Can Conservatism be Beautiful?

I’m not sure, or at least I wasn’t sure until I read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (yes, that is meant to be provocative, as in Min Kampf; the guy is from Norway and has written six autobiographical tomes that are often maddening with their details of common life but break out into beautiful passages and asides just often enough to make it worth reading). He’s very controversial in the Scandinavialands.

All that aside, I’m wanting to do a book review for a magazine on how he makes skepticism beautiful. Skepticism — the classical kind and not the authoritarian kind pitched by scientologists — is the basis for conservatism, and thus one of conservatism’s challenges is to remain relevant and progressive in the best senses of those two words. But its strengths are that it is based firmly in a sort of earthly reality, taking into account the limits of knowledge and human experience. That description doesn’t sound very beautiful, so here’s at least one passage in Knaus. that I think does a good job.

He’s on vacation to Norway (he’d been living in Sweden), takes a walk outside and notices everything around him: the clear sky, the wet green fields, the trees lining the towering mountains. Enter soliloquy here:

This was beyond our comprehension. We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them?

So, slaves, what think ye? Am I too far off base here, or is this doable?

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Why Ben Carson is Wrong About Tithing and the Old Testament

Ben Carson, who spoke here last year, has become a new conservative folk hero. There is a lot that can be said about him & his recent speech in Washington, but I think one point merits closer attention, and that is his belief that the Bible itself offers justification for a flat tax rate because of its injunction to tithe at a set percentage. Here’s the problem with that view, though:

The tithe as in the Bible isn’t just by virtue of being in the Bible; and even if it were, it wouldn’t mean that it could be justly imposed on contemporary society by governmental policy.

The first point, I think, should be fairly obvious: lots of things aren’t just in the Old Testament. For starters, a righteous man was commanded to flay (seriously—flay; as in burnt-offering flay) his son. There is enough death to put Moroni at ease, then there is that fairly troubling command in 1 Samuel 15:2-3 to “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” as if killing the people and the children wouldn’t have been enough—to add to the innocent blood of the infant the blood of the sheep to make sure desecration and destruction has taken its full toll. Then there are all of the special covenants that, even perhaps in a religious setting, people have a hard time making sense of, but that become incomprehensible in a contemporary political setting. When the injunction to tithe was given it wasn’t given with a justice claim.

All of this is to say that these things weren’t fair or just by virtue of their inclusion in the OT. The typical justification for said unjust “Heavenly Distributive Schemes”—to put it nicely—is that God had his reasons, which is I suppose satisfying enough for some, but one must also concede the point that from a societal & political standpoint these things are still very much unjust. If not, very few moral or human right claims make sense, and terrifying is the person who did not concede the point.

The second point is perhaps less obvious, but it shouldn’t be. Take the following two people and their accompanying salaries:

A: $20,000

B: $100,000

Assuming a 10% tithe, A must pay $2,000 and B $10,000. So the question is this: does the $10,000 mean more to B than the $2,000 does to A? And, ceteris paribus, I think you’d have to say that the $2,000 is much more valuable to A. Presumably, much of As earnings go towards essentials—health care, food, minimal housing, etc.—than does Bs, which, say, goes towards a family vacation. Prima facie, I don’t think a flat rate is fair at all—it certainly seems to be much more lenient to the wealthier solely by virtue of it being flat.

None of this, of course, is to say that a sufficient justificatory scheme is impossible; it may very well be, but it isn’t found in the Old Testament.

Mormonism and the (Relatively) New Quest for Success

In 1958 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States to see why agriculture—“America’s biggest success”—was one of the Soviet’s great failures. Playing host was Ezra Taft Benson, at the time the Secretary of Agriculture, who would later become the president of the LDS Church. According to Benson, while touring farms, Khrushchev said to Benson:

You Americans are so gullible. No, you won’t accept communism outright, but we’ll keep feeding you small doses of socialism until you’ll finally wake up and find you already have communism. We won’t have to fight you. We’ll so weaken your economy until you’ll fall like overripe fruit into our hands.

It was an experience that Elder Benson was not quick to forget; he reminded Church members (and any other souls willing to listen) of the dangers of Communism every chance he got. (Thanks to Glenn Beck [what happened to this guy anyway? Too extreme even for Fox, and now I read he’s telling children’s stories or something of the sort?] for the reference).

Elder Benson is now the go to figure for conservative Mormons intent on advocating the virtues of private property and of capitalism. This is a group that has grown increasingly large and powerful in the last fifty or so years. And now, with high-profile political candidates and even more business gurus that are members of the Mormon Church, it is a group that has been finding itself in the spotlight quite a bit lately.

