Tuesday, April 01, 2008


A Few Quibbles ...

... if only to procrastinate about updating my job talk ...

I listened to E.J. Dionne last night on Word for Word. All in all he gave an interesting talk (is he sure he's Catholic? he has a somewhat "Jewish" tone to his voice ;) ...), but I do, of course, have some quibbles, which perhaps are actually pretty major, come to think of it:

(1) He seems to think that Christian conservatives would share his view of "Original Sin" and that a Christian would certainly not engage in the kind of hubristic thinking that led us into Iraq as they'd be constantly aware of Original Sin. However, he (like some Catholics who supported the war because they thought that a very Christian, if heretically Protestant President would be conscious enough of Original Sin not to have done what we moonbats knew he was doing and hence they trusted him) forgets that, outside of Orthodox Christianity, the "Catholic-Lite" forms of Protestantism and neo-Orthodox intellectuals, most Protestants have a rather different view of Original Sin primarily framed by the Arminian/Calvinist debate: either they reject the notion (and instead believe that we just will inevitably and irredeamably sin, so any personal or social reform, outside of Christian sphere is doomed to fail) or they accept Original Sin in its "on steroids" version of Total Depravity and view some as Elect who, as Perservering Saints, never really fall victim to the Original Sin.

In this later view, what an Elect person does is, by definition, not sinful, not hubristic and in fact moral. I've discussed the consequences of this here and elsewhere, but politically, the result of belief in Original Sin is for many, pace Dionne, not a certain humility but a certain over-trust in "good people" to do "good things"

(2) E.J. Dionne points out, quite correctly, that social conservatives are not necessarily right-wing in their views on the war, economics or other non-hot-button "moral" issues. He even points out, quite correctly, that the war, economics and other non-hot-button "moral" issues nonetheless have a moral component. However, E.J. Dionne seems to assume that people who realize Jesus and the Prophets were more concerned about the poor than abortionists having teh hawt gay sex would naturally adopt liberal positions on economic issues and moreover vote accordingly.

What E.J. Dionne misses is the difference between believing "abortion is murder" or even "homosexuality is 'abnormal'" and believing "it's important for us to take care of the poor, the helpless, etc." While one can argue that Democratic policies are better for the poor, this is debatable. It may be hopeless naive even to think that arguments that the GOP's "up by the bootstraps" approach is better for the poor are made in good faith. But then it may also be hopeless naive to believe that the Dems. are gonna resurrect FDR, HST and LBJ and actually do something about poverty.

Nu? How can you make the leap from "Jesus said ya gotta be concerned about the poor" to "I'd vote Democratic based on economic issues"? Jesus might not have said "cut the capital gains tax" but he didn't say to raise it either (*). OTOH, if you believe (or more precisely, considering that most pro-life people in their actions don't actually think of fetuses as humans except when viewing pro-life propaganda that pictures them as such, think you believe) that abortion is teh horrible murder of teh cute pre-born babeez, how could you vote for anyone who wants to ensure that murder is legal? Which candidate would you vote for? Candidate X who says murder should be illegal or Candidate Y whose policies will in fact lower the murder rate but who thinks murder should be legal? Indeed, if you are a Christian social conservative (vide infra about the embrace of social conservatives of what Hirschman calls "the futility argument"), you probably don't think of laws in a pragmatic way anyway -- you don't necessarily think the import of a law is that it'll influence behavior (you think that's futile, c.f. Paul's critique of Jewish "legalism"), but rather to you (sexual) morality is exactly what you think should be legislated as the point of law is to send a message about what society should accept and what it shouldn't accept in order to develop virtue amongst the citizenry (c.f. Nisbet's version of conservatism).

The focus of social conservatives on issues involving teh hawt sex may in part be (as we liberals tend to assume) about anti-feminism or simply a prurient interest mascarading as anti-sex ideology, but there is a key difference between social conservativism and economic liberalism as far as Christian conservatives concerned: while it's important to support politicians who campaign to allieviate poverty, who is to say that Dem proposals are any better than GOP proposals or that Dems are campaigning in any better faith to do so than the GOoPers? OTOH, if you do believe abortion=murder, then how can you vote for someone, even if you agree with her on other issues far more than her opponant, who thinks abortion should remain legal? And even if the choice is between a nominally anti-abortion Dem and a pro-choice GOoPer, what matters is the judges who are the ultimate interpreters of the law: if the Dem would enable the appointment of judges who view abortion as a constitutional right while the GOoPer would enable the appointment of judges who'll allow abortion to be treated as murder, who is really pro-choice and who is really anti-abortion?

