Taking it to the Extreme

Here’s a question to chew on: what do we mean when we label someone a ________ extremist? Take a common example. News pundits speaking of ISIS often call them “Muslim extremists.”  When you hear this phrase, what do you think the pundits mean?

  • Groups that are extremely Muslim
  • Groups that are on the extreme (i.e. periphery) of Islam

This matters, quite a bit, because these two interpretations do pretty different work. If you think ISIS isn’t legitimate Islam (or at least not the only way to be legitimately Muslim) and you want to keep them from claiming the legitimacy representing that religion would bring, you probably are going to opt for the latter interpretation. Or if you want to create a “space” for people who are Islamic in a different way that’s judged better or more respectable. It’s a way of saying that yes, those dudes are inspired by the Koran and pulling on Islamic tradition to justify their actions, but they’re extremists, they’re like the Provos from Northern Ireland, they don’t define Islam and they certainly aren’t the only legitimate way to be a Muslim.

You also sometimes hear non-religious groups called extreme ______s. I hear it mostly of conservatives (Republicans pushing for abortion restrictions being labelled “anti-choice extremists” is the example that springs to mind). It should be just as applicable to Democrats that stray too far onto the fringe, but it doesn’t seem to be for some reason. With some exceptions; George Will labeled Democrats restricting free speech (as he saw it) in the name of campaign finance as extremists. In situations like this, the goal doesn’t seem to be to blame any particular person so much as the DNC and GOP as a whole. Those DNC Senators who voted for that campaign finance bill weren’t extreme Democrats so much as proof that (in that instance at least) Democrats as a whole were extreme. They were on the fringe of something, what it meant to be a respectable politician or an American or a good human or whatever else.

Of course sometimes people do use extreme to mean more whatever they’re talking about than for your run of the mill person. Back in 2012 Mitt Romney famously called himself “severely conservative” as a governor. Surely if he’d said “extremely conservative” people would have understood that in the same way. The meaning he probably meant was he wasn’t this conservative-in-name-only, too-liberal-for-most-GOP-voters’-tastes politician, he was much more true to conservatism than that; he was extremely, severely conservative, more conservative than most (or at least than he’d been given credit for) and so voters could trust that he’d act on conservative principles. But I do think most people would say “extremely conservative” rather than “conservative extremist” there.

It’s odd, that two phrases that seems like they should be more or less interchangeable have come to mean precisely the opposite in how they’re used, at least how I interpret them. That’s why I’m asking (and I mean this genuinely) how other people understand this phrase. When you call someone a ______ extremist — whatever you want to plug in that blank — does that mean they’re more or less _______?

For those of you interested in context, this was inspired by discussions in the comment section here. However, I’d welcome discussion from anyone on how they understand that phrase.

No True Atheist?

atheistOver at Love Joy Feminism, Libby Anne has an interesting conversation going in the comments of this post. The context: The person accused of shooting Deah Bakarat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha down in Chapel Hill, the man accused of shooting them* is an atheist, so some pundits and bloggers have asked whether he might have been driven by the anti-theism, the idea that religion should ideally be done away with.

(* Yes, I know his name. I make it a point not to give people like this man publicity by naming them when I can. Consider it my own curse against the dying of the light.)

The thought is that several big-name atheist writers (Christopher Hitchens, for one) have been quite vocal about how Islam is evil and a major source of global suffering and we’d all be better off if less people were Muslims, or for that matter Christians or any other religion. Which in turn inspires a more general question, the one brought up in the comments that piqued my interest. Isn’t atheism just the belief that “God exists” is false? Then where do we get off blaming these murders on it? There doesn’t seem to be a connection.

Atheism is one of those terms that seems to mean lots of things to lots of people. Technically it means just not-theism. It’s the belief that God doesn’t exist. Some people might say it doesn’t require that kind of certainty, that it just means we don’t have enough evidence to prove God exists, though other people would call that agnosticism. (I’m not all that interested in splitting that hair.)

Some atheists also accept what philosophers of religion call evidentialism. Here’s how Alvin Plantinga puts it:

Many philosophers have urged the evidentialist objection to theistic belief; they have argued that belief in God is irrational or unreasonable or not rationally acceptable or intellectually irresponsible or noetically substandard, because, as they say, there is insufficient evidence for it. Many other philosophers and theologians – in particular, those in the great tradition of natural theology – have claimed that belief in God is intellectually acceptable, but only because the fact is there is sufficient evidence for it. These two groups unite in holding that theistic belief is rationally acceptable only if there is sufficient evidence for it. More exactly, they hold that a person is rational or reasonable in accepting theistic belief only if she has sufficient evidence for it – only if, that is, she knows or rationally believes some other propositions which support the one in question, and believes the latter on the basis of the former. […]

Now any Reformed thinkers and theologians have rejected natural theology (thought of as the attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of God). They have held not merely that the proffered arguments are unsuccessful, but that the whole enterprise is in some way radically misguided. […] What these Reformed thinkers really mean to hold, I think, is that belief in God need not be based on argument or evidence from other propositions at all. They mean to hold that the believer is entirely within his intellectual rights in believing as he does even if he doesn’t know of any good theistic argument (deductive or inductive) even if he doesn’t believe that there is any such argument, and even if in fact no such argument exists. (from “Is Believe in God Properly Basic?”, pp. 41-42; typos mine)

In the grand academic tradition, I’m going to declare the why of the Reformed tradition’s position “beyond the scope of this” blog post. The important thing is that a lot of atheists think evidentialism. They think “theistic belief is rationally acceptable only if there is sufficient evidence for it.” And many might turn to W.K. Clifford or another thinker making a similar point and say that not only is it irrational to believe something without good evidence, it’s flat-out wrong. Many times, atheists extend this idea to any idea at all: that it is irrational (say) to believe that Reagan-style trickle-down economics will ever help anyone but the rich, and (if they go as far as Clifford) that it’s wrong to believe such a thing, certainly to act on the basis of that belief. And the problem isn’t just that we harm people when we believe something without good reason – being irrational is its own fault, and would be equally wrong even if things turned out well for us (though we’d be less likely to be called out over it, just as the person who drives home while drunk isn’t charged with vehicular manslaughter if he’s lucky enough not to actually hit someone).

Though to be fair when they’re talking about things other than God, they’re likely to call themselves rationalist or Richard Dawkins’ brainchild “brights.” I personally find both terms offensive, and more to the point think they assume the very thing under discussion, that believing only on evidence and concluding the evidence only establishes the natural world is more rational or smarter.  The important thing, though, is that many in the atheist community understand their worldview to imply it’s wrong to believe things that can’t be proved. Since the probably essential trait of being an atheist (= you can’t be an atheist if you don’t believe this, even if it’s not enough to qualify you as one by itself) is that you believe “God exists” is false or at least unjustified, that pretty much has to mean you think people who believe in God aren’t being rational and (if you go full-on W.K. Clifford) that they’re wrong to believe God exists. Not just factually, but morally too.

The question is, how much of this is actually part of atheism, and how much should atheism be held accountable for? Because it’s not such a huge leap, for me at least, to see how thinking “people who believe ______ are stupid” and “people who believe ______ are being bad for believing it,” particularly when paired with some of the specifically anti-Islamic rhetoric you see in the New Atheist movement, could lead someone to act violently toward Muslims. I’m not saying those positions are wrong, morally or otherwise – it may be this is a side-effect that can’t be helped but is outweighed by the good that approach takes. Maybe its just true, and some people will say true beliefs are better than useful ones.

