Monthly Archives: December 2013

Abolishing religion won’t fix anything

So here’s the post that started it all. I post it here unedited, but again note that I think the syllogism is poorly written. “New Atheists” don’t impute all suffering to religion. But I think that they impute far more violence than is due. This saves them from the task of actually trying to understand the underlying socio-economic circumstances that engender the fundamentalism and violence.

Religion has once again become the “opiate of the people.” But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.

It is rather disturbing trend in a country whose greatest reformer was a Reverend — Dick Gregory has said, “Ten thousand years from now, the only reason a history book will mention the United States is to note where Martin Luther King Jr. was born” — to believe that religion is the root of all evil. And yet this is what the “New Atheism” (an anti-theist movement led originally by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late — and great — Christopher Hitchens) movement  asserts.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc  — mistaking a cause for its effect.

During the first Gulf War, Christopher Hitchens famously schooled Charlton Heston, asking him to name the countries surrounding Iraq, the place he was so eager to invade. A flummoxed Heston sputtered, naming a few random Middle Eastern countries (including, rather humorously, the island nation of Cyprus).

But then Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens. To co-opt Steven Weinberg, “Good men will naturally oppose bad wars and bad will naturally support them. To make a good man support a bad war, for that, you need an irrational fear of religion.”

Somehow the man who denounced Kissinger’s war crimes now supported Bush’s — both wars, of course, supported by the scantest of logic. The man who so eloquently chronicled the corruption of the Clinton administration became the shill of his successor.

Ruber Cornwell wrote of Hitchens in The Independent,

At that point [during the Gulf War], Hitchens, still the left-wing radical, opposed he conflict against Saddam Hussein. By contrast, George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq couldn’t come soon enough for him. The great catalyst for change was, of course, 9/11. Appalled by what he saw as the left’s self-flagellation over the terrorist attacks, and the argument that America had brought the disaster on itself, Hitchens became arguably the most eloquent advocate in Washington of the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He quit The Nation, made friends with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and, in foreign policy at least, was indistinguishable from the neocons… The fact that the terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists also sealed – if sealing were needed – Hitchens’ belief that religion, and the “absolute certainty” of its followers was nothing but trouble.

For something so dreadfully asinine to be written about a man as well-traveled and well-read would be almost obscene if it were not true. But after 9/11, Hitchens stopped seeing the world in terms of geopolitics but rather saw it, like the Neocons in the Bush administration, as a war between the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East.

Religion has a tendency to reflect political and economic realities. Hitchens, in fact, has made ample use of this Marxist analysis, questioning religious experts whether it was Constantine or the truth of Christ’s words that were largely responsible for its breakneck spread. Constantine was, and his proclivities shaped the church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not decided exclusively by decades of intense debate; the whimsy of Constantine and political maneuvering between by Arius and Athanasius had a significant influence on the outcome.

But if Hitchens is right, as he is, then why not take the observation to its logical conclusion? Is not the best explanation for the Thirty Years’ War more likely political than religious? Might it be better to see jihad as a response to Western colonialism and the upending of Islamic society, rather than the product of religious extremism? The goal of the “New Atheists” is to eliminate centuries of history that Europeans are happy to erase, and render the current conflict as one of reason versus faith rather than what is, exploiter and exploited.

Bernard Lewis writes,

For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.

I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives? If religion motivated 9/11, what motivated Bill Clinton to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and leave millions of Sudanese people without access to medicine?

Liberals who once believed that the key to understanding hate and violence is deprivation now have embraced the idea that religion is the culprit. Religion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things. It can also motivate acts of social justice and injustice, but broad popular movements of the sort generally indicate a manipulation of religion, rather than studied reflections on religious doctrine. Shall we blame Jesus, who advocated “turning the other cheek,” for Scott Philip Roeder, or more plausibly his schizophrenia?

Of course, I’m entirely aware of the problems in modern American Christianity. I havewritten an essay excoriating what I see as the false Christianity. But any critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion. For instance, it would hardly be the theologian’s job to point out that, according toThe Economist, “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis. A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated.” I’m sure scientists are well aware of the problem and working to rectify it. Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed. Terry Eagleton writes,

Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

The impulse to destroy religion will ultimately fail. Religion is little different from Continental philosophy or literature (which may explain the hatred of Lacan and Derrida among Analytic philosophers). It is an attempt to explain the deprivations of being human and what it means to live a good life. Banish Christ and Muhammad and you may end up with religions surrounding the works of Zizek and Sloterdijk (there is already a Journal of Zizek Studies, maybe soon a seminary?). Humans will always try to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and science will never be able to tell them what it is. This, ultimately is the meaning of religion, and “secular religions” like philosophy and literature are little different in this sense than theology. Certainly German philosophy was distorted by madmen just as Christianity has been in the past, but atheists fool themselves if they try to differentiate the two.

