Friday, July 25, 2014

Caught in a Compromising Position

I read today about a recent Gallup poll that got some interesting results:
Americans also favor governance by those who "think it is more important to compromise to get things done" (63%) over those who "think it is more important to hold firm to their principles" (56%) -- although the overlap between the figures shows that some Americans view both types of leaders favorably.
Well, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if many Americans view both types of leaders favorably.  I've seen people flipflop on principle and compromise within a few minutes:
An old friend linked to a rant by a Methodist minister somewhere, and added his own layer of froth to it:
This is EXACTLY right. So much bull shit propaganda is speed out to the public as "facts". These are the real facts. The moderate - and trainable - on both sides need to come together to permanently oust these tea party legislative terrorists. It's time to take back our country with reason and compromise. These are NOT bad words and what WILL get our government working again.
"Moderate" is a "bad word," in my opinion, for reasons I've given before.  "Trainable" is even worse.  Just off the bat, who's going to do the training?  Our government wasn't founded to "train" us, or our elected representatives.  "Reason" is an okay word, but there's no reason in my friend's words.  "Compromise" is a bad word, since in practice what it has meant during the Obama administration is that the Republicans have been handed much of what they want, and are thereby emboldened to demand the rest of it later.  And it's hilarious of my friend (and he's far from alone among pious Democrats) to demand compromise, when both sides here are refusing to compromise.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, because there are times when one must not give in.  Obama and the Democrats have decided not to compromise any further on the Affordable Care Act.  Their supporters agree that they shouldn't.  So this time, right now, compromise is a bad word.

After a few snarling comments between us, my friend wrote exactly that: "There is no compromising on this issue," he wrote. Wait a minute, didn't you just demand compromise a few minutes ago?  Compromise isn't a bad word, and all that?  It's convenient, if not exactly gratifying, to have such a blatant textbook example of doublethink in action.
During the debt-ceiling battles and the government shutdown, many people in the media and outside it indulged in easy false equivalence, blaming both parties for refusing to compromise.  When deals were finally made, Democrats celebrated what later became known as the Sequester -- until it took effect.  Then they howled about the damage it was doing; including the guy behind it, our Collaborator in Chief himself.  So why shouldn't people hold both positions, demanding principle and compromise at the same time?  What matters in American political discourse is cheering for your team, chanting the right slogans, ignoring facts in favor of waving your colors.

Sometimes compromise is the right choice.  Sometimes it's not.  There's no rule that can decide which is right in advance.  Wanting there to be one is one strategy of what the philosopher Walter Kaufmann called "decidophobia," the fear of making fateful decisions.  Not too surprisingly, his call for autonomy and taking responsibility for one's decisions never caught on.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tradition

Even Rod Dreher has his moments of clarity, and today was one of them.  What, he asked, is really meant by the phrase "traditional Christianity"?  He often uses it himself, but he realized he's not all that clear on how to define it:
I use the phrase too, interchangeably with “small-o orthodox Christianity,” or just “orthodox Christianity.” What I mean is Christians of whatever tradition who adhere to, um, tradition. You see the problem.

When I push further, I say, in a Kierkegaardian vein, “Well, it means Christians who think that religion deals in objective truths, subjectively appropriated. Christians who believe that truth is something that exists outside of ourselves, as opposed to being something we can bend to suit our time-bound desires.”
But this still doesn’t get us very far. I consider a faithful Southern Baptist, a conservative Anglican, an orthodox Roman Catholic, and an Orthodox Christian all to be “traditional Christians.” Still … whose tradition? What sense does it make to say that Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics are on the same side as “traditional”? From a Catholic perspective, the Baptists are so far gone theologically from tradition that it makes no sense to think of them as “traditional Christians.” And from a Baptist point of view, the Catholics may be “traditional,” but they lost their way when they began adding man-made things to the pure Gospel, like the early church had.
(By the way, the notion of "adding man-made things to the pure Gospel, like the early church had" is laughably unhistorical.  If there is a "pure Gospel," no one knows what it is, or was.  The New Testament is a man-made thing, as are the creeds, and all the other paraphernalia of primitive Christianity.  You can tell even by reading the New Testament that the earliest Christians disagreed on core teachings and basics.  Paul may have exaggerated for polemic effect, but it seems that not all of the founders of Christianity agreed that Christ Crucified was the essence of the Gospel, for example, as Paul claimed it was.  I think I learned from James Barr's writings that even iconoclastic Protestants like Baptists adhere to much of the doctrine of patristic Catholicism, but thanks to their general historical ignorance they do so unawares.  This belief in a pure original Gospel is part of the myth of Christian beginnings that Robert Wilken analyzed in his book of that title.)

Often, Dreher concedes, "'traditional Christian' is political code for 'Christians who adhere to traditional teaching about sex and sexuality.'"   Even that can be questioned, for what is "traditional teaching about sex and sexuality"?  It hasn't been as consistent as Dreher would like to think.  He raises an interesting question, though, because even non-believers like me throw around this kind of terminology too freely at times.

