Monday, August 26, 2019

Vance (and Horwitz) on libertarians (and "conservatives")

Vance is the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a really nice (and important?) book on social and economic troubles in Appalachia. Most interesting to me: the problems for the dysfunctional rural poor are ironically mirrored by the social and economic troubles in our inner cities. And both have connections to the importance of individual responsibility, culture, and public policies which subsidize (and encourage) troubles with family structure and stability. (Here's my review of Vance's book.) 

Last month, Vance spoke at the National Conservatism Conference in DC and opened with a discussion of libertarianism and its connections to "conservatism". I didn't hear the talk, but read an abridged version in First Things which focuses almost solely on this aspect of the talk. (As an aside, it's interesting that FT would choose to reprint that part, but that's a tangent for another day, perhaps.) 

Vance is a fan of libertarianism, broadly. (Hayek was a key figure in his intellectual development.) But he identifies this concern about/within libertarianism: "the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn't be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce". But this concern is poorly defined and directed for at least three reasons. 

First, this is far from a universal attribute among Libertarians and it's certainly not required by Libertarian philosophy-- political or otherwise. Libertarians often worry about decisions made by individuals as well as various social outcomes. Here, Vance falls for a common error across the political spectrum: if I'm not willing to condemn/subsidize various decisions AND use the force of government to help people with those decisions, then I'm seen as condoning the decisions or being "unworried" about the outcomes. 

In contrast, all of us can quickly imagine contexts where we agree/disagree with decisions and are worried (e.g., should people welcome new neighbors with baked goods; should people eat more than one dessert per meal), but will not look to bring in the government as a potential remedy.

Second, Vance's concerns can be found among conservatives (of various stripes), liberals (of various stripes), and the far-more-prevalent political types in our country ("moderates" who don't think much about politics; "independents" who hold a dog's breakfast compilation of views; and avid partisans of the two major political parties). In fact, Vance is mostly describing selfishness--which knows no political boundaries. With an individual-oriented political philosophy, are Libertarians more prone to this flaw? Perhaps, but not enough to receive special approbation. 

Third, Vance fails to mention/consider a key approach within Libertarian thought. One can get to Libertarian policy positions and political philosophy through many combinations of a.) optimism about the decisions of individuals or placing a high value on individuals; and b.) through pessimism government, ethically and practically, in theory and especially in practice. 

Vance imagines/assumes a solely positive defense of Libertarian philosophy-- a far more challenging task. Given theory, data, history, etc., the negative approach is quite fruitful and difficult to refute. 

Steve Horwitz has a strong response to Vance, mostly on points 1 and 3. 

In the opening of the essay, it's worth noting that Vance describes Hillbilly Elegy as "a story about family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse, community decline, the decline of the manufacturing sector, and the loss of dignity and purpose and meaning that come along with it." And he describes his sense of the American Dream from that background and perspective: "a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father."

Saturday, August 17, 2019

my IR article on Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier

My IR article on Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier...

Monday, August 12, 2019

Lewis on chocolate, sex, and goodness not (yet) experienced

From the Time Magazine cover story/interview of C.S. Lewis in 1947: "I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don't bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it."
Two thoughts:
1.) It's difficult for those not in (or beyond the fringes of) God's Kingdom to understand its goodness. It can only be experienced indirectly and intellectually, until accepted and lived out in faith.
2.) Heaven is defined in Rev 21-22 as the absence of A, B and C-- and unfortunately, that is a common focus of our descriptions. But its greater definitions are positive-- the presence of X, Y and Z.

nation vs. country (and on what basis to define the former)

Here's Allen Mendenhall at on the differences between a nation and a country-- as well as how it matters to current debates on politics, including "national conservatism".
Mendenhall defines a nation in cultural terms and a country in political terms. Then he argues that we've never been a nation and have always been a country. I think he's exaggerating the extent of each. But the distinction is still provocative.
Then he makes a provocative and ironic claim at the end: that current purveyors of nationalism are actually more interested in bigness/greatness and the use of force/politics than a true nationalism.

And then, this article from Jeffrey Tucker at AIER with more details and this important question:
"how precisely are we going to define the nation? There seem to be five kinds of possible unity: race, language, religion, unity, and dynasty (ruling families). Which will it be? If you want to understand the confusion within the Trump movement, observe how the new nationalism is constantly toggling between these various forms of national identity."

visualizing student debt data by demographics

Really nice visuals from Vox and a solid discussion of "student debt" data-- by age, income level, and education attained (h/t: Mom!!)...
Debt forgiveness is typically regressive, helping those with more money/education. (Dems love to help the non-poor but that's a broader subject.) The graphic is rougher on Sanders than Warren, since her proposal phases out the debt cancellation with higher income.
One thing missing: how much of the debt is simply to finance living away from home? The fact is that if you choose a reasonably-priced state school-- and if you can live at home-- higher ed is still not all that expensive and can be financed with work & frugality.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech"

In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe is amazed by the power of speech and argues that it's what separates us from the animals. Of course, one could point to the greater brain size and consciousness that lead to speech. But he's certainly correct that speech is able to move us forward at a rapid rate. Speech allows us to make plans, to create and preserve accurate memories, to do math ("Doubters need only try to count from one to ten without words."), to ask questions (164-165), etc. Speech is so powerful that Wolfe argues it should be the Fourth "Kingdom"-- after animal, vegetable, and mineral (168). 

