Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

We Interrupt This Blast of Nonposts to Bring You A Testy Conservative Rant

I know better than to base my opinion on editorials with summaries that say things like, “the pope deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus” (from where else), so when I saw those very words in my daily headlines email I did what I usually do when major (liberal) media outlets cover the latest supposedly inflammatory words from the current (conservative) pope: Ignore. And then I assume that somebody will provide me with the context or perspective lacking in the sputtering, apoplectic screed with which I was originally confronted.

It turns out this time around that that “somebody” was the Harvard School of Public Health, specifically Edward C. Green, a senior research fellow there.

But let’s go back to the original editorial. The little summary sentence, it turns out, is an elision and conflation of the first two sentences, the first of which reads, “Pope Benedict XVI has every right to express his opposition to the use of condoms on moral grounds, in accordance with the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church.” (How magnanimous. Here’s my headline in response: “New York Times Gives Pope Permission to Exercise Role as Infallible Magisterium of Roman Catholic Church.”) Then the second sentence reads, “But he deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus.” Distorts? Really? Duplicity and willful deception are pretty strong accusations to lay at the feet of one of the world’s most influential moral voices, and a careful and pedigreed scholar to boot. But when somebody not only questions but assumes to be false a central piece of ideological dogma, its defendants naturally can get pretty antsy. To be fair, at almost the end of the editorial, the authors concede, “The best way to avoid transmission of the virus is to abstain from sexual intercourse or have a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected person.” But this is in the middle of an otherwise unceasing torrent defending condom usage as the best way to prevent AIDS.

And then this.

Edward C. Green—a self-professed liberal mind you—steps up to the podium and defends the pope! Here’s a chunk of what he has to say:

Yet, in truth, current empirical evidence supports him.

We liberals who work in the fields of global HIV/AIDS and family planning take terrible professional risks if we side with the pope on a divisive topic such as this. The condom has become a symbol of freedom and — along with contraception — female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes. My comments are only about the question of condoms working to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa’s generalized epidemics — nowhere else.

In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called “Reassessing HIV Prevention” 10 AIDS experts concluded that “consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Amazingly enough pope Benedict doesn’t just make stuff up as he goes along! This is something I thought the New York Times would have figured out by now.

Now I know that this is a contentious and complex issue, and I don’t hinge my arguments solely on the latest scientific study (and what this excerpt points out is that clearly many pundits on the other side of the issue don’t either, though they would like to believe they do), which is why this whole argument seldom goes anywhere, because it tends to be cast as progressive, empirical science vs. outmoded moralism. And so it goes.

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Remember That Gas Post? Vindicated.

This gas post from just a few days ago? Well read this:

Just last winter, gas at $4 a gallon was said to represent a super-ultra emergency, and ExxonMobil profits were said to be obscene. Now gas is $2 a gallon and this is bad, according to CNBC economics bobbleheads, who last week warned the lower pump price will depress oil-company profits. Just last winter, rising consumer prices were said to represent a super-ultra emergency — now that consumer prices are falling, that’s supposed to be bad too, owing to the possibility of deflation. But innovation and rising labor productivity are supposed to drive down prices. Lower prices are a core goal of capitalist economics!

These points should serve as reminders that the mainstream media always present all economic news as bad. Higher interest rates? Bad for borrowers. Lower interest rates? Might cause inflation. Normally, the media’s penchant for spinning all economic news as bad doesn’t matter — but right now it does, as pessimism more than logic seems to be driving the weak economy. Speaking as someone who pulled the election lever for Barack Obama (and whose daughter worked for the Obama campaign round the clock for months), I agree with John McCain’s statement, “The fundamentals of the economy are strong.” They are. McCain was right! Innovation is high. Labor productivity is high. There are no shortages of any resource or commodity. Pessimism is driving the downturn, and that pessimism is advanced by relentless media negativism

Greg Easterbrook here, via Alan Jacobs

Speaking of the Tail Wagging the Dog, Check This Out

In the car this evening I was listening to the NPR show “The World.” There was a segment on endangered mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Remember the Michael Crichton novel-cum-movie Congo? Same ones.) Somebody involved in the project was being interviewed, and at one point he said,

Now with the unrest in the region, in order to save the gorillas we have to save the people.

Gee whiz, what an inconvenience.

