Atheism Is No More Relativist Than Christianity

Phil RobertsonI don’t actually care what Phil Robertson has to say on any subject at all. He is, however, useful in demonstrating that one can be educated and rich and still be ignorant and parochial. Of course, Robertson is fun in that he’s spent his whole life being the most educated guy in a very ignorant crowd. So he’s always got this ostentatious air to him that makes his pronouncements especially nutty. As a result, he is useful as a pedagogical object for teaching basic subjects about Shintoism and the like.

Most recently, Robertson stood before the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast and engaged in some very creepy fantasies about teaching an atheist father and husband a lesson about the existence of God through the use of rape, murder, and castration. It doesn’t really matter the details. Robertson is an extremely troubled man who is living proof of hell on earth. He’s also an excellent advertisement for atheism. The best advertisement for Christianity is a caring person who is a follower of the religion. Robertson shows that for most people, Christianity is really all about exclusivity and hatred. Other than people already in the tribe, he doesn’t win converts — and he clearly pushes people away.

But his example with the brutal violence perpetrated on an atheist family is based on a common misunderstanding of atheism. To him, atheism is a relativist philosophy. To such simple minds, there cannot be any morality unless it is imposed from without. That’s a curious notion given that atheists don’t act less morally than Christians. But it is deeper than that. Like most Americans, Robertson is a proponent of what I call “Santa Claus Christianity”: he is good because if he isn’t, God will be mean to him; and if he is, God will reward him.

Note how this is quite distinct from what more thoughtful Christians claim the religion is all about. Supposedly, the spirit of Jesus Christ comes into a person and makes them behave morally. This is largely what the earliest Christians believed. It was only later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that the church developed the idea that we were all sinners and that we were only saved through Jesus. But American Christians have taken this to a whole new low where all they have to do is “believe” in Jesus and all their sins are washed away. Linus’ system for The Great Pumpkin makes more sense — at least The Great Pumpkin judges on the basis of sincerity.

What Christians don’t seem to have a handle on is that God’s laws are not an absolute when the God in question is slippery. The evidence for God is at best weak. And then there is the question that there are literally thousands of gods that people have posited. Different gods want humans to do different things. What is absolute about that? Wouldn’t a good and moral God just be clear? Why all this game playing? Why allow people in the hills of Afghanistan to go their whole lives without ever being exposed to the One True God that is whatever god you worship? Phil Robertson chose the God he was going to believe in. (Shockingly, it was the same God that everyone else in his tiny world believes in!) And then he followed those rules (maybe). Once he made the first choice, the rules were absolute. But first he had to make a choice of religion, which is no different than making a choice of which of God’s laws you are going to follow.

Consider something else. Morality evolves over time. Today, for example, slavery in its strict sense is universally considered wrong. The Bible is just fine on the issue of slavery. If God were really interested in micromanaging our morality, wouldn’t he have either (1) got it right in the first place or (2) occasionally provided updates the way that the Oxford English Dictionary does? Of course, we know why none of this happened: God (at least the micromanaging kind) doesn’t exist. Religion is a human invention, and — most tellingly — a later invention than morality. Morality existed before God — much less before Jesus.

There are sociological reasons why we have the morals we have. In a species that depends upon working together as a group, behaviors that harm the group badly enough are pushed out of the realm of acceptable behavior. This is why we are not a bunch of psychopaths killing everyone we see. But in Phil Robertson’s mind, raping children, murdering people, and castrating men would be “fun” if only God weren’t wagging a finger at us. Except such acts aren’t fun. That isn’t how morality works. I’m an atheist and yet I find each of those acts repugnant. Of course, Christians throughout the ages have gleefully done at least two of those three.

Relativism is not a useful concept when it comes to this debate. All Phil Robertson has done is create a straw man — and an incredibly common one at that. But he isn’t alone. Throughout the conservative blogosphere, people have defended Robertson on the grounds that atheists are relativists. In a sense we are — but only in the sense that Christians are too. But at least atheists are upfront about it. I kind of doubt that Phil Robertson never eats shellfish or never has sex with his wife during her period. And I don’t know of any atheists going around fantasizing about torturing Christians to prove to them that God doesn’t exist. But I guess because the Bible doesn’t say anything against it (In fact, it is kind of in favor of it!), it can’t be wrong.