As a poorly-practicing Christian who reads enough science to be functional at dinner parties, I would like to suggest a truce — one originally proposed by the Catholic church and promoted by the eminent Stephen J. Gould. Science, the study of the natural world, and religion, the inquiry into the meaning of life (or metaphysics, more broadly) constitute non-overlapping magisteria. Neither can invalidate the theories of the other, if such theories are properly within their realm. Any theologian or scientist who steps out of their realm to speculate upon the other is free to do so, but must do so with an adequate understanding of the other’s realm.

Religion (either secular or theological) does not poison all of society and science should not be feared, but rather embraced. Both can bring humanity to new heights of empathy, imagination and progress. To quote the greatest American reformer, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems. But abolishing religion is not only unfeasible, it would ultimately leave us no closer to truth, love or peace. Rather, we need to embrace the deep philosophical and spiritual questions that arise from our shared existence and work toward a world without deprivation. That will require empathy and multiculturalism, not demagoguery.

Last round of responses

I’ll discuss two more the responses to my piece before (probably) moving on to some other stuff. First is, “A Most Likely Misguided Guide to McElwee’s Misguided Take on the New Atheists, Religion, and Science,” by Paul Sunstone. I’m not going to address the whole piece, but there is some room for profitable discussion. The first objection is that we’re evolutionary wired for religion, which I would accept as entirely true. Sunstone’s conclusion is that:

Put differently, there might well be little or no link between whether a religion grips and moves us, and whatever measure of wisdom, meaning and purpose it contains.  It’s true that most of us derive at least some measure of wisdom, meaning and purpose in life from our religions, but is that the most fundamental reason we humans are usually religious?

I don’t see why the answer to this question can’t be “both”. Religion might be a “spandrel,” in the Gouldian sense, but I think most likely it’s around because the “religious impulse” is a genuinely useful one.

The next argument is against my plea for NOMA. Sunstone writes,

To me, the notion that science and religion are two “non-overlapping magisteria” is simplistic.  Typically, religions make claims about what is or isn’t the case, just as does science.  Most famously, perhaps, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all at least originally claimed the universe was brought into existence in six days.  These days, that claim has been reinterpreted by many people to be merely a metaphor for, say, humanity’s place in the cosmos and our relation to deity.  But originally, it was most likely a literal claim.  As such the claim was mainly in conflict with what we have since discovered, or think we have discovered, about the physical origins of the universe.

The problem with NA and religious fundamentalists is they both read the Bible in the same way, as a series of assertions to be proved and disproved. Dinesh D’Souza tries to prove how the Bible foreshadows scientific development. That’s a waste. NA try to argue how science is at odds with the Bible. That’s a waste. It’s like showing how science disproves Sons and Lovers. That’s what I mean by NOMA. Properly construed (a huge caveat, I know), I honesty see no conflict between science and religion.

Next up, Sunstone argues that,

My last Grand Bitch with McElwee and with King, too, is with their notion that science is not a source of values.  In fact, science is not a source of categorical imperatives.  It is not a source of “Do this!”, or of, “Do that!”, without any reason given as to why one should do this or do that.  But I think you can argue that it can be a source of hypothetical imperatives.  That is, a source of, “If you do this, then you will get that.”  e.g. If you cause global warming, then you will get flooded coastal cities.

I don’t know if we disagree here. King said, “Science investigates, religion interprets.” I would say, “Science Investigates, philosophy Interprets,” and include religion in the list of things that constitute broadly “philosophy.” So when science discovers climate change, there isn’t, as far as I can see a moral imperative to do anything about climate change. Climate models can tell you, “if you emit 1000 GtCO2 between now and 2100 there is an 80% chance global temperatures will increase by 2 degrees Celsius and will increase ocean levels, natural disasters, etc.” I would argue that framework you use to react to that news should be rooted in moral thinking from philosophers, theologians and writers. Now, we’re seeing some insane developments in neuroscience and that may start to lead to a bleeding between the “Science investigates, religion interprets” model, but nothing in Sam Harris’s lectures on the subject struck me as enough reason to throw out religion. For one, religious thought can still inform a deeper understanding of oneself. For another, at some point we’ll have to abandon our chauvinistic nationalistic interests and work toward the collective good. I don’t know how well the Western individualist tradition can address these problems.

