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I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Category: News (page 1 of 2)

Charlottesville

The other day, as I was patting myself on the back for not being a white supremacist, this story came to mind:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The point of contact is that then, as now, there were people who were despised and rejected because of their sins. Then, it was tax collectors: they were traitors, collaborators with the Roman occupiers, who moreover do not appear to have been particularly careful not to overcharge. These were the people whom everybody hated. They were despicable. I imagine that in every age, some group of people has fallen into that category. In my time, in my social circles, that place is occupied by Nazis and white supremacists. Of course they are despised. Of course they are the villains.

The moral insight to take from the parable is that it’s easy to pat yourself on the back for not being a white supremacist. It’s particularly easy if, like me, you were not raised in a racially charged environment, you weren’t raised in a racist family, you’re geographically distant from the situation, and (here’s a kicker) your cultural and socio-economic position is such that your go-to response is to mock the protestors for their cultural backwardness. There’s irony in, on the one hand, thoughtlessly recapitulating your (sub)culture’s attitude toward a despised group, and on the other hand, puffing yourself up by feeling morally superior to such people.

And so the first questions to ask are—and I address these questions to myself and to everyone else like me: “Really, what the hell? You need to take credit for not being a Klansman? What kind of person are you that that’s your point of comparison?”

The real point of the parable—and we can feel the force of it better by putting modern characters into it—is that when we pray, the white supremacist who prays “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” will be forgiven, and not the well-educated centrist evangelical who prides himself on not being that far gone. That’s what Jesus thinks of my feeling of moral superiority.

***

Event such as these produce anger, which produces a justifiable sense of, “This cannot be allowed to happen.” It’s the feeling one has when protecting one’s children. It’s as if this is what anger is for.

Anger is often channeled unproductively. A momentary outburst is less effective than a sustained effort. A thoughtful response is better than a hasty one. It’s more important to address the fundamental problem than to make a superficial attack.

Below, I have some thoughts about how our outbursts of rage are (in all likelihood) part of the plan of the people who organized this event; it’s playing into their hands. But I think that’s a superficial analysis of the situation, so I have just tacked it on to the end of the post.

How do we get to the fundamentals of this situation? How do we smash, not just the racists of this generation, but racism itself? It’s heart work. Here’s Solzhenitsyn:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

So the first step is self-examination. I’m hesitant to say a great deal about this, because it’s a very personal matter. It’s easy to make disingenuous accusations. A self-aware person can probe his/her beliefs and attitudes.

Intellectually, there is an occasion to reexamine our reasons for rejecting racism. To speak frankly, I don’t believe that most people’s moral convictions rest on much more than social convention. On the one hand, it seems odd to interrogate the beliefs of a non-racist; but on the other hand, if the moral reasoning is sound, we can bring it to light and reaffirm our commitments by becoming more aware of their foundations. For me, the foundational truth is that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); there is no mention of race in that verse, and men and women are explicitly included in the formulation (avoiding, if it need be said, a crude anthropomorphic masculinism). Throughout the Bible, only one race has received special attention from God; which He created for the purpose, out of nothing, as it were; and in the fullness of time even that distinction was smashed, as had been the purpose from the beginning (Genesis 15, all of Paul, etc.). So there is no basis for racial distinction, for the Christian.

In the other-centered ethos of the New Testament, we need next to consider the needs of others. The obvious starting point is the family. Any parent has an obvious moral obligation to address issues such as these with his/her children.

Outside of our own families, I think it’s fair to say that things get murkier. Being what we are, we need particularly to ask ourselves whether a given action benefits ourselves, or other people.

The immediate desire is to vomit the emotion onto Facebook, either to criticize and vilify, or to express solidarity. A reasonably self-aware person will as himself: whose interests does this serve? Am I trying to build up or correct others, or am I venting, or creating a little display of my own righteousness?

I don’t mean to say that venting is always inappropriate. When I smash my thumb with a hammer, I swear as loudly as the next person. I assume that venting has its place in a normal psyche; we just need to recognize it for what it is.

Creating little displays of righteousness is, of course, neither natural nor innocent. Righteous indignation becomes self-indulgent very quickly. Awareness of that danger alone will require even a minimally self-aware person to question his own motivations.

So then, the question we need to ask is how we can actually help other people. I think there are two subparts to this question. First, who can we realistically help? Second, how can we help them?

Who can we help? I think we need to be realistic and modest in our aims. How many people I am in a position to impact positively—whether offering an expression of solidarity, or a word of exhortation or correction? That is to say, for how many people would it be more about them than about me feeling good about myself? Let’s think first about offering correction or exhortation.

Here’s one way to ask the question: How many people are there who have enough respect for me to be challenged by what I have to say, and would be uncertain about my attitudes towards white supremacists? I think I can offer a pretty accurate estimate: zero. I don’t think there’s anywhere out there thinking to himself, “Wow, Adam’s a thoughtful guy and I try to take what he says seriously; I’d really like to hear his thoughts on whether whites are an inherently superior race, and whether that should be somehow reflected in our social and political structures.” On that basis, I conclude that my angry denunciations of racism on Facebook are unlikely to make much positive impact on the views of racists.

(So, to get self-referential: this blog is more or less about books and ideas that have influenced my own thinking, and that I think might have a positive impact on people who are (in my imagination) either in my sphere of influence, or developing along a parallel path.)

Now, that’s me. People with different circles of acquaintances may have an opportunity to speak truth into the lives of people who have these racist attitudes. But even here, I think a gentle word is going to be more effective than a combative posture. And better than both would be the simple witness of a life lived without racial prejudice—which is of course not merely the absence of prejudice, or the non-use of racial epithets, but having as wide a range of acquaintances as one’s location permits. For me personally, the existence of a single person who truly exhibits a virtue is far more powerful than volumes written on the subject.

Next, comforting or expressing solidarity. When a group is attacked or maligned in public, along with anger, there is a desire to comfort the people who were attacked. As far as public statements go, I think there is an obvious place for people in leadership to make statements of support.

For private individuals, I think again that wisdom is needed. For me personally, blanket statements of support for my demographic (white, evangelical, or whatever) would not be meaningful; I can easily imagine that that’s atypical, however—I’m not a very sentimental person.

If a blanket statement is made, then I think it should be oriented toward affirming individuals, or the group, rather than trying to build solidarity against the group by criticizing the aggressor. (That’s not to say that the aggressor is not morally guilty.) I find that I am most embarrassed by my fellow evangelicals when they adopt a persecuted, circle-the-wagons mindset; I would not want to encourage that in other groups.

Yet even there, I think that the prospects of doing good are fairly slim. From my perspective, the really damaging thing about racism (or any demographic-based discrimination) is that it flattens individuals, making them no more than exemplars of a social category. Suppose somebody were to say, “Black people are terrible.” I could rebut that by saying, “No, black people are great,” but that may win the battle by losing the war: I’m validating the initial assumption that “black people” are a monolith about which we can make generalizations. I’m still flattening individuals by refusing to treat them as individuals.

(Obviously that last paragraph is dripping with Western individualism; in other cultures, results may vary. The basis for my observation is my own experience of being an ‘outsider’; even when people in the host culture receive me kindly, their perceptions of me are dominated by my demographics, not by who I am as a person.)

So my own thought is that the way to affirm individuals is by treating them as individuals. The uncomfortable corollary of this is that we can’t affirm people that we’re not in relationship with. That’s an uncomfortable result, but one that I think is pretty straightforward. Is it meaningful to me, not knowing any Croats, to express solidarity with Croats? I don’t think it is.

And so, if I find myself desiring to express solidarity with African Americans—in Charlottesville, or however widely I might wish to cast the net—but I am not in a position relationally to do so, then rather than condemning the men with crew-cuts and tiki torches (even though they are entirely in the wrong and will be subject to judgment), I should begin by examining my own life. In particular, how have my decisions have contributed to the social position I find myself in? Am I being called to make intentional decisions to change that?