(I'm a relatively big Wolfe fan, having read a half-dozen of his books. Here's my blog post honoring his life and work, on the occasion of his death-- including a reference to this book, which was widely ignored because of its implications. A shorter version of the book was published as a long article in Harpers. Here's John McWhorter and Chris Knight with what look like balanced views the book and the Wolfe/Chomsky "debate".) 

But what is speech? Wolfe doesn't define it until the end; throughout the book, he's happy to allow the Darwinists to flail around in their failure to explain "it". He describes speech as a form of "mnemonics"-- a memory aid. Thus, language is "the mother of all mnemonics...Speech, language is a matter of using these mnemonics, i.e., words, to create meaning." (162)

OK, speech is amazing and powerful. But Wolfe is most interested in the immense efforts to explain its origins and development-- i.e., its evolution. The term "evolution" is used in two basic ways-- and those uses are often sloppily conflated, for convenience's sake or worse. The first definition is quite powerful but has modest ambitions: evolution as the process by which a set of mechanisms have led to some of the development of life on earth. These mechanisms can explain-- or if not explain, at least provide a compelling narrative for-- many minor changes over time. 

The second definition is far grander: some version of a sciency narrative (and often-purported explanations) for describing the entire development of all life on earth. (Evolution does not speak to two other vital big-picture questions: the creation/beginning of all and the beginning of life.) Wolfe discusses both uses of the term evolution, but is especially focused on the latter. 

Speech is one of a handful of areas where evolution runs into immense (prohibitive?) difficulties in moving from "narrative about" to "explanation for" the development of life. (See also: consciousness, vital organs, reproductive organs, irreducible complexity, why we lost our body hair, etc.) And concerns about speech within the larger picture have been around since Charles Darwin. Thus, Wolfe details Darwin's stories about the development of speech. Speech is vocal communication and he noted that "animals had their forms" of this (20). So, presumably, "language had somehow evolved from imitation of animal sounds...instinctive cries...sounds [from nature]...", bird mating songs, and so on (55, 70-71, 152-153). 

Wolfe details how Max Muller took up the cudgels for science and skewered Darwin's stories, starting in 1861, by labeling them "the bow-wow theory...the pooh-pooh theory...the ding-dong theory...the mama theory...the sing-song theory..." and so on (55-56). Darwin and friends kept looking for evidence, diligently, but couldn't find anything (66). In 1872, the Philological Society of London "gave upon trying to find out the origin of language" (76-77). This period lasted for 77 years, until 1949, when World War II reignited the question. 

Led by Morris Swadesh, cryptography became important; linguistics moved into a scientific phase; and speech communication became a significant academic discipline. He wanted to establish a chronology of languages, including explanations for their development (81-85). This effort continued for 75 years (until 2014), led by the charismatic and brilliant Noam Chomsky. Wolfe devotes chapter 4 to Chomsky. The discussion is largely respectful, as Wolfe is amazed by his output, charisma, and influence. Chomsky wrote 118 books and 271 articles (105-106). And he took over the entire field of linguistics (86). (For what it's worth, Wolfe sees his scathing review of a B.F. Skinner book as the cause of his rise to the top [92-95].)

Chomsky introduced a radically new theory of language-- that we were born with a "language organ" in our brains (87, 96). In 2002, he and two colleagues added the "theory of recursion"-- that sentences and thoughts were endlessly put inside each other, allowing for more constructive speech. Both theories allowed for the prospective evolution of language. Every language depended on the organ and got more complex through recursion, so language must have evolved. As such, all languages "were the same, with just some minor local accents." (89) "It was just a matter of time...before empirical research substantiated his analysis." (96) 

(From linguistics, Chomsky moved into the role of "public intellectual" with his essay on America's role in Vietnam [98, 100]. He also dabbled in "Radical Chic"-style protests: get yourself arrested in the late morning or early afternoon of a day with nice weather-- in time to get to popular nightspots to tell war stories [101].) Chomsky's academic and political work bolstered each other and he grew to staggering reputation and prominence [104].)

The good/bad news: unlike many other aspects of the evolutionary narrative, the power of Chomsky's theories and the concreteness of its predictions allowed it to be tested by evidence and the scientific method. And so, with chapters 5-6, Wolfe turns his focus to Daniel Everett's field work within an obscure South American tribe, the Piraha and their rudimentary language. 

In the tradition of Darwin (after his early work), Chomsky did not rely on fieldwork (89). In this, Wolfe compares Everett to Alfred Wallace (the co-founder of evolution) as "fly-catchers"-- and Chomsky to Darwin as gentlemen who theorized. Although a "fly-catcher" in terms of fieldwork, Everett was also an accomplished scholar-- with three books and about 70 articles (110).

In a word, Everett found that the Piraha language was not recursive. Thus, it had been invented by them and had not evolved. The bomb was a 2005 article in Current Anthropology, revealing that the Piraha language had developed out of their culture. 

Everett's findings sacked much of Chomsky's work. Ironically, Everett had been a "full-fledged Chomsky acolyte" (110). In fact, it took years "for him to realize that his adherence to Chomskyan beliefs was preventing him from deciphering Piraha." (110)  

Wolfe details the back-and-forth battles that ensued-- a March 2007 academic article by Chomskyans in response, an influential and favorable April 2007 New Yorker piece on Everett, and an effort to test Everett's findings by another prominent Chomskyan, Tecumseh Fitch (123-124; described in the New Yorker piece). After living and working with the Piraha for 30 years, Everett was even accused of racism (129). Go figure! 