In the end, Dreher quotes himself and wanders off into another minefield.  He cites the sociologist Philip Rieff, who
was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.
It's not enough to clarify what is meant by "traditional"; one must also clarify what is meant by "religion." It appears to me that Dreher's running in a circle here, by assuming that "what [a culture] forbids" equals its "religion," "a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework."   Which is okay, because definitions usually are circular.  But it occurs to me that although human cultures may have different metaphysical frameworks, they seem to agree on much of what they forbid.  Sexual behavior is always regulated, most cultures appear to regulate gender expression, hierarchies are common if not universal, violence and other use of force is regulated and justified.  The details vary -- may I marry a first cousin or not? -- and the rationales for the moral demands differ, but murder is still proscribed while killing enemies in war is rationalized and celebrated.  Consider too the status of polygamy in Christianity: neither the Tanakh nor the New Testament objects to it, but Christians abandoned polygamy as the cult became Romanized, because Roman culture forbade multiple wives.  Does this mean that Christianity adopted the Roman cosmology?

I'd say that the moral demands are prior to the cosmology, that the cosmology rationalizes the demands after the fact rather than vice versa.  From one perspective, studying the relation between the cosmology and the moral code is surely interesting and worthwhile, but from another perspective it misses the point, because the moral code doesn't follow from the cosmology.  In one sense the evolutionary psychologists have the right idea in trying to trace morality to human biology, but their understanding of both biology and morality is too impoverished to get them very far.  Still, if Dreher (not to mention Rieff) thinks that the "sense of sacred order" determines the moral code, he has a lot of explaining to do.

The situation isn't helped by popular confusion about the content of the moral code.  One commenter on Dreher's post wrote, "Many Christians chose the teachings about sex in Paul and the Old Testament over the teachings of Jesus. They reap their own whirlwind."  As far as I can see, Paul and Jesus are much closer to each other on sexual matters than either is to the “Old Testament.” Both thought total sexual abstinence preferable to marriage, for example. The Jesus of the gospels is anything but a liberal on sex, though as in most areas he was often vague about what he actually meant. What, for example, does it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the Kingdom? I presume he didn’t mean it literally, but what did he mean figuratively? How did he want people to live this teaching? I have no idea.  But this is an area where both "traditionalists" and, erm, well, let's call them "revisionists" even though as I already indicated, the history of Christianity is the history of its revision -- anyway, both traditionalists and revisionists are sure they know what Jesus meant, though the rationales for their interpretations fall apart under scrutiny.  I see this sort of view as further evidence that the values held are prior to their metaphysical framework.

Dreher pointed to changes in American sexual morality as shown by political choices, as shown by a correlation between the opinions of voters on sexual morality during the 1996 presidential campaign.  I think it would be instructive to look at the opinions of voters in 1980, when the divorced and remarried Ronald Reagan was embraced by conservative Christians as the candidate of family values, despite his flouting of Jesus' teaching on marriage.  They might have justified this by treating him as the lesser evil compared to the once-married Jimmy Carter, but I found that conservative Christians I talked to were mostly completely unaware of any conflict.  Quite a few of them were divorced and remarried themselves.  This indicates that the idea that American voters vote for morality over their pocketbooks is a bit more complicated than Dreher recognizes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don't Sit Next to Me, or They'll Say We're Taking Over

I'm reading The Long Mars, the third collaboration by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.  (I just realized that I forgot to read the second, The Long War; that explains why there seemed like such a big jump between the first one and this one.)  The premise is that people have discovered how to 'step' between parallel universes, of which there are vast, perhaps infinite numbers; some do so by innate talent, while most need a device invented by one of the characters.  The Long Mars follows two missions, one going boldly through millions of parallel Earths to see what is there, and the other stepping through an equally long series of parallel Marses.  It's an interesting premise, and the book is well written.  Maybe the collaboration has put a leash on Pratchett's growing tendency to preach; The Long Mars reminds me of Heinlein's better fiction, where intriguing concepts and expert storytelling carry one pleasurably forward.  I'm enjoying it, so what I have to say here is not really meant as a complaint, just as an observation.

About two thirds of the way through, I realized that there were no characters who weren't heterosexual.  One of the characters is recounting how some bad guys (high-IQ types who believe themselves to be smarter, wiser, an evolutionary advance over Homo Sapiens, took over another ship that had been exploring the Earths.
"And the damnedest thing is that some of us, the crew, were helping them," Sam Allen said.  "You wouldn't believe it if you saw it, Captain.  They can read you like a book -- hell, before they rose up I once tried playing poker with 'em and they cleaned me out.  Their men preyed on our women, and the women on our men.  It was like they could read your mind ..."
Maybe I should be grateful that the bad guys are apparently straight as a die?  After all, there've been enough stories of sinister pansexual seducers.  But that could have been corrected for by having non-heterosexual characters who weren't villains.  And there aren't any of them, either.

I suppose it took me so long to notice this partly because, as a longtime reader, I'm used to fiction whose characters are all exclusively heterosexual, and partly because (to their limited credit, I suppose) Pratchett and Baxter don't say anything negative about non-heterosexuals.  This won't stop me from finishing The Long Mars and reading the rest of the books these two produce, provided they remain as engaging as this one, but it does make me wonder why these two men have such impoverished imaginations.  Gay people are a minority, but we're part of the world, and surely both Pratchett and Baxter know some of us.  Other straight writers have found us in their imaginations, for better and for worse.