This week the Economist ran an article on Mormons and success. It is a wonderful article (and one that even manages a joke about facial hair), noting that “Less than 2% of Americans are Mormons, yet their commercial prominence belies their numbers . . . Mormons have constructed a huge pro-business infrastructure.” Perhaps one of the reasons for this success, the author writes, is a long-standing fascination with organization and a type of self-reliance drawn from being a persecuted minority. It tries, in other words, to draw a coherent line of explanation through Mormonism’s history.

Yet this self-reliance and striving for success has manifested itself quite differently in the past, and I think that in the face of all of this “success” it is easy to forget this. (The article in the Economist did not go into such detail). Up until about 60 years ago, Mormons were very much ill-at-ease in the larger world of business. Capitalism itself has had a rocky relationship with the Church, repudiated the first half of the Church’s history and fully embraced in its second. Now the success garnered under such a system is almost worn on the sleeves of members. It is to them a testimony to the lessons learned on missions and the principles of the gospel. As noted, this view—while now practically mainstream—was not always so popular.[1]

So there at least seems to be another tradition within Mormonism that is often forgotten, even as Mormons rush to the spotlight of success. While I don’t entirely know what to make of this historical flip-flop, I don’t think that the world of business schools and Goldman Sachs is one we should wholly embrace without critical thought. As even Milton Friedman recognized, capitalism is a morally neutral endeavor; it has one objective, and that is to maximize profit. It is, by nature, not involved in religion, charity, or ethics. To what extent, if any, it is detrimental to these, I do not know.

Business schools will not doubt continue to be filled with young ambitious Mormons eager for a taste of economic success. But if this is done thoughtlessly, and in a manner ignorant of tradition, such a quest can come with a high price.


[1] Why has this been? Richard Bushman summed up at least a few of the possible reasons: 1) Capitalism seems to “reduce receptivity to the gospel”; 2) It is ‘godless’ in that it neither advocates nor repudiates faith in God—in the realms of ethics and religion, it finds itself mute; and 3) Corporate values “invade our families in the form of consumerism.” In this light the modern striving for worldly success is odd; the Church has had a relatively smooth relationship with the also “worldly” endeavors of science and democracy, but that has not been the case with capitalism.
Others, most notably Hugh Nibley, have viewed business schools as a hotspot of moral deprivation, and wrote that “Every step in the direction of increasing one’s personal holdings is a step away from Zion, which is another way of saying, as the Lord has proclaimed in various ways, that one cannot serve two masters: to the degree in which he loves the one he will hate the other, and so it is with God and business, for mammon is simply the standard Hebrew word for any kind of financial dealing” (Approaching Zion). Some view Nibley as a type of lonely yet sane voice in a dark wilderness. I don’t know what to make of him–he’s fascinating, to say the least.

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National Service Program

Last week David Brooks had this to say: “We need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe [class] and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.” I like this idea–a lot. ‘Tis unfortunate that the political winds keep asinine ideas on the table and exclude useful ones.

Self-Serving Establishments, Right and Left

In 2010, a wonderful documentary called Inside Job done by Charles Ferguson was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Generally well received by critics, it told the story of our modern financial crisis. It was, in short, about corruption: of the financial services sector, lobbyists, and Washington politicians. It convincingly laid a case against Wall Street and the unmentionable chaos it caused. Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank, and other such politicians railed against the deregulation of the Reagan and Clinton years. In hindsight, their case is certainly convincing. Later, the Frank-Dodd bill was born. (Only to be later picked apart like a two-year old’s chocolate chip granola bar, I might add.)

Hindsight, though, is often unforgiving; in 2008 it was found that Spitzer, the Democratic New York Governor, had patronized a prostitution service. He resigned shortly thereafter. And now, after reading a candid new book by NYT columnist Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner called Reckless Endangerment, it would seem that Mr. Frank himself isn’t above the corruption of financial regulators and major bank executives that he so vehemently condemns in Inside Job.

The problem, then, isn’t the corruption of a few powerful men; it is that the leaders of this nation and its major institutions are fundamentally “self-dealing” at best and corrupt at worst. Wall Street, K Street, Democrats, Republicans.

Considering the nature of the role of Wall Street in this crisis and the appalling amount of corruption there, it is understandable that the targets of Inside Job were generally conservatives, and more specifically the Bachmann type of conservatives who fight to keep the government out of immoral banking conduct. Yet, in Reckless Endangerment, Morgenson isn’t out to get anyone, and that is part of what makes her book so important. She chronicles the reign of one Jim Johnson, who was denied a spot on the Obama campaign after it was found that he accepted some sweet housing deals while CEO of Fannie Mae.

