Monday, September 20, 2010

Culture Wars: The Paradox of Choice

Maximizers strive for the very best; satisficers settle for good enough. Economist Herbert Simon, who introduced the distinction, noted that the surest way to maximize well-being, was to satisfice, since the difference between best and good enough was usually not enough to offset the costs of search.

Maximizing however is a success strategy when it comes to socio-economic achievement: maximizers strive to get into the best schools and get the best jobs; they work hard and shop until they drop to assemble the perfect wardrobe and ideal suite of household furnishings. They are, therefore, disproportionately represented amongst the elite.

But maximizing has its downside. Faced with a bewildering range of choices, maximizers waste time and effort on search or become paralyzed by indecision. This is the ‘Paradox of Choice’: the more options maximizers have, the worse off they are.

Privileged Maximizers recognize the Paradox of Choice and seek out mechanisms for restricting their options. They strive to simplify their lives and shop from the pricey Hammacher Schlemmer Catalogue, which offers only products that Hammacher Schlemmer deems ‘the best’ of their kind.

Working class Americans aren’t troubled by the Paradox of Choice because they have few options. Their jobs provide little autonomy. And, economically strapped, they are spared the worry of choosing from amongst an endless range of consumer products. Frustrated, cramped and constrained, they jealously guard the few minor freedoms they enjoy.

Within American political discourse, the Right’s leitmotif is individual freedom. The Left plays a variant on this theme, suggesting that there is a trade-off between freedom and security, between the Right’s rugged individualism and the its own communitarian project, aimed at promoting the common good through cooperation rather than competition.

To privileged Maximizers, caught in an accelerating rat race and overwhelmed by consumer choices, the Left’s communitarian program is soothing. To working class Americans it feels stifling: they ache for more options, including the chance to compete in the rat race. They believe the Left is out to create a nanny-state, and hear its communitarian message as the voice of the schoolmarm: prohibiting rough play, forcing them to share, sliming them with smarmy pieties and stifling them with rules and regulations.

But the welfare state working class conservatives fear is precisely what expands citizens’ options and underwrites their freedom. State universities and student grants provide young Americans with a wider range of opportunities for education and training then most could otherwise afford. Government anti-discrimination regulations expand job options for women and minorities. Social safety nets guarantee that no one will be trapped with their back to the wall and no room to maneuver—forced to beg.

Being for the most part privileged maximizers, liberals don’t get it. They don’t understand what it’s like to have too few choices. They don’t understand what it’s like to spend the better part of their waking hours doing repetitive tasks under close supervision or to be poor. So they don’t understand why working class Americans are so desperate for freedom that they are taken in by the rhetoric of the Right.

But the Right does not deliver. And now that liberal upper middle class maximizers are suffering the consequences of conservative misrule, and are increasingly squeezed as their options diminish, maybe they are beginning to understand

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Theological Trade-Offs

Just a note to myself for further development.

When it comes to the analysis of religious claims there is a trade-off between content and credibility, universality and practical import. Theological stakeholders want to make the case that religious claims are believable--in particular, that they can and should be believed with a high degree of conviction. They also have a vested interest in establishing that these claims are of universal interest and that they are of serious practical import for the lives of individuals and the social good.

If however they are interpreted in the traditional way, as metaphysical claims about the supernatural, then they do not have these desiderata. All metaphysical claims are controversial: there are good arguments for for a variety of different positions and smart people on every which side. That's philosophy--like history, argument without end. So no one with any sense will hold any metaphysical belief with any high degree of conviction. If religious claims are to be held with the highest degree of conviction then they can't be interpreted as metaphysical claims.

So the strategy of revisionary theologians in the teeth of legitimate skepticism is to reinterpret religious claims so that they can be more readily believed. So, as we were told 40 years ago, "I believe in God" really means "I am committed to an agapistic way of life" or "I affirm Being as gracious." I have no idea what the latter affirmation comes to, but it doesn't seem to commit one to anything controversial--or in fact to anything at all. As for commitment to an agapistic way of life, I suppose this means that I believe that we should try to be nice. I guess I can buy that. In either case, "I believe in God" has been detoxified in the interests of greater credibility, so that religious belief can be taken on by more people and with greater conviction. Indeed, I believe with the highest degree of conviction that people should be nice rather than nasty.

Theological revisionists are also concerned to make the case that religion is of universal interest and great significance. Neither of these things are true of metaphysics--which is of no interest to most people and has no practical import whatsoever. Strange as it seems to me, metaphysics, my specialty area, just doesn't interest most people. It doesn't even interest most philosophers. And one reason why it doesn't interest most people is that it is completely inconsequential. In particular, it doesn't deliver the goods many people expect out of philosophy: answers to questions about how to live the Good Life, profound truths about the human condition, edification and a variety of other things that I find boring or unintelligible but which seem to interest a great many people.

So, in the interests of making religion universally interesting and significant, theological revisionists reinterpret it as some hybrid of ethics, psychology and existentialist "philosophy."