Personal Liberation and Political Enslavement

The Age of AcquiescenceThe ubiquity of market thinking has transformed combative political instincts into commercial or personalized ones or both. Environmental despoiling arouses righteous eating; cultural decay inspires charter schools; rebellion against work becomes work as a form of rebellion; old-form anticlericalism morphs into the piety of the secular; the break with convention ends up as the politics of style; the cri de coeur against alienation surrenders to the triumph of the solitary; the marriage of political and cultural radicalism ends in divorce. Like a deadly plague, irony spreads everywhere.

What lends this thinking and behavior such tensile strength is its subterranean connection to the sense of personal liberation. One of the great discoveries of the feminist movement was that “the personal is political.” This undermined axiomatic assumptions about female inferiority and subordination from which patriarchy will never recover.

However, personalizing of the political also carried with it unforeseen consequences as the aperçu migrated into the wider world, carried there by the tidal flows of consumer culture. Nowadays we live in a political universe preoccupied with gossip, rumor, insinuations, and innuendo. Personal transgressions, scandals, outré behavior, and secrets have become the pulp fiction of politics. Our times didn’t invent that. Grover Cleveland was regularly raked over the coals for having an illegitimate child. Warren Harding’s sexual adventures were notorious. This is to cite two of many possible examples. Nonetheless, this kind of inquisitorial and, let’s be frank, voyeuristic pursuit, of venial sins as the way of sizing up political life, has reached heights undreamed of. And this can be entertaining — indeed, it may be intended by the media to be so, as it is eye- and ear-catching. It displays a kinship with the inherent sensationalism of consumer culture more generally. It is also, often, if not always, stupendously trivial or only marginally relevant, but is treated in exactly the opposite way. We have grown accustomed to examine all sorts of personal foibles as if they were political MRIs lighting up the interior of the most sequestered political motivations.

Credit this hyperpersonalizing of political life with keeping interest alive, even if it’s a kind of morbid interest in the fall of the mighty or the wannabe mighty. Otherwise, for many millions of citizens, cynicism (and only cynicism) prevails. The system seems transparently to have become an arena for gaming the system. Cycles of corruption and insiderism repeat with numbing frequency and in a nonpartisan distribution, verging on kleptocracy.

—Steve Fraser
The Age of Acquiescence

TSA’s Faux Objectivity

TSABack in the 1990s when I used to fly internationally a lot, US customs decided to change its procedures for searching people. (I can’t find information about this; it might have been a pilot program just at SFO.) What they had found was that they didn’t find any more contraband in the luggage of “suspicious” people than they did random people. So why bother? And more important: why risk the obvious problem of unfair stereotyping? People act strangely for a lot of reasons. Even though I’ve never tried to bring anything even slightly dodgy into or out of the country, I’m a nervous wreck going through customs. And this is despite the fact that I’ve never had any problem going through customs.

Last week, Jana Winter and Cora Currier at The Intercept reported, TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists. It describes the TSA’s controversial SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) program. This is the system of techniques that are supposed to turn an ordinary TSA agent into Dr Cal Lightman — the body language genius in Lie to Me. But just like the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used to extract false information from people in CIA and military custody, SPOT is not based on any science.

I am especially taken with two things on SPOT’s list of suspicious behavior. The first is, “Widely open staring eyes.” The second is, “Gazing down.” Given there are degrees to both of these, this sums up all possible eye related behavior. In other words: if the TSA agent decides that you are suspicious, you will get a point for one of these two. And this is how these things always work. We are all great at rationalizing our decisions. That does not mean that our decisions are based on rational thought. We are not nearly as rational as we think we are.

Of course, that is why these silly lists are created. The people designing this systems do not think they work for their stated purposes. They work as a way to justify what the agents are going to do regardless. You’ve lived a charmed life if you haven’t had this kind of reverse engineered oppression applied to you. The most common form this takes is a police officer pulling over a car. They can always justify it because there are so many ridiculous laws that we are all of us breaking the law all the time.