But I do think there’s a danger to this belief, something that needs to be used with care, and before we go holding atheism accountable for it we first need to work out whether this is even part of atheism proper. After all, you can be a libertarian without being a part of the tin-hat brigade and believing Agenda 21 is a worldwide conspiracy to force people to live in cities, or that the government staged Newton to take away our guns. The difference is that, while a lot of American libertarians tend to buy government conspiracy theories, and while many of them identify as libertarians because they’re afraid of government powers maybe driven by those delusions, it’s actually completely possible to be a libertarian without having those delusions. Conspiracy theories don’t have to be part of libertarianism, and there’s nothing about libertarianism feeding those ideas (though those ideas may be feeding libertarianism, at least in terms of numbers of adherents).

Or take an example from the other extreme. A lot of Christians believe homosexual sex is per se immoral – that it’s impossible to have a same-gender sexual relationship in a way God would approve of (or that’s morally good, if you prefer less religious talk). They get this idea from reading the Bible. I happen to believe they’re reading it wrongly and that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexual sex as such (if only because our concept of gender and homosexuality just didn’t exist in antiquity), but I can definitely see the parts of Scripture those Christians are pointing to. It’s no coincidence a lot of Christians think homosexual sex is sinful – they’re getting it from the Bible, and the fact that in my opinion their interpretation is wrong doesn’t change that. That’s a big part of why I feel such a drive to correct them, much more than I would people saying the Koran or Confucianism or any other source of philosophy condemns homosexuality. Because it’s my book, whenever I call myself a Christian I give it credence, and so I have a special duty to make sure it’s not being used for harm. I have a responsibility for even the abuses of the Bible, I think, in a way a libertarian just doesn’t have to fight against those conspiracy theories. (Though I think they should – but that’s just because I think everyone should.)

So where does atheism fit into this? Christianity definitely has a canon, and while different Christians are influenced by different things that aren’t in the Bible, you at least have a certain group of texts you can point to and say if it’s coming from even a reasonable interpretation of that,  it’s tied to the Christian tradition. With libertarianism it’s not quite that neat but you have certain philosophers where not everyone agrees with everything the thinker wrote, but where their basic ideas can be assumed to represent libertarianism in general. People like Hayek, Nozick, even Rand. Not every libertarian will accept every word from every one of their writings, but it seems fairly safe that if someone gets an idea from a plausible reading of their core texts, it’s something libertarians can be held accountable for. If someone shoots up a schoolyard and was motivated by something he read in Hayek, no one gets to pull a “no true libertarian” schtick.

Now, if you think atheism is just the belief that God doesn’t exist, that this isn’t coming out of nowhere and there’s not a basic set of texts or at least concepts and lines of arguments, I suppose you could say there’s nothing about atheism as such that could lead to violence like we saw down in Chapel Hill. Blame the incendiary writers. Blame the subreddits and the Facebook groups and blog comment threads and wherever the shooter picked up the rhetoric that made him think shooting his victims was at all okay – but not the idea of atheism, or the atheist movement. If that is all we mean by atheism, then atheism really isn’t to blame here.

Thing is, that’s a pretty historically ignorant way to think about atheism. I’m sure some people can reject God’s existence on their own, without being influenced by this theory, but there’s also a philosophical tradition, a set of ideas, that feed the current uptick in atheism and contribute to how people understand the term, both atheists growing out of that tradition and theists and undecideds and all sorts of others who are familiar with the phenomenon. There’s evidentialism and Clifford’s ethics of belief that I already mentioned above. There’s logical positivism’s verification principle, which says beliefs aren’t even capable of being false if you can’t explain what kind of evidence would count against them – they’re just nonsense, incoherent. There’s the idea that when we talk about God, we are talking about a hypothesis, an idea that can be explored through argument and data points and wholly contained in a concept understandable by the human mind, rather than the more transcendent meaning a lot of religious people might have in mind when they think of God. There’s empiricism, the idea that the only things that are real are what is observable through our senses. I’m sure other people could add to this list.

My point isn’t that any of these concepts are wrong (factually or morally). I have my issues with a few of them, but any one of these concepts really does warrant its own series of blog posts (or an academic article or three if you prefer – greater minds than I have taken the latter path). But my point is Dawkins and Hitchens didn’t come out of thin air, and they’re driven by more than just this idea that God doesn’t exist. It’s coming out of Carnap and Frege, Bertrand Russell, Hume and Locke, and probably a bunch of deep thinkers from the scientific community and other places as well.

And just as Christianity means more than “Christ-follower” and libertarianism more than “maximize liberty,” atheism means more than “God does not exist.” It seems a bit convenient, to me, to pretend otherwise.

On the Limits of Black (and Hispanic, and Asian, etc.) Spider-Men

This weekend an actress stood up and said something about racial representation in Hollywood, a few people found it offensive, and then she apologized for it (sort of). It would hardly deserve discussing on a slow news day, except for the single fact that her original point is … not totally ridiculous. I don’t actually agree with her, but I definitely think it’s worth discussing.

The actress in question is Michelle Rodriguez. She was asked about rumors she’d be starring in the new “Green Lantern” movie, to which she replied:

That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. I think it’s so stupid because of this whole minorities in Hollywood thing. It’s so stupid. Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own. What’s up with that?

(See the video here.)

When I first heard the comment, I thought she was saying that comic book roles should be deserved for white actors and actresses for some reason (I suppose because white artists had created it, and that it was “stupid” to set up a kind of affirmative action for minority actors. But that doesn’t seem to be what she means at all, at least if you take her clarification (that seems a more apt word than apology to me) as genuine. What’s “stupid” isn’t that white people would lose roles to minority actors; it’s that we think taking a white character and changing the race is enough. He thought is that we really need a truly diverse set of superheroes and role models pulling on those other characters.

I’m shamefully ignorant about comic book fandom (I recently mentioned at Tumblr that I can barely tell my DC from my MCU, though I try to be teachable), but even I wondered how accurate Rodriguez’s statement was. The cast of the most popular comics is definitely blindingly white, at least in the leading roles, but when it comes to the artists creating them, we need to be careful about just what we mean by white. Stan Lee, the granddaddy of all comic book artists, is Jewish after all, and working in a time when Jews faced quite a bit of racial discrimination themselves.

Perhaps more importantly, I never thought most superheroes were meant to be exclusively white. Set aside Thor, Loki, Odin and the like, characters pulling on Norse (or other white) mythology explicitly. Most of them are just American characters, supposed to be open to anyone. Of course they were always portrayed as white characters, but that’s the racism of the time (then certainly, arguably still today). It’s an unfulfilled promise. Just having a black actor play a character doesn’t by itself correct that problem, but when done right, having a black Spider-man would include minorities in that tradition. Giving the spotlight to a new specifically minority character wouldn’t.

“Done right” is the key, though. I’m always a bit frustrated (for instance) by fanfic stories that rewrite Sherlock Holmes as a woman as if that solves all the problems of sexism in the series. Sherlock Holmes in the Doyle stories is swimming in sexist attitudes, both in how he and Watson describe female characters and in the assumptions they make about female characters that feature as more than clients. Irene Adler is an exception, the one woman worth caring about, and she is more put on a pedestal than anything. Mary Morstan is expected to be Watson’s shining light and mind the hearth while he and Holmes go out at all hours and depend on each other emotionally in a way Watson never does with his wife. Holmes also has the privilege to access police scenes without having to work his way through the ranks or operate within standard procedures, and this only happens because he has all sorts of societal privileges: white, of a certain social class, and male. A female Holmes would not be able to do these things, any more than Clark Kent could have been black in the 1940s. He wouldn’t have been on the paper and he certainly wouldn’t have escaped scrutiny the way Clark Kent/Superman actually was able to.

