The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Sex In A Sex-Drenched World Is Sexless

Evidence for the prosecution.

Ama Et Fac Quod Vis

Now Conor has gotten into the fray and Rod has a response.

Conor tackles the question of whether consent can be the only lodestar of sexual morality, and then tackles my post.

As I said, the consent-sexuality question is to me incidental to the Witt essay. I may have some things to say about that later on, but I want to respond to Conor’s points about my post.

To be frank, I’ve been surprised at the positive reaction to my post because, since I’m the only guy on this thread who doesn’t write for a living (Alan doesn’t count, because tenured professors don’t actually work. KIDDING, Alan. Mostly.) I had rushed it a little bit, and so I want to try and make some things clearer.

Gobry’s proposed remedy to loneliness and Kantian failures in contemporary sexual culture? Christianity. “Treating other people as ends in themselves is a wonderful idea, but why, and how, should we do that? The only answer, it seems to me, is love,” he writes, supplying a link to his interesting, Christianity-influenced notion of what pursuing love really entails.

I actually tried and I’m sure failed to make a slightly more subtle point. I mean, I believe that Christianity is true and awesome and that people should accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But I was trying to make the following three-step point: 1) we’ll be better off if we’re Kantian (as in, treat people as ends in themselves and not means); 2) the best way to do that is through love; 3) the best way to do that is through Christianity. Implicit in my argument, and I should have made it explicit, is that you don’t have to buy 3 (I hope, for our sakes) to buy 1 & 2. And you don’t even have to buy 2 to buy 1.

(After all, Kant didn’t, and he’s still a pretty great example to follow; though I think Kant’s incredibly austere personal life speaks to the fact that for most people an abstract ideal is not a sufficient spur to moral behavior. Hence, love—which, for you, may or may not be incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ.)

Conor goes on:

I couldn’t help feeling that, even as [PEG] came very close to grappling with the core of Witt’s essay, he ultimately talks right past one of her contentions. “I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated,” Witt wrote. “Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival.” It won’t [do] to simply tell her that love is the answer. The question her essay interrogates is what we ought to do when, having tried to find romantic love, it escapes us.

Again, this is due to the fact that I was sloppy and made implicit what I should have made explicit, but I think I tackled it in my post.

The reason my post ends with despair is because I do grapple with the question and ultimately find that there’s no good answer in our current culture.

When I say that “love is the answer” I don’t mean just for Witt, but I mean for the whole society. Witt makes clear that she has had long-term relationships that were loving that might have evolved into marriage. Witt states that marriage was once her goal but that it was tantalizingly and terribly just out of her reach.

One problem with current society is that what’s been called “serial monogamy” takes up a longer and longer stretch of our lives. What this screams to me is that people are increasingly afraid of commitment, and I can’t help but think that one reason is that we’re afraid of love. Even pop culture recognizes this. (I’m not trying to paint a picture of halcyon days, here. As a Christian, I believe in original sin, and every era was derelict. But in days when we got married early and stayed married, we were afraid of love in different ways, and through different means.)

Part of the reason for this is the divorce culture, right? One reason we’re all so afraid to get married is because we’re all so afraid to get divorced. No doubt many divorces are justified, but I think it’s also fair to say that a good chunk of the 50% (or whatever) of marriages that end in divorce could have been salvageable, and that if those marriages had been or were salvaged, we would have a stronger marriage culture, at least in the sense that marriage would seem less scary and more approachable.

And part of the reason is that we’re all more generally afraid of commitment. As Eve Tushnet and others have powerfully argued, in our contemporary culture marriage is death. Your wedding day is the day your life ends—all of your interesting life experiences happen before marriage, and marriage is what happens after you’ve “lived your life” and have had all kinds of good, interesting, formative experiences. There’s obviously a case for maturity before marriage, but it seems pretty clear that Witt (and countless others) are collateral victims of this new equilibrium.

The higher ed bubble is in large part a function of our collective fear of commitment (and also of economic insecurity, which is a topic conservatives should spend more time on)—college is, for many people, the thing you do when you don’t know what to do. And, for the right social strata, grad school after that. (And/or management consulting or some other job whose main value is that it doesn’t actually commit you to a career path but “opens options.”)

I am thoroughly a dynamist and a fan of innovation and globalization and everything else, but it seems that one nasty consequence of our wonderful modern life is that when there’s so much wonderful stuff everywhere to be experienced, we become paralyzed. It’s possible to welcome our wonderful post-scarcity world and still acknowledge some drawbacks.

I’ve been avoiding the language of disgust, but one very symptomatic and enlightening symbol of this—and a thoroughly disgusting one, I think more than a Kink video—is the recurring pop culture theme of the Groom afraid of getting married (or his friends fearing for him) because it means he’ll never have sex with anyone other than his wife again. This view implies such a devaluation of both sex and human people, and such a distorted view of what human life is about!… Sex (and life) is about having lots of interesting experiences, not about love and self-giving union. A “healthy” sex life is not about self-giving love, it’s about having lots of partners and experiences. As someone who’s been on both sides of that fence, it seems so self-evidently, dead obvious to me that this view is just hilariously false (not even morally wrong, just factually wrong; ie of course sex with a life partner you love is about a billion times better than hookups; real sex with someone you love is ever new, and (dear Lord) sex with a bunch of different partners is always the same) that its emergence is evidence of something really rotten. (It’s also very American; marriage is sacralized—the possibility of adultery or divorce is implicitly rejected—even as it’s emptied of meaning; the tension is between moralism and hedonism.)

Look—obviously I’m not saying everyone should pick a career and get married at 18, but it seems to me that the trends I’m describing are real, and damaging, and worth critiquing.

Anyway—to circle back to Conor’s beginning—how do we critique “hookup culture” or “dating culture” (or however you want to call it)? Are we stuck with a passé traditionalism on one hand, and total laissez-faire (as a smart libertarian, Conor knows that true laissez-faire abhors coercion) on the other? I think Conor is right to point that traditionalism is insufficient, outdated, and impractical (I can rant all I want against kids-these-days, it’s not gonna help Witt), and I think Conor is at least open to the idea that laissez-faire leaves something to be desired—certainly, in Witt’s case, it does.

The answer, it seems to me, is Kant. I happen to believe Kant leads to Jesus, but please just bracket that if it leads you to dismiss Kant.

Also bracket the marriage/chastity question. Is “ends-vs-means” a useful and moral way to think about sexuality? I think so. I think that the case that a prerequisite to treating another person as an ends in themselves through sex is to first make a lifelong monogamous commitment to them is, at the very least, not self-evidently absurd; I think there’s another case that even if it’s not true in all (most?) circumstances society would be better off it it assumed that it’s mostly true. But that question, while important, obscures the bigger “ends-vs-means” question.

The problem with hookup culture and dating culture is that it leads us to—it assumes that we treat each other as means, and not ends. That’s the definition of a hookup, isn’t it? From the point of view of consent-only ethics, hookups are unproblematic as long as they’re consensual, and even good if they’re satisfying. But even if the encounter consenting and satisfying, we’re treating each other as means. I want to have a pleasurable experience—whether it’s with Sally or Jenny or Dick or Harry doesn’t really matter. Unless Sally is totally hot, man. And this is also true of dating, right, insofar as when you’re dating someone you’re really mentally comparing them to your intellectual checklist of the Right Mate so you can have your picture perfect wedding with your house and your car and your kids.

And the fact that a culture of arranged marriage and child brides also treats people as means and not ends doesn’t really change that.

And I realize that once I’ve said that I haven’t really put forth a “solution”. But I do think that as we’re sort of collectively looking for a kind of language that’s appropriate for discussing and critiquing our current sexual culture, the categorical imperative is begging to be used, here.

Conor’s problem is that this line of thought might lead one to accept either married sex or chastity as the two possible life options, and that that’s unpractical and perhaps even cruel:

Celibacy, pending a change in life circumstance, is the answer that some folks would suggest. For them, the woman who fails find anyone to marry who wants to marry her, like the gay man who can’t find anyone of the opposite sex he wants to marry, is called to struggle and abstain. If one believes that all extramarital sex is contrary to the will of an infallible Supreme Being, that makes sense. I take it that Witt believes otherwise, as do I. “Back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter,” she writes. Without saying anything in favor or against her approach, the details of which are sparse, I’d add that my least favorite thing about Christian sexual ethics, which offer some valuable insights even to secular and deist observers who grapple with the relevant tenets, is the way that it consigns people unable to get themselves in a traditional marriage to a life without sex. They are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire, and all opportunities to connect intimately and profoundly with other humans, not because no one will consent to joyfully be with them, but because society purportedly functions best if its norms needn’t accommodate certain kinds of individuals as sexual beings, except as examples of what is sinful and aberrant. That fate strikes me as more lonely than the pornography or hookup culture Witt describes, and consigning people to it has never seemed very Christ-like to me.

I mean, look, if Witt hired me as her lifestyle guru (which would, I think we can all agree, be a terrible idea), I wouldn’t say “First, you must never under any circumstances have sex ever again until your wedding night.”

I think that Conor’s point is important, and Christians have to grapple with it. We might argue that this isn’t exactly what we’re saying, but it’s what a lot of people hear.

That said, a couple points.

First of all, obviously, I think it’s not crazy to think that at least one reason why chastity is so hard these days is because society is so sex-drenched. (And saying so does not mean that chastity wasn’t hard in previous eras, as the history of the Church—its saints as well as its villains—plainly attests.)

Conor finds problematic that the call to chastity means we “are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire.” But, of course, this is what Christianity says—we are indeed expected to forgo very powerful, innate desires. Like greed, like pride, like vanity, and yes, lust. In fact, it seems to me that any moral system worthy of the name implies the forgoing of “powerful, innate desire[s]”. (And yes, we agree that plenty of Christians, including the writer, are and have been really bad at foregoing pride and greed and chastity and all the rest.) The idea that to behave morally involves demanding self-sacrifice is, I hope, uncontroversial. (And of course Christians should stop being self-righteous about sex, should stop confusing abstinence and purity, and should stop thinking of sex as dirty. )

Which circles back to Kant. Yes, Christianity (particularly Catholicism) can be legalistic in its insistence on the marital context of sex, for reasons both historical and theological. But we’re not really debating the morality of loving sex, or relationship-embedded sex. There’s a continuum, right. Or maybe there’s not—which seems to me to be the question we’re discussing. If we’re in a consent-only world, then (assuming we have a functioning definition of consent, which is another can of worms) it’s black or white: consensual good; non-consensual bad. If we have a Kantian sex ethic, then we have a continuum; more ends/more means; more loving/less loving; more good/more bad, with, let’s say, shooting extreme porn, watching extreme porn, one-night stands, second-date sex, sex within an uncommitted relationship and sex within a committed relationship at various points along the spectrum. (And by the way, it should be obvious that a Kantian sex ethic is also an ethic of consent, since sex without consent is the ultimate treating-as-means.) We might disagree about where various things are where on the spectrum, or what to call them, or whether some distinctions are meaningful (e.g. unmarried loving sex vs. married loving sex), but at least we’re somewhere. We’re still lost, but we have a map, albeit a sometimes blurry one.

What Witt’s essay screams at me is that we’re lost without a map, we’ve forgotten what a map is, and that this is the map we need.