The Resemblance Is Uncanny

It’s like Alan Jacobs and I had lunch together, talked about the election, agreed fully with each other, and then I went and wrote my little “open letter” last week and he wrote this much-more-eloquent piece on election day. But none of that ever happened. Nevertheless, I am gratified by the resonances between what he wrote and what I wrote. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t understand my fellow Christians who are enthusiastic Republicans; I don’t understand the ones who are enthusiastic Democrats either. When I try to talk to either group about the ways their preferred party upholds — indeed, even celebrates — policies that simply cannot be reconciled with Christian teaching, I get the same shrug. Yes, they are certainly more “realistic” than I am; they may have a better understanding of what it means to live in a fallen and broken world. But they are all too sanguine for me. They aren’t sad enough. There aren’t enough — I recently taught the Aeneid, which brings this line to mind — there aren’t enough lachrimae rerum, tears for how the world goes.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

(And lest I come across as a party pooper, I am moved, along with the rest of the nation, at the historic nature of Obama’s ascendency. It’s hard not to be emotional when you see this photograph of a man who was with Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated.)

An Open Letter to Obama-Loving Evangelicals

Read this excerpt from Rod Dreher’s contribution to an election symposium in The American Conservative:

I can’t vote for Barack Obama. He is a pro-abortion zealot and wrong on all the issues that matter most to social conservatives. Mind you, one should not be under any illusion that things will markedly improve under another Republican administration. But there is no question that on issues related to the sanctity of life and traditional marriage, an Obama administration, with a Democratic Congress at its back, would be far worse.

The best case that can be made for John McCain is that he would serve as something of a brake on runaway liberalism. But the country would be at significantly greater risk of war with the intemperate and bellicose McCain in the White House.

This goes a long way toward how I feel. Dreher’s conclusion is that he’s not voting in this election. I’m not sure that’s where I am, but then again I’m not sure where I am. (We’ll see in a week.) But I’m not writing this to sort out my own decisions. Rather, I want to make an observation. It seems that so many Christians of my generation, eager to throw off the strictures and bloviations of the previous generation’s right-wing zealotry, have replaced uncritical conservative dogma not with robust critical thinking but with uncritical pseudo-liberal dogma. Mostly this takes shape under rhetoric along the lines that there are more issues for Christians to be concerned about than just abortion and gay marriage and that feeding the hungry and not killing for the sake of oil or democracy are also “pro-life” issues. Fine and good. I agree. But I have not observed that this has resulted in a more holistic political vision; it has resulted in complete silence on more typical republican-platform issues (other than to repeatedly drone, “There are more issues for Christians to be concerned about than abortion and gay marriage”). Then they go and simply write Obama a blank check.

I’ve experienced firsthand that people who advocate not voting (in this election or any time) are not winning any popularity contests Christian or otherwise, so I won’t try to make that argument. Moreover, I can even see the validity in voting in the direction that the scales are ever-so-slightly tipped in favor of your convictions. But I regularly see all-out evangelical ardor for Obama this campaign season. To my mind, it seems the only proper Christian response in this election is at best bewilderment. Or maybe tentative-but-qualified endorsement. But enthusiasm?

In Which Nary the Two Shall Meet

At work a book just came back from the printer called The Global Dictionary of Theology. It’s an interesting, but also a little odd, project. One of its main aims was to encompass many perspectives, ecumenically and ethnically, from across the globe, thus the global aspect of the dictionary. By way of example, and also the only reason for this post, the following two quotations provide an interesting juxtaposition. This first quotation is from the article titled “Business.”

There is a global movement of the Spirit in connection with business. Virtually every country in the world and every part of the body of Christ is being touched. Perhaps most significantly, individual believers with business skills are being awakened to the potential involvement they can have in bearing witness to the kingdom of God in the business arena. . . . Spanning the globe are Christian business ministries to executives and employees with a calling to the higher purposes of God. All this represents a genuine sign to the people of God and to the world of the kingdom in our midst.

And here is a quotation from the very next article in the dictionary, from the article “Capitalism.”

Capitalism does not merely represent a structural sin, but the global and imperial configuration of the basic structures of Adamic sin. Capitalism is the concrete manifestation, in our historical period, of the Adamic pretension of self-justification by means of human actions.

Corporate kingdom of God, meet . . . the Revolution!

Progressive Corporatism

“If you wanted to devise a name for this approach, you might pick the phrase economist Arnold Kling has used: Progressive Corporatism. We’re not entering a phase in which government stands back and lets the chips fall. We’re not entering an era when the government pounds the powerful on behalf of the people. We’re entering an era of the educated establishment, in which government acts to create a stable — and often oligarchic — framework for capitalist endeavor.”