But then Everett published a popularizing book in 2008 on linguistics, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes-- what Wolfe calls a coup de scoop (130-131). "Everett didn't so much attack Chomsky's theory as dismiss it." (141) Likewise, the title of Everett's follow-up 2012 book was "Language-- The Cultural Tool"-- i.e., something man had made for himself, not something that had evolved (159). 

Better yet, from a scientific view, Everett's findings and work allowed others the space and courage to join the fray. "Linguists who had kept their doubts and grumbles to themselves were emboldened to speak out openly." (143) Wolfe cites one example, Vyvyan Evans' The Language Myth from 2014 that "rejected Chomsky's and Pinker's ideas of a 'language instinct'." (144) 

Chomsky's responses to all of this? Opposition at first. But then the "language organ" disappeared: "he never recanted a word...merely subsumed the same concepts beneath a new and broader body of thought. Gone, too, astonishingly, was recursion." (146) This eventually led to an amazing 2014 academic article where Chomsky and seven prominent colleagues said they were giving up the ghost and acknowledging their failure in finding explanations for the development of language. This article was the catalyst for Wolfe's book.

The scholars "sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we'll keep trying, they said gamely, but...running up a white flag of abject defeat and surrender." (4, 156) The first 11 words of the article: "the evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma." (150) After that, they said "the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved...[it was] as mysterious as ever" (156-157) In sum, it had been 150 years since Darwin's theory was announced "and they had learned...nothing." (5)  

More on the development and emergence of evolution as science and narrative

Wolfe is also interested in the broader topic of evolution-- as a comprehensive "theory of everything" narrative about the development of life. He notes Darwin's early fieldwork-- particularly with the Fuegians who seemed like a "missing link" to him, with their simple speech and ape-like bodies (18). Wolfe also points to a trip to a zoo in 1838 as a key moment for Darwin's belief that man evolved from apes, after seeing the "human" reactions of an orangutan named Jenny (28). 

Darwin was convinced of the theory, but worried about publishing in an environment when such views were heretical and the church had considerable power. Robert Chambers published a related and highly-criticized book in 1844-- but anonymous until 1884, well after his death-- cementing Darwin's concerns (8, 19). 

But Alfred Wallace had come to conclusions similar to Darwin's. Wallace was on the field far away, so he sent a 20-page manuscript to Charles Lyell, a prominent scientist (and friend of Darwin's). Wallace was looking for input and support, rather than submitting it to journals for publication. "If Lyell found merit in his stunning theory, he had the power to introduce it to the world in a heroic way." (11) Unfortunately, this goaded Lyell, Darwin, and their coterie of friends into a very different (and un-heroic) introduction. 

Wolfe portrays this as a class struggle: Wallace the field scientist and "fly-catcher" (who captured all sorts of critters and sold them to collectors and zoos) vs. Lyell, Darwin, and Co.-- the "British Gentlemen" in the scientific establishment. (Wolfe makes a similar comparison between Chomsky and Everett.) 

Darwin had kept silent, while "his career had been compiling evidence to support" his earth-shaking theory (30). He had been afraid of "the Wrath of the Godly" and an "enterprising competitor" who would reach similar conclusions and beat him to the punch (30). When Lyell showed the manuscript to Darwin, he was worried about being pre-empted by Wallace. In sum, "Darwin was petrified by the prospect of condemnation [for holding unpopular views], but aflame with ambition." (19) 

So, Lyell came up with the idea of presenting Wallace's paper alongside Darwin's work at an impending meeting of scientists. Darwin quickly had two short papers written for him. (Writing his own would have been tacky and ungentlemanly.) Fortuitously, D comes before W in the alphabet, so his work was read before Wallace's. One irony: Wallace's paper was published without his knowledge or consent. And given the pace of mail in those days, Wallace wouldn't learn of this for months and decided to defer to his more powerful "colleagues". In the meantime, Darwin was busy writing his book, beating Wallace to press with his first book, The Origin of Species (32-41).

Darwin was goaded into action by Wallace's work. But in Origins, Darwin was still pussy-footing around the question of man in particular. He only mentions it in passing at the end. Still, reviewers saw where he was going-- and crushed him for that reason among others (43-45). Thomas Huxley was the notable counterexample, publishing versions of the same review in many prominent publications, under different names (46-49). (I'm not sure if that was ethical then; it certainly isn't today! An interesting aside: Wolfe says that the French consistently panned Darwin's work, having already wrestled with the same ideas through Lamarck decades earlier [50-51].) 

Wallace went on to a prolific publishing career. By Wolfe's estimation, his "heft had turned into real gravitas" by 1870, just before Darwin published his second book, formalizing his theory that man had descended from apes (75). At that time, Wallace "systematically disassembled and demolished what was closest to Darwin's heart, the central point of his entire theory from the beginning, namely, that human beings are animals themselves..." (60) 

Wallace pointed to the limits of natural selection as a mechanism (only helpful in "the competition in the struggle for existence"); its narrowness ("it can't produce any changes that are bad for the creature"); and its inability to "produce any 'specially developed organ' that is useless to a creature" at the time (as is required in the supposed evolution of vital organs). He pointed to the brain and hairless bodies as examples (60-63). (In this battle of legacy over evolutionary thinking, Wolfe argues that Darwin was helped-- and Wallace hindered-- by Wallace's later belief in spiritism [64].) 