A common thing to hear from people who push back against the Church’s various rules on sex is Saint Augustine’s well known phrase, ama et fac quod vis, “Love and do what you will.” But if you know Augustine’s life a little bit, you know that to him that certainly didn’t entail liberation from sexual continence. Indeed he knew as well as anyone that a healthy sexual ethic is demanding.

Forget about the Church’s rules for one second. I don’t want to outlaw premarital sex, or get everyone to become a nun.

“Love and do what you will” cannot be “Obey these rules or else burn for eternity”, but it’s absolutely not (might even be the opposite of) just “Do what you will.” Which is what we have right now.

Ama et fac quod vis.

Consider The Fist And Other Essays

TAS alums debating morals and kinky sex? Where do I sign up!

By now the intellectual internet has read Emily Witt’s excellent n+1 essay, which is fascinating and is self-consciously only superficially about an extreme BDSM porn shoot in San Francisco. (In this post I will assume you’ve read the essay and will not censor my language.)

Here’s Rod Dreher calling it a glimpse of hell.

Here’s TAS Alum Noah Millman reacting to the essay and Rod’s post saying, essentially, why are you a bunch of squares (obviously his post is much smarter than this), and pushing back at the idea that there should be an ideal of morality that we should all conform to.

Here’s TAS Alum Alan Jacobs reacting to Noah and asserting the case against degrading sex with a poetic followup noting how lonely extreme sex can be.

EDIT: I had missed this additional post by Rod.

Here’s Noah taking Alan’s point and a further followup querying the concept of consent.

All of it is fascinating and very good, but I just sort of want to take a step back, because it seems to me that the discussion is headed in a direction that, while important, actually misses what was so striking about this essay. The question that Rod and Noah and Alan are sort of batting around is: are some kinds of sex intrinsically degrading? If yes, what and what does that mean; if not, why not and what does that mean. (There’s also a sub-debate about the difference, and whether there is one, between participating in sexual rituals and watching them over the internet.)

That’s an important discussion to have these days but I do think within the context of this essay it risks missing the forest for the trees.

There are several threads to Witt’s essay: there’s the Kink shoot, but there’s also the San Francisco Googleplex of smart beautiful healthy empty robotic people, there are also as Alan notes glimpses of the human devastation that San Francisco’s sheen hides but that all San Franciscans know (“A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill”; “a side street haunted by drug addicts and the mentally ill just south of the Tenderloin”), and there is finally Witt’s own ruderless personal life.

What is the thing that binds these things all together? It’s not kinky sex. It is, and the piece screams this at me, an utter absence of love.

What this piece is is a description of is what happens when not only people don’t love each other but don’t even have the idea that that is something they ought to do.

If with orthodox Christian theology we describe Hell as the absence of God and God as love, then Rod is absolutely correct that this piece is a glimpse of a Hell on Earth, but perhaps not for the reasons Rod had in mind.

And so while Alan is right to push back against Noah’s notion that getting anally fisted in public is just in Noah’s phrase “San Franciscans flying their freak flags” and to point out that this is self-degradation, I think the right way to understand the piece is to query what is it that makes us want to be degraded, or degrade, or watch people be degraded (while we degrade ourselves), rather than whether degrading is degrading.

Because, to talk about the kinky sex for one second, degradation is what it’s about. What’s arousing about a Kink video is not the anal fisting; what’s arousing is what happens before: the girl being paraded with a sign reading “I’M A WORTHLESS CUNT.” This is the subtext, and this is what generates the arousal. Unless you have an anal fisting fetish, which is not true of enough people to make Kink a viable business enterprise (and even then one might query the reason for the fetish), anal fisting is a turn-on not because of the act itself but because of what it means; that is to say, degradation.

What’s most striking about BDSM is how much of a prisoner it is of Christian sexual ethics. For all the talk of BDSM practitioners about how they are free from “vanilla” sexuality, they are in fact their slave: they simply take vanilla sexuality, and then do the opposite. If you define yourself in opposition to something you are not free from it; you are enslaved to it. And this isn’t just about “putting tab A into slot B”, but about the requirement of traditional sexual morality that sex must be radically other-centered and therefore radically equal—so BDSM must be radically authoritarian. If you could have a definition of Christian sex, a good one would be “a radical denunciation of power”—so of course BDSM must be all about power. If Christian sex is all about self-giving, then BDSM is all about possession. (And the well-known point that in BDSM, it is actually, if you think about it for two seconds, the “sub” who is the master, does nothing to change that.)

And by the way, this is why it’s so powerful, right? Power, domination, possession, these are all the things we crave, deeply, and powerfully, and BDSM promises to give them to us in a radical, deep way through one of the most powerful experiences of humanity, which is sexuality. Good BDSM sex is great.

Christianity cares about sex ultimately because it recognizes that sex is a microcosm of human nature, with its potential for the highest or the lowest. Within sex, we can radically give ourselves to another, but within sex, we can indulge our deep, deep needs for power, or powerlessness—that is to say, in either case, selfishness.

Once we’ve said all of this, we can safely realize that what matters when we think about sex is less specific acts than what they entail and what we are actually doing.

But let’s forget about the sex and God for a second.

If you were to describe how everyone in the piece behaves—the people at the Kink shoot, the Googlers, and Witt herself—, a good place to start would be to say that they’re behaving as anti-Kantians. No one is treating anyone as an end in themselves. Everyone is treating everyone as a means.

In our contemporary sexual hellscape, the thread that binds everything together is that we treat ourselves as means. The Google Princes treat everything as means. The Kink people, obviously—the female porn star is here for an experience, she doesn’t care about Princess Donna or anyone else; the male porn star and Princess Donna are here for a pay check; the bystanders are here for, take your pick, satisfying base urges or simply cheap thrills. (This is where Alan was right to push back against Noah’s notion that they were behaving in a “civilized” way—they were, within the bounds of that particular culture, polite but they were very much uncivilized in the sense that everything they were doing was about them. That’s the difference between politeness (in French, the word for “polite” and the word for “polished” are the same) and courtesy: politeness is merely formal adherence to external standards of conduct, while courtesy is the expression of care for other people which may or may not come through adherence to external standards of conduct properly understood. True civilization is courteous before it is polite. And the discussion about consent, while interesting, leads us astray from this, I think, deeper point.) And Witt, finally, in her own personal life, is treating others as means. She was once looking for a permanent relationship, but she didn’t really know why, except for a vague sense that it would be good for her, and so then she looked for hook-ups, but that hurt other people, and she doesn’t really know how to feel about that, and now she doesn’t know what she wants. (I want to say that I admire Witt’s courage for laying it all out, and I’m certainly not casting stones. It’s not her fault that she lacks the moral vocabulary to understand her actions.)

The thing that all these things have in common is not anal fisting. The thing that all these things have in common is that everybody is treating each other like means and not end in themselves, and not only that, but they don’t seem to even have the concept that there is another way to treat people.

And obviously I think the best way to be a Kantian is to be a Christian. Treating other people as ends in themselves is a wonderful idea, but why, and how, should we do that? The only answer, it seems to me, is love. (And that love, in turn, can only be credible if it is a person.)

Witt writes:

I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival. So, back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter.

As if love was something…no human could escape.

What sadness. Of course, we are powerless to “instigate” love or “ensure its duration” if we live in a society that is completely fixated on everything else and on extinguishing it. If everyone is fixated on themselves. If we’re all dangled toys in front of each other, whether labelled “nice car”, “anal fisting videos” or, perhaps the worst, “keeping my options open”. Oh yes, by all means, seek out love, but don’t commit to anything, particularly not early, particularly when there might be so many other interesting things out there to see or do.

And thus, how is it possible to not understand this:

After a decade or so of living this way, with occasional suspensions for relationships that would first revive my belief in romantic love and its attendant structures of domesticity, and then once again fail and extinguish them, I started finding it difficult to revere the couple as the fundamental unit of society. I became a little ornery about it, to be honest: that couples paid lower taxes together, that they could afford better apartments, that there were so few structures of support to ease the raising of a child as a single person, that the divorced experience a sense of failure, that failed marriages are accompanied by so much logistical stress on top of the emotional difficulties. All this because we privilege a certain idea of love. The thought of the natural progression of couples, growing more and more insular, buying nicer and nicer furniture, shutting down the world, accruing things, relaxing into habit, scared me. … Why was love between couples more exceptional? Because it attached itself to material objects, and to children? Because it ordered civilization? I probably would not have a baby without love, and buying a home seemed impossible for all kinds of reasons, but I could have sex. I had a body.

Yes, if “love” is about getting a house and getting a car, and paying less taxes, and if it’s an endlessly receding horizon, then it starts to feel a bit of a ripoff, doesn’t it?

“But, you can have sex. You have a body.” (No, by the way, you are a body.)

That’s when the anal fisting comes, but that’s not where the despair is. The despair is before.

Yes, we’re all getting screwed, in more ways than we realize.

Why Good Societies Stigmatize Anti-Semitic Language

Andrew Sullivan has noticed that some kinds of language that are sometimes used to criticize a lobby like the NRA are not considered acceptable to use to criticize Israel or “The Israel Lobby.”

I’m really going to presume that Andrew (I don’t know Andrew Sullivan personally, but it seems that if you’ve been in the blogosphere long enough, you get to call him Andrew) is acting in good faith, here, and is genuinely vexed by this, and try to explain. I think/hope that it might be useful to do so, because I do believe that there are some people who feel the same way as Andrew in good faith (though there are also a lot of people for whom this kind of talk is simply an expression of anti-Semitism).

I mean, the reasons seem obvious.

The first obvious reason is that gun owners are not an ethnic group. In post-Enlightenment society, we recognize that people who are members of a group by choice are more open to criticism for being part of that group than people who are a member of that group by birth. I’m sure Andrew is well aware of how the emergence of a consensus of homosexuality as innate, and not chosen, has affected conversation about the gay community. We would cringe if President Obama (or a white Democratic politician, for that matter) was described as, say, “pandering to the Black Lobby” for addressing the NAACP.

The second obvious reason is that there is no record in history of a totalitarian regime embarking on a plan to exterminate all gun owners as a group and nearly succeeding, or of a major figure of a currently existing thuggish regime calling for the extermination of gun owners, or of a disturbing number of clerics of a major world religion calling for holy war on gun owners, nor is there a constant drumbeat of examples of gun owners, all over the world and for all of recorded history, being victimized in various ways for being gun owners.

The third obvious reason is that the language and ideology of gun owners’ alleged behind-the-scenes political influence, itself standing for a belief in their intrinsic malevolence and treacherousness, does not have a centuries-long history of being used as a spur for discrimination, mob violence, and massacres against gun owners.

Our society, quite reasonably in my view, has developed a taboo against the use of words associated with group hatred, as a way to stigmatize said hatred. White people can’t use the n word in contemporary polite American society because that word is associated with the memory of white people who used that word and bought and sold black people as chattel. The fact that it’s possible in theory to be a Non-Racist White Person and still utter the n word is irrelevant—and quite rightly so! And the taboo is all the stronger because there still are white racists around who use the n word and want to hurt black people. And we think it’s wrong. So we stigmatize it.

