Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Adolescent Screams

Yesterday morning in a hallway of the Junior High School here in Stillwater, OK, a 13-year-old boy took out a handgun, turned it on himself and, in the presence of his stunned peers, ended his life.

The city is still reeling from the shock. Speculations about why he did it are rampant. Bullying was quickly blamed, but there is scant evidence of this. The truth is we don’t know why he did it, and we may never fully understand.

What we do know is that on this particular morning, of all the things this boy might have done, he chose to end his life in a very public and shockingly dramatic way.

He didn’t just choose to end his life. He chose to scream.

What I mean is this: When this boy killed himself in full view of his classmates, he was communicating something to his peers in a way that could not possibly be ignored. Like a scream, the act was ambiguous in its meaning. A scream can mean horror or despair, fear or outrage. What it lacks in clarity it makes up for in inescapability.

Screams are loud. So is killing yourself in a public hallway with a gun. Other forms of self-destruction are quieter. Consuming a lethal overdose of drugs communicates something, too; but the message and the delivery are different. The feelings and motives that would drive someone to do the former might not inspire them to do the latter.

And this boy was motivated, for reasons we may never fully comprehend, to do the former: to scream more loudly and inescapably than human vocal cords can scream. He wanted to express the depths of his negative feelings in a way that, however inarticulate, would seize hold of those around him and require them to pay attention, to take the scream as seriously as anything they’d ever heard.

And he had the means to do it. He had a loaded gun.

I don’t know where he found it, and I have no desire to place blame. In this country there are almost as many guns as there are people (9 guns for every 10 persons, the highest proportion of any country in the world), and that creates enormous opportunity to get your hands on a gun if you’re determined…even when there are no legitimate avenues (in Oklahoma, it's illegal for minors to purchase or possess handguns).

We don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t had access to a gun yesterday. Maybe he would have found some other way to scream, and maybe this other choice would have been just as lethal. Or maybe he would have closed inward, quietly longing for a way to express the depths of his feeling, and maybe someone would have noticed the darkness and reached out. Or maybe an opportunist would have preyed on that darkness in one of countless ways.

We can’t know what might have been. But actions are a stew of means and motives. So are human tragedies. Change the motives and tragedy may be averted. But the same is true of changing the available means.

There’s more than one way to do that. Not every kind of scream is as loud, as inescapable as a gunshot. But those quieter options are often more articulate, better suited to conveying meaning, to ensuring that the person crying out is not merely heard but understood. We need to find ways to increase access to those options and do our best to ensure that our young people appreciate their power. The more they trust in the transformative potential of written words, performance art, social activism—and the more they trust that there are those who will hear and understand—the less likely they are to turn to the modes of expression that are both more brutal and more irrevocable.

And yes--although this is the more politically charged piece of the puzzle--we also need to think about how we can make those darker options less accessible. Anyone who has been through adolescence knows it to be an impulsive and dramatic age. And although there are important differences of degree, everyone at some point in that stage of life has felt the urge to scream. When that urge hits, it would be better if there weren’t a gun at hand.

I won’t pretend there are easy answers. The issue of controlling access to guns faces, in this country, a culture in which guns are linked to traditions and hobbies and family heritage, not to mention convictions about personal liberty and self-defense. Regulating legitimate access to guns through careful screening and licensing of prospective gun owners might be crucial to keeping guns out of the hands of those who really ought not to be armed and dangerous—but such regulations will have limited effect unless the pathways to illegitimate access are relatively few. And with the guns already out there in such great numbers, achieving the latter may be difficult. We might propose trying to reduce the number of guns in circulation, but that would be no small challenge. I’d hate to be the police officers assigned the task of confiscating the weapons of those who believe the right to bear arms is synonymous with freedom from tyranny.

There are no easy answers. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wrestle with the questions. And we shouldn't focus on one set of questions to the exclusion of the others. We need to wrestle with the question of motives in an attempt to better understand what drives adolescents to such extremes. We need to grope for better policies to prevent or mitigate the forces that inflame and dehumanize—such things as verbal and physical abuse by peers ("bullying"), such things as systemic social exclusion and deep loneliness. None of these things may be what lay behind yesterday's tragedy in Stillwater. But every such tragedy should move us to think on forces that drive people to the brink, and to renew our commitment to diminish their power in the world.

But every effort of this kind will be imperfect. There will always be adolescent screams. And so we need to think about our collective commitment to fashioning constructive outlets, offering a diversity of avenues for self-expression—even for the expression of those feelings that frighten us, for those extremities of outrage and anguish we would like to pretend our young people never feel.

And we need to wrestle with how more effectively to protect adolescents from themselves, how to minimize their access to the most destructive ways of screaming.

In relation to these questions, I believe there are many things that Stillwater, as a community, is already doing well. This is not about blame or recrimination, but about trying to come to terms with tragedy in part by learning what we can from it and changing where it makes sense to change. And to wrestle seriously with any of these questions, we have to set aside partisan polarization and pat slogans in favor of substantive conversations in which diverse perspectives are heard and weighted thoughtfully, critically, and respectfully. To engage in such conversations is a way of honoring the victims of tragedy. But we do not honor them unless we really listen and honestly share, unless we strive to find solidarity amidst differences in the shared goal of making our community a safer and healthier place for all.

How do we do this?

Today, this day, it is Stillwater’s turn to ask that question. Today, this day, it is Stillwater’s turn to decide not only how we will grieve, but how we will come together to draw lessons from this tragedy, to honor its victims by trying, however imperfectly, to make its like less likely to happen again.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Once More for Posterity: The Politician's Beatitudes

In honor of the final ramp up to election day, I repost these Politician's Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who act to preserve the privileges of the rich, for they shall receive substantial campaign contributions.

Blessed are those who swallow back tears at strategic moments only to quickly compose themselves again, for they shall be regarded as having a sensitive side but still be seen as strong, thereby being judged more trustworthy by the electorate (unless they’re women, in which case they risk being seen as dangerously emotional).

Blessed are the aggressive, since negative campaigning has proven time and again to work even though the electorate complains about it.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for prestige and influence while pretending to care primarily about serving the public, for they will gain levels of political influence that those motivated more by a spirit of public service than ambition can only dream of.

Blessed are the merciless, because they’ll ruin the political credibility of their opponent before their opponent does the same to them.

Blessed are those who can look earnestly into the camera and sound really sincere as they say things like “God bless the United States of America,” for they will win the heartland.

Blessed are the warmongers, at least if they can properly time their war-related popularity surge to an election cycle.

Blessed are those who can spin their political opponent’s attack ads as persecution for righteousness’s sake, for they can engage in an underhanded attack on their political opponent while appearing as if they are standing against negative campaigning—thereby both enjoying the benefits of a negative campaign and enjoying the benefits of pandering to the public’s theoretic opposition to negative campaigns.