Wolfe comes back to the "theory of everything" idea and describes Darwin's claims about "cosmogony" (how life began and developed on earth). Wolfe details many other cosmogonies, including the Navajo belief that a midge created everything. The midge is so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye. This resulted in "probably the most sophisticated cosmogony ever believed in, a story of full-scale, gradual evolution from next to nothing to modern man." (25) Wolfe then segues to Darwin's midge-like story that a single cell (or "4-5 cells", he would later claim) were responsible for it all (24-26). 

How did Darwin's story gain traction when people would laugh at the Navajo story? It was sciency in a time of increasing respect for science. Was Darwin's hypothesis "scientific" in the usual ways: was it observed; could it be replicated; could it be contradicted; could scientists make predictions based on it; did it advance other areas of science? The answers were no or mostly so (27-28). But sciency sounded pretty good at the time. (It still does!) And there was always the promise of more evidence in the future. 

After years of failing to find much evidence on crucial gaps in the narrative, Darwin developed his stories with more detail. Wolfe ridicules a lot of this, pointing to Darwin's repeated use of his dog to bolster the story's intuition (72-74). "The upshot was a real tour de force of literary imagination" (69): The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Then Wolfe compares Darwin's tales to Kipling's Just So Stories from 1902. "Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to." (70) (As an aside, Wolfe notes that Stephen Jay Gould was the first to make the Kipling/Darwin parallel-- in 1978 [72].) 

From there, Wolfe argues that Darwin's theory was "overshadowed" by genetics as a (real/full) science-- as Mendel's work gained prominence, posthumously, 16 years after he died. Darwinism took a hit, by comparison, but eventually genetics were co-opted as one component of the grand narrative (78-80). 

Wolfe's book makes many things clearer-- from the particulars of the linguistics debate to the Wallace/Darwin "competition". But on the bigger picture, it's quite helpful in elucidating that we all believe in narratives and we all believe in miracles (defined as fantastic low-probability events or series of events). Some believe in the natural and supernatural; others are only (and narrowly) willing to entertain the natural. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy"

In 2016, J.D. Vance wrote a memoir as a 32-year old-- what became a best-selling and influential book. As he notes, it's strange for a young man to be encouraged to write an auto-biography. He doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the project; it's funny at times to read him downplaying his uniqueness. And of course, one should be careful in generalizing from one man's subjective experience to broad social/cultural observations. But the combination of his "hillbilly" background and Yale Law School outcome is unusual-- and its implications are important. 

Vance says that he would have squandered it all, except for the impact of a handful of loving people who rescued him-- in particular, his grandparents and esp. his grandmother (2, 23, 46, 138). "Reams of social science attest to the positive effect of a loving and stable home...I know Mamaw was good for me not because some Harvard psychologist says so but because I felt it." (149-150) I don't think he is dissing science here, but merely acknowledging the powerful experience he had, which happens to jive with theory and data. 

Vance is white. But given his background, the idea of "white privilege" for him and other hillbillies is utterly ridiculous. Their disadvantages stem from both geography and ethnicity (2-3). Understanding this is just one more nail in the coffin of "reparations" by ethnicity. Why on earth would one want to take resources from hillbillies to give to President Obama's family? (Maybe this helps to explain why Obama is no fan of reparations.)

Vance sees jobs and "the economy" as part of the problem. But these cannot be anything close to a complete explanation-- which must include the role of culture and individual decisions. In his view, the problems are clearly more self-imposed by individuals and a dysfunctional culture, than caused by institutions or external forces. "It's about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It's about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it." (7) 

More broadly: "Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith." (145) All of this points to broader conceptions of "class"-- which go far beyond income (63). "Social mobility isn't just about money and economics, it's about a lifestyle..." (207). 

At a micro level, Vance repeatedly describes poor family dynamics on communication, parenting, instability, etc.-- both generalizations and from his own experience-- that will make most people cringe. His narrative reminded me of Ruby Payne's work on education and sociology, in her efforts to help poor families. And as the research shows, this has a terrible and wide-ranging impact on men (e.g., here on opioids) and communities.

Vance shares the "takeaways" on "marital conflict resolution" that he gained from watching his Mom with a "revolving door of father figures" (88): "Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do..." and so on (71). He was fortunate to see some exceptions (73), but the norms were counter-productive. As he describes his own marriage, he shares how his reflexes still lean in that direction.

In sum (and generalizing), hillbilly "homes are a chaotic mess." (146) Screaming and yelling, hitting and punching, drugs and alcohol, bring in the police and the kids go to foster care, apologize but don't repent. And then in daily life: don't work or don't stick with it; don't encourage kids to study; teach kids about the importance of responsibility but don't walk the walk; succumb to poor eating and exercise habits (146-148). 

When Vance worked at a grocery store, he saw the irony that the poor were more likely to purchase pre-cooked and frozen food-- and "only poor people bought baby formula" (138). He saw how "people gamed the welfare system" and were "content to live off the dole" (139). They would spend their "way into the poorhouse"-- with high-interest credit cards and payday loans (146).

Vance does point to macroeconomic factors-- in particular, the post-WWII migration from Appalachia to the Midwest, for manufacturing jobs that soon began to fade. The next generation was supposed to be upwardly mobile. But it didn't work out that way, given the cultural problems, the decline of manufacturing, and the new "War on Poverty". 