In all of this I am self-accusing. I have posted more than my share of sanctimonious Facebook posts; I have fought with strangers who have made stupid comments about groups of people I know and care about. In college I confronted a man gluing posters onto a newspaper stand. And I always end up feeling pretty good about myself after all these things.

But who’s it all for? What’s my motivation? What should I really be doing to make a positive impact in the moral situation?

***

I have a few final reflections on the role of individual incidents in the media and cultural discourse.

The first is simply a reality check. Protests are contrived events. I don’t know all the details about Charlottesville, but clearly this one was planned far enough in advance for word to get around, and for there to be a counter-protest. The location was not incidental: Charlottesville is a liberal college town. It was a provocation; it worked. We need to appreciate that this is the political equivalent of WWF and The Jerry Springer Show. The protest was not technically unreal, but it was contrived: we should all be cautious about drawing conclusions about the broader society when people are putting on a show for us.

Two further observations come out of my time spent in the Muslim world.

The first is to issue a general caution against constructing cultural narratives from individual incidents. This is more-or-less the besetting epistemological sin of our age. This was a contrived event, but even if it were a spontaneous outburst of sentiment on the part of these people, we should be cautious about assuming that they represent a significant portion of the American population. We should also, frankly, avoid representing these events to ourselves as a conflict between “the Left” and “the Right”. Conservatives are not closeted Nazis or fascists, and liberals are not closeted communists. And even when we have a tasty news morsel, we can refrain from attributing nefarious hidden motives to our political adversaries. C.S. Lewis has wise words on our reaction to stories in the news:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

The second observation is to juxtapose this event to events caused by the Islamic State. Part of the avowed program of the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, IS, Da’esh, etc.) is to radicalize Muslims living in the West by making removing the cultural middle ground that makes it possible to be both a faithful Muslim and a member of a Western democracy. This is painfully simple. First, commit an atrocity. This will create a prejudice against Muslims in at least some small percentage of the non-Muslim population. Every suspicious look or second glace communicates the message: you will never belong. This makes it easier for Muslims in the West to become socially isolated and then radicalized. Properly promoted, a small event can lead to a large social fissure—or at least, that is the theory.

A corollary of this is that when people like you and I make dismissive comments in social media, we’re playing into the strategy of the people we’re trying to oppose. There is some person on the fringe of that movement, sitting on the fence, and a well-aimed barb from a stranger will push him further into it. (Why was The Joker such a compelling villain in The Dark Knight?) You are the pawn in someone else’s game, a useful idiot in their plan. That knowledge need not necessarily determine our response, but we should take it seriously into account.

How do you fight against that? Not how do you fight against the Islamic State (or “Unite the Right”), but how do you fight against the strategy that they’re using? How do you avoid exacerbating division?

The damnatio memoriae is, I think, not a bad place to start. What if somebody got beheaded in Syria and it didn’t become a meme? What if something ugly happened in Charlottesville, and the churches and the civic institutions came together to handle things on a local level? There are countless examples of media and social media making bad situations worse.

The best antidote to prejudice, however, is to get to know people. It’s said that travel is fatal to prejudice; I think that knowing people personally is more effective. The other side of this is in allowing other people to get to know you. It’s far easier to reach that conclusion logically than it would be to (gulp) get to know white supremacist—or a political conservative—or a political liberal—or a white—or a black—or a Muslim—or whomever you are tempted to despise. That’s the only way to be subversive in this situation.

In which the computer guesses my personality from my blog posts

A psychologist friend recently shared a story with me about calculating personality traits from social media, and using those results to influence election outcomes by allowing more targeted political advertising. It turns out that you can subject your psyche to this scrutiny for free online.  I was a little hesitant to volunteer my Facebook profile, but I didn’t see any harm in pasting in some of my blog posts to see what it came up with. (These were all written, of course, with no thought that they would be used as part of a personality test.)

I’ve posted the results of the Big 5 personality traits below, along with Myers-Briggs estimates, which were always INTJ or INTP (I have always thought I was an INTJ, but INTP isn’t a bad fit either).

My psychological gender was 95%-99% masculine, which made sense: not long ago I read an article that pointed out that female INTJs have difficulty being accepted because they think like (stereotypical) men. When I first read that, I suddenly realized the peculiar contradiction that I’ve never really struggled with my masculinity, even though I’m a poetry-loving non-athletic academic: in spite of not doing any stereotypically masculine things, I think like a (stereotypical) man.

In general, I’m impressed that it gives fairly consistent results—although this might not mean anything more than that I have a consistent writing style. In terms of personality, I am surprised to see consistent marks in the direction of “Liberal and Artistic”. The other dimensions are not particular surprising to me; some of them are right on the border of course.

Psalms (INTP)

The Idea of a University  (INTP)

A bit of sanity in an insane election cycle  (INTJ)

  • Odd that an essay that was trying to get people to stop freaking out showed me as more strongly ‘competitive’ and ‘impulsive and spontaneous’.
  • But this is also where the J in INTJ showed through most clearly, which perhaps suggests decisiveness following the election result. (?)

The Moral Vision of the New Testament  (INTJ)

A People’s History of the United States  (INTP)

  • If writing a negative review of A People’s History gets me the highest scoring for ‘Liberal and Artistic’, I think they must be using the 17th-century definition of ‘liberal’.
  • More ‘Competititve’ here perhaps because I was writing a negative review?

The best fail video of 2016—perhaps of all time  (INTP)

  • This post was mostly about funny stuff and fun memories. Perhaps that’s why I came across as more ‘Impulsive and Spontaneous’ and more ‘Laid back and Relaxed’?
  • Apparently I should watch more fail videos!

Make economic immigration radically easier, and build a wall  (INTP)

And here are my results from a personality test they have on their web site based on my responses to 100 statements.

Now, if we can assume that the two means of personality evaluation are both valid, the interesting points are:

  • I am more open in my writing than I am willing to admit to on a personality inventory.
  • I am more conscientious in my writing than I admit on the inventory, but also more neurotic.

This test also labeled me as an ISTJ, however, which I think is pretty far off.

And this has been the week’s dose of navel-gazing and self-absorption.

Fake News & Unavoidable Narratives

I attended a security meeting a few days ago, run by an international NGO whose sole purpose is to monitor the security situation and share that information with other NGOs. This NGO collates all of this information—mostly based on what NGOs share with them—and sends a list of them out weekly in spreadsheet format. That is the core product. (There are biweekly and quarterly reports that try to track trends in incident numbers in various regions of the country, but it’s fairly basic data processing.)

This is to say, the weekly reports I get from this organization are “just the facts.” That doesn’t make them infallible: the standard epistemological caveats apply. But if somebody’s detonated an IED, then we get a report that somebody detonated an IED: with little or no speculation as to motives, or the identity of the perpetrators. The reports are, I imagine, as close as we can get to objective news reporting.

In the notes I typed up for myself after the security roundtable, I wrote, “It’s difficult to create a narrative based on a lot of discrete data points.” That reflected my observation that the security NGO truly struggled to place the facts that they had collected into any sort of narrative context. It wasn’t for want of trying, but just about all they are able to say were things like, “Incidents are up X% in this province from last year,” or “Incidents are down Y% from three months ago.” And, tedious as those sorts of observations can be, I admire their intellectual humility in choosing not to create a narrative out of the facts for which they did not have evidence.

On the other hand, the security reports are utterly unreadable. In fact, until recently I was just ignoring them, because the barrage of facts made no sense to me. That’s because they had no narrative.

Humans process facts primarily through narratives. Without a narrative, it’s very difficult to hold a large number of facts together.  I was able to place my spreadsheet-of-facts into a narrative context by getting the data into Google Earth, grouped by week. All of a sudden, my brain could work with the data: the events were distributed spatially and with time. With some furious clicking I could create little animations of how (badly) things were going, and where. Even if my simple data visualization lacked some crucial narrative elements—I still don’t know who the actors are, and I don’t have a clear sense of their goals, beyond seeing where they choose to operate—it provides enough narrative scaffolding for me to make sense of the data.

