. A neutral view of humanity at large, in its most fundamental state, is an overestimation of humanity in Biblical terms. Further, within a worldly framework, from this neutral starting point it is imagined that humans can will themselves, collectively, to do good and progress through their own efforts, apart from God, again in stark contradiction to Biblical claims. This utopian view of humanity can't be negotiated with from a Christian perspective, because it is in direct opposition to Biblical truth. 
  •  False and degraded view of the Human Being - While worldly wisdom overvalues humanity as such, it undervalues actual, individual human beings. Within a worldly economy, it isn't unreasonable or unwise to consider unborn infants, the crippled and diseased, the comatose or the very elderly, less valuable than healthy adults. The intrinsic value of each individual certainly doesn't follow from worldly premises or the view of the cosmos as the mere machinations of chance acting upon energy and matter. The Christian vision of reality, in contrast, views every human life as having infinite worth. While it is true that many secular, worldly people would also affirm the inherent value of every individual, I would argue that this is a view that is merely a secularized version of Christianity. 

Much more could be said on each of these points, and other categories could be added I'm sure, but it should at least be quite obvious that the wisdom of the world can often conflict with the wisdom of Christ's Kingdom. 

If I'm right then this presents a rather large difficulty for liberal Christianity, which often allies itself with worldly wisdom. I'm not saying that all wisdom traditionally counted as 'worldly' necessarily is wholly -- or even primarily -- 'worldly'. Of course much of the wisdom of the modern world, where it exists, is the result of Christianity being co-opted and secularized, so I don't have any problem reclaiming that wisdom which is rightfully God's for God, so to speak. But some wisdom, like most of the examples I've given, is legitimately only wise within the economy of the secular and is ultimately unwise given the truth of the Christian claim. Yet liberal Christianity seems to make no such distinction, indeed it often wants to affirm wisdom of any sort as intrinsically valuable and rarely dangerous or troublesome. Or -- when they are self-aware enough to avoid affirming worldly wisdom as entirely legitimate -- they attempt to make concessions to, and compromise with, it, instead of rejecting it outright as they ought, which can be just as problematic. 

Rob Bell's recent book Love Wins created a firestorm in evangelical circles, mostly due to its universalism. And while I would also disagree with its universalist theology, a more fundamental problem with that book is just this brand of capitulating, concession-making and meeting-worldly-wisdom-half-way in areas where negotiation is not an option. 

For example, rejection of Christ is a sin, a sin more significant than any other, and Rob Bell makes excuses for people who reject Christ. Because of bad things Christians have done that give the Church a bad name, or because of the mood they were in when they were taught about Jesus, or because they don't really understand who Christ is or what he is about (even though the Gospel has been preached to them), these people can't be held accountable for their rejection of Christ. Or, to phrase it as Bell might, "these people can't be held accountable for their rejection of Christ, can they?" According to Biblical wisdom, yes, they can be. According to worldly wisdom, no, they can't be. Bell wants to bridge that gap, rather than simply reject worldly wisdom outright. 

This methodology isn't exclusive to Love Wins, of course, rather it colors the thinking and methods of a very wide swath of liberal Christianity, if not all of it, I'm just giving a recent famous example. 

So rather than affirm the worldly conception of history, morality or the value of the human, liberal Christians will often try to meet these views halfway, or attempt to explain the impulse that leads to such views, and apologize for them, rather than simply recognize them as sinful or false. 

So, what do liberal Christians make of various Biblical teachings that explicitly renounce worldly wisdom? Do they simply ignore them? Do they use their vaunted historical-critical methods of exegesis to downplay them, or otherwise explain them away? I'm not really sure. I imagine that many of the more well-known liberal Christians must have been challenged on this point at some time, (and if this is the case, please direct me to any of their writings on the matter) I just have never seen it done, and can't even imagine a coherent theoretical response to this criticism of their views. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Linguistic Skirmish

Language blogger (columnist? journalist?) John McIntyre took exception to David Bentley Hart's recent hilarious piece at First Things, Le Mot Juste, on the issue of grammatical peeves. McIntyre largely seems to miss the absurd, hyperbolic character of Hart's piece -- or at least doesn't fully grasp the significance of that fact.

First McIntyre responds to Hart's intentionally absurd opening sentence about "grammatical laxity leading to cannibalism" by pointing out that this is "a silly overstatement". Are you sure about that, John? Poor grammar doesn't really lead directly and swiftly to humans feasting on each other's flesh? I'm glad you're around to point these kinds of things out.

He goes on to inform us that Hart insists that his list of complaints is “not really the dilettante’s catalogue of petty annoyances it might at first appear to be”, apparently neglecting the fact that the piece is meant to be humorous, and that at the end of the article Hart does in fact concede that "perhaps this really is just a list of paltry private grievances, and the fate of civilization does not really hang in the balance." So much for context.

He then quibbles with Hart's opinion as to how "idyll" should be pronounced, while Hart doesn't make his case on that issue dogmatically in the first place, stating from the outset that it's "a matter of legitimate debate".

Ultimately the most legitimate matter of contention between the two seems to be over which dictionaries are worth a damn. But the fact that this is the only somewhat serious matter of debate renders McIntyre's piece self-defeating, as his central point is that peevers are bad and that Hart is a peever. But what could be more peevish than peevishly nitpicking another's peeves, which weren't presented in an altogether serious fashion in the first place?

The next day McIntyre lengthened his list of complaints, but instead aimed them at the comment section in response to Hart's piece (a much easier target), which had echoed some of Hart's general sentiments. Echoing McIntyre's argument, a blogger at The Economist going by the name of just 'Johnson' drew attention to the Hart piece and the responses by McIntyre, and in this comment section Professor Hart defended himself against the "dull-witted" reactions of those earnestly peeved by light-hearted, faux-peevery.


When Hart's piece came out, I linked a snoot friend of mine (who hosts the terrific podcast Take The Stand) to it, and he in turn linked McIntyre to it, which I did not know. I may have indirectly played a part in setting off this entire entertaining exchange.