This reminded me of an oft-overlooked truism on timing: when something happens can be more important than the change itself. For example, many countries have come out of colonization. The key difference: when they were freed and the dominant theories of economy and political economy into which they were freed. 

Fortunately, America was freed when people believed in the efficacy of free markets and limited government. Unfortunately, African nations began when faith in government and elites was high-- and when professionals were skeptical about markets. The same holds true for African-Americans and the timing of Civil Rights in the 1960s, as well as Vance's focus on Appalachia immigration to the Midwest post-WWII.  

Vance is focused on Appalachia. But at times, he extends his analysis to all "working-class whites"-- and most broadly, the poor. Their problems are exacerbated when they are concentrated into communities. Among blacks and other ethnic groups in cities (especially with "public housing"), we used to have the term "ghettos". But the impact in more rural areas is essentially the same. He notes that 25% of white children in 1970 lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates about 10%. In 2000, it was 40%. "It's almost certainly even higher today." (51) 

Individuals live in communities that exert profound negative influences on them. This points to the role of sociology and psychology, beyond strict economics or political science. When communities feature out-of-wedlock births, drug use, etc., then individuals become more prone to participate in those activities. (See also: ROGD, anorexia, etc.) One response is escapism: "For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door...Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly." (229)

His Mom "avoided abusive or neglectful partners", but Vance "hated the disruption" of so many guys in their lives (88). He also connects the dots between troubles with family stability and trying to do K-12. He provides a brutal quote from a teacher friend: "They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves." (127) 

And he lays out a gut-wrenching statistic on the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners: Sweden is 2nd in the world with 2.6% and America is #1 with 8.2% overall-- and higher in the working class (228). Brutal! Thanks again to the government and proponents for their War on Poverty...err, the Poor. Outside the mercy of Jesus, may you find a millstone awaiting you in the afterlife. 

In 2012, working class whites reported working more hours, but the surveys are "demonstrably false...the only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work." (57-58) Kids are then raised in a context where work is infrequent and lauded hypocritically. Impressive research by Chetty et. al. indicates the prevalence of single parents and income segregation for limited income mobility (242). Again, the cultural influences on work and family formation are significant. 

All of these problems are prevalent among "working-class blacks" as well. Again, this is far more about class than income-- or certainly, race. Vance found William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged and then Charles Murray's Losing Ground. Both books focused on blacks, but they "described my home perfectly." (144) At least Murray is clear that these problems should be expected in any lower-income setting-- independent of race. And while Wilson definitely focuses on jobs, Murray explains that welfare programs necessarily created strong disincentives to work, study, save, and form two-parent households-- for the poor, when elites changed "the rules of the game" for them. 

Vance also helps us understand why "working class whites" weren't fond of Obama. Racism probably plays a primary role for a few people and a secondary role for others. But the larger issues were economic and cultural-- matters of "class". His presidency occurred as dissatisfaction with the economy was bottoming out and not getting better with any alacrity. Beyond that, "The president feels like an alien...for many reasons that have nothing to do with skin color...Ivy League...brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor...Nothing about him bears any resemblance...His accent-- clean, perfect, neutral-- is foreign...Obama overcame adversity in his own right-- adversity familiar to many of us-- but that was long before any of us knew him...He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we were overalls...His wife tells us that we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it..." (191) 

Given the complexities of the social problems, it's not surprising that Vance reaches sober and limited policy conclusions, especially at the federal level. "Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us." (255) He wants foster laws revisited, so that non-immediate but involved family members would have much easier access to kids in troubled situations (243). But there is no "magical public policy solution...I don't think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist...maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins." (238) 

It's not spending in K-12 schools-- or more access to food or college; "the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government's control." (244) "It starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better." (256) Opportunity lies with the individual, those around him, the community, churches, etc. 

As per Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion, it's not simply a matter of getting the private sector involved. The private sector could be more effective, at least on paper; but there are certainly no guarantees, in practice. In his conclusion, Vance uses Christmas as an example of the gap between classes-- and efforts by the upper class to help the lower class. Christmas taught him about tax refunds and were a prominent time for payday loans-- and its gifts served as an opportunity to buy love. Charitable organizations were a mixed blessing-- promoting consumerism, being patronized through assistance, and receiving ridiculous gifts like pajamas (249-252).

Effective welfare programs are unlikely. Effective charitable efforts are difficult. Vance calls his community to be the cure to its own problems. Whether they can do so is debatable. But in his realistic pessimism about external entities bringing true hope and change, the best answer is probably hard work and God's grace-- and to strive for robust community and revitalized civic institutions. 

Other observations: 
-Vance's description of the hillbilly family was, not unsurprisingly, quite similar to the "trustee family" structure described by Zimmerman: loyalty to family and class (15-16); "a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism" (41); and an honor-based culture (246). 

-On the importance of the church as a civic institution, Vance connects Christian faith (albeit naive at the time) to saving him from trouble. One of his fathers found Jesus and it made a difference to him directly-- and indirectly through his Dad (92, 94). But Vance notes that there is cultural pressure to identify as religious-- and that attendance and participation is actually quite low, compared to the rest of the Bible Belt (93). 