Blessed are those who, in moments of moral integrity, defy this cynical list of political beatitudes and act from a sense of authentic justice, compassion, or moral purpose—for although they might not get reelected, they may actually find true fullfilment in the lives they lead after leaving public office.

Central States Philosophical Association 2012 Conference Program

For those of you who have been dying to know what I've been doing for the last five months when I haven't been blogging, this conference program represents the fruits of (much of) that activity. 

Central States Philosophical Association 2012 Conference
September 21-22, University of Missouri, Columbia
Memorial Union, South Wing
(Parking available at University Avenue Parking Garage; fee/permit required on 21st only)
Note: Sessions end five minutes before the hour to allow for a short break between sessions.

Friday Morning, Sept. 21—Epistemology (Memorial Union S107)

9:00      Kyle Ray (Oklahoma State), “False Affirmation and Testimony”
             Commentator: John Camacho (UMSL)
             Chair: Bob Fischer (Texas State)

10:00    Richard Fry (Georgetown), “The Epistemological and Psychological Status of Proofs in Hume”
             Commentator: Mary Gwin (Oklahoma State)
             Chair: John Matheson (North Florida)

11:00    Bob Fischer (Texas State), “TRUE is False and Why it Matters”
             Commentator: Joshua DiPaolo (Massachusetts-Amherst)
             Chair: Eric Reitan (Oklahoma State)

12:00    Michael Shaffer (St Cloud State), “Doxastic Voluntarism, Epistemic Deontology and Belief-contravening Commitments”
             Commentator: Christopher Gadsden (Missouri)
             Chair: Brendan Murday (Ithaca)

Friday Morning, Sept 21—Ethics (Memorial Union S207)

9:00      Eric Wiland (Missouri-St. Louis), “Williams on Thick Ethical Concepts and Reasons for Action”
             Commentator: Robert Johnson (Missouri)
             Chair: Thomas Reynolds (Missouri)

10:00    Adam Thompson (Nebraska-Lincoln), “Optimism and Resentment”
             Commentator: MaryEllen VanDerHeyden (Washington University)
             Chair: John Camacho (UMSL)

11:00    Jeff Behrends (Wisconsin-Madison), “Parfit’s All or None Argument and the Development of Normative Hybridism”
             Commentator: Joel Dittmer (MU of Sci & Tech)
             Chair: Thomas Reynolds (Missouri)

12:00    Bekka Williams (Wisconsin-Madison), “What Does Subjective ‘Ought’ Imply?”
             Commentator: Joshua Smart (Missouri)
             Chair: Bryan Stegner (Washington University)

Friday Morning, Sept. 21—Free Will & Philosophy of Mind (Memorial Union S110)

9:00      Philip Swenson (UC-Riverside), “What Can We Learn from Deterministic Frankfurt-Style Cases?”
             Commentator: David Palmer (Tennessee-Knoxville)
             Chair: Kevin McCain (Alabama-Birmingham)

10:00    Open (Session Cancelled)

11:00    Dennis Trinkle (Wisconsin-Madison), “Delusions and Downstream Effects”
             Commentator: Krista Wiley (UMSL)
             Chair: Bradley Rettler (Notre Dame)

12:00    Matthew Cook (Oklahoma), “Extended Perception”
             Commentator: Lynn Chien-Hui Chiu (Missouri)
             Chair: Bryan Weaver


Friday Afternoon, Sept 21—The Philosophy of Allan Gibbard (MU S107)

2:00      Tyler Paytas (Washington U), “How Should We Feel about Nursing Homes and Camel Thefts?”
             Commentator: Phil Zema (Missouri)
             Chair: : Thomas Reynolds (Missouri)

3:00      Louis Gularte (Northern Illinois), “On the Possibility of Compatibility Between Moral Objectivity and Plan-based Expressivism”
             Commentator: Jeff Behrends, Wisconsin-Madison)
             Chair: Joshua DiPaoulo

4:00      Bruce Russell (Wayne State), “Parfit and Gibbard on Intuitions”
             Commentator: Allan Gibbard (Michigan)
             Chair: Eric Reitan

Friday Afternoon, Sept 21—Values & Ethics (MU S207)

2:00      Andrew Ward (Minnesota), “A Pragmatic Rapproachment of Facts and Values”
             Commentator: Don Morse (Webster)
             Chair: Christopher Gadsden (Missouri)

3:00      Antony Aumann (Northern Michigan), “The Relationship Between Aesthetic Value and Cognitive Value”
             Commentator: Allison Merrick (Arkansas-Little Rock)
             Chair: Dennis Trinkle (Wisconsin-Madison)

4:00      Donald Wilson (Kansas State), “Herman on Beneficence”
             Commentator: Everett Fulmer (St. Louis)
             Chair: Kyle Ray (Oklahoma State)

Friday Afternoon, Sept. 21—Metaphysics (MU S110)

2:00      Maxwell Suffis (Northern Illinois), “Why We Shouldn’t Think of Souls as Meriological Simples: A Negative Assessment of the Paradox of Increase”
             Commentator: Kevin Sharpe (St. Could State)
             Chair: Bradley Rettler (Notre Dame)

3:00      Bradley Rettler (Notre Dame), “How to Think About Grounding”
             Commentator: Andrew Melnyk (Missouri)
             Chair: Richard Fry (Georgetown)

Friday, 5-6 PM: Keynote by Allan Gibbard: “Meaning and Normativity.” Introduction by Paul Weirich (MU S107)

Banquet: 7 PM, Reynolds Alumni Center

Saturday Morning, Sept. 22—Political Philosophy (MU S207)

9:00      Joshua Anderson (St. Louis), “What is to be Done About the Rabble?”
             Commentator: Roxy Green (Arkansas-Little Rock)
             Chair: Bekka Williams (Wisconsin-Madison)

10:00    Christopher McCammon (Drake), “How to be an Instrumentalist about Political Legitimacy”
             Commentator: Peter Vallentyne (Missouri)
             Chair: Regina Schouten (Wisconsin Madison)

11:00    Regina Schouten (Wisconsin-Madison), “Citizenship, Reciprocity, and the Gendered Division of Labor.”
             Commentator: Stephanie Hull (Missouri)
             Chair: Joshua DiPaoulo (Massachusetts-Amherst)

12:00    Dustin Nelson (Tennessee), “(Mis)Understanding Rawls’ Wide View of Public Political Culture”
             Commentator: Sheng Zhang (Missouri)
             Chair: Tyler Paytas (Washington University-St. Louis)

Saturday Morning, Sept. 22—Decision Theory and Epistemology (MU S203)

9:00      Ashton Sperry (Missouri), “On Defining Strategy”
             Commentator: Seth Kurtenbach (Missouri)
             Chair: Andrew Spear (Grand Valley State)

10:00    Tanya Kostochka (Northern Illinois), “Intention and Resolution in a Two-Stage Newcomb’s Problem”
             Commentator: Ashton Sperry (Missouri)
             Chair: Andrew Spear (Grand Valley State)

