Thursday, December 30, 2004

My Red Phase

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly . SPECIAL REPORT . Exploring Religious America . April 26, 2002 | PBS

For the most part, Americans are accepting and tolerant of people who have religious beliefs that are different than theirs. They think all religions have elements of truth, and a large majority does not think of their own religion as the only true religion... Christians see themselves as very tolerant of people of other faiths, with 81% of Christians saying that Christians in the United States are "very" or "somewhat" tolerant of people of other faiths. People who are not Christians agree with this view for the most part, but not nearly as many of them are fully convinced of Christian tolerance. Only 54% of non-Christians see Christians as being tolerant.

Most of the pundits I read are secularists who appear to believe that Christians are grossly intolerant and, if not a standing menace to civil society, so exotic that it would take an expedition to Red Country and a full-scale anthropological study to figure out what they were up to. As a Christian I find this, to say the least, irritating: it's easy enough to find out what Christians are up to if you just go to church.

I spent most of the past decade "involved" at St. John's Episcopal Church. Our kids went to the parish day school; I sang in the choir, served on vestry and took my turn reading the lessons. Located in Chula Vista, an unfashionable suburb of San Diego which has been charitably described as "a trailer park without the trailers," St. John's was heavily lower middle class and almost solidly Red. About half the members were military--active duty, retired and families.

The people I met at St. John's were, as a group, the best people I have ever known. They were decent, committed, charitable and tolerant. When St. Martha's Guild divvied up it's take for the year, without prompting from Blue clergy, members chose to give a substantial contribution to a charity that cared for gay AIDS victims. The congregation was as "diverse" as you could please and inter-racial families were pillars of the church.

But their world was not my world and coping with their customs and folkways was more than I could handle. There were rules for small talk that had to be followed and topics that were taboo. Serious argument was taboo and any conversation that could be construed as pretentious was unacceptable. There were elaborate rules for appropriate sex role behavior: women could paint but could not dig; women cooked indoors but men barbequed. There were restrictions on the weight of items women could move or lift. There was a dress code that I only circumvented by singing in choir, in cassock and cotta. There was a whole code of social conduct that demanded constant thought, effort and acting--and I couldn't cut it.

On the other side, I couldn't stand much of what the place was all about. I resented the fussiness and busywork: conjuring up exact change for kids' school pizza day and girl scout meetings, bringing cookies, sandwiches and casseroles, sitting through endless discussions of the minutiae of planning and catering social events. I hated the clip art in the parish newsletter, the sentimental pieties and cliches. The church's mission statement, a string of pious platitudes and trite vagueries, set my teeth on edge. And, once the novelty wore off, talking to most church members at any length was painfully boring as well as stressful.

That is what church-going Red Americans are like--decent, honest, charitable, tolerant, unpretentious, anti-intellectual, dull, sentimental, unreflective, uncritical and utterly, utterly conventional. They aren't on jihad, they aren't out to ban abortion, persecute gays or establish a theocracy, but they also aren't receptive to argument or amenable to reason. I do not know how people like this could be persuaded to come back to the Democratic party however a first step might be to recognize that they aren't either monsters or bigots, exotic specimens or an oppressed proletariat ripe for revolution, but dull, ignorant people who want a safe, clean world, where people play appropriate roles and everything looks right.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Bah Humbug

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: When the Right Is Right

Liberals traditionally were the bleeding hearts, while conservatives regarded foreign aid, in the words of Jesse Helms, as "money down a rat hole." That's changing. "One cannot understand international relations today without comprehending the new faith-based movement," Allen Hertzke writes in "Freeing God's Children," a book about evangelicals leaping into human rights causes.

When my husband was in library school at the University of Alabama I got a delivery job at Chanelos Pizza Parlor in town. I liked the job but delivering to the frat houses was a pain. Pizza delivery drivers were sport for the good ole boys.

Once, after a particularly humiliating experience, as I was driving away my VW got hopelessly stuck in the mud. After pulling every trick I could--high gear, low gear, rocking and turning--I went back into the frat house where the boys and their girlfriends who had had a high old time setting me up as a figure of fun were lolling around and asked them if they could give me a push.

The boys immediately became Southern Gentlemen, all chivalry and gentelesse, and sprung into action. We went out into the night and half a dozen of the beefiest lads shoved while I steered the bug loose. They cheered and wished me well.

I appreciated their efforts and think of them, retrospectively, as good kids though they're my age now, gone their various ways. But I've always been bugged by the program: decency, sympathy and the will to help only kick in when people are in obvious distress--and only then. We contribute canned goods to food pantries, distribute sandwiches to bums on grates, raise money finance medical care for sick children and now, at Christmastime, give generously to the 100 Neediest Cases. But we will not do a thing until the sympathy mechanism kicks in and then only what it takes to to meet the immediate need--gruel for the starving refugees, medicine for the AIDS victims in Africa, a turkey with all the trimmings for poor families at Thanksgiving and a push for a pizza deliverywoman in distress.

That's the American Way, and I'm not impressed. We're stingy on prevention but generous with bail-outs--and that is an expensive strategy that yields minimal benefits at high costs.

Friday, November 26, 2004

No Sex on Main Street

For the past two or three decades, gay rights activists have tried to promote their agenda by making out gays as a quasi-ethnic group. They have staged Gay Pride events modeled after St. Patrick's Day Parades, Columbus Day Festivities and other ethnic celebrations on the American liturgical calendar and compared bans on gay marriage to laws against "miscegenation." One activist I know insists on referring to gays as "Lesbigay People"--reminiscent of Paul Revere and the Raiders' chorus Cherokee People, Cherokee Tribe.

Prima facie this was a promising strategy: Americans are, self-consciously, a nation of immigrants committed to affirming the ethnic heritage of diverse cultural groups; during the past 50 years the civil rights movement has brought blacks into the American mainstream as an ethnic group rather than an untouchable caste. So, it must have looked as if, with a sophisticated publicity strategy, Americans could be sold on the idea that gays were a cultural group rather than people with peculiar sexual tastes, and be persuaded to affirm them as one more ingredient in the ethnic salad bowl. This strategy was a failure for the following reasons:

First the assumption on which it rests is obviously false. Gays are not an ethnic group except in the metaphorical sense that surfers, academics or deaf people are. Surfers, academics and the deaf do form cultural groups--and, like gays, the extent to which individual surfers, academics and deaf people identify with their respective cultures varies widely and is a matter of choice. But none of these cultures is ordinarily transmitted to children through their families and none can claim a history, ancestral homeland or unique cuisine. The idea of a Lesbigay People rings false.

Secondly, comparing gays to women, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities raises people's hackles. Gays are not educationally disadvantaged or, as a group, economically disadvantaged. There is no gay-straight wage gap. The disadvantages gays suffer are largely psychological rather than material. Arguably the role of the state as regards disadvantaged groups is to address material concerns, in particular discrimination in education, employment, housing and access to credit.--not to "affirm" them or persuade people that they are ok.

Finally and perhaps most importantly for practical purposes, whatever other features of gay culture there may be, gays as a group are defined by their sexual tastes and most Americans are not comfortable with the public recognition of a group defined in that way. If I go to a Cinco de Mayo celebration with my kid, and he asks what being Mexican is all about I can point out Mexico on the map and explain that that is where these people or their ancestors came from. If I go to Gay Pride parade with my kid and have to explain what being gay is all about I will have to say that gays are people who prefer to have sex with members of the same sex--there's no way around it. Most Americans are uncomfortable talking about sex with their children and don't want to be put in this position so they resist the public recognition of gays as a cultural group. Gay activists and liberals generally do not seem to get this but I would bet that if they took the trouble to ask the majority of Americans, who oppose anti-sodomy laws and witch-hunts but are also against gay marriage, this is what they would turn up.

Like most good liberals, I like to think I'm more enlightened about sex but maybe I'm not. I don't like the idea that sexuality is a big deal, an important and essential feature of individuals' "identity," rather than a relatively unimportant extra that doesn't have much to do with the person I am. Maybe that's because I grew up during the heyday of the feminine mystique, when we were told in mandatory sex-segregated "hygiene" classes that being female was an important and essential part of our "identities" and that girls who refused to accept their "feminine role" in all departments of life were mentally ill. I don't think that playing sexuality as a matter of importance, much less an essential feature of individual's "identities," benefits anyone and, arguably, the campaign to subsume homosexuality under the aegis of multiculturalism has set back gay rights.

How should those of us who support equal rights for gays play it? Maybe for what it really is: a privacy issue. Sex is a private business: our preferences and activities shouldn't make any difference to the way we're treated in public life or the world of work or undermine equal protection under the law. Gay activists will object that this supports the idea that homosexuality is something shameful, to be hidden in the protected sphere of privacy. Not so. Americans who objected to having a "Gay Pride" parade on Main Street, Disneyland would likely find a "Heterosexual Pride" parade equally objectionable: they just don't want sex of any kind on Main Street.

