A New Political Dialectic

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  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Atheism has always been a tough sell in the United States. In Europe, where for centuries religious authority was intertwined with government power, atheists were heroic dissenters against the unholy alliance of church and state. In the United States, where the two realms are constitutionally separate, Protestant Christianity suffused public discourse so completely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some positivists felt the need to paper over their differences with religion.

    What does any of this have to do with whether atheism is true?

    Dismissals of atheism because it’s politically uncomfortable are difficult to take seriously. Even if everyone in the country roasted babies alive and ate them, and even if the only exceptions were Southern Baptists — who protested vehemently against the practice — they might still be wrong about whether Nobodaddy’s up there watching us.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      > What does any of this have to do with whether
      > atheism is true?

      I’m not seeing anywhere above where the trueness (or lack thereof) of atheism is relevant to this particular piece.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        That’s an indictment, is it not? I mean, it’s sort of irresponsible to decide what we think about atheism while disregarding whether or not it’s true.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Depens on whether you’re talking about “atheism” or “New Atheism.” I think the positivism bit is the critique of New Atheism, but it doesn’t have to say anything about atheism generally to make that critique.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            When the distinction is only in the distinguisher’s mind, or only clear there, that can be a limit on the practical normativity of the distinction.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              Well, it’s a good thing the piece singles out New Atheists. Otherwise, how would we know the author was making a distinction at all, right?Report

          • Avatar Simon K says:

            The only difference between New Atheism and old atheism is that New Atheism publishes books, and has the temerity to point out that, however much you ramble on about Kuhn and the subjectivity of reality, no religion is in fact true. This is apparently very rude.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              New atheism isn’t really new – I started hanging out with atheists in the early-to-mid 90s, and there were atheists as strident and anti-intellectual (in the sense of a deep lack of curiosity about religion from a non-scientific perspective, and a hostility to religious reasoning without any attempt to understand it) as Dawkins and Myers back then. The only real difference is that Dawkins is a very good writer and polemicist, and so he’s achieved some level of popularity. But there’s a big difference between New Atheism and other types of atheism. Not every atheist is a vulgar positivist approaching scientism, for one (to be fair, neither is Dennett). Atheism has always been a big tent concept, ranging from new agey types on one end and Ayer-type positivists on the other. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that New Atheists have become the only public spokespeople for atheism in general.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              Rudeness is as rudeness does, and if we are to take atheism’s prophets seriously, we ought to take them all seriously. For all their screeching and pilpul, attempting to parse away Communism, atheism’s long track record of intolerance, murder and destruction of many temples, churches and historical monuments is borne out in the historical record.

              Atheism, like religion, is a reflection of its followers. Seen in the abstract, religion, too, is all about the unity of man and many other fine principles. Practically speaking, it’s quite another matter. If we cannot parse away the rudeness of the New Atheist from his more-sensible and certainly better-mannered counterparts, on an individual basis, it seems perfectly fair to conclude, however collumptious and conflated that conclusion might be, that once the atheist has been given free rein, hs is really no different than his counterparts in the Taliban who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the cultural patrimony of China.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Atheism is a small part of communism’s belief set, but that’s what you want to blame for the evils of communism?

                Plenty of religious societies have committed vile acts as well. Perhaps the real lesson here is that powerful people will do horrific things if they are permitted to. And that lesson has nothing in particular to say about religion or atheism.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                We’ve already established atheism as the very bad excuse for destroying the religious and cultural patrimony of many countries. The New Atheist does considerably more than say no religion is true. It says religion is evil.

                But really, it’s as you say. There’s always a good excuse for burning down a temple and if the New Atheist says all religions are evil, he’s only one religion away from his Taliban and Khmer Rouge counterpart.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Eh, old Nietzschean atheism played well with others. It, too, knew Greek and Hebrew and was more than willing to show up for the Bible Study and spend hours arguing over exactly what the Law meant. This was the atheist who excelled at quoting scripture.

              These atheists were the atheists who were a thorn in the side of Christianity but did a decent job of “keeping them honest”.

              These atheists agreed on the importance of God and all that He entails… they just disagreed on His existence.

              The New Atheists do less well when it comes to playing with others.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                The New Atheists do less well when it comes to playing with others.

                And when it comes to being “a thorn in the side of Christianity.” If anything, “New Atheism” has made a bunch of evangelicals money on the books they’ve sold as a result of the backlash. In fact, by and large, I think that’s been the only real lasting effect of New Atheism: making the New Atheists and some Christian writers more money.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                New Atheism has also, how to put this…

                New Atheism has regressed to the mean.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                That’s a perfect way of putting it.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                To say more, it’s not surprising that atheism has regressed to the mean when its most prominent spokespeople tell you, in essence, that you don’t have to think about these tough questions, you can just read Discover Magazine articles about evolution and voilà, you know everything you need to know about religion.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          You are an example of the typical New Atheist, Jason, who obtusely doesn’t grasp the nature of the primary public complaint against him (which, as it happens, is usually lodged by “proper,” or “responsible” atheists, for whom the question of God’s existence or lack thereof, you see, is in fact not really at the center of the question of atheism’s defensibility at all. It’s just not the point.).


        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

          > It’s sort of irresponsible to decide what we think
          > about atheism while disregarding whether or
          > not it’s true.

          Huh; I’d expect that line out of Bob (that’s not meant as a dig, by the way).

          Belief systems (or even Belief systems of non-Belief) are belief systems; everybody has ’em. I can have an opinion about a particular organized religion without prefacing my opinion on the trueness of that organized religion; ditto disorganized religion, agnosticism, or atheism.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            Would you adopt a new religion if you thought it was false?

            Would you not adopt it if you thought it was true?

            I’m just curious, because I didn’t think there was any wiggle room to these questions. Honestly, I didn’t.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Sam Harris and Dawkins are falling prey to the same traps and tricks of self-delusion which have bedeviled Religion forever: they have become preachers without studying homiletics. How did Lears put it? “…transforming science from a method into a metaphysic, a source of absolute certainty.” The atheist has concluded there is no God. Beyond that, his atheism seems irrelevant. How could it make any difference in any other aspect of the atheist’s life, beyond refusing to accept the dictates of religion?