If I were going to invest in a news media company, I would not invest in one that sent around weekly spreadsheets of events. News is only comprehensible to us because the facts of the situation are presented in the context of a narrative. A more nefarious way to express the idea of the last sentence is to say that successful news must be placed into a narrative of the media company’s choosing. So in this sense, “media bias” is unavoidable, not just with respect to the selection of facts, but also with respect to the narrative context in which the facts are placed. (This is probably where confirmation bias comes from.) So, for instance, atrocities committed by military personnel from various countries can be presented either as isolated atrocities, or as part of a larger narrative an injustice. In the American media, Syria and Russia tend to get the latter treatment. America got the gentler treatment in the earlier Bush years and in the Obama years. Or, if you can remember the news from 2015, there was a tremendous spate of stories about gun violence and shootings—despite the fact that gun violence was decreasing at that time.

In all eras, stories from media outlets have reflected the narratives that those outlets wish to promulgate (for instance, during World War II). It seems to me that in the 1990s, the growth of cable news added a market element in: consumers could choose who they wanted to get their news from. And then of course in the last fifteen years or so, social media has encouraged the formation of echo chambers. Fake news flows inevitably out of this situation. Once the echo chamber has been formed, all that is needed to satisfy our itching ears is a tiny narrative to fit into the larger one. The factuality of the incident is less important than the narrative resonances that it evokes.

Make economic immigration radically easier, and build a wall

The national conversation around immigration in the United States is like a needle in the eye to anyone who has an interest in rational discourse. Nevertheless, I am taking a shot at it, and I’m putting some of my thoughts into words. Heaven help me.

The proposal has two parts. The first is to make immigration (or temporary residence) for economic reasons trivially easy: for instance, admitting anyone without a felony conviction, who had an offer of employment from an American company. The second is to take action to secure America’s borders: with a wall, or electronic surveillance, or lots of boots on the ground, or whatever.

Free migration—From the economic perspective

The economic situation is extremely straightforward. There are businesses in America that need labor. There are people in the world who are willing to do it at the wages offered. There is almost nothing more to say. I believe that the labor shortage is real. I do not know Americans who are trying to get jobs picking vegetables, or processing chicken. I do not believe that people who employ immigrants illegally would take the trouble to (1) work across cultural boundaries, and (2) break the law, if they had a pool of American workers willing to do the work for the same wages.

If there is work to be done and people who want to do it, the employers and the employees will find a way to do it; more on that below. If we’re going to try to disrupt that with the power of the state, we need to have some pretty compelling reasons to do so. I, frankly, cannot think of any reasons that are unique to economic migrants.

I wrote “that are unique to economic migrants” because the poor are always a politically problematic group. The challenge of economic immigration is that, aside from the case of highly skilled workers, more economic migrants means more poor people. America has not been very successful in having a conversation about taxation, income redistribution, and the social safety net. But until ability-to-earn-money starts being distributed around our society in some more equal way, we will have the poor with us. Our national inability to come to some sort of understanding with ourselves should not prevent us from having a sensible immigration policy. We should not hesitate to employ people, simply because they belong to a different class.

One possible objection to the above paragraph relates to taxation. We’re in a situation in America where half of the country pays no income tax. (Social security tax, Medicare tax, and sales taxes are of course paid by everyone.) In such a situation, our society has a clear interest in minimizing the proportion of the population who benefit from state services, but do not pay for them. That is to say, it’s not great to have too many people in America like me: people who have never paid income tax because they’ve never made enough money to do so. But once again, I diagnose this as a problem inherent to our current regime of taxation, not to immigration as such. If we low-income citizens are rightly judged to be freeloaders—and I would have to be pretty bold to say that I wasn’t, at least a little—then need to have that conversation, and change the law as necessary. It makes no sense to try to prevent the migration of poor people into this country, simply because we can’t come to consensus on a just way to treat the poor.

Free migration—From the moral perspective

It would be customary at this point for me, as an evangelical Christian, to quote some Bible verses about dealing justly with the poor and the alien. In the right circles, these verses are invoked only slightly less frequently than John 3:16 is at a football game. But I am writing about American policy, and as such I will mount my moral argument from Enlightenment principles. (Enlightenment principles are intellectual descendants of Christian moral teachings, so there will be overlap here.)

The general principle is that, all other things being equal, autonomous individuals should not be prohibited from entering into voluntary contracts. The application in this context is that if a person from another country wants to come to America to supply the demand for labor, we should not stop that person. If a person is willing to employ an immigrant to do a job, we should not stop that person.

Now the state appropriately proscribes certain transactions: prostitution, the drug trade, human trafficking, etc. To the extent that the state is permitted to interfere at all with the transactions of free individuals, that interference should be based on law; and in a liberal democracy, there should be a moral justification for the law. But clearly there is no moral argument for discriminating on the basis of nationality and citizenship. Indeed, if a United States business were to discriminate on the basis of nationality in employment, they would (justly) be subject to the penalties of the law. What then, is the moral difference between an Irishman born in Ireland and an Irishman born in the United States? (I use the social divisions of yesteryear to help keep the discussion abstract.) There is none. Discriminating on the basis of skin color is no less reprehensible than discriminating on the basis of passport color.

(The argument of the last paragraph implies that I do not believe that distinctions in citizenship can be brought to bear on moral judgments. This reflects my unease with statist politics in general. I do not have a coherent moral critique of moral states; my religious beliefs do not provide me with one. I offer my arguments here based on the assumption that a state’s law and practice can be more or less just, and that we’re better off in their being more just.)

Free migration—From the pragmatic perspective

The argument now moves from economics and morality to pragmatism. Although I have never driven much in wet or icy conditions, I still remember from driver’s ed what to do if your car starts to skid: turn in the direction of the skid. This is counterintuitive, because it means turning in the direction that you don’t want to go. But it’s crucial to regain traction, so we can exert influence on the situation.

Consider the analogy in relation to the present situation. With something like eleven million illegal immigrants, it is clear that America is operating with considerable autonomy from American laws. The country is skidding. If the government wishes to have any influence on the situation (which I think it should, for reasons I discuss below) then it is absolutely necessary to regain traction. Whatever distaste people might have for ‘amnesty’ and related terms, the fact is that the government has not enforced its own laws to this point. The only solution I can see is to adjust the law to reflect the reality on the ground, and then to gain control of the situation from there.

There is of course an entire moral argument for why laws need to be enforced. If there are laws on the books that are unenforced, it creates a very dangerous situation for people who are in violation of those laws. By neither legalizing nor deporting the eleven million illegal immigrants in our midst, we are leaving them outside of the protection of government. Police can threaten them with deportation; employers can abuse them, knowing that they have no legal recourse. I hope that such abuses are rare, but human nature is what it is; you don’t organize a society on the basis of an expectation of universal benevolence.

Transition to border enforcement—policy, not symbolism

I will now take up the issue of border enforcement: controlling who crosses the borders of the United States. Although I have argued above for a relatively open border, I believe it is equally important that the border be opened through the rule of law, and not neglect of the rule of law.

The first thing that observe is that building a wall is not the most welcoming thing for a country to do to its neighbors. The feeble maxim that “good fences make good neighbors” hardly counterbalances the symbolic power of the Berlin Wall, for instance. But the policy needs to be considered independently of non-substantive symbolic considerations. The security bubble around the President is not a shining illustration of democracy, for instance, but it’s necessary in the world we live in.

It’s also important to acknowledge that some people—perhaps most people who advocate building a wall, I don’t know—do so out of a genuine and misguided attempt to keep all immigrants out, rather than to ensure the rule of law. But the fact some wrongheaded people advocate enforcing the border has no bearing on whether it is in fact a good idea to secure the borders. To think otherwise is to commit a guilt-by-association fallacy. As I like to point out, Hitler was against smoking long before it was cool to be against smoking; it makes no sense to start smoking as a reaction against Nazism.