The trick, in both cases, is to make the change in a way that addresses these changes, not that paints over and ignores them. I actually think the Captain America franchise did some really interesting work here in the way they had Sam address Steve in their first meeting. You can see it in Sam’s eyes when he talks about the “good old days”: he’s expecting Steve to tell him how great that greatest generation was, how things just aren’t as good these days. And that’s going to be a problem because for Sam’s parents and grandparents, the good old days weren’t anything to remember longingly. When Steve turns around and says, “Actually they weren’t all that great, and the way things are now is much better” identifies Sam’s struggle with Steve’s in a really interesting way. Captain America may be white, but he’s got the kind of outlook and back-story that could have been played by a black man out of Harlem rather than an Irish kid beat up by every bully in Brooklyn. And this lets Sam Wilson’s connection with him as a black man feel genuine. If they had gone so far as to make Captain America black (which I would have welcomed), you’d need to do similar work to make him feel believable. Just as, if you’re going to truly make me buy a feminized Sherlock Holmes, you’re going to have to address the unfair way women are treated in law enforcement, the way that would create barriers to the Work, and the way her rejection of sentiment for cold logic (if that’s the characterization you buy) meshes with sexist assumptions about how women are, and the biological realities of hormonal fluctuations and changing moods. Does fem!Sherlock get PMS, or do people think she does? How does she deal with that? Do people assume she will because of stereotypes, do they expect her to be more emotional than she actually is, and how does she deal with that? A female Sherlock Holmes would need more than longer hair and maybe a skirt to feel authentically female, at least to me. And a black Spider-Man needs more than just darker skin.

But I have to wonder, is racism in genre publishing the only reason comic book characters have tended to be white, and there’s such a strong reaction against minority actors playing the roles? There’s the sexism that keeps black artists from working, or from creating explicitly black characters, of course, and then there’s the sexism that makes some white readers and viewers uncomfortable with the idea that a black man (or woman) could save the day. These are all very real problems, and I don’t want to downplay them, but they are problems that could be addressed by a black superhero developed and presented in the right way. In fact, I’d say creating “parallel” minority superheroes would blow an opportunity here to fight those attitudes. We need studios to stand up and say there’s nothing wrong with Spider-man or Superman or Professor X or even Captain America being white, that those characters were always meant to be Americans of any race, and that the decision to always show them as white in the past was a (forgivable then, but unacceptable now) mistake coming from racist attitudes we now know are wrong. A black actor filling that particular role seems like it would do that.

I can say that because I don’t actually see the comic book superheroes as built around a specifically white mythology. People better educated in comic books can correct me here. Are the villains drawing from European-style fairy-tales? Setting aside the Norse gods (which is obviously European mythology), it seems like most of the comic book heroes – going from the movies here, as that’s mostly what I know – aren’t really pulling from any defined mythology. They’re white superheroes, sure, but they’re incidentally white, they could just as easily be Hispanic or Afro- or Asian-Americans without it being just a minority character set in a white man’s world.

Still, there does seem a certain whiteness about the whole superhero idea. And not just superheroes: any sort of lone figure saving the world against impossible odds through more or less individual efforts because they’re particularly powerful or fated or otherwise special (Frodo, Harry Potter, Katniss…) all strike me as the kind of thing a white mind would dream up. We’re so taken with the rugged individual ideal. The minority communities I’ve known – and, in fairness, these have mostly been lower class or lower-middle class in urban areas – are more influenced by the idea of “it takes a village.” They know that no individual is so powerful to redesign the whole system, and while they talk (rightly so) about great leaders like Dr. King and about great tragedies like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and (going back further) Emmett Till, these are guiding forces and flashpoints that inspire larger groups. Dr. King is a hero, but not in the same way Batman is.

Of all the heroic stories I mentioned, Katniss Everdeen seems to come closest to this model. There is very little special about her: the courage to volunteer for her sister in the Reaping, some small skill with a bow and arrow, and the wit and stubbornness not to play the Game by the rules. It’s more her circumstances and the spotlight they give her that make her special. Of course, she needs the skills to take advantage and be effective, but lots of people have those things. What makes her special (and famous, and the hero of the story) is her position in history, her relation to others, not anything unique or special to her as an individual.

Which is actually a much more enjoyable story for me, but it’s very different than a superhero story. That’s why I think Ms. Rodriguez’s comment is interesting. It’s difficult for me, as a white person, to discuss what a minority superhero story would look like, but I suspect her request for authentic minority superheroes rather than white hand-me-downs recast as minorities would turn out to be a much more substantive change than she seems to think. Would a minority analogue of Thor, for instance, look like a member of a Nigerian pantheon fighting beside humans with men mutated through radiation, engineered super-soldiers, and owners of nifty flying suits against a super-powerful alien intent on conquering the Earth?

My guess – and I’m open to people explaining why I’m wrong here – would be not, precisely because Thor’s role as the protecting hero grows out of the white psyche and the whole idea that individuals are special and powerful enough to fix even massive problems, all by their own. I suspect we’d have to end up with a different genre entirely, and that would be really interesting, but it wouldn’t be a matter of giving us a black or Hispanic superhero, even an original one created by a black artist. And precisely because it’s so different, I still think there’s a role for a minority actor playing Spider-man or the like; because that’s a powerful way of saying the superhero idea should be open to all kinds of people. It’s just that that’s not the only kind of equality that matters.

So bring on the black Spidey-man, and make the next Captain America Diego Luna, and the next Fury Chow Yun-Fat for that matter. Just don’t think that’s the end of the road.

“The Problem is Not a SKIN Problem, It is a SIN Problem”

Earlier this week, Benjamin Watson made a post on Facebook about the mess down in Ferguson that’s gone a bit viral. Apparently he’s a football player, a tight end for the New Orleans Saints. And yes, I did have to look that up; if not for this post I wouldn’t know him from Adam. I try to stay away from blogging about this kind of thing because it’s usually not worth my time and effort when it will hit the news pass and quickly pass away. Talking about that kind of story is almost always reactive rather than proactive, and I try to rise above that temptation.

But Mr. Watson talked about sin. He put this in distinctly religious terms, saying the solution to things like Ferguson is redemption through the Gospel and that’s where he takes his hope from. And honestly? That kind of conversation is where I live.

Let’s start with Mr. Watson’s own words. He started off by talking about all the emotions and reactions he had to the grand jury’s failure to indict, and while I disagreed with a lot of how he characterized the event, if that had been the end of it I wouldn’t be writing this post. (As a white child of suburbia and a small predominantly-white college town, I’m a little uncomfortable telling a black man that his experience of the realities of racism in this country are wrong, even if his sports career and high earnings means he’s probably experiencing parts of it differently than Michael Brown did. It’s the last paragraph I want to talk about. He wrote:

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

On one point, I agree with Mr. Watson: incidents like this, like so much wrong in the world are a sin problem. The problem is that Mr. Watson seems to have a grossly insufficient idea of what it means to be sinful. He connects it to bad individual choices we all make, either to antagonize authority or to abuse it, and thinks it will be resolved because “god has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind.” Repent, he tells us. Follow the gospel and your mind and heart will be transformed.

Salvation, looking at this from the perspective of the human, is really quite easy. You don’t need to do anything. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph 2:8-9, NKJV) But there’s really no magical transformation that comes in that moment. It is the first step on a journey toward that transformation of mind and heart Mr. Watson talks about. Spend some time in a pew if you think that everyone who claims to be a Christian – I’d even say everyone who is a Christian – is suddenly a nice, moral person. What you are at that point is on the inside of a covenant relationship. You are reclaimed as a child of God, and you are convicted of your sin.