      I believe in God and reach the same conclusions about the Christian Right as the New Atheism but my quarrel has nothing to do with Right’s conception of God and everything to do with their conception of mankind. I would hope everyone would reject the Christian Right’s concept of God but I will not get my wish: too often, God is created in Man’s image and I won’t give in to that elementary failure of rhetoric.

      The MPFC acronym used in the article is the medial prefrontal cortex. Anyone who took anatomy and physiology knows of the strange case of Phineas Gage, a likeable railroad worker whose prefrontal cortex was penetrated by an iron spike. His personality changed so radically his friends said he was no longer Phineas Gage. Perversely, much of what we have come to understand of the brain is the result of tragic accidents.

      For all our advancements in the realm of neurobiology, we have come no closer to the soul, but we do know about the prefrontal cortex: it is the scratch pad of the mind, where we integrate conceptual learning with the rest of the brain, manners with situations, ideation with symbols and the like. But its most important function is to temper our emotions and states of arousal. Harris is wrong about the MPFC: we sense happiness and belief farther back in what used to be called the “limbic system” in the dentate gyrus and nucleus accumbens and especially the amygdala, the Heart of Darkness where fear and sexual desire reside, the dark lord of memory and recall.

      Harris’ misconceptions of Religion are delineated most clearly in his erroneous conclusions about where Belief resides in the brain. Solomon the Wise said “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” and this is never true than in the actual role of the prefrontal cortex, for Solomon also says “A fool, when he is silent, is thought wise.”

      The actual core structures for belief and transcendence are at the junctions of the temporal and parietal lobes, where vision is integrated with action. If the prefrontal cortex is firing, that’s because it’s always involved in reconciling “faith” to “reason”, as it does with all sorts of ideation, belief being only one.

      The left temporal-parietal junction is where we handle other people’s belief structures.

      Harris has it exactly backward. Forget him, he’s worthless at every level. Want to see what’s going on the realm of belief and neuroscience? Try Ian Apperly on for size.Report

      • Avatar Terry says:

        “The atheist has concluded there is no God.”

        Not true. The atheist has concluded there is no theistic type God. One is either a theist or is not a theist. If one is not a theist, one is an atheist.

        “I believe in God and reach the same conclusions about the Christian Right as the New Atheism but my quarrel has nothing to do with Right’s conception of God and everything to do with their conception of mankind.”

        I can only assume you believe in a deistic type God. This is not the same as a theistic type God. The deist and the atheist have much in common.

        “For all our advancements in the realm of neurobiology, we have come no closer to the soul, . . .”

        Is there a soul?

        “Harris is wrong about the MPFC: we sense happiness and belief farther back in what used to be called the “limbic system” in the dentate gyrus and nucleus accumbens and especially the amygdala, the Heart of Darkness where fear and sexual desire reside, the dark lord of memory and recall.”

        I am not a neuroscientist, so, I don’t care so much where things reside, all I care is that they do, in fact, reside in the brain. I’ll read up on the minutia later. Are Heart of Darkness and dark lord of memory and recall actual terms neuroscientists use?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Umph. Comment trapped in the Purgatory of Moderation.Report

  2. Lots of minor things in this that I don’t agree with, but the central point is a good one. The Goldwater movement was in some small regard a response to technocratic overreach. It’s a little ahistorical to describe it primarily as that, of course, while ignoring the extreme Red-baiting paranoia and racial anxiety that fueled his ascension; but it’s worthwhile to recognize that some were engaged on a more refined philosophical level, too.

    The whole part about authoritarianism reminds me of Arendt’s belief that all politics should be premised along the axis of totalitarianism. That in retrospect hysterical, though at the time eminently understandable, position led her to at first oppose de-segregation and school integration — a position she eventually disowned and acknowledged as in error.

    Your definition of authoritarian may be more expansive than mine, perhaps, but I struggle to look at geopolitics today — or simply American politics — and determine that authoritarian regimes like those in Syria, North Korea or Sudan are a greater threat to the global order than, say, the less scrupulous members of the Chamber of Commerce. But, hey, that’s me; and it’s a bit off-topic anyway!Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    When it comes to discussing ideas at this level of depth, I think it really behooves a person to be very specific about what and whose ideas are under discussion. I am completely comfortable with Lears’ assessments of Harris’ thought in particular (not that i necessarily agree), but I am less comfortable with the idea that Harris’ thought is representative even of the the thoughts of other so-called “New Atheists,” (in large part because I don’t even know who the New Atheists are and aren’t to begin with, nor what they supposedly think) much less with the idea that that group’s (collelctive? common?) thoughts, much less just Sam Harris’, are representative of the thoughts of a broader class of other atheists — which in turn is a claim I am 99.9% sure none of the “new Atheists” make about their ideas to begin with.

    In philosophy, if I am not mistaken, it is customary for there to be an assumption that every individual participant does his own thinking, and is responsible completely and solely for the ideas he himself puts forward as his. All descriptions of “schools of thought” and so forth are completely subordinate to this fundamental rule of attribution, and merely reflect attempts by scholars of ideas at taxonomic groupings of thinkers based on similarities perceived by the observer, not actual shared responsibility for supposedly similar ideas put forth by separate authors. I think non-academic observers of such debate ought to similarly recognize the overriding importance of the perhaps-subtle, but perhaps-not-even-so-subtle differences in the thoughts put forward by different thinkers one is disposed to group under one perjorative group name.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      So if Harris were a true Scot he’d be okay?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      in large part because I don’t even know who the New Atheists are and aren’t to begin with, nor what they supposedly think

      PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens, and, apparently, this guy.

      “New Atheists” are atheist who engage with Christianity with a level of hostility analogous to that of the Danish Editorial Cartoons with Islam.

      (The old atheism being somewhere on the continuum between Nietzschean and apathist.)Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        Do Hitchens and PZ belong in the same class? I find Hitchens to be a challenger, and PZ just to be an ass. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention to Hitchens.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I thought that _God is not Great_ put him in that class.

          I may, of course, be mistaken.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            You forgot to uncapitalize God in the title, as Hitchens did. Hitchens lapses into tendentious contrarian prose when he’s short on anything to say. He’s made a whole career of careening from one hyperbolic extreme to the other, loudly decamping from his previous positions as soon as they grow unfashionable.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              He deliberately left a noun uncapitalized in a book title?

