Author Archives: Garrett Smith

The Problem with Arpaio

One of the more interesting books that I’ve run across has been Critchlow and MacLean’s Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present. Unlike most books on politics, it doesn’t point you to any specific conclusions, rather, Critchlow and MacLean debate, among other things, what they see as the motivating force behind the the conservative movement. Critchlow takes a sympathetic view, and emphasizes the good that the conservative movement has done; MacLean is less charitable, and has a tendency to ascribe more nefarious motives to what, on the surface, may seem like reasonable policy goals.

Of course, neither Critchlow or MacLean is able to account for all of the evidence, but the fact that they’re both able to martial some evidence doesn’t mean that their right, either: reality is large and complicated enough that if you wish to find something that at least seems to support your point of view, you’re probably going to be able to find it, even if it takes some misinterpretation of evidence and fallacious reasoning. 1 Arguments about what motivates people are rarely able to be completely resolved, but I would maintain that the best way to do it – and what Critchlow and MacLean are trying to do – is to build a coherent narrative, cite what they would argue are important original documents, and describe how the movement operates based on the motivations of the majority of the adherents of the movement.

MacLean’s and Critchlow’s main disagreement, as I understand it, is that when conservatives argue for something like, for example, the reduction of the welfare state, Critchlow would be more inclined to frame this in terms of fiscal responsibility, a desire to reduce deficit spending, the encouragement of fiscal responsibility, and all the sort of virtues that we routinely hear GOP candidates extol during campaign speeches. MacLean would be more inclined to see this in terms of how this policy would benefit the existing power structures – if something like this is seen as protecting business interests, or because it keeps minorities from breaking the cycle of poverty, or if this is only discussed because it increases voter turnout from white middle-class voters, then this should be treated with suspicion even if conservatives claim that they’re not doing it for these reasons.

On some intellectual level, it’s tempting to say that MacLean’s point is largely irrelevant, and that debates of policy would be more productive if we all agreed to debate policy only, instead of impugning the motivation of opponents. While that may be true in some ideal world, it misses a larger point about politics, though, and that is this: people act on what they perceive to be reality, and not reality itself, and so the perception of motivations matters very much. Policies have to work in the real world, but they also have to appeal to voters.

Besides, most careful observers of the conservative movement would admit that MacLean has a valid point: there are some elements of racism that do explain some GOP political positions.   While there are plenty of disagreements about how much the Southern Strategy actually influenced conservative positions – not to mention how much it still does – I think it’s safe to say that no one credible would deny that it somehow didn’t exist at all.

To the extent that MacLean has a point, though, it’s a point that conservatives would do well to consider: to the extent that racism, for example, is the motivating point behind any conservative policy positions, it should be taken apart and examined. There’s no room for this in a healthy conservative movement: candidates shouldn’t be willing to exploit these sort of features in order to win elections.

For years, however, there have been conservative intellectuals that have insisted that there wasn’t racial motivations behind policy proposals, and – and this is key – also insisted that these were not used to motivate the base. If voters were willing to support conservative policy proposals, it’s because they were good policy proposals, not because they were dog whistles for racist ideas.

If the election of President Trump made this position harder to defend, the pardon of Arpaio takes a sledgehammer to the base, and this is the first of two reasons why I believe that this pardon is one of the most revolting things that Trump enacted so far. Where MacLean’s point becomes impossible to rebut is when someone like Trump 2 does something that absolutely cannot be defended on policy grounds. There is no conservative reason for this pardon. There is no reason to issue it during a hurricane for higher ratings, there is no reason to do this without the involvement of the Department of Justice, and there is no reason to do it when it is quite clear that Arpaio is in no way apologetic for his egregious violations of the Constitution. What it does do is make it perfectly clear to everyone that cares to listen that Trump will do his best to bail out racists that engage in this sort of behavior.

Secondly, the GOP has claimed – for as long as I can remember – to be the party of law and order. This undercuts those claims: even within conservative policy positions, conservative skepticism of something like affirmative action – at its best, anyway – is based on the idea that we should all be given equal opportunity before the law. There should be no favorable treatment. The pardon of Arpaio stands this on its head: if the law prevents you from deporting as many Hispanics as you would like to, well, just throw the law out. That’s what Arpaio did, repeatedly, and this is what Trump apparently thinks is fine. This is what you need to know about the current state of the GOP, which has traditionally prided themselves on being the law-and-order party: their leader fired James Comey and pardoned Joe Arpaio.

This pardon makes it clear to minorities that they are not welcome in the GOP. It undermines any claim that the Republicans have to being the party of law and order. It does lasting harm to the reputation of the GOP, and it embarrasses conservative intellectuals. This will do long-term harm to Republicans, and this pardon should be condemned by all of them, as loudly and as boisterously as possible.