Ironically, the impulse that generates resistance to gay marriage (by the majority of the American public--not just a minority of conservative Christians), the sense that sex is a private matter, could be turned to promote support for legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays and neutral domestic partnership arrangements.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Let's Make a Deal

American Prospect Online - ViewWeb

Most liberals don’t want to hear the message that these voters and others in the red states are sending. But in a democracy, you can only make so many enemies until you can no longer do any good for the people who depend on you. Liberals need to decide what is central to the great moral achievements of the past half-century—and what isn’t. Going down to perpetual defeat isn’t a moral choice.

Ok, Utilitarians--let's get down to brass tacks. Here are some trade-offs I propose:

(1) Compromise on abortion. No late term abortions and parental notification for minors. This is all that most Americans want (check the statistics, please). They are not interested in keeping all women barefoot and pregnant, they are not steamed up about the rights of stem-cells and they are not hoping to use restrictions on abortion to push down the slippery slope to a total ban. They don't like late term abortions because they're think late term fetuses are enough like infants (or for that matter dogs and cats) to be objects of serious moral concern. They want parental notification requirements for minors because they want control over their adolescent daughters. I don't personally want a parental notification requirement but I have a daughter in high school and can understand their motivation.

Let us trade off unrestricted access to abortion for strict enforcement of equal opportunity regulations, affirmative action for women and support for affordable child care so that women, particularly working class women, can get decent jobs at decent pay. The number of women who would be affected by restrictions on abortion is miniscule compared to the number of women who do lousy, underpaid, dead-end pink-collar work because they cannot get the kinds of jobs that similarly (un)qualified men can get and because they can't get their kids looked after so that they can work full time and have the flexibility to maintain the work schedules their employers want.

(2) Drop gay rights as a political agenda and never, never mention it in the same breath as equal treatment for women and minorities. There's a really big difference: gays can pass. Going into the closet even temporarily may not be much fun, but women, blacks and members of other visible minorities would just love to have closets to get into when they apply for jobs, mortgages and car loans.

Public attitudes are changing fast and, if gay marriage hadn't been promoted as a political issue and generated massive backlash, domestic partnership arrangements would have quietly been legally recognized in most places within a decade or less. As the trade-off, promote legislation recognizing domestic partnership contracts for any adults who want to set up housekeeping together on a long-term basis, including not only gay couples but elderly people and their caregivers, unmarried siblings living together, and friends of either sex. Same sex partners could buy into these contracts and get all the material benefits of marriage. Of course, that wouldn't provide the symbolic benefits of having their relationships recognized as comparable to heterosexual marriage, but that's tough.

(3) Support the externals of religion in the public sphere--Bible reading and prayer in the public schools, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, creches in parks at Christmas, invocations by clergy at public events, two-ton boulders with the 10 commandments inscribed in county courthouses, Buddha statues, Hindu idols and any other religious paraphernalia locals want where appropriate. Support religion practices and the display of religious symbols so long as they are external and trivial, and real substantive issues are not at stake.

But do not give an inch on substantive issues: exclude any mention of bogus pseudo-scientific theories like "scientific creationism" and "intelligent design" from the classroom and see to it that teachers make it clear that evolution is not "just a theory."

Some Jews will object to the public school prayer and creches and militant atheists will be mad as hell about the whole program but that's tough. Most conservative evangelical Christians will be thrilled with all the religion and not worry about what goes on in biology classes--after all, they can just tell their kids that the stuff they're learning there is false. Parents do that all the time: I had to tell my kids that their 3rd grade teacher was wrong when she told them that Italian, French and Spanish were called "Romance languages" because they were the languages of love and that the anti-drug "DARE" program, which promoted the idea that social drinking was all of a piece with using illegal hard drugs ("don't start") was BS. If fundamentalist parents don't even want their children to hear about evolution at all they can pull them out of biology classes (undermining their chances of college admission) or kick in the bucks to send them to private Christian schools. Life is full of tough choices.

So that's my proposal. Comments and addenda welcome--I am zipping up my asbestos suit.

Let's Make a Deal

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Red Menace: Neopatrimonialism in America

Everyone knows there's a culture war on, but no one knows why. Most pundits on the left say it's religion, trotting out statistics about conservative evangelical "values" voters who supported the current regime. Ignoring the fact that lots of religious believers did not bend the knee to Ba'al, this poses the further question of why these "values voters" bought into the conservative religious package in the first place—or why the majority of black conservative Christians, as usual, voted their economic interests rather than their "values."

Some pundits have more fanciful conjectures. Lakoff believes that the culture war is a battle between the Ewig Weiblich and the Ewig Herrlich—the Nurturing Parent metaphor and the Stern Father model. Even leaving aside the question of why people live by these metaphors, this fails to explain why the whole package of policies associated with Liberalism has not until recently been seen as the proprietary ideology of women, wimps and sensitive new-age guys. Teddy Roosevelt, after all, busted trusts with his big stick and working class males rioted in the streets to establish unions.

I have the answer. Which side of the Red/Blue divide you you're on is a matter of whether you see government as an insurance scheme or a patronage system. And that, in turn, depends upon whether you believe that people can and should operate according to universalizable moral principles or think that moral obligation supervenes upon sentimental bonds of family, tribe, and community.

True Blues believe that sentimental attachments are morally irrelevant and try to act accordingly: who is my neighbor?—everyone. Even more importantly, they believe that others do too. They trust people with whom they have no family ties or personal connections to honor their agreements and treat them fairly; they have faith that if they pay into the system they will get a return on their investment. They believe that their taxes buy public services, protection and social safety nets. They know the system is not frictionless: some of their contributions to the commonweal may be lost as heat through nepotism, patronage and the operation of old boy networks. Nevertheless they believe that these practices are outside the system, that the system works reasonably well and, in any case, that the alternatives are much worse.

For Reds, by contrast, nepotism, patronage and old boy networks are the heart of the system. Reds do not recognize serious moral obligations to others beyond the network of sentimental ties or expect "strangers" to recognize obligations to them. Moral obligation, in the Red system, obeys an inverse square law, reaching the vanishing point once it diffuses beyond tribal territory. Reds look to their friends, neighbors and kin for mutual support and count on heads of families and clans, ward-heelers, mob bosses and patrons, for protection. They do not expect strangers—in particular, the remote faceless bureaucrats who operate government agencies beyond the precinct level—to do much for them. Taxes, they believe, are not insurance premiums, dues or payment for services rendered but tribute to Big Men who use the proceeds to line their pockets and confer benefits on their relatives, retainers and sycophants. The only benefit Big Men at the national level provide is to citizens beyond their coterie is protection from competing Big Men abroad. Heads of families protect their kin and tribal chieftains defend their own against competing tribes; heads of state maintain their turf, thwart terrorists, repel foreign invaders and, if possible, expand their territory.

"Traditional societies" operate according to the Red plan—neopatrimonialism or "Big Man government." To make the system function personal bonds and communal loyalty have to be maintained. Members of traditional societies can't afford to take social risks or tolerate non-conformity since any deviation from established traditions and conventions threatens the fabric of personal relationships on which the safety and well-being of all depend. Social stability rests on "personal morality" and the integrity of the family, and on willing cooperation. Religion supports "personal morality" and willing conformity to social conventions and traditions.

Red Americans imagine that they live in a traditional society. They expect their paramount chief to protect them from terrorism and to wage war; they hope that he will not interfere with their lives or exact inordinately heavy tribute. And that is precisely what conservatives promise. Conservatives promote "family values" and the code of personal conduct that supports them: contrary to the usual reading, "family values" are not code for religion---religion is of interest to Reds only insofar as it supports "family values." Conservatives also guarantee the right of citizens to own guns so that they can protect their families and turf—a matter of pressing concern to Reds since they do not believe that police or other strangers can, or will, insure their safety.

Reds have no real interest in promoting laissez faire capitalism or an "ownership society"--they were not always Republicans. When Democratic Party machines in northern cities and the South provided patronage for them, they were party loyalists. But the Democratic Party changed: party machines were dismantled, Democrats went up-market and white working class Americans could no longer expect local Democratic politicians to get them jobs or to pull strings for them. Democrats ceased to be patrons of their tribe: instead, they took up with latte-drinking Liberals—dispensing benefits to lawyers and bureaucrats, teachers, social workers and community organizers, and to members of ethnic minorities. Democratic politicians wouldn't pull strings to get Reds' pavement patched or to get their sons jobs as cops—instead, they were installing replica vintage streetlights to gentrify urban neighborhoods, supporting ethnic dance troupes and awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses.

Most Americans agreed that John Kerry's "plans" for health care and other domestic services sounded good, but Reds did not believe that they would make any difference. They did not believe that any official government policies and programs ever did, or could. Reds are fatalistic and assume that financial insecurity, drudgery, sickness and unemployment are facts of life: people do the best they can to cope and take care of their own; government cannot make any difference. Their concern was to elect the least worst supreme patron, and in this respect Kerry was not promising. They did not trust him to protect them from terrorism or invasion by competing tribes; they were convinced that, if elected, he would maintain a large retinue of lawyers and bureaucrats, and exact heavy tribute to bankroll them; and they feared that Democrats' support for abortion, gay rights and the like would undermine the traditional rules and conventions that supported the family and other informal communal arrangements on which their security and well-being depended. They did not believe that a Democratic administration would benefit them or keep them safe.