              He’s a barbarian.Report

            • Avatar Simon K says:

              Hitchens has been every devil’s worst advocate. He was an avowed communist during the cold war, a bourgeois international socialist at the beginning of Thatcherism, wrote a scathing book about Mother Theresa just as the church was working up to canonizing her, and, of course most recently promoted the invasion of Iraq with liberal neo-imperialist gusto. I’m half expecting him to start campaigning for Sarah Palin.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Hitchens’ peripatetic drifting-about brings to mind my callow youth. Perhaps this has happened to some of you. Have you ever gone in search of new music in obscure corners of the landscape and found some new wonderful band while they’re still playing ten dollar cover joints? You buy the merch, put the music on for your friends… oh what hipster joy attends those happy moments.

            Then the band grows popular and signs with a big label. The A&R weasels get a grip on ’em and suddenly the thrill is gone. The obscure object of desire is desirable precisely to the degree it was once obscure. Now all tarted up, they command the 45 dollar tickets at the big venues. The hipster sadly sneers and goes back to his haunts, in search of new bands.

            That’s how I felt about Christopher Hitchens for a good long while. He wrote all his best stuff while he was still obscure. Fame has not made of him a better man. I liked the old Hitch of New Statesman vintage who wrote such savage indictments of the Establishment. His current windy polemic doesn’t hold a candle to what he once wrote, mostly because he hangs around with the wrong people. It’s not his atheism I find so repellent but his silly diatribes. If he uses the adjective “moist” one more time, I shall cease reading him altogether.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              I get it. Some people really hate that word. Creeps them out.

              Moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist moist.


              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I do see. Burt Likko has moistly pasted a cut buffer.

                Adjectives such as moist only work well once. “Glenn Beck’s rally was large, vague, moist, and undirected—the Waterworld of white self-pity.” It works here because Glenn Beck is prone to tears, though he did not turn on the waterworks on this occasion.

                But in this chunk: A hereditary monarch, observed Thomas Paine, is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician. But try pointing this out when everybody is seemingly moist with excitement about the cake plans and gown schemes of the constitutional absurdity’s designated mother-to-be. You don’t seem to be uttering common sense. You sound like a Scrooge. … moist takes on an unseemly and prurient tone.

                Moist hankies. Moist terms. Will this man never desist from recycling the sweat and secretions of his own terminal humidity?Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        Also, supposedly, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet. Dennet doesn’t display the outright hostility to religion the others do, but he gets lumped with them anyway. Really, they seem to haver little or nothing on common, anyway. Hitchens thinks religion is simply evil, where Dawkins and PZ Myers think religion is evil specifically because it spreads untruths. I’m not really sure what Sam Harris thinks because nothing he writes is interesting enough to remember, and I’m not really sure what Daniel Dennet thinks either because his arguments have peculiar quality of seeming convinving at the time, but incoherent when I try to reconstruct them later.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          “seeming convincing at the time, but incoherent when I try to reconstruct them later”

          So at which time are your faculties failing you?Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      If you’ve paid attention to atheists for a while, New Atheists are the international version of the old American Atheists (or what the American Atheists used to call “Strong Atheists”). The four major proponents are Harris, Richard Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett (who’s a bit less strident than the other three). PZ Myers is the king of New Atheist bloggers.

      They don’t really have a single central tenet. The vulgar positivism of Harris and Dawkins is less apparent in Hitchens and Dennett, and while Dawkins may not be a fan of Islam (same for Myers), Harris and Hitchens are the rabid Islamaphobes. Even in tone, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Myers are very different from Harris (except when it comes to those scary Muslims, or people who disagree with his stuff on morality) and Dennett. Mostly, they’re just atheists who’ve become popular recently with a fair amount of anti-religious polemics (though Dennett’s are subtle) and a pro-science approach to pretty much everything (except maybe Hitchens, who is more interested in telling us how bad religion is for society than he is in science).Report

  4. Avatar RTod says:

    “Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on? ”

    I’m going to say Earth, and more specifically the United States in the early 21st century. Believe Harris’s larger point or not, but I’m not sure I follow Lears reasoning. If I am not mistaken, he is finding instances of non-altruistic behavior (war, reconsidering the welfare state) as proof that we are no less blood thirsty or unwilling to harm others as in previous eras. This seems tantamount to my saying that my 14 year-old son is still not entirely mature, so he must not be any more mature than he was at 5.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      This is The Nation. You’re not allowed to write anything in its hallowed pages that implies we’ve made any kind of moral progress since human sacrifice large disappeared. Because pointing out that progress has been made is an obstacle to progress, or makes you look bourgeois, or something like that.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    Argh, I can’t believe I wasted 20+ minutes on that Nation article, which might as well have been written in 2006 (since nothing in it has been new since then). How is it that the mainstream media response to New Atheism remains so weak? It’s such an easy target, too.Report

  6. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    If the larger point here is that libertarianism needs to clash with socialism as the dialectic engine that powers our policy choices, my response is that it seems to me that this is already happening and it is a good thing, although for the time being libertarian ideas are not winning a lot of battles. The dialectic is between individual decision-making and collective decisions aimed at realizing a greater good; both sides of the debate are well-intentioned. The recent and ongoing debate about health care reform is a fine example of this. So are debates about ongoing military activity in Afghanistan and (until we sort of forgot about it) Libya. And energy policy. And so on. It’s possible to intelligently frame most of the discussions going on in our public affairs as communitarian versus individualistic and to hope and maybe even optimistically see those struggles as reaching a productive compromise between those two ethics. Neither political party in the United States is doing a good job of reaching out to the more individualistic side of things although both would like to find a way to do so. It’s a very interesting dynamic.

    I’m at a loss, though, as to what Sam Harris and more generally, the “new atheists” have to do with this dialectic. To be sure, Harris sometimes expounds an overwrought and faintly-plausible idea that science can lead us to an objective morality, a notion that I am doubtful will bear coherent philosophical fruit. But that leads to a divergence that either a) atheism is false and objective morality is imposed from the supernatural, and in turn is either communitarian or individualistic but not both; or b) atheism is true and there is no such thing as objective morality and therefore we must pick and choose between pursuit of communitarian and individualistic ideals based on pragmatic assessments of the respective outcomes of different policy choices. I don’t think we particularly need to discuss Harris or atheism in order to get to the point of framing things as tension between communitarian ideology, individualistic ideology, or a pragmatic compromise between the ideologies.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:


      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        Make it +2 what Likko said. Don’t see Harris as relevant, except as a representative of modernity, the idea that society can be re-created from scratch by ideology.

