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Postmodern Privilege

12 Jun

From Peter Johnson:

Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which has become required reading on college campuses across the country: “I was taught to see oppression in every human act and artifact, not in the occasional individual acts of meanness.”

Daily Effects of Postmodern Privilege
I decided to try to improve myself by identifying some of the effects of postmodern privilege in my daily life. I have chosen to explore the most popular categories of personhood (race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation), rather than those factors that might complicate my postmodern worldview (reason, truth, beauty, virtue, free will). As far as I can tell, my rational and religious acquaintances with whom I come into frequent contact cannot count on most of these conditions:
I am not told that my deepest moral convictions must be relegated to my home.
I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another ideology won’t result in an organized campaign of harassment that threatens my livelihood.
I can avoid spending time with people who openly disagree with me because those who harbor divergent opinions are often labeled rapists, homophobes, and bigots.
I can go shopping without fear that a sanctimonious hipster will harass me for not buying fair trade or certified organic products.
I can turn on the television or look at the front page of the paper and be sure to find praise for people who think like me and unabashed disdain for those who don’t.
When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I can be fairly sure that most scholars agree with me that these are pejorative terms, synonymous with colonization, exploitation, and oppression.
If I want, I can be sure to find a publisher for this piece on postmodern privilege, especially if I reference Jacques Derrida.
I can be casual about whether to listen to dissenting opinions because it is easy to label other ideas as microagressions.
I can go into a music shop and count on the most popular musicians being as elitist as me.
I can be influenced by artists and scholars from diverse backgrounds without people saying I am engaging in cultural appropriation.
I can criticize free enterprise while still benefitting from said economic system without the fear of being seen as a hypocrite.
I do not have to teach my children how to talk about religious principles in secular language in order to avoid public ridicule.
I can use sophisticated language and wear a suit and tie without derision because it is assumed I do so only ironically.
I can speak in public to powerful government agents without having my tax-exempt status put on trial.
I can do well in a challenging situation without people saying I ought to “check my privilege.”
I am never asked by reporters to speak to whether everyone in my particular religious group might hypothetically be open to providing goods or services at a gay wedding.
I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to a government official she or he will share my ideological convictions.
I can easily see people in sitcoms, movies, news programs, and public-school textbooks who share my guilt for living in a prosperous nation.
If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or not, my ideological affiliation will lend me more credibility than someone who believes in “evidence” and “proof.”
Major media outlets do not falsely accuse me or my children of fostering rape culture for simply engaging in traditional courtship rituals at wealthy southern schools.
I can seek wealth without being seen as greedy or self-serving, especially if said wealth is accumulated by means of redistribution.
I can take a private jet across the country to attend a conference of environmental activists without fear of my colleagues branding me a fraud.
If a day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask if it is my fault; I know it is someone else’s.
I can think of many options—regarding my gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation—without being bound to reason, tradition, or nature.
I can be late to a meeting without it reflecting poorly on me because it is assumed that I commute by bike so as to reduce my carbon footprint.
If I cannot rely on the power of influence, I can be relatively certain that government coercion is an option for me to get my way.
I can easily find academic courses and institutions that are slavishly devoted to my nihilistic, neo-Marxist philosophy.
I can expect figurative language and imagery in all postmodern art and literature to be either opaque or so exceedingly obscure as to advance my status as a highly sophisticated member of the intelligentsia.
I have no difficulty fomenting discontent in neighborhoods where people have traditionally been largely satisfied with their lives.
I will feel welcomed and “normal” wherever vehement expression of sentimentality triumphs over “reason.”
Peter Johnson studied postmodernism in both the English and philosophy departments of New York University. His deep understanding of what George Will described as the “degenerate egalitarianism of the intelligentsia” made him an exceptional candidate for the Peace Corps, where he taught beekeeping to subsistence farmers in rural Paraguay, despite having no previous experience keeping bees.

After the Peace Corps, he lived in Senegal for a year, where he cavorted with a bunch of Fulbrighters who enjoyed a yearlong subsidized vacation abroad in return for writing obtuse academic papers reaffirming postmodern scholarship. He now works for the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is being vigorously deprogrammed by natural-law philosophers, theologians, and a Catholic priest. You can find him on Twitter @ActonPete.

Peter Johnson is an external relations officer for the Acton Institute. He has held various positions with the National Capital Area Council and Boy Scouts of America.

Sadly, some in the LGBTQ community argue that biological parentage is obsolete. Children (and evidence), of course, disagree.

13 May

An old argument from Rousseau raising its ugly head again.