By the same token, and for obvious reasons, it would not be received in the same way if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is gay” and if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is a fag.” If I wrote the latter and defended myself by saying that I was only stating a fact, I would be ridiculed, for obvious and good reason. The word “fag” is not considered noxious because it refers to a gay person or because of the sound the syllable makes, the word “fag” is considered noxious because it is a symbol and instrument of group hatred.

And expressions like “Jewish lobby”, which carries the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are a shadowy clique that secretely controls the government have been—for centuries, around the world, to this very day in some places—used as spurs to mass violence.

Now, does this mean that it’s “impossible” to criticize the State of Israel, or America’s Middle Eastern policy, or AIPAC? Does it mean that Chuck Hagel is a dhimmi or an anti-Semite? Of course not. Does it mean that there are certain phrases that you may not use to be considered civilized? Does it mean you shouldn’t write just quite the same way about AIPAC—or the NAACP—as the NRA? Yes. Is this just? Absolutely.

Period.

And I could just leave it at that, but I’ll press on, because it is (very) important and I haven’t seen formally spelled out the argument for the pressing duty of combating anti-Semitism in all its forms, including rhetorical, including accidental. In contemporary society, when someone earnestly screws up about race, the opportunity to assert moral superiority is so strong that the opportunity to explain is almost never taken.

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The Pitfalls Of Impressionism In Narrative Art

The central challenge of great narrative art is to present characters that feel like real people. The problem with that, of course, is that each person is a universe. Each person is depths of complexity, frailty, irrationality. We only barely know ourselves and don’t even know our spouses and children well. It’s a mark of true genius to be able to build characters in a piece of narrative art where you can feel this character has the same infinite depths as an actual human.

Since it’s impossible to portray these infinite depths, the best way to do that is to let people “take a peek under the iceberg.” Show just enough that the reader or viewer is just capable of discerning, through a glass darkly, that there are immense depths within. Show too little and the character is a cardboard cutout. Show too much and it becomes artificial. You can see the gears whirring inside the mechanical turk.

The work of art that I know that I think pulls it off the best, is War and Peace. Every single character in that book feels like a real person. Like a sculptor chipping away, Tolstoy shows us archetypes that he then refines into real people that are absolutely, thoroughly, 100% believable. Prince Andrey is a hero, but is also insecure, rejecting the woman he loves because she might have been with another man. Pierre is a coward of hidden depths and who rises to great maturity. And this is true of every single one of the Russian-novel-countless characters in the book. Criticism of War and Peace focuses on its pretty silly metaphysics and philosophy, but it is really a wonderful character book. You want to read it and read it over and over again and make these characters a part of your life because you know you’re never going to hit bottom with them. They’re infinitely deep just like you and me (well, mostly me) .

One potentially fruitful way to reveal “just the right amount of iceberg” is through what I’ll refer to as “narrative impressionism”: telling your narrative through small sketches instead of a continuous storyline. Narrative impressionism lends itself to this because it is intrinsically suggestive: the whole point is to show just enough to suggest much, much more. But the real pitfall of narrative impressionism is also obvious: not showing enough. And not just showing enough, but by showing only the things you want to show, revealing the artificiality of the narrative. The reader/viewer gets into the habit of, with each new scene: “What is it the author is trying to tell me here? Oh, So-and-so is this type of person. Got it. Please move on, now.” Characters become dry and one-dimensional.

I write this a propos of The Tree Of Life, which I only just saw yesterday and was underwhelmed by. (Spoilers below the fold.)

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The Radicalizing Of A Young Conservative

I like to think of myself as a pretty moderate guy. I like to think that politics is the art of the possible, and try to support policies that could get passed in the real world (while trying to shift the Overton Window a little bit with my writing). I especially like to think of myself as the kind of guy who remembers that no “side” has a monopoly on truth, and that all sides are mostly made up of well-intentioned people who want a better future for their polity. I like to think it’s important to remind myself that I’m a Christian first and a right-winger second, and that Christians in the public square should have what Catholic social doctrine calls “a preferential option for the poor” ; that while I very often disagree with the Left on how to make this option real, the Right too often forgets about it altogether in practice. On so-called social issues, I like to think of myself grandiosely first and foremost as a peacemaker, not a warrior ; when I talk about abortion I am more likely to talk about building a society that welcomes all life than about legal restrictions (and even then to talk about a gradualist approach) ; more likely to talk about strengthening all marriages than to talk about banning certain ones ; (much) more likely to view gender politics through a feminist than a traditionalist lens ; and so on.

First, let’s be honest: there’s probably a lot of affect here. Part of it is how I want to be seen by my contemporaries, which in my elite world are majority liberals: a conservative, maybe, but a Serious, Reasonable one. Not one of those Tea Party types who watch Fox and read Breitbart.

But I’m increasingly wondering if my self-conscious moderateness doesn’t also include a good deal of self-delusion. What if what’s at stake is much more fundamental than I think? What if it really is a war, and I’m too foolish to notice?

I think back on the HHS Mandate hoopla. Is this a technical issue or an other prong in a sustained, deliberate assault on religious liberty? At the time, I was openly derisive of the latter view. Sure, the Obama Administration was giving a sop to an interest group which was problematic for a bunch of reasons, but that was no threat of the Republic. My main preoccupation when thinking of the HHS Mandate was to figure some sort of compromise, not fight tooth-and-nail. As a Catholic, the idea of forcing Catholic hospitals to cover contraception makes me cringe, but is it really the end of the world? After all, I live in a country where my taxes pay for free abortions…

Then again, as Ross Douthat noted at the time in a very important column, the HHS Mandate relied on and promoted a truncated vision of religious freedom; one, which, taken to its logical course, is not just un-American, but deeply illiberal and unjust. As Megan McArdle noted, there’s a (deeply creepy) way in which lots of liberals seem to think that religious groups should consider themselves lucky to be allowed to exist as social institutions in the Grand Liberal Order. The mentality of the HHS Mandate and of many progressive reforms and wish-lists leads to a world where mediating institutions— families, religious groups, community organizations, local governments—are pared down and pared down until, as one of my Twitter followers put it, “the individual stands naked before the state” (and its conjoined twin, crony capitalism ). Is this the end game, or just collateral damage? And if the latter, it is one that progressives seem utterly unconcerned by, rendering the question rhetorical. First they came for the Catholic hospitals, and I said nothing, because I wasn’t a Catholic hospital…

I am writing this today, of course, because of Kermit Gosnell. I’m not even going to argue that there has been a black-out* by the mainstream mass media on the coverage of this horrible, horrible affair. Smart, secular, pro-choice writers like Conor Friedersdorf, Jeffrey Goldberg, Megan McArdle and Dave Weigel have seen it. If you think that it is totally normal for an editor or producer at mainstream media organization to hear about a story of a serial killer who kept a collection of feet, who was allowed to keep perpetrating for years and years, who preyed on minorities, and yawn, that this is totally normal for contemporary US mainstream media, or if you think that the story has already received plenty of coverage, you are just not, to coin a phrase, a member of the reality-based community.

(* By using the word “black-out” I am not alleging the existence of some conspiracy, just describing what effectively happened, whether through incompetence, blinders, etc.—or conspiracy.)

The near-universal vehemence with which many progressives have asserted the normalcy of the Gosnell coverage has completely baffled me. Are they completely deluded? Are they cynically lying? No doubt, on the whole, a mix of both. But who cares? If this is the mentality of the Left, if this is the extent of self-delusion and/or deceit they will go to suppress a story which might possibly give political advantage to the pro-life movement, they mustn’t be compromised with, they must be utterly defeated.

What’s all the more striking, and indeed gut-wrenching, is that the Gosnell story is also a social justice story. Gosnell preyed—was allowed to prey—on the poor and on minorities, because they were poor and minorities. It shows us in its disgusting detail not just the horrors of abortion in 21st century America but also the horrors of inequality in 21st century America. But, as a matter of fact, to the contemporary Left, the egg of calling attention to deep injustice against the poor must be broken to get the omelette of preventing any chance of any restriction on abortion whatsoever. I say as a matter of fact, because while many lefties would loudly proclaim to disagree with the previous sentence, what has actually happened is that they all collaborated, as one man, to proclaim that Gosnell must remain uncovered—thereby, of course, all-but ensuring that we will have more Gosnells —social justice be damned. If poor young women must die like dogs so that more babies—the word for viable foetus is baby—can be killed, then so be it. If this is really what the contemporary American Left stands for, any compromise with it would be shameful.

So I’m getting radicalized. I’m increasingly finding, or at least wondering, if I’m not fooling myself by trying to find a way to give half a loaf. We in Europe remember, or at least we should, the “salami tactics” by which Communist parties, by slicing off one concession after another, eventually grabbed full, totalitarian power.

Understand me: less than a week ago, I would have rolled my eyes at a comparison between the contemporary American Left and mid-century European Communist parties. If a liberal journalist had mocked it on Twitter, I would have approvingly retweeted it. Now I find myself surprising myself by making it.

Do I think that all contemporary American left-wingers consciously want to destroy liberties, mediating institutions, indeed transcendence itself, and make us all part of the Borg collective? No. But then again the self-soothing illusions of the useful idiots were no reason not to oppose Communism at every step.

I realize how crazy it sounds, what I’m writing. It sounds crazy even to me. But blind naïveté is also a form of insanity.

Welcome to the mind of a radicalizing young conservative.

Don't Tell Me I Can't Be a Feminist House Husband

Into the ever-churning vortex of debate about leaning in/having it all comes Lisa Miller’s New York cover story bogus trend story about “the feminist housewife,” women who have, without changing any of their feminist convictions, decided they’re happier staying at home with the kids as their full time job. They insist that having a career mattered to them, but it simply couldn’t compete with the tranquility and stability of having one parent managing the household full-time. Several of Miller’s characters describe their pre-housewife lives as miserable and frayed by stress and marital tension. With both parents working, neither gets to the spend the time they want with the kids; dividing up the domestic duties and communicating about them non-stop makes life transactional and exhausting; inevitably someone’s dreams are going to get shorted. So the (two!) women in Miller’s story say they’ve discovered, in giving up an outside career and settling into traditional gender roles, that there really is some kind of “natural” groove of the dad going to work and the mom taking care of the kids.

This mass of work-family issues is debated to a pulp, and yet it somehow seems like no satisfying conclusion is ever reached. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering that we are living through one of the greatest technological and economic revolutions in the history of the planet, and it’s a little ridiculous to assume that answers will be discovered easily. But there are several things these splashy gender-bomb articles tend to consistently leave out of the picture to the detriment of any serious discussion about the important issues they raise. So with this latest article as an example—and Anne-Marie Slaughter, et al, following closely in the rearview mirror—let me try to point out a few things that are continually overlooked and gotten wrong.

They’re too narrowly focused on rich people. I’m far from the first to point this out, but it’s striking the extent to which these debates about who chooses to do what are moot when the conversation is taken beyond wealthy white people. The main character of Miller’s “feminist housewife” story has a husband who makes “low six figures,” which may not be “rich” by Wall Street standards, but is a hell of a lot more than my wife and I make working two full-time jobs. One of us quitting is all but out of the question, and would be all the more so if we had a child So all the talk of optimal arrangements and the “hell” of filling each other in on domestic responsibilities we split becomes meaningless outside of a situation where you have considerable financial flexibility to adjust your domestic arrangement. For many people—including a majority of the people working for places like The Atlantic and New York magazine—the ability to have afford a child at all where they live is a much more pressing question than how to divide the chores.