        And why socialism and libertarianism should be “allies” and not antagonists is not self-evident to me. It’s in their tension, between totalitarianism and anarchy, that the desirable tertium quid—reality—takes form.

        [And if it works, what the “conservative” ends up defending, Goldwater more a revanchist than a conservative. In 2011, the New Deal is here to stay.]Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      While science might not lead us to an objective morality, it might help us along in determining the routing and weighting of how we reconcile the variables.

      I’m interested in two areas of the brain.

      The amygdala is both the heart of emotional learning and compassion. It’s not just one thing, truth is, we don’t know enough about the amygdala. It’s got a profound relationship with the temporoparietal junction, which if my comment ever gets released from moderation, is where we’re pretty sure religious experience resides in bulk.

      The cerebellum is by far the oddest part of the brain: it’s where motor control and to a large extent language resides. Its cells are highly regular and seem to follow some of the patterns used routinely as controllers for machine-based neural networks. Consider the problem of a high-speed pick and place robot: it delicately picks up a chip, accelerates across the circuit board, then decelerates, integrates with the vision system and puts the chip in the socket, a feed-forward system. It’s where body learning resides, the instinctive motions of an infantryman stripping his rifle to clear a jam, a surgeon tightening a suture. It’s very ancient, the cerebellum, it appears in the earliest fishes but not before, we think.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        <i?It’s very ancient, the cerebellum, it appears in the earliest fishes but not before, we think.

        I don’t mean to be pedantic, but all vertebrates have a cerebellum, or at least a cerebellum-like structure. That structure in amphibians and reptiles isn’t any less cerebellum-like than the one in fish.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Crap, html… I tried to be cute and cross out the n’t in “don’t.” Of course I was being pedantic.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          That might well be. Fishes appear pretty early on, amphibians do too I suppose. Anyway, the point is, the cerebellum and pons looks an awful lot like a Delegate for body learning.Report

  7. Avatar Aphaniptera says:

    Whatever Jackson Lears might make of it, Sam Harris doesn’t seem a very likely candidate to work toward “a vector, pointing in the direction of reforms away from any and all authoritarianisms,” however much he might endorse it in principle. This is, after all, a man who declared in print that American liberals were wholly misguided in tolerating Islamic perspectives, while simultaneously approving of the approach of (in his own words) “European fascists” like Geert Wilders. There’s an unmistakable rightward slant to most New Atheist diatribes, and it’s unlikely to stop at opposition to religion.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke says:

      If one empties Islam of its content, I suppose I’d agree with this. But I think it’s an error to use a one-size-fits-all approach to religion[s].Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Islam has, in its history, done far less evil than Christianity. The Islamic Empire was spread by the sword, but Islam itself was spread by voluntary conversion. On the other hand, Charlemagne’s forced conversion of the Saxons, the Northern Crusades, the crusades against various “heretics”, Ferdinand and Isabella’s “convert, leave, or die” (followed by the Inquisition when it belatedly occurred to them that the conversions might not have been sincere), the Habsburg’s forced conversion of Bohemia to Catholicism, the list goes on and on.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          The ghazi conversions were forcible. In every Islamic state, conversion away from Islam is a capital crime.Report

          • Avatar Simon K says:

            ghazi conversions?Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              Sigh. A little Arabic: ghazwa, the wars of Islamic expansion. Noun form, warrior, ghazi. The ghazi conversions were the equivalent of the Crusades. The Ghazwa were the Prophet Muhammad’s wars of expansion, including forcible conversion of the conquered. For the next four centuries, Islam expanded at the point of the sword. Only two exceptions applied: Christians and Jews were not forcibly converted because they were ibn baitun, the people of the book, the ancestor religions of Islam itself.

              The Ghazi were corporations of a sort: they operated for profit through looting. They varied in their ferocity. At their best, they were more akin to enforcers and street crews. At their worst, they were full-bore zealots. You may think of the Taliban in Afghanistan as ghazi: the Taliban certainly do.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              Here is a much-longer explanation of the ghazi I wrote some while back.Report

  8. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    Have it either way, Mr. Schilling, although 2011 is more relevant in this context.

    I don’t think you have the story of Ferdinand and the conversos quite right, and regardless, it was a socio-political matter, not a religious one, as you yourself implicitly acknowledge.Report

  9. For the most part, the points I would have made on this thread have already been made by Chris and BlaiseP, but I would like to add a few general rejoinders:

    1. A possible litmus test for what constitutes “positivist New Atheism” is that they tend to make the argument that religion is unfalsifiable as if that is an indictment of religion. Really, religion does not hold itself to the same standards as science (why should it?). The two work best when kept separate. Just like I can be a scientist who enjoys art or a scientist who enjoys nature, I can also be a scientist who enjoys religion.

    Again, this doesn’t speak to the question of whether or not God exists, (which I made explicit above) and I was hoping not to get into that since it’s been hashed out billions of times and no one has made any progress. But, since people seem to want to talk about that, from my own personal journey, I know that “Does God exist?” is a difficult question to define precisely. I’ve settled into a sort of noncognitivist/Spinozan outlook on the divine that places me closer to both a Sufi mystic and a Nietzschean atheist than one who believes I’ve been “saved” by a personal Jesus or the group of people that make vast amounts of money antagonizing believers in personal Jesuses (Jesi?) because their beliefs are not based on the scientific method.

    2. To be honest, I’m really disappointed that comments tended towards an old-fashioned Internet atheist debate, but I fault myself for putting so much about Harris and his positivist atheism at the beginning of the piece. Burt Likko’s comment is one here that actually engages my argument, which is that political debate should be driven by a dialectical relationship between libertarianism and socialism; I was hoping that more comments would address this contention.