11:00    James Beebe (SUNY Buffalo), “Gettierized Knobe Effects”
             Commentator: Kevin McCain (Alabama-Birmingham)
             Chair: Mary Gwin (Oklahoma State)

12:00    Brendan Murday (Ithaca College), “Dissolving the Problem of the Criterion”
             Commentator: Andrew Spear (Grand Valley State)
             Chair: Mary Gwin (Oklahoma State)

Saturday Morning, Sept. 22—Metaphysics (MU S206)

9:00      Kenneth Boyce (Notre Dame), “On Believing in Neutrons but not Numbers”
             Commentator: Eric Hiddleston (Wayne State)
             Chair: Andrew Melnyk (Missouri)

10:00    Justin Remhof (Illinois-Urbana Champaign), “Object Constructivism and Unconstructed Objects”
             Commentator: Kenneth Boyce (Notre Dame)
             Chair: Jonah Goldwater (Missouri)

11:00    Eric Hiddleston (Wayne State), “Semantic Ineliminabilty, Fictionalism, and Ontology”
             Commentator: John Collins (East Carolina)
             Chair: Richard Fry (Georgetown)

LUNCH: 1-2

Saturday Afternoon, Sept. 22—Moral Problems (MU S207)

2:00      Philip Mouch (Minnesota State-Moorhead), “Self-Defense and the Castle Doctrine”
             Commentator: Crystal Allen (Principia College)
             Chair: Phillip Zema (Missouri)

3:00      Crystal Allen (Principia College), “Justifying War and the Boundaries of Territorial Defense”
             Commentator: Isaac Wagner (Missouri)
             Chair: Philip Swenson (UC-Riverside)

4:00      Owen Shaefer (Oxford), “Moral Disagreement and Moral Enhancement”
             Commentator: Wenwen Fan (Missouri)
             Chair: Ron Glass (Wisconsin-LaCross)

Saturday Afternoon, Sept. 22—Epistemology (MU S203)

2:00      Jonathan Matheson (North Florida), “Is there a Well-Founded Solution to the Generality Problem?”
             Commentator: Casey Swank (St. Cloud State)
             Chair: Mary Gwin (Oklahoma State)

3:00      Ted Poston (South Alabama), “Coherence, A Priority, and Logic”
             Commentator: David Henderson (Nebraska-Lincoln)
             Chair: Jonathan Matheson (North Florida)

4:00      Kevin McCain (Alabama-Birmingham), “In Defense of the Explanationist Response to Skepticism”
             Commentator: Ali Hasan (Iowa)
             Chair: Ted Poston (South Alabama)

Saturday Afternoon, Sept. 22—Philosophy of Religion (MU S206)

2:00      Andrew Moon (Kansas State), “Religious Disagreement, Epistemic Circularity, and the Cognitive Science of Religion”
             Commentator: David Alexander (Iowa State)
             Chair: Dennis Trinkle (Wisconsin-Madison)

3:00      Billy Ramey (Missouri), “Why We Cannot Go On to Infinity: A Hybrid Cosmological Argument”
             Commentator: Eric Reitan (Oklahoma State)
             Chair: Antony Aumann (Northern Michigan)

4:00      Open (Session cancelled)

Saturday Sept. 22, 5 PM: Business Meeting (chaired by Eric Reitan) followed by Presidential Address by Paul Weirich: “Simplifying Choices” (MU S203)

Saturday, Sept 22, 6-7 PM: Closing Reception (MU S206)

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Simple Principle

I think it may help, in the effort to avoid a lot of confusion, misrepresentation, and polarizing conflict, if we just keep one simple principle in mind:

Moral responsibility can be shared.

The other day an attack on the U.S Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, killed the US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens and three others, including security officer and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty, and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith.

The perpetrators of the attack remain unknown, and tracking them down may prove difficult--but everyone agrees, of course, that they bear the primary and most immediate responsibility for the tragic deaths. But if you're inclined to look more broadly, beyond the attacks themselves to events that helped generate an outraged protest that either spiraled our of control or (as seems now to be the more likely story) was opportunistically fueled and used as part of a broader plot--if you're inclined to ask how all of us might have helped avert this tragedy, you face the risk of being dubbed an apologist for the perpetrators.

It happens a lot. Someone points to broader social forces that helped motivate violence, and it's as if they've said that the perpetrators of violence were nothing more than blameless robots programmed by these social forces. You note how others were needlessly provocative or inflammatory, and it's as if you've said that the perpetrators were puppets wholly controlled by those who provoked them. But this way of thinking assumes that responsibility has to fall in just one place. It doesn't.

To put things bluntly: Some of the biggest #@*!-ups happen because lots of people behave like idiots. To point out the idiocy of one of the contributors does not amount to absolving the idiocy of the others. Nor does it imply that those most immediately responsible for the gravest harms of a tragedy aren't worthy of special condemnation and punishment in a way that the others who contributed are not.

More importantly, to acknowledge your own role--or your own community's role--in creating a problem is just plain human decency. So is apologizing for it. You shouldn't resist doing the decent thing because you're afraid that somehow it lets others off the hook or implies that others more intimately involved in the problem aren't to blame. But we are afraid to do this, far too often, because we are caught up at least implicitly by this misguided idea that moral responsibility can't be shared. Sometimes pundits and politicians play off this misguided propensity to score political points.

But when we think about it explicitly, of course we all know better.

If I sleep with your wife and you attempt to murder me in a fit of rage, I am not responsible for the attempt on my life. But I am responsible for what I did. I am responsible for having the affair. I am responsible for the provocation. If I concede that I provoked you, I am not implying that there's nothing wrong with the sort of character that sends someone over the edge in the face of infidelity. While people should be angry when their spouses break their vows and others are complicit in that, no one should become murderously angry. If you're like that, then you've got a serious character flaw. If you acted on the urgings of that character flaw, you've done something seriously wrong.

And so the fact that I was able to provoke you to murderous intent speaks poorly of your character. But that I provoked you in this particular way speaks poorly of mine.

But now suppose I knew this about you in advance. And suppose I knew not only that you're easily provoked to murderous rage by infidelity, but that your wife (my would-be lover) would also be at risk should you be triggered. Suppose I went ahead and slept with your wife knowing that her life was also thereby put at risk. But suppose I didn't care. I took no steps to protect her. I didn't help her get to a domestic violence shelter or anything like that before indulging myself in ways I knew could trigger you to kill her. I just ignite the spark in pursuit of my pleasure and walk away.

If you then murder your wife, do I bear any responsibility? I'm not talking about legal responsibility here. I mean moral responsibility.