They’re too narrowly focused on women. We are living in the golden age of the Great Women’s Internet Polemic, and, while I heartily support writing about and for women, this age—with its high quotient of trend exaggeration and trolling—actually does a disservice to public debate about family issues. Despite the way they are often packaged and discussed, I don’t see articles on subjects like Miller’s or Slaughter’s as “women’s issue’s journalism”; these issues are vitally important to my life as a husband and future parent. But when the conversation is all or mostly about who is and isn’t a proper feminist, and what magazine is getting how many pageviews by trolling who, it starts to feel like we’re spinning our wheels on a subject that our society desperately needs to discuss. (Not that that need by any means precludes discussion of the feminism angle; in fact, I’d say the bigger problem is the lack of male writers besides Rod Dreher, PEG and a couple others willing to engage.)

There is a desperate need for men write about what we absurdly think of as “women’s issues”—not to “mansplain” to women about what needs to be done, but because we have just as much or more work to do figuring out how to handle modern work, marriage and fatherhood. How much does a career matter? What are we prepared to give up to be parents? Do we have a realistic picture of how two careers and two kids are going to work in practice? And on and on. Unlike women, who have now had decades of feminist dialogue in which to work out these issues as the world changed around them, men have not thought and written enough about what a revolutionized world means for our choices and priorities.

They make too many assumptions about the genders, especially about men. It’s depressing to see old gender stereotypes returning as something like a settled truth: women “naturally” care more about kids and are better domestic administrators, and men are only fulfilled by outside work. (The main character of Miller’s story explodes with oddly unsubstantiated maxims of this sort, things that might as well have plucked from Phyllis Schlafly’s diary by Suzanne Vencker.) I don’t care whether you back it up that kind of claim with bullshit evolutionary biology or bullshit fundamentalist theology, it’s manifestly contradicted by the world around us, which has nothing but endless variation. Very little about the genders is “naturally” one way or the other. Many, many women dislike children and, even if they don’t, struggle to feel what others blithely call “maternal instincts.” An equal number of men are gifted with children, and only passively and regretfully put in their time at the office to feed the family they love. If someone were to seriously suggest that my wife will somehow “naturally” enjoy spending every day with our kids more than I would, or would be better at managing the household, I would ask if they had taken leave of their senses.

Nowhere does this tendency to impose gender stereotypes lead to more problems than in the sexist way we treat work-family balance a concern that only women face. Most of the time, men are never assumed to face any kind of choice about how they will sacrifice to have a family, or worse, not expected to sacrifice at all. Unlike women, if they succeed at work, all is more or less well and good. They’re automatically excused when they manifest their learned helplessness at cooking, washing dishes, paying bills, etc, while women still feel intense social pressure to succeed at those things even if they have full-time careers or don’t have that apocryphal female aptitude for grinding chores. I couldn’t possibly describe all the couples my parents’ age in which, even if the man is a natural administrator and the woman is not, the woman is left to shoulder—often poorly and with resentment—domestic responsibilities she’s no good at. The “women’s work” assumption still silently underlies the way we live and think, and the mythology that the man must go out each day to conquer the world continues to shield him from questions and choices that should fairly be addressed to both partners.

They fail to challenge the American idolization of work. So many of these discussions preserve the sacrosanct place of the career in American life, and this is perhaps one of the greatest impediments to actually achieving some sort of workable solution. I appreciate the women in Miller’s story who discovered—surprise, surprise—that jobs and careers are massively, massively overrated in American social life. But everyone in the story, including and especially their husbands, cares too much about work. As both Miller’s subjects and New York Times reporter Michael Winerip admit, being the stay-at-home parent is often lots more fun that schlepping to an office every day. Personally, I’d rather spend any day with kids than co-workers. If we could collectively admit that we often value and commit to work at a far deeper level than it deserves, maybe we wouldn’t be so neurotic about choosing arrangements that make sharing domestic life more natural: working from home, part-time jobs, freelance projects, and occasionally, a few years off when the kids need us most. The world really can wait.

Update: Tracie Egan Morrissey and Jess Grose have solid takedowns of the Miller article and both agree with me that its “weird gender essentialism” is not only made-up bullshit but pretty insulting to men who are great with kids and housework.

Cutbacks or Hostile Media Effect?

Pew just came out with a State of the Media report. The main interpretation (which seems to originate with the authors) has been that the media are stuck in a death spiral as cost-cutting decreases coverage which in turn diminishes the audience (eg, see here and here). I have a lot of sympathy for the death spiral model and it’s certainly a relatively appealing model for journalists and j-school types (as it implies a switch to a subsidized and/or NPO model will solve all their problems) but as a reading of the survey results it is simply wrong.

The fundamental misunderstanding is to presume that consumers evaluate news coverage the same way the CJR does. They don’t. As argued by Gentzkow and Shapiro, consumers evaluate news with regards to their ideological priors. That is, almost nobody reads the newspaper and says “I am offended that this story seems to have allowed the journalist inadequate time to report the story exhaustively” but lots of people read the paper and say “I am offended that this story takes the point of view that I disagree with.”

So when consumers answer “yes” to the question “Have you stopped turning to a particular news outlet because you felt they were no longer providing you with the news and information you were accustomed to getting?,” they probably aren’t thinking “I miss the in-depth reporting and investigative work I used to see” but rather “I no longer trust the media as reflecting my values.”

There are three key pieces of evidence in the report itself for the Gentzkow and Shapiro model:

  1. When asked to elaborate problems with content, far more respondents said “The stories are less complete” than “there are fewer stories.” I strongly suspect by “less complete” many respondents are choosing the closest available option from the forced choice set to map onto “bias” allegations.
  2. Dissatisfaction and abandonment is concentrated among men and Republicans. Although there are “hostile media” allegations from the left (eg, Herman and Chomsky, Media Matters, etc), in recent years conservatives have been the most vociferous in alleging media bias and providing an alternative “fair and balanced” media ecosystem. As such, conservatives are exactly among whom you’d expect to see the Gentzkow and Shapiro effect concentrated. (I’m bracketing the issue of whether it is justified for conservatives to feel this way since for our purposes only their subjective views are relevant).
  3. 57% of respondents who are aware of media financial problems think they’re immaterial to coverage about national and international issues. I’m not one to believe that survey responses have to be logically consistent, but this only makes sense if you think the issue is bias, not man-hours.

The upshot is that my reading of the survey in light of the Gentzkow and Shapiro model is that the way for media outlets to survive and thrive is to engage in what traditionally trained journalists would regard as lower quality, by forsaking the objectivity genre and pandering to their readership’s beliefs. To a large extent that’s what we’ve been seeing already over the last generation as a process of creative destruction.

(Cross-posted at Code and Culture)

Same-Sex Marriage And "Equality"

Perhaps nothing highlights the fundamental misunderstanding and outlook difference at the heart of the same-sex marriage (SSM) debate than the question of whether SSM constitutes “equality.”

On this point, perhaps more than any other, SSM “progressives” and “conservatives” (allowing the very truncated use of these terms for a second) just are not able to understand each other, and find themselves hitting a brick wall.

To the conservative, it’s obvious that describing SSM as “equal rights” and “equality” is nonsensical. Everybody has the same right to marriage. What progressives want is not an equal right to marriage for gay people, it’s to redefine the institution of marriage so as to shed its heteronormativity. Regardless of whether that’s a bad idea or not, it’s got nothing to do with “equal rights.” Progressives don’t want an equal right to get married, they want the creation of a new “right to marry the person I’m attracted to regardless of their gender.” And this new right would redefine marriage as something it’s not.

Progressives just seem unable to even comprehend that this point of view exists. (Here in France, when a Member of Parliament said that gay people already have a right to marry, it was reported as her “calling on” gay people to get married to opposite-sex partners.) When they encounter it, it just seems to them as pure semantics— a distinction without a difference. Without SSM, gay people clearly don’t have the right to get married with the kind of person they’re attracted to—it’s only a technicality that this is actually a new proposed right, not an equal right. For all intents and purposes, gay couples lack a right that hetero couples have. (Pointing out that this merrily conflates individual rights with group rights is, again, beside the point.) Nobody is redefining anything, simply fixing an odious, outdated and inexplicable discrimination.

It’s really striking to watch this. (I’ve been on both sides of the argument.) At some point you’re tearing your hair out.

So, who’s right? Who’s wrong?

It might be worth thinking about which argument carries more weight in the society. The conservative one is increasingly losing steam, and the progressive one is gaining seemingly irrevocable power. It doesn’t mean one is true, but it does suggest a way out (or, rather, above) the dilemma, because it reveals something about the debate.

They’re both right. They’re both wrong.

The conservative is obviously right that SSM represents a redefinition of marriage from how it’s been traditionally understood. But he’s wrong that SSM advocates are the ones who want to enact this redefinition. The redefinition of marriage has occurred in the Western World over the past 40 years. It’s not teh gays, it’s teh straights who have turned marriage into “I like you, you like me, so let’s throw a big party,” and the redefinition is not happening now in state legislatures and courts, but has happened over the past couple generations.

If marriage is defined this way—a contract between two people who fancy each other—, then the progressive is right that opening marriage to same-sex couples is a simple question of equal rights. Of course it’s discrimination to prevent same-sex couples from getting married. The progressive is wrong that his understanding of marriage is the only possible one, or that it is so commonsensical that the contemporary understanding is superior to others that it is not worth even entertaining that there might be other desirable ones, or that “marriage” might have a definition between “what [two] people agree to”.

With this understanding of the “equality” debate within the SSM debate, we can understand how much of a red herring the SSM debate is. The marriage equality movement is not the vanguard of a redefinition of marriage, it is the rearguard, and the redefinition was done by straights, not gays. Easy divorce and late marriage, old phenomena which had good social conservative cheering sections or on which social conservatives are almost completely silent, destroyed the traditional understanding of marriage beyond anything that SSM can do.

Why has this redefinition occurred? I’ve ultimately come to believe that (along with a good dose of myopia), the change has come due to technological and economic trends that are beyond anyone’s control, and that conservatives need to find a way to reinforce marriages within the contemporary framework rather than focus on the illusory task of rolling it back. (Encouraging early marriage—and the social structures that make early marriage worthwhile—seems to me to be the most promising avenue.)

Natural Law And Secular Enlightenment Morality

Why do natural law arguments fail these days? Is there such a thing as the natural law? How should we view it/talk about it?

Over at The American Conservative, ever the best right-wing journal today, that’s the discussion that smart people have been having. While Rod Dreher and TAS Alum Alan Jacobs wonder about the failure of such arguments, TAS Alum Noah Millman, ever the sharp intellect, dissects the idea of the natural law. It’s a post very, very much worth reading, and a quote won’t give the flavor of the thing.

Noah’s analysis really gets at why it’s hard to talk about the natural law and why it’s a concept that doesn’t work.

But I want to jump off and point out something different, which is that these days the natural law is always discussed within the context of religion, but while it is a concept that is very much born of religion—one of the Catholic Church’s many great contributions to human thought and advancement—it is not a religious concept, and what’s more, it’s much more useful as a secular concept.