This is a wonderful, glorious thing. I’m not going to go all tent-revival on you here, but Mr. Watson is absolutely right: it does give us hope. And it puts us on a path, but it’s really just the first step along that path. Actually, it’s not even that: it’s the starter’s gun going off saying now is the time to run and to climb toward that goal you see just beyond your reach. It is the time to work and through the grace of God that process will bring you closer to the transformed hearts and minds that will see past our distinction. Transmutation might be the better term, and transubstantiation as a sort of analogy would not be reaching too far.

Even this process of becoming a better person isn’t something that we can really take credit for or boast in. Just being made aware that we need to change is a sort of miracle, it is something we cannot see on our own, let alone hope to initiate. We have no righto boast in it because it’s no less than someone fit to worship God would work for, and because it’s not the kind of thing we could ever hope to accomplish on our own. But even if it’s miraculous, it’s so, so far from being instantaneous. The Word of God for the People of God, as we say in my church, does give us hope that we can move past the effects of our Sin. But it’s bound to be a long hard slough.

Just calling yourself a Christian doesn’t cut it.

Just actually being a Christian, doesn’t cut it either.

Just going up to the altar at the end of a service, or just saying a certain prayer: these are good things. Maybe even necessary. But they are not in the language of philosophers sufficient – they are not enough to give you the new heart and the new mind that lets you see past the differences and distinctions that sin creates in our lives.

I want to quote another black man who had some thoughts worth thinking through on the issue of racial injustice and racial reconciliation. Not because he’s black but because he is wise and universally recognized as an authority on these matters and has been praised by voices as diverse as Cornel West and Glenn Beck. I could write for quite a lot longer than I can afford these days, so I’ll limit myself to a single passage, albeit a fairly long one:

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws are democratically elected?

In case you don’t recognize them, these words are taken from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage it. It’s freely available at many places online, for instance here. I’ve added emphasis but otherwise the words are his.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Watson that what happened in Ferguson and around the country, along with so many of our reactions to it, is at its heart a sin problem. Sin, as Dr. King recognized, is separation. It is about Eve in the garden hearing the serpent in the garden say “Surely you shall not die,” and believing it. It is being told that this is the rule that applies to everyone but thinking in your heart of hearts, Come on – surely they didn’t mean me there. It is seeing ourselves as the exception to the rule that applies universally, excepting ourselves from the consequences.

And it’s also about seeing a gap between ourselves and our neighbors, not recognizing the commonalities we all share. Mr. Watson mentioned Tamir Rice alongside Trayvon, Michael, and Eric Garner. If you haven’t heard the story, here’s a link to a BBC video describing his killing. (Be warned, it’s video that starts playing automatically.) He was twelve years old, but the cops who shot him, on the tape they describe him as twenty. And that’s not wholly surprising: there’s psychological evidence that many cops perceive black teenagers as older than they actually are. Or going back to Michael Brown, Jamelle Bouie over at Slate does a good job reporting on how many white people (Darren Wilson included, if his grand jury testimony is any indication) seem to see black people as especially vicious and dangerous. Wilson described Brown as a demon and a Hulk, a superhero unable to control himself in his rage. Being redeemed from our sins means being made aware of these blind spots, of really seeing black people and minorities of all stripes not as more violent than they really are, as more brutish or more rage-filled than they truly are. This is being trapped in difference, in sin. And we can (must, should) do better. Redemption involves being made aware of the full effects of our sin, which involves both a lot of work on our part and a lot of insight from those who have a different perspective than ours. If I am truly stuck in my difference, I will not be able to see – on my own – that I am blinded. This seems to be the way sin works, and why we need salvation from our blindness in the first place. We cannot see the damage and the harm we are doing to ourselves.

Now I want to be absolutely clear on what I don’t mean when I say sin is separateness and segregation. A lot of people, particularly in America, talk about being “color-blind,” of not seeing someone’s race as if that makes them not racist, but that’s only just and good if the situation actually isn’t colorblind. That’s why I included the second part of Dr. King’s quote. There are a great number of people in this country, most of them with more melanin in their skin than me, who are hassled by police on a regular basis, or who are charged some pretty high fines for fairly minor crimes like traffic violations and end up in prison or deeply in debt to companies the government “sells” their cases to. This is especially true in poorer areas where you have lower tax revenues and city governments are trying to make up the difference through criminal fees. It is sinful to treat people differently because of the color of their skin – but it is equally sinful to imagine white and black, poor and rich, receive the same treatment from the law.

That’s why I included the second paragraph from Dr. King above: because when we say that I am not harassed by the law, that I am not forced to hide from the law because I have fines I can never hope to pay so any run-in at all with the law may land me in jail, and so no one has any reason to fear or resent the police if they’re not doing anything wrong – when I say that because I have reason to think the police protect me and assume this is true for everyone without asking whether this actually is everyone’s experience? That is “a numerical or power majority group compel[ling] a minority group to obey” what we would never accept being applied to ourselves. It is “difference made legal,” and difference – separation, segregation – is sin.

The other thing I think Mr. Watson is forgetting here is that sin is not just about individuals. Maybe this is the effect of the six years I’ve spent studying among Jesuits; Catholics, and Jesuits in particular, seem to get this aspect of sin better than most Protestants. I don’t want to make assumptions here but I did look up Mr. Watson’s background, and in another interview he said of his faith, “At 5 or 6 years old, my father and I knelt down by my bed and I repented of my sins, and put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior to forgive me of my sin debt that I couldn’t pay. I got saved at a very young age and I knew what I was doing, and the Holy Spirit came in and I’ve been a Christian ever since.” If he was a white Christian I’d say that maps quite neatly onto the conversion stories I’ve heard coming out of Southern Baptist churches in particular. The whole idea that you deal with sin by having a conversion moment, a point of salvation, and then by repenting of the specific sins.

But sin is so much more complicated than that, it gets into our institutions and if repenting just means turning away from our own individual past actions. It’s not just about repairing the world, but it definitely includes that. Repentance means recognizing the points where we sin, where we impose separation, and not doing that, and actively seeking out help to avoid our blind spots. But it also means recognizing the history and the social constructs and the institutions that separate us and that keep us from being able to see that blindness. When the police in Cleveland describe Tamir Rice as a twenty-year-old when they would never have overestimated a white child’s age, this is sin (not necessarily the officer’s sin, but the effects of sin nonetheless). And when Darren Wilson thinks of Michael Brown as a man so overtaken with his rage he is out of control, and to a demon – first in his thoughts and then in his words – that is sinful too. But it’s also sinful when Rudy Giuliani says blacks are more likely to be killed by other blacks, as if black-on-black crime is a phenomenon unique to that ethnicity, or when minorities don’t talk to the cops because they don’t think those people will give members of their community a fair shake.

It may not be those peoples‘ sins; I mean it’s the effect of the institutions that both drive us apart into groups so we see the other person as the enemy, and equally blind us to the ways we actually are different, making us think our own experience is universal. This is the institutional effect of sin, and it runs deep. Trying to do your best on an individual level just isn’t going to cut it. Being forgiven is a good first step, it’s wonderful and so necessary, and forgiving our fellow man is wonderful and important as well, but it’s still just the first step.

At the end of the day, I think people like Benjamin Watson have it exactly right. I just wish they saw how right they were, and what exactly this being a sin problem really has to mean.

making space at the National Cathedral

Earlier tonight, a group of Muslims gathered in the National Cathedral for a prayer service. This is noteworthy because the cathedral is Christian, and because some figures on the Christian Right (the list of names was depressingly predictable IMO) objected to a Christian church welcoming people praying to what we Christians believe is a false God. And they’re right, to a point. The National Cathedral was designed by George Frederick Bodley, a leading architect of Anglican churches at the time, and it’s under the governance of the Episcopal Church.