It turns out, though, that Johnson was involved in much more. Johnson, who had been the campaign manager of Walter Mondale’s failed presidential bid, had risen to prominence in the Democratic Party at the time of he became CEO of Fannie Mae in 1991. He had also been a board member of many “prestigious” banking firms. Morgenson claims that it was one of Johnson’s dreams to be named the Secretary of the Treasury. Here are her own words: “He was especially adept at manipulating lawmakers, eviscerating regulators, and leaving taxpayers with the bill.”

It turns out that Johnson was keeping millions of dollars for himself and major shareholders within the company, thus exploiting Fannie Mae’s low interest rates (the Federal Government implicitly backed all of FM’s debt, although this was never admitted). During all of this, Johnson ran soft ads peddling affordable home ownership to those who clearly couldn’t afford it. In short, what was ran, to the public’s view, as a campaign to help the poor was actually a way for Johnson to amass wealth, W. Street-style. Particularly maddening—much like watching the recent ads claiming that Goldman Sachs is saving the world.

Johnson and Co. fought tooth and nail to stay in business, not so much by convincing the public but rather by convincing the few who mattered. It turns out, not surprisingly, that money can get a lot done in Washington these days. Whenever Fannie Mae was in particular danger, Barney Frank would come to its rescue, and combined with the ruthlessness of Johnson, managed to stay in business. A very bad idea, says the financial crisis from 2008. It was later found that Frank had accepted quite a few gifts in turn for his efforts.

In Inside Job and Reckless, there is a message that seems to say that rigid ideology can be a dangerous thing. Morgenson, in fact, is no less merciful to those in the GOP establishment than she is to Johnson. This is especially true where the ratings agencies are concerned. On Wall Street, the situation was largely reversed: conservatives fought de-regulation as if their paychecks depended on it.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a book about the history of Christianity, writes, “There is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history, which is invariably history oversimplified.” Fanaticism is seen on both the left and the right in their attempts to protect clearly immoral institutions and actions, and this is bred in part from an oversimplified view of history.

Maybe in the future we will get a politican who understands nuance. It certainly won’t happen this election with the GOP talking heads (to whom principles are but fads), but in the future we may have a President with Obama’s oratory skill that can actually get the job done.

Chavez Goes to Dark Side

This is from CNN:

“Fidel Castro’s 85th birthday passed quietly Saturday — in stark contrast to the week of celebration that preceded it.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-declared acolyte of Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution, said Saturday on Twitter that he was celebrating Castro’s birthday in Havana, where Chavez is currently undergoing cancer treatment.

‘Here with Fidel, celebrating his 85th birthday,’ Chavez tweeted.

‘Viva Fidel!’ he added.”

Anti-Americanism has always been so rich in irony.

Consequences of Political Tragedy

The recent shooting in Tucson raises a couple of concerns that we should all be a little more sober to.

Firstly, if anything is to blame, it is our vicious bipartisanship and toxic attitudes. The tone of political discourse in the country has taken an increasingly bitter edge. That being said, however, I don’t think it is accurate to claim that political rhetoric caused the shooting. Loughner was severely mentally ill, and his ideas seem to be so far disconnected from political reality that it would be a great stretch to say he was influenced by political rhetoric of the left or right. It simply isn’t fair to blame one side or another—the link between causation is extremely hazy, and considering the mental state of the shooter it would be wise to wait  longer than five minutes after the shooting to pass such a grave judgment.

Secondly, this incident highlights a need to hold ourselves and the media to a higher standard. A lot of debate has taken place lately as to whether or not the politicization of journalism is ultimately a good thing. We have seen the rise of institutions that are rewarded by how well they can “stroke the audiences’ pleasure buttons,” to use the words of David Brooks; see Fox News, Huffington Post, to name just two. Within minutes of the shooting, the mud flying had started; some blamed conservative talk Radio. More blamed Sarah Palin. Rush Limbaugh said that Loughner has the support of the Democratic Party. Doesn’t this defeat the purpose, though—using viciousness to counter viciousness? This incident serves as a prime example as to what happens when a news agency pushes an agenda. Relevant issues are set aside. Opportunism goes wild in efforts to pass blame. Exploitation surrounds tragedy. We should be asking questions that are both more relevant and perhaps more difficult. About 1 percent of the seriously mentally ill are violent, yet account for about half of the rampages in the US. How we can keep the mentally ill from obtaining firearms? How we can better treat mentally ill people as they struggle to define reality? If indeed political rhetoric is to blame, is there evidence besides stark and naked opportunism? How can we better protect those serving in the government? Moderation means making a legitimate effort to understand these issues–taking alternative views, understanding where others come from, gathering in the facts. This is not what some of the more popular news agencies are doing today—there simply is no effort to be moderate. Great and thoughtful and careful journalism does exist, though, and it exists in abundance if you know where to look. But these sources will only be brought to the forefront if a concerned and intelligent citizenry wills them to be so.