    3. Specifically to Elias Isquith: my definition of “authoritarianism” is more all-encompassing than simply being authoritarian regimes. One of the major problems in American society today that I think we should all be able to agree is a problem is the encroachment of politics into every single facet of life. It seems like this could be (and has been) rationally explained as the effect of the death of “real” conservatism and its replacement with an aggressive conservative authoritarianism to compete with an aggressive progressive authoritarianism for rule of everything America. We commonly call this mutated conservatism “movement conservatism”. How this relates to Lears’s piece: Lears (and everyone else) uses the term “New Atheism” to refer to what should instead really be called “movement atheism”, just another participant in the mad rush to remake the world in one’s own chauvinistic assumptions. In criticizing “New Atheism” Lears criticizes a positivism which has gone beyond applying itself to science; i.e. the belief that the scientific method should guide not only science but everything else as well.

    4. In calling for a dialectic between socialism and libertarianism, I am specifically calling for a socialism that stops allying itself with progressive technocracy and a libertarianism that stops allying itself with social conservatism. In other words, it’s time that every political issue in this country be discussed in terms of collective solutions designed to realize a greater good vs. individual decision-making. While Burt Likko suggests above that that is effectively what we have, I would argue to the contrary (It may be how Mr. Likko thinks about political issues, but most people root for their “team” to win so that it can pass bills favoring its own breed of authoritarianism.) Socialism and libertarianism currently fill roles supporting a system from which they gain nothing.

    What this has to do with Lears’s piece: Lears’s piece illustrates some of the themes common to socialism and libertarianism, important themes around which the two approaches to politics can find commonalities. But this opportunity for commonality is wasted in misunderstanding: Goldwater is classified as a positivist modernist; libertarians are castigated as corporate toadies and exponents of scientism. Socialists are all equated with Stalin. I think this antipathy is unfortunate considering that socialism and libertarianism share “a certain epistemic humility; a realist policy outlook; an appreciation for life’s complexities and humankind’s poor ability to understand and tame them; politics as a utilitarian resource and no more; a focus on the agency of the individual; an engagement with the idea of justice as fairness; and a desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to subjectively-defined meaningful existences.”

    This post is a culmination of a long period of political soul-searching on my part, or trying to reconcile two ostensibly conflicting self-identifications, and it makes me sad that it was so poorly received. Back to the drawing board I guess.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      This is a tough crowd. I don’t think this was received so poorly at all, TBH. I certainly didn’t mean to be highly critical of it – just of one aspect of Lears’ (not yours) argumentation. I think we just haven’t had a good atheism tangle here for a while, whereas the statism/anti-statism thing is just kind of the theme that gets played upon day after day here. If you want us to talk about that, you can’t bury that lead with the supernatural catnip. So I wouldn’t take the reaction quite so hard.

      In fact, I’m not even quite sure what you’re seeing here. This place doesn’t pull its punches. But lest there be any doubt, allow me to clarify, at least my own comments: this is a very good essay! I thought your treatment of the importance of the ongoing socialism versus free market debate was very well put; I for one just didn’t have much to add. It’s just that that is more or less what we already do around here at this point – not exclusively, but it’s what we always come back to. And then the discussion about the epistemology of atheism is a primary alternative, even palette-clearing, topic. It’s just a little easier, more off hand, and slightly less familiar than the other. It also realigns the commentariat here, something I actually value this thread for demonstrating again.

      So thanks for an excellent post, and I’ll be sure to be more clear about my appreciation of guest authors’ contributions when I comment on them in the future, especially when they are as good and closely considered as this one. Cheers!Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      In calling for a dialectic between socialism and libertarianism, I am specifically calling for a socialism that stops allying itself with progressive technocracy and a libertarianism that stops allying itself with social conservatism.

      I honestly can’t see an intellectual purpose for socialism anymore. It’s premises have been tested to destruction and found wanting, just as fascism’s were. For me liberalism (broadly construed) was the outright winner of the ideological wars of the 20th Century and the diverse branches of liberalism need to form the dialectic of the 21st Century. There’s the more classical form that persists today in libertarianism and the modern form that took some of the valuable insights from socialism, but need not be wedded to its follies.

      Perhaps you and I define libertarianism and socialism differently, in which case we might not actually be disagreeing, but from what I’m reading at least, I can’t accept your dialectic as it stands.Report

      • I’ll agree that liberalism was the outright winner of the 20th. Century’s ideological wars, and overall freedom and free markets and whatnot represent the best basis for government, but I also think that it seems probable that liberalism’s monopoly on mainstream political thought in this country is the cause of many of our social problems.

        Liberalism (and any ideology really) is most effective when it is restrained in certain regards. It has been an unrestrained and antagonistic liberalism that has given us massive environmental destruction, a selfish and materialistic consumer culture which brought us to the brink of economic collapse three years ago (and will again unless the underlying basic problem is identified and purged), and the growth-at-all-costs model which prioritizes the accumulation of capital regardless of its intrinsic worth over maximizing the welfare of humans. I’m not saying I agree with any socialist positions on these issues in particular (as it is, I think liberal solutions are usually superior), but I certainly value the socialist critique for highlighting these problems and attempting to redefine how we think about some goods: for example, in an age without a frontier, is land not a public good? In a truly globalized age, do the resources of the earth and sea not belong to all? When we have the capacity to provide medical care for all, do we not have a responsibility to do that?

        The socialist critique of the corporation is particularly trenchant. Corporations are great at what they do: maximize profit for shareholders; but to try and put any sort of social responsibility on corporations as more interventionist schools of liberalism espouse will only result in a system which rewards the corporations that most effectively create the appearance of compliance. To treat corporations as people and not machines used by people has become a defining feature of modern liberal capitalism. The more socialistic component of the modern liberal system advocates policies which only create incentives and opportunities for those corporations to take the lead to write regulations that crowd out competitors and create barriers to entry. This kind of behavior is bad for all but that company’s shareholders yet we tolerate it as a priori consistent with liberalism.

        As you say, a lot of socialist attempts to create competing orders have failed, but some sort of presence of those ideas is valuable as a restraint on a society that throws the baby out with the bathwater.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Socialism, it seems to me, works best in a society with homogeneity. In the absence of everybody being related to each other on some level, everybody looking like each other can do in a pinch. In the absence of people looking like each other, something like Eschatological Religion can take the place of that. In the absence of Eschatological Religion, Civil Religion *MIGHT* be able to pull it off.