(I noticed a similar lacuna in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance, which was an ostensibly science-fiction novel about a spaceship full of classical musicians traveling through the solar system, all of them heterosexual.  Ostensibly sf, but fantasy on that basis alone.)

This might be a good place to mention the recent announcement that the new Life with Archie series, which has its own parallel worlds premise (in one world, Archie marries Betty; in the other, he marries Veronica) will climax with the death of Archie Andrews as he saves the life of his gay friend Kevin Keller from an assassin's bullet.  Rod Dreher, as the blogger Ampersand put it, 
upon finding out that a couple of minor supporting Archie characters are lesbian, commented “Seems like everybody is gay in pop culture today.” Yeah, because it’s so hard to find depictions of heterosexuality in Archie Comics.
It's amusing to see Dreher fall on his face like that, but he's just reacting the way most people react when they encounter a phenomenon they don't like.  The way a writer at Slate complained that "so many vampire movies [are] essays 'on the tension between a young woman's desire to mate and her partner's terror that doing so will unleash demonic forces'" (quoting David Edelstein), a generalization based solely on the Twilight movies as far as I can tell.  Or the way some critics claimed that Alice Walker's The Color Purple depicted all black men as violent abusers; later, other critics claimed that Thelma and Louise had no positive male characters.  Or the way a distinguished movie critic (Andrew Sarris, as I recall) in 1976 celebrated Woody Allen's Annie Hall as at long last a return to heterosexual romance for Hollywood.  Sarah Schulman summed up this tendency in Stage Struck, her book on gay people in commercial entertainment:  "Historically, dominant people have always been comfortable with the idea of oppressed people as secretly powerful.  The easiest example, of course, is how for almost two thousand years, dominant groups of various stripes have convinced themselves that they were ruled over by a secret cabal of Jews" (124).

But as I say, I don't mean to lump Pratchett and Baxter in with such people.  They avoid the normal tendency to cast minorities as villains; there's no queer-bashing in The Long Mars, or anywhere else in Pratchett's work that I've seen.  I know from my own experience that writers or other artists make the art they can, not necessarily the art they wish.  And I'd rather they depicted no gay characters than that they did it badly; Heinlein, for example, tried valiantly but never got them right -- I could always tell he was fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of gay men.  At that, he did better than some other  well-intentioned entertainers did.  Nor am I accusing Pratchett and Baxter of deliberately excluding non-heterosexuals from their saga.  That's my point: I presume it just never occurred to them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kill Them All, Let Yahweh Sort Them Out

[NOTE: I revised and extended the ending paragraphs later this afternoon.]

Daniel Larison did a nice job today of dissecting a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on the current Israeli blitzkrieg in Gaza.  He points out that the writer, one Thane Rosenbaum, "unintentionally endorses the logic of every terrorist group in history:"
On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.
As Larison indicates, Rosenbaum's argument would justify Arab "terrorist" attacks on Israel, whose citizens have freely elected a government that carries out attacks on civilians and thereby -- on Rosenbaum's logic -- wittingly made themselves targets.  As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of Israelis are strongly supportive of what their government and their army are doing, thereby allowing them to set up shop in their living room as their base of operations.

Larison also answers a popular defense of Israeli violence that was often invoked in the NPR coverage I heard while traveling over the weekend (I added the bold type):
It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues. 
Of course, Israel also benefits politically from Israeli civilian deaths (though according to Rosenbaum, remember, there are no civilians), which would suggest that its enemies should not want to cause any more either.  It also indicates that the US government and corporate media should view Israeli exploitation of its civilians' injuries as they view Hamas's.  Of course that isn't going to happen; indeed, President Obama joins in the exploitation of the suffering of Israeli civilians.

The comments, as usual under Larison's work, are pretty good.  One person asked:
I ask this as a rather naive bystander, but: why is it that, on any given day, I can read The American Conservative on how Israel continues to kill more and more non-combatants (“running up the score”) and I can read National Review’s defense of Israel as being about the most careful regime in the world in terms of protecting non-combatants. What is the truth?
I don't see these two positions as necessarily contradictory.  An apologist for Israel could reply that if Israel weren't so scrupulous and careful, many more Palestinians would be killed.  (An apologist for Hamas could argue that they are even more careful, since rockets fired from Gaza into Israel kill almost nobody, civilian or military.  No one would take such an argument seriously, of course.)  Therefore, the apologist would continue, covering Palestinian deaths is a sign of the media's anti-Israel and indeed anti-Semitic bias, trying to win sympathy for these animals in hopes of driving Israel into the sea.  The problem for Israel is that they are clearly targeting civilians and civilian targets, such as hospitals, deliberately (though, the apologist would insist, they would kill so many more if Israel weren't such a moral exemplar), and this doesn't look good.  As another commenter pointed out, the killing of Arab civilians has been Israeli policy since its founding in 1948.