Sunstone’s piece was fun to read, and I hope my responses are profitable. The next piece is from Why Evolution is True, by Dr. Jerry A. Coyne and it’s entitled, “The good news and the bad news. I: The bad news.” I do hate being someone’s bad news!

Coyne argues that,

But who can deny that nonreligious societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?

Right, but this gets to my deeper point: the religious fundamentalism that afflicts countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia is directly attributable to the massive social upheaval brought about by Western imperialism. Take away Western imperialism and you get Mohammad Mosaddegh instead of Ali Khamenei. To take another case, you can lose Mobuto and get Lumumbu. But the West looks at Congo and says, “Wow, what terrible leaders they have had,” ignoring the fact that the West supported the very anti-democratic coups that are plaguing these countries.

Moving along we get a Hitch point. Quick note: I don’t hate Hitchens. I love No One Left to Lie To and The Trials of Henry Kissinger. My point is that the anti-religious zealotry obfuscates Western imperialism and endorses a pernicious foreign policy.

That leads to the next objection:

But the main problem here is that most Islamic violence is directed not at colonialist oppressors, but at other Muslims (e.g., Sunni vs. Shia). Or against Islamic women. Or it comes from a religiously-motivated hatred of Jews: another religious problem. Yes, colonialism plays some role, but if you read Lawrence Wright’s absorbing book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (highly recommended, and it won a Pulitzer Prize), you’ll see that the origins of Al-Qaeda and its predecessor the Muslim Brotherhood trace back not to colonialism by Western powers, but to resentment of the “secular” government of Egypt and the desire to spread Islam throughout the world. I wish more people who play the “it’s-all-politics” card would read that book!

I’ll check it out. Western power created a debate across the East about whether to imitate the West or dive back into the Islamic tradition. Turkey secularized. Egypt secularized. So the conflict here is certainly still East/West. The religious adherents were disturbed the Westernization of Egypt. This likely helps to explain part the anger directed at Israel.

This follows to the next objection:

But if there were no religion, there would be no conflict over the Trinity, regardless of the “political maneuvering” involved! Of course not all wars are religious, and there is always a secular element even when religion is involved, but to deny that religious beliefs motivate wars and conflicts is to deny reality.

My point here is that religious doctrines are shaped by political expediency. The Roman Empire was always cautious about what religions were allowed to be practiced. Any religion that would incite rebellion was quashed. That’s why Pontius Pilate is a waffling pussy in the Bible. So if there was no Christianity, would Constantine just chill out, and decide not try to acquire new territory. I doubt it.

I have to catch up with someone, so some of these thoughts aren’t fully developed. But have no fear Sunstone and Coyne, your arguments will be flying around in my noggin. I didn’t get finished with Coyne’s objections, but I hope to finish up tonight.

Note: Also, some said on Twitter that it’s useless to argue with me because my mind is closed. I would note that simply because your arguments aren’t persuasive to me doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them.

In which I belatedly respond to an old response to me

Now that I am using this blog to respond to my critics, I figure I’ll respond to a piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger someone reminded me of earlier this week. I think I may have stumbled upon it before but I didn’t take a deep read. It’s called, “Someone at Salon has to look up ‘plagiarism’ in the dictionary” by Paul Mulshine and it’s ostensibly a response to this piece that I wrote.

The piece starts off as a general argument about my examples of possible Rand Paul plagiarism. I think that’s good. We need a discussion of what constitutes plagiarism. I think that in general we’re too quick to pull the trigger and I also think that the consequences for plagiarism are too strict. That’s because of my ideas about how innovation happens. More on this with my Hicks/Leary piece. But this piece with Salon wasn’t a think piece – it wasn’t an investigation of what plagiarism is, it’s reporting on something in Rand Paul’s speeches. So is it plagiarism? Mulshine argues it’s not. Others might argue that it is. We could talk about whether the media should even be concerned about this. We also might argue if just the weird anti-Muslim bullshit in the speech is the real problem (I think it probably is, and it’s a wildly naive reading of Islam).