And lastly, I will observe that for the last ten or fifteen years, the message of half of the political spectrum has been, “They only want to build a wall because they hate immigrants.” Now, whether that is true or not—and it is not true in my case; I want more immigrants, if anything—we can hardly be surprised that, if a wall is built, our neighbors to the North and South will conclude that we built it because we hate them. This is one of those tragic results of the way that politics is conducted these days. We certainly need to show sensitivity. But again, this is not a factor that we can allow to arbitrate between various policy options.

Transition to border enforcement—being frank in what we’re pursuing

In this essay, I have made every effort to speak frankly: I advocate free economic migration, which should take place under the rule of law. I am trying to be explicit because my experience has been that often well-intentioned people will advocate for whatever policy seems nicer or kinder, to the detriment of a rigorous consideration of the issues. Thus I suspect that for some people, opposition to a border wall reflects their desire to be generous and welcoming people: to be on the side of America that is pro-immigration, and to be opposed to the anti-immigration side.

But I could wish that if people wish for there to be free economic migration, they would make that case directly, rather than latching on to issues that seem symbolically important. It’s unfortunate that they don’t because, as I’ve written above, I believe that the economic and moral cases for free economic migration are quite strong. As I write below, I believe that the moral case for border enforcement is quite strong. But if one can’t move beyond the idea of a border wall as a negative symbol, the moral case can probably not be appreciated.

Border enforcement—As a basic element of sovereignty

In the first place, it must be acknowledged that the idea of controlling borders is not some fiction dreamed up by anti-immigration activists as a way to express racist sentiment in a politically correct fashion. It’s one of the basic elements of state sovereignty. (There are various definitions, which you can research yourself, but you’ll see that control of movement across borders comes up again and again.)

It is easier to appreciate this if you think about traveling internationally by plane. Entering another country is a highly ordered process. It’s hardly as if they let you off on the tarmac and hope that you go through customs before leaving. It’s highly ordered and tightly controlled. If our land borders with the United States and Canada are loosely enforced, we can at least acknowledge that those two countries are the outliers among the nations of the world. We keep tight controls on the British, the Chinese, the Zambians, and the Chileans when they try to enter our country.

Border enforcement—From the moral perspective

All of my observations on the economic forces that drive migration—if they are true at all—are true irrespective of U.S. immigration policy. The United States will continue to exert a magnetic effect on the poor people of developing countries. In the current situation, substantial migration is accomplished through illegal means. This means that the government’s inability to control the situation on the ground is facilitating criminal activity.

Eliminating (or vastly reducing) illegal economic immigration will not of course eliminate drug trafficking or human trafficking. Border security remains important.

Now, it can be argued that controlling movement across borders is as unworkable as enforcing Prohibition was in the 1930s. But practically, the situations are not parallel. Defending a border is a much better defined task than controlling the possession of substance. It can be solved technologically. (Not that it’s at all parallel, or anything to aspire towards, but we’ve certainly had no problem controlling the border between North Korea and South Korea, for instance.)

By refusing to control the borders, we have made being “coyote” a profession. We are sponsoring human trafficking. In fact, we are baiting people into it, just as surely as the wet-foot/dry-foot policy baited thousands of Cubans into making a dangerous journey across the sea.

This is particularly where we need to consider whether the kind thing to do is indeed not to enforce the border. Hundreds of people die crossing the Sonoran Desert every year, on their way to America. Is the “kind” option really to facilitate that? Or it is better to provide a strong disincentive for illegal crossings, in addition to making economic immigration radically easier? This is why I feel that’s important to advocate for sensible policy positions (e.g., bringing U.S. law into alignment with reality), rather than for taking what seems to be the more generous side in one of the false dichotomies of the day.

 

 

It’s a sign of the quality of our political discourse, that as I finish this, I have to encourage myself to be contented at having expressed my thoughts, even if the current political climate precludes their being given a hearing by friends from one side or another.

The best fail video of 2016—perhaps of all time

This was the highlight of the internet for me in 2016.

Why? In the first place, because it’s funny to watch people fail. That’s why “fail videos” are a thing. And this is about a big a failure as you can get. But I think there is more to it that just that.

On July 4, 2016, the day before I saw this video, I was in a small town in the American Midwest celebrating Independence Day with my family. The main event for us was a small-time magician performing with his wife. We had a great time. He was great with kids; our kids got to participate; they got to see a dozen or so magic tricks. Needless to say, my brain was relatively unoccupied, and so I had a lot of opportunities to reflect upon the cognitive gymnastics that make a magic show possible. It’s a strange event at first glance, because we all know that the laws of physics are what they are, and that the most we can hope for is to be effectively tricked. The key is a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, which creates a kind of intermediate world where we can be entertained: believing and not believing at the same time.

At one point, with his wife in the box waiting to get cut in half, our magician apologized to the audience for having forgotten some important props, and and ran to his van to get them. Now, the size of the venue and the quality of the show to that point suggested to me that he had in fact forgotten his props. But later his wife popped out of the box wearing a different outfit, which made me wonder if it wasn’t some of kind of trick for buying time. I’m still not sure which is true, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

This applies all the more to danger. At one point, our magician did the trick where he chops a carrot in half with a small guillotine, and then puts a kid’s hand in the guillotine and… somehow it turns out okay. (Actually, when you put it like that, the importance of showmanship becomes clear: without showmanship, how could it be entertaining for nothing to happen?) Now, I could see the magician futzing with the various blades of the guillotine (which is of course the only way it can work), as he shouted about how dangerous the trick was. I also saw him mute his lapel mic and whisper to his young volunteer that there was no real danger, which was sweet.

This was my cognitive context when I saw the link to this video.

The video can still bring me to tears. But why is it funny? A few weeks ago, while attending an awards ceremony in a second language (which is only slightly more boring than attending an awards ceremony in one’s native language), I gave this some thought. Here is what I came up with.

I believe all of most humor involves a reversal of expectations. There’s a study that claims that the joke below is the funniest joke in the world.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

It’s funny, but I’m not sure it’s actually the funniest joke in the world; I think it was judged to be so because they took the trouble to ask people from around the world, and all or most of them found it to be funny. (You can think a bit about what would make a joke successful cross-culturally. It doesn’t rely on verbal humor, etc.)

Now, you could argue that the joke is funny because it’s funny to laugh at the surviving hunter, who misunderstands the instruction. But I think the joke is actually on the hearer of the joke, who doesn’t realize that there’s more than one interpretation to “First, let’s make sure he’s dead” until the joke ends. Many jokes work this way, like the one-liner Groucho Marx used in a movie to address his troops, “Some of you might not make it, and the rest of you definitely won’t.” The default assumption is that survival is the norm, though of course this is not logically necessary. And one more example I saw on Facebook recently:

An old man was getting close to death. He asked his young wife, “When I die, will you re-marry?” “Yes,” she said. “Will you cook him mantu?” he asked. “No,” she said. “Why not?” he asked. “Because he doesn’t like mantu.”

The punchline of the joke causes a reversal of expectations: that the wife is considering not just the potential of remarriage, but actually has the replacement in mind already.

(Reversal of expectations is also the key element of dramatic irony, so this has ramifications into greater topics than humor.)

So then, as a first step to explaining the humor of the magician’s video, I’ll point out that enjoying a magic show that shows an ostensibly dangerous situation involves these three real-world beliefs or commitments:

  1. A magic show is a safe place.
  2. The magician is pretending that there is danger.
  3. I decide to consciously suspend my belief in (1), and play along with (2), in order to have fun.

These all follow from my experience of a silly small-town magic show.

When the idiot magician impales the host’s hand on a nail, all of the assumptions are reversed instantaneously. We learn that in fact:

  1. The magic show is a dangerous place.
  2. The magician was oblivious to the very real danger of the situation.
  3. My original make-believe was not make-believe at all; my make-believe came true.