Many Americans admire traditional societies—particularly those that are remote and exotic. Bored with the sterility and impersonality of an urbanized mass society and sick of negotiating phone trees, websites and bureaucracies, big-box stores and HMOs, they fantasize a world where neighbors are neighborly and friendly shopkeepers chat, Rotarian businessmen support community projects and doctors make house calls. They imagine that a world of friendly families and communities, each taking care of its own, should do at least as well as a mass society of "atomistic" individuals whose interests are supported by impersonal agencies, formal institutions and the state.

Most of us, I hope, know better. Some families are bad or outright abusive and even the best of families have a hard time taking care of their own. Close-knit communities are hostile to outsiders and deviants; and the traditions and conventions they enforce are oppressive even to insiders who accept their assigned roles and play by the rules. Large, impersonal institutions for all their faults are more transparent and fair, and have the wherewithall to take advantage of economies of scale; state-sponsored insurance schemes pool risk and guarantee that the unlucky will not get trashed.

Getting religion and talking tough will not win over Red voters. Democrats have to convince them that government isn't merely a patronage system for bankrolling bureaucrats, lawyers and academics, members of the "helping professions" and ethnic minorities. They have to be persuaded that the Liberal program will not usher in social chaos and that the government programs Democrats offer will provide a better life for them, with more freedom and a wider range of options, than life in a traditional society dominated by family and church, village and tribe.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Pre-Established Harmony--Not

The New York Times > Health > Living for Today, Locked in a Paralyzed Body

When Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked an Oregon law allowing doctor-assisted suicide in 2001 - a case that is still working its ways through the legal system - patients with the disease were among those who supported the law in court. But while the legal case and much of the national attention has focused on the issue of the right to die, less is known about those patients who want to live, and, like Dr. Lodish, will go to extraordinary lengths to do so.

Debates between Liberals and Conservatives on some "lifestyle" issues are usually represented as disputes between those who believe that people should get what they want and those who believe that desire-satisfaction should be circumscribed by some independent, non-utilitarian principles of morality. The assumption is that people whose "quality of life" is seriously not up to snuff want death with dignity, that individuals in bad marriages want out and that members of ethnic communities want to preserve and identify with their ancestral cultures.

What people want is an empirical question and it seems likely that different people want different things. Cultural myth-makers obscure this obvious fact, often in the interests in telling us what we want to hear. It would be nice to think that people whose survival imposed substantial financial and emotion burdens on their families, and society at large, wanted to be put down. Over the past 20 years the media have featured innumerable stories of individuals who were crippled, chronically ill or elderly who wanted to suicide out to accommodate those of us who weren't--yet.

Many of us, particularly males, would like to believe that everyone wants out of "relationships" that aren't mutually satisfying. During my youth, clinging women who cramped their mens' style were berated in song and myth. Good counterculture chickies stood by their men, went waitressing to support them, had their babies and gracefully let go when the time came. Soon feminists got into the act and assured women that being dumped for a new chickie or a younger trophy wife was a blessing in disguise: they would find true love in new relationships or, even better, make careers as artists, poets or fashion designers and find themselves. In any case, the Pre-Established Harmony would kick in and everyone would be better off.

Nowadays we're assured that that members of ethnic minorities want nothing more than to preserve their native languages and cultures. In North America we actively promote "multiculturalism" and bi-lingual education. Geneology has been big business since Roots made it big in prime time and former students of Indian boarding schools established for the purpose of "killing the Indian to save the man" are suing their alma maters for "loss of language." Internationally, the 14 and 16-year old daughters of a French secular-Jewish lawyer and his secular-Muslim wife who are testing French law by wearing the hajib to school have become poster children for multiculturalism and religious tolerance.

Samira Bellil's Dans l'enfer des tournantes as far as I know hasn't been translated into English. We hear very little about immigrants who want to assimilate, members of ethnic minorities who want nothing more than to be unhyphenated 100% Americans or the majority of ethnically Muslim women in EU countries who want nothing to do with veiling, the folkways of the banlieus, or the misogynistic culture of their ancestors.

I don't know what most people want: that's an empirical question. What I do know is that we can't count on a Pre-Established Harmony to guarantee that people we want dead would prefer to die, that cast off wives and lovers will do better on their own or that members of ethnic minorities want to follow the (real or imagined) way of their ancestors.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

On Not Sweating the Small Stuff

My late father-in-law, a life-long "freethinker," taught Scripture (among other things) in British state schools. When students asked how the sun could have stood still at the Battle of Jerico or how Noah managed to shovel all the poop out of the Ark he said, "Well, it's in the Bible, i'n'it?"

Neither my father-in-law's efforts nor the activities of the Established Church, weekly doses of "Songs of Praise" on the telly or market crosses in public squares seem to have made the British any more religious. In the US religious symbols are banned from the public square. Prayer in the public schools is illegal and people fight major legal battles to keep it that way. I agree with bls: I don't want prayer in the public schools but I don't see why it matters very much--it's not going to make kids religious.

Liberalism, in the public mind, is wrapped up with a variety of doctrines and policies on trivial non-issues that some people consider objectionable and lots more find plain silly--not only campaigns to remove religious symbols and practices from public space, like the crusade to get "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, but a variety of other activities aimed at producing greater cultural sensitivity. A few years ago there was there was an attempt to change the name of the local college football team, the Aztecs, even though local Indians had no objections. (I've always wondered why people worried about having teams called "Indians," "Redskins" or "Aztecs" but didn't see any problem with "Boston Celtics" or "Minnesota Vikings.") All this stuff is pointless and dumb.

It isn't always clear which issues are substantive and which are pure baloney. Legal recognition for non-marital domestic partnership arrangements is important; characterizing these arrangements as "marriage" isn't. Gay couples may, understandably, want the imprimatur for their relationships and official recognition of parity with heterosexual couples but, in the grand scheme of things, that is just not very important, especially if it alienates voters and generates backlash against the legal recognition of domestic partnerships. Sometimes what appear to be symbolic non-issues are important: if passing legislation affirming English as the area's "official language" means that instructions in Spanish for getting emergency medical services or dealing with earthquake emergencies are deleted from the local telephone book, then it is a substantive issue. No one should die of food poisoning or get buried under rubble because their English isn't up to snuff.

I am not a moderate or "centrist." I'm a Socialist and I'm outraged by Democrats' rush to the right on economic issues. But I have no sympathy with support for trivial, "cultural" non-issues that sets back the agenda.

Friday, November 05, 2004

What does Red America want?

Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue - Depressed liberals analyze what ails them.

Freud posed the same question about Woman and, as a feminist comedienne responded, "Why didn't he ask?

For the past 3 days liberal pundits have been rehearsing the received wisdom of the past decade about Culture Wars and speculating about what it would take for the Democratic Party to win back "middle American" voters. The most common proposals are: get religion, get "vision" and get simple.

The very fact that it has never occurred to any of them to ask is symptomatic of the conditions that created this cultural divide. Liberal pundits are so out of contact with middle Americans that they regard them as members of an alien culture whose beliefs, preferences, commitments and folkways are anthropological data. Why is it so dang difficult to figure out what they want? They aren't living on the moon, they speak English, they can articulate their beliefs, state their preferences and explain their priorities. They are amenable to reason.

So long as liberal pundits and politicos treat them as anthropological specimens, the Enlightenment Project is doomed.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Future of the Democratic Party: A Liberal Manifesto

All the pundits are speculating on what Democrats should do to win on the next round so here are my $.02:

(1) Take back the VISION--of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Reaffirm Liberalism's core value: minimizing the extent to which peoples' freedom and opportunities are constrained by dumb luck, e.g. by morally arbitrary, unchosen characteristics and circumstances like race, sex, ethnicity and disability or the social and economic circumstances of one's family of origin.

We can't eliminate the constraints or even come close, but we can move a little ways in that direction: liberals believe that it's worth moving as far as we can in the direction of neutralizing the effects of dumb luck and that the most effective way to do it is through government programs. Good, free public education and income transfers to poor families go some way toward neutralizing the effects of family poverty on children. Health insurance schemes prevent people from being wiped out financially if they have the bad luck to get sick. Anti-discrimination regulations aim to minimize the constraints on individuals the are a consequence of race, sex and ethnic origin.

Some conservatives think that liberals fail to recognize that people are responsible for their actions. The opposite is the case. Liberals distinguish between the consequences of individual's choices for which they are responsible and the consequences of conditions that they did not choose for which they are not responsible. Liberalism is not about care and compassion--it is about fighting against Nature (red in tooth and claw) which deals out people's hands arbitrarily and limits their options. It is about making the world a more rational place by fighting against the arbitrary constraints imposed by dumb luck, in the interest of expanding individual freedom so that individuals, insofar as possible, can live the kinds of lives they choose.