Another commenter wrote:
But the practical question is, what is Israel to do? Hamas deliberately installs rocket launchers in densely populated areas, it benefits politically from civilian casualties. We are witnessing a new form of warfare, where one side (Hamas) uses a horrific strategy of maximizing casualties among their own as an informational warfare weapon.  It works, too.
As I already pointed out, so does Israel, especially since any Israeli casualties will be trumpeted to the world as proof of Arab barbarism. When US media say that things have been quiet in Israel-Palestine of late, they mean only that no Israelis have been killed; Palestinian deaths are business as usual, nothing to see here, folks.

I suppose another practical question is what you expect Hamas to do. Gaza is, as we’re often told, one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Its government has no place to put defensive weapons except among the civilian population. Certainly Gazans have a right to defend themselves against Israeli violence — don’t they? And Gaza is under blockade, which is an act of war (as even the Israelis recognize if a blockade is directed against them); Israeli violence against Gaza is not limited to major assaults like the one currently underway. And that’s aside from the ongoing, daily violence and repression directed against Palestinians in the West Bank, and increasingly against Israeli Arabs in Israel itself. (Jonathan Cook’s 2006 book Blood and Religion is good on that subject.)

What I find interesting about this comment is that it changes the subject, which is typical among apologists for outlaw states (including the US — I remember the very same argument being made during the US invasion of Iraq). The article Larison dissected argues that it’s okay to kill (Arab) civilians, because they’re all effectively and morally combatants, which renders the question of Israeli scrupulosity irrelevant: Israel is completely in the right to kill civilians, because they're not civilians anyway.  (A recent error of attribution by ABC News showed this very effectively: given a photo of a family in their bombed-out house, ABC assumed that the suffering civilians must be Israelis -- but they were Palestinians.)

It’s increasingly difficult for many people to believe anymore that Israel kills civilians only unintentionally, as mere collateral damage, after the killing of four kids building sand castles on the beach, after the bombing of hospitals, and so on.  Israel (like any other state, to be sure) usually explains away these killings by claiming either that the victims were really terrorists or that the killers thought that they were shelling a militant base.  These explanations are routinely exposed as lies, but who cares?  There are no consequences for Israel.  The commenter's question is also irrelevant to the larger problem of Israeli violence against civilians, since Israel targets them directly and deliberately even when they’re not in Gaza. The argument is clearly offered in bad faith when Israeli spokesman make it, so it’s suspect when unofficial apologists make it too.

What do I "expect" Israel to do?  I expect Israel to stop its ongoing campaign of violence against the people it has displaced, to lift the blockade on Gaza, to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians, and so on.  I don't really expect this to happen, of course.  Israel has gone too far, too successfully, to stop now.  What does Israel expect the Palestinians to do?  It expects them to surrender, I suppose, and failing that, to die, with its assistance.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that the current atrocities will continue as long as necessary to guarantee Israel's security.  I don't see how this conduct can produce security for Israel except by exterminating all Palestinians, and that seems to be Israel's goal.  (Or as near to extermination as makes no difference: the US didn't totally wipe out its Indians, but it did kill them off to the point that they no longer posed any danger to US settlers.  Even that wasn't permanent. Israeli leaders may not have heard of the American Indian Movement, but they probably intend not to let any such potential for future resistance survive.)

Israel's wars have not won it security, so Netanyahu's "goal of bringing a prolonged quiet to the area" is disingenuous at best.  But then, like those of his American counterparts, his lies never have any consequences for him. When Israel has gained prolonged quiet from Palestinians in the past, it has always ended it with new violence.  (And to repeat, its war of attrition against the Palestinians, through dispossession, harassment, and retail violence, never stops.)   Like an American hawk, Netanyahu claims that only military strength guarantees security, though it hasn't given Israel (or the US ) security so far.  Larison has written about this many times: no matter how much military might and action they get, hawks always claim that their country is weak and ineffectual, under constant threat, so more weapons and invasions are needed to instill fear in our (real, imagined, or potential) enemies.  The difference, for what it's worth, is that most Americans aren't hawks, while Netanyahu speaks for the majority of Israelis.  Endless war hasn't gotten Israel what it wants or claims to want, but I see no hope that it will try less murderous alternatives.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beam Me Up, Scotty ...

I'm reading The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) by Paul Davies, a physicist and popular science writer.  I've never been a fan of his, but I hoped he would give me some idea of the current state of the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life and intelligence, and he is doing that. So far it appears that the current state of SETI is about where it was the last time I looked, a couple of decades ago, though Davies does have some intriguing ideas about where it might conceivably go.  Conceivably.  Maybe.  Hypothetically.

But right now I want to gripe about a famous quotation from Calvin and Hobbes, that Davies uses as an epigraph to chapter 4: "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."  Davies ascribes it to "Bill Watterson, cartoonist," but what the hell, I know that white people find it difficult to distinguish between a writer and the words he puts into the mouths of his characters, and I wouldn't be surprised if Calvin was speaking for his creator there.