But the piece doesn’t end there, where it easily could have and maybe we could have debate about why (and if) we should worry about plagiarism and whether we judge plagiarists too harshly. A lot of accusations revolve around the sort of petty stuff that happened in the Rand Paul speeches, and he’d have been safer if he had just cited sources. Whatever, that’s not going to happen, because Mulshine next comes after me:

I’m sure you could find similar examples on the site of Sean McElwee, one of the authors of this attack. But first let’s have some fun with his amateurish use of the English language in this attack on us right-wingers for our alleged social Darwinism: In Sinclair Lewis’s, Babbitt, George Babbitt describes the tenants of social Darwinism, The “tenants” of social Darwinism? Did these guys rent a house from Herbert Spencer?

That’s from an older post I originally wrote for the Demos Policyshop blog (which doesn’t have an intense editing process) and then got picked up by Huffpost and it ended up (as all my pieces do) on my blog. I wrote it in probably two hours and it was posted shortly after that. When I look over my old pieces, I often find an embarrassing grammatical error or a weirdly written sentence and I think, “glad nobody caught that.” Generally when people do, it’s a nice person who informs me over Twitter and I update. Now it’s Mulshine. The reason I don’t worry about grammar when I’m blogging is because I think this is about arguments. I’m trying to persuade my readers. So the piece Mulshine is citing I argue that because the country has become more predatory, social Darwinism  has re-emerged on the right. It had subsided and now, Rand/Spencer/Sumner are back. So I wanted to correct that.

Okay, so does my admittedly improper use of “tenets” weaken that argument? Of course not. If I had an editor, or double-checked my shit, that wouldn’t have happened. But this is happening more and more in the blog world. We write thousands of words each day. It there will be a shitload of people reading the piece, I’ll edit it and read it over a few times, but really, I don’t fret too much. If I write a book, sure, but I like this quote from Lin Yutang, “An American editor worries his hair gray to see that no typographical mistakes appear on his pages. The Chinese editor is wiser than that – he leaves his reader the supreme satisfaction of discovering a few typographical mistakes for themselves.”

I’ll be honest, I used to be a grammar stickler and had I written essays back then, I probably would have called people out. If I catch a grammatical error in a piece I’m responding to and I’m low on arguments, maybe I’ll throw it out. But let’s be honest, it’s a juvenile tactic. It”s not aimed at responding to your opponent’s argument, but rather undermining their credibility. I don’t know what the point of noting the “tenet”/”tenant” distinction, since Mulshine doesn’t respond to that piece or anything, so it just kinda seems like he’s trying to discredit me. Cool.

Next up we have this:

And we also see in this Salon article McElwee writing about Bill Clinton “shredding the social safety net.” Do a Google search on that phrase and you’ll find it has been used many times before. Does that make McElwee a plagiarist? Nope. It just makes him a writer who uses cliches – which is just as bad in its own way. (Though I will grant he has a good point about Hillary’s weakness as a Democratic presidential candidate.)

Whoa! Am I a plagiarist for adding a specific gerund to the term “social safety net”? So here’s why I think plagiarism is so tough to call – you can’t prove their wasn’t simultaneous discovery, that two other people just happened to write the same words. That’s why accusations generally rely on a few cases of a writer using the same language. Thankfully, Mulshine absolves me of the charge. Instead, my failure was cliche. Ah, Mulshine has been reading his Orwell! Okay, but again, were’ talking about a gerund and a noun. I could use another gerund: eroding, cutting, eliminating, destroying, weakening. I imagine writers have probably used all of those.

It’s worth noting that the right is famous for playing “politics with the English language.” They have militarized cliche (Mulshine, I promise I just came up with that on my lonesome. No Google or nothing! Are you proud?). See: estate tax/death tax, IPAB/Death Panel, rich assholes/job creators. Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant said, ““There’s a simple rule. You say it again, and you say it again and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”)”

So then, after the short, “Fuck Sean” aside, we get back to the issue at hand, plagiarism. Remember, I reported this story, I wasn’t interested in passing judgement on an academic definition of plagiarism. But I’ll try. Here’s Mulshine’s definition of what constitute plagiarism:

“The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” Unless you think Rand Paul was implying that he himself had been to Iran and Kenya and witnessed those atrocities up close, then you have to conclude there was no intention to mislead the reader about factual material that was, quite obviously, first reported by someone else. And that someone was not at the Gatestone Institute. Paul has not stolen their work because they didn’t do any. Some unknown reporter did the work that both paraphrased.

