February 2009


Evil Christians

A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a fight.

— Robert Frost.

Sen. Dave Schultheis, of Colorado Springs, on Wednesday opposed a bill requiring pregnant women to be tested for HIV so that if they are infected their babies can be treated to prevent the virus’s transfer.

“This stems from sexual promiscuity for the most part, and I just can’t go there,” he said.

“We do things continually to remove the consequences of poor behavior, unacceptable behavior, quite frankly. I’m not convinced that part of the role of government should be to protect individuals from the negative consequences of their actions.”

This is the kind of cruelty and meanness that we have come to expect from the Christians claiming the high moral ground in today’s political debates.  It obviously makes no  sense whatsoever: the bill isn’t about “protecting individuals from the negative consequences of their actions” at all;  it’s about protecting children from the consequences of their mother’s actions (which are assumed to have been sinful, on the ignorant assumption that only bad people get AIDS.)

Schultheis went on:

“What I’m hoping is that yes, that person may have AIDS, have it seriously as a baby and when they grow up, but the mother will begin to feel guilt as a result of that. The family will see the negative consequences of that promiscuity and it may make a number of people over the coming years … begin to realize that there are negative consequences and maybe they should adjust their behavior. We can’t keep people from being raped. We can’t keep people from shooting each other. We can’t keep people from jumping off bridges. People drink and drive, and they crash and kill people. Poor behavior has its consequences.”

According to his site,  Schultheis is  member of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. He has merged vengeful Christianity with social Darwinism to produce a weird and toxic stew of punitive meanness. When he wished AIDS on an unborn child, that was just more evidence (as if we needed it) that Right-to-Lifers don’t care about “saving preborn children”, but only want to punish lewd women.

The liberal argument against Schultheis normally deadends at this point in singularly unconvincing assertions that religion has no place in politics and that moral judgments are purely personal and should never be imposed on others.

But why? Why not just say that Schultheis is not good at all, but instead evil, and that his gross errors of logic are not innocent, but are motivated by self-serving meanness,  and that he is using his supposed religious beliefs to defend his selfishness and to justify his vicious cruelty? Why should we not just say that Schultheis is a moral leper and that no decent person should associate him ever again?

Schultheis has his scripture:

The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

but I have mine:

In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.

In the days of the patriarchs the Hebrews were a tribal people and believed that collective guilt was passed from father to son and from mother to daughter — a belief that still motivates honor killings and blood feuds in the more backward areas of the Middle East. The first Bible reading above expresses the archaic and horrible view that Schultheis still holds, but (as seen in the second reading), this belief was rejected by the prophets already in Old Testament times.  Schultheis’s viciousness does not come from religion at all: he uses the Bible as a shield to protect his own meanness.

As far as I know no Christian denomination explicitly holds that an evildoer can escape punishment for his evil deeds by professing Christianity. However, Christian evildoers inevitably hope for that, and not all churches are scrupulous about telling their parishioners that belief is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, many sin-and-repent churches actively recruit evildoers to mobilize them against unbelievers and “lax” Christians — not merely forgiving the Christian evildoers their past sins, but also egging them on to further cruelty in the name of the Lord.

Schultheis is only one such person, a thug of God and bullyboy of holiness. Men of God are reluctant to admit that virtuous unbelievers are more blessed than evil Christians, and too many men of the cloth turn a blind eye to the evils and cruelties for which their brutish  Christian soldiers are responsible.

But American liberals have committed themselves so completely to technical solutions, value-neutrality, relativism, laxness, personal liberation, and non-judgmentality that they are unable to call evil Christians evil. Only a few politically-committed Christian groups are willing to do so, and the secular world, which believes that only right-wing Christians are real Christians, will not listen to them.

Many secular liberals, God bless their hearts, think that all Christians are (not evil, obviously, but…) wrong and harmful.  The problem with this view is that it’s only convincing to other secular liberals, and besides that, doesn’t pick out the evil Christians from the others. Other secular liberals try to argue against evil Christians from a practical, prudential, consequentialist point of view,  as though they were dealing with a rational disagreement about policy, but this isn’t really strong enough when you’re talking about someone like Schultheis — it’s like someone telling Hitler about the economic costs of genocide. (And then, some secular liberals and secular moderates  are squishy, and think that we should try to understand evil Christians, and try to dialogue with them….)

If you talk about Schuldheit from within a moral framework, rather than  talking about church and state, or about “What works?”, or about tolerance and open-mindedness, you’ll be talking about the main thing wrong with what Schuldheit said, and you might also be able to convince people that Schuldheit is not just mistaken, but unforgivably vicious, and you will be able to do this without having to convert them entirely to the secular liberal point of view.

But in order to do this, you’d need to be willing to speak judgmentally about cruelty and evil.