What bothers me about the quotation is its nerdy contempt for all human beings except the speaker.  I've written before about this
misanthropic dismissal of human intelligence.  The most extreme case I can think of was someone on the first computer BBS I frequented, back in the mid-1980s.  He said that he didn't think there was such a thing as human intelligence; there might, he allowed, be such a thing as real intelligence somewhere else in the universe, but not among Homo Sap, and not on this planet.  That was interesting in so many ways.  First off, since he wasn't intelligent by his own assumption, why should anyone take him seriously?  We're all dumb here -- you're dumb too, or you wouldn't be here.  Second, "intelligence" is something that most of us ascribe to human beings, and to a lesser extent to other animals.  It has no meaning except as a trait human beings have, and until we actually encounter "intelligent" extraterrestrial organisms, we won't have a basis for comparison anyway.  It's sort of like saying that there's no such thing as human beauty, except that we human beings do perceive beauty in other animals, in plants, in inorganic things (from quartz crystals to the Grand Canyon), in natural phenomena like sunsets or the night sky.  I suppose that a human being could decide that no human beings are beautiful, that only seal-point Siamese cats or the Andromeda galaxy are really beautiful; but I would reply that while it's fine for him, I (like many other people) do find many human beings beautiful.  Beauty, like intelligence or goodness, is in the eye of the beholder.  If everybody is ugly, then nobody's beautiful; if everybody's dumb, then nobody's dumb.  Or at least, some are dumber than others.
Hand in hand with this attitude goes the assumption that if real intelligence comes along, whether extraterrestrial or computer-driven, the misanthropic nerd will get to be its BFF.  It's partly a religious fantasy as well as a racist one, of being Chosen and finally Rescued / Raptured from the inferior herd by the Truly Cool People from Outer Space, or Cyberspace, or Heaven, or what you will.

Thinking of this made me wonder, not for the first time, why so many people are so eager to know that there are other people -- preferably superior, though not so superior that they won't be super-nice to us when we finally meet -- elsewhere in the universe.  True, it would be interesting to know, though as Noam Chomsky pointed out in another context, Society is happily in ignorance of insignificant matters of all sorts.  (Yes, I consider the existence of extra-terrestrial life an insignificant question in the present state of our ignorance.)  One of the recurring themes is that it would be bad to be "alone," though again this doesn't seem like a very pressing concern compared to war, poverty, hunger, and disease on this planet.  Since human beings don't get along with each other as well as we ought, why do we need more species to not get along with?  It's like the desire to colonize other planets because we've about ruined this one.

Even if we do discover that there are civilizations in other solar systems or galaxies, it is extremely unlikely, to the point of certainty, that we would be able to communicate with them or they with us, let alone go for a visit.  Some people might find it comforting to know that there are other people in the universe, but at least as many would feel threatened -- despite the minimal, not to say nonexistent nature of the threat -- and would start trying to gin up concern about defending ourselves against the Andromedans.  Others would start collecting money to send missionaries to those poor benighted aliens who don't know Jesus.  As I say, I consider the question whether there is life in other solar systems to be insignificant, and I feel sure it's a distraction for most people who think it's important.

Then there was the quotation in the meme above, which was shared on Facebook by a former co-worker, newly retired.  The very term "common sense" always gets my back up, for reasons I've gone into before, but the meme made me giggle because, as I suspected, my friend had no idea who Robert G. Ingersoll was.  He was a famous 19th-century Freethinker, the most popular speaker in America in his day, known as "the Great Agnostic."  It's safe to say that his idea of common sense was very different from my former co-worker's, who's a mushy Cafeteria Christian with common-sense middle-American politics and attitudes.  She's a very nice person, but she wouldn't have gotten along with Ingersoll.  He was, for instance, a prominent abolitionist too, and while as a decent white American born in the middle of the twentieth century, my friend disapproves of slavery since it's a safely dead issue now, I doubt she'd have felt the same way had she been born in antebellum America.  I mean, slavery was just common sense in those days.

That's the thing about common sense: it may be common, but it's not very sensible.  I'm not sure whether the people (including the scientists) who are obsessed with knowing that We Are Not Alone have too much common sense, or too little, though so many of the arguments are couched in terms of common sense: the universe is so big and there are so many stars, there must be other planets and there must be people out there, it would totally suck if we were alone!  In a matter like this, there is no "must."  There's only evidence, and right now there isn't any.  I notice from Davies's book, which I finished reading over the weekend, that the proponents of SETI are still overstating what they know.  More on this later, I hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Saying No in Ways That Sound Like Yes

Thanks to Alas, a Blog, I found this curious essay at slacktivist.  The writer, Fred Clark, asks a useful question: The Biblical position on women's equality, especially in the churches, is still being debated after centuries, with no resolution in sight; so is the Biblical position on on homosexuality.
Given the apparent insolubility of those battles over clobber texts, it’s strange to consider that another similar argument — one far more heated and contentious — has simply vanished entirely. This was a fierce argument over biblical interpretation that split denominations and congregations, shaping and reshaping America’s churches, American culture and, ultimately, America’s Constitution. And then, abruptly, it just ended. It was settled, once and for all, and no credible person living today regards it as even slightly controversial.