I'm not arguing we should change our stance on social issues (at the very least we'd loose voters of faith by not acting in good faith and maintaining our view that our stances on social issues are also moral stances), but we need to be realistic about our chances with Christian social-conservatives: just because they may be shaking off their ties to the GOP and realizing that we liberals actually have the same priorities as does the Bible while the GOP might not, that doesn't translate into votes for us -- directly at least (**). After all, while we liberals too often dismiss the importance of priorities (and consider those of us who point out that we liberals would do well to prioritize economic liberalism to be "concern trolls"), just because we have Biblical priorities doesn't mean we have any more of a lock on moral values than the GOP does: we may care about the poor and the Bible says that's important, but who's to say our ostensible caring means much? Nu? Why should a social conservative who is not yet a committed economic liberal vote then for a party with Biblical priorities on economic issues but not, in their point of view, social issues? (BTW -- I must add here -- in many places in this post, I'm not arguing how I actually feel but trying out that liberal value of seeing things from other points of view ... I, as y'all know, do feel we liberals also embrace Biblical priorities on social issues and that the Bible is perfectly compatable with social liberalism ... indeed, I am a social as well as an economic liberal in part because I believe in certain religious tenents ... however, for me to think that we liberals have a monopoly on moral arguments would be as wrongheaded as for conservatives to think the same)

Additionally, even if someone believes in helping the poor, there is an antinomian/"libertarian" tradition in Christianity which would tend to distrust government action (and hence modern liberal approaches) to do so. A large part of what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism (and even goes into the idea of Original Sin that E.J. Dionne embraces) is a distrust of "legalism" and the efficacy of good works in providing either personal or social salvation. The Social Gospel E.J. Dionne referenced is, we should remember, the work of 19th century Protestantism and, while it was transformative in the development of American Progressivism (but also in part responsible for the perception of us liberals as a bunch o' Puritanical busibodies), it has not been, throughout most of Christian history (or even among most Christian leftists, c.f. liberation theology) the predominant way Christians have conceived of how to deal with the problems of poverty, etc. While the dispensationalist premillenialism that influences so much of today's religious right is also a 19th century development, the "futility argument" premillenialists have about social change ("the world is so contaminated by evil, we mere mortals cannot make it better -- we can only make it worse to immanatize the eschaton in which Jesus'll make it all better for us -- just as our efforts cannot save us from sin, but only the sacrifice of Jesus does so") has far deeper roots in Christianity (and even has branches in leftist thought -- as Albert O. Hirschman points out, Leninism in particular is based on the idea that Progressive politics are futile to effect social and economic change).

So even if a social conservative is concerned about the poor -- and even does think we Dems share that concern about the poor more than does the GOP (but c.f. ** for why it's important we Dems. be perceived that way even by social conservatives who'll never for us) -- they still might find Dem. ideas to be futile non-solutions and still vote based on their social conservativism and not based on whom they think is more concerned about the poor as they view mere concern as, well, just concern, and the Dem. ideas as futile anyway.

(*the situation is more complicated in Judaism where our idealized theocracy was extremely redistributionist and where the Talmud gives explicit rights to poor citizens -- viewing a Jew as a citizen of the Jewish People -- and make specific obligations, which presumably would be enforced by the government and the tithing system involved would be a de facto if not de jure tax, to the rich ... so you could argue that Jewish morality says to raise capital gains taxes, but while Jesus was pro-tax -- "render unto Caesar" -- and pro-tax-collector, he wasn't necessary pro-raising taxes to better care for the poor)

** what Dems. who argue "the social conservatives will never vote for us, so why should we care what they think" are missing is the power of "even the ideologically X person/group Y thinks the ideologically ~X person/group Z is right about issue W" (how many liberals supported the war because "even the liberal New Republic thinks that Bush is right about the war"? how many moderates have voted and will vote for the GOP because "even the liberal NPR thinks the Dems are too partisan"? etc ...). We shouldn't change our core values just so so-called values-voters will vote for us (obviously, by doing so, we'd turn off values voters!) ... but we do want people saying "even my socially conservative friend thinks the Dems. have the right priorities on economic and national security issues". As tempting as it is to focus on teh hawt sex, by prioritizing economic issues and actually doing something in the security arena (who could possibly hate the stupid rules and regulations about what you can't bring on an airplane more than social conservatives who view the very project of rules, regulations and laws to effect, e.g., security, as ultimately futile?), we'll have people saying "even my socially conservative friend thinks the Dems are doing the right thing trying to overturn the liquids on planes ban", etc. And even if the "socially conservative friend" will never vote Dem, it would make the speaker of such a line more comfortable and receptive to the liberal agenda and hence gain us vote(s)!

So appealing to social conservatives in areas of common ground between us liberals and they certainly will help us! We just shouldn't abandon our core, liberal values because that won't gain us any votes but rather will cause us to loose the votes of those who are socially (if not economically) liberal.


Wow! This post is long (and rambly and mispelled, etc.) ... I guess it qualifies as a screed. I guess I'm really so nervous about my upcoming job interview, I don't wanna think about it or engage with it constructively (c.f. the futility argument?), so I'm doing this instead?

Good screed, so many good things to consider, a lot better written than my screeds get.

Don't forget the issue of unequal application of moral principles. People generally are much more flexible about these issues when they are relevant to their and their loved ones lives. Conservatives, though not exclusively conservatives, are generally a lot more understanding about the need for abortion being safe and legal if it is someone associated with them who has one.

It's the practice of trying to apply morality equally to everyone, including those you don't know exist, that is an important basis of justice.

More later, if my work day doesn't get more complicated.
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