(2) Don't commit to policies that are outside of the VISION.
There's no reason why Liberals understood as keepers of the VISION should be doves rather than hawks (or vice versa). "Peace" got tacked onto the Liberal agenda during the war in Vietnam when, ironically, the Left demonized Johnson, the most liberal of American presidents, for promoting the war in Vietnam. Now Americans misperceive dovishness and, more broadly, wimpiness as the core of liberalism--and Kerry has suffered for it.

There's also no reason why keepers of the Liberal VISION should be environmentalists or take any particular position on most "lifestyle issues." Environmentalism. Some environmental concerns are fundamentally elitist: there's a real conflict of interests between urban professionals who want to preserve wilderness and loggers, factory workers and others whose livelihood depends on industries that encroach on wilderness and degrade the environment.

I'm not suggesting that Democrats should adopt the Republicans' positions on these issues but just that the party should remain neutral on them, as it is on a variety of other controversial issues like the the development of genetically modified foods, animal rights or capital punishment. Democratic candidates shouldn't be required to tow any party line on environmental issues, abortion or any other issues that aren't directly and uncontroversially connected to the core Liberal program which is fundamentally economic: equal opportunity in employment, borrowing and housing, social safety nets, public services and income transfers.

(3) Don't care about don't-cares
A creche in the park for Christmas, prayer in the public schools and "under God" in the Pledge of Allegience? Big deal. Reciting religious formulas in school won't make anyone religious or traumatize anyone.--it's meaningless BS. Planting two ton boulders with the 10 Commandments inscribed won't have any more influence on people than putting buddha staatues in Chinese restaurants. Fundamentalists may have the superstitions idea that these things work ex opera operato but people who object to them presumably should know that they don't have magical power.

Whatever is the problem? Leave it alone.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Living Poor, Voting Rich

[W]hether John Kerry's supporters are now celebrating or seeking asylum abroad, they should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates...In the summer, I was home - too briefly - in Yamhill, Ore., a rural, working-class area where most people would benefit from Democratic policies on taxes and health care. But many of those people disdain Democrats as elitists who empathize with spotted owls rather than loggers.

One problem is the yuppification of the Democratic Party. Thomas Frank, author of the best political book of the year, "What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," says that Democratic leaders have been so eager to win over suburban professionals that they have lost touch with blue-collar America. "There is a very upper-middle-class flavor to liberalism, and that's just bound to rub average people the wrong way,"

So, Bush has been re-elected, and now has a clear mandate to promote his ultra-right policies for the next four years and, likely, to make at least 3 Supreme Court appointments. We have become the first civilized nation on earth to establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat--those farmers, factory workers and waitresses who voted him in.

Conservative Republicans exploited the cultural divide but it was we who created it decades ago when, as spoiled rich kids, we made over the Democratic Party in our own image. It was we who first politicized "lifestyle issues" and reconstructed liberalism as a program in support of our preoccupations and hobbies. It was we who imagined that our tastes and aesthetic preferences were moral imperatives and condemned hoi poloi for living in little boxes made of ticky-tacky, eating junk food and owning guns. We ushered in the Age of Aquarius but made it quite clear that people who lived in little boxes weren't invited.

After rushing to the center, abandoning the economic policies that benefitted the working class, and setting up as the party of gay rights and abortion on demand, cultural sensitivity and environmental concern, fruits, nuts and little herbal teas, the Democratic Party could not run any candidate--least of all a billionaire Brahmin--who could convince the proles that he was on their side.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Why I am a Yellow Dog Democrat

Yellow Dog Democrat History

I vote for the party, never for the candidate, because voting for a president isn't hiring someone for a job--it is affirming support for an ideology and programs to implement it. The politician at the top of the ticket is merely a symbol, an icon you click on to open the program. Career bureaucrats, sorted out by civil service exams and other non-political hiring procedures, do a fine job of running the country whomever we elect.

Neither major American political party is committed to anything close to the ideology and programs I favor--roughly, Eurosocialism. But however remote this is from either party, the Democratic Party comes closer and that's good enough for me. I vote for the party that is more likely to move the US even a smidge to the left--towards big government, high taxes, centralization, extensive regulation and cradle-to-grave social safety nets.

Last summer we got a puppy. I was hoping to get a yellow lab and name him "Democrat" but we got a chocolate who our son named "Ducati," after a motorcycle he liked. Like all labs his age, Ducati chews everything in sight and has absolutely no common sense, but I would happily vote for him if he were running on the Democratic ticket.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

It Doesn't Always Work

The New York Times > Magazine > Faith at Work

Chuck Ripka is a moneylender -- that is to say, a mortgage banker -- and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ...The bank opened 18 months ago as a ''Christian financial institution,'' with a Bible buried in the foundation and the words ''In God We Trust'' engraved in the cornerstone...

It doesn't always work. I spoke with one employee of the bank, who asked that her name not be used, and she told me that while she had been raised Catholic, she did not consider herself part of the bank's Christian culture. ''You will never find me going into Chuck's office to pray,'' she said. On the other hand, she said that the bank was a ''wonderful'' place to work because ''here the people are all nice -- it's a healthy environment.'' Another employee, a young man who until recently worked at a competing bank, also said that while he hasn't given his soul to Jesus, he liked the wholesome atmosphere of Riverview.

I can understand the appeal of the religious right's vision. I'd like to operate in a healthy environment, where people were fair, decent and compassionate, too. The world is a rough place and could use lots of improvement. But I don't think that personal transformation, whether religious or secular, can do the job.

I believe in Original Sin--"the only Christian doctrine that has knock-down empirical verification." People are not nice and no amount of prayer, meditation or psychotherapy will make them consistently fair, decent or compassionate. To make the world livable we engage in "self-binding" to prevent ourselves from acting on our tainted impulses and costly sentimentalities, like Odysseus who bound himself to the mast to avoid being lured by the Sirens. We bind ourselves through legally enforceable contracts because we know that we cannot trust one another, or ourselves, to keep promises. We vote for taxes to pay for public works and income transfers because we know that left to our own devices we will not be public-spirited or charitable. Only impersonal agencies and coercive regulations can make the world a minimally fair and decent place.

Maybe the real cultural divide isn't between the religious right and the secular left but between cynics like me and optimistic sentimentalists who image that they can make the world more livable by promoting personal responsibility, preaching love, teaching wisdom, strenghening families, supporting grass-roots efforts, running Christian businesses or establishing communes.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Neopatrimonialism in America

What Karl Rove could not do, Osama bin Laden has done: he has thrown the election decisively to Bush.

Bush's posture as the tough guy who can protect America is the perfect judo tactic, using his opponents' weight to throw them. Every cock-up in the "war against terror" turns to his advantage: the worse things go (as a consequence of his incompetence) the more firmly the American people are convinced that they need a Strong Leader who will stay the course. I suppose the Kerry team is afraid to point this out to voters because they assume that most are too dumb to get it. Maybe they're right.

If they are, then it's unlikely that the disasters in store for the next four years will change their minds. If Iraq collapses into full-blown civil war, that will be all the more reason to support our Strong Leader; if Iraq is stabilized then the administration will claim that it was because we stayed the course. If working class Americans suffer economically they will be all the more convinced that they need more "tax relief" and can't afford to elect Democrats who, they believe, will sock them with more taxes and so further undermine their economic position; if they get a few scraps they will bless Bush for his largesse.

The forthcoming Republican victory will establish Neopatrimonialism in the US for the forseeable future. Under Neopatrimonialism--the Big Man patronage system--peasants support their patron, a Strong Leader, who in return protects their tribe and feeds them scraps. Big Men for their part stir up ethnic rivalries and tribal clashes to keep them afraid so that they will seek the protection of Strong Leaders and keeps the peasants poor and ignorant so that they will bless him for every miserable scrap they get.

Once Neopatrimonialism is established, even free, fair elections do no good because the peasants support it: their lives are lousy and, they reason, without their Big Man's patronage they will be even poorer than they are and vulnerable to attack. Apart from Mandala, anti-colonialist leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa set up as Big Men, established Neopatrimonialist systems that trashed their countries and, even within nominally democratic systems, stayed in power because the small, educated urban elites who opposed them could not muster enough votes to get them out.

That is the future of America. The lower classes will become poorer, more ignorant and more attached to Big Men who feed them scraps and promise to keep them safe from hostile tribes. If they become restless, Republican Big Men, like African dictators, will play the anti-colonialist card, cementing their alliance with the peasantry by denouncing the colonial powers of Old Europe and their collaborators at home--the educated, liberal, cosmopolitan upper middle class.

The US is anomalous amongst developed countries in having a conservative working class but the phenomenon isn't that surprising put in a wider context. When people distrust the government and rule of law they become attached to patronage systems. In Sub-Saharan Africa, colonial powers reinforced the patronage system by sub-contracting administrative tasks to local Big Men. In the US, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and 30 years of conservative propaganda about the dangers of big government, high taxes and effete snobs out to undermine family values and the American way of life, have done the job.