I’m talking about slavery...
After summarizing some of the debate on slavery and the Bible from the 1800s, Clark concludes:
The dispute wasn’t resolved by exegesis or by theological argument. It was, rather, as Mark Noll wrote, “left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.”
That's cute, but it overlooks a few things.  Yes, it took the most horrific war in history up to that time, with 600,000 or so dead and many more wounded and maimed, to bring slavery to an end -- in the United States.  In England, by contrast, slavery was abolished in 1833 by act of Parliament without resort to warfare.  As this timeline from Wikipedia indicates, the US is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the abolition of slavery.  If Clark were serious about the biblical and theological aspects of slavery, a look at how they were handled in England and other Christian countries would be instructive.  (I notice that the next day, he posted about American exceptionalism, though I haven't bothered to read that one.  But his post on slavery is a textbook case of American exceptionalism: it's all about Us, and outside our borders no one has dealt with this issue at all.  I daresay he knows better -- but in this post he chose not to know better.)

Did the Civil War resolve "what in fact the Bible meant" about slavery?  It did not.  It would be interesting to follow the theological discussion of slavery in the US after 1865, and see just when biblical defenses of slavery were abandoned.  Although slavery was formally abolished de jure, it survived de facto in various forms, and white supremacy was defended on Biblical grounds well into the twentieth century. 

Still, as far as the US is concerned, the blogger is more or less correct: hardly any American Christian nowadays will defend slavery on biblical grounds, and most Christians try to ignore the biblical evidence, and explain it away if they must confront it.  (The same is true of secular rationalizations of slavery: I've argued before that drapetomania, a purported disease which caused slaves to run away from their masters, does not seems to have been proven bogus so much as abandoned in embarrassment.)

In sum, Clark writes,
That’s a huge, enduring problem for American Christianity. For one thing, it doesn’t offer any potential approach for resolving other theological and interpretive disputes. Opponents of women’s equality will continue to cite 1 Timothy 2:12 as authoritative proof that they are right, while advocates of women’s equality will offer alternative interpretations, but neither side will have the option of settling the matter definitively by burning Atlanta.

But the larger problem is this: We have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth. Yet, because we choose not to explore why or how they were wrong, we are unable to learn from their grievous mistake. We have no way of knowing whether or not we are, in fact, repeating their mistake. We have no way of avoiding such a repetition.
Now, this confuses me.  Even if we could burn Atlanta, would it really 'settle the matter' of women or homosexuals in the church?  I don't think it would, and I don't believe that Fred Clark believes it either.  As he acknowledges, the question of slavery wasn't really settled but abandoned by American Christians; I don't think that's really the outcome he wants for other issues.

I'm especially confused by the claim that "we have concluded that some of our foremost and most influential theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars were utterly wrong about a monumentally important matter of biblical truth."  I can't tell for sure, but I guess he means that virtually all twenty-first century Christians now believe that slavery is wrong, and I guess he believes that he regards the contrary view as held by "some of our foremost theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars" is a "mistake."  Or maybe the mistake lay in letting the Civil War settle the issue of slavery: American religious thinkers and teachers abandoned their obligation to determine "biblical truth" for themselves.  But he seems to have lost the thread of the argument.

There are two separate questions here.  The one on the table, so to speak, is whether slavery is wrong according to the Bible.  There is no reason to think so, as Clark more or less admits.  The other question is whether slavery is wrong (or right, for that matter), regardless of what the Bible says about it.  I think Clark confuses the issues, and that's why the article as a whole makes little sense.

By "clobber passages" Clark means the parts of the Bible that treat slavery as morally unproblematic, an institution to be regulated but not abolished, and indeed a model for the relationship between the believer and Christ.  He also means the parts of the Bible that assume or explicitly endorse male supremacy, the subordination of women.  But these are not isolated passages which can be used to "clobber" critics who reject these practices and principles: they permeate the Bible from beginning to end.  (The passages relating to male homosexuality, by contrast, are relatively isolated, but there is really no Biblical material that counters them.)  This is relatively uncontroversial; no honest scholar would deny that the Bible treats slavery and male supremacy as unproblematic, and I've noticed that numerous gay Christian apologists admit that the Bible treats male homosexuality as a serious sin even as they try to explain away the problem ("clobber") passages.

The question, then, is not 'what the Bible says' about these issues -- that's clear enough -- but what to do about aspects of the Bible that modern Christians can no longer accept as authoritative.  There are many of them, not limited to these three issues, and not all Christians today reject them.  But Clark seems to think that if we could just really understand what the Bible says, we could resolve these theological and interpretive disputes.  I think the English scholar and theologian Dennis E. Nineham identified the problem in The Use and Abuse of the Bible (Harper & Row, 1976, p. 205):
If I may quote Leonard Hodgson again, it must be on the understanding that quoted out of context he may seem to be saying more than he intended to; or should I say that he spoke more wisely than he knew?  'For too long,' he writes, 'study of the biblical writers (and, for the matter of that, of patristics, scholastics, reformers and the rest) has been based on the assumption that someone, somewhere, at some time in the past, really knew the truth, that what we have to do is find out what he thought and get back to it.'  It may be significant that this statement occurs in Hodgson's last book; for years he had been moving towards it.  My only doubt is whether even in the end he applied it with quite sufficient rigour either to Jesus or to the architects of trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy.
What Nineham is talking about here is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which most people confuse with "literalism."  It holds that the Bible, properly understood, is without error, and that if there seems to be something wrong with the Bible, it's really the reader or interpreter who has gone wrong.  Very non-literal interpretation is necessary to get rid of the inconvenient material. No issue can be resolved with this approach.  If you start at your end point -- the conclusion you want to reach -- only those who agree about the conclusion will find your interpretation plausible, and your critics will easily show what you got wrong. That accounts for most of the endless debate Clark laments, I think. It also indicates why that debate won't end.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann also addressed this issue a quarter century before Nineham, in his book The Faith of a Heretic.  (I'm quoting from the 1963 Anchor paperback edition.)  In a print debate with the philosopher Karl Jaspers, the influential Protestant scholar and theologian Rudolf Bultmann asked rhetorically: "He [i.e., Jaspers] is as convinced as I am that a corpse cannot come back to life and rise from his tomb ... What, then, am I to do when as a pastor, preaching or teaching, I must explain texts ... ?  Or when, as a scientific theologian, I must give guidance to pastors with my interpretation?" (quoted by Kaufmann, 95).  Kaufmann commented:
Up to this point, Bultmann had generally referred to "the Easter event," and students had debated just what, according to Bultmann, had happened at the first Easter.  Now Bultmann let the cat out of the bag, not only about one particular belief but about the nature of theology ... 