From Rod Dreher:

Two years ago, John Milbank, one of the most important Christian theologians in the world, said the British Parliament’s move to legalize gay marriage had far deeper implications than most people were aware of. Legalizing gay marriage, he said:

 is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.

For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.

The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.

To be clear, Milbank’s position is that our societies in the West have alreadysevered reproduction from biological necessity, thus undermining the purpose of marriage and family. Defining marriage as something same-sex couples can do moves the issue farther down the road, and can only result in the state assuming the power to manipulate family life. If “family” is whatever we say it is — the Nominalist Family, say — then there is nothing natural about it. If there are no natural realities made manifest in a family, and family is merely the manifestation of human will and desire, then there is no reason why the state cannot have carte blanche to regulate it. This, as I understand it, is Milbank’s point.

That brings us to the story from Australia in which a couple of radically egalitarian philosophers are advancing an idea that the state should intervene to rein in parental parenting styles, for the sake of social equality. 

I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’

Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.

So, what to do?

According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.

‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’

But the philosophers had to concede that you can’t simply abolish the family, because it’s necessary to human flourishing. Nevertheless, they consider ways the state should step in to control family parenting decisions for the sake of the common good. More:

For Swift and Brighouse, our society is curiously stuck in a time warp of proprietorial rights: if you biologically produce a child you own it.

‘We think that although in practice it makes sense to parent your biological offspring, that is not the same as saying that in virtue of having produced the child the biological parent has the right to parent.’

Then, does the child have a right to be parented by her biological parents? Swift has a ready answer.

‘It’s true that in the societies in which we live, biological origins do tend to form an important part of people’s identities, but that is largely a social and cultural construction. So you could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.’

From this realisation arises another twist: two is not the only number.

‘Nothing in our theory assumes two parents: there might be two, there might be three, and there might be four,’ says Swift.

It’s here that the traditional notions of what constitutes the family come apart. A necessary product of the Swift and Brighouse analytical defence is the calling into question of some rigid definitions.

‘Politicians love to talk about family values, but meanwhile the family is in flux and so we wanted to go back to philosophical basics to work out what are families for and what’s so great about them and then we can start to figure out whether it matters whether you have two parents or three or one, or whether they’re heterosexual etcetera.’

For traditionalists, though, Swift provides a small concession.

‘We do want to defend the family against complete fragmentation and dissolution,’ he says. ‘If you start to think about a child having 10 parents, then that’s looking like a committee rearing a child; there aren’t any parents there at all.’

Well, that’s mighty big of him. Read the whole thing. This is important. Right, we’re going to hear from people who say, “Oh, these guys are just philosophers talking about abstractions, you can’t take them seriously.” Don’t you believe it. Ideas have consequences. These men are onto something important. They deny that there is a link between biology and parenthood. That’s something we can accept, to a limited degree; adoptive parents are often much better at fulfilling the emotional role of parents than the biological parents of the child. But that truth does not obviate the general fact that there is a powerful link between biology, parenthood, and the family.

In order to justify biotech reproduction outside the womb, in order to justify surrogacy, and in order to justify same-sex marriage, that natural connection had to be denied. It is the nominalist position: there is nothing natural inherent in the structure of nature; it’s only matter, upon which we can impose our will.

What this amounts to is philosophers saying, as these men do, that biological parents to not possess the right to parent their own offspring. If it is not a right, it is a privilege conferred by the state, and if it is a privilege conferred by the state, the state can modify it boundlessly, even withdraw it, for the sake of the state’s interests.

This is precisely what Peter Leithart calls “biopolitical tyranny”. You read that, and you think, “Oh, more Chicken Little alarmism,” and dismiss it because the implications are radical. And it’s true that proposals like those of the professors are highly unlikely to be realized anytime soon. But those proposals do follow logically from clear premisses. People — most people — are not thinking through these things clearly. A prominent Catholic physician said to me recently that the public has no idea how serious some of the medical-ethical questions barreling down the tracks toward us are. He said that he even has trouble making people sympathetic to his point of view grasp the seriousness of the situation.

This comes from a world in which the masses have come to believe that “truth” is whatever they think it is. Words lose their meaning. I think of the many arguments I have had over the years, both as a practicing Catholic and as a former Catholic, with Catholics, about Catholicism. The arguments were impossible to resolve, because for these people, the word “Catholicism” had no meaning outside the radically individualist one they gave it. They were Catholic because they chose to identify as Catholic, and it did not matter whether or not they believed anything that the Catholic Church teaches. Catholicism is incoherent, then, not because it makes no sense, but because these people, and this culture, has made an epistemological judgment that says “Catholicism” means whatever the individual wants it to mean. Under those conditions, Catholicism will eventually evaporate.