Bin Laden Redux

October Surprise: Bin Laden's Reprise By Alexander Barnes Dryer

[T]he most important thing about bin Laden's speech is that he's addressing it to the American people. He's trying to explain why 9/11 happened, the idea and when it occurred to him, and also telling the American people loud and clear that, unless they do something about it, America could be attacked again... Basically, he is saying, "if we are not attacked, we won't attack anybody."

Right. Sounds reasonable but let us consider the proposal from the perspective of my geopolitical mini-theory, i.e. the Muslim world is an international slum where Bin Laden and other Big Men operate as gang leaders. Imagine how we should respond if the leader of an urban street gang told us that we could insure our safety in the future if we would only stop sending cops to interfere with his gang's activities.

The pitch is: leave us in peace to pursue our traditional barbarian way of life--shooting up the neighborhood for sport, beating the crap out of our women, and pursuing our drug smuggling, gun running and human trafficking businesses.

Bin Laden doesn't get it. He imagines that Americans are primitive tribal people like his followers, enlisted into their Big Men's turf wars, and does not see the nerve that Bush's rhetoric about bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq touches. But Americans who support the administration's policies don't get it either. They imagine illiterate savages living in mud-brick hovels are really just like good Americans under the skin and, freed from the oppressive rule of brutal dictators, will spontaneously organize a democratic society.

Military intervention is no more likely to bring "freedom" to the Middle East than cops, jails and three-strikes laws are to improve urban ghettos. In both cases the root problems are poverty and the "culture of poverty" and in both cases the solution (if any) is the same: buy off the barbarians, pump in money, and dismantle the culture.

Monday, October 25, 2004


Times Online - World

Several hundred tonnes of sophisticated high explosive have been stolen from a Saddam-era military facility in Iraq, despite repeated warnings from UN weapons watchdogs that US troops should secure the appears the explosives were looted in the period of lawlessness after last year's invasion..."It's very embarrassing for the Americans. The very thing the war was supposed to prevent, it has in fact facilitated."

But let's not exaggerate: it's not really "several hundred"--just 380 tons of high explosives that have gone missing. And let's be fair: most of us lose things--I used to lose my keys all the time until I put a little hook by the back door and got into the habit of hanging them up as soon as I got home. I admit I've never lost a stockpile of high explosives--but then I'm not the Commander in Chief.

Administration apologists are already doing damage control, dismissing Kerry's speech this morning as mere politicking. After all, they note, this business of keeping on top of things in Iraq is the responsibility of military on the ground--even if we credit President Bush with liberating Iraq, we can't blame him for the SNAFUs, least of all for losing 380 tons of high explosives. I understand this: I'm not to blame for all the things that go missing in my house--the cleaners put stuff in places where I can't find them, the dog walks off with things and buries them, and my kids make such a mess that no one can find anything. But then I'm not the Commander in Chief.

Looks like we have a dilemma here. Either the President is responsible for operations in Iraq or he isn't. If he is, then the current President has been remiss in his duties and ought not to be re-elected. If he isn't, then in choosing the next President we shouldn't worry about the situation in Iraq, which is the business of the military, but vote for the candidate who has the most to offer on the domestic front. The rest of the proof is left to the reader as an exercise.

As for the lost explosives, it may be time for a faith-based initiative:

St. Anthony, come around: 380 tons of high explosives are lost and must be found

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Kristoff on God and Sex

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: God and Sex

Over the last couple of months, I've been researching the question of how the Bible regards homosexuality. Social liberals tend to be uncomfortable with religious arguments, but that is the ground on which political battles are often decided in America...since Americans are twice as likely to believe in the Devil as in evolution, I also think it's stupid of liberals to forfeit the religious field.

I went to a reception for a city council candidate sponsored by our local homewoner's association. Plans are afoot to build high-rise luxury condos and office buildings in our heretofore unfashionable suburb I wanted to find out where he stood.

I'm keen on development. We're close the the downtown of a major metropolitan area--some glitzy high-rise development would yuppify our town and boost property values. But I discovered to my horror that the other homeowners were dead set against it and that the candidate--against whom I have just cast my absentee ballot--was their man. He promised to stop the high rises, fight city hall, and do what he could to maintain the character of our town--which has been described as "a trailer park without the trailers." One of his supporters, talking me up, noted that in another neighborhood which had been developed recently and become fashionable there was "nothing to do but eat at restaurants or go drinking."

This seemed good to me, but I see their point. While they're ok with the Starbucks that have moved in recently, they don't want the place turned into a latte liberal enclave even if it increases their property values. They want to live in what they perceive as safe "family" neighborhoods amongst people who maintain their preferred lifestyle. And that is what, I suspect, motivates the majority of Americans who vote against gay marriage--something that Kristoff does not get.

Even if a sizeable percentage of Americans claim to believe in the Devil and doubt evolution, very few are evangelical Christians who make a serious attempt to guide their lives according to Biblical principles. Most socially conservative Americans want to live in Dick and Jane family neighborhoods, in a world that looks right--where men do men's jobs, women do women's jobs, and guys don't hold hands in public. They support conservative churches and conservative political candidates who will secure the world that looks right from attack by terrorists and real estate developers--and affirm them in the face of contemptuous latte-drinking Liberals like one of Kristoff's readers who writes: "LOL. My husband just compared the fundies to the mudhens on our lake right now. They have the same little microchips in their little brains as the cooties do."

Kristoff's Biblical exegesis will not persuade them and so long as Liberals regard them as cooties Culture Wars will keep going.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | It's in our interests to be nannied

The problem with critics of the nanny state is that they mistakenly equate non-interference by government with freedom...To maximise our freedom, therefore, we should be interested in creating a society in which we have the maximum power to make choices for ourselves. That may require us to limit the extent to which influences that are corrosive to freedom are allowed to operate.

According to the conventional wisdom, and political rhetoric from the right, conservative policies that restrict government "interference" maximize individual freedom while liberal policies trade off individual freedom for other goods.

Personally I hadn't noticed this, in fact it seems clear to me that it's the other way around. Without government support for schools and student loans I couldn't have gotten the education that provided a real choice of careers for me. Without the enforcement of equal opportunity and affirmative action regulations my range of options in the labor market would have limited to "women's jobs": teaching, typing, waitressing, cashiering and the "helping professions."

Without government interference I would now likely be trapped in 2 square feet of space for 8 hours a day operating a cash register or sitting at a computer terminal keying in data while my supervisor monitored every keystroke. Most women's jobs are like that--restricted mobility, interminable repetition and close supervision with few possibilities for achievement or advancement. I don't see how that counts as freedom.

Freedom, in the most basic sense, means the absence of physical constraint--not being trapped in a small space behind a check out counter or in a carrel answering phones. It means the chance to organize my own activities and more broadly, the available of a wide range of options from which I can choose, making trade-offs in accordance with my preferences. Government interference restricts the options of a few people while increasing the net freedom overall by liberating us from the constraints imposed on us by customs and traditions, the policies of non-government organizations, and the restrictions to our liberty that come from the unchosen circumstances of our lives.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The PC Paradox and the Anglican Church

African dissent key to Anglican stance on homosexuals

[A]s the Anglican Communion wrestles with the continued furor over last year's election of an openly gay American bishop, attention is being focused on feisty Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who has threatened an Anglican rebellion if the American church goes unpunished..."We no longer need to look to Canterbury to become Christians," Akinola said during a recent U.S. tour. "If they want to create a new religion, good luck to them, but we don't want a new religion. What we have already is good enough for us."

I follow the furore in the Anglican Church closely because it's a striking case of the Paradox of Political Correctness. For over 30 years self-hating Liberals have valorized and patronized the Other and are now beginning to discover that a good many Others reject the core values of Liberalism and are fed up with being patronized.

When I was an undergraduate, most of the rich kids I knew wanted desperately to be poor (while, of course, virtually all poor people desperately wanted to be rich). We wore denim work shirts to express solidarity with the Proletariat. It came as quite a shock to the system when the proletarian Chicago cops, on whose behalf we were fighting the Revolution, bashed our heads in when we demonstrated at the Democratic Convention. It never really sunk in though until CNN colored the map red and blue and people started worrying what the matter with Kansas was. We discovered that the proles weren't harmless specimens: they disliked us, disagreed with us and wielded real political power.

Now the boom has fallen on Liberal clergy in the Episcopal Church, with the same resounding thump that the first Chicago cop's baton made when it fell on the first student head in 1968. Liberal clergy have discovered that African Anglicans are not harmless specimens, grateful for their tutelage and the contents of ECW mite boxes, but religiously committed adults who disagree with them and, at least within the Church, wield real political power. It was especially entertaining when the most liberal clergy, so shaken that they let their guard down, publicly opined that that the African bishops who objected to their agenda were ignoramuses "just up from animism" who didn't understand what Christianity was all about, conjectured that they had been "bought off" by American conservatives with "chicken dinners," and expressed outrage that after decades of financial support they had the nerve to get uppity. I am sure that the African bishops knew they felt this way all along and were amused to hear them express these sentiments publicly.

I disagree with Archbishop Akinola. But I disagree with lots of people, many of whom are smart and educated. I don't think that Archbishop Akinola is a crypto-animist who just doesn't understand what Christianity is all about or that he's been bought off by American conservatives. I would rather be disagreed with, and even hated, than patronized and I assume that Archbishop Akinola and his colleagues feel the same way.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Bush vs. Kerry--Again


Here we go again. By general agreement Kerry won all the debates--the last by 52% to 39%. The result: Bush now leads by 4%. Let's see: 39 - 52 = 4.

Who benefits from the conservative program? Certainly the ultra-wealthy who got the most benefit from Bush's tax cuts and sweetheart deals for big business. But no amount of advertising, propaganda or even tampering with voter registration could get Bush in without broad support from the bulk of the population who, one would think, don't benefit from his program.

Of course it depends on what you mean be "benefit." If benefit is preference satisfaction then, in addition to the plutocrats, the program benefits Americans who deeply discount the future (or possibly haven't heard about the future at all) and are prepared to take big risks to get a few extra bucks for consumer goods, whether through minimal tax savings or personal debt.

Choice reveals preference and, by their political choices ye shall know them. Inferring to the best explanation it looks like there are a mass of voters who regard poverty, drudgery and unemployment as inevitable facts of life, administered by the goddess Tyche, which no government program can ameliorate. They see liberal proposals to improve their lot as futile--or disingenuous, aimed at bankrolling parasites in state bureaucracies and the undeserving poor, and in any case degrading their standard of living and constraining their choices. They're floating on consumer debt and most mange to juggle car loans, credit card debt and second mortgages; they take advantage of creating financing to live well beyond their means. Why should they worry about the deficit?

Will four more years of this garbage persuade them otherwise? No, because given their fundamental assumption that insecurity and personal economic disasters are in the order of nature there is no way to falsify the hypothesis that Bush's program benefits them: if Bush puts $300 in their pockets, a month's payment on their car loans, they see it as pure profit and praise him; if they're laid off, slammed with catastrophic medical expenses, or just struggle monthly to make payments and take out new loans to consolidate their old ones, they blame it on Tyche.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Freedom and the Gender Gap

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Not Just a Personality Clash, a Conflict of Visions

"Politicians from sparsely populated areas are more likely to say they want government off people's backs so they can run their own lives. Politicians from denser areas are more likely to want government to play at least a refereeing role, to keep people from bumping into one another too abusively."

David Brooks has a new 5-minute idea: people from sparsely populated areas are interested in freedom and so vote conservative; people from densely populated areas are concerned about social cooperation and so vote liberal.

The assumption is that the conservative agenda promotes freedom and individualism by getting government off people's backs. Women know better. The constraints that restrict our options don't come from government interference--they come from entrenched traditions and the customary practices of firms. The market is not perfectly efficient, and the labor market is pretty inefficient. Left to their own devices, employers will hire friends, relatives and people who "look right." This is fine if you have friends or relatives who are hiring or if you look right for the job but it is not fine if you are a woman--or a man--interested in a job for which you do not look right.

Before the government committed itself to promoting and enforcing equal opportunity regulations women's options in the labor market were limited to traditional "women's jobs." As a women, realistically, my only options would have been have been teaching, child care, social work, nursing or clerical work. When I first applied for job, in my teens, newspaper ads were classified as "Help Wanted-Men" and "Help Wanted-Women, " with a very few classified as "Help Wanted-Men or Women." Without government interference, I would have had very few options. Government interference liberated me.

Government "interference" expands people's freedom. Women, like me, know it. Blacks know it too--and vote accordingly. Before the federal government interfered they couldn't live or go to school where they pleased. Government interference greatly expanded our options.

Our aim is not to trade off freedom for cooperation, security or anything else. It is to maximize freedom. We just recognize that, for us, it is government interference that secures our freedom.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Time to Retire the F Word

I regularly teach "feminism classes" with a colleague in econ. We've taught classes on women and work and, most recently, a course on the economics and ethics of gender in the developing world. Most of our students firmly maintain that they are "not feminists but"... believe that women should get equal pay for equal work and get a fair chance to do the same kinds of jobs that men do, that being male or female shouldn't impose constraints on ones opportunities and that men and women should be assessed according to the same standards. We've always found their disavowals of feminism puzzling since we assumed that leveling the male-female playing field and opening the whole range of available options to both men and women was what feminism was all about.

There are certainly tactical disagreements about how you do this. Conservatives have faith that the Market will do the job. Unrepentant Liberals, like myself, worry about market failure, feedback effects, and the brute fact that people just want things to look right--and so don't want to see women driving tow trucks or men working as receptionists at high-gloss firms. We believe that only government intervention can create genuine, de facto equality of opportunity. Tactics aside however most of us agree about the end--seeing to it that, insofar as possible, people's chances to get what they want aren't constrained by circumstance over which they have no control: not only sex but race, national origin, class and dumb luck. This makes me wonder: what it the problem with feminism?

Maybe the term "feminism" isn't useful any more and may in fact have become misleading. So it seemed to me after a class discussion and so I suggested to students that it might be time to retire the F word. This is what I wrote:

In our last class a number of students had questions and comments about “the Feminist Movement”—reminiscent of my own kids’ remarks about the way things were in my “day.”

Although I remember the 50’s feminine mystique, Betty Friedan’s attack on it and subsequent changes in the social and economic role of women, I don’t recall a movement. To the extent that I remember the ‘60s, I remember an antiwar movement, which staged public protests, swung public opinion and ultimately helped change US policy. I don’t remember a feminist movement.

Things changed. The economic bubble of the ‘50s began to deflate. Real income for white males flattened out and it became increasingly difficult for families to maintain the ever-rising standard of living they expected on one income; meanwhile the growth of traditional “women’s jobs” in the expanding service sector drew women out of the home and into the labor force.

The Pill made sexual activity less risky for women: during the ‘50s conservative moralists denounced pre-marital sex on the grounds that it carried a risk of pregnancy, a decade later they denounced the Pill for making pre-marital sex virtually risk-free. The “traditional family” and the code of sexual conduct that went along with it were collapsing, without any help from a feminist “movement.” Moreover the civil religion that supported them was imploding. Most of all, perhaps, people just got sick of the ‘50s.

If there was ever a feminist movement it was epiphenomenal. Women’s roles were changing and, in an age of ideologies and revolutions, it was perhaps inevitable that that a movement should be invented to explain why.

Feminism is a very odd sort of ism. Most isms are either controversial political views, peripheral theologies, or physiological anomalies—Libertarianism, Arianism, astigmatism. If there is such a thing as feminist doctrine it is the claim that men and women should have the same opportunities at the same costs, that being male or female should not be a constraint.  This is neither peripheral nor anomalous, and it is hard to see why it should ever have been controversial.

Femimism seems more in the line of Literatism, the doctrine that children should learn how to read, or Dentalism, the doctrine that people should brush their teeth and see their dentists regularly.
I suppose “Literateism” and “Dentalism” weren’t invented, until now, because there is no work for them to do. When it comes to these doctrines, we don’t need to argue about them, anathamatize them or fix them so we don’t need to name them.

I am not sure that “feminism” ever did any useful work. Even if it did, it may now be time for retirement.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Bush v. Kerry: Round One

Large Stupid Men Tee Shirts - LSM

Americans by a margin of more than 2 to 1 believe that Kerry won last night's debate on Iraq, terrorism and homeland security, but the polls haven't changed and the majority still believe that Bush would do better on Iraq, terrorism and homeland security than Kerry.

Is this consistent?

Yes, if you assume that the ability to speak articulately about the issues and win arguments has no bearing on performance. This is indeed what a significant number of Americans believe and it is why Kerry's performance in the debates, even if it were stellar, would make little difference. Bush's supporters view debating skill as nothing more than a clever trick and take Bush's inarticulate grunts, repetition, and posturing as signs of strength.

The source of this extraordinary view is lower class sexual dimorphism. Both Republican and Democratic campaigns feature elite women in suits doing the same jobs as their male counterparts and behaving in much the same way as elite males. But further down the social scale, sexual dimorphism becomes salient.

Working class men do the grunt work; working class women do the paperwork. Even in pink-collar clerical and service work women need to be literate, articulate and socially presentable. Working class males just need to lift heavy things. They regard fluency, social finesse and even intelligence as womanish-- signs of weakness that disqualify man from leadership.

Prima facie the Republican Campaign was insane to make military leadership an issue when Kerry was a decorated war veteran and Bush was a National Guard drop-out. But they knew their base constituency--dumb white men. It didn't matter that Kerry served in combat, that he was 5 inches taller than Bush or even he was a booming bass to Bush's reedy tenor: the mere fact that Kerry spoke French made him, in the eyes of working class males, a wimp.

Bush gets macho points for being inarticulate, simple-minded and dogmatic: working class machismo isn't a matter of what you can do but a matter of what you cannot or will not do. Heavy lifting is optional, so long as you're not very smart.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A bogus charletan and and old fart

The Question of God | PBS

Can't PBS do better than this? The visuals, including Klimt paintings and scenes from the folk culture of North Oxford, are nice even if the dramatization is embarassing--representing Freud, predictably, with a comic German accent. I'm watching this monstrosity even now as I write. Between the vignettes of life in Oxford and we return a focus group, including a black male in dreadlocks whose profession is given as "independent filmmaker," discussing Love.

When I was an undergraduate the paradigmatic popular debate on religious belief was a BBC4 program featuring Mr. Bertrand Russell and Fr. Frederick Copplestone, S.J. They worried the Cosmological Argument at some length. Russell posed the Problem of Evil; Copplestone parried with the Free Will Defense. So it went.

Security Moms

The New York Times > Washington > Campaign 2004 > Kerry in a Struggle for a Democratic Base: Women

"This year, Ms. Lake said, the gap between how married and single women expect to vote is greater than it has ever been, largely because of the emergence of what analysts call 'security moms,'' who tend to be white, married women who have children and who are fearful of another attack within the United States. 'Security moms' are an outgrowth of the 'soccer moms' who had emerged in previous elections as important swing voters. But soccer moms tended to live mainly in the suburbs and could vote either way. Security moms live everywhere and are leaning Republican"

Now I wonder: is the gap between single women and married women a consequence of the moms' instinct to seek out a strong male protector for their young, as this article suggests (though not in so many words) or their failure fully to appreciate the extent to which Bush's policies handicap them.

Most married women work outside the home, but relatively few are breadwinners. Even if they are de facto locked into the labor force, many regard their work as an optional extra, don't regard their work as essential to their family's survival, don't expect to earn wages comparable to their husbands', and don't worry about wage gaps or discrimination in the way that single women, particularly unmarried female heads of households, must. That isn't to say that they wouldn't respond if these issues were brought to their attention.

If Kerry is worried about losing his female base why doesn't he make a strong case on the bread and butter issues that affect the majority of women? Why doesn't he say, ladies, you know as well as I do that discrimination is a fact of life: there are jobs you cannot get, promotions you will not get and wages you forfeit just because you are female. Changing this is not an impossible dream: it is feasible with the aggressive enforcement of existing regulations prohibiting discrimination. I will not let firms get away with flouting these regulations. I will agressively work to promote equity in the workplace. Discrimination is not only bad for women--it's bad for business and bad for the economy and I will work to make fair and equal treatment a reality.

Why not?

I just find the suggestion in the article that (married) women across the country, urban and suburban, are shaking in their shoes in fear of terrorist attacks offensive. What percentage of women? The article doesn't say. It's insulting: it assumes that women are cowards.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Time to get out of the ethics business

Almost 10 years ago a committee of Episcopal Bishops produced a "teaching document" human sexuality declaring that the Church's traditional moral prescriptions ought to be modified to eliminate "discontinuities" between moral judgment and actual practice, that is to say, the rules had to be changed to agree with the way people actually behaved.

I circulated this document amongst some of my colleagues for comment. All of us had taught ethics courses required of all students which most take as sophomores. We agreed that by the standards we set for students in these classes, the bishop's study document should get a C+, and that purely for basic literacy and spelling.

The bishops declared that Freud was an intellectual giant, on a par with Galileo and Darwin, with whom the Church had to reckon. They had no clear understanding of the standard ethical theories that undergraduates were supposed learn about in their sophomore ethics class, appealing alternatively to Kantian notions of persons and ends in themselves and to natural law theory. They did not seem to have heard of utilitarianism or any consequentialist accounts at all. They cheerfully deduced "ought" from "is" and generally relied upon rhetoric and sentimentality in place of argument. This was a bad term paper.

I agreed with the bishops' conclusion that the Church's traditional rules for sexual conduct were overly stringent and often damaging. Indeed, I would have gone further: I believe that all sexual activities between, or among, consenting parties, heterosexual or homosexual, whether in the context of loving, committed, monogamous relationships or not are morally ok. It was the poor quality of the bishops' arguments that that set my teeth on edge.

It was after reading this that I realized it was time for the Church to get out of the ethics business. It would not have been quite so bad if the bishops had claimed that they received their conclusions by divine revelation. But they did not. They assumed that they had expertise in ethics, and that they were competent to assess the results of scientific investigation, decide controversial moral questions in light of scientific discoveries, and pass the results on to the laity. They imagined that they were qualified to issue a "teaching" in virtue of their expertise.

The Church has gotten into trouble repeatedly by making claims that competed with the results of secular experts including notoriously Galileo and Darwin. Most clergy now recognize that they have no expertise in the hard sciences and no business issuing teachings about the age of the earth, the structure of the solar system or the origin of species. Still, they assume, with no more justification, that they have expertise in ethics. And as bishops and priests duke it out about sexual ethics, that assumption has wreaked havoc on the Church.

When I suggest that ethics isn't the Church's business I draw incredulous stares from people who would not turn a hair if I had ridiculed the Trinity as "a sort of committee God," announced that the idea of a God "out there" was as absurd as the idea of a God "up there" or asserted that no educated modern person could take theism seriously, all views that bishops, within my lifetime, have taught. Theology is negotiable; ethics is not. Since the Enlightenment it has been a commonplace that ethics was the Church's most important business, indeed, some have suggested, it's only business. People worry that lopping off the ethical component of Christianity trivializes it, leaves something that is not Christianity at all.

This worry is unfounded. The Creed, which says absolutely nothing about ethical issues, proclaims that there is a God in three Persons, that God became incarnate, and that we shall survive death and enjoy him forever. Such claims about the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being and personal immortality are momentous. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people imagine that getting out of the ethics business would trivialize Christianity because they do not believe these metaphysical claims are true, or even worthy of serious consideration, and have reconstructed Christianity as "commitment to an agapistic way of life" in order to make it out as plausible and significant.

Since Kant made metaphysics disreputable, the Church, in the interest of self-preservation, has been quietly divesting itself of its theological stock while promoting its ethical sideline. Now, ironically and deservedly, the Church is being undermined by the arrogance of priests who imagine that they are in a position to offer intellectual leadership and moral guidance--as if anyone took their half-baked notions seriously. The Church might have done better minding its own business.

There is plenty of legitimate business for the Church to do: baptizing, marrying and burying, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and comforting the dying, maintaining buildings and conducting services. Most of all, the Church's business is mysticism--maintaining church buildings as sacred spaces, openings into another world and doing liturgy through which people can participate in the cosmic drama and experience the thrill of transcendence. That is the Church's area of expertise, something which only it can do, something we cannot do for ourselves. Ethics, by contrast, is something we can do perfectly well for ourselves, in which the Church has no special expertise.

So the Church should get out of the ethics business, and back into the mysticism business. Even if there are few takers for mysticism, there are none for its moral oracles on sexual conduct or anything else.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Glass Houses


I don't know anyone who went to Vietnam--do you? Guys I knew had student deferrments. When, incredibly, the government switched to a lottery system and ordinary, unmarried undergraduates were no longer exempt, Lyle went to Divinity School, George got a shrink to certify that he was gay, and poor Alex, who got the worst of it, was forced to join the National Guard, which tied him up for 6 years.

People like us didn't do military--any more than we bowled or drove American cars. During the student strike of 1970, in the absence of an ROTC program, the SDS chapter at Lake Forest College considered a proposal to name the pump house, a small ornamental gazebo-like structure at the entrance to Faculty Circle, "ROTC building" and blow it up. Or at least to take a few turns around it waving signs.

Maybe when the story of George Bush's career in the National Guard breaks out of the elite media into the news shows and papers that the General Public actually reads and watch, and they get a view of what it was like for the privileged, and even semi-privileged like me and my contemporaries it will give them a turn.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Anglicans ready to ostracise US church

By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

via the Beliefnet Anglican Debate board

THE Episcopal Church in the United States faces exclusion from the worldwide Anglican communion as punishment for ordaining a gay bishop, The Times has learnt... The suspension of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, known as ECUSA, from the 75-million strong Anglican Church is expected to be recommended at the final meeting of the Lambeth Commission in Windsor next week.

Don't say I didn't say I told you so. Members of the Beliefnet board where the whole article is reprinted are dismayed and, surprisingly, surprised. As one notes, "who among us really thought that it would even get this far?" I did. See The Limits of Management

Others express fear that if the Episcopal Church knuckles under and abandons its policy of ordaining openly active homosexuals and blessing same sex unions they will be excluded from the church. Leaving aside the obvious fact that Episcopal churches are semi-public facilities that anyone can use, no questions asked, they don't seem to have gotten the idea the question of whether homosexual activity is morally permissible is separate from the question of whether the Church as an institution should ordain openly active homosexuals or bless same-sex unions. They should have read my article "Is Homosexuality Sexuality?" in the May/June issue of Theology.