To violently compress about a thousand years’ worth of history of ideas, the Church invented the concept of the natural law as a way to “secularize” its theological edicts. To use a terribly modern metaphor, the natural law is an “interface” between metaphysics and morality and law. Why should you not kill your brother? Not just because the Bible tells me so, but also because it is contrary to our human nature which we can understand through the exercise of reason, etc. As Noah points out, there is always a bit of a two-step involved here: at the end of the day, how do we know that something is part of our nature and that this is important? Well, because God made things that way.

“God made our nature thus, therefore the natural law says X, therefore secular law should say X to conform to natural law” can be reduced to “God made us thus, therefore secular law should say X to conform to God’s design” without loss of meaning, like an equation with “+ 5” on both sides of the = sign. That’s not a problem with arguments from metaphysics—which will always happen because we’ll always have metaphysical beliefs—that’s a bug with the natural law.

So far so good.

But here’s the problem: secular Enlightenment morality is also based on the natural law.

The idea of universal human rights was the greatest moral revolution in history since the Sermon on the Mount, and it has given us phenomenal, unimaginable moral progress, from reductions in cruelty to modern governance to unimaginable prosperity. Universal human rights are pretty important.

But of course, as any freshman philosophy student can tell, the problem comes when you try to ground those universal human rights. Where do they come from? Who confers them? Why should they be respected?

There’s basically only two ways to do so, one theistic and one non-theistic. Universal human rights are perfectly grounded if they come from God, as the Declaration of Independence asserts and as I believe in my heart of hearts. But not everybody likes that, and it sort of defeats the purpose of creating this secular moral system to begin with.

The only other way that I’m aware of to ground the idea of universal human rights is in, wait for it, the natural law. Without appealing to God, the only way to ground the idea of universal human rights is if there is such a thing as human nature, which is shared by human beings, because they are human beings, and which includes the endowment of rights. This is the classic formulation of secular Enlightenment morality. Because human beings are beings “of a rational nature”, they have rights, the Enlightenment tells us—the key word here being nature. The insane still have human rights, the Enlightenment tells us, because even though they may not individually be rational, they share human nature, which itself is rational, and thereby endowed of rights.

This seems absolutely crucial to me. No human nature, no natural law, no human rights, no secular Enlightenment morality (as we have thus far been able to understand these things).

We’ve been talking about how if society decides to reject the natural law, it poses a problem for religious people, because it closes off an avenue of argument. But if society decides to reject the natural law, it poses a much, much more serious problem for the secular Enlightenment project, because the whole thing collapses.

At the risk of sounding tautological, the doctrine of universal human rights only works if human rights are universal. And human rights are only universal (and human) if you don’t have to earn them somehow, but instead are granted them simply for being a human. And if simply being a human confers rights, it must be because there is something about being a human that confers rights (yes, again, a tautology), which is to say, there is such a thing as a human nature that all humans share.

And to continue stating the obvious, universal human rights matter so much, because if you slice off one part of humanity as possessing no rights, not only is that intrinsically immoral, but pretty soon no one at all has rights. Universal human rights is the best (only?) bulwark we have against all of the worst horrors that humanity conjures, and they only work because they’re universal.

So, to circle back to the beginning of this post, if the natural law is rejected, it’s a problem for religious argument, but it’s an eminently surmountable problem. I don’t need the natural law to know, or express, how God feels about theft. For secular morality, however, it’s a fatal problem.

As a Catholic, the decline of the natural law leaves me almost indifferent. As a fan of and believer in secular Enlightenment morality, it leaves me very, very, very concerned.

Should We All Learn To Use Guns?

TPM’s Josh Marshall has written a very good post on the gun debate.

What makes the post very good is that he recognizes something which everyone in the gun debate knows but no one says: this debate is as much, if not more, about tribalism than it is about policy. Pro-gun control people, in the main, simply don’t like guns. They don’t like them because they don’t know them. They don’t like them because they symbolize things they don’t like. They don’t like them because they don’t like the kind of people who do like them.

And vice versa, of course! Gun people are a tribe too, and they don’t like the non-gun people.

And, Mr Marshall says, that’s fine. Or at least, it is what it is. I’m a non-gun person, hear me roar!

This is very good, but it’s not what drove me to write this post. Mr Marshall also recounts an anecdote. The anecdote is meant to highlight why he doesn’t like guns, but I draw a very different meaning from it.

Here it is:

I also have a random and kind of scary experience from childhood. I’m probably or 4 or maybe 5 years old. We’re visiting someone’s house in St. Louis where we lived at the time. I’m off in some part of the house away from the parents playing with the little girl my age in the family. And I see a gun. Looks like a rifle or shotgun (I was too young to know which.) I pick it up, aim at the little girl and jokingly go ‘pow!’. And when I say ‘go pow!’ I mean I said ‘pow!’

But that’s when things got weird. Basically all the blood ran out of this little girl’s face at once, which was totally weird to me. And she said in something like shock, “that’s a real gun.”

Now let’s see how Mr Marshall interprets this memory:

The point, though, is that it was totally outside of my experience that a gun I might find in someone’s house might be a real — possibly loaded — firearm as opposed to a toy. The fact that I didn’t pull the trigger when I said ‘pow!’ was just dumb luck. (…) How would my life have been different had I pulled the trigger? (…) I’d have been a murderer at age 4 or 5.

It’s fascinating that Mr Marshall after all these years and adulthood still doesn’t interpret the little girl’s words correctly, and still doesn’t know what a 5-year-old gun-person knows.

The girl didn’t say “The gun is loaded,” or “You could have killed me,” or “Watch out with that thing.” She said “That’s a real gun.”

The number one thing you learn growing up in a gun household is that you do not touch a gun without an adult present, and you do not point it at anything (you’re not willing to shoot).

If the girl’s parents were halfway responsible gun owners the gun was unloaded and with the safety on, and the girl was never in any danger. And the girl probably knew it. The reason she went white in the face was because Josh (unknowingly) broke a taboo. Gun people don’t point guns at each other and go “pow”—even if the gun is unloaded and it’s totally safe. You just don’t. Even at 5. I did it once and I learned my lesson.

The reason Josh’s friend went white in the face isn’t because she was in any danger, the reason she went white in the face is because he did the gun culture equivalent of asking How much for the little girl? at a fancy restaurant. If I took someone shooting, I think I’d be less aghast if he grabbed my wife’s tits than if he took a handgun with the slide pulled back (that means, visibly unloaded and therefore harmless) and went “Pow! Pow!”

An anti-gun person hears this story, and thinks “Because of a gun a little girl could have died, therefore guns are terrifying.”

A gun person hears this story, and thinks “Boy, anti-gun people are really ignorant.”

Now, I write this in the spirit of Mr Marshall’s post: I’m not trying to lecture him or call him an idiot or whatever. I just want to use this to highlight how the two cultures are different and how they see things differently.

I’m sure there’s people who keep their guns unsafely with kids around (shudder), and heck maybe Mr Marshall’s friend’s parents were one of them and he really did almost kill a girl.

But if there’s one thing to take away from this story, it may be this: if we’re going to live in a society with guns, probably we should teach our kids about them. Just like we teach them about venereal disease. I’m a father, and the idea that one of my kids might grab a real life rifle and play around with me fills me with a mix of bafflement and anger. I remember very well the first time I saw the rifle above my grandfather’s bed and was instructed in absolutely no uncertain terms never to touch it without an adult present. In the same department as “Putting your fingers in the power socket.” Now I’m an adult and I’m sure I could just ask to take it shooting, but whenever I see it I still feel the pang of awe and foreboding, so strong was the taboo.

The point is, when I grew up guns were a part of life, and so I was taught about them, and therefore I was safer around them.

Gun-people usually stop here and say “Therefore, people who criticize gun rights are just ignorant. Let’s move on.”

That’s not my point. (My own stance on gun rights is closer to Jeffrey Goldberg’s and Garry Wills’ than Wayne LaPierre’s.) My point is more straightforward: if we’re going to live in a country with 300 million guns, regardless of the law, perhaps we should learn (and we should make our kids learn) about them, and at the very least how to be safe around them. That means, possibly, including in school. That means recognizing that talking about guns might require knowing about them.

That might also mean that if we’re going to be a gun-rights country, that should put heavier burdens on all of us—gun-owning and non-gun-owning—than it currently does.

Brother Nothing

It’s seductively easy for the educated Christian to poke holes ten ways to Sunday on this apologia of atheism which puts forward a distraught mom as the best defender of theodicy and firmly grounds the freethinker’s moral sentiments on a foundation of nothing at all.

On the morning of the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon retreated from the most advantageous positions to make himself appear weak and crush Coalition forces in their overconfident advance. It seems that the intellectual Christian always pulls the same maneuver when faced with intellectual atheists: the language of reason, atheists think, grants them the advantage; let them come, and I will defeat them on their ground. And indeed, executed properly the maneuver works like a charm: most contemporary proponents of atheism, in their contempt, are often quite ill-prepared for the arsenal of argument that Christian apologia has built over the centuries. Upon reading, say, this excellent effort by TAS Overlord Ross Douthat, one is tempted to utter “one sharp blow and the war is over.”

But while I enjoy a bout of metaphysical fencing as much as any other former philosophy freshman, I kind of want to step back for a minute and highlight this kind of atheism for what it plainly is, which is a natural outgrowth of Christianity.

There are many flavors of atheism, but the kind on display here and from the most prominent atheists of this generation (and the one before that) is clearly a phenomenon with Christian roots, and inseparable from them.

This atheism, first and foremost, demands an omnibenevolent God and an omnibenevolent man, just like Christianity. But of course the idea that God should be omnibenevolent exists only because of Christianity. It’s ridiculous to demand benevolence of, say, the Greek pantheon of vain bickerers and adulterers. It’s Christianity that puts forward the idea of a God of universal love who—therefore—demands universal love of His creatures. This kind of atheism cannot (and indeed, historically, does not) exist without the assumptions that Christianity has buried deep within the Western psyche.

So far so good. Plenty of Christians have noted this, but they usually deploy it as a sort of gotcha. I want to ask what it means.

And here it is: Christianity is a story that begs for disbelief. It makes claims whose extravagance go beyond those of any other religion. A pantheon of deathless jerks who screw us for kicks is a much more acceptable answer to “Why do bad things happen to good people?” than a kiss on the lips.

A deeply weird universe demands a deeply weird metaphysics, and boy, does Christianity deliver. It’s the you couldn’t make it up if you tried religion. And that’s fine. Great and proper, even. But let’s recognize it for what it is. Christianity is ludicrous. That’s why it’s true. But that’s also why it causes unbelief.

Brother Nothing stalks the heart of the believing Christian. Upon hearing, as I did recently, of the serious and vicious illness of a friend’s toddler, upon seeing the dried tears at the corners of her mother’s reddened eyes, how could I not have a pang of doubt-rebellion, how could I not ask myself “How could the God of Love let this happen? What if it’s all bullshit?” Maybe my faith is weak. (“The leads are weak? You’re weak.”) But I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

Atheism as a psychological phenomenon and philosophical stance is the logical product of a religious story that makes incredible claims about God. It’s what makes it easy for Christians to dismiss it—of course we have all the answers, it takes the questions from us!—but it’s also what makes Brother Nothing our companion.