The Intercept article interviewed a former TSA agent about this:

One former Behavior Detection Officer manager, who asked not to be identified, said that SPOT indicators are used by law enforcement to justify pulling aside anyone officers find suspicious, rather than acting as an actual checklist for specific indicators. “The SPOT sheet was designed in such a way that virtually every passenger will exhibit multiple ‘behaviors’ that can be assigned a SPOT sheet value,” the former manager said.

The signs of deception and fear “are ridiculous,” the source continued. “These are just ‘catch all’ behaviors to justify [Behavior Detection Officer] interaction with a passenger. A license to harass.”

This is all part of a larger issue that I talk about a lot: in the United States, we don’t care so much about solving problems; it is more important to appear as though we are solving problems. The list of 92 suspicious behaviors is a way to make what are just gut reactions on the part of agents appear to be scientific and objective. But what they actually are was summed up well by a different former TSA agent The Intercept interviewed, “The SPOT program is bullshit — complete bullshit.”

A Tale of Two Regulators

Andrew BowdenA year ago, it seemed that SEC examination chief Andrew Bowden was going to do his job. He had just finished a study of private equity firms and found that at more than half of them, the companies that were purchased were being inappropriately charged fees for things like services that they didn’t receive or similar shenanigans. This is the whole point of private equity: siphon off as much money as possible and then get rid of the company. In this case, the people who get screwed are the investors who put up the money to purchase the firm. If poor people did this kind of thing, they’d be thrown in jail. When rich people do it, they are deified.

So after the study was finished, Bowden gave a big fiery speech where he said:

When we have examined how fees and expenses are handled by advisers to private equity funds, we have identified what we believe are violations of law or material weaknesses in controls over 50 percent of the time.

Time for some prosecutions, right? But since then, the SEC has done what it normally does: nothing. As Matt Taibbi noted last week, “Last May, Bowden, a senior SEC official, described this problem as almost epidemic.” But now:

I reckon, it’s sort of interesting for me for private equity in terms of all we’ve seen, and what we have seen, where we have seen some misconduct and things like that, because I always think like, to my simple mind, that the people in private equity, they’re the greatest, they’re actually adding value to their clients, they’re getting paid really really well, you know, if I was in that position, the one thing I would think to myself as I skipped to work was like just “Let’s not mess it up. You know, this is the greatest thing there, I’m helping people, I’m doing OK myself.”

Ah yes! That’s the kind of person we want policing the private equity people: people who have simple minds and bow down before the greatness that are these masters of the universe who, after all, are just adding value to their clients. Bowden went on to joke about them giving his son a job, but I hardly think that was necessary to know exactly what Bowden (doubtless along with his peers) is all about. Needless to say, the Andrew Bowden of last year was far more in danger of losing his job than the Andrew Bowden of this year.

Two weeks ago, Michael Hiltzik discussed the issue in a broader context, Bankers Are Complaining — Again — About too Much Regulation. He perfectly described what is going on with Bowden and the thousands of bureaucrats like him:

The term “regulatory capture” refers to what happens when regulators swim so close to the companies they regulate that they get snared in those companies’ gravitational fields. What results is tolerant, indulgent regulation, or none at all.

He started with the story of corporate lawyer and pox on the world H Rodgin Cohen who claimed in a recent talk that there was no regulatory capture. He said “the regulatory environment today… the most tension-filled, confrontational, and skeptical of any time in my professional career.” But his professional career only really start in the 1970s and got going in the 1980s. These are the times when the government was turning its back on efforts to control the crooks that people like Cohen get rich representing. What does it really matter how today lines up with his career? Of course, there is little doubt that all he’s really saying is that at this point his privilege is so extreme that even the smallest push-back would seem “tension-filled, confrontational, and skeptical.”