But why bother--unless of course you're a priest whose livelihood and self-importance depends on it. Why not just admit: religious belief is very, very controversial. No reasonable person can believe in God with a high degree of conviction--the best we can do is guess and hope. And why not admit that religion, like metaphysics, is just not of universal, or even wide, interest. It's a special taste, like the taste I have for metaphysics. Some people, like me, just plain enjoy religion: we have fun with the metaphysics (in my case identity puzzles concerning the Trinity doctrine especially), enjoy liturgy and religious art, and are interested in mysticism. Most people however find all this a bore and, in the absence of social pressure, cannot be expected to bother with religion. So let's just say that there's no reason to imagine that everyone should be religious any more than there is to think that everyone should collect stamps or enjoy recreational math puzzles or knit.

This of course suggests that religion is an inconsequential hobby, that people can get on perfectly well without it. And that I believe is the case.

So let's admit it. Instead of reinterpreting religion so that the salt loses its savor, revising and minimizing so that it's no more than a self-help program or do-good project, let us admit that religion, that is metaphysics/liturgy/mysticism is a specialty item that only interests a minority of people and that religious claims, like all metaphysical propositions, are both controversial and inconsequential.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Class Warfare

God and Politics, Together Again - "Mr. Obama, who once looked as if he might be able to end the nation’s ideological polarization, has instead become engulfed in it, just like his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Let us get real: this is class warfare between us, the urban-coastal upper middle class and the proles. Pundits, who belong to the urban-coastal upper middle class don't dare admit that because it would commit them to the Ultimate Heresy: to the recognition that in class warfare it's the working class who are the bad guys. It would mean that the victims, the oppressed, those who are less well off are responsible for culture wars and most of our social problems. It would be Blaming the Victim.

Evangelical Christianity is only a symbol. Ecumenism, Obama's cadre of vaguely evangelical spiricual advisors and his condescending appeals to us "People of Faith" don't make any difference. Any one us can smell his atheism and his condescension.

The problem is obvious: we have a working class that's doing badly and they're angry. There's a growing gap between the rich and poor. And increasingly, white proletarians who imagined themselves "middle class" are being forced to recognize that they are not. The solution is also obvious: narrow that gap. The problem is that it's those very proles who block programs that would narrow that gap and create both more equality and more opportunity for them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mr. Rauf: Build That Mosque!

Islamic Center Imam: Fight Could Shape Future Of Muslims In America:

The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York said the fight is over more than 'a piece of real estate' and could shape the future of Muslim relations in America. The dispute 'has expanded beyond a piece of real estate and expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America,' Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told a group Tuesday

I've been trying to get hold of what's behind the deja vu I've had since the controversy about the lower Manhattan Islamic Center started swirling around the internet--why I found the notion that Muslims were ok so long as there weren't too many and they weren't too visible, that they should reveal their sources of funding for building projects, that they were suspect familiar. Now I remember--vaguely because it was long ago: so long ago that I can't find confirmation on the internet.

Long ago in Wayne, New Jersey the local boosters decided to do a project for one of the patriotic holidays--I don't remember if it was Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or something completely different. Each of community organization--Lions, Elks and Moose, Chamber of Commerce, churches and synagogue--was to take on one of the heroes of the Revolutionary War and represent him in some grand civic event. The organizations drew lots to determine who their hero would be.

One of the heroes in the pot was Benedict Arnold. Even though his name was the very word for "traitor" most Americans who had been put through the extensive and boring American History program mandated in New Jersey schools at the time knew that he had originally been a patriot and had fought bravely in the Revolutionary War, being wounded in the leg, before his perfidious English wife persuaded him to turn Tory. So Benedict Arnold was something of a joker in the pack. Everyone naturally was hoping to draw George Washington or Patrick Henry. If the Elks or the Moose had drawn Benedict Arnold there would have been guffaws at their having gotten the booby prize, but they would have done a good job explaining that Arnold wasn't always a bad guy.

But it was the local synagogue that drew Benedict Arnold. Immediately the organizers announced that Arnold's inclusion was a mistake and apologized. Everyone was flustered and embarrassed, especially when some sociologist, or maybe journalist, publicized what had happened and explained that Wayne was a "gray area of anti-semitism." A little while earlier, he noted, a local politician had convinced voters that his opponent would likely raise taxes since he was Jewish and, since it was known that Jews were keen on education he would probably hike up taxes to improve the local schools.

But even apart from this political kerfuffle, it was the Benedict Arnold incident that showed up the anti-semitism, such as it was. No one doubted that the Elk and Moose, the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed were real Americans. If any of them had drawn Benedict Arnold it would have been a good joke: now one would have been embarrassed or apologized because it would never have occurred to anyone that there was any question about their status as loyal Americans. The embarrassment and apologies when the Jewish group got Benedict Arnold showed that Jews were suspect in a way that these other groups weren't: they couldn't get away with Benedict Arnold because they had to be very careful to prove that they weren't traitors. They weren't quite completely real Americans.

This is the way that Muslims are now being treated. The controversy over the lower Manhattan Islamic Center is that revealing Benedict Arnold moment. Muslims have to prove themselves.

I'd bet that nowadays if the local synagogue had drawn Benedict Arnold there would have been guffaws at their getting the booby prize and no one would have thought any further about it. But I'd bet also that if the local mosque got Benedict Arnold there would have been embarrassment, abundant apologies and national coverage.