Update (edited comment response)

What I’m trying to do is to deny evil Christians the moral high ground, rather than treating this as a secular-religious dispute, or as a dispute between moralism and tolerance.

It’s not true that non-evil Christians do not speak up against these things; it’s just that the media doesn’t find a story there, so no one hears about it.

Treating this as a secular-religious dispute or as a dispute between moralism and tolerance leaves the battle lines right where they’ve been for decades, whereas I’m proposing that we attack evil Christians at their supposed strong point — their morality.

Historically, almost everyone during almost all of history have been religious to some degree, so the assertion that almost all evil has been done by believers is probably mostly true. But an investigation of the irreligious exceptions does not fail to find irreligious monsters.

If you want to attack evil Christians as such, you have to grant the validity of moralizing, but because of their commitments  to freedom, personal liberation, or  objective science, many liberals and radicals  deny its validity.

[The earlier defective and unfinished ending of this piece has been revised and expanded .]


(more…)

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Among educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR people, a lot of the time the argument goes meta:

Me: The bankrupt bankers are unbelievably arrogant. The beggars seem to think they still own the world.

Educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person: Well, they’re in a tight situation. A lot of people are gunning for them, and they have to protect themselves somehow. Extorting several trillion dollars from the government by threatening to bring the world economy crashing down was really the only card they had in their hand. I’d say that they’ve played it remarkably well.

This is a good example of the difference between the apodictic reading of a proposition and the problematological reading. From the apodictic point of view, the sophisticated person’s response is adequate. It looks at the face of the proposition itself and answers it based on its meaning, in the context of the tacit (apodictic) background assumptions of the person answering.

Problematologically, however, this response is wrong. The unexpressed context is misread, possibly deliberately*. That is to say, the question to which my statement was an answer was not recognized.

My statement was not answering the question “What would a normally rational, self-interested person do if they were caught leeching billions of dollars from their supposed employer during a period when they were making enormous blunders causing the enterprise to go bankrupt and collapse?”

The question my statement was answering was instead “Why do a few bankers need to be impaled and left out in the hot sun until they expire, in order to give the remaining bankers a clearer understanding of their new place in the world?”

Thus, the educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person’s response was mistaken.

In my first statement, I had left out the context — i.e., had made an apodictic statement — because I had assumed that every normal human being thought as I did. I found this assumption not to be true when the sophisticated person responded as they did. However, responding directly to the sophisticated person’s clueless statement would have been a big mistake, since doing so would have involved me in a pointless, interminable argument about the wrong question. What I needed to do instead was to explicate the problematological context of my original statement, making it explicit rather than apodictic (assumed).

And that’s what I just did.

* “Possibly deliberately” is inexact. It is true that for skilled, self-aware quibblers and confusionists, deliberately misreading the problematology of a question is a primary tactic. However, the phrase “possibly deliberately” makes it seem that the other alternatives are innocent — merely  accidental, careless, or ignorant. This is not usually the case. For educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR persons, the particular sort of problematological misreading I just exhibited is second nature, part of the very structure of their being, and in fact is the difference defining their species. This particular sort of problematological misreading is essential:  whenever we see it, we know that we are talking to an educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person.

*****

This has been a very brief introduction to the philosophy of Michel Meyer. Rhetoric, Language, and Reason (Penn State, 1994) is a good, still short, but considerably longer introduction. It should be noted, however, that Meyer does not advocate impaling anyone.**

**Nor do I! This has been a purely hypothetical example used entirely for the purpose of exhibiting an instance of problematological confusion. Naive commonfolk dabbling in philosophy customarily fixate on the arbitrary example and miss the real point — another instance of problematological error. They have to realize that the fat man and the trolley car are merely constructions of the mind and do not actually exist, and that the truth being expressed is on the higher, transcendent plane.

One well may wonder how Meyer feels about the fact that his most enthusiastic internet disciple is a scurrilous political polemicist.

Felix Salmon (via Brad DeLong):

The damage was foreseeable and, in fact, foreseen. In 1998, before Li had even invented his copula function, Paul Wilmott wrote that “the correlations between financial quantities are notoriously unstable.” Wilmott, a quantitative-finance consultant and lecturer, argued that no theory should be built on such unpredictable parameters. And he wasn’t alone. During the boom years, everybody could reel off reasons why the Gaussian copula function wasn’t perfect. Li’s approach made no allowance for unpredictability.

From this and other scattered things I’ve read, this sounds like a fatal organizational problem, ascribable to  managerial bad judgment culpably motivated by greed and toxic optimism.

The finance people couldn’t understand the math, or refused to, so they ignored the nitpicky warnings from the mathematicians. The quants may not have understood the economic and financial aspects, or maybe they also  just didn’t care, since they were having the best paydays of their lives. In any case, there was an enormous pathology at the quant-finance interface.