Regardless of what Cohen thinks (or says, anyway), the example of Bowden kind of destroys it. But we have to wonder which Bowden is the one who goes to work each day: the fiery regulator or the private equity pawn? Hiltzik noted something interesting in this regard. Last year’s strong words were a major event and the speech at the conference earlier this month was not. So I’m guessing that Bowden is the obsequious one, not the Cohen skeptic of myth. Plus we have data: since Bowden’s big speech, there haven’t been big indictments. This country has a long way to go to fix its problems. And we haven’t even started.

Morning Music: Tom Morello

One Man Revolution - The NightwatchmanGiven that it is Cesar Chavez’s birthday, I thought it might be a good time to do a little union music. And I think I’ve found the perfect song: Tom Morello’s “Union Song” off his album, One Man Revolution. It even refers to Chavez (and songwriter Joe Hill, writer of “There Is Power In A Union“).

This performance is in the Los Angeles Chinatown at a protest against Walmart that labor unions put together. Of course, the Walmart opened anyway. It’s important to remember that the United States is not a democracy. Being on the side of workers in the US is being a supporter of the ultimate under dogs. But the struggle continues. ¿Si nos quedemos, juntos vamos a ganar? ¡Si!

Anniversary Post: Cesar Chavez

[Editor’s Note: Because I am now doing a lot things for the “birthday post” that are not birthdays, I’ve decided to change the name to the “anniversary post.” It’s also the case that I am using a lot of stuff that isn’t celebratory — like Yaoya Oshichi’s Sadistic Murder. If anyone has any ideas for a replacement for “Happy birthday whatever!” that I won’t have to change when marking something awful like Kristallnacht, please let me know. Also: this birthday post is a revision of an earlier post, Happy Cesar Chavez Day! Forgive my laziness. -FM]

Cesar ChavezOn this day in 1927, the great civil rights organizer Cesar Chavez was born. Here is California today, it is Cesar Chavez Day, which is tidy. But just like Martin Luther King Jr, we celebrate the mythic Chavez rather than the man. And that’s just fine. But the man deserves to be remembered. He was a curious fellow. For example, he was a vegan and he seems to have been against the notion of money. Although I don’t agree with him on either issue, I greatly respect the beliefs and I think it speaks well of any man to have principled beliefs that counter the social norms.

His life story is also right out of The Grapes of Wrath, too. His father lost the family farm during the Great Depression. He cleared 80 acres of land in exchange for the deed to the farm. But the deal was broken so the family moved to California and became migrant workers. Chavez quit school after the 7th grade to work in the fields. Other than two years in the Navy, he was a farm worker for ten years before getting into organizing. The rest, as they say, is literally history.

Time Magazine Cover: Cesar ChavezSome people find it ironic that Chavez and Dolores Huerta and their organization were very much for restricting immigration. But this is to misunderstand what the United Farm Workers (UFW) was doing. Unions are not like churches, going around trying to make the world a better place. Unions exist to represent their workers and balance the power of management. Then as today, the business community tacitly encourages illegal immigration. They want an over-supply of labor so they can pay as little as possible. Immigrants (Especially undocumented!) are in effect scabs that undermine the bargaining power of unions.

The following video is remarkable. Chavez is talking about how boycotts work. But at the beginning, he says an amazingly insightful thing: that voting doesn’t help the poor. That’s interesting because recent political science research finds that the opinions of the poor (and to a large extent the middle class too) simply have no effect on how politicians legislate. Just the same, Chavez was big on getting the poor to vote. He’s just making a point that if you want to make change happen, the best way is to make the rich suffer by depriving them of money. That is the most direct way to make positive change.

I’m very pleased that today in Cesar Chavez Day in California. I wish it were a national holiday. We have a holiday for one of our richest presidents who kept slaves. We have a holiday celebrating our independence that kept slavery in existence. We have a holiday celebrating how native people kept early settlers from starving so those settlers could go on to wage a genocide against the native people. Even though Martin Luther King Jr was deeply concerned about workers’ rights, that’s not why we celebrate him. May Day is long gone and most Americans don’t seem to know the difference between Labor Day and Memorial Day. We could use a holiday that celebrates the workers’ struggle in an unambiguous way. Cesar Chavez Day should be a bigger deal. And in another decade, it probably will be.

Happy birthday Cesar Chavez!