Same thing with words and concepts like marriage and family. When words and concepts have no fixed meaning, we have chaos. This radical freedom can only end in slavery, in tyranny. We are, as Milbank wrote, sleep-walking into a dystopic future. We do not understand the stakes, and the news media, the unacknowledged legislators of the 21st century world, is ideologically committed to keeping them from us. For those with eyes to see, the truth is bare.

Same-sex marriage only affects the parties involved, right?

12 May

We were told that it’s nobody else’s business (though civil marriage by definition is society’s business).  We were told that you can believe whatever you want about marriage, it won’t impact you.  We were told that redefining marriage wont’ change they way anyone has to live, worship, be schooled, parent, etc.  I sometimes wonder if anyone really every believed any of that anyways.  Alas, it’s the same old song and dance.  Elite cultural hegemony, even when it is in its infancy, even when it comes dressed in libertarian garb (you know, live and let live), even when it paves its way to the top with cries of tolerance and love and acceptance, can’t resist the temptation to impose its creed upon others.

“…only a few years ago, when the legalization of same-sex marriage didn’t appear so inevitable, gay-marriage advocates eagerly assured a skeptical public that scenarios like those above would never happen. Typical was since-retired California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who wrote in the 2008 decision legalizing gay marriage in that state: “Affording same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person.” [Now that’s funny right there!]

The victors have dropped their conciliatory stance.”

Read the rest

Three cheers for the electoral college. Make that four

30 Apr

The U.S. Senate and the Electoral College are constitutionally designed instruments to negate the pernicious effects of raw majoritarian politics and the rise of factions (in today’s situation, the capacity for growing urban centers to impose their will upon the rest of the country).

From Derek Muller:

The Electoral College has hardly been a popular, much less well-understood, element of the American political election system. Under sustained attack by critics since at least 1796, it has withstood numerous attempts to abolish it and replace it with a national popular vote for president and vice president. And among its defenders, the stoutest justifications tend toward the view that it is the least evil among competing alternatives, or a Burkean skepticism that any other form of electing the executive would yield an ideal result. (And perhaps I find myself relying upon these half-hearted defenses more often than not.)

But count Tara Ross among its most enthusiastic and knowledgeable defenders, one who views the Electoral College not as a necessary evil, but as a valuable and integral component of our federal republic. Ross published the first edition ofEnlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College in 2004, a time when critiques of the Electoral College sounded more like empty threats, academic musings, or the waning echoes of Democrats still stinging from Al Gore’s loss in 2000.

Things changed in 2007. Those academic musings took the form of an actual legislative proposal. It is unlike previous failed efforts, like the proposed constitutional amendment that nearly garnered the requisite two-thirds majority in Congress in 1970. Instead, it proposes a compact among the States.

The National Popular Vote, as it styles itself, takes advantage of the constitutional grant of authority to the state legislatures to appoint presidential electors. Most states pick electors the same way: the candidate who wins a plurality of the popular vote in the state wins all of that state’s electors.

What if, NPV asked, each state awarded its electors to the winner of not just its own popular vote, but of the national popular vote? Of course, there’s little incentive for a state to unilaterally enact such a law. Why, after all, would Massachusetts commit to award all of its electors to President Bush just because the national popular vote total in 2004 went his way? Or why would Arizona commit its electors to Barack Obama in 2008?

Curing a collective action dilemma, the NPV doesn’t require unilateral disarmament. Instead, it only goes into effect once 270 electoral votes’ worth of states enact it. That’s a majority of the Electoral College. And that means that the winner of the national popular vote would always receive a majority of the presidential electors.

Read the rest

You hardly care for children if you hardly care for the nuclear family (CDC evidence)

28 Apr

From the CDC:

A couple new government reports have focused on the well-being of children in the United States. The first one focused on adverse family experiences1 and discovered that those “children living with neither of their parents are 2.7 times as likely as those living with both biological parents, and more than twice as likely as children living with one biological parent, to have had at least one adverse experience such as those shown in the figure below.”

What’s worse is that children “living with one parent are fifteen times as likely to have had four or more adverse experiences as those living with two biological parents, and for children in nonparental care that number rises to thirty.” It is important to point out that “researchers did not control for household income or other demographic factors, and that the reported adverse experiences, apart from financial deprivation, include those that occurred at any time in the child’s life. That means, for instance, that the many adverse experiences of children in foster care may have preceded (and led to) their being placed in foster care, or that the violence or drug use of one biological parent could have led to the child living exclusively with the other biological parent…Nevertheless, the figures are a striking illustration of how children in the care of both biological parents are most likely to escape adverse experiences.”