-Vance describes drug addiction as both disease and an excuse (116). Trying to help his Mom-- and the implicit challenges-- is a recurring theme in the book. At one point, he gives her clean pee to pass a drug check at a job. "And maybe, if we help her this time, she'll finally learn her lesson." (131) Of course, she was learning the lesson-- that people would continue to try bailing her out! At one point, he realizes that "of all the emotions I felt toward my mother, I had never tried sympathy." (231) Her two siblings turned out well enough, so "in some ways, Mom is the Vance child who lost the game of statistics." (232) He concludes that "There is room now for both anger at Mom for the life she chooses and sympathy for the childhood she didn't." (238)

-In the Marine Corps, Vance learned that he had underestimated himself (163). And after seeing a kid in Iraq who was so thankful to get an eraser, he observes: "For my entire life, I'd harbored resentment at the world...I began to realize how lucky I was...I resolved to be the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser." (173-174)

-Vance is fine with payday lenders; they can "solve important financial problems" (185).

-On the prevalence of American Civil Religion in Appalachia: Vance said his Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and America-- and he cites the patriotism of Breathitt County, including the anecdote that it was the only county in the U.S. to fulfill its quotas for WWI soldiers through volunteers (189)

-Vance discusses the prevalence of means-tested financial aid for colleges, so that smart kids can attend elite colleges, often for less than a state university (198-199). 

-On (true) diversity: "For all of the Ivy League's obsession with diversity, virtually everyone comes from intact families who never worry about money." (203)

-On mobility, Vance notes a small but often-overlooked point-- that one always move to something and from something else (206). Similarly, progress always implies that one wasn't as good at something in the past. 

-Mitch Daniels is his "political hero" (221) and Amy Chua was a key mentor in law school (219).

Friday, August 2, 2019

Peterson's "The Jesus Way"

In this book, Eugene Peterson describes "The Jesus Way"-- as in, most famously, Jesus' self-description as "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Christ continues by telling his disciples (and us) that "no one comes to the Father, except through" him! He is the way-- to "salvation", in all the richness implied by the term: not just saved from sins for Heaven, but saved to a profitable life on this worth, walking in the way of Jesus.

As Peterson notes, "the way of Jesus did not originate with Jesus, although he certainly provided its final and definitive articulation" (15). Often, people separate the OT and NT dispensations too thoroughly. It's the same God throughout the Bible. And the way of Jesus is often foreshadowed and lived out in the OT. So, Peterson starts with Jesus, before moving to six "ways of Jesus" exhibited in the OT. The second part of the book covers six worldly "ways" that are contrary to "The Way". Three of these are secular; and three are poor religious responses to those secular errors.

This is the third of a five-book series from Peterson. I've read three of the other four and they're excellent-- even better than this one, I'd say. 
1.) Tell It Slant covers Luke's Gentile gospel with its focus on the Samaritan narrative and Jesus' use of parables for that audience. (Why on earth didn't I know that before I read TIS?!) 
2.) Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places elaborates on Jesus' call for us to live an incarnational life in light of Trinitarian theology, intimate relationships, and Christian community. 
3.) Eat This Book focuses on meditative reading of the Scriptures. 
Each of the books is a call to discipleship in some way-- recognizing the active participation to which God calls us. Although He has saved us, He doesn't put us on a shelf until it's time for Heaven. He wants great things for us and from us in His Kingdom.

Godly Ends AND Godly Means

Peterson starts with a table-setting discussion of means and ends-- that pursuing the Jesus Way is impossible without using means that are consistent with that Way. "We can't proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth. But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way." (4) "Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life." (8) "Ways and means that are removed or abstracted from Jesus and the Scriptures that give witness to him amount sooner or later to a betrayal of Jesus." (15) The Jews were supposed to be "countercultural in matters of ways and means." (17) So too with us. 

Peterson motivates this primarily through Jesus' temptation by Satan in the Desert (Matthew 4, Luke 4). He notes that these stories follow John the Baptist announcing "the way" and the baptism of Jesus. But otherwise, the temptations precede the introduction of "the way" itself-- again, pointing to the importance of avoiding these temptations (28). For John the Baptist and Jesus-- as with Moses and Elijah-- clarity is achieved in the wilderness, pointing us to the importance of solitude and silence in our own walk, our own pursuit of the way (30). 

The first temptation is do good, but to reduce the gospel to consumerism-- "to reduce people, ourselves and others, to self-defined needs or culture-defined needs, which always, in the long run, end up being sin-defined needs-- and use Jesus to do it." (31) The second temptation is to entertain and add excitement through a miracle-- "to reduce Jesus to escapism and thrills." (32) The third temptation is to rule the world through government and politics-- always imposed and usually impersonal (33). 

Will Jesus "reduce and depersonalize the way by imposing his will on the rocks...Will he put on a circus spectacular...Will he rule the world by means of a faceless bureaucracy...without getting his hands dirty?...Jesus gave a definitive, Scripture-backed no to each temptation...In the three great refusals, Jesus refused to do good things in the wrong way...We cannot do the Lord's work in the devil's way." (35-36) Ironically, "We naively embrace the very temptations of the devil that Jesus so definitively vetoed and rebuked." (3) 

The metaphor of "dirty hands" is important to Peterson, Too often, our approaches are disembodied, impersonal, and abstract-- rather than "incarnate, flesh and blood, relational, particular, local" (1) Of course, one sees a ton of this in politics-- as people are prone to try pursuing godly ends with ungodly means. (See: my book TNRNL.) Or they want to help people, but only by getting their hands dirty in government and power, not in the lives of individuals.