-David Brooks, on the Bailout

Being Consumed

The other night I finished the book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. It’s a short book, and a mighty quick read. Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, but he has geared this book to a more popular audience.

I think this is an important book for several reasons. Cavanaugh approaches the issue of consumerism from an explicitly theological viewpoint, and he reads it as an implicitly theological problem. In doing so he draws on Christian thinkers from throughout the tradition, which gives his discussion a richness most other discussions of Christianity and economics lack. In treating economics and consumerism as theological problems, Cavanaugh avoids the banalities of many approaches to “Christianity” and “economics,” which tend to treat the two as static entities that, when compared, match up in some places and not in others. Cavanaugh, rather, sees economics — or, more accurately, the modern Western economic situation of late capitalism — as a competing theology, with its own morality and its own eschatology. Thus the areas where the kingdom of God and the ultimate goals of capitalism seem to coincide are all the more sinister for the latter’s perversions of the former. Cavanaugh’s book, though is not a critique of capitalism per se, but a critique of consumerism. (He does, however, provide a substantial critique of capitalism itself in his other books.) Nevertheless, this all provides a backdrop for the discussion in Being Consumed.

I don’t want to summarize his whole argument, but I just want to point out some themes that I think make the book compelling. He turns several ideas on their heads: freedom, desire, consumption, and scarcity. He starts out the book by engaging Milton Freedman, economic theorist of late capitalism par excellence. Cavanaugh argues that Freedman’s definition of freedom (which I think most of us simply take for granted) has little to do with the Christian understanding of freedom. Freedom, rather than being unencumbered and uninhibited choice, is the freedom for our corrupted, power-seeking desires (what Augustine calls the libido dominandi, “lust for domination”) to fulfill their true longing in participation with God. This calls into question the individual’s ability to choose what is good to consume. The free market isn’t free; it is just as subject to the power structures of the libido dominandi as the rest of creation. And there is a heavy imbalance of power in favor of giant multinational corporations. The libido dominandi needs the healing effects of grace.

Now this might all sound kind of socialist. And it is. But here Cavanaugh takes a turn away from the very unappealing idea of state-run socialism, which is just as subject to corruption as the individual will, to a more robust Christian socialism that has as its center the church’s consumption of the Eucharist. The title of the book is actually a nice little play on words. We are not just consuming beings (though we are not less — we are by our nature desiring, consuming beings), but our being is consumed by God when we take part in the Eucharist. Here he draws on Augustine’s idea that in consuming the Eucharist, we are in fact consumed by God. Here is where our true desire is met–at the altar, where we consume Christ’s body and blood. And in this process, just as Christ is poured out for us, we are freed to pour ourselves out for others.

This is the basic argument on which the rest of the book is built. There is a chapter on the nature of consumerism, one on globalism, and one on scarcity and abundance. There are a lot of passages detailing the usual suspects in criticisms of global capitalism: sweatshops, McDonaldization, Wal Mart, etc. These are the more rhetorical, anecdotal, and unoriginal passages, though maybe they’re necessary for a book of this nature. There is a fascinating passage in the chapter on globalization that draws an analogy between the paradox of the global and the local and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s solution to the philosophical conundrum of the One and the many. Balthasar’s argument in itself is a work of philosophical and theological genius, but I think the analogy — and Cavanaugh’s application — is a bit strained.

A more insidious potential weakness I see in Cavanaugh’s book is not a failure of argument or candor but is in the nature of its reception. It has, due to its content, the potential to be received primarily and most vocally by certain social enclaves that trumpet a more “authentic” lifestyle but tend, in the end, more toward the smug bourgeois, hipster faux-individuality so effectively dismantled on the blog (and now book) Stuff White People Like. I think Cavanaugh even forsees this possibility. In the introduction he writes,

I have no doubt that many, if not all, of the practices I mention in this book can be written into the grand narrative of capitalism. “Fair Trade” coffee, for example, can be read as simmply showing the genius of the market to accommodate all kinds of preferences, including the preference to pay a bit more to support a poor farmer.

Christians, nevertheless, will narrate the Fair Trade movement differently, as the pursuit of one of the chief ends of human life, that is, communion with other persons. This is not the mere expression of a preference but the pursuit of an end that is objectively valid — that is, given by God, not simply chosen.