Of course I do. Admitting this doesn't reduce the gravity of what you did, the depths of your moral failings, the reality of the danger that letting you roam free in the world poses to us all, especially those you come to possessively "love" as if they were things that belong to you. It's possible for all these serious moral failings and wrongs to fall squarely on your shoulders, even if there are a bunch of serious moral failings and wrongs that fall squarely on mine. Even if both your moral failings and mine helped push circumstances forward to the tragic outcome.

But when it comes to the failings I have the best hope of correcting, I need to look inward. While that doesn't mean we should ignore the wrongs of others or not seek to apprehend those who pose the most imminent threat to human safety, it does mean that when we or our communities play a role in a complex chain of events that culminates in tragedy, we should ask ourselves what changes we can make closer to home, so that we aren't implicated in future tragedies. And when we do so, it doesn't follow that the gravity of what others have done is mitigated or erased.

Because moral responsibility can be shared.

Recently, a juvenile, amateurish filmmaker made a horrible movie. It wasn't just bad art--although from what I can tell it was really, really lousy on that score. But it was also deliberately offensive and slanderous--and its target was Muslims, a large and diverse group of people. In the film, not only is Mohammed depicted (something that by itself is known to be deeply offensive to Muslims), but he is depicted as being a murderer and adulterer who approved of pedophilic sex abuse.

A hate-filled religious ideologue, the Koran-burning Terry Jones, then went ahead and championed this amateurish, offensive, slanderous move, helping to bring what was otherwise a dead-in-the-water film (it showed once, apparently to a mostly empty theater) to the attention of the large and diverse religious community being slandered. The filmmaker and its champion did this knowing full well that some of those in the targeted religious group have a history of ideology-fueled violence.

To say that these people--the filmmaker and the crazy Islamophobic preacher--bear some moral responsibility for what happened next does not mitigate the gravity of extremist violence. Because moral responsibility isn't this limited resource with only so much to go around.

And if one looks more broadly at our American culture; if one asks whether the incendiary hatred of Muslims on display in this film is a distillation or amplification of broader social attitudes that we should be working on changing, one does not thereby mitigate the gravity of what the film-makers and those who championed them did. Because moral responsibility can be shared. 

Here is a fact: Sometimes I know how others are likely to respond to my actions because I know something about their character. Sometimes crazy extremist behavior is a predictable outcome of certain broad social patterns and ideas. This is not to say that people who behave as predicted bear no responsibility for their actions. People can and do take responsibility for themselves and their choices, rising above their least if they're encouraged, challenged, and supported in the right way.

But, more often than not, people don't defy predictions. They don't take responsibility, but instead simply act out their conditioning. And sometimes that conditioning leads them to respond to certain triggers with violent umbrage.

Knowing that they're there, what do we do? We shouldn't be held hostage by them, of course. We shouldn't do something wrong, say or do things we don't believe, just to appease them. I don't think, for example, that we ought to abandon our national commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression and begin suppressing inflammatory filmmakers and crazy preachers, just because there are extremists out there who will begin targeting decent, caring human beings just for sharing a national identity with a hateful bigot or two.

But it's one thing to say we shouldn't be held hostage to the poor character or ideological conditioning of others. It's something else to say we shouldn't pay attention to how our own character flaws, our own unreflective ideologies, help to fuel violent feedback loops with the harmful conditioning of others. 

Far too often, pointless tragedies happen because too many people, in diverse ways, mistake the humiliation and dehumanization of others for something worth doing. Too many allow themselves to be guided by these deeply divisive ideologies that spring from ancient tribal instincts and are vindicated by appeal to a tribal god (and then, predictably enough, insist that this tribal god is the God of all people, the creator Who sustains in being every Hindu, every Muslim, every Christian, every Jew, the God whose sustaining love supposedly encompasses the whole creation).

How can such tribalism swamp our better natures? It rears its head most powerfully when it is embraced by people on both sides of an ideological divide, when there are those who identify themselves against one another, who target one another, who universalize and absolutize their dehumanizing depictions of one another.

If you have a few tribal voices within a community of tolerant, compassionate human beings, and if, in the community anathematized by those tribal voices, you have nothing but tolerant, compassionate human beings who reach out in fellowship...well, the tribal voices won't be a good thing even then, but they lose much of their power. They face a kind of persistent challenge that can motivate many of them to take responsibility for their own ideological conditioning, reflect on it, discuss it, and eventually transform it.

Sometimes, however, there are broad unspoken social sentiments that, while not themselves overtly hostile and vitriolic, provide the stew out of which a few extreme voices emerge to spew overt hate. Two such communities, perched on opposite sides of an ideological divide, can progressively feed off the extreme messages coming from the vocal minority on the other side. The voices react to each other, enrage each other, and in targeting each other end up reinforcing their respective dehumanizing views of the other side. And as innocents on both sides become the targets of the extreme acts of the few, more members of each community start to listen to those hate-filled tribal voices, the voices that universalize and absolutize the dehumanizing depictions of one another. More and more of us stop taking responsibility for our own complicity, instead blaming the other side and vindicating our own attacks--physical attacks or rhetorical, with movies or with guns--by unreflective invocation of an ideology of hate.

Casting all the blame at the doorstep of a few individuals or at the doorstep of the other community, refusing to recognize that responsibility can be shared, that it should be shared, that we all must take responsibility for ourselves and each other...these are habits that only play into the tragic feedback loop through which tribalism comes to swamp our better natures.

Moral responsibility can be shared. And it must be shared, especially in the face of tragedies. Or we're all in trouble.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From the Archives: The Gods of September 11

The following is a repost of an essay I posted here on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Over the last week or so I’ve heard more than one person say that September 11 has served our generation as a vivid reminder of the reality of evil, of the gravity of the problem of sin—in Christian terms, of what it means to exist in alienation from our creator.

I don't disagree. There is no question in my mind that what we witnessed on that day was evil—not that the agents of the attacks were essentially evil (as so many claimed), or that their religion was evil (as too many still insist), or that religion as such was evil (as Sam Harris boldly declared in The End of Faith). But what was done, the indifference to life, the deliberate pursuit of atrocity followed by its celebration…if there is anything that deserves the label “sin,” surely this qualifies.

But when Americans point to September 11 and say, “Here is sin,” their fingers are pointing away from themselves.

Let me say this again, more inclusively: When any one of us who has not personally presided over the extermination of human life points at the September 11 attacks and says, “Here is sin,” we are pointing away from ourselves.

And when sin becomes about pointing fingers, rather than about self-transformation and transcendence, the invocation of "sin" becomes part of the problem of sin.

To be transformative, "sin" must be an inner recognition, not an outer judgment. It must be seen, not as a positive reality that has claimed the wicked Other, but as something in ourselves—not something that calls for a response of self-loathing, but an absence that cries out to be filled. As such, sin is like hunger: a symptom of our need to reach beyond ourselves for sustenance. When we are hungry, we do not hate ourselves. When we are hungry we look for food.

And what will feed us? “God,” comes the answer. But what does that mean? For Fred Phelps it means a steady diet of hate. Is that God? Is that what fills the absence, what completes us?