But the problem extends far beyond politics. Peterson uses Winnie the Pooh's quest to the North Pole as an analogy. None of the characters know what it is. When Pooh finds a pole along the way, Christopher Robin declares that it's the thing they seek. And then the quest is over and they go home. Peterson sees an analogy to modern "spirituality" where religions such as "Moral Therapeutic Deism" stem from vague ideas and are satisfied easily by something they find along the way in the name of "spirituality." (193-194)

Many people imagine a Christianity that is not incarnational-- with an over-emphasis on the spiritual and little impact on daily life in the body. Related to this, many people separate the sacred from the secular-- in a weekly cycle (Sunday vs. the rest of the week) or between professionals and laity (the former take care of religious business, while the latter mostly try to stay out of trouble). In a word and "worst of all, [they are] passive in the ways and means of following Jesus..." (13)

The Way of Jesus

Then Peterson develops "the way" of Jesus-- as described by Jesus and as used in Acts. On Jesus' 6th "I am" statement, Peterson says it's "among his most memorable and frequently quoted statements...also among the most frequently dismissed." (21) "The way" is an extension of the early invites to the disciples: repent, baptize, and then "follow me". And it's a metaphor used throughout Scripture: in addition to the famous reference in Mt 7:13-14, 79 times in Psalms (23 in Ps 119) and six times (vs. one reference to "Christian") in Acts. 

As always, Peterson is passionate about describing the key role of metaphor in Scripture. With metaphor, "a word explodes, comes alive...makes me a participant in creating the meaning and entering into the action of the world. I can no longer understand the word by looking it up...When the writers of Scripture use metaphor, we get involved with God, whether we want to or not, sometimes whether we know it or not....Which, of course, is why metaphors are so prominent in our Scripture." (26)

From there, Peterson turns to the revelation of "the Jesus way" throughout the OT, relying on narratives about six biblical characters. 

1.) From Abraham, we learn that it "is not a definition but a story." And the story is replete with actions verbs-- as per the seven verbs in God's call to Abraham in ch. 12 and the 16 verbs on walking and journeying between chs. 12 and 22 (46-47). Faith is not merely mental assent or other-worldly. We also learn that robust faith is tested and revealed by testing and sacrifice, "so that we can discern whether we are dealing with the living God or some fantasy or illusion we have cooked up..." (49-51)

2.) Moses is a great leader but "mostly he is a man of words"-- at the burning bush, at Sinai, and in Dt's "artful valedictory" sermons (68-69). And so, faith and the way are grounded in God's word. 

3.) From David, we learn that "perfectionism" is not the goal of "the way". David is "representative-- not a warning against bad behavior but a witness, inadvertent as it was, to the normalcy, yes, the inevitability of imperfection." (82) As a result, "the remedy for sin is not the extermination of sin, not long training in not-sinning...The only effective remedy for sin is the forgiveness of sin-- and only God can forgive sin." (91)

4.) From Elijah, we learn about true worship vs. the ecstatic emotionalism and entertainment of Baalism. In biblical worship, "Sensory participation is not excluded...[but] it is always defined and ordered by the word of God...'Let's have a worship experience' the Baalistic perversion of 'let us worship God'...[Worship] is not something a person experiences, it is something we do...The experience develops out of the worship, not the other way around." (110-111)

5.) With "Isaiah of Jerusalem" (Pt. I: chs. 1-39), Peterson bookends the classic passage on God's holiness in Isaiah 6 with the focus on holiness in Moses (104x) and John's Revelation (26x). Isaiah's encounter was in the temple, but Moses' fire was at the bush, while John's was in his vision of Jesus-- in wilderness and exile (134). Peterson devotes more time than usual to the second half of Isaiah 6-- the strange commissioning to ministry which Isaiah receives. God promises futility so that only a "stump" will remain. Five chapters later, we learn that the Messiah will come from that stump, but still... (139-140) The way of Jesus is marked by obedience and faithfulness to the holy, but not necessarily "success".

6.) With "Isaiah of the Exile" (Pts. II and III: chs. 40-66), we learn that "gospel" is an OT term as well. The NT writers use it to great effect, but Isaiah brings the term to prominence, as he describes the messenger who delivers "good news" about the great "servant" to come. (161-162)

The anti-ways of Jesus

In Part 2, Peterson describes six "ways" that are inconsistent with the Jesus way-- three secular ways and each with a religious response that is itself incorrect. Each of the six is still quite popular and powerful today. Israel, by time and place, was able to experience all of these temptations-- as it viewed earthly power and religion, particularly as it played out through empire.

1a.) Herod represents the political temptation and a particular bent toward the large and wealthy. Peterson contrasts the ostentatious burial of Herod with the meager birthplace of Jesus around the same time: "People do continue to come and be impressed, but the numbers are meager compared to those who come to Bethlehem and worship." (200) 

Peterson admits: "It is impossible, at least for me, not to be impressed with Herod...And here is the astonishing thing: Jesus ignored the whole one ironic sense, Jesus had virtually the same agenda as Herod...So why didn't Jesus learn from Herod?...All Jesus had to do was adopt and then adapt Herod's political style, his skills, his tested principles, and put them to work under the rule of God." (202-203) Instead, he avoided the big cities (Sepphoris and Tiberias, except Jn 6:23's passing reference) and focused on the back-waters of Capernaum (204-206).