But it’s also not strictly sectarian, either. According to the National Cathedral’s webpage, “The Cathedral is a spiritual resource for our nation: a great and beautiful edifice in the city of Washington, an indispensable ministry for people of all faiths and perspectives, and a sacred place for our country in times of celebration, crisis, and sorrow.” These are the words chosen by the cathedral’s own governing body to describe their mission. They also quote the famous description of Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who planned the layout of Washington DC and initially set aside space for “a great church for national purpose.” And they make quite a lot in their history of how the group founding the cathedral was chartered by Congress and the charter was signed by a US president (Benjamin Harrison). This isn’t some denomination buying up a plot of land and building a church as a wholly private affair.

When I first heard about the plans for the prayer service, I was a little concerned. I’ve been to the National Cathedral, and while it never felt particularly sectarian to me, the architecture and art is definitely that of a Christian church, and I’ve always been uncomfortable with people using space consecrated to a Christian God to worship Someone else. I don’t view it as respectful to Christians or Muslims, to act like there’s no difference there. Then again, even in my church we had interdenominational services when different Christian denominations (and other religions) wanted to come together to mark some event. We had the baccalaureate service there every year because we had the biggest sanctuary in town. (For those not familiar, it’s a church service honoring the high school graduates, usually held the Sunday night before the graduation ceremonies; it was attended and involved speakers who weren’t UMC, and I’m almost certain on a few occasions they weren’t Christian.)

At the end of the day, though, that’s the Episcopal Church’s problem. The people planning this prayer service doubtlessly know that church’s teaching on consecrated space and ecumenicism much better than I do. And religious freedom’s a glorious thing. No one’s forcing them or pressuring them to host the service as far as I can tell, and just like conservative churches have the right to practice more conservative views of their religion and teachings than I’d like, more liberal churches are free to use their space and influence in the way they see fit. And while I was initially uncomfortable, the thought of Christians making space for Muslims to pray in the same room where we’ve commemorated the deaths of presidents is really kind of beautiful.

I’m usually a bit cautious about those labels, conservative and liberal Christianity, because the words really don’t seem to apply. As Fred Clarke pointed out a while back, it suggests a unity between different kinds of conservative and liberal faith expressions when it’s not there at all (if conservative Calvinists and Catholics and Jews hold the same positions on political issues, it will usually be for very different theological reasons), and also because what’s sometimes called liberal theology is really liberationist theology, a distinct strand of Christian thought that grew out of Catholicism in Latin America back in the 1950s and 1960s, and is pretty heavily influenced by Marxism. A good number of progressive Christians, especially those who work with poverty (including yours truly), are influenced by liberationist Christianity, but not all left-leaning Christians are liberal Christians in this sense, and just like with the Right, people may be liberal or progressive by their society’s standards coming from all sorts of different theological backgrounds. And they may not always be comfortable with what one another think or do, the same way a Calvinist and a traditionalist Catholic might not always see eye to eye outside of political issues.

[/Marta’s philosophical theology digression. Hey, the tickets are free…]

Anyway. In this particular case I think the labels actually are quite appropriate, because the people who are particularly bothered by this do seem to have a fairly political view in mind. One of the criticisms that I’ve seen discussed most often is Franklin Graham’s Facebook status, and at the time I’m writing this at least the top comments are mostly about how shameful it is that America’s church isn’t just for Christians, how we were founded as a Christian nation, etc. The other bit that springs to mind is the story of the (again at the time I’m writing this) unnamed heckler who interrupted the service by screaming “America was founded on Christian principles. Leave our church alone.” Again, this seems driven more by a political vision than a theological one, by this image of “us” as being Christian.* It seems very important to her, and a good number of other people, that this is a national church but also a distinctly Christian one. That there’s no contradiction in being a church for all Americans and being one that’s only open to Christian worship. And that’s a combination that’s threatened if Muslims can use it to pray to their god as well.

(*Though to be fair here, I really don’t know her motives. I’m speculating. She could be an Episcopalian, she could have a more personal connection to that denomination or this church in particular, and she may object in the same way some Christians were uncomfortable with their individual church giving space to the boy scouts after they allowed openly gay scouts. It may not be driven by broad politics. It just seems like that, with the language she used and the way it’s been covered.)

I think that’s the real crux (no pun intended) of the issue for me: this idea that the church can be exclusively Christian and also “a great church for national purpose.” Taking “church” in the broader way the IRS uses it here, as a house of worship Christian or otherwise. You can be a sectarian church, even a specifically Christian church, or you can be the place where all Americans come together to worship or pray or otherwise engage with the sacred – but once you have Americans who aren’t approaching God (or whichever god they pray to) in the Christian way, you can’t both e a gathering place for all Americans and only open to Christian religious practice. I just can’t see a way it works out that way. I mean, suppose we had someone we wanted to mourn as a nation but who was Muslim. Suppose Obama actually was, or (may that day come soon) we elect an honest-to-goodness Muslim president. It would certainly be fitting we hold a service to honor him in the National Cathedral. That’s where we’ve honored other national dignitaries. But would a Christian service be at all appropriate? Or if we had a civic leader, a well-resected voice like Rvd. King, who was invited to speak at such an event but he was Muslim and he wanted to offer words of solace and encouragement pulling on his own tradition and that couldn’t be allowed from the pulpit because it was a distinctly Christian space, would we still say this is a space where the whole nation can come together?

I don’t think so. And that seems the real danger of people making the kind of objections they do. It takes away the possibility of us coming together as more than just Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or whatever. We can’t say, This has affected us as Americans and we will pray and sing and mourn (or celebrate, etc.) as Americans, together. As a Christian and an American, that seems the much more dangerous threat than a group of earnest Muslims praying in a space where its theological guardians said they were on board with that. To be honest, the thought of someone taking that sincere worship and interrupting it to make what seems like a political point is much more offensive to me.

Because, honestly? At the end of the day, we have a lot of churches in this country. Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, ones that are so inclusive it seems they’ve lost all definition and others so restrictive you’re not really welcome there unless you can trace your family’s been members of good standing in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, for at least three generations. What we don’t really have is a space where we can be spiritual as Americans and as the whole spiritual community of America. That’s why, even though I was a bit hesitant at first, I think at the end of the day I’m moved more by the beauty of Muslims praying to their God in a distinctly Muslim prayer service but in a space where we’ve also memorialized presidents. That’s just so American (and so Christian, too, welcoming the sojourner who dwells within your gates), and it’s really very good.

PS – If you’re ever in DC, do check out the cathedral. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, Take the Red line out to Tenleytown, and then take any of the 30-series buses going south for about a mile and a half. (Or walk, the walk’s nice as well, if a bit long.) When I lived in Washington and had the time I’d sometimes go out for the Evensong service in the late afternoon and then walk around with the setting sun shining through the stained glass, and it really is something.

in Search of *Real* Family Values Policies

Photo by Alamy @ the Telegraph.Over at Patheos, Libby Anne (not-so-)recently walked through Matt Walsh’s case for why people should get married younger. To say she takes issue with his conclusion and his argument for it. Go and read Libby Anne’s post (and Matt Walsh’s), but in its simplest form Matt Walsh is claiming that (a) young people today are getting married at a much younger age than they did in the past, and (b) this is a bad thing and they really ought to cut that out. And then Libby Anne disagrees, saying that (a) um, no, the 1950s are a historical blip and our age of first marriage isn’t really out of line with historical trends, and also (b) again, um… no. Just no.

She’s much more eloquent than I was here. (It’s been a long day and so I’m a bit tired.) Libby Anne at least is well worth a read. But I’m actually not going to talk about the post in general, or whether Matt or Libby Anne has it right here. Instead I want to focus on one little part of Libby Anne’s post. I’m going to quote at some length, because I like giving context and because I think she makes the point really well.