(For a great discussion on moderation, see here.)

Assange: Punk or Prophet?

What to think of Mr. Julian Assange?

A crusader—a prophet for the new age of transparency, uncovering the hidden abuses of imperial regimes—or an anarchist who will not be content until chaos reigns?

A self proclaimed libertarian and champion of the free market system, Assange is certainly a unique fellow. Apparently committed to transparency, he has taken on some of the most powerful institutions in the world, and in so doing has become a divisive figure. Though libertarian, he doesn’t exactly fit nicely into a single political mold.

His recent actions, or more specifically, the actions of WikiLeaks, of which he is the founder, raise some interesting questions not just about himself, but about transparency as well. Is transparency essential for a democratic government, and more specifically for the way governments interact with each other? Do we as democratic citizens have a right to know about the secret lives of rulers and diplomats, or do these people deserve the personal space that we ourselves enjoy when we write in our journals? Should they be held to a higher standard because they are indeed (in at least some cases) elected officials? Is Assange really that committed to a healthy transparency? Should we believe him?

I read a Forbes interview that Assange did a few weeks ago in which he made his intentions regarding the immediate future clear. He is sitting on a trove of secret documents relating to the public sector, and has Wall Street in his sights. Here I find myself actually cheering for Assange. There is no good reason to trust Wall Street—they have shown that they do not deserve the trust of the millions that they condescend to. Furthermore, I have always been a fan of the underdogs, the black horses, the cinderellas. And in a way, Mr. Assange is the perfect modern crusader. He uses technology to stick up the greatest powers and regimes in the world, then goes on the run. He lands on the cover of TIME magazine, makes Interpol’s wanted list (Rape? Sexual assault? Making a whoooole bunch of people really angry?), vaults himself to international attention, and now finds himself in a lawsuit against a powerful international corporation. His mom, of course always a fan, now worries he might have taken on a little too much this time.

So why can’t I quite bring myself to pull for Assange? Well, for starters, he just doesn’t strike me as being a good person. In a pseudo-intellectual online piece called “Conspiracy as Governance,” Assange begins a diatribe in which he starts off by saying that we need to understand the structure of bad, authoritarian governance so as to change it, adding a caveat that regimes have always resisted change. “Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite, not merely for preferment or favor within the regime, but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power. Authoritarian regimes create forces which oppose them by pushing against a people’s will to truth, love and self-realization.” These regimes are a barrier to true self-realization, and technology must be used to bring them down or to change them.

He moved 37 times before he was 14. His mom didn’t send him to school, for fear that it would inculcate an unhealthy fear of authority. Sounds like the makings of a nut job; David Brooks sums his character up thus: “Assange seems to be an old-fashioned anarchist who believes that all ruling institutions are corrupt and public pronouncements are lies. For someone with his mind-set, the decision to expose secrets is easy. If the hidden world is suspect, then everything should be revealed.”

Whatever the view of his character, I think if Mr. Assange were honest with himself, he would have to admit that the last “megaleak” didn’t quite have the intended effect. Far from outrage over the corruption of establishment, most cables as reported have read more like the front page of a tabloid than as coming from a serious institution committed to transparency. What we basically have is a gossip column of massive proportions—with world leaders and diplomats taking the places of the usual weary celebrities.

The blog site for the Mormon Worker picked up on this, and promptly blamed the media. They insist that there is indeed shocking evidence of misbehavior and corruption, buried among the thousands of cables. They cite a cable regarding the coup d’état in Honduras earlier this year as an example. I haven’t had time to sort all of the evidence out yet—on the surface it looks compelling—but that is true of about every article written at the Mormon Worker. Does the cable have merit? What if it did and the United States was involved, using US tax dollars, all the while lying to us about it? What if we are all being duped on a major scale? Not that we are incapable of understanding or just plain dumb, but just that we have become so accustomed to believing what we want to that we have built lives of a false security of understanding?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. From what little Assange has said, I just don’t feel like the kind of world that Assange envisions would be a good one. However, he is difficult to pin down for me, and that is partly because I don’t think he has made his intentions entirely clear. What exactly does he want, out of individuals, the media, corporations, and institutions? Is he a modern day Jeremiah, or some kind of a Nietzsche on technological steroids? Or is he duping us all and down deep he is just one of those men, described in a chilling line in The Dark Knight, that “just want to watch the world burn?”