1b.) In contrast to Herod, the Pharisees chose a radically different path that ended up devolving from passion, purity, and dedication-- to legalism and an oppressive power wielded through religion. Peterson says that the Pharisees were impressive in their early years: a courageous, loyal, grass-roots movement. But the rules pushed them into a focus on externals and minute details. 

Could Jesus use them for his movement? They "had become a little rigid through the years, true. They needed some reforming, some livening up, yes. But they could very serve as a solid base to work from. But Jesus no more took his cue from the intensity of the Pharisees than he did from the grandiosity of Herod." (212) Again, Peterson points to the power of metaphor (215)-- which takes us away from the literalism and small world of the Pharisees. And he recommends Mary's prayer as the antidote-- with its focus on servanthood and the attendant attitudes and outlook (218-219).

2a.) Caiaphas represents the religious temptations toward earthly power. The Sadducees did not believe in the supernatural or the religiously incarnational. They wed themselves to the Romans, wielding power and pursuing wealth accordingly. Herod and Caiaphas occupied different worlds but their means and ends were quite similar: they were very good at their work and both were threatened by Jesus. (Peterson cites the high turnover in the High Priest's position, aside from Caiaphas [228-229].) As Peterson notes, "Religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds...The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass." (230) 

But Jesus was not anti-institutional; he still used the temple and synagogue. This points to another common theme of Peterson-- the importance of place: "We sometimes say, thoughtlessly I think, that the church is not a building. It's people. I'm not so sure. [Churches, etc.] provide continuity in place and community for Jesus to work his will among his people. A place, a building, collects stories and develops associations that give local depth and breadth and continuity to our experience of following Jesus. We must not try to be more spiritual than Jesus in this business. Following Jesus means following him into sacred buildings that have a lot of sinners in them...A spirituality that has no institutional structure or support very soon becomes self-indulgent and subjective and one-generational." (231-232)

2b.) In contrast to Caiaphas and the Sadducees, the Essenes chose the radically different path of asceticism. They refused to enter the temple and left Jerusalem to form community. The most  "radical and focused" of these was at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). The group was small and tended to fracture, given their earnestness. They were likely all male and celibate. They copied the Scriptures and were waiting for the Messiah-- away from the corruption of the people and the Temple (234-236). John the Baptist was a likely member (236-238). 

But as Peterson notes, Jesus' "follow me" didn't imply "going to the desert and joining an exclusive" sect (239). Peterson recommend Thomas' five-word prayer in Jn 20:28 ("My Lord and My God!") to combat the Essene temptation (240-242). This is a particular temptation for one who focuses on making disciples and disciple-makers. If people aren't measuring up, it's tempting to write them off and tighten the circle. 

3a.) Josephus represents overt compromise and the pursuit of comfort, wealth, and celebrity. Peterson goes into considerable detail about Josephus' life, but I don't want to take the time/space to lay that out here. In a word, Peterson describes him as impressive but despicable-- on par with traitors like Judas and Benedict Arnold (243-254). 

3b.) In contrast, the Zealots chose a radically different path: militancy. Both the Romans and the Zealots worked in the currency of violence. Peterson lays out some of the history of Zealot movements and notes that the Christian church has a "long and sorry track record" in such things (260). 

But the early Jesus movement did not participate (254)-- and the Jesus movement today cannot participate if it wants to follow "the Jesus way". Peterson asks how we can retain the passion and energy of the Zealots without the violence. The answer is in Acts-- with the disciples acting "of one accord". (The Greek word homothumadon, 12x in Acts starting with 1:14 is difficult to translate.)  Here, Peterson recommends prayer in general terms. 

Peterson closes the book with Psalm 2 as a remedy to all of the above. It "provides a text-prayer for personally realizing and internalizing, feeling in our gut and in our muscles, the unbridgeable abyss fixed between the ways of this world-- its Herod and Caiaphas and Josephus ways, and also the counter ways pursued by the Pharisee and Essene and Zealot sects-- and the Strong God and His Messiah." (268) 

Finally, this: "Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus, all three in their lifetimes, were more influential and more effective than Jesus. The three protest movements...all attracted far more followers than Jesus. And here's the sobering thing: they still do. We are faced with this wonderful, or not-so-wonderful irony: Jesus-- most admired, most worshiped (kind of), most written about. And least followed." (271)

May we all follow Jesus-- not as we imagine Him or craft Him in our image, but as He is. Follow Jesus and the Jesus way. 

on "provocative inquiry of uncritically-held assumptions"

Check out Winkler's reply to the responses to her article on theories about Shakespeare as a woman. I wonder if she (and others sympathetic with her view) would apply the same logic to the "consensus" on climate change and evolution as a comprehensive narrative (err...."explanation"?) for the development of life.
“Any worthwhile history is a constant state of self-questioning,” the author Hilary Mantel observed in her Reith Lectures for the BBC. It was in that spirit of skepticism that I undertook a provocative inquiry, exploring the possibility of...I questioned uncritically held assumptions instead of treating pronouncements by authorities as truth...In their often vitriolic zeal to condemn me for non­adherence to their position, some critics have misconstrued my careful formulations and denounced my endeavor as “conspiracism”...
The discourse around the question of Shakespeare authorship is plagued by this sort of anti-intellectual suppression of inquiry...the animating impulse of my essay was neither doctrinaire denial nor adamant certainty...The personal attacks and rhetorical dismissal that greet such questioning may be intended to stigmatize the questions, yet instead they reinforce their legitimacy.