The 1950s were in many ways an abnormality. In fact, the median age of first marriage for a man in the United States hit its historical low in the 1950s, when the GI Bill and Levittowns made it especially easy to set up a household and family unit. For women, the median age of first marriage fell back to 20, the age it had been during the colonial period. If we measure our own time against the 1950s, of course it looks like what we’re experiencing today is unprecedented. If we look back longer, we find that it is normal for the United States to have large swings in the average age of first marriage. It is actually the marriage rates of the 1950s that were unprecedented.

In the colonial period, marriage rates were high and the average age at first marriage was low because resources were plentiful and establishing a household and family was inexpensive. The same was true in the 1950s. The same is not true today. There are a variety of very real reasons young people today are delaying marriage longer than the last few generations, but Walsh seems unconcerned with these.

The real story here is the rise of the median female age at first marriage, which is up from 23 in 1980 to 26 today. The increase is only three years, but it is significant in that it is no demographic accident. Women are more likely to have careers today, and to want to be more established before marrying—and before having children (the average age of a first-time mother is now 25, up from 21 in 1970). I don’t see this as a problem, but those who do would be better off examining the reasons women are marrying and having children later than previous generations than simply urging women to marry and procreate earlier.

Essentially, Libby Anne seems to be saying two basic things here:

(1) contrary to Walsh Americans aren’t getting married later than ever. They’re getting married later than they did in the June Clever era, which many Americans view as the golden age of family values. Whatever you think on whether the ’50s were good or not, they weren’t normal – meaning those kids today, putting marriage off until well into their twenties aren’t selfishly putting off growing up in defiance of historical trends.

(2) And perhaps more importantly, there were reasons why folks in the 1950s got married so young. It was because there were structural forces in play that made it feasible to start a household at that point.

Basically, people aren’t getting married later than they were in the 1950s because they’re immature and selfish and want to avoid commitment and monogamy. They’re avoiding it because they don’t have the means to build a home together. Probably because they can’t afford a rent without roommates or are still living with their parents, and partly because the person they love deserves a better, nicer life than the one they’re able to afford.

Now, there are ways to encourage conditions that lead to more, younger marriages. Some of those aren’t going to be very pretty. Libby Anne points out (rightly IMO) that the age when women first got married shot up right about the time that women found ways to be adults without also being wives. They could earn a paycheck, they could live outside their family’s homes and pay their own rent. Murphy Brown even taught us we could have a kid if we wanted. This is a good change, I’d say. Women, and society generally, are better off when we can get married if that makes sense but we can also not get married if that’s what makes sense in our situation. But that does mean women are going to get married at an older age than when they didn’t have that kind of choice. It just makes sense.

But if you want to aim for a lower marrying rate there are other policies you can aim for. For one: it’s almost impossible to support a family, certainly on one income. Check out showing how many hours you’d have to work at minimum wage in order to afford (= pay no more than 30% of your income) a two-bedroom apartment. The lowest rate is Puerto Rico, where it takes fifty-seven hours a week. If you want to have your vote actually have a say in electing the next president, the best you can do is North Dakota, where it will take you sixty-seven hours. And, meaning no disrespect, I’ve seen “Fargo.” Maybe you should aim a bit higher up the food chain. 🙂

Actually, if I counted up correctly, there are only twenty-two states where you can afford an apartment at fair market value (meaning unsubsidized) with both parents working forty-hour work weeks. There are probably a few choices here. You could create more subsidized housing. Offer incentives or otherwise find a way to lower the unsubsidized rental rates. Raise the minimum wage, or find a way to get people into higher-paying jobs earlier in life. (Much higher-paying, if you want them to have a kid and either have one parent stay home or throw paid childcare into the mix.

I suspect there are other issues contributing to the higher first-marriage age compared to the 1950s. Personally I suspect the mass incarceration of young men of color play a part, because while having one person able to carry both spouses on a single income and the other lacking other choices would make marriage easier, if you can’t afford to run a family off a single income and only one of those people is in a position to earn a decent wage, it’s more likely they just won’t get married because doing so would wreck both of them financially. But whatever the case, the real point here is that if you want to encourage family values, this isn’t about shaming people to get married. They would if they could. Rather, you need to set the conditions in a way that makes it possible. And if we’re not lucky enough to have those conditions by chance, someone, somewhere is going to have to set them up.

The thing is, these are systemic problems that will require a systemic solution. It’s not the kind of thing young lovers can just overcome by being good, at least not on a broad scale.Of course, systemic ≠ governmental, and I can well imagine conservatives balking at the idea that the best way to approach this kind of issue is to look at government policies. (Most of the things I mentioned above would probably most naturally fall into this category.) The thing is, if you believe as Matt Walsh does that most people — not just people of the social groups typically well-served by corporate America, but people across the board — will live the best kind of life when they marry young, we need to find a way to make sure the systemic solutions help them, too.

Levittown after all was a corporate-driven move, not a policy starting with an act of Congress or an executive order. It was also explicitly racist and only worked for the people the company decided to offer mortgages to. It also came out of an effort to build more government-subsidized housing which was nixxed as being too communist, and efforts to increase minority participation in projects like Levittown also faced the same criticism. The upshot was you ended up with uneven home ownership, where white people were more likely to be able to afford mortgages in those communities than minorities, and while I’m far from an expert here, I have to wonder how much of an influence that period has on our current uneven home ownership rates. (Which, if you accept Libby Anne’s historical case that people are less likely to get married when they can’t afford to start a family together, would be at least one factor among many explaining lower marriage rates among minorities than whites.) In any case, I suspect the housing problems we face today aren’t easily fixed by people working the system; the system itself seems to make it hard for most young people to earn the kind of wage and be able to afford the kind of housing costs they’d need to be able to pay in order to start a family. If you want to encourage earlier marriage, I rather suspect you’re going to need something more guided than a morally-blind free market, and I really don’t suspect Matt Walsh would be on board with what his suggestion would require.

All of which leads me to two rather unavoidable (to my mind) conclusions. First:  when we talk about pro-family policies, by which a lot of people seem to mean pro-married family, just what kinds of things are we really talking about? Housing costs, affordable daycare, the criminal over-incarceration of young black and Hispanic men, support for affordable higher education, and good-paying jobs available to people in their young twenties seem much more obviously “family values” issues than the normal crop of “defense of (heterosexual) marriage” laws, sex ed, restriction of pornography and “indecency” and the like.

And second: if you don’t think a new government policy is the way to go here, I’m all ears to how you would make progress on these issues. That’s actually an earnest question.


PS – I actually am sympathetic to some of Matt Walsh’s basic point. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned here, but I think most people will have the most fulfilling life when they do it as part of a partnership, when there’s relationship and family at its center. I also think legal recognition and legal protection matter here, and I consider the way married life is practically unavailable to many young poor people to be an injustice much as I consider its formal unavailability for gay people to be an injustice. Not as big an injustice because it’s typically a temporary thing here, but still I am bothered by the way marriage is increasingly tied to class, because I think there is a moral problem here. The way marriages become such social (and costly) occasions, and the way the fight over gay marriage has made many people think of “traditional marriage” as endorsing a conservative and homophobic viewpoint, aren’t really helping either. I just don’t see this either as a huge change from history, or something that traces back to personal immaturity on the part of the not-marrieds.