The sudden reversal of expectation is, I believe, what makes it a funny video. There’s further nuance to explore. For instance, the magician is “pretending” that there is a dangerous situation, while simultaneously assuring the host that he is in control. In fact, the magician’s assurances show only a lack of self-awareness, and he’s not in control at all. It’s also worth considering what exactly counts as a reversal of expectation; it’s probably more complex than mere logical negation. But this nails it down to my own satisfaction, more or less.

A bit of sanity in an insane election cycle

I did not vote in 2016. Neither Clinton nor Trump reached the standard of personal acceptability that would allow me to cast my vote in good conscience, let alone aligning with my views on policy. I woke up Wednesday morning prepared for disappointed no matter the outcome. I am still proud not to have had a hand in the outcome of this election. Being forced to choose between Trump and Clinton is the electoral equivalent to having to provide a yes/no answer to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

I wrote previously about my difficulty in understanding and loving Trump supporters. I stand by what I wrote, though I would make a moral distinction between people who supported Trump during the primary and those who gritted their teeth and voted for him once he became the Republican nominee. I don’t agree with that decision, but I do see a moral distinction; see below.

Trump is a vile person, aptly described “as everything we teach our children not to be”. I certainly hope that his executive actions do no match the rhetoric he employed on the campaign trail, but he has certainly done enough damage to our society already by fanning ugly sentiments in the first place. It seems juvenile to me to claim that he is not my president, but I can say with all conviction and resolve that he could never be a guest in my home.

With that background, I would like to point out that the sky is not falling.

Trump’s victory, as such, tells us nothing about what is acceptable in America

Trump won the electoral college by having a total margin of perhaps 100,000 votes in several key states. Nate Silver points out that if 1 in 100 people had voted differently, we would have a different president. If those 100,000 people had simply lived in different states, we would have a different president.

If Clinton had won the presidency, we would still be living in a country where 47.3% of voters were willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. That is a bracing fact, and it would still be a fact if Clinton had won the electoral college. That is the kind of country we live in.

My cynical prediction is that, had Clinton won, people would not be tearing their hair out over the 47.3% of the population that was willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. For the most part, therefore, I judge the emotion (and now the riots) to be disappointment over losing, rather than to actual sorrow over the moral state of our country. If you are wracked by the sins of your countrymen in the years that you win as well, then of course I owe you an apology.

Put differently: Is it a cheering thought that Clinton won the popular vote? That there really are more people who wanted Clinton to be president than Trump? If not—if that’s salt in the wound—then I suggest that the emotion is disappoint over losing, rather than disappointment in the electorate.

In spite of this, I do find a silver lining in my next point.

I credit most voters with voting for policy over personality

I don’t know anyone (personally) who was excited about these candidates. Everyone I know who voted was gritting their teeth throughout the electoral process. The most compelling argument I encountered for choosing the lesser of two evils is that the next president will likely make three appointments to the Supreme Court. That is not trivial. Subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, that amounts to controlling a ninth of the federal government for a generation. Everybody wants their party to have that sort of power; nobody wants the opposition to have it.

With these things in mind, I credit the vast majority of voters with voting for a candidate who could provide an approximate match on policy positions, rather than for a candidate who was personally acceptable to them. I don’t believe that Trump voters were ambivalent about his manifold sexual indiscretions and his incendiary language about, e.g., Muslims and Mexicans. I don’t believe that Clinton voters were indifferent to her history of victim shaming, or her solicitation of funds, as a member of government, from heads of government for her family’s organization. I really do think most people were just willing to bite the bullet and cast their vote.

There are good exit poll figures to back this up. Trump was pushed over the threshold by people who liked neither candidate but felt forced to choose one.

Again, that is not the choice that I made; I disagree with those people. I think that there is a basic threshold of decency required of a president. (I believe that our last two presidents are both decent people; obviously it’s no reflection of my beliefs about their policies.)

It’s not as if most people chose Trump

This is a minor point, but voter turnout seems to have been about 55% this year. That’s a pretty good sample of the population, but it still exonerates about 75% of the population from actually voting for Trump.

Non-voters who didn’t like Trump are equally to blame

Here is a brief interlude for personal self-examination. Are you angry at the situation—which is morally creditable—or are you angry at (what you conceive of as) the other side? As noted above, the election could have been tipped by a trivial change in the voting preferences of the electorate. (As noted above, voter turnout was around 55%.) Those who would have supported Clinton but did not vote are just as much to blame (mathematically) as those who actually voted for Trump. Are you equally angry at non-voters who are otherwise just like you, and at voters who are different from you?

Presidents don’t have that much influence on the moral character of the nation

The candidate who receives 51% of electoral votes receives 100% of the presidency. There’s a bit of a symbolic boost there, I admit.

But consider that eight years of Bush were followed by eight years of Obama, which will be followed by Trump. There’s no cultural narrative there. There are no permanent changes. The presidency flits between the parties on the basis of 51-49 splits. The resident of the White House is an indicator of the national sentiment that fluctuates trivially over the years, not a generator of change.

Now, that last paragraph is not going to sell a lot of newspapers, so don’t expect to see it in print: but it’s true. Obama was the most inspiring presidential candidate in living memory, and he still didn’t move the needle in our national conversations. The president simply doesn’t have that much cultural power.

Overreacting now will blunt the impact of your reaction in the future

What’s striking to me is that Trump is the least qualified and most personally repulsive person ever elected to the presidency, but the rhetoric I’m seeing is the same rhetoric I heard from Democrats in 2000 and 2004, and from Republicans in 2008 and 2012. It’s the same volume. It’s the same fury.

This is a clear reflection of a news media that requires commentators to be furious and outraged, permanently. Would that it were only Two Minutes’ Hate! Now we have to keep it up 24/7. This is profoundly degrading to the moral fiber of our country. But there is a practical concern as well.

If everybody is a crazed extremist, then nobody is. Every recent presidential candidate has been vilified as extreme and out of touch—Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, everyone.  When Trump came along, there was really nothing left to say. Trump’s a demagogue inciting violence and playing on people’s worst fears? Yep, that’s what they said about the last guy.

Consider: if Hitler were to appear on the ticket in 2020, what would be left for us to say about that? We’ve already cranked it up to 11.

Calm down.

It follows from the previous point that the only productive way out of this situation is to have civil conversations and to moderate our own political views by considering the views of others in a genuine way. As a practical matter, promoting your party by demonizing the opposition is a dangerous game. That motivates the opposition as much as it motivates the base. Exhibits A, B, and C, in this respect are Bush 2000, Obama 2008, and Trump 2012.

Receiving. As a conservative person, I try to get most of my news from center-left outlets. I try to read editorials from perspectives that I disagree with. Guess what? Most of it is exactly the kind of tendentious reasoning that is used to defend conservative positions in conservative news outlets. But sometimes I learn something new.

Sending. Lightning would strike me from Heaven if I suggested being sensitive, so I will instead suggest that we try to be issue-driven rather than party-driven or personality-driven. There will always a lunatic fringe that believes that Bush started the Iraq War for oil, and that Obama was born in Kenya. Those are not the people I want to be associated with. I want to be engaging with people who can talk about the philosophical motivations and practical consequences of various policies. I have found—sometimes to my surprise—that people are often quite willing to discuss policy, rather than to simply use it as a political cudgel.

Loving Trump Supporters

This is not as good as I had hoped it would be, but run out of steam and want to be able to stop thinking about it, so here goes…


 

Like any other politically observant person, my reaction to the Trump phenomenon has shifted over the last few months from amusement to confusion, and finally to horror. I have some ideas about the mechanics of how Trump has succeeded in the media, but I am largely befuddled by the relatively widespread support that Trump has received in the Republican nomination process. I understand can understand the appeal of Clinton, Bush, and Obama as leaders. I cannot understand how anyone can stand to be in the same room as Trump. Surely part of the secret of his success is that it is almost impossible to take him seriously as a person, so that he is always underestimated. But how could anyone support him?