A friend once wrote “I am a Christian because it is the most optimistic hypothesis, and therefore the most likely one.” It’s a good line, and I think I could say it and mean it, but the retort is obviously that the most optimistic hypothesis is rarely the most likely one.

Trite and true: faith requires a leap. But there is no leap without chasm. Without an abyss of nothingness stretching before you, beckoning you as you teeter over the edge, a ball of ice in your stomach, staring at the void with perverse fascination.

So yes, atheism is kind of silly philosophically, and pointing it out is fine, but it’s also our Brother Nothing. A God of Love, personal and incarnate, is an idea so outlandish that once you utter it you invite even nothingness as an alternative.

This world, where the void feels like both the default setting and the most appealing hypothesis, is the one we made, with our absurd ideas.

And I think it’s a good thing, too. In a world where Brother Nothing jabs his finger at our chest with every atrocity, Christianity needs to be properly Christian to survive. Christianity can’t be a social convention or a a prop for social order, not with Brother Nothing stalking us. It can’t be “Your kid died because God works in mysterious, dickish ways. But he loves you, like, totally.” It has to be a kiss, a fire, an embrace of warmth. Nothing else will stop the void which travels with us.

Sometimes if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

A big question on the mind of American francophiles and Parisians who don’t have Stockholm Syndrome is why so many people you meet in Paris, particularly shopkeepers, cashiers and other people you meet in the context of commercial interactions, behave like jerks.

When it comes to understanding France, it seems the rosetta stone of American francophiles is the work of Adam Gopnik, the noted New Yorker writer, and Gopnik has an explanation. Both of my American francophile friends who are currently in Paris, Jim Manzi and Rod Dreher, have separately brought up this explanation, so it’s been in the back of my head.

Here’s Rod :

In “Paris To The Moon,” Gopnik wrote about how Americans focus on customer service, while the French focus on the one giving service. The thought here is that people giving service are there to perform their job according to particular methods and standards. Serving a customer is not really the point; doing the job the Way It’s Done, that’s the point. The method, however mad, must be observed. If the customer interferes with that, it’s the customer who is out of line. The customer is always wrong.

Gopnik tells a story about a 1997 public controversy involving a British tourist and an elevator operator at the Eiffel Tower. The woman bought a ticket to the top of the tower, but for whatever reason decided to get out at a lower level. The elevator operator refused to let her do this, and allegedly manhandled her. She had money and connections and a lawyer, and got the elevator operator fired. The other elevator operators went on strike, and the French public supported them. Gopnik says this episode revealed a basic difference in cultural psychology. For us, the elevator operator exists to provide the paying customer what she wants; for the French, the paying customer exists to allow the elevator operator to practice his metier. As Gopnik puts it, so much misunderstanding and frustration between the French and les Anglo-Saxons comes out of this desire of Anglo-Saxons to get what they want without having to deal with real people, clashing with the French desire to do their professional duty without having to deal with real people. The first, he says, leads to Disney World; the second leads to Paris in July.

Yesterday I was at the big deli counter in the Monoprix on the rue de Rennes, standing in front of the carrot salad bin. Two young employees were standing behind the next counter, doing nothing; they had no customers. Though they faced another way, they had seen me standing there, and held their ground. I thought, “Maybe I have to put my order in at the next counter, where they’re standing.” I walked over and said, in French, that I would like a demi-kilo of carrot salad, please.

The young man who heard me shot me a look of confusion, then irritation. “Monsieur,” he told me, by which he meant you stupid ill-mannered child, “I will help you, but you must know that that is not my counter.”

I told him, in French, to please excuse me, I didn’t know, and not to worry about it.

“No, monsieur, I will help you,” he said, as if he were dispensing charity. “C’est pas grave.”

So French shopkeepers and so on are not rude because they’re rude, non non non. They’re rude, because you see, in French culture, there is this notion of métier, and it’s just that customers get in the way of performing your métier.

I’ve given this some thought, and after mulling it over, I’ve concluded that it’s crap.

Most of the people you encounter in France in the context of these interactions are not actually performing a métier (the English word, I believe, is “craft”).

Sorry to break it to you, American friends, but most of the bread in most of those wonderful, so authentic French bakeries, is rolled off a factory, made with a machine and sometimes frozen. The bakers making and selling the bread don’t have much of a craft. Trust me, I make my own bread. Some bakers are outstanding craftsmen dedicated to their work. (And, contrary to the stereotype of the insufferable genius, in my experience the most talented craftsmen are also the most approachable and nicest…) There is no métier for them to be distracted from.

Rod’s carrot salad people weren’t rude to him because he interrupted them in the process of doing their job. They were rude because he interrupted them in the process of slacking off by asking them to do their @#&§$ job.

Sometimes Occam’s Razor is useful. Sometimes the reason why someone appears to be a jerk is because of a complex cultural edifice. But sometimes the reason why someone appears to be a jerk is because that person is, in fact, a jerk.

I submit that the reason why most French waiters, salespeople, etc. behave like insufferable jerks, is because that’s what they are. They live in a culture where this is self-reinforcing, where there is an emphasis on rules instead of serving the customer, where there is no culture of tipping, etc. But that doesn’t really change anything.

In a way, this reminds me of the media hoopla about the whole “French Parenting” thing. I am grateful for American expat journalist Liz Garrigan for writing about the reality of French parenting:

What’s more, they are much more willing to wage emotional and physical warfare with their children than my friends and I are (and remember, I’m representing not an American perspective but an international one). It obviously can’t be said that all French parents are the same, but what passes for acceptable here as a means to make children compliant is unacceptable to every expat parent, no matter the nationality, I know.

I’ve seen a woman on the sidewalk grab a teen’s hair and pull him to her violently, a woman beating her son in the car seat to make him shut up, and perhaps more damning than anything else, I’ve seen French parents simply ignoring their children. Entire coffee klatschs here are dedicated to recounting deplorable French parenting we’ve witnessed.

There is no doubt that French children are more behaved when they are being judged by their behavior than their American counterparts. French children know their parents don’t mind exercising very unpleasant means of punishment should they fail to mind their Ps and Qs. But here’s what happens — and again, this is such a universally accepted truth among everyone I know that it’s offensive to us to see this style of parenting held up as the ideal: French kids don’t have fun at home, they don’t have fun at school, so when they get to a neutral place like the playground, where their mothers or nannies talk on the phone or take smoke breaks, they are often prone to act like wild animals.

Truly, many Parisian parents regard the park as a place where they can simply ignore their children, and children know that just about anything goes there. They will shamelessly take toys from their peers, assault other kids savagely, literally climb on top of younger children, brazenly disregard the direction of other parents, and look at you with seething hatred in their eyes.

My wife and I are constantly shocked and appalled by what can only be called the casual cruelty parents exhibit towards their children in this country. I wonder what métier the girl who was pulled by the hair by her mother was distracting her from. But hey, maybe the mother eventually produced an exquisite croissant, so it was all worth it in the end.

There’s no métier involved when parents routinely treat their own flesh in a way that I would be ashamed to treat my worst professional enemy.

Here’s the reality: when you have a country full of jerks, these people will be jerks to their children, who will grow up to be jerks to everyone and perpetuate the cycle.

Liberalism, Secularism and Political Theology

I have an essay up at Religion & Politics, a great new site that covers just what you would expect, reviewing two recent books by secular critics seeking to salvage the structure of religion for their respective projects:

If the violence of September 11, 2001, accomplished one thing, it was to force the United States, and by proxy the other Western powers who joined its military adventure in the Middle East, to drop the pretense of being secular nations. When one saw some of the most prominent atheists in American discourse calling for crusades against Muslim invaders, the supposed progressivism of our intellectuals—which still regularly and loudly proclaims its superiority to the passions of religion—looked a bit less convincing. Osama bin Laden had forced us to admit that, while the U.S. may legally separate church and state, it cannot do so intellectually. Beneath even the most ostensibly faithless of our institutions and our polemicists lie crouching religious lions, ready to devour the infidels who set themselves in opposition to the theology of the free market and the messianic march of democracy. Our god may not have a name, but we kill for him just the same.

With theologically energized political movements raising a din among both citizens and enemies of the state, the liberal paradigm—which depends on legal secularism, representative politics, and market economics to suppress deeper social conflicts—seemed more and more besieged. Though it still has its champions, the secularism that triumphed in the nineteenth century has been ill-prepared to handle the voracious economies it unleashed, and the religious currents it struggles to contain. (The riots that began across the Middle East last week are yet another illustration of how explosive the reaction can be.) But now, scattered across philosophy, religion, and literature departments, a movement of critics is working to meet the challenge of this post-secular age. As our political system depends on a shaky separation between religion and politics that has become increasingly unstable, scholars are sensing the deep disillusionment afoot and trying to chart a way out.

This piece and the ideas it discusses are very much beginnings for me, intended much more to be asking questions than providing answers. I’m sure members of the TAS mafia will have very different perspectives, so I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments at R&P.

What #TDKR gets right: totalitarianism

There seems to be a fair amount of discussion of The Dark Night Rises’ politics. Since I’m going to be discussing the movie assuming readers have seen it, this post will be below the fold.

Read the full article

PEG News

For those still watching this space and who don’t follow on Twitter, here are some PEG-related news which may be of interest:

I have started a market research firm, which is called Noosphere — right now our website is a placeholder where you can sign up for updates (please do!), but over time we will have interesting announcements, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, I am also blogging at Forbes. Here it is. I will be writing not just about technology, but also about economics, general business strategy and global issues.

Because Forbes isn’t the best place to do it, if and when I want to write about culture/philosophy/theology, I may do it here. In the meantime, if that’s what you’re into, you should definitely read this interview of Leah Libresco by Eve Tushnet.

The Case for Regressive Taxation

Please bear with me as this is more of a thought experiment than a manifesto… We’re talking equality again. Here’s Bain Capital executive Edward Conrad, putting forth the case for inequality, and here’s TAS Alum and all around genius extraordinaire Jim Manzi, guest-blogging for Friend of the Scene Megan McArdle and arguing that inequality is a bug, not a feature. Conard has set off a firestorm of discussion, and while I’m not sure I agree with him I think he is at least not easily discounted.

With that in mind…

Believe it or not, I’m quite sympathetic to the idea of progressive income taxation. The moral argument according to which, when one earns a lot of money, one should give back more (more proportionally, even), is one which I am wholly untroubled by and even endorse.

Some will point out that progressive taxation is not “giving back” more, it’s “being forced to hand over” more, and to these I say: humbug! Elizabeth Warren’s right: if you become rich in a developed country, you are the beneficiary of the common goods established by a nation (education, enforceable contracts, infrastructure and so on) and financed by taxation, and you are a party to a social contract that says that in exchange for these common goods if you use them to make lots of money you shall hand over lots of it. From a moral and legal perspective, the state is not the same as society, no, but it is a representative of it which is legitimate through elections and the enforcement of the rule of law and certain fundamental rights. It is therefore entitled to as much as your earnings and wealth as it wants until that share shades into expropriation, and while we can argue about where the border to expropriation lies, I don’t think you can straightfacedly argue that it lies westerly of any progressive tax.