          But without that, I don’t think that you’re going to get the necessary buy-in from the culture. No matter where you are in the world.Report

          • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

            Which leaves…what? ..and, bravo for a brilliant summation of the current dilemma where you point out that without some fundamental consensus it is difficult to engage in the dialectic.

            If the 20th century taught us anything it’s the inevitable political/moral corruption of the state because of the inevitable moral corruption of the individual.
            For me, this requires an effort to re-establish the ground and the re-institution of the inquiry related to the phenomenological requirement found in the term, ‘transcendent reality.’
            Eric tells us this is what people do when their civilizations reach default mode.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              If the 20th century taught us anything it’s the inevitable political/moral corruption of the state because of the inevitable moral corruption of the individual.

              This strikes me as misunderstanding what’s actually going on.

              I’ll use Afghanistan as an example. One of the things I remember reading was about the level of “corruption”. If you wanted to have anything done, you had to kick up to the local warlord. Why? Because he had to kick up to his warlord. This was something that kept happening. Every time you wanted something done, you needed to include a bribe.

              Except, of course, this is the way that it has been done in the tribal portions of Afghanistan for centuries. It seems to me that if something has been done for centuries, it ceases to be “corruption” but magically transforms into “cultural displays of respect”.

              “To refuse to deal with corruption” is a nice way of saying “to refuse to interact with the culture”.

              If you refuse to deal with the culture, you will fail to accomplish any goals you require the culture to buy into in order to have these goals accomplished.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Sharia law is terribly hard on corrupt officials. One of the tremendous advantages of the Taliban is their ability to apply the shibboleth of corruption in the new government.

                Over the last decade, the West has create a variant of the same tired old postcolonial culture in Afghanistan. Bureaucracy isn’t how most of the world works. Bureaucracy opens the door to corruption. Most of what we’d assign to government bureaucracy would be handled by a council of elders who have skin in the game. But these councils of elders are terribly inefficient. Shura councils are loud, chaotic affairs. Such societies don’t evolve quickly. The best way to eliminate corruption is simply to get the shuras to the point where they see the need for larger government frameworks. Let them appoint their own bureaucrats.

                Warlordism is just banditry. It’s not a natural modus vivendi.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I thought it was just a variation on the family system. We have similar here in the west (mayors, governors, senators, presidents) and, of course, The Mafia, on their good days, were guarantors between strangers.

                The price of doing business is the price of doing business. It’s only “corruption” if it’s outside of established rules.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                I had the same thought, JB, that giving the top guy his “taste” is respect and helps the tribe cohere, since the tribe’s structure is built on pecking order. This is “natural” if we are to look at the social animals like dogs and chimps to attempt to understand ourselves.

                And yes, modern liberal bourgeois constitutional democratic republican capitalism offers itself as progress from mere tribalism, as it accords the individual a status he does not enjoy in the world of the beasts.

                But we are still beasts, or at least still social animals.

                And in many countries/societies—including our own—the bureaucracy still takes its bite. Mordita, I think they call it, eh, Dr. Blaise?

                The successful social animal doesn’t get that upset about it. Better to grease the wheels than throw a monkey wrench in them.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                We are not dogs or chimps. We are human beings. It’s best not to draw too many conclusions from the animal world. Rousseau was an idiot who never saw a savage, noble or otherwise. His track record with his own family more closely resembled that of a particularly unloving reptile.

                The tribal world offers the individual an identity of a very different sort. Though tribes differ wildly on matters of hierarchy, a tribe offers membership in ways the West has lost. We pride ourselves on our individuality but we offer no corresponding agencies of membership except perhaps the church and temple. Man still deeply desires such memberships and will make ridiculous substitutions: witness the slack-jawed fans who follow sports they never played and the teams of schools they never attended.

                Individuality is overrated, mostly sour grapes in my opinion. Corruption and malfeasance arise when one man can hide behind his mandate, almost always granted by another, to pervert good government to his own benefit. Since you bring up la mordida, there is a proverb in Spanish — A carro entornado, todos son caminos., to an twisted wagon, everywhere is a road. To the corrupt, everyone’s usable.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Well, it is family in the sense that it’s tribe and clan. Depending on the degree of exogamy and alliance, you might be surprised how quickly organizational talent can rise in such societies and from how far away.

                It might seem incomprehensible to us, with our blowhard politicians, that respect is such a vital part of governing in tribal societies. Graft and corruption arise mostly from power without respect and accountability, growing in the crevices. The right of redress is often amazingly direct: even the humblest villager can address the malik with his complaint.

                It is not a perfect system, but it is very ancient, and can only work where people are few and conditions are very hard. Think of it as an ecology at the treeline, only seemingly hardy: it is easily broken. Specialized to its own environment it cannot cope with much change and it cannot migrate.

                Some aspects of tribal society are still with us but not many and they are under assault. As cities grow and the countryside empties out, soon enough they will largely be gone. We must not grieve over them too much, insofar as their own people have chosen to abandon them and move into cities. But it is the ancient hatred of shepherds for cities, the real story of the Book of Genesis, Abraham in Egypt, Lot in Sodom, a story written by the nomads and losers of their time who blamed corruption on the outsiders and city dwellers. The could not see their own backwardness and insufficiency and vicious feuds were holding them back.

                Well, a stint in Babylon cured them of all that.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                It is always of interest to delve into the Book of Blaise.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                If you’re interested in that book, here’s some more things of a vaguely tribal nature.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                Don’t you ever sleep?
                I’ll check out the link and thanks.
                What I do want to know is are you a consultant to God and if so, how’s that working out? Or, do you offer your services as a critic?
                Dove Books is having a big sale and I’m ordering some Bible books at low, low prices. And, don’t you mess up my ‘burning bush’ story. It’s a favorite and I don’t want you to get smote by God…er, by God!Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I work on India time to keep up with my crew in Pune. As a consultant, I answer only to my clients and that only to the extent I’m given mandate to solve problems without undue interference.

                In point of fact, God and I have this working arrangement: he’s given me back my sanity and in exchange saddled me with this enormous project called compassion. It’s terribly hard to be compassionate, as you may well know. Runs against my fundamental nature, but that’s part of the contract.

                The great part of the Burning Bush story is how Moses kept trying to weasel out of his assigned task. Moses was probably bipolar, much given to moments of outrage and depression and I’m not alone in thinking this way.