I think it is entirely up to readers to make Cavanaugh’s alternative a success. And I think part of this must take place by the Christian disciplines of humility and silence. (The irony of this being trumpeted on a blog is not lost on me. But I suffer under no illusions of grandeur. I read my blog stats.) These disciplines practiced well and applied to the “theological microeconomics” Cavanaugh outlines in the book could, I think, better create the Christian community he hopes for.

Again, this book is important because it treats the reality of modern economics as a theological problem instead of a given reality to be dealt with on its own terms. Rather, it deals with these problems at their root. I’m not convinced at every point, but I think if a failure to imagine a reality other than the one presented to us keeps us from appreciating Cavanaugh’s oppositional stance, we’re much worse off for it.

Some Thoughts On My Soon-to-Arrive Economic Stimulus Check

Caveat: I’m not exactly going to be in the town square burning my economic stimulus check or putting it all away in savings just to spite the government. No, I will be a good citizen and insert the majority of my money back into the economy via the shopping mall or what have you. So take this post with a grain of salt.

But I just want to register how ridiculous I think this all is. We go $100 billion further in debt so that the American people can go out and shop in the name of stabilizing our slightly faltering economy. A month or two later, Bush without blinking pats himself on the back because he gave $77 million to help out with the global food shortage.

In an effort to keep this from degenerating into self-righteous bloviation, I would also like to register that there are of course economic trickle-down justifications for taking such courses of action in the name of our economy (i.e., a good American economy is good for the global economy; people spend, economy grows, less people are poor and hungry). Most interviews with economists that I’ve read or heard are pretty optimistic that the economic stimulus package will work.

But the whole thing just doesn’t sit right with me. There seems to be a gaping divide between our economics and our morality. But this comes as no surprise; we Enlightened modern beings have long ago learned that the two have nothing to do with each other. I’m not trying to get into the argument of how, why, and when a government should intercede on the Market’s behalf, but I’m a little irked that I’ve been conscripted by the government to solve the Market’s problems. By spending the government’s money I become a representative  for the government’s economic policy. Who among us hasn’t joked that we’re just doing our civil duty? I have. But upon reflection it seems a bit sinister. Even more so when I realize that my spending habits probably reflect larger economic trends that I’m only dimly aware of, even when my money doesn’t come from the government. I’m not just criticizing Bush’s neocon economic policy but the more general American perception that the way to a healthy society and personal well-being is governed solely by economic prosperity.

This mindset was reinforced to me when I heard this story on the radio several months ago (the bit I’m relating was more of a side note told in passing in a larger story): American armed forces in Iraq inadvertently killed some Iraqi civilians. One of these was a married woman. In order to compensate for the husband’s loss the military offered him ten thousand dollars. He refused the money. The commentator said that this–both the offering of money and the refusals–happens regularly.

What on earth would possess us to buy off people’s grief at the loss of their closest loved ones with a few thousand bucks? Shouldn’t we realize this is profoundly insulting? “I’m sorry for your loss sir, but take heart! We have calculated the worth of your spouse’s entire life and it comes to $10,000. Please accept this money as a token of our condolences.” This also comes as no surprise. Decades ago, the economist Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize for Economics for writing about how we modern people view our world in primarily economic terms. The example of the Iraqi man and the military seems like the most twisted outworking of how thoroughly this way of thinking has sunk in.

This mindset, I think, is not neutral, one that can be used for good or ill. The way we think about the world, and they way our society is run, shapes us in certain ways and not in others. The Iraqi widower not only doesn’t see his wife’s value in economic terms but thought it was morally wrong that anyone should. I’m not saying that all of us Americans simply put dollar values on our loved ones, but I hope it drives the point home that there is something moral, something that shapes us in our very being, in the way the Market almost tyrannically controls our nation’s sense of ease or dis-ease. The whole economic stimulus scheme reinforces our identity as consumers and defines our well-being by what we can spend.

So while I’ll be buying up this and that with my money from On High, I will do it with the knowledge that what shapes me intuitively and gives me confidence in my well-being as a person is that I belong to the church before I belong to the government and that when I go to church every Sunday morning I am told to “draw near with faith” and approach an altar, kneel down, and stretch out my hands like a beggar, consuming not goods and services, but consuming the crucified and risen Christ.

It’s Time for Some New Candidates

I posted the first of these a while back, but the campaign for President has significantly increased in intensity, so I thought I would give an update. My vote’s with Kierkegaard, though I think the Nietzsche campaign is running the most effective ads!

Kant Attack ad:

Nietzsche Attack Ad:

Kierkegaard announces his candidacy: