Thursday, April 24, 2014

White Privilege, White Guilt

Dennis Prager opens a recent column at NRO with a provocative image:
When Americans over the age of, let us say, 45 look at any of the iconic paintings of America’s Founders — the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the signing of the Constitution, George Washington crossing the Delaware, any of the individual portraits of the Founders — what do they see?

They see great men founding a great country.

If you ask many recent college graduates what they see when they look at these paintings, the chances are that it is something entirely different.

They are apt to see rich, white males who are not great and who did not found a great country. And for many, it is worse than that. These men are not only not great; they are morally quite flawed in that they were slaveholders, or at least founded a country based on slavery. Moreover, they were not only all racists — they were all sexists, who restricted the vote to males. And they were rich men who were primarily concerned with protecting their wealth, which is why they restricted the vote to landowners.

In the past, Americans overwhelmingly saw the images of our Founders as pictures of greatness. Increasingly, only conservatives do. More and more Americans — the entire Left and many of those who attended universities and were indoctrinated by left-wing professors — now see rich, white, self-interested males.

The left-wing trinity of race, gender, class has prevailed. The new dividing lines are no longer good and bad or excellent and mediocre but white and non-white, male and female, and rich and poor. Instead of seeing great human beings in those paintings of the Founders, Americans have been taught to see rich, white (meaning by definition selfish, bigoted, racist, sexist) males.

In colleges throughout America students are taught to have disdain for the white race. I know this sounds incredible, or at least exaggerated. It is neither.
Prager supports this claim with several examples. Here's one:
Regarding white privilege, last year, three academics at the University of Rhode Island wrote in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The American Psychological Association’s educational goals for the psychology major include sociocultural and international awareness, with learning outcomes regarding mastery of concepts related to power and privilege. Other professional organizations, including the American Sociological Association, have developed similar learning goals for teaching in higher education. Instructors have been charged with teaching their white students to understand their own privileged positions in society relative to those of marginalized groups.
The key point here is that the word “values” never appears. Instead of asking what values made America’s Founders great, the Left asks what race, gender, and class privileges enabled them to found America. Instead of asking what values does the white majority (or, for that matter, on some campuses, the Asian majority) live by in order to succeed, and how can we help inculcate those values in more less-successful people of all racial and ethnic groups, the Left asks what privileges whites have that enable them to get into colleges and graduate at a higher rate than blacks and Latinos.
Prager is correct to point to the indifference toward values which are, in any case, considered to be merely an atavism of white male patriarchy, but I think there's something else just as insidious at play in all this. It's the attempt to make white students feel guilty for being white. Make a man feel guilty and you can dominate him, and that's the goal of the Left. Make whiteness a mortal sin for which the bearer must seek repeated absolution from the politico-cultural priesthood, which is invariably leftist, and he'll be putty in your hands.

Moreover, it's an attempt to somehow rationalize the inadequacies of those who cannot compete in an academic setting. By focusing on race, gender, and privilege the message is sent to those who find themselves languishing in academic purgatory that it's not their fault, they're victims of a racist, sexist, classist society. This is a toxic message to send to young people, but it's the message the Left reinforces in a multitude of ways every day.

Prager goes on to give a particularly disturbing example of the rejection of values and rules rooted in "white ways of doing things." This rejection, it seems to me, is a tacit admission of inadequacy and incompetence. When people can't compete by playing by the rules they'll mask their failure any way they can. Unfortunately, some on the Left think this is as it should be. You can read about the farce to which I refer at the link.

Some years ago I wrote a response to a student who displayed precisely this sense of guilt at what she thought was her privileged status. The response is here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Saletan's Modest Proposal

A friend once asked why I opposed disclosing and publicizing political donations. I replied that such disclosures make targets of people for those who would destroy them because of their political convictions. The recent resignation of Brendan Eich at Mozilla is a fine example of how this works. The LA Times published a list of people who donated money to groups fighting to keep the definition of marriage what it has always been and Eich's name turned up on the list. The employees of Mozilla and the board of directors felt that such a man could not lead their company despite his many other virtues, and they forced his resignation.

Will Saletan at Slate is evidently not satisfied. In a column he later said was supposed to be a satire he calls for similar measures against everyone who opposes gay marriage. The column may be a satire, but if so, it's a very poorly written example. Satire is obviously satirical, and Saletan's column is not at all obvious. Here's some of what he said. You decide:
Some of my colleagues are celebrating. They call Eich a bigot who got what he deserved. I agree. But let’s not stop here. If we’re serious about enforcing the new standard, thousands of other employees who donated to the same anti-gay ballot measure must be punished.

More than 35,000 people gave money to the campaign for Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that declared, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” You can download the entire list, via the Los Angeles Times, as a compressed spreadsheet. Each row lists the donor’s employer. If you organize the data by company, you can add up the total number of donors and dollars that came from people associated with that company.

The first thing you’ll notice, if you search for Eich, is that he’s the only Mozilla employee who gave to the campaign for Prop 8. His $1,000 was more than canceled out by three Mozilla employees who donated to the other side.

The next thing you’ll notice is that other companies, including other tech firms, substantially outscored Mozilla in pro-Prop 8 contributions attributed to their employees. That includes Adobe, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo, as well as Disney, DreamWorks, Gap, and Warner Bros.

Thirty-seven companies in the database are linked to more than 1,300 employees who gave nearly $1 million in combined contributions to the campaign for Prop 8. Twenty-five tech companies are linked to 435 employees who gave more than $300,000. Many of these employees gave $1,000 apiece, if not more. Some, like Eich, are probably senior executives.

Why do these bigots still have jobs? Let’s go get them.

To organize the next stage of the purge, I’ve compiled the financial data into three tables.
Saletan follows with charts which show the donations of employees of various organizations which donated to pro-prop 8 organizations. He closes with this:
If we’re serious about taking down corporate officers who supported Proposition 8, and boycotting employers who promote them, we'd better get cracking on the rest of the list. Otherwise, perhaps we should put down the pitchforks.
Whether he was serious or not, not a few of his commenters took him seriously. It reflects an inquisitorial mindset that refuses to tolerate opinions which differ from one's own. If the dissenter can be punished, he must be. That's why I think political donations should be just as secret as one's ballot. There is in our society, particularly on the left, a broad streak of fascism, people who agree with Saletan's "modest proposal" and who would seek vengeance on those who think otherwise. We need to be protected from them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"You Can't Keep Your Crappy Plan"

Jay Cost at The Weekly Standard lays out five reasons why so many people oppose Obamacare. Each of these is explained in detail at the link.
#1: Obamacare has no legitimate funding mechanism.
#2: Obamacare has created a socially perverse array of winners and losers.
#3: Obamacare restricts choices and increases costs.
#4: Obamacare hurts businesses.
#5: Obamacare is probably unsustainable ... in the long run.
Cost concludes his piece with this comment:
[A]ny one of these objections would merit virtually uniform opposition from conservatives to Obamacare. But take them all together, and most American conservatives have arrived at the same conclusion: this law is fatally flawed, must be repealed entirely, and replaced with something that is sustainable and not overly burdensome to taxpayers, middle class families, or businesses. After all, fixing each of these problems would result in a new law that bears only the faintest resemblance to Obamacare as it is today.

Moreover, a lot of conservatives believe that liberals have the exact same opinion. While publicly applauding the expansion of coverage, some of them must understand the grave problems inherent to this law. This helps explain the sense on the right that, for liberals, this is simply a stalking horse for single payer: first, sign up new people under a federal entitlement that cannot practically be taken away, then deal with the various harms to middle class voters, burdens on businesses, and extreme cost overruns … by proposing “Medicare for all.”
Cost's argument is impressive for its depth and rigor, so how do supporters of the Affordable Care Act answer it? Well, in some liberal enclaves, like MSNBC, the response looks like this.

"You can't keep your crappy plan so just deal with it." You go girl. That'll get a lot of people on your side come November.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Not Born That Way

Are gays and lesbians born that way? Surprisingly, at least to me, many LGBT scholars are answering with a resounding "No." David Benkoff, who is himself a gay writer, has an interesting piece on this featured at The Daily Caller. Here's his lede:
Virtually no serious person disputes that in our society, people generally experience their gay or straight orientations as unchosen and unchangeable. But the LGBT community goes further, portraying itself as a naturally arising subset of every human population, with homosexuality being etched into some people’s DNA.

Are gays indeed born that way? The question has immense political, social, and cultural repercussions. For example, some of the debate over applying the Constitution’s equal protection clause to gays and lesbians focuses on whether gayness is an inborn characteristic. And the major argument gays and lesbians have made for religious affirmation has been, “God made me this way.”

Thus, if it’s proven sexual orientations are not innate, much of the scaffolding upon which today’s LGBT movement has been built would begin to crumble. Given the stakes, most gays and lesbians are dismissive or hostile toward anyone who doesn’t think being gay is an essential, natural characteristic of some members of the human race. But a surprising group of people doesn’t think that – namely, scholars of gay history and anthropology. They’re almost all LGBT themselves, and they have decisively shown that gayness is a product of Western society originating about 150 years ago.
In what follows Benkoff reviews much of what these scholars are saying about whether homosexuality is innate or socially constructed and concludes that overwhelming evidence supports the latter.

He writes:
Journalists trumpet every biological study that even hints that gayness and straightness might be hard-wired, but they show little interest in the abundant social-science research showing that sexual orientation cannot be innate. The scholars I interviewed for this essay were variously dismayed or appalled by this trend.

For example, historian Dr. Martin Duberman, founder of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, said “no good scientific work establishes that people are born gay or straight.” And cultural anthropologist Dr. Esther Newton (University of Michigan) called one study linking sexual orientation to biological traits ludicrous: “Any anthropologist who has looked cross-culturally (knows) it’s impossible that that’s true, because sexuality is structured in such different ways in different cultures.”

While biology certainly plays a role in sexual behavior, no “gay gene” has been found, and whatever natural-science data exists for inborn sexual orientations is preliminary and disputed. So to date, the totality of the scholarly research on homosexuality indicates gayness is much more socio-cultural than biological.
Homosexuals, both male and female, as well as their sympathizers, are likely to resist arguments like Benkoff's. If homosexual behavior is not genetically determined but is freely chosen then it has a moral dimension and this is problematic for a lot of gays. Indeed, one reason why some gays are hostile to the Catholic church (and some protestant denominations) is because they insist on holding gays morally accountable for their behavior, and they persist in viewing that behavior as sinful.

Benkoff thinks there's nothing wrong with being gay, of course, but if he's correct that homosexual behavior is chosen and not genetically determined then those who wish to say that there's something morally deficient in it have been handed a victory in at least that aspect of the overall controversy.

Read the rest of his article at the link.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Miracle

As we approach Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus many moderns voice serious doubts or even scoff at the notion that a miracle such as a dead man returning to life is credible. Miracles, many believe, are impossible. This would be true, perhaps, if we knew a priori that there is no God, but if it's possible that God exists then it's certainly the case that miracles are possible.

One objection to miracles is raised by the scientifically-minded who argue that a miracle would require either an input of energy to, or a subtraction of energy from, the universe. This, it's argued, would violate the law of conservation of energy and, since the laws of physics are inviolable, miracles are impossible.

There are at least three things wrong with this argument, however. First, it's not at all clear that the laws of nature are "inviolable." It may be that we can't violate them, but that doesn't mean that the Being which created them can't suspend them or override them should he so choose.

Second, it's not clear that a miracle actually is a violation of a law of nature. Physical laws are simply statements about the way nature operates so far as we have observed it. Suppose there is a law of nature that says that once a person has been truly dead for three days they do not return to life unless God wills it. If that were the proper formulation of the law then instances of resurrection would be exceedingly rare, so rare as to never be noticed by those who codify the laws of physics. Yet it would certainly be possible that on some few occasions, particularly in the case of Jesus, God wills a revivification, and, if so, a revivification would not be a violation of the law at all.

Thirdly, it turns out that the claim that a miracle violates the law of conservation of energy is false. On cosmic scales energy isn't conserved. Cosmologist Luke Barnes calls this "the dirty secret of cosmology."

Perhaps objections to miracles are really rooted in nothing more substantive than an argument from personal incredulity on the part of skeptics. They simply can't imagine the world being the kind of place where miracles are possible. Or, perhaps they don't want the world to be that kind of place. Miracles, being acts initiated by a supernatural agent, are incompatible with their naturalistic worldview and therefore, they reason, miracles must be ruled out.

In any case, the most consequential miracle in the history of the human race, if it indeed happened, will be celebrated tomorrow. It is The Miracle. For a relatively brief summary of the reasons for believing it did, in fact, happen and a consideration of popular alternative explanations see this post.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Radical Altruism

Damon Linker argues at The Week that self-sacrifice is inexplicable on naturalism. Naturalism rests heavily upon evolutionary explanations of behavior, but cases like that of Thomas Vander Woude simply don't fit the narrative:
[C]onsider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude's 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.