As we confront the horror of September 11, we feel, urgently, the need to be filled. What do we turn to? When confronted with atrocity, where do we look for God?

Some look for vengeance, convinced that it will satisfy. Is their God the one who casts sinners into a fiery hell? Will vengeance fill the emptiness we call sin?

Some link arms and sing patriotic songs, and wave their flags and insist on unity, but it becomes more than just solidarity. They seek to be filled by national pride, by standing up with the tribe that has been struck, by standing together against the enemy, by retooling the very same us/them ideology that allows whole communities to be legitimately targeted in the chosen people’s holy war against its enemies. Is our God a tribal God?

Some scramble for security, taking every possible step to make certain it never happens again—as if, in Stanley Hauerwas’s provocative terms, they can thereby manage to get out of this life alive. Is that the answer? Will sin be defeated if principle gives way to fear, if in the name of security we are prepared to extract information under torture, or let the hungry starve so that our bank accounts are comfortably padded?

Some are like that alpha boy on the playground when he finds himself hurt. Others feel his pain and reach out. But compassion strikes him as pity, and pity is for the weak. And so he sets out to prove that he doesn’t need anyone. The community of mutuality, of interdependence, of shared vulnerability and strength, this community that is suddenly trembling on the tongue of that strange girl leaning down to ask if he’s alright—it terrifies him, and he bats it way.

Is self-reliance our God?

Some, when confronting tragedy, look for ways to fit it into all their old patterns of thinking, rather than allow the enormity of the moment to inspire silence. Some use what happened opportunistically, to pursue the same agendas they’ve always had, rather than let the cracks in their world inspire the humility to ask what their agendas ought to be.

Some seek to use the tragedy—and all the confused fears and longings it inspires—to manipulate their way into power or privilege. They represent themselves as having the answers, if only others will follow where they lead. If they become the thing that feeds the emptiness in others, perhaps their own will disappear. But emptiness cannot feed emptiness.

Some look at the September 11 terrorist attacks and say, “Where is God? Where is God in this horror?” They mean it as rhetorical, but the question doesn’t strike me as rhetorical at all. We all have our answers. But which one will fill us?

"Christ has bidden us," said Simone Weil in a letter to her friend and confidante Father Perrin, "to attain to the perfection of our heavenly Father by imitating his indiscriminate bestowal of light....Every existing thing is equally upheld in its existence by God's creative love. The friends of God should love him to the point of merging their love into his with regard to all things here below." And when we love as God loves, when we cast out this web of indiscriminate love, we become "the bird with golden wings" who pierces the shell of the world.

Perhaps sin, in the end, is about all the futile answers we choose, all the absurd alternatives to love.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Costs of Talking Down to Your Audience

On Wednesday night, Bill Clinton spoke for more than 45 minutes to the Democratic National Convention--and his speech was, by political standards, astonishingly free from major distortions or misrepresentations of the facts. described it in this way:

Former President Bill Clinton’s stem-winding nomination speech was a fact-checker’s nightmare: lots of effort required to run down his many statistics and factual claims, producing little for us to write about.

Republicans will find plenty of Clinton’s scorching opinions objectionable. But with few exceptions, we found his stats checked out.
The speeches last night, by Biden and Obama, weren't quite as clean (although arguably far cleaner than many recent political speeches).

What I want to consider is why Clinton's speech is so (relatively) clean with respect to the facts. I think part of the reason is that Clinton is willing to take the time (too much time, some say) to lay out his criticisms and arguments with precision--something he's willing to do, in part, because he is less inclined to talk down to his audiences than politician have historically tended to be.

Take one of the problems with Biden's speech. Here's how describes it:

Biden joined the chorus of off-key convention speakers who have attacked Romney for wanting to raise taxes on the middle class, even though Romney says he won’t do that.

Biden: Folks, Governor Romney believes it’s OK to raise taxes on middle classes by $2,000 in order to pay for … another trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy.

That’s exactly the opposite of what Romney actually says. In his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, he said:

Romney, Aug. 30: I will not raise taxes on the middle class.

Biden refers to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center of a plan that, as Romney also promises, cuts income tax rates across the board by 20 percent and pays for it by eliminating and reducing tax deductions and credits. TPC found that such a plan would “increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.” Under one scenario, it said that “taxpayers with children who make less than $200,000 would pay, on average, $2,000 more in taxes.”
But that’s not evidence that Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class. It only proves Romney “can’t accomplish all his stated objectives,” according to the Tax Policy Center’s director, Donald Marron.
I pick out this element of Biden's speech because I explicitly remember Clinton walking his audience through the very problem in Romney's tax plan identified by the Tax Policy Center. Clinton took the time to spell out the various scenarios which might result from Romney's plan--and then he argued that each scenario was undesirable from the standpoint of the core values he associated with the Democrats. This took some time to do, and he risked some of his listeners getting lost in the more complex structure of the argument. Far quicker and easier to say "Romney believes it's OK to raise taxes on the middle classes by $2,000."

But, of course, taking the time and making the more complex argument is honest--and Clinton took that more complex argument to the same conclusion that Binen wanted to jump to with one sentence: Romney is prepared to benefit the richest Americans at the cost of those who are less well off.

I'm not saying that Bill Clinton is a paragon of honesty here ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman!"), or that Biden is an unusually dishonest politician. What I'm saying is that the attempt to simplify things, to put them into soundbites, to make the message punchy and "clear" so that the "main point" doesn't get lost amidst the complications--this effort has costs. The chief cost is that you have to say something that is false. The reason why Clinton's speech was so clean isn't because Clinton is habitually honest in a way that other politicans are not. The reason is that Clinton is habitually resistant to talking down to his audiences. Instead, he tries (and succeeds, more often than not) to find a way to express the issues accessibly.

In my work--teaching--what Biden did in the example above could be described using the term "pedagogical license." The idea here is this. The full details of the theory are too complex for most of your students to follow and digest, at least in the time you have, whereas a simplified version is going to be inacurrate but more accessible. And so you offer the version that is incorrect, because the incorrect version will be grasped and lead the students to believe something in the vicinity of the truth. If you explained the true theory, you worry that the students would just be lost.

Now sometimes teachers have to do this--but when good teachers do it, they preface what they are offering with a disclaimer, something like the following: "Here's a way to think of it that's not quite correct, but which is helpful in getting the gist of the theory. Once you understand the basic idea, we can work on refining your understanding so that it's more accurate."

Usually I try to avoid pedagogical lincense in lecture. I offer as accurate an account as I can, and I try to make it as accessible as I can using examples, putting things in more than one way, etc. Sometimes a student will then say, "So what you're saying is blah"--and "blah" happens to be an oversimplified version that gets the gist of the theory but isn't really accurate. At that point I'll say that this is helpful in getting us in the ballpark, but the theory is a bit more complicated. Then I try to explain why.