But wait. Rand Paul didn’t pass off the reporting as his own. Rather, he used the aggregation of the instances as his own. He’s using the work of the Gatestone guy (Raymond Ibrahim) who collected these examples together and made Paul’s speechwriter’s lives easier. That’s tough work, I know, I’ve done it. And if the anecdotes I collected had been used by a politician, I would think it was a dick move if he didn’t cite me. There’s a power dynamic here, which one Mulshine’s sources notes. One percenters jack other peoples stuff all time, so we’re used to it. Maybe this is a time to talk about the one percent being totally overrated. See here.

So yeah, he took this guy’s work and could (and should  have cited him). But this is clearly a minor instance and might be better characterized as a general “slothfulness” or “laziness” with the Paul team. Citing stuff in speeches is weird too. Don’t really want to go into it. I think Paul would be safest if he added footnotes to his transcripts, which he does now.

But, as it happens, when you get passed the unnecessary nastiness, Mulshine and I, surprisingly, agree. Here’s how he ends:

At the moment, Paul is in a very public struggle with our governor for what most would assume is the role of front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. If you want to judge him, judge him on his ideas. Compare those to Chris Christie’s.

Agreed. That’s what I was saying above (in this post). I don’t want to go deep into this, but holy shit that speech is offensive. I mean seriously. Here’s a quote:

But the truth is, there is a worldwide war on Christians by a fanatical element of Islam.

Ever since 9/11, commentators have tried to avoid pointing fingers at Islam. While it is fair to point out that most Muslims are not committed to violence against Christians, this is not the whole truth and we should not let political correctness stand in the way of the truth.

Yes, it is a minority of Muslims who condone killing of Christians. But unfortunately that minority numbers in the tens of millions.

And again, here’s me on this. Basically, we in America like to look at the Islamic world detached from historical forces. That’s bad. Most Americans have no idea who Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani is. That’s bad. We don’t understand how colonialism impacted their societies, so we see them one-dimensionally. That’s the failure of the New Atheists. See here and here.

Note: I noticed when writing this article that when I write “tenett” [my sic] Google Docs corrects to “tenant.” So the big “error” was a dumb typo correction that I missed. *Gasp*


My interview with Miles Corak

Miles Corak is a Canadian economist most famous for producing a chart showing that income inequality and upward mobility are correlated across nations. When Alan Krueger, then President of the CEA dubbed it, “The Great Gatsby Curve,” the press took notice.

By showing that high levels of inequality hamper opportunity, Corak showed the old dichotomy, “Conservatives want to start everyone off at the same place, Liberals want everyone to finish in the same place,” to be absurd. Where one generation finishes, the next starts. Generational opportunity isn’t a sprint, it’s a relay. Since then, economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez have found that the observation holds true within America: commuting zones with levels of inequality have lower levels of opportunity. On Thursday, I grabbed an Irish lunch with Miles to talk about his findings and their implications. With Obama pivoting toward inequality and mobility, it couldn’t be a better time. Below is a partial transcript.

SM: Let’s start with the “Great Gatsby Curve.” What does it mean?

MC: The “Great Gatsby Curve,” points to a relationship between inequality of outcomes in one generation and the possibilities for the next generation. But what is underlying the curve and what draws those two themes together is the structure of opportunity. The tendency in countries with higher inequality to have more structured opportunity.

SM: What affects mobility?

MC: There are to me, three broad influences on the adult outcomes of children. I don’t think we can deny that the family is central to giving children a good start in life and helping them through all the transitions they go through. But families interact with the labor market, the structure of the labor market, the structure of wages and access to jobs shadows itself in the family and the resources available to the family. The third factor is public policy. The state also plays a role in buffering families, in giving the least advantaged a level playing field, or it could tilt the playing field. To understand differences between countries, we have to look at all three factors and how they come together.

SM: A lot of people have said, “If you want to see the American Dream, go to Denmark,” how would you respond

MC: The U.S. is a different society than Denmark, and in some fundamental ways we can’t change the U.S. to become a Denmark. A comparison of the U.S. to other countries, like Canada, might be even more appropriate.

SM: Your paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives had two charts that really lit up the economics blogosphere. Let’s start with the chart that shows the growing divergence of educational investment between the wealthiest and the poorest. What are the implications you draw from it?  

MC: These two charts refer to the influence of the family in two different points in a child’s life-cycle. The first chart shows how the family is essential to giving children a good start in life. What you see in the U.S. is as the labor market has changed and as incomes become more polarized, some families have a lot more resources and there is a bigger incentive to worry about the education of their children. Labor market inequalities shadow themselves in the investment kids get. That’s important in the early years, and that has an influence on longer term outcomes.