So, was Augustine black? (or, One of the many difficulties in talking about racism in a historical discipline like philosophy)

A while ago I read Eugene Park’s HuffPo piece and Brian Leiter’s follow-up over at 3 AM asking the question, is philosophy racist, or perhaps more subtly, does it need to include more non-white thinkers in what we teach and research? I have Thoughts with a capital T there, but I’m still struggling to get them into a specific form that’s really worth sharing. (The answer, will most certainly look something like “Yes, but…”, as do most of my thoughts on philosophy. Go not to the Elves, as they say.) But in the mean time, I thought it might be interested to write a bit about a simpler question (which as it turns out isn’t so simple after all): what would it mean to include more voices of color? Is non-white really the standard? And what do we mean by “white,” even?

Let me start off with a few examples from my own focus when I was a grad student, medieval philosophy.

1) Augustine (who’s not really medieval but is usually taught with medieval philosophy – another issue worth talking about some day) was born in Roman northern Africa (specifically in what’s now Algeria) in the 4th Century. His mother was Berber, and I’ve heard alternating accounts that his father was Latin or Phoenician.

Was he “black”? Certainly he was African. (So, for the record were the church fathers Tertullian and Origen.) And if you know anything about race relations in antiquity, you know a few centuries earlier being from North Africa, particularly if you weren’t purely Latin, would put you in a less-cultured (meaning viewed that way by the PTB, not actual fact) ethnic class than if you were from the area that became Italy and Greece. On the other hand, the Roman Empire was waning at this point and the Christian church was probably one of the biggest unifying cultural and intellectual institutions. And Augustine was a bishop. Add to that the fact that whether or not he was actually white, in the paintings we have of him he might as well be Nordic. He’s part of the historical tradition that modern Europeans and European-descended people think of as their narrative.

2) Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, in the twelfth century to a Jewish family. At the time Spain was Muslim, under the Arabic dynasties that became the Ottoman Empire. (Can’t remember if it was actively the Ottoman Empire at that point or not.) In his childhood as a Jew his family were dhimmis which to modern minds suggests second-class status but at the time actually gave his family a legal status and the protection of the law that they lacked otherwise. Then the area was taken over by another group of Muslims and they were forced to convert or emigrate, and they chose to emigrate – to Egypt, which was much more the center of the Arabic/Muslim world than Spain, and at the time that area was much more philosophically and scientifically booming than Europe was, Spain or otherwise. And he was Jewish in any event, and not the stereotypical eastern European/Ashkhenazi Jew. Look at the history of Jewish philosophy a little more closely if you think that would have been an accepted-by-the-mainstream ethnic group to hail from.

So should we paint Maimonides as an ethnically “white” or “majority” philosopher? Um… yeah. He was Jewish, which as I hinted requires a whole lot of conversation to get at what that means throughout history. As this is from the time when Jews were forced to live in ghettos claiming that Jew = Judeo-Christian = majority is a really tough sell. He was an ethnic minority in Spain but a protected and valued one. He seemed to acclimatize to the dominant culture (there’s evidence that his family faked a conversion to Islam before leaving Spain), but he was also one of the leading legal figures of his particular subcommunity in Egypt. And his work on the distinction between philosophy and theology shows clear exposure to the dominant philosophy of his day but that philosophy was itself a majorly underrepresented strain of philosophy’s history, Islamic philosophy.

Good luck with that one. 🙂

3) Then there’s Anselm, the philosopher I was researching for my dissertation. Anselm was from a fairly wealthy family, part of the Italian nobility. (Or the nobility of the states that would one day become Italy, but you know what I mean.) As thoroughly European as you’re likely to get by racial lines, and given that the Church was pretty much the dominant intellectual institution, being in what became Italy would pretty well situated him within the intellectual mainstream of his day. The problem was, he wanted to enter the church and his father refused him, and he went a bit wild. Ran away and ended up in Normandy where he finally joined a Benedictine order. In northern France, which was pretty much the outskirts of civilization at the time. His contribution was also a bit of a blip: I’d argue he was a proto-scholastic before Scholasticism was cool. And because of that his contribution was forgotten for several centuries and ended up getting bastardized into a point-by-point logical argument as part of the natural theology project that you can’t speak about God (defined a certain way) without presupposing God’s existence so the statement “God does not exist” is false on its face. And I’d say think of him as a natural theologian is to miss the point entirely.

But getting back to the race issue. The really interesting thing here to me is that Anselm was so clearly European. He was born near the center of European culture of his time and never left Europe, but his philosophy was written in virtual isolation and didn’t really key in with the way European philosophy unrolled – partly because as I said I believe his philosophy was before its time, but also because he ended up living in a part of Europe that was less connected with that cultural center and was concerned with a very small, local community that wouldn’t have been that different if it was a Christian community (or a religious community generally, to a lesser degree) in Asia or Africa or the Americas. I’d say Augustine is a more central part of European philosophy than Anselm is, for all that ethnically Anselm is more clearly European.

So what’s the point in all this? I’m not trying to let philosophy off the hook. I think philosophy does have a race problem (and for that matter a gender problem) though it’s not so much about a lack of non-white/male philosophers as it is ignoring the way people outside the dominant tradition looked at the questions philosophers are considering – and then pretending like they’re giving a (say) universal answer about whether free will is possible, or whether we’re a body or a soul or whatnot, or whether language has any innate meaning, or whatever the question may be.

But if the issue is one of representation, I think we do need to be clear on what it means to be part of a racial minority. Does Augustine count as African? Does Maimonides count as European? And do these terms mean different things depending on when we’re talking about them – is Augustine, of native North African descent in the pre-Islamic era, more akin to what we’d call “sub-Saharan African” than Maimonides was in the Islamic age, for instance?

Yes, but…


ETA – I’d originally titled this post “Is Philosophy racist?,” which is misleading as I didn’t even try to answer that question. I think this related question of whether certain philosophers are ethnically “diverse,” and more generally speaking what kinds of philosophers we should be working with more to combat racism in the discipline, is a question related to that basic question. But the subject line was misleading.

one man, one vote?

The Atlantic recently ran an interesting piece on how astronauts vote if they’re in orbit on election day: “How Do Astronauts Vote from Space?” From the perspective of basic curiosity, it’s… kind of boring, actually. (The process, not the article.) Since most astronauts live and are registered to vote in Texas, they passed a special state law setting up a process that would let them do just that. The state provides a ballot ahead of time which the astronauts are able to transmit electronically in a secure file format to the clerk in charge of their voting districts, which is then copied by hand by the clerk and submitted as a ballot-by-proxy on their behalf.

Apparently you can actually check your email from the space stations. (Who knew?) So that’s pretty cool, in its way. And to their credit, Texas actually has sane laws about absentee ballots and early voting policies, but with astronauts spending long periods of time on the international space station, I guess they can’t always have an absentee ballot sent to them.

I kind of wish this had been the end of my reaction to the story. But it was a bit thick for me to swallow, with all of its praise about how the astronauts’ vote was “a fulfillment of democracy’s every-vote-counts mantra.” See, Texas’ voting laws were also in the news for something much less positive:

A federal judge on Thursday likened Texas’ tough voter ID rules to a poll tax meant to suppress minority voters and blocked Texas from enforcing it just weeks ahead of last month’s election, knocking down a law that the U.S. Justice Department condemned in court as deliberately discriminatory.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi is a defeat for Republican-backed photo ID measures that have swept the U.S> in recent years and have mostly been upheld in court. And it wasn’t the only one. The U.S. Supreme Court also blocked Wisconsin from implementing a law requiring voters to present photo IDs. […]

Gonzales Ramos’ ruling says the law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” It added that the measure: “constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”

I’m hesitant to get into too much of the specifics of the voter ID laws. I suspect most people who care to know about them already know quite a bit by this point. The gist (in very broad strokes) is that many states are passing laws that in order to vote, you have to be able to provide a state-issued photo ID like a drivers license or one of those official non-driver’s license IDs you can get from the DMV without passing a drivers’ test. (That’s what I use as a non-driver.) Advocates (usually conservatives) say it’s necessary to prevent voter fraud; critics (usually progressives) say there has been almost no incidents of people voting fraudulently in person so it’s a solution in search of a problem, and also that these laws tend to disenfranchise people less likely to drive or otherwise lack proper ID. Usually those are poor people who are less likely to rely on official state ID, people with unusual names who may have mistakes or indiscrepancies in how they are spelled in official records, and people living in areas with good public transit (read: who live in a major city) and so don’t have a need for a driver’s license. Those are all groups that tend to vote progressive, so you can see the political angle: these laws are more likely to effect the DNC than the GOP.