I’m even untroubled by the idea that taxation can have moral goals beyond economic policy. As long as you’re not collectivizing the kulaks, it is legitimate (desirable is another question, but legitimate) for a polity to say “Even if we get slightly less economic growth, we think it’s morally right to use redistributive/progressive taxation as a means to reduce income inequality, because we believe income inequality is intrinsically wrong.”

In fact, it seems to me that there is a strong presumption for progressive taxation. From an efficiency perspective, the correlation between low tax rates and prosperity is, at best, unclear. From a moral perspective, the case for progressive taxation, at least the weak case (“If you make lots of money you should give back more”, as opposed to the strong case “Redistribution/high income reduction is desirable in itself”) seems to have a lot going for it.

These long prolegomena as a way of saying that I am not approaching the question of how progressive taxation should be from the perspective of a rabid anti-tax activist.

Now, if we accept that there is a strong presumption for progressive taxation, what could the case for regressive, or at least flat, taxation be?

For such a case to be convincing, one would have to show that the “spillover effects” of great wealth are indeed massive to overcome this presumption.

There are two basic kinds of spillover effects you can argue: there’s “trickle down” effects, and then there’s what I’ll call “the Model T” effect.

Let’s take trickle down first. The very mention of “trickle down” is likely to elicit hilarity since the idea of beneficial “trickle down” wealth is seen to have been ridiculed as a political ploy to redistribute wealth to the rich.

That being said, the case for trickle down effects cannot be wholly dismissed. The basic economic case for wealth trickling down is unassailable: the rich do spend and invest money and that money, in turn creates lots of economic activity. The question is not whether wealth trickles down, it’s how much, and whether this effect is sufficient to overcome a presumption against progressive taxation.

Based purely on anecdotal gut instinct, I’d say that trickle down wealth is pretty awesome. If you look at the great cities of the world, these are cities where there is a lot of concentrated wealth trickling down. From my perspective, New York is a much greater city than London which is a much greater city than Paris, and it is no coincidence that the better cities have large concentrations of rich people. By “better”, I mean with more cultural amenities, better restaurants, nicer neighborhoods, better business and employment opportunities and all the stuff that makes city life worth living.

When I look at Brooklyn, for example, I see a resurgence of a crafts, shop-class-as-soulcraft economy which I view as a great harbinger of the future of the economy, with small-scale, global-reach entrepreneurship displacing conventional employment. While most of the actors of this economy probably view themselves as embarked on a progressive endeavor, it seems obvious to me that this economy could never have seen the light if there wasn’t a high concentration of rich people with plenty of disposable income in New York, willing to pay higher margins for pickles and artisanal cheese. It’s hard for me not to find a very strong correlation between the awesomeness of a place and the number of superwealthy people who live there.

Same with culture and arts: one strong argument in favor of progressive taxation is the idea that rich people with too much money will engage in negative-sum competition to acquire positional luxury goods, and that it’s therefore better to just redistribute that money away. But while it’s hard to make the case for (lavishly subsidized, by the way) multiple megamansions as socially productive positional competition, positional competition among the superrich also takes the form of patronage for the arts, culture and well-being, either through the for-profit market (ie buying fine art or pursuing angel investments) or through non-profit markets (ie donations to various charities). In fact, one might argue that socially wasteful positional competition occurs among the merely rich, while socially productive positional competition occurs among the superrich: while you might impress a fellow multimillionaire with your huge new house, you’re definitely not going to impress a fellow multibillionaire with your private jet—but you might if you fund lots of charity. If indeed moderate wealth leads to socially destructive positional competition but large wealth leads to socially productive positional competition, the counterintuitive solution to socially destructive positional competition among the wealthy might be to cut their taxes even further.

It also seems obvious to me that what is thought of as deleterious effects of concentrated wealth are really deleterious effects of regulation: concentrated wealth drives up New York rents, but the reason why the rents are too damn high is because of regulation rather than just wealth concentration. Another problem with New York wealth is education: mediocre public schools on the one hand, absurdly expensive private schools on the other; but I hope I don’t have to spell out for frequent Scene readers why it’s the gummit that’s to blame here.

This isn’t by itself an argument against progressive taxation. You’d have to find out whether and how much spending by rich people creates these positive externalities, and whether and how much those externalities are countered by the virtues of progressive taxation. And I don’t think there’s a way to “prove” it one way or another, because these things can be measured and modeled in all sorts of different ways. But my strong feeling is that the benefits of trickle-down tend to be severely discounted.

Ok, so that’s trickle down. The other benefit to low taxes on the rich is what I call the “Model T” effect.

What’s that?

I take it after a quote by Silicon Valley investor Paul Graham: “You need rich people in your society not so much because in spending their money they create jobs, but because of what they have to do to get rich. I’m not talking about the trickle-down effect here. I’m not saying that if you let Henry Ford get rich, he’ll hire you as a waiter at his next party. I’m saying that he’ll make you a tractor to replace your horse.”

I think this is a crucial insight. It’s both accepted and misunderstood.

It’s accepted because, as we saw at the death of Steve Jobs, most people will actually not begrudge the wealth of someone who built wonderful products.

We have a model where, in essence, Steve Jobs is like Adam Smith’s baker: we know he’s selfish, and we don’t necessarily like that he’s selfish, but his selfishness has positive spillover effects that make the world a better place, so we should let him be selfish. Okay.

Another point which is important is that this effect happens because of “what people have to do to get rich.” In some societies, like Nigeria or France, the way you get rich is by getting cozy with people in government who will redistribute advantages to you. In other societies, possibly, the way you get rich is by providing useful goods and services to a marketplace and thereby make the world a better place. (I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine in which category financial wizardry falls. (Hint: the former, mostly.)) So it’s very important that we have good institutions and the rule of law and so forth. So the case for free market capitalism is, at minimum, a case for good government and the rule of law. It might even be a case for small government, insofar as the less things are controlled by government, the less unjust advantages it can confer. Maybe.

Anyway, the Model T aspect cannot be discounted. You don’t have to fall into John Galt worship to recognize that entrepreneurship, and more generally a vibrant free market economy, creates massive positive externalities in the form of consumer surpluses and products and services that improve people’s lives.

The question is, again, whether and to what extent high taxes deter this activity. Whether high taxes would have deterred Henry Ford.

This dynamic is related to the rise in income inequality around the world. Let’s stipulate this for starters: income inequality has increased around the world because of some combination of technology and globalization, with taxes playing only a marginal role. (Inequality increased in most developed countries; it increased more in the US, arguably because of taxes, but it increased everywhere.)

If this is true that technology and globalization are driving more inequality, and that we don’t want to destroy technology and globalization, what should tax policy be?

One answer, which I’ll call the Yglesias answer, is that precisely because of this effect there should be more progressive taxation. The “excess” gains that our galtian overlords get is not due to their increased talent or winsmanship, but to a global economic context, and so those excess gains can and should be shaved away by taxation.

But there’s another way to look at it: because of technology and globalization, what happens is that entrepreneurial outcomes follow a power-law rule, where the winners win very big, and the “second-best” or “third-best” actually don’t win out that much. Thus Facebook is worth $100 billion, MySpace was worth half a billion, and everyone else is worth zero.

This can be viewed as “unfair” and therefore more argument toward redistributive taxation. But there’s a flip side to that coin: you want these power-law outcomes.

They’re best regarded as a lottery. The rational response to a lottery is to not play, because the statistical value of a lottery ticket will always be negative. But in the power law lottery, we want people to play, and what reality teaches us is that more people play when the gains are truly outsized: witness the success of the recent mega millions lottery.

In theory, the response to a lottery with huge gains and a lottery with ginormous gains should be the same. In practice, it’s not. In practice, you want the possibility of truly outsize gains to motivate people to join the lottery.

And this is not just true of entrepreneurs—again, we shouldn’t become Galt-worshippers—but more importantly of the ecosystem around them, such as angel investors, institutional investors, risk-taking purchasers and so on.

The pro-market case for progressive taxation paints a picture of a world where progressive taxation leads to a “same, but less” world. Sure, well-meaning advocates allow, you might get slightly less innovation and risk-taking at the margin, but on the whole you’re going to get roughly the same. You will still have Jobses and Zuckerbergs, and you will have a better safety net.

Except that if we’re in a power-law world, that risks being much less true. It’s obviously not a Manzi-level controlled experiment, but it’s striking to look at the fates of technological innovation in Europe and in the US. In the US, there are dozens of publicly traded internet companies worth more than one billion dollars. In Europe, there are three, and up until a couple years ago there were zero. It’s a massive difference. None of these European companies has global reach. All three are part of protected markets; one is Betfair, which deals in online gambling where US companies are prohibited from competing and the other two are Yandex and Mail.ru, Russian companies that no one doubts benefit from implicit government protections. Its not “same, but less.” It’s completely different.

And even though Silicon Valley is, at a first approximation, the only place in the world which invests in innovation, you can make an argument that it dramatically under-invests in innovation, as Peter Thiel among others has argued. Institutional venture capital has dramatically failed at its mission.

When we talk about billionaires and Model Ts, it’s striking to note that most of the new space ventures, for example, are by and large funded, not by institutional funds whose job it is to take risks with other people’s money, but by individual billionaires taking risks with their own money. In theory it is the institutionals who should have more incentive to take bigger risks; in practice, they don’t. But it’s not hard to see that Jeff Bezos might not fund so many space companies and robot companies if he was a “mere” billionaire and not a deca-billionaire.

Solving the Model T problem in a power-law world might indeed require regressive or at least flat taxation.

Now I want to reiterate what I’ve said at the outset: my gut moral instinct is to support progressive taxation; I’m not also convinced by this case for low taxes on the rich, though I think that this case is understated and poorly understood.

There are also many devils in the details: for example, the ways in which the tax code subsidizes Big Finance, which is also a big source of inequality. In my preferred financial system, you might see less superrich financiers, or at least for sure less superrich non-entrepreneur financiers.

Another important devil is that if more inequality is indeed desirable, this increases, not decreases, the impetus to “look after” the “losers”, and to design systems where, to coin a phrase, rising tides lift all boats.

How To Starve The Beast With A VAT

France’s technocratic state has created many monsters but one of the great things it did for the world was when a polytechnicien and inspecteur des finances (one of the worst technocratic beasts one might imagine) invented the VAT in the 1950s. Perhaps it is by chauvinism that I like the idea of the VAT.

Uniquely among industrialized economies, the US doesn’t have a VAT. Part of the opposition comes from conservatives, but some conservative wonks frequently make the argument for a VAT, now recently with the esteemable Josh Barro.

In a characteristically clever post, Will Wilkinson responds with the usual conservative argument that a VAT is a “money machine” that would make it hard to “starve the beast.”

(There’s a DC joke that goes something like: “We can’t get a VAT because conservatives think it raises lots of revenue and liberals think it’s regressive; we’ll get a VAT once conservatives realize it’s regressive and liberals realize it raises tons of revenue.”)

I should say at the outset that I do have sympathy for conservative objections to the VAT. I have a soft spot for American exceptionalism (and national exceptionalism in general); generally, to me, the idea that a US policy stands out is a presumption for that policy, not against it. I also strongly agree with the conservative insight that taxes need to, to put it frankly, hurt. It needs to sting to send your money to the taxman, that way (conservative version) you’ll want lower taxes (kindlier, good-government version) you’ll want more accountability out of your dollars.