SM: How does the public school system affect inequality?

MC: If you have an education system that relies very heavily on local property taxes, and that characterizes the U.S. more than other countries, the quality of schooling is going to vary tremendously across neighborhoods and this is in part why there are regional differences. In Canada, the funding of education is more broadly based, and there is more of a tendency to divert resources to poorer neighborhoods. In the United States, it’s actually the opposite, the most underprivileged children get lower quality resources. So the United States spends more money on education than other countries, but it spends it more unequally.

SM: And the second chart, which shows how many children of the one percent ended up working for the same employer as their parent compared with the population at large.

MC: In adulthood, you have to get connected to the labor market. So another type of investment that parent’s make is giving their kids support when they find their first job and when they move to their career job. Part of that is something as subtle as information, but at the other extreme it could be raw nepotism, where some parents have control over the hiring process and hire their own children [Both Miles and myself have cited Jann Wenner’s son as an example of this]. There are a whole range of things driving that spike.

SM: Is there still mobility in the U.S.?

MC: In the U.S. there is a great deal of mobility in the broad income distribution. The real problem is really the stickiness at the extremes. The rich set a glass floor for their kids, below which they tend not to fall regardless of merit. And the poor face a glass ceiling through which it is difficult to break to a middle class life.

SM: So Obama made a big speech yesterday. What do you think he left out?

MC: I thought it was a very powerful speech that appropriately cited statistics, but also pulled at heartstrings and called for a more constructive role for public policy. The important message that should be stressed is that public policy can be shaped to strengthen families, and to buffer and support them in a more turbulent labor market.

What the empathy gap means for college students

Okay, so now that this is a blog, because of a decree I made yesterday, I need to start engaging with some writers. First up, is Matt Bruenig. We both blog at Policyshop and are pretty liberal cats. So I like his newest piece in Salon (where I intern) with Elizabeth Stoker, who studies Christian ethics (I hope she doesn’t hate my latest), about the distorted way elites view teenagers. I’m not writing to respond, only to add. I think my post on the “empathy gap,” really gets to the heart of why this is happening:

Discussion is growing of an “empathy gap” rooted in our society’s dramatic increase in inequality. As David Madland argues in Democracy, “Studies across U.S. states, of the United States over time, and across countries all find that societies with a strong middle class and low levels of inequality have greater levels of trust of strangers.” This trust brings about economic advantages. Madland cites one study which found, “a 10 percentage-point increase in trust increases the growth rate of GDP by 0.5 percentage points” over five years.” International studies have confirmed this effect.

This decline in social trust begins a downward spiral. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner note in a fabulous paper for World Politics, “The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

The lack of social trust caused by inequality makes increasing opportunity harder (as I’ve noted above) which further erodes social trust and increases inequality. Wealthy citizens see themselves as “makers” and the poor as “takers,” while the poor see the rich as selfish. Rothstein and Uslaner continue later, “Unequal societies find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle of inequality, with low trust in others and in government and policies that do little to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and to create a sense of equal opportunity.”

Because elites are so detached from the average working person, they say dumb things about the minimum wage, poverty and the safety net.

When Matt and I see the world, we don’t see universal opportunity, because it’s not there. Without that opportunity (and, I would argue with it) there’s a real need to redistribute. The problem is that while my circle of friends includes a lot of fuck-ups, elites generally hang with people who are “poor” if they make $250,000 a year. Cynthia Freeland writes in Plutocrats of millionaires whining about how victimized they are:

The clincher, Peterson said, came from one of her dinner companions.

“She turns to me and she goes, ‘You know, the thing about twenty is’ ”—by this she means $20 million per year—“ ‘twenty is only ten [after taxes].’ And everyone at the table is nodding.”

When you have the “skyboxification,” (Michael Sandel’s word) it changes who you interact with and it eliminates the social bonds necessary to underlie the welfare state. Worse, it means rich people stop seeing struggling poor people. As I write in an upcoming article,

the War on Poverty never aimed to rid the country of poverty. It was just to get the poor out of our sight. And by that measure it has worked. It’s much easier to hate the poor when you can’t see them. Make no mistake, we could have ended poverty in America. If affordable housing could be dropped on Arabs or food stamps shot at Communists, I’m sure there would be more than enough to go around. America is a Potemkin village, the poor hidden behind the facade of EBT and SNAP instead of stuck in bread lines. By creating an atomistic society, the elite have perpetrated the ultimate deception – the poor, ever with us are now invisible.