Everyone involved saw the bonus checks rolling in, and maybe they just decided that the problems with the Gaussian copula formula probably really weren’t very important, because of complexity or emergence or disseminated intelligence or consilience or the cosmic vortex or the Aquarian Age or the singularity or  some other reason which they also didn’t understand. Not their department. Nobody’s department.

And then BOOM! Half of everything was gone, and the joke was on us.

I don’t understand a bit of the math, but as it turned out, neither did they. Another joke on us!

I love the Three Stooges.

*****

Should there be pee testing?

Atrios says (in response to this post at Obsidian Wings): But one day I hope this country grows up and recognizes that the fear that maybe someone is getting something I’m not and they don’t deserve shouldn’t be the primary philosophy of governance.

I’ve read two autobiographical books by Nobelist James Buchanan, a major figure in public choice economics and the brains behind Welfare Cadillac Republicanism, and there’s ample evidence that his primary philosophy of governance is exactly what Atrios was talking about. He came from a gentry family in a bigoted area of the former Confederacy, and he left the Democratic party in 1948 during the Dixiecrat rebellion. There’s plenty of evidence besides that, too.

The Welfare Cadillac meme is powerful propaganda because everyone can think of someone they know personally who a.) they hate, b.) is a moocher and a scrounge, and c.) benefits from a government program that many other, better people do not benefit from. It doesn’t have to be racist; it could be an acquaintance, neighbor, or even a relative. (This is the Republican politics of envy).

Because they’re very concrete and vivid, people like that are the ideal anti-welfare state poster children. They are especially useful for the anonymous, faceless scam artists systematically looting the government for much larger amounts of cash. (Public choice economists seem to have been infinitely less vigilant about looting by deregulation and privatization.)

The best way for Democrats to shunt this question aside would be to make examples of a lot of individuals in finance: make them famous, destroy their reputations forever, and repeat a simple story line over and over again for weeks on end, as though they were so many OJ Simpsons.

Of course, that could never happen. First, all of the media are owned by malefactors of great wealth. Second, the Democratic Party itself is owned by malefactors of great wealth. And third, it would be populist to do something like that, and Hofstadter has taught all good Democrats that populists are Nazis.

So we’ll have to make do with the second-best plan, which is to trust ourselves to the “shit happens” theory of history and hope that things turn out well.

“I guess we should nationalize the banks after all”,  said Greenspan. “Recent events have been very interesting and unexpected. They’ve certainly surprised me, but of course, if you know what the answers are going to be, you don’t need to do the experiment.”

“I’m reminded of a story about Thomas Edison’s early attempts to come up with the lightbulb”, he went on. “Edison had tried a thousand different elements, and all had failed. A colleague asked him if he felt his time had been wasted, since he had discovered nothing. ‘Hardly,’ Edison answered. ‘I have discovered a thousand things that don’t work.’ ”

“So Jeffrey Sachs does one experiment in Russia and finds one thing that doesn’t work, and Domingo Cavallo does another experiment in Argentina and finds another thing that doesn’t work, and the Mont Pelerin Society does another experiment in Iceland and finds yet another thing that doesn’t work, and it’s all good! We’re all contributing to the same  research program. It’s just part of the march of science.”

“If we’re allowed to continue our work, without interference from Luddites and know-nothings, sooner or later we’ll certainly find something that works.  There’s never been a better time to be an economist than right now!”

Ethel the Blog, the best blog ever, is back from an extended break.  I already had him on my sidebar (yes, him), but let this be the official announcement. He sees finance about as I do, but is better informed.

His present post is about bankruptcy for profit, as described by Akerlof and Romer more than a decade ago.

Instead of a Finance Czar, who’d inevitably be bamboozled by his evil court, I propose a roving band of unruly Finance Cossacks to wreak havoc on the sorry ass of Finance. This could have a sort of Roman Circus effect, reducing the possibility of social disorder by distracting the newly unemployed and homeless, who instead of grumbling about their own problems would be rejoicing about other people’s problems.

These would have to be semi-professional New Reform Cossacks trained to make no ethnic distinctions whatsoever during their rampages. (If they were completely professionalized, however, they’d lose much of their effectiveness. Rampaging and havoc are more art than science and can’t really be routinized or adequately described by written protocols.)

One of the hard things about modern finance, from a Cossack’s point of view, is that it’s so abstract that it’s almost impossible to plunder. Beyond the fact that a lot of finance is bankrupt anyway, it’s not like the Cossacks could carry off billions of dollars worth of tranches or commercial paper and monetize it. They’d have to be salaried, and incented with a system of bounties and bonuses.

Sure, we can expect these Finance Cossacks to take over the executive power sooner or later, the way the mostly-Turkish Mamluk soldier-slaves took over in Egypt. Hopefully they’ll be a little better than our present rulers, but who knows? I say go for it.

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