Sometimes, however, I know from experience that given the student level and the time allowed, what I need to do is start with the more accessible but inaccurate explanation, offer due warnings about inaccuracy, and then work on refining the understanding as time allows.

But imagine a politician who prefaces his remarks with, "What I'm about to say about my political opponent isn't exactly correct, but I think it is in the ballpark of the truth. And the real truth has, I think, the same implications for what we should think of his policies. But the real truth is too hard for me to explain to you, so I won't try."  

Such a politician wouldn't get very far. So, instead, they just offer the incorrect statement as if it were the correct one.  

I'm not saying that all or most inaccuracies in political speech-making are like this. There are plenty of bald-faced lies, attempts to mislead and misdirect. But there are also attempts to lead people in what the politician sincerely believes is the right direction by doing something analogous to pedagogical license--but without offering the qualifying preface that a good teacher would offer.

But the cost is not just dishonesty in the particular case. The cost is a culture that becomes more tolerant of dishonesty. If the inaccuracy in one case is okay because the inaccurate view is in the ballpark of the harder-to-grasp correct view and has the same political implications, then what about an inaccurate view that isn't nearly as close to the true position but which the politician thinks has the same political implications? Where do you draw the line between the political analogue of pedagogical license and deliberate deception for political gain? If it's okay to say something that isn't quite factual because it will give voters the right impression, is it okay to say something that is strictly factual but aims to leave voters with the wrong impression?  

What I think Bill Clinton's example shows is that if you present the material in the right way, you don't need to dumb it down. If you are sufficiently dynamic and engaging, your audience will give you the time to explain things carefully and precisely.  

And whatever else one might say about Clinton, on this matter I think more politicians should strive to emulate him. Underestimating one's audience isn't good for those audiences, and it isn't good for a culture of truth.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Blargh!-Worthy Facebook Memes: Some Helpful Corrections

A couple of times recently on this blog, I've found myself inspired to comment on a Facebook meme. But the ones that inspired these length treatments are hardly the only ones I have something to say about. So, I thought I'd round out this theme with some quick (for me) rejoinders to some of the more problematic recent Facebook memes--memes that just make me want to say "Blargh!"; or, in a few cases, memes that poke fun at those I disagree with, too, but which aren't really fair--and so are memes which I think should make me want to say "Blargh!" (even if I don't). There's more of the former. So sue me.

Anyway, here goes:


No. No, no, no. If you state your opinion it's free speech. If I state my opinion it's free speech. Whether the opinion is ALSO hateful and intolerant depends on the content of the opinion.


Let me be clear about something: I thought the Huckabee-created "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" was a terrible slap-on-the-head-worthy misdirection of the energies of Christians and others. Christians, in my view, should live out an ethic of love--and I'm convinced that living out that ethic is at odds with the sort of theology (usually a biblically fundamentalist one) that would inspire people to endorse and underwrite with their lunch money Chick-Fil-A's support for the systematic social marginalization of our gay and lesbian neighbors. Christians who think Chick-fil-A's support of discrimination is Christian are, it seems to me, Christians who have been deluded by bad arguments and bad theology.

But those very same conservative Christians, deluded as they may be about homosexuality, are also Christians who tend to rather consistently contribute time and energy and resources to food banks and homeless shelters and poverty-focused mission trips and other projects that help the poorest among us. But these contributions are made throughout the year. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day got them all out on one day.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that the conservative Christian focus on sexual minorities serves, more often than not, as an easy way for conservatives to feel good about themselves: if you happen to have a heterosexual orientation, it's astonishingly easy to avoid the "sin" of homosexuality, so if being a decent human being is about being straight, you get to be good without any least if you're straight. And this easy validation often serves to obscure all the ways in which our way of life contributes to the problem of poverty, both at home and abroad. In this respect the meme above is gesturing to a deep truth.

But to suggests that Christians in general are more about supporting discrimination against sexual minorities than they are about feeding the poor, based simply on how many people showed up at Chick-fil-A on a particular day...well, that isn't fair to all those conservative Christians who, week after week, year in and year out, are contributing time and resources to helping the needy.


The foundation of a democratic society, the basis for a government "of the people, by the people, for the people," isn't the right to drive. It's the right to vote. It isn't the right to board an airplane. It's the right to vote. It isn't the right to use a credit card or donate blood or open a retirement account.

It's the right to vote.

Asking for ID to vote may not be overtly racist, but it does impose an additional hurdle between the would-be voter and their ability to cast a vote. If you're part of the middle class, you don't tend to think of it in those terms because photo ID has become integral to the middle class way of life--as the above list of standard middle class activities highlights. But there are people who aren't part of that life--such as, it seems, some nuns and students, as well as those who are sufficiently underprivileged that driving their own car, boarding an airplane, making a bank transaction, writing a check, and pawning jewelry are things they only dream about.

Voting rights shouldn't be something they dream about too.

In the absence of substantive evidence of a serious problem of voter fraud, the very concept of democracy seems to demand that we err on the side of enfranchisement.


Of course I'm ready. Because you remember how those violence-hungry liberals rioted and tore the country to pieces back in 2000 when Al Gore lost a highly contested election in a controversial Supreme Court decision despite getting a higher proportion of the popular vote.

Oh, yeah. That didn't happen.

And by the way, although I haven't seen a comparable poster warning about riots when Obama wins re-election, I'm hopeful enough about the general character of the American people that I'm not going to brace for revolution in that case either. Painting the opposition as fundamentally irrational, as poised for violence if the democratic process doesn't go their way, helps no one...which leads to the next meme.


Yes, this meme made me chuckle--cleverly playing as it did with Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin's comments about women's bodies having a built in birth control mechanism to prevent pregancy due to "legitimate rape." But then I imagined a comparable meme taking some absurd comment by a Democratic politician--someone who'd been rebuked by the Democratic establishment for saying those very words, who apologized for them--and having whose words turned into a general remark about the stupidity of all Democrats.

There are legitimate thoughts--and dumb ideas--coming from both sides of the aisle. The polarization of our polity is making it harder not only to see this, but harder for everyone to be as thoughtful as we can be. In fact, sometimes members of one party seem obliged to take issue with the good ideas of the other just because the other side came up with them first. Hence, I suggest the following revision: "When a legitimate thought is about to occur, polarized political ideology has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

5. Photo: Today is the 380th birthday of the "Father of Liberalism," John Locke. Locke’s theories formed the foundation of many important works, including the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

His Second Treatise on Government is a must-read for any libertarian. In it, Locke lays out the foundational arguments of liberalism: people have rights preexisting government, government exists to protect those rights, and the government should not stand in the way of its own dissolution should it violate those rights.

Read an excerpt on property rights at the link below, and like and share this image to spread the word!