So, while I see lots of kids struggling to pay for college (or even get in), elites see a bunch of kids graduating Harvard ready to grab the world by the balls.

Anyways, long story short, Matt’s got good ideas. I’m hoping to use this blog to start engaging them more. I can see some points of tension between us, and I hope he’ll humor me with a debate in the future.

Could there be a Conservative The Daily Show?

I think yes. I haven’t finished the piece, or even pitched it anywhere, but here is a quote:

I don’t think there is anything inherent in Conservatism that would make it impossible to have a successful Conservative comedy show. The fact that there are Conservative political comedians who are successful would seem to belie the argument. But the real problem with these explanations is that ask the wrong questions.  These explanations fail to explain what’s going on by looking at the supply side. The real question is, “is there an audience for a Conservative version of The Daily Show.”

Any thoughts are appreciated.


So, I Twittered with Norm Macdonald for Two Hours Today

I just approved two dicky comments to my blog because I’m not a fascist. One of them complained about pronoun-antecedent agreement. Whatever. The last bastion of people with no argument is to hit you on your grammar. It’s easy, it’s lazy and since I write 1,000 –  2,000 words a day, some shit’s going to slip through. But the point of this post is: fuck you, Norm Macdonald and Andy Kindler like my piece.

Anyways, I have a piece coming out soon about Bill Hicks and it transpired (I use that word in the classic sense meaning, “came to be known” rather than “happened”) that Norm Macdonald does not like Bill Hicks at all.


He also doesn’t like Lenny Bruce:

I wish I could have interviewed Norm for my piece on Hicks, but I have a different view on his career [Hicks’s]. It’s tough to encapsulate Norm’s critique (I don’t know if I fully understand it) in tweets, because I still think Twitter is a bad place for debates, which is why, from now on, I’ll be moving these types of debates to here, on my blog. I think Hicks and Bruce were comedians, not journalists, because I think they were funny.

I’m not sure Norm is giving Bill enough credit for how profoundly funny he was. I mean, the guy kills, for god’s sake, my mom likes some of his bits. But there are three stages to Hicks. You have young Hicks, then you have alcoholic Hicks and then you have philosopher searching for meaning Hicks. I think Norm might dislike alcoholic Hicks and philosopher Hicks, but it’s hard to deny that young Hicks was a funny motherfucker. I really don’t think Hicks is derivative of Kinnison, although I know Sam criticized Hicks. I wonder if the same hate that a lot of people have for Leary because they think he stole, Norm might have for Hicks for the same reason. I’d like to see a more fully developed critique.

It is worth noting that Macdonald is a singular comedian. I mean, the guy is honest to the craft in a real way and it’s a shame most people only know him for some Comedy Central Roast. Watch some of his stand-up. It’s killer.  But I think that Norm conceives of comedy in a different way than Hicks does, as something more personal rather than political. He wants jokes and he sees Hicks and Bruce and Carlin as lecturing. That would explain why he likes Stanhope and Pryor, both of whom have an intensely personal brand of comedy (Stanhope got on stage and talked about a friend who had recently committed suicide in his [Stanhope’s] apartment).

But for me a big thing about writing the piece is that it was a personal journey. I learned to appreciate the ways that each comedian conceives of the craft differently. I mean comedians, not the derivative hacks, but real comedians. I honestly started to be able to appreciate things I had noticed before, and I found myself liking comedians that I hadn’t understood before. I also got to talk to people who knew Hicks which was cool because I wish I could have met the guy.

But anyways, long story short, apparently Norm thinks I’m pretty chill. I hope this blog post doesn’t kill that. Also, you may not know this but he’s a fan of Tolstoy and Chesterton.


More Thoughts on My Article

So the piece is doing well, especially for a weekend, and I really want to use this blog in a more bloggy way from now on. So, a few more thoughts on the piece. First off, I think the first paragraph is throwing people off. I wrote it poorly. On Twitter, Kevin Freeman gets to the crux of the issue:

He’s right. This is the big disagreement. I don’t think religion requires you to suspend critical thinking, and this what that little syllogism gets at. Sam Harris seems to believe that Atheist totalitarian regimes count as religious because religion by definition is the suspension of rationality and critical thinking. Does Aquinas not think deeply and critically? Dante? Augustine? Gandhi? Tagore? Religion does not ipso facto require you to suspend critical thinking.