Notes:

  1. If you’d like to see some rather spectacular examples of this, I would invite you to search YouTube for videos describing why the earth is flat.
  2. I realize that Trump isn’t a conservative, but now, I’m conflating the ideas of “Republican” and “Conservative” and “Trump” – even though I don’t believe that they are the same thing, most of society uses it to refer to the same phenomenon now.

Against Trump

For many reasons, I have watched the recent electoral season with horror and frustration.  Now that it’s over, I view the next four years with something closer to anger and disappointment.

This is why:

I believe that conservatism – as a political philosophy – is, at its best, a coherent, rational way of seeing the world.  From the time of Edmund Burke (at least), its proponents have warned that the unintended effects of making changes have continually been underestimated; that changing something that you do not understand is likely to cause more, and more complex, problems than it solves.

I believe that a functional and philosophically consistent conservative political party is one of the necessary tools that will help to improving the lives of normal Americans and our standing in the world.

I believe that globalization and capitalism, although they are imperfect and need elements of government oversight, are, so far, the best way of pulling large groups of people out of poverty that humanity has.

I believe that the power of government should be limited, and that the government intervention in the free market, if necessary at all, should only take place after much contemplation, fear, and trembling.  An individual politician, attempting to call out individual companies or industries in an attempt to manipulate them to do his bidding, has no place in a free market economy.

I believe that in recent history, the United States has been too slow to lead, too quick to go to war, and too quick to conflate these two ideas.

I believe that the character of our elected leaders matters.

I believe in the rule of law.

I believe that the Constitution should be respected and taken seriously.

I believe that all Americans – and all people – are made in the image of God, and should be treated with the respect and dignity that this entails.

Donald Trump has repeatedly and deliberately repudiated all these things.  Worse, he has done it under the banner of a political party that, given its history, should be motivated to stand for them.  Worst of all, he has left the Republican party in a position where they are not equipped to embrace any of this points, or any coherent political ideology at all, for the foreseeable future.  If I take as my belief that a functional conservative political party is a vehicle that is helpful to the future of America, I cannot support someone who wants to wreck the vehicle.  As a result of Donald Trump, the Republican party has never, in my lifetime, been less conservative than it is now.  What is left of the party has descended into rank populism, has done its best to marginalize or run off conservative intellectuals, and is held together only by its fear and hatred of things that, at best, it understands poorly, and may not understand at all.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.  Now is the time for principled dissent.  Now is the time for resistance.

Books of 2016

Over the course of 2016, I’ve read quite a few books.  What follows is a list of the books that I’ve run across for the first time that struck me as those that, in some sense, I would be most likely to recommend to people grooming a yorkie or owning teacup pigs that I read and found this year in http://www.pamperedpiglets.com/.  This isn’t a list of bestsellers, the books that actually are the most important, the books that I most heartily agree with, or even the best books that I’ve read (or reread).  My guess is that there’s not a large benefit to me recommending classics that we all should have read sometime in high school or college.  If your English teachers couldn’t convince you to read Moby Dick, then I probably won’t be able to, either. 1

As it always does, this list encompasses theology, politics, novels, and anything else that I found interesting.  Here we go, starting with theology and religion:

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Notes:

  1. But if you haven’t, seriously, go read it.  I read it for the first time this year, and thought that it was magnificent.  It has a reputation for being a tough read, but I think this is undeserved.  For classic literature, it’s pretty accessible.

The Optimism of Total Depravity

Sometimes optimism shows up where we didn’t think to look for it:

Even though problems of theodicy are more troubling and more popular for debate, I maintain that for dour theologies, the problem of pleasure can be just as much of a problem to explain.  Perhaps the reason that the doctrine of total depravity isn’t immediately obvious is that for most people, they’ve found meaningful relationships and genuine pleasure among those that are outside the church.  If total depravity is taken without an awareness of God’s presence and distribution of common grace in the world, it’s difficult to explain why this is.  The traditional evangelical response that I grew up with is a denial that it exists, and it’s been my experience that this doesn’t survive many genuine encounters with friends and neighbors, coworkers, and the decent people that we don’t see on Sunday mornings.

If people are really that bad, how do we explain the happiness that we encounter in the world?  Rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and perhaps the presence of God – and His gifts to us – are more present everywhere in the world than we’re typically inclined to think.