I confess that Trump produces a feeling of loathing deep within me, hitherto reserved for Nazis and pedophiles. The recent description “everything we teach our children not to be” resonates. And yet he has his supporters, and a substantial portion of the electorate at that—not the entire population, but apparently those who care enough to vote in primaries, whom one would imagine to be the better sort. The idea of anyone supporting Donald Trump produces a range of questions, but I will stick to: Why?

I think it will be uncontroversial to say that nobody is voting for Trump over moral issues. The phrase “unrepentant serial adulterer,” which appeared somewhere in my Facebook feed, seems accurate, given his Wikipedia article and his public statements. Trump claims to be a Christian, but also says he has never asked for God’s forgiveness; this means that no person who understands what it means to be a Christian (much less an evangelical Christian) could take Trump’s claim to faith seriously. I can take him at his word if he is using the word “Christian” as it was used in my elementary school days­­­­—as a sort of ethnic label—to mean “not Jewish.” Similarly, I take heart in the polls that show much lower Trump support among churchgoers, rather than just among “evangelicals” (which, in that context at least, appears to have become a proxy term for “white trash”). So I set aside any possible moral or religious appeal.

Trump is an inarticulate person ranting incoherently at the status quo. This is an important point of contact between him and the average American. Most people are not terribly well-informed about political and economic issues. Polls routinely show Americans’ ignorance of basic civics issues (e.g., the identity of our leaders, various constitutional rights, etc.). So, if you’ve got a candidate whose analysis of the American political and economic scene is little more than an inarticulate grunt of frustration, that resonates with a lot of people. I don’t think that the appeal of this should be underestimated.

Still, I believe that economic issues play the biggest role. Various commentators have suggested that the Trump and Sanders candidacies have largely played on working class dissatisfaction with globalization—the increasingly competitive global marketplace, which generates wealth by leveling the economic playing field across nations. American manufacturing has hollowed out; there are studies that indicate that wages have been stagnant in real terms for people without a college degree, since the early 1980s.

Trump has been successful with less-educated people; Sanders has been successful with more-educated people. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Who do you blame for the world’s problems? Generally not people who occupy vastly different social stations. It’s natural for white collar people to blame “Wall Street” for financial problems, because they are their white-collar peers. If they’re not direct competitors for jobs and resources, they’re at least natural targets for envy. By the same token, it’s natural for less educated people to fault immigrants, who are their competitors in the manufacturing and services sectors.

(This is basic human nature. What prompts envy in the heart of a linguist? A successful surgeon? No, I’m not a surgeon; it’s not even my world. An astronaut? No, they’ve got great jobs, but it’s not my path. One of the elder statesmen of linguistics? No, I reverence them. It’s own peers who generate feelings of envy: those producing the publications that I wish I were producing.)

(Of course, as I’ll note below, blue collar workers at least understand who represents an economic threat. I am amazed at the white collar narrative that America is a country of great, hardworking people, but that the Wall Street thugs are tricking us and stealing our money. It’s a familiar story if you have any experience with the mentally ill: “I used to have it all man, but then this so-and-so tricked me, and I lost it all! Someday I’ll teach him a lesson.”)

The first humility check for me, then, is that I am not in the socioeconomic class that is hit hard by globalization. Computer programming jobs—which would probably be my most lucrative option if I were in the traditional workforce—are not in danger of being sent overseas any time soon. (I’m not actually part of the normal economy, anyway, but that doesn’t matter psychologically: I know that any time I wanted to I could walk away from my current situation and make two or three times as much money. Moreover, I have no reason to fear for the future economic well-being of my sons.) So my desire to welcome immigrants from all over the world carries zero personal cost. They’re not threatening my livelihood, and—at least in the places where I’ve lived in America—their assimilation issues do not really affect my life. Who wouldn’t be generously inclined in my situation? “What credit is it to you? The pagans do as much…”

Nevertheless, the moral argument for globalization is clear. If two people are willing to do the same job, and the first has the lower bid, but I choose the second instead because he is an American and the first is something else, then I find that to be morally unacceptable. I feel that I’m on rock-solid moral ground there. At the same time, I can’t pretend that it is personally costly for me to accept that argument.

That said, I am not prepared to conclude that anyone who is opposed to immigration, or who is in favor of trade protectionism, is personally motivated by racial animus. It may just be economic self-interest. If I dig ditches for $20/hour and someone comes into the country willing to do it for $10/hour, then that person is a threat to my livelihood, whether the person is English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, African American, Mexican, or whatever. This, I think, is why America has a history of short-lived animus against recent immigrants. It’s always been clear who the competitors are, and the racial/ethnic labels are laid over the economic concerns.

(Given that nowadays American racial issues tend to break across skin color, it is funny to imagine discrimination among rival European immigrants. Still, a friend of mine is from a Portuguese family who changed their name long ago to avoid discrimination. It’s similarly difficult for me to take seriously the insistence of my British friends that English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, etc. are all different groups. And it took five years at least before I could begin to pick out the differences in facial features that distinguish the similarly-hued ethnic groups here in my adoptive country, and I’m still not very good at it.)

Another nasty thing about Trump is the anti-Muslim animus—the call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for instance. I can’t really find a perspective from which this makes sense. I have this in my favor personally: that I’ve met hundreds of Muslims, and never one terrorist. Still, it’s not as if I had to meet those people before concluding that not all Muslims are terrorists.

I’m then left with what, morally, feels like accepting the null hypothesis: these yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television. As I’ve previously written, I’m not really comfortable assigning people the category of moral cipher—people whose moral judgments are simply a result of sociological conditioning rather than reasoned reflection. But I’m not really sure how I can reconcile that discomfort with the facts before me.

“These yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television.” Of course, it’s at least a little more complicated than that. There are competing narratives in the media as well, and there is profit to be made in pushing false dichotomies. It’s how they get attention, how they get advertising revenue. (Who doesn’t enjoy controversy? Who doesn’t enjoy criticizing people of the other camp?) That’s not all the news that’s available, but it’s not hard to find a news diet that features nothing but invented controversies. I think that in historical perspective it will certainly become clear the damage that this has done to our national discourse. It pushes people away from subtlety and common sense.

I think for instance of the controversy, I believe now six years old, over the “Ground Zero Mosque.” One didn’t so much become aware of the plans for building a cultural center, as of the controversy over people’s reactions to it. Some were affronted at the idea; others called those people anti-Muslim bigots. That was the story, and those were the only two positions. “These people are gloating over the destruction of the World Trade Center.” “We have to repudiate the claim that there is any association between Islam and terrorism.” It was the equivalent of the old joke: have you stopped beating your wife? There dichotomy contains an implicit assertion, which is somehow not available for analysis. There were secondary controversies as well. “It’s not even a mosque, it’s a cultural center with a prayer space”—irrelevant non-arguments produced for the benefit of people who wanted to feel better informed than the other side. I followed the coverage fairly closely, and it was some time before I read what seemed to be the only sane opinion about the matter (I believe from Charles Krauthammer): no one holds present-day Germans responsible for the Holocaust, but you still don’t build a German cultural center right outside of Auschwitz. Good taste alone provides the middle ground. No surprise, the common-sense observation was barely discussed.

Repeated controversy. Repeated false dichotomies. Tribal affiliations based on loyalty to opinion leaders. It sounds like Fox News vs. MSNBC, but these forces have been around for a while. There’s a reason the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cater to different audiences.

I am aware that this brings me back to the narrative that I mocked earlier: the American people are decent and generously inclined, but the cable news executives manipulate them into being prejudiced!

It’s the same narrative, and yet different. People generally consume media to be reinforced in their existing opinions rather than to discover new facts and arguments. That may be human nature, but it is not morally neutral. I believe that there is an intellectual responsibility to consider different points of view, to gather a variety of perspectives, and—shocking, I know—to discard analyses that presuppose false dichotomies. I’m not saying that everyone need possess the intellectual capacity to absorb the entirety of a complex situation and then look at it from different angles. But wisdom doesn’t require that we be able to compute all the possibilities, because it’s always possible to listen to other people.