(I don’t know about Texas, but in New York you can register to vote by providing all kinds of official documents, like paychecks, government-issued checks, utility bills, and the like, or even just providing your social security number. So it’s possible to register to vote if you can establish your identity even if you don’t have a state photo ID. In New York, the photo ID requires a $15 registration fee, various other official documents like a physical copy of your Social Security Card, which costs a pretty penny to get a copy of if you don’t have it already, and a not-insignificant window of time during normal business hours. I had to get one a while ago after losing most of those documents in a move, and it was a major undertaking, even with public transport.)

Anyway, when I heard Texas had created a special pathway letting astronauts vote when they were in space, I’m afraid it did make my blood boil a bit. It’s not that I want astronauts disenfranchised. I love the idea that everyone gets to vote, even astronauts. But I’ve seen states pass laws that make it more difficult for certain populations to vote, and they just haven’t put anywhere near the effort into making it easier for people to get the documentation they need, that they must have to pass a special law for the astronauts. It’s not even that the laws are unnecessary (I think they absolutely are, though I’m sure some people would disagree). It’s the way the state actually gets things done to make voting happen for one group, but where there’s a much larger, much more vulnerable group you don’t see anything like that level of urgency or effort to make voting a realistic possibility.

I’m not trying to beat up on the state of Texas here (okay, maybe a little), but more say how these voting laws effect the way I think and view civic engagement. Because they keep me from taking at face value the idea that an overwhelmingly red state would be committed to that democratic mantra that every vote counts. This should be a cute story about how astronauts vote. Instead, it’s a reminder to me that our society, or at least Texas’s policy-setters have had very different priorities in making voting feasible, depending on the kind of person you are. Astronauts and national heroes get a special process to ensure they’re able to vote. Poor dark-skinned inner-city dwellers? Not so much.

And to me at least, that seems like a real cost, something I’m not entirely sure I was even aware of until I reacted to the astronaut story the way I did. These voter laws make it arder to have a patriotic reaction, to trust that democracy’s core principles still are something valued and not just available to the right kind of voter.

And, honestly? That’s just depressing.

Ferguson thoughts

Over on Tumblr people are sharing tweets about how to donate to folks in Ferguson. A good cause to be sure, though I’ve not personally verified these folks are legitimate. (If anyone else can, let me know and I’ll take out that caveat.) I’ve already donated as much as I can afford just now so I’m afraid I’m not able to get involved with these specific people, but I was struck by the word choice in the way it was introduced on Tumblr.


At some level they are, or at least that’s how they were introduced to us who aren’t in that community. It’s more positive than looters (and as far as I can tell much more accurate), but it still seems wrong to me. Protesters to me calls to mind the people who have the luxury of not protesting, it’s a voluntary action. It’s people who are upset enough about what’s going on that they set aside their normal lives and go join a protest. And that’s often worth supporting (I baked brownies and bought wool socks for the Occupy protesters), but it seems different than what’s going on here.

These aren’t people who were outraged by something that happened (reasonably or otherwise) but had the luxury of protesting or not. If a person chose not to go out and march against the police brutality, they would still be stuck in that curfew. They’d still have to deal with the loss of wages, the schools being closed and what that does to a family’s food budget, the lack of supplies getting in and that driving up prices, the police curfews and lack of mobility and everything else. They’re also people who had something done to them. So heck yeah, a bunch of them are protesting, but that word doesn’t seem to carry the weight of the situation.

In a way they’re … refugees, maybe? Though they haven’t been forced to leave, the reality they depended on has been taken away from them. They’re people whose homes have been turned into an occupied zone, where the actions that make life seem like what we expect in America aren’t really possible right now. I’m not even sure I have a good word for that, and that seems telling somehow.

Richard Dawkins, rape being rape, and missing the point

Recently I was reading a piece on recent controversies surrounding Richard Dawkins, including the recent tweet on rape that got him into a bit of hot water, and it finally clicked for me just why I was so bothered by the comment.

For those who aren’t familiar, the tweet:

And a quote from the SoJo post, from philosopher Daniel Dennett expanding on why he agreed with the tweet and Dawkins’s subsequent defense of it:

“I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are they condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.

Now, I’m not against the idea that some rape is worse than other rapes, much less that murder is worse than rape. In principle, at least. We need to sort out what we mean by worse. Whether it’s some kind of harm done or the objective value of the thing destroyed or taken, or what exactly. I’m not convinced stranger-rape is more harmful than acquaintance-rape, because the second involves a sense of betrayal the first doesn’t which seems like it would be horrific. (Consider the psychological effects of domestic violence to, e.g., being mugged on the street.) And I can certainly imagine situations where a rape victim suffers more than a murder victim, perhaps even loses more potential for future happiness. But I’m not against saying some crimes and assaults are worse than others, either under the category of rape or more generally.

The thing is, that’s not really the point is it? Because I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who would disagree with that. “Radical feminists (and others)” don’t say that all rapes are equally bad; they say that all rapes are equally rape. And while I’ve not always been overly impressed with Dawkins’s ability for clear and concise thought, Dennett is a philosopher. I’ve read his work, and I know he’s not prone to charging after strawmen. He can do better.

Imagine two people. Mary is a college student who has rufanol slipped into her drink at a party and wakes up with the world’s worst headache (but no memory) of the night before. She discovers semen stains on her clothes and works out she was probably raped, but has no specific memory of that night. Compare that to Jaime, a pickpocket who is gangraped while in prison. Jaime is fully aware of everyone who raped him, knows their names but cannot safely tell the authorities because he fears for his safety and what their friends will do to his family if he talks. Instead he spends the next six months sleeping in the same room with his abusers. He thinks it’s his fault because he was in jail in the first place, and because he climaxed during the rape he’s scared to death he might be gay. (Not that being gay is bad, but let’s assume Jaime thinks so.)

Now we could talk about which one of these people had it worse. My money would be on Jaime, going just off these facts, partly because he suffered greater physical harm and partly because he can’t get away from his rapists, but maybe not; Mary wouldn’t know who her rapists were so she may not feel safe, she might face much more psychological pressure to be extremely “safe” in everything she does. Which of course just isn’t possible. But here’s the thing: if one rape did more harm than the other, it’s something other than the rape itself that is causing the extra harm that makes one or the other worse. Mary and Jaime are both equally raped, their rapes are both equally horrible and inexcusable, and if one is worse than the other it’s because one caused more psychological trauma, more trust issues or nightmares over remembering the event, or because one would involve sizeable physical damage while the other wouldn’t, or because there are things about society or the person’s psychological makeup that makes what happened to them harder to bear up under, or something like that. Both were equally raped, both were equally violated.

Rape is rape, as they say. Not “All rape is equally harmful” or “All rapists should receive the same jail time,” but “Rape is rape” – the rape itself is equally bad (though that word hardly seems sufficient), whether you’re raped at knifepoint or by the ex-boyfriend you’re too in shock to knee in the groin and run away from.

To me at least, that distinction seems to make all the difference.