Big Data and What Reviews Mean

One of the interesting effects of bookkeeping for small business has been the gradual, and probably unintentional, replacement of reviews and critiques by experts by aggregated data from people who may or may not have any particular expertise in whatever field they’re reviewing.  This is problematic if we treat these these reviews if they’re telling us the same sort of thing that the experts are saying.  Not only are they not the same thing, but the goals are entirely different.

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Easter and the Body of Christ

It’s worth noting that there are two different things in Christian theology are referred to as being the body of Christ: (a) The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Communion, or however your particular church tradition refers to it, and (b) the church, which is instructed to be the hands and feet of Christ to the world.

I’d never really thought about the significance that both of these things are referred to by the same metaphor, 1 but it was mentioned in a sermon this last Easter, and is worth pondering.

I don’t think that regarding both of these as the body of Christ is accidental:  both of these institutions were established by our Lord to minister:  the Eucharist is physical food that provides spiritual nourishment, and the church is – or at least should be – providing physical actions to the surrounding communities that result in spiritual benefits.  The Eucharist is the body of Christ for the church, and the church is the body of Christ to the world.  What the Eucharist is to the church, the church should be for the world.

Those that wish to denigrate the church have have a strong case that there are swaths of it within which Jesus would probably not be welcome:  stories abound of evangelicals endorsing Trump to the existence of Joel Osteen to the numerous moral failings of members of the clergy.  For me, it’s easy to become cynical and forget that the church was Jesus’s answer to suffering in the world.  If we are willing to take the Eucharist seriously, and not the church, perhaps we’ve missed Jesus’s point in using similar language.

Notes:

  1. I’m aware that some faith traditions – Catholics, most notably – don’t think that the Eucharist as the body of Christ is a metaphor at all, but I don’t really have a better way of referring to this, considering that most traditions see it as a metaphor, and all faith traditions seems to this, when referring to the church, as a metaphor.

Apple and the FBI

Those that have followed the news over the last couple weeks are familiar with the the fight – currently on hiatus – between the FBI and Apple Computer. 1  For those that haven’t, here’s a brief summary of the events:

  1. The FBI discovers an iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino attack in December of 2015.
  2. The FBI asked for Apple’s help unlocking this iPhone by writing software that would allow them to bypass the encryption on it.
  3. Apple said no.
  4. The FBI said never mind, that they had been able to unlock it by using some sort of solution from a yet unnamed third party.

That’s where we are now.

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Notes:

  1. Like quite a few fights lately, it has to do with the relationship between liberty and security:  I believe that Ben Franklin has a quote about that.

Brief thoughts on Zootopia

At the risk of sounding like a embittered old man, an observation on society:  the word “cool” is one of those words to which it’s difficult to assign a specific definition, as it’s usually used as shorthand for “I express approval of this thing,” rather than being used to assign a universally agreed attribute.  However, one of the better ways of describing what most people mean by this, at least as the word is represented in popular culture – and here I’m thinking of pop stars, or perhaps any Kardashian – is that the definition has a lot to do with the attribute of not visibly wanting something.  Wanting something risky, and working hard to get it, is not seen as particularly cool, and not caring (or at least pretending to) is one of the easier ways that we have of protecting ourselves – and, not coincidentally, of appearing to be cool.

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Morality in Aurora

Over the last day or so I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora, which I’d highly recommend.  Robinson is one of the better hard science fiction writers of the last 20 or so years, and I read his Mars trilogy back when I was in college.  I haven’t read much of his since then, but Aurora is fantastic.  It’s the story of a generation ship 1 launched from Earth and headed to Tau Ceti, where at least one world similar to Earth has been detected.  Although science fiction has explored the concepts of generation ships before, I have a hard time imagining an author better suited for tackling this than Robinson, who takes the opportunity to explore the complications that might result from having people aboard a generation ship.

One of the issues that pressurized walls in Manhattan is the complication of eventually having the ship populated entirely by people that did not choose to be on board.  For a substantial number of the crew on a voyage like Robinson describes, they will be born after the ship departs our solar system, and die before the ship ever arrives at its destination; because of this, a large number of options are closed to them.  No one would really have the option to not be a productive member of society, when society is only 2,000 people.

It makes sense that this would lead to practical problems on board the ship – as it does – but it also raises some interesting questions as to whether or not it is a moral decision to forcibly choose such a specific path for one’s children.  A substantial number of the people on board do not want to be there, and the specific differences between serving on such a ship and being shanghaied may seem more clear to those of us who still have our feet safely on a planet.

Robinson doesn’t offer a simple solution to this, which seems honest:  there isn’t one.  But it’s something that humanity will probably have to start thinking about as soon as the first person is born on Mars.

Notes:

  1. If this is a term that’s unfamiliar to you, check out the wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_ship