But this idea that taxes need to hurt, or at least be felt, is connected to another conservative meme which has recently resurfaced: the idea that there is some kind of injustice to the fact that a large number of Americans pay no income tax. If most people aren’t hurt by taxes, they’ll demand ever more taxes on Other People to pay for ever more services that they don’t pay for directly. I have a lot of sympathy for that idea. It’s also one reason why I am such a staunch opponent of payroll taxes (the other being that it’s a tax on jobs).

I remember when I was a teenager and a student, I would argue to family members that taxes are great because they pay for public services and so on. (I think taxes should be low; still, they’re awesome.) The inevitable patronizing response would come: “You’ll see, you’ll feel differently when you have to pay taxes.” This would send me into fits of boiling anger. First of all, was the presumption that I couldn’t—that no one should—differentiate between my own particular situation/interest and the general interest. But most of all, I would scream (inwardly, in most cases), I DO pay taxes! Every day! Twenty cents out of every franc/euro I spend goes to the government in VAT!

And indeed, when Republican politicians opine that lots of people “don’t pay tax”, a lot of wonks would note that most who don’t pay income tax do pay various other taxes, and those that don’t are so poor that it would be cruel (and impractical) to force them to.

What does this all have to do with VAT?

Well, if you want to achieve the conservative policy goal of making most people “feel” taxes and even have them hurt a little bit, you should have a VAT. But you should do it right: along with the VAT, you should mandate that all prices be shown pre-tax (as it already is in most US states for sales tax, I believe), and forbid the showing of post-tax prices.

Whenever someone buys something, they would have to do some basic arithmetic (and forcing all Americans to jog their brains by doing basic arithmetic on a daily basis would certainly be a judicious policy achievement in itself) and think about how much of their money goes to the tax man. It would ingrain in everyone that things have a “real” price, plus money that goes to Uncle Sam that they have to pay on top of it. And that daily reminder would be associated with the minute, but real pain of having to do math in your head, which is unpleasant for the vast majority of people. (Heck, it is for me, and I have a job that requires non-trivial numeracy and involves lots of playing with numbers.)

It’s obviously impossible to be 100% sure (Jim Manzi would have to design an experiment), but I’m inclined to think that in such a context, citizens would be highly attuned to proposed raises in the VAT, since they’d have to compute new numbers several times a day, and more inclined to demand accountability for the newly-raised dollars.

You would also achieve the conservative/good-government goal of making everyone, not just a few, feel/realize that they and everyone else are paying into the Treasury for common goods, instead of a nebulous Other paying for their services.

A completely oversimplified look at US vs French education systems

I’m pretty sure the US educational system is superior to the French one. This is sort of a counterintuitive idea, in part because the narrative the US school reform movement tells itself is based on the idea of OMG US education is THE WORSE EVAR that won’t let us win the future by beating the Chinamen at math.

And there are those international comparisons that look pretty bad (even though they’re generally not normalized by income, family situation and the like).

But here’s another way to look at it. Let’s play a little veil of ignorance game: what can you reasonably expect, as a child, in either country?

Painted with a very broad brush:

Born in the underclass, in the US: You’re pretty much fucked. Your school is a stereotypical rundown den of pathological behavior where unionized, talentless, unmotivated teachers are just punching the clock.

Born in the underclass, in France: You’re pretty much fucked. Your school is a stereotypical rundown den of pathological behavior where unionized, talentless, unmotivated teachers are just punching the clock.

Born in the middle class, in France: Your local public school is mediocre. You will come out with terrible spelling and grammar. You probably won’t be numerate.

If you have any affinities beyond the most narrowly academic, unless you’re very lucky or very determined, you’re fucked. You will be categorized as dumb and put in tracks that will end up with you on the unemployment line.

Want something better, or just different? Tough luck. Maybe there’s a local Catholic school, but it’s a big expense, and anyway private schools must obey government curriculums, which means they won’t really be any different.

Born in the middle class, in the US: Your local public school is mediocre. You will come out with terrible spelling and grammar. You probably won’t be numerate.

But hey, at least you can pick and choose among some of your classes, there’s a school play, there’s probably a sports team, there’s a glee club, and A/V club or whatever. High school is a mean, and cruel scene, but there’s probably a little bit of something for everyone.

If you want something different, however, you’re in luck! It’s not going to be easy, but there’s plenty of options. Private school is expensive (even though there are scholarships—not for everyone, but better than the zero of France). And by now, even the smallest cities in the US have either a magnet school or a charter school, or some weird school that focuses on teaching classics or arts or is a Montessori school. If your parents want to homeschool, there are probably other students and parents near you who are doing it who will help you, and there’s a wealth of resources on the internet.

The point is that things could and should be a heck of a lot better, but there are many more opportunities to do something different.

Born in the upper class, in France: If you enjoy schoolwork, you will come out of high school knowing a lot of math, more than sophomore math majors at all but the top-tier US universities. You will also probably know some history (nothing before 1789), and have read two or three classics of French literature (nothing before 1830). You will vaguely know who Plato, Descartes and Kant are. If your parents are old-fashioned, you will know a few words of Latin. Your odds of having proper spelling and grammar are about 50-50.

If you enjoy extracurricular activities of any sort—programming, or chess, or art, or music, or sports at any sort of advanced or competitive level—sorry, you’re on your own! And anyway you probably shouldn’t have extracurricular activities, because if you want a good shot at life, after high school comes 2-3 years of cram school for the entrance exams to the grandes écoles, where you’re expected to study for 70-80 hours a week.

Born in the upper class, in the US: You have access to schools that are orders of magnitude better than anything else the world has to offer.

Again, painted with a very broad brush, but the core idea, it seems to me, from both anecdotal and statistical evidence, is accurate, that for a given family in a given situation, if you’re in the US, it’s hard to be worse off than in France, and often there are many more possibilities to be better off.

On "Bad Religion"

(This post is written at 11pm, so it might not be coherent.)

Bad Religion is an important book that should be read by anyone with interest not just in religion in the American 20th century but by the trends that animate contemporary society and the thinking of our contemporaries.

The first part of the book is a fascinating history of American religion and theology in the 20th century. The second part of the book is an illumination of some of the most pervasive cultural memes that undergird many social trends today.

And the conclusion, which I don’t want to say is the most valuable part of the book but is certainly the one I enjoyed the most, is a very smart and useful clarion call for a renewed Christianity in the West, which as soon as I’m done typing this I will go staple to the foreheads of many people, whether turgid ecclesiastics or la-di-da churchgoers.

It’s an important work that straddles theology, history, sociology, politics and more. Ross borrows some phrases from himself, but they’re good ones.

That’s the sales pitch. If you’re at all interested by any of the stuff we talk about here, go buy the book and read it. Really.

I said to David on Twitter that I’m not sure I would make a good reviewer for the book, as I basically found myself nodding in agreement at every page. But I’ll give my best effort.

One thing I found striking was the parallel with Ross’s previous book, Grand New Party. Both books follow the same structure: they’re basically two books in one, the first part about the past, and the second about the present.

In both, the first part is an intelligent and illuminating reexamination of (what the reader thought was) well-understood 20th century history that it casts in a new and convincing light.

But while in Grand New Party the second part was about how the world could or should be, in Bad Religion the second part is about how the country’s gone to the dogs.

This makes for less bracing reading, but it shouldn’t discourage you from reading it. The heresies that Ross eviscerates are much in need of eviscerating, and he does it not just using the tools of theology, but also uses history, sociology and cultural criticism to analyze these heresies and show their nefarious influences. This makes these examinations valuable even (especially) for non-believers, who either might think that the Gospel According to Oprah (or Joel Osteen) is a footnote in our Weltanschauung instead of important trends, or who might have trouble finding the right framework for understanding and critiquing that contemporary worldview.

(The NYT review faults Ross for spending too much time debunking the lost Gospels industry, but he wrote a very useful primer and crucially, the idea that “the real Jesus” is up for grabs undergirds all the following heresies, and it’s worth understanding the origins—and limits—of that view.)

In particular, as a European Catholic who thinks his Church would do a lot of good in the world if it embraced more libertarian economics, I found that Ross strikes a perfect balance in his critique of the prosperity gospel, showing how orthodox Christianity can and should be highly suspicious of Mammon while remaining compatible with the free markets I hold dear. (My Political Views on Facebook: “John Paul II + Milton Friedman”)

And the chapter on “The God Within” was just a joy, a perfect perforation of perhaps the most pernicious postmodern virus.

One criticism: I wonder if in his rush to highlight the heresies he condemns, Ross didn’t give short thrift to potential inklings of, if not an orthodox revival, then certainly orthodox vitality. I was surprised that someone like Rick Warren only gets passing mentions. Warren may be a Hawaiian shirt-wearing megachurch pastor, but he is, in today’s America, very mainstream for an orthodox Christian, let alone an Evangelical.

While much of evangelicalism seems to have responded to the general culture’s disdain with either political belligerency or withdrawal into a subculture bubble, some evangelicals are trying and not doing too badly at building a sort of proto-neo-orthodoxy. (Indeed, Warren often gets called “the new Billy Graham.”)

If there’s a key to Warren’s success beyond his skills as an ecclesiastical entrepreneur, one which might point a way to a successful 21st century orthodoxy, it’s that he has co-opted the most successful aspects of the heresies Ross denounces—the things that makes them resonate with so many of our contemporaries—, and used them to promote orthodoxy. Like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the title of his best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life” hints at a self-help message from a therapeutic God Within, but the book delivers an unambiguously orthodox message, right from the famous first sentence “It’s not about you.” Warren is morally conservative but inclusive and nonpartisan. He likes capitalism and his sermons are friendly to the aspirations of the upwardly-mobile but (as Ross notes) he straightforwardly rejects the prosperity gospel.

Maybe Ross thinks this path and the efforts of Rick Warren and others like him are doomed to fail, and he’d probably have a good case, but I wish he’d made it. (Ross believes, and I agree, that the renewal of orthodoxy must also be aesthetic, and that seems highly unlikely to come from the megachurches…)

That criticism lodged, as I said, the conclusion is the part I enjoyed the most.

While reading the book’s most pessimistic moments, one of my first instinctive responses was that, as a dweller of grey Europe, I’d rather have a nation of heretics than a thoroughly secularized one. I was then planning on writing the following critique: are we doomed? Or might not Bad Religion seem irrelevant in a few years? Aren’t there inklings of a 21st century orthodoxy somewhere? More importantly, what is it that a 21st century orthodoxy could and should look like?

Before I could put fingers to keyboard though, Ross answered all of these questions in his conclusion, which by itself is worth twice the price of admission. He paints a portrait of a 21st century Christianity which (and I hope that’s not the only reason why I love it) matches up with most of my frustrations and aspirations for contemporary Christianity. One which is renewed spiritually and aesthetically, in the world but not of it, equally eager, as Jesus was, to preach eternal truths and to wash the feet of sinners.

As important and worthwhile as the first two parts of the book are, I really hope—and pray—that the conclusion will be read very widely and will prove to have the most lasting influence.

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