The fault in being a Trump supporter, then, isn’t so much the decision to support Trump, as the meta-decision, made years ago and perhaps unconsciously, to be formed by certain types of sources: which can mean specifically alarmist and controversialist news media, but can mean more generally a limited intellectual diet. It could also mean past decisions to engage with one’s own cultural and linguistic group, when others were available. (Different parts of the country enable that to different degrees, I suppose.) Those far-off decisions have begotten present-day Trump support. Wisdom is known by her children, indeed.

It’s far easier for me to identify with weakness along this intellectual access. I’ve got a better record in maintaining  intellectual diversity in politics, for instance, than in theology and biblical studies. So then, what are my blind spots? In what areas of my life am I content not to be challenged? Those are the areas that might, in now-unforeseeable circumstances, lead me to embrace morally reprehensible positions.

It would be nice if I could make a short checklist and then mop up the extra bits. I expect that the reality is that I’ll be repenting of some things in eternity—not Trump, but then I doubt that will be the most decision I make in life.

 

The Insecurity of Totalitarianism

At lunch the other day, Tajikistan’s ban on long beards, Arabic names, and hijabs came up. A colleague made the observation that regimes in other countries have required beards. Why all the fuss over a beard?

Coincidentally (or not), Wikipedia had a brief mention that day of Iran’s Kashf-e Hijab decree, the 1936 ban of the hijab in the name of secularization. The article states, without apparent irony, that “some scholars state that it is very difficult to imagine that even Hitler’s or Stalin’s regime would do something similar.” That seems a bit extreme, but I’ll certainly grant that controlling women’s expressions of modesty is a strong totalitarian measure.

Although I’d never thought about it before, the answer to my colleague’s question (“Why all the fuss over a beard?”) came to me almost immediately: because it’s enforceable. Even the most totalitarian of regimes cannot control what people think. They too have to worry about what laws they can enforce, and what laws they can’t. Say whatever else you will about the policy: you can enforce a no-beards law.

This brings home to me the reason that totalitarianism, moral concerns aside, is unworkable. The greater the desire of a government to control its citizens, the less it can tolerate any deviation. A totalitarian government sets a high standard for itself, and is therefore fragile. A cake has a greater margin of error than a soufflé. E.B. White wrote, “A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom — he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.” A government that is threatened by a drunken poet—or a man with a long beard—or a woman in a veil—is very easily threatened indeed.

Surely in the exercise of power, the more subtle the more effective. Who can disagree with Screwtape? “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” I think similarly that if I were seriously interested in controlling the thought of a population, I would aim for a lighter touch. Unstated assumptions are the strongest ones. The elements of a culture that are most resistant to change are surely those that cannot or may not be discussed.

It follows that if one wanted to find oppressive structures, one would not (necessarily) look for government agents with hair clippers, but for the more subtle influence on people’s thought.

This brings to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech, which I have previously summarized as, “You have freedom of speech, but you have nothing to say.” (Take a moment with me to appreciate the irony that the top Google result for “Solzhenitsyn Harvard speech” is hosted by americanrhetoric.com.) Solzhenitsyn speaks to the totalitarianism of wealth and freedom.

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.

So while I value the freedom to trim my beard in accordance with the dictates of my conscience, I will try to not fall victim to the lie that salvation lies therein. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does…”

Loving the Islamic State

One of the notable things about the Islamic State is that they have a positive vision for an Islamic society. Unlike a group like al-Qaeda, for instance, which  never controlled territory, the Islamic State is trying to implement their understanding of ideal Islamic society. (Lest there be any confusion, I mean “positive” in the sense of “not just negative,” not as in “What a great vision!”) A recent cover story in The Atlantic argued that, far from being a collection of lunatics, the Islamic State is actually pursuing a logical course of action, granted the assumptions of a specific variety of eschatologically-oriented Islam. Acknowledging a logic to their actions is a good beginning as we move toward understanding them and (for Christians) as we move toward loving them.

Of course the most salient feature of the Islamic State’s rise is not its theology or its governance model, but its atrocities. These are particularly sadistic, and are (at least partially) calculated to attract international attention. In some sense, the Islamic State seems to be terrorism come of age in the media climate of the 21st century, terrorism with its full potential realized through the internet and social media.

And the propaganda is not peripheral to the campaign. That is the really frightening thing. The Islamic State’s explicit intention is to eliminate the possibility of a Western-Islamic accommodation—the ability of Muslims living in the West to integrate into the wider society, while maintaining their religious allegiance and identity. This accommodation can be destroyed two ways. They can woo Muslims (and presumably, new converts) with the shining example of their society. Or, they can do it by creating anti-Muslim sentiment in the West by perpetrating atrocities in the name of Islam. This will create a hostile environment in the West for Muslims, who will then be less susceptible to Western cultural assimilation. Western behavior itself then becomes a sounding board for the Islamic State’s message: “They’ll never accept you for who you are; join with us and live out your faith properly.” (In politics, it’s called a wedge issue, though I’m not quite prepared to call terrorism a continuation of diplomacy by other means.)

I call this the really frightening thing, not because it’s wicked or devious (though it is), but because it’s very hard for me to see how it will fail. My own recollection is that the September 11 attacks did not instill anywhere near as much hostility to Islam as the situation with the Islamic State has produced in the last year and a half. There is no excuse for bigotry, but a fourteen-year drumbeat of negative news coverage of Muslims has an effect. My feeble, “Don’t let the terrorists win,” is, in long form, “Ignore everything that the television and the internet present to you as representing reality, and instead give the benefit of the doubt to the religious intentions of people who look different from you, talk different from you, having very different-looking customs from you, and for the most part live apart from you.” That is a hard message to deliver, even if it is the imperative message of our time.

Combatting propaganda is never easy, I suppose. But it’s one thing to combat the propaganda of an enemy who says, “We’re doing great and our cause is righteous, whereas your government is corrupt and ineffective; join our side!” It’s quite another to combat propaganda that says, “Look, we’re bloodthirsty madmen looking to fight an end-times battle”—and of course with the subtext, “We’re the real Islam, and your neighbors would endorse us openly if they dared.”

These reflections formed the backdrop when I decided to have a read through an issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s famous “glossy magazine.” I got the most recent edition, issue 12, here. A few preliminary thoughts: Although I was reading from a PDF, the glossiness came through. The typography is good, if not creative. The transliteration of Arabic words was consistent, with long vowels marked consistently throughout the text (see below). (Many Arabic words are transliterated rather than transcribed. That would be a study in itself. Suffice it to say that I googled a lot of terms.) There were no spelling or grammatical mistakes. I read a lot of text written by non-native speakers of English, so this made a big impression of me. And finally, while showing pictures of one’s dead soldiers is about the worst thing one could do in the West, it is evidently effective propaganda for the target audience of Dabiq.

Perhaps a fourth or a third of the magazine was devoted to the political rivalries between the various jihadi groups, and I skimmed those parts. There were also reports of various attacks, which was sort of average propaganda stuff. What was interesting to me was the hortatory and theological passages. This is the one that made the biggest impression.

Amīrul-Mu’minīn Abū Bakr al-Husaynī al-Baghdādī (hafidhahullāh) said, “By Allah, we will take revenge! By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the Ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator. {And those who, when tyranny strikes them, they defend themselves} [Ash-Shūrā: 39]. Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high, and his dignity preserved. Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined, and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off. So let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and awed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature” [A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan].

(Dabiq 12, pg. 2; emphasis mine)

I’ve developed a certain sensitivity to the importance of honor in this part of the world, and so it stings when I hear the implied realities for Muslims today: that they walk about as servants, that they have no honor, that they are not revered, that their heads are held down, and that their dignity is shattered. That is a lamentable state for any group of people; in the context of an honor-shame society, it’s tragic.