Bultmann, asked about eternal torture in a conversation, said that on that subject he agreed with Lessing.  He had every right to expect that a younger colleague, no less than a student, would proceed to the nearest library and begin reading through a set of Lessing's works, in search of the crucial passage.  After the first ten volumes, he could safely be expected to give up.  Encouraged by my American training, however, I asked: "And what did Lessing say?"  The great theologian hesitated, then allowed that Lessing had once said somewhere that if even a single soul were in eternal torment he would certainly refuse to go to heaven.  It would seem, then, that Bultmann disbelieves in any form of eternal punishment.  In his huge Theology of the New Testament, hell and eternal damnation are simply ignored.

This refusal to let one's No be a No is one of the central characteristics of theologians no less than of committed Communists.  One does not emphasize one's points of disagreement with tradition or the scriptures; instead one emphasizes points of agreement and sidesteps embarrassing issues by raising questions of exegesis.  As a consequence, the agreement among committed believers is, to a surprisingly large extent, apparent only ...

[An American Protestant theologian like Paul] Tillich, like [Reinhold] Niebuhr, shares few of [Billy] Graham's religious beliefs ... But, like Bultmann, they say No in ways that sound like Yes [95-97].
One of the first commenters on Clark's post wrote sarcastically:
Gosh, if only there were an all good, all powerful being who loved us deeply that could manifest itself and bring clarity to these sorts of issues. That would certainly help end a lot of arguments.
To which another commeter replied, apparently in all seriousness:
If only he had. But, he didn't clarify. He, in fact, made the law into a square circle that institutionized racism, sexism, and slavery and also commanded love and the golden rule. At no point does the bible even theoretically acknowledge a conflict. So, for biblical literalists, or at least those who believe God made the old law based on perfect morality, you're stuck trying to square that circle of being both loving and oppressive.
If Jesus existed, was God made manifest, and was morally perfect, and wanted this clear, he had ample opportunity to clarify the evils of slavery, of making women into a second class of person, etc. At ,east according to the bible, he did not make use of that opportunity.
So, yeah, it would have been nice, for Christianity, had Jesus clarified the matters.
From there the discussion turned largely into a debate about the historical reliability of the gospels, but that's not really important here.  I'm more interested in the fact that these people clearly want to see Jesus and the Bible as authoritative guides to morality, and they expect God's morality to agree with theirs, but it doesn't seem to occur to the second commenter that Jesus might not have bothered to "clarify" matters like slavery, not only because he agreed with the status quo of his time and place, but because he didn't see these issues as important matters of biblical truth. 

According to the gospels, Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God was "at hand," that is, it was going to be established on earth ("as it is in heaven") within the lifetimes of most of his followers.  (The rest of the New Testament is built on this assumption.  I'm not as informed on the "gnostic" scriptures as I am on the canonical ones, but they don't seem any more concerned with social justice, as opposed to individual spiritual purity, than the New Testament is.)  What mattered was not working for social justice but making oneself ready for the coming judgment, which would not be based on whether one owned slaves or allowed women to preach, but on other criteria that aren't spelled out coherently in the New Testament.  This doctrine is summed up in a well-known problem passage, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7 and parallels).

These issues can't be resolved for modern Christians by biblical interpretation.  The Bible (leaving aside the absurdity of referring to the Bible as it were a person with a single point of view, but that's the convention) has no objection to slavery, the subjugation of women, the devaluation of homosexuality, and so on.  That doesn't mean modern Christians must agree with all of the Bible; no Christians ever have.  The problem, once again, is not "literalism" but inerrancy, and liberal, even radical Christians still can't seem to shake the assumption that the Bible, properly understood, has all the answers.  This leaves them closer in principle to fundamentalists than either faction wants to think.  Some Christian thinkers, like Nineham, James Barr and others, tried to move away from inerrancy, but most Christians continue to try to fine-tune it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Love Me, Love My Wisdom; or, My Mama Told Me You Better Shop Around

[Another one from my drafts folder; I'll have more to say about Plato at the Googolplex after I read more of it.]