Now John Locke is one of the most important modern political and social philosophers. And I don't actually have a problem with Locke's words here. But I'm puzzled by these words being linked to a libertarian website--and even more puzzled that it should be posted by someone I know to be a follower of Ayn Rand's "objectivism." Do these words of Locke's actually support modern libertarianism or Randian objectivism?

I won't answer that in detail here. But it bothers me when a philosopher's words are taken out of the larger context which is required for us to understand what those words are really about. And so, being a philosophy teacher, this is a good opportunity to offers some philosophy education by providing the context.

The quote comes from a larger passage in the Second Treatise of Government that lays out Locke's basic argument for private property rights. Here's the immediate context:

"Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property."

This context has both a communal aspect--nature is the common property of all--and a private property aspect. And we can't rightly understand the latter without the former. And Beyond this immediate context there is an important broader context. Specifically, Locke offers two important qualifications that limit the right to acquire property through your own labor.

The first such qualification is that this right exists "where there is enough and as good left in common for others." In other words, your right to acquire property through labor is limited if, in appropriating for yourself more than your fair share of the common resources of nature, you leave others with less opportunity for flourishing than you yourself have managed to enjoy.

The second qualification comes in answer to the question of "how far" God has given to us the resources of nature. His answer is two words: "To enjoy." But this leads to his second crucial limit on the right to accumulate property: "As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in; whatever is beyond this is more than his share and belongs to others." So, if you're just greedily accumulating wealth that doesn't add to the quality of or enjoyment of life, then you no longer have a legitimate claim on it. It rightly belongs to others whose quality of life would be enriched by it.

Which leads me to the last Blargh!-worthy meme...

6. Photo: "A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned"

Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, Wednesday, March 4, 1801

Now this one came to my newsfeed from the same source as the Locke meme, so it's only fair to judge it in terms of Locke's philosophy. And according to that philosophy, those who have appropriated for themselves more than what can meaningfully contribute to their quality of life, or who haven't left as much and as good for others, don't rightly own what they've appropriated, even if they worked hard to appropriate it. And so a government redistribution that makes it available as part of the common good which will contribute to the life quality of those who don't have as much and as good...well, that wouldn't be theft. If what was taken away fell outside of the bounds of our legitimate claim on private property, then the government would be taking it from those to whom it didn't belong. 

Interestingly, the above meme was paired with a quote from one of Locke's intellectual inheritors, a guy by the name of Thomas Jefferson (who adapted Locke's "life, liberty, and property" phrase for use in the Declaration of Independence). Here's the Jefferson quote:

"A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

Yes--but what about when grossly unequal distribution of wealth, caused in no small measure by those who've gained an economic advantage leveraging it into an opportunity to exploit laborers, to compensate them for their toil far less than their labor is worth--what if such practices lead to honest laborers not having enough bread to put in their mouths? Is redistribution of wealth theft then?

Sometimes, redistribution of wealth is theft. Sometimes, redistribution of wealth is returning what was stolen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The 5 Best Sentences? Um, no.

So, not long ago the following facebook meme crossed my newsfeed (not sure of the original source):


The 5 best sentences I'll ever read?

I think not.

The best sentences I've ever read probably include "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." I think this one is pretty challenging: "Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.'" I like this one from Aristotle: "Now virtue is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on deficiency." And I like this one from Mahatma Gandhi: "Democracy disciplined and enlightened is the finest thing in the world. A democracy prejudiced, ignorant, superstitious will land itself in chaos and may be self-destroying." (Okay, so technically that's two sentences.)

But these five? They'd hardly be worth my attention, except that yesterday was Labor Day, and taking the time to explain why I don't find these sentences...impressive...actually gives me the chance to say some things about labor. So here goes:

Number 1: "You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity, by legislating the wealth out of prosperity."


Although that's all the response this sentence really deserves, let me generously expound a bit: The claim here seems to be that you can't make the life prospects of the poor better through legislation that taxes the wealthy (although I could be wrong about that...who the #$%@! really knows what this sentence is saying?).

But let's assume my translation is on track. If that's what's being said here, then, to put the point as plainly as I can: Bull.

Here's the thing. There are people who have found ways to leverage small advantages in our economy into progressively large ones by exploiting the power they gain over others. Doing so takes work--I'm not talking about lazy bums here. I'm talking about hard-working opportunists who are ruthless about maximizing their own wealth, even if it undermines the life prospects of others.

How does this work? The answer isn't simple, but here is one way: In any large business, the profits made are the result of collective effort. But the distribution of those profits is often in the hands of a few decision-makers. And those decision-makers have an incentive to reward themselves more highly. Some will act on this incentive. Some won't. Some will act on it to an extent. And some will be ruthless about it--perhaps by exploiting the desperate circumstances of the poorest in  society, leveraging their desperation into labor agreements which basically have them contributing far more to the collective entrerprise than they're getting out of it. And the decision-makers pocket the difference.

The more widespread such opportunistic practices are, the greater the poverty. Social, political, and economic realities can influence how widespread these practices are. One way to fight such practices is through labor unions. Collective bargaining can help prevent exploitation, since workers who are united are harder to exploit--but only if there isn't a sufficiently large pool of laborers outside the unions (perhaps waiting in Bangladesh) that can be turned to without much trouble.

A lot has been accomplished over the years by the efforts of workers' unions. Lives have improved. More people in the developed world have more hope of making a decent living by working hard. But beyond what laborers can do for themselves, there are things governments can do. Minimum wage laws, for example.

And taxes.

That's right. Taxes. To put it simply, if those inclined to exploit desperate workers for personal gain would have the gains of exploitation taken away in taxes, they'd lose the incentive to exploit. Why circumvent the labor unions in the US and build a factory in Bangladesh if the tax penalty is so high it will take decades to recover the moving and building costs? Why, for the sake of lining your own pocket, would you be grossly unfair in the distribution of wages in your company if, beyond a certain very healthy income of the sort you'd have to work hard to achieve, the taxes become so high that you'd just be handing money to the government that could better be spent making your workers happier with their jobs and with you?

This is part of what a progressive tax structure can do--not by itself of course, but as part of an overall government strategy aimed at erasing the incentives which lead to opportunistic exploitation and the poverty it can produce.

Taxation used in this way isn't about taking money from the rich people who earned it and giving it to the lazy bums who didn't. Rather, it's a piece of an overall plan for discouraging the inequitable distribution of wealth within a business, when that wealth was made through collective effort but decision-makers are inclined to disproportionately reward themselves.

Number 2: "What one person receives without working for, another person works for without receiving."

Well, in many cases I suppose this is true. My children receive food without working for it. I worked for it. I didn't receive it, since it went in my kids' bellies.

This, of course, is as it should be.

And I suppose that if you have hunter-gatherers living in an area of bountiful natural resources, they're "working" for what they receive in the minimal sense of reaching out and pulling the fruit from the trees. But then you compare them with another tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in a desert working far more than the first tribe has ever dreamed of working...and for their labors end up with far less. When you make that comparison, it begins to look like the first tribe has received something neither they nor anyone else worked for. And it looks like the second tribe is working hard without receiving much--but not because some other tribe is living off their labors.