                As for God smiting me for my impudence, I can’t abide all this nonsense about the mere fear of God being the beginning of wisdom. The word in Hebrew is yirah, to be in awe of. The very idea that God wants us buns-up kneeling and moaning about how we are not worthy — pitiful in extremis. Even after the miracle of the leprous hand, Moses stands there and po’mouths in the presence of God Almighty.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                Bp, I’m rather impressed with your ‘testimony’ as our Southern Baptist friends are prone to say.
                Has the Lord-God mentioned anything about ‘pride?’
                In any event, I am singularly interested in your opinions on these matters and on all matter pretaining to the Christian religion.
                How is it you understand the Trinity?
                the nature of sin, original or otherwise, and so forth.
                As far as I’m concerned you may preach away.
                And, yes, ‘compassion’ is extremely difficult given the corruption of modernity and the disorders of the age.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Ecch, my theology isn’t all that complex. Imagine an atheism turned inside out: where the atheist concludes God doesn’t exist because science is predicated on doubt and can change on a dime based on solid proofs and religion is so obviously bogus because of all its smug certainties, I conclude God must exist for exactly the same reasons.

                Most religions are cargo cults, beseeching God to grant ’em riches and power and power over their enemies and other such manifestly ridiculous favours of that sort. You are the 1 millionth visitor! Step right in and collect yer prize! A ticket to Heaven!

                I approve of Christianity because it’s set up quite differently. Like Buddhism, only more so, it demands repentance and offers redemption, freedom from our obviously unsalvageable pasts. This seems a sane approach to life’s problems: metanoia is sound psychotherapy. Many people live lives of needless misery because they live in the shadows of their pasts. Selfishness and greed begin with the Self, a terrible burden for anyone to bear. Leads to narcissism and all sorts of unhealthy thinking. The doctrine of original sin is equally sound thinking: it keeps us from lording it over others on the basis of the filthy rags of our self-justifying righteousness, for we are no better than others. The profoundest thought anyone will ever have is the contemplation of how individually miserable we are and the impact of individual acts of kindness and compassion on the world at large. For we are all in this together. It is this light which shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never understood it.

                The Trinity debate perplexes me to this day: the Son and Holy Spirit I leave to the theologians. The Hindus use the term avatar to describe the various manifestations of a single God: thus it is with the Trinity.

                Like Alice in Wonderland, I am prone to giving good advice but I very seldom take it.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                Bp, thanks for that. I would like you, at your leisure, to wax eloquent on the Christ, the divine/human encounter, the love of God, and the sanctity of human life.
                Do a guest blog..the League would love it!Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Nothin’ doin’ on the Proselytizing Front, Mr. Bob. I don’t approve of it. I sternly warn people off of my religion; it’s rather like AA. You don’t go to AA if you don’t have a drinking problem and you don’t go to church if you don’t have a sin problem, especially if you don’t believe in a Higher Power.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                I have a ‘piety’ problem so I wanna ask stuff carefully, so not to let people, particularly Libs, think that there are actual Absolutes that may hurt their tender feelings.
                Let’s try this then:
                Are there many ways to ‘achieve’ heaven? That is Jesus in not the only way, like he said.
                Love ya bro, not trying to be snarky, just doing a little claryifying.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

                My ‘corruption’ comment was centered on the what’s left of this republic. Though I do appreciate those learned remarks explicating far away places with strange sounding names.Report

          • What about socialism at smaller levels of organization?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Smaller levels of organization, it seems to me, allows for much easier homogeneity to achieve/maintain.

              We all know the example of the family unit as socialism in action. It doesn’t get much more homogeneous than that.Report

              • Right now our system is, at the largest levels of organization, truly liberal. But couched within this liberal system, the vast majority of citizens’s livlihoods depend on corporate employment. Corporations more or less act as aggressive feudal states. Granted, no one dies, but the majority of people are underpaid for the wealth they generate. There probably wouldn’t be any real case against this if it weren’t for the fact that the larger system strongly encourages all but the independently wealthy or well financed to voluntarily put their livelihood in the hands of someone who doesn’t give two shits what happens to them. It’s possible to encourage more socialistic business structures and common ownership by those entitled of the factors of production by only removing the special privileges that entrenched elite corporate interests have legislated for themselves.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Granted, no one dies, but the majority of people are underpaid for the wealth they generate.

                This is one of the wacky things, I am underpaid by this definition except my quality of life is, like, awesome compared to periods in time where the tradeoff was more equitable.

                If I could get a commensurate raise in quality of life, I would be willing to put up with the difference engine pulling away from me at double-speed.

                I suspect that this is not true for just privileged me, either. I suspect that most everybody at any given strata in the country is materially better off than they would be at the exact same strata in 1981, 1951, or 1921.Report

              • But how much of that improvement in quality of life is attributable to the growth of technology or exploitation of foreign resources?

                Also, I’m talking more about incentivizing collective ownership schemes or cooperation among equals than the existing system. People are taking jobs as corporate underlings which they otherwise wouldn’t because the real important things like health insurance and retirement planning are legally tethered to large companies, not to mention the ease with which large companies can push “necessary” permits and other documents through the various bureaucracies.

                Having multiple structures instead of a lopsided corporate state would also go a long way towards reducing systemic risk and preventing the formation of bubbles.Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                I agree with you in principle Christopher, but I’m skeptical in practice. I suspect the current structure in which most people work for wages and only a very few people try to actually create capital is mostly a matter of choice.

                The ill-considered policies that tie Americans to their jobs, especially as they get older, don’t exist in many other places and yet people in those places still mostly choose to work for wages.

                And in businesses like software, where there are frankly very few obstacles to creating a company or working as a contractor, the vast majority of people still choose to work for wages. Something else is going on.Report

              • I found this study: http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/dbs/businessschool/research%20paper%20004.pdf

                It’s a bit old, but it shows a huge difference in non-agricultural self-employment throughout developed nations. Here is the conclusion:

                “Rather, three tax-benefit variables
                possessed most of the explanatory power, with self-employment rates positively and
                significantly related to average income tax rates, and negatively and significantly related to employers’ social security contributions and the replacement rate. These findings suggest a stronger influence of government policy decisions in the determination of cross-national variations in self-employment rates than has typically been recognised in the literature to date.”Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                Christopher, that’s fascinating. I wonder if the position of the US has changed, though? It seems like the impact of the health care to job connection has grown since 1996. I’d expect the level of entrepreneurship to have dropped.Report

              • I assume it has. Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who choose their employment based solely on quality of health care plan. I’d love to see some more formal studies though.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Mr. Carr, as you know, wage freezes during WWII gave rise to more desirable benefits packages. Business[es] defy all top-down decrees by gov’t to “level the playing field.” All things being equal, all things are never equal.

                Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who choose their employment based solely on quality of health care plan.

                Hell, yes. In the end, it’s total compensation, not wages, and wages-minus-income tax at that. That’s been a plastic number since at least WWII, not a real one.

                And most folks would prefer to work for less for a decent company and boss rather than dehumanizing assholes. That’s a human equation thing, a real thing, but hard to quantify.Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          Liberalism (and any ideology really) is most effective when it is restrained in certain regards.

          It would indeed be good to have another ideology to compete with liberalism, but that won’t happen until another credible alternative presents itself, and socialism doesn’t fit the bill. Its prescriptions have failed and that makes its criticisms hollow.

          It has been an unrestrained and antagonistic liberalism that has given us massive environmental destruction, a selfish and materialistic consumer culture which brought us to the brink of economic collapse three years ago (and will again unless the underlying basic problem is identified and purged), and the growth-at-all-costs model which prioritizes the accumulation of capital regardless of its intrinsic worth over maximizing the welfare of humans.

          First, our environmental prospects are probably the best they have been since the industrial revolution. There are real issues to address (such as climate change) but on almost every dimension we are heading in the right direction on the environment. Secondly we were nowhere near economic collapse and consumerism is ubiquitous in every economy developed enough to have consumer goods. I don’t understand your third point.

          in an age without a frontier, is land not a public good? In a truly globalized age, do the resources of the earth and sea not belong to all?

          No, one of the clearest results from environmental economics is that property rights are the most important when a resource is limited.

          When we have the capacity to provide medical care for all, do we not have a responsibility to do that?

          How much care? And who’s we?

          to try and put any sort of social responsibility on corporations as more interventionist schools of liberalism espouse will only result in a system which rewards the corporations that most effectively create the appearance of compliance

          I certainly have my issues with corporatism (the economic mostly advocated by the left these days), and one of them is that most of its advocates fail to understand the constraints they face in directing corporate activity.

          To treat corporations as people and not machines used by people has become a defining feature of modern liberal capitalism.

          I don’t think this is true, the only ways corporations are treated as separate from the people who own them are limited liability (which exists for good policy reasons) and corporate bankruptcy (which is not universal among liberal democracies)Report

          • I would say the prescriptions of state socialism have definitely failed in some regard (price controls have failed and will fail as Hayek and others have convincingly demonstrated, but socialized police forces, postal services, and fire departments for the most part haven’t failed.); but there are ways to incentivize equality of results in certain cases where we think it is beneficial for society to do so. For example, incentivizing something resembling equality of results in healthcare is something that we are capable of, and it is simply the right thing to do for a variety of reasons.

            Whether this is accomplished through a complete single-payer system or a massive subsidy that makes basic and emergency services affordable or by some other means, better health care for all is not only a moral imperative, but it’s intuitively obvious (and I imagine econometric studies would confirm) that a healthier workforce is far more productive than a workforce which does not receive adequate health care; nevermind the familiar red herrings that implementing a single payer health care system would kill innovation. We could massively nationalize health care without touching medical care, pharmaceuticals, or other biotech, and the only people who’d lose out are those who profit off the misfortune of others.

            I’ll have to disagree with you strongly about the environment. Desertification continues unabated, rainforests continue to be cleared for factory farms, the earth continues to heat up, and the addition of China, India, and several other countries to the fossil-fuel using club of nations only threatens to make the problem far worse, even if we all drove Priuses (Prii?) and became vegetarians. Entire ecosystems have been ravaged by recent manmade megadisasters like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the nuclear meltdown in Japan; it looks like both of the culprits there will get off with mild slaps on the wrist (if there is any punishment at all) and go back to business as usual since they’re just so important. One of my former students is so confident of this that he recently bought stock in both BP and Tepco and expects to make a killing.

            The idea that we were nowhere near economic collapse seems to clash strongly with reality, since averting economic collapse was specifically the rationale for unprecedented global stimulus measures. Despite this unprecedented stimulus, unemployment still remains around 10% and experts are warning of a u-shaped recession to persist, the negative effects of which are much more pronounced for the already poor and disenfranchised who might lose more than just their second home in cozumel. The upper middle class and wealthy appear to be enjoying economic recovery.

            In terms of corporations, a lot of the problems we have can be traced to non-enforcement of laws or what basically amount to special ad hoc exemptions from legal liability. If I as a private citizen went and violated statutes and my violation of those statutes resulted in the dumping of 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I would be sent to jail and my name would be associated with the evilest of characters in the national mythos for all eternity; but if a company does the same thing it gets fined some number incomprehensibly large from the perspective of most people but something like 0.0001 percent of its annual revenues from the perspective of poorly understood mathematics. Here we are with two scenarios that differ only in the nature of the perpetrator, yet you can’t deny that two very different standards exist for outcomes.

            To go back to the stimulus, illegal and irresponsible activity in the biggest corporations was rewarded with massive government financing. While mom and pop shops closed all across the country, Goldman Sachs et al. expanded vertically and horizontally to take their places. When the jobs market does come back, you can bet it’ll be the companies ferrying semi-retirees to the upper echelons of the Treasury Department that’ll be the first to take advantage of desperate, unemployed workers and their dependence on any regular source of income whatsoever.Report

          • Avatar Simon K says:

            James – In US law, corporations are also treated as persons for the purposes of the 14th amendment and specifically the Due Process clause. As you may be aware, the Due Process clause is taken to substantially limit both congress and the states powers to impose regulation on private contracts, and since corporations are persons, this restriction applies to corporations.

            I can’t get very excited about this – it seems a simple extension of the common law principle that what may lawfully be done by one may be done by any number – but many Americans do, and its what they usually mean when they talk about corporate personhood, although some people have it mixed up with limited liability.Report