This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.

Pick your favorite non-theistic theory: Rational choice and other economically based accounts hold that people act to benefit themselves in everything they do. From that standpoint, Vander Woude — like the self-sacrificing soldier or firefighter — was a fool who incomprehensibly placed the good of another ahead of his own.

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.

But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude's son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude's sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.

Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father's sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son's genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.

We feel moved by Vander Woude's sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.

But why is that? What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?
Linker's answer is that such acts of radical altruism give us a fleeting glimpse of the nature of God. Read the rest of his argument at the link. It's a fitting meditation for the Easter season.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Significance of Good Friday

The following is a meditation I've posted on several Good Fridays over the years:

I sit at my computer on this Good Friday listening to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion and Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, looking forward to this evening when I have a "date" with my daughter to watch Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, and I wonder. I wonder if I, or anyone, can possibly understand the significance of Good Friday. Can I ever comprehend what it means that God, the creator of worlds, would care enough about me to endure what He did, so that I could have the hope that death does not have the final word about human life.

My existence, the existence of each of us, is astonishing enough. That mere matter could be so arranged as to generate a consciousness, a self-awareness, a rational mind, is, when one thinks about it, a truly amazing thing. That this consciousness might survive death in another reality, another world, is even more astounding. For some it's too astounding to be credible.

And yet if it's true...if it's in fact true that our eternal survival is a gift from God, purchased by Jesus Christ at a cost we may never be able to fully appreciate, it is a breath-taking, ineffable truth.

Some people think the Christian narrative is simply the apotheosis of an ancient myth, that a truly sophisticated, omniscient God would have found some way other than a primitive blood sacrifice to usher us into eternal joy. I don't know if there were other means at God's disposal or not, but it seems to me that the way the Bible tells us He chose is perfect for what He wanted to accomplish.

In the Christian account, God made us as an object of His love. He desires to live in a love relationship with us, but for whatever reason we often want no part of such a relationship. It's too confining, it involves too much self-abnegation, it entails too much of a constraint on our Dionysian appetites, it's too much of an affront to our pride, reason and dignity. Confident in our independence, we don't need God. In our autonomy we distort God's purposes and design plan for human life in order to suit and pursue our own selfish ends.

Nevertheless, God would not be dissuaded or put off. He persists in His relentless attempts to show us that all of our rationalizations for demanding our Promethean emancipation are just so many childish and foolish masks we put on to conceal the fact that we just don't want Him in our lives. He chooses to woo us to Himself not with threats or fear but with love. He chooses to demonstrate in an extraordinarily vivid way that His love for us is deeper than we could ever imagine.

To this end he does something totally unexpected and supererogatory. He becomes a man like one of us, shares in our humanity, our sufferings and joys, and ultimately endures the pain and horror of crucifixion. His life and death is the price that He is willing to pay, for reasons that we cannot understand this side of eternity, to secure eternal life and to make it available to everyone. He didn't have to do it, He could have left us alone to destroy ourselves and our planet, to fade into the cosmic oblivion that rejection of our Creator would have warranted. But because He did do it, He shows us not only that He is not simply some abstract deity, too transcendent to matter, but that He is personal and immanent, and that His love is not just a theoretical exercise, but has consequences which can change a life now and forever.

Charles Dickens captures something of the Divine love in the climax of his Tale of Two Cities when he has Sydney Carton, moved by his deep love for Lucie, smuggle himself into prison to take the place of Charles Darnay, the man Lucie really loves, knowing full well that his love is ultimately going to bring him to the guillotine. Carton substitutes himself for Charles and goes to the death to which Charles was sentenced in an expression of almost superhuman love.

Out of the depths of His love, God substituted Himself for us, submitting to torture and humiliation at the hands of His own creation, and enduring a horrific death so that we could live. He asks of us in return only our love.

We are in the position of a man clinging by his fingers to the edge of a cliff and slowly, inexorably losing his grip. The abyss of nihilism, of meaninglessness, emptiness and death, lies far below, but because of the cross there's a chance to be rescued. God stands above the struggling man, kneels and holds out His hand, urging the man to seize it. It's up to the man about to die, it's up to us, to accept the rescue that God offers. God has done all He can to persuade us, but He won't force us to grasp His hand. He won't override our will. He allows us to make the final decision whether to live or die.

That, at any rate, is the best I can do to explain my own wholly inadequate understanding of the Christian story and the meaning of Good Friday.