Some suggest looking on the bright side--the "ostracism" of the American church is not intended to be permanent. Eventually the rest of the world will come around. In the meantime however I'd bet the ostracism could have interesting legal repercussions. A number of conservative congregations in the US have announced their intention to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the US Episcopal Church and affiliate with more congenial Anglican churches in Africa and elsewhere. There was some question of whether they would be able to keep their property which is, as I understand it, held in trust for them by the diocese in which they are located.

The idea behind this arrangement, I heard, was to protect individuals who contributed to the construction and maintenance of church buildings, and their furnishings, on the understanding that they would be used for Anglican religious purposes. A congregation couldn't, legally, auction the church plate on eBay, turn the building into condos and pocket the proceeds or use the property in other creative ways that the donors could not have forseen or intended. It's unlikely however that Episcopalians who contributed to the building, maintenance and furnishing of most Episcopal churches in the US anticipated the exclusion of the American church from the Anglican Communion. They surely intended to contribute to their local Anglican church or, in the case of churches built before the Revolution, to their local Church of England parish. Even a temporary "ostracism" would create a splendid window of opportunity for conservative congregations to get favorable decisions in the inevitable litigation over church property.

Now at this point you many wonder why I, an unrepentant Liberal, am cheering on the Conservatives, with whose views I disagree. Far be it from me to defend conservatives of any kind in the interests of fairness--I am pissed at the arrogant, thoroughly illiberal policies of the Episcopal church represented in the persons of clergy who imagined that they could, and should, make the Church over in their own image.

They imagined that they were the gentlemen of their parishes and dioceses, like the holy Mr. Herbert at Bemerton, providing intellectual leadership and moral guidance to the clueless yokels in their charge. They never doubted that their half-baked sophomoric notions, culled from undergraduate sociology courses, self-help literature, soap operas and Psychology Today were the received wisdom of the intelligencia. It never occurred to them that anyone who disagreed with them could have the intelligence to resist their therapeutic manipulation or the power to withstand their bullying. At the same time they assumed that the world was watching them, that their "teachings" on human sexuality would promote healthy attitudes, that their statements on public affairs would influence policy and that their liturgical practices would form the character of participants and shape their behavior.

It was the last item that got under my skin. In the later part of the past century, liberal clergy, many of who had ceased to believe in God and so did not see any point to worship as traditionally understood, concluded that the primary function of liturgy was didactic and pushed through a revised liturgy to suit their purpose. Members of the congregation were to mouth formulae about "justice, freedom and peace" and "stewardship" of the environment to encourage political activism and ecological concern. They were to shake hands with their neighbors to send the message that Christianity was not a narrowly individualistic relationship with a transcendent being but that love of God cashed out as love of ones fellow man. Kneeling was discouraged because, clergy said, it was "penitential": guilt-ridden, puritanical Episcopalians had to learn life-affirming attitudes that were more conducive to good mental health.

When the dust had cleared, a few parishes that did high liturgy remained as specialty items, featuring commissioned works of art and precious boy choristers in ruffs, while in the majority of churches every scrap of the numinous was stripped away and all emotion flattened into bland suburban cheer.

The arrogant fools who stripped the altars, scrapped the liturgy and destroyed my religious life, are now pulling down the church. In the end it will scarcely matter to the Culture Warriors on either side. The conservatives will have their evangelical tabernacles, affiliated with dioceses in Botswana and Timbuktu, with Bible studies, Promise Keepers and the Alpha course, where family values and male headship are preached. Liberals will maintain their community centers for elderly ladies financed by schools catering for families that want class-segregated education at an affordable price. But anyone who imagined that the Episcopal church was the venue for unrepentant liberals who were, in the ordinary sense of the word, religious will seriously disappointed.

Maybe it was inevitable--an epiphenomenon of the larger culture war in which religion is understood primarily as a tool for the promotion of a socially conservative agenda and Liberals are, by the very nature of the religious landscape, virtually defined into being secular.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Instant Runoff Voting action

Visit this terrific site on various alternative methods of voting and how they work! Mathematically interesting but accessible even to the likes of me. There are links at the site to non-partisan activist organizations that promote alternatives to plurality voting.

I've been converted by my daughter, who is a Green. The Greens' preferred method, IRV, has problems which, ironically, thwart third party candidates but there are other alternatives. Anything has got to be better than plurality voting in a winner-take-all system.

The simplest alternative is Approval Voting (see, e.g. Citizens for Approval Voting. Voters check off the candidates they approve of without ranking them and the candidate with the most votes wins. It can't be too flakey since the Mathematical Association of America (32,000 members), the American Statistical Association and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (377,000 members).

We now know what's the matter with Kansas: working class social conservatives are sacrificing their economic interests to buy support for their preferred policies on "lifestyle issues" and cynical plutocrats are happy to throw them a bone to get their own economic agenda through. Given the current system however there is no fix because the center will not hold. Neither party can win without the support of socially conservative working class voters but given the current agendas of both parties, working class conservatives lose whichever party they support. And if a viable third party emerged to represent their interests, we could end up with a three-way deadlock instead of a two-way one.

What can't happen in any case is the emergence of any nuanced political position--as distinct from an incoherent politically motivated compromise.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The New York Times > International > Europe > Terrorism: Hostages Urge France to Repeal Its Scarf Ban

Ayman Zawahiri, the No. 2 figure in the terrorist network Al Qaeda, condemned France for defending the freedom of nudity and depravity and fighting chastity and decency with the scarf ban, adding that such anti-Muslim acts by the West should be dealt with by tank shells and antiaircraft missiles.

Vive la France! Liberte, nudite, depravite!

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Nice Muslims

Crooked Timber: Light a single candle

I've heard that before the war there were even some fairly civilized Muslims in Iraq--who had electricity and indoor plumbing and didn't carry assault weapons or marry off their daughters to cousins at the age of 9. I can imagine how they must feel now that the US is negotiating with a gang leader whose "militia" consists of young, lower class males from a Bagdad slum--or how they might have taken this article from the NYTimes proposing tribal rule as the semi-final solution to the Iraq problem.

As a thought experiment, imagine that 50 years from now the EU, now the world's hyperpower, invades the US to dismantle WMD and establish democracy. In the process they destroy the electricity grid, disrupt the water supply and demolish the sewage system. But they aren't worried: the US is, after all, a third world country--how many Americans had electricity or running water anyway? how many had ever seen a flush toilet much less knew how to use one?

The looting, rioting and ongoing insurgency is something of a surprise and poses a dilemma. If occupying forces go in with shock and awe the collateral damage will get all Americans up in arms; if they pull their punches it will go on and on and on creating even more hostility from the general public. The puppet regime doesn't seem able to control it.

An editorial writer at the Times (not of NY) proposes empowering Mafia bosses to run the country. They're thugs and we may not like the way they operate, but they have traditionally had the allegiance of many Americans (some 40% of whom are "tribal"--like Iragis according to the NYTimes article) and can maintain order. Most however believe that televangelists and other fundamentalist clerics would be the best qualified to put the lid back on. Pundits debate about whether the cost of supporting them--a fundamentalist Christian theocracy--would be acceptable. Most agree that, while they would put women into purdah, administer shock treatment to homosexuals and burn heretics it's better than chaos and the potential for breeding more terrorism. There aren't that many homosexuals and heretics and third world women are used to being being treated badly--it wouldn't bother them in the way that it would bother people like us.

Meanwhile, diplomats are negotiating with a young hoodlum who, with his gang of ghetto youths from the South Bronx, is holed up in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine trying to parlay his way into a high position in the puppet regime. EU policy makers have learnt from their Cultural Sensitivity advisors that St. John the Divine is the holiest shrine in Protestantdom and that if they storm the place to get the gang out there will be a mass uprising. Here endeth the epistle.

If I were one of those civilized Muslims in Iraq I'd pray for the return of Saddam--or someone like him.

Friday, August 27, 2004

BBC NEWS | UK | Politics | Tory leader attacks 'PC culture'

Maybe the Brits have something to complain about--we in the US don't. Opponents of "political correctness" want a world where I don't get to do guy stuff. They want a world where things look right--where, even if a minority of elite women get to be lawyers and managers, most are concentrated in smarmy "helping professions" and excluded from blue collar work. They want to see to it that employers can hire people according to what looks right and that women are confined to jobs where they have to do boring repetitious work or be nice and help people, and in any case dress up.

"Political correctness" is a straw man. The gist of the argument is that opening genuine opportunities for women outside of the pink-collar sector or enforcing fair practices in hiring and promotion entails commitment to a whole host of silly, coercive and otherwise objectionable practices.

The issue is whether women can get commissioned sales positions selling electronic gadgets at Fry's Electronics--they can't--and whether they have the same chance as comparably qualified males of getting promoted at Walmart, being auto mechanics or working construction.