Sometimes, one person receives something by good luck rather than anyone's work. Sometimes, another person's work has nothing to show for it because of bad luck, not because someone else ended up receiving the benefits.

So, what is this sentence getting at? I have a job. I get paid. The rickshaw puller in Calcutta has a job and gets paid. I work hard, but the rickshaw puller works orders of magnitude harder than I have ever dreamed of working. And the rickshaw puller gets a fraction of a fraction of what I make. There are probably investment bankers who spend as many hours at work, raising their blood pressure and shortening their life expentancy, as the rickshaw puller spends at work hauling more privileged people from one part of Calcutta to another. But the rickshaw puller, for that same amount of labor, is making a million times less.

The difference is a matter of luck, an accident of birth. Some people can't pull themselves up by their bootstraps, no matter how hard they struggle, because they have no boots. Others have closets full of boots they don't know what to do with--bought with their own money, to be sure, money they earned by working; but their work was rewarded 100,000 times more highly than the poor rickshaw puller's work. Do they deserve all those boots in a way that the rickshaw puller doesn't?

So: Who is working without receiving, and who is receiving without working? If two are working just as hard but one is getting a lot more, is the excess enjoyed by the one something that he or she is receiving without working for? Is the point that we should always receive an income in proportion to how hard we work? I suppose we could pull that off by having a world government taking income from those in the richest countries and giving it to the struggling poor laborers in the impoverished regions of the world...but I doubt that's what the fans of this sentence have in mind.

So what do they have in mind? Unless I miss my guess, it's supposed to be about government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for the poorest among us. You know, the programs that make sure the children of the unemployed single mother don't go to bed too hungry. True enough, that food those kids eat wasn't food they grew themselves. Their mother didn't grow it, either. Farmers did that.

Of course, most of the profits didn't go to the farmers--or to the poor kids. It went to Monsanto stockholders. And maybe to the lawyers Monsanto hires to sue the pants off farmers who inadvertently grew some genetically modified Monsanto crops because seeds drifted over from a neighboring farm.

Those making the big profits here probably worked hard, too--maybe as hard or harder than the farmers. Who knows? And I suspect that the mother of the hungry kids might be willing to work hard, too--assuming she could find a job, and assuming the cost of child care didn't all but erase her income ( maybe a job that earned her 3% of what that Monsanto lawyer makes in a year), and assuming she got to keep the job after the second time she missed work to tend to a sick child.

One single mother might be able to pull it off because she has an aunt or mother in town who can watch the kids so she can work three jobs to pay for rent and put food on the table for the children she never gets to see. But another single mother might be in a city far from relatives--because she ran away from the home in which she was being sexually molested and beaten, and became a prostitute to survive, and got pregnant. And now she has next to nothing and a baby to boot, and doesn't want to go back to prostitution on account of the child, but has no skills, no support network. No bootstraps.

We live in a world where opportunity and talent are not fairly distributed, where effort does not always translate into prosperity, and where there are no simple solutions. Some people are handed opportunity on a plate, and with a little bit of effort can turn it into a cornucopia. Others are handed a turd.

In such a world sentence 2 is staggeringly naive.

Number 3: "The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else."

First of all, I should point out that we left the gold standard for currency a few years ago--by which I mean in the 19th Century--and the economic realities of today aren't adequately represented by a statement as naive as #3 (for more details on the complexities of the issues in play, see here).

Second, the government is able to provide goods through organized collective action that a bunch of individuals, acting on their own, couldn't provide for themselves. The members of society benefit from the fruits of such collective action: national security, domestic peace, transportation and energy infrastructure, a basic social safety net (to help make sure that, even when catastrophic illnesses or natural disasters or financially devastating layoffs occur, we'll still have bootstraps we can pull ourselves up by).

I enjoy a relatively secure daily life in part because of a criminal justice system provided me by the government. I get to work driving on roads and over bridges built by the government. My children are being educated by the public schools. I help pay for these things through taxes. Others help pay for them too. But since we'd all be poorer without the opportunities these public goods provide, should I think of the taxes I pay as the government taking something away from me? Or is it better to think of it as being part of a society that, through collective effort, is providing me and those around me with someting none of us could have produced acting on our own?

My paying taxes, in that case, is the difference between me actually being a part of that collective action and me being a freeloader.

Number 4: "You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it."


Number 5: "When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them; and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work, because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation."

Yeah, and if half the people in a nation fly to the moon in order to get away from the other half, and the other half fly to the moon to get away from the first half, then everyone in the nation will asphyxiate together on the moon.

Here's the thing: This statement is true enough, but so what? The statement matters--is something we should care about--if it's about something that's in danger of really happening.

I think those who find this sentence to be one of the best ones they've heard think of it as a warning about what will happen if we allow too much "socialism" into our society. But if so it's based on an Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian fantasy, not on any kind of socialism that has even the remotest chance of being vaguely approximated by the American government, regardless of which political party is in power.

I don't mean to say that there aren't serious problems with how we deal with poverty in America. While it is clearly false that half of Americans do not think they need to work because the other half is going to take care of them (and false that any policy proposals on the horizon would move us towards such a situation), it is true that there are some Americans who do not think that they have much hope of crawling out of poverty by working hard. They see living on welfare as the fairly miserable existence that it is, but don't believe that their effort and struggle will lead them to anything better. What results isn't laziness but hopelessness--not the optimistic idea that others will take care of them if they kick back, but the pessimistic idea that the social system won't reward them if they work hard.

If you want to change that, you have to change the way wealth is distributed. Somehow a higher proportion of the wealth generated by labor has to get into the pockets of the lowest level laborers, which in turn will likely mean that someone who is currently raking in the big bucks will have to see a smaller share of that wealth than they do now. There may be different ways to achieve this result, but one thing is clear: We can't rely on business decision-makers to fix the problem, since they tend to be beneficiaries of the current system. Chances are, if it's left to them, the problems will remain or only get worse.

Policies in Norway--a socialist country--have helped to ensure that the unemployment rate is among the lowest in the world--this despite having an ample social safety net. What's happened here? How dare the Norwegians be gainfully employed, in defiance of the Ayn-Randian narrative that socialism leads to a nation of people waiting for handouts? Maybe the answer is this: What encourages people to get to work is the presence of job options that promise a decent life, not the absence of a basic social safety net.

Is it foolish for a government to say, "If you don't bother to work we'll take care of you, and if you do bother to work we'll take your earnings away to take care of those who don't"? Absolutely. Has any presidential contender for either major political party in the US States ever seriously proposed such blasted idiocy? No. Have some people caricatured and distorted more left-leaning American politicians as if they were saying such a fool thing? Yes. Is a sentence that gestures to such a caricature one of the "best sentences I'll ever read"?