I think of the way that Muslims were portrayed in Captain Phillips. Who were they? What was there background? What were there struggles? From the movie’s perspective, those are irrelevant questions. (And the book was actually less sympathetic than the movie.) This is a story about an American victim and American rescuers. Some thugs pop up from out of nowhere, cause a problem, and then a competent, highly trained group of American soldiers kills them. If you were to create a movie about a fly that disturbed a meal and was then swatted, you would get a movie with the same narrative structure as Captain Phillips. What does it do to people, to see themselves portrayed thusly?

The quoted passage seems more specifically, however, to reflect the experience of the Islamic diaspora, particularly in Europe. It brings to mind Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. In Turkey, Ka was a poet, a leftist, a politically important (if bourgeois) member of society. He flees political persecution and ends up living a disgusting, isolated, and dissolute life in Frankfurt, unable to write poetry. When he returns to eastern Turkey for the events of the novel, the muse returns. Even though the presence of radical Islamic elements in the city are repelling to him, they are enticing to the people of the town, and there is no denying the overall impression on Ka as a person. I won’t ruin the ending; but throughout, Ka is presented as a barely-amiable, compromised Turk. Western freedoms are enticing, but the result is spiritually toxic. The unanswered question, of course, is: What place is there for a Muslim in the West?

And there are theological implications as well. John Lewis Gaddis, in interpreting the significance of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in his book The Cold War, observed that the collapse effectively ended communism as an intellectual movement, because communism was not just a political program, it was also a scientific theory of history. It predicted continual revolution, and when that failed to happen, communism was through. I wonder whether Islam contains an analogous internal requirement. I wonder, for instance, about the frustrations expressed in this passage, drawn from an article that advocates polygyny:

Indeed, when the Sharī’ah of our Lord was eliminated, the laws and rulings of the kuffār gained power in the lands of the Muslims, Islam was shamefully abandoned, and faces turned towards promiscuous Europe, the voice of falsehood rose and with it the voices of those hostile towards the people of the religion, and the cancer of those who legislate besides Allah ﷺ ate away at the Ummah’s body. They prohibited what He permitted, and permitted what He prohibited, and one of the most manifest things that they ruined and defamed in defense of women and their rights – as they claimed – was polygyny. They utilized their podiums to that end, including the podiums of the kufrī parliaments and the secular TV channels, and placed on these podiums howling dogs, fools who do not perceive nor know their foolishness. Their poisoned words crept into the hearts of women from the lands of the Muslims, to the point that we almost couldn’t find a single woman that is accepting of this issue, except for those whom Allah protected.

(Dabiq 12, pg. 19)

In the paragraph above, I sense the frustration of watching a culture drifting away from a consensus that had been based on religion. There is bluster in the above paragraph about “fools who do not perceive nor know their foolishness,” but surely there is a more fundamental shame at not having carried the debate of a controversial social issue. “Why isn’t this working?”

As an evangelical Christian, that is a familiar feeling for me. The difference is that in Christianity, there is no expectation of success. We are a sect of Judaism, and even in the first century Judaism had an identity as an insurgent minority, struggling to maintain its identity in a broader culture that was going the other way. Christians have the promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, but (so far as I can tell) that promise can really only be said to have been broken if we were exterminated entirely. There is no expectation that Christians will even become a majority before Christ’s return, for instance, or that we would be a significant influence in any society. The Bible has a lot to say about Christian behavior, but doesn’t really have a prescription for people outside the church. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, that’s not really a theological problem for me.

As adults, and perhaps for some of us even as kids, we realize that the school bully, jerk though he was, probably had a pretty bad home situation. It doesn’t make him any less of a jerk, or justify his actions, but it gives you a sliver of pity. That sliver of pity is not Christian love, because it doesn’t necessarily engage with the individual as an individual and as a fellow sinner. But it is an entry point. I hope that, personally, I can begin to love and understand the Islamic State by appreciating where they’re coming from: a place of profound shame, and of frustration with the world for failing to match what their theology says it should be.

Refugee/Migrant

I’ve spent a long time wondering about thee European refugee/migrant situation. Part of my interest is that I live in one of the top-ten contributing countries. I don’t know any young man here who wouldn’t be happy to go to West, and I can’t imagine a family that wouldn’t love to have a wage-earner living in the West. Ten years ago a study here showed that about a quarter of the economy was cash remittances: money sent back into the country by people living abroad. Conversely, the fighting that is going on here is localized, and always transitory. Villages might conceivably empty for as much as a few months, but there is no, e.g., emptying of the countryside in a way that is visible in the cities. If there are mass migrations of people in this country, I have never seen evidence of it.

Based on these numbers from the UNHCR, we have 69% men, 13% women, and 18% children. Glancing down the top-10 list of countries, I feel confident in predicting that the refugee women are typically not traveling alone. My guess is that the women and children are typically accompanied by men. If that is the case, then we can estimate 56% of the men are traveling alone. (These are estimates; I would love to have data disaggregated by age, marital status, and country of origin. My prediction would be that, aside from the Syrians, the refugees are healthy young men looking for employment.) So, from some cultural experience and these numbers, I feel that we are looking at a mass economic migration. That is, these people have not given up on their security situation; they’ve given up on their economic situation.

I don’t blame them at all. I’ve lived in the developing world for about six years, and I see very little reason for optimism, for most people. I don’t doubt that national GDPs will increase, but as is strikingly obvious from visiting a country like India, for example, that even very highly developed economies can leave large swathes of the population behind. Certainly my experience in this country—and I suspect this is typical—is that employment is generally available only through kinship or patronage. One does not simply move to the city to work in a factory, and get ahead that way.

These economic and social realities create interesting effects, such as the one noted in this blog post (backup up by a proper peer-reviewed research article): “The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country.” This implies that the economic problems lie not, for the most part, with Haitians, but with Haiti. That is, the basic problem seems to be that these people are stuck in bad situations. Take them out of the bad situation, and their lives get better. (This is even a problem at the cultural level: most immigrants don’t change their cultural beliefs and practices, or even their language, in the first generation. It’s a matter of being in a specifically bad situation. One thinks of being in a poorly-built house: there is a point at which you just have to give up and start over.)

So what is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? This foundational UNHCR document defines a refugee as a person who,

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Of course “fear” is not defined, but there are entire ethnic groups that are persecuted (to one degree or another). There are entire ethnic groups for whom it would be putting it mildly to say that they are unable to avail themselves of the protection of their government. There are moreover millions of people whose economic prospects, viewed from a Western perspective, are a nightmare. That is real. I know plenty of people who meet this definition.

Given these facts, and the interpretation I’ve put on them, it would be easy to say: well, we can’t employ them all, so let’s turn them all away. But I think that there are positive things to be done. One thing would be to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge that for many people, this is an economic crisis. It’s not a coincidence that they’re trying to get to Germany, for instance, and not to some nearer country. I think that a positive government response would be to open the borders in a responsible way: to allow migration for economic purposes. We could assign temporary visas based on a lottery system, and let people make their own travel arrangements. A separate track can remain open for people who want to come with their families as well. But there could be a humane system to allow menial laborers to come in to the country to earn money. (And it’s not as if this is some new idea: countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates rely on immigrant labor.) This could also allow for protection of worker rights, which can deal a blow to human trafficking. And—not that these are people I am typically interested in mollifying—I think it would take away some oxygen from the newly-revitalized right-wing parties: it’s easy to work oneself into a frenzy over utopian policies; it’s much harder to do it over sane ones.

The big picture problem, as I see is it, is a global imbalance of aspirations and means. Media gives aspirations of wealth to all people of the world: from the richest to the poorest. Big house, fancy car, beautiful wife, successful children. In a country like the United States, you can buy into that and run the rat race—not that I recommend it, but the option is there. In most countries of the world, that option is not there. I believe that frustrated ambition is the driving force behind most of the particularly realizations of sin in the world today: religious extremism, mob violence, violence against women, and so forth. If we close off our borders, it’s like clogging a pressure cooker. If we adopt sensible policies in regard to economic migration, we can let out some of the steam.

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