A lot of people also think that I see NA as a bloc. I don’t. I know they disagree. And although they all misunderstand religion to differing degrees (In order of best to worst: Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins, Harris) they all share in that misunderstanding. There are also lots of other atheist philosophers out there, but the NAs have made their name for anti-theism. In my opinion, it’s taken away a lot of breath that could have been spent elsewhere. Steve Ollington argues that,

@SeanMcElwee @Salon Hitch very specifically said he didn’t want to abolish religion, disagreeing w/ Dawkins on the matter.

— Steve Ollington (@SteveOllington) December 7, 2013

I think this is a misreading of Hitchens. He clearly believes that religion is a force for evil. If he didn’t want to abolish it, then he is allowing an evil to continue. A big part of his critique of religion, especially Christianity, was a Nietzsche argument that it was too passive, too weak, especially in the face of evil. Obviously, given Jesus’s mission and Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce, this argument is rather absurd. Ollington also thinks I created a straw man. Bullshit. Yes, the first paragraph is overstated for rhetorical flourish. But does anyone who reads NA seriously think they see any redeeming factors here? I mean, watch this video. With the possible exception of the Hitch, they show utter contempt for religious belief. And is anyone going to seriously argue that they aren’t waay too fast to give religion credit for evil that is due to deprivation? That’s my argument in the piece:

I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives? If religion motivated 9/11, what motivated Bill Clinton to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and leave millions of Sudanese people without access to medicine?

Liberals who once believed that the key to understanding hate and violence is deprivation now have embraced the idea that religion is the culprit. Religion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things. It can also motivate acts of social justice and injustice, but broad popular movements of the sort generally indicate a manipulation of religion, rather than studied reflections on religious doctrine. Shall we blame Jesus, who advocated “turning the other cheek,” for Scott Philip Roeder, or more plausibly his schizophrenia?

Finally, I want to note that I have an incredible respect for Hitchens. He has shaped my economic and political views. I love No One Left to Lie To and The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Get them. Devour them. But that’s what makes his crusade against religion so sad. We lost a lot of time that could have been dedicated to exposing the powerful. We’re losing more awesome books like The Selfish Gene from Dawkins. Religion is consuming their time and energy, which is a damn shame.

I’m waiting for a call from Bill Maher.

Thoughts on People’s Thoughts on my Salon Post

So I figure I should start using this like an actual blog and responded to criticism. PZ Meyers has responded to my piece in Salon. Let me first concede something. I think my intro paragraph was too strong. I don’t think that “New Atheists” and their ilk believe that eliminating religion will solve all of the world’s problems. The main thrust of my argument, however, that the NA crowd often imputes to religion events that are caused by socio-political factors, I think, still stands.

So, I’ll skip over the nastier stuff and move to an argument:

I’d also agree that abolishing religion (wait, does any reasonable atheist propose abolishing religion?) would not fix everything, but educating people away from irrationality would certainly fix some things.

Good. Here is something we disagree on. I think it would fix nothing. Because religion exists to meet a demand. The fact that our lives generally suck and we don’t understand the world. Religion has also been co-opted by political figures to advance their agenda. As long as the political and economic truths remain, and as long as their is pain and suffering, there will be religion. I don’t think religion is inherently irrational. Is Gandhi irrational? MLK? Al-Afghani? Tolstoy? Chesterton? My argument is that true religion has been co-opted by political radicals.

Here’s the kicker:

So religion is just like philosophy and literature, and philosophy and literature are just instances of this peculiarly vague monstrous amalgam McElwee wants to call “religion”? Do science, philosophy, and literature have at their heart an unevidenced concept that defies everything we know of reality, an elaborate and ultimately nonsensical premise around which theologians build intricate fantasies that contradict one another and all human experience?

The man libels philosophy and literature, and puffs up myths and lies with a credibility they do not deserve. For shame.

Again, let’s cut the bullshit and get to the point. Do I think that continental philosophy, literature and religion are all aimed at the same questions. Yes. That’s why Tolstoy’s philosophy, religion and literature were all combined. Religion is just people thinking deeply about the moral and ethical dilemmas we face. Science is about investigating the natural world.

Below is a quote that was in the first draft that I think has a lot of power here. It’s from Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet, and I think it helps us understand what drives the East toward religion, “When organized national selfishness, racial antipathy and commercial self-seeking begin to display their ugly deformities in all their nakedness, then it comes tie for a man to realize his salvation is… in a transformation of life, in the liberation of consciousness in love, in the realization of God in man.”