Everybody does philosophy, if that word refers to asking questions about the Meaning of It All, and it does.  In that sense, every child is a philosopher, except that children have questions but no answers, and no idea how to get answers except to ask adults -- whose answers are often inadequate.  "Philosophy," then, means the process of learning to ask questions and evaluate the answers, both those given by others and those that one invents oneself.  One of Nietzsche's better aphorisms was "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

"Philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom," but that doesn't begin to define what philosophy is about.  One of Merriam-Webster's definitions for "wisdom" is "the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand", which seemed odd to me at first until I considered the possibility that many people probably do think of wisdom that way, as something that people just have naturally, instead of something they acquired through hard mental work.  Which implies that other people just naturally don't have it.

Most of us, I think, want answers, and get impatient with the process of acquiring them.  If one teacher doesn't have the answer, they'll find another one, and it's easy enough to find teachers who peddle answers.  What's harder, for the big questions, is finding someone who has the right answerBut for many questions there are no right answers, which bothers most people even more.

And here I discover again what a naïf I am at heart: I believe that most people could learn to understand why some answers to big questions are wrong, why we find those questions so hard to answer, and why there really may be no right answers to them.  That's what I mean by doing philosophy beyond the mere asking of questions: learning to evaluate answers.  To be honest, I don't know whether most people can learn to do that very well, but I believe it would be worth trying.  I know, of course, that not everyone agrees with me.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (Pantheon, 2014) looks like an attempt to make philosophy accessible to the ordinary reader; I'm not so sure.  In large part it's Goldstein's attempt to produce some Platonic/Socratic dialogues for the twenty-first-and-a-tenth century, and so far -- I've read the first dialogue -- I'm not impressed.  This doesn't speak so badly for Goldstein, because most such efforts that I've read have not worked well, but I hoped she might do better than this. As a professor of philosophy and a novelist she's eminently qualified for the project, but I'm having trouble getting a handle on what she thinks she's doing. The book's conceit is that Plato has somehow appeared in the present and is going on a book tour, beginning with an appearance at the Googleplex in California, described by his tour wrangler (or "media escort" as she calls herself).  Cheryl the media escort gets drawn into a philosophy lesson by her charge, and I think Goldstein makes Cheryl too clueless, with no idea who Plato is, why he wears a chiton and sandals, and the like.  But the exchange is about the issue I'm writing about today, namely the relation between hoi aristoi (the excellent, who are few) and hoi polloi (the many, who are at best mediocre).

Goldstein's Plato argues, as he did 2500 years ago, that it's proper to look to experts in how to live a good life, just as we look to experts in orthodontia to straighten our children's teeth, and so on.  I should probably qualify that: as Goldstein explains, there's no agreement as to Plato's actual views on this or any other philosophical question he wrote about.  People who've spent years reading and discussing him disagree on his views, though each is confident that they know them.  But the idea of deferring to experts in the good life has generally been seen as Plato's view, partly because he himself seems to have tried to train up a philosopher-king during his career (which indicates that he thought it would be a good idea), and partly because philosophers have often liked to think they were the experts he postulated.  I admit, though, that Plato may have had mixed feelings about the issue.  Even in the dialogues I've read (and shame on me for not having read them all), he sometimes uses Socratic questioning to lead to an impasse, the kind of no-answer I've mentioned here. I think that may very be the case with the idea of looking to experts on the Good. (Next reading project: the works of Plato.)

The trouble with looking to experts on the Good is finding them in the first place.  They disagree among themselves, often vehemently.  Plato seems to have dealt with this little difficulty by accusing his competitors of bad faith.  These are now known as sophists, and supposedly they were men who did philosophy for money and entertainment.
The Sophists held no values other than winning and succeeding. They were not true believers. They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that "might makes right". They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost. They made a business of education and profited from it.
That's the standard line on the sophists, and it sets off my bullshit detector.  And not only mine -- some philosophers have suspected that the standard line is a caricature, rather like Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates himself as a sophist in The Clouds.  (Plato's dialogues were probably written partly as defenses and rehabilitations of Socrates, much as the gospels were written partly to defend Jesus against certain charges that had been leveled against him.)  And if Plato didn't believe every position he seemed to advocate in his dialogues, doesn't that mean he was not a "true believer"?  As for "pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost", see Plato's doctrine of the "noble lie" in The Republic.

But even leaving the sophists out of it, modern philosophers disagree not merely on details but on basic aspects about the questions they study and debate.  Claiming that one approach or answer is motivated just to make money is intellectually lazy.  (Which is no doubt why such claims are so popular.)  To a great extent it's also irrelevant: if I say that 2 plus 2 equals 4 because someone paid me to, it has no bearing on the accuracy of the arithmetic.  (Nor, against another popular tactic, does it matter if I say 2 plus 2 equals 4 simply because I"m an asshole who likes to argue.  But then, being an asshole who likes to argue is virtually a necessary qualification to be a philosopher.)  So even if the sophists taught and argued in bad faith, the validity or invalidity of their arguments is a separate question; and the same applies to Socrates and Plato, that even if they were motivated by a pure disinterested love of wisdom, it wouldn't guarantee the validity of their arguments.  One of the first things you must learn in critical thinking is how to cut through the various kinds of obfuscation, deliberate or unintentional, in an argument to get at and analyze its actual core.