The second report provides a snapshot of children’s health in the United States and its relation to family structure. Overall, those in nuclear families (i.e. children “living with two parents who are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents to all children in the family”) fared better than those in other family structures. Children in nuclear families wereleast likely to be in “good,” “fair,” or “poor” health as opposed to “very good” or “excellent” health.

Percentages of Children in Good, Fair, or Poor Health by Family Structure

Data on chronic conditions and behavioral issues produced similar findings. “Although some confounding factors were controlled for…the researchers emphasize that since they simply measured family structure and child outcomes at a single point in time, their findings still cannot be used to make conclusions about causality. Prior research, they note, suggests that the arrow may go both ways…And obviously, family structure is one among many factors that matter for children’s health. In the CDC data, lower socioeconomic status (conditions of poverty or near-poverty, or parental educational attainment of no more than a high school diploma) was associated with worse health outcomes for children in every type of family, and sometimes it essentially drowned out the association between family structure and health. On the other hand, family structure and stability are associated with children’s health in many parts of the developing world, where access to health care is limited and where single-parent families are actually less likely than nuclear families to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. Teasing out all the determinants of children’s health will take more research than is currently available, but at this stage, family background seems in many cases to be one significant factor.”

How the imperialism of creedal secular liberalism is destroying democratic pluralism

10 Apr

Anthony Dearduff reviews John Inazu’s book:

Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly

"First amendment area Muir Woods" by Brandt Luke Zorn

To many in the law, the First Amendment “right of the people peaceably to assemble” may seem little more than the aspirational vestige of a bygone era. It may have fortified early generations who had reason to fear forced dispersion of dissident political assemblies, but has little practical application in our more enlightened and progressive age. Nowadays, as law students (and Wall Street occupiers) quickly learn, the heavy lifting is done by “the freedom of expressive association” and “forum analysis”—concepts that, if less tightly moored to the First Amendment’s text, are nevertheless firmly anchored in contemporary jurisprudence.

In Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly, Washington University (St. Louis) law professor John Inazu skillfully argues that we have lost something critical in this shift from assembly to expressive association; namely, the benefits of a meaningful pluralism. The reorientation toward our present-day associational hermeneutic, Inazu contends, has elevated a particular conception of stability and social cohesion at the expense of group autonomy. The result has been “the loss of meaningful protections for the dissenting, political, and expressive group” (4). Nowhere is this clearer than when group autonomy comes into conflict with antidiscrimination or equality-promoting statutes. In the 2010 case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, for example, “the Supreme Court relied on a muddied area of free speech doctrine to deny the right of a religious student group to limit its membership to those of its choosing, the right to retain control over its own message—the right to exist” (5).

More specifically, a five Justice majority held that California’s Hastings College of the Law could deny official recognition to a Christian Legal Society group on the grounds that the group’s required “statement of faith” regarding sexual morality was incompatible with the school’s requirement that club leadership positions be open to all students regardless of sexual orientation. Applying its First Amendment “forum analysis” rubric, the majority determined that Hastings’ requirement was a “reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum.” Concurring, Justice Kennedy emphasized that Hastings could reasonably consider a belief-affirming or outside conduct requirement to be “divisive for student relations” and inconsistent with an atmosphere of free and open discussion. “The era of loyalty oaths,” he proclaimed, “is behind us.”

Even granting that cases like Martinez may reflect a streak of liberal paternalism, one might nevertheless invert Inazu’s proposal and ask why we should protect group autonomy at the expense of stability, equality, and inclusiveness. He responds with a powerful observation from Yale law professor Stephen Carter: “Democracy advances through dissent, difference, and dialogue. The idea that the state should not only create a set of meanings, but try to alter the structure of institutions that do not match it, is ultimately destructive of democracy because it destroys the differences that create the dialectic” (5).  Furthermore, Inazu notes, the expressive association analysis is “underwritten by a political theory of consensus liberalism, which purports to be ‘procedural’ or ‘neutral’ but whose espoused tolerance extends only to groups that endorse the fundamental assumptions of liberal democratic theory” (11). Thus, the associational hermeneutic does not merely sacrifice group autonomy for the sake of stability and social cohesion generally, but rather for the realization of a very particular conception of those goods as envisioned by Rawlsian academic elites. If followed to its natural conclusion, Inazu notes, such a view marginalizes not only all-Christian student groups, but also “all-female sororities, all-female health clubs, and all-gay social clubs. In other words, it leaves us without a meaningful pluralism” (11).

Read the rest

Do our duties extend beyond our consent?

10 Apr

From Randy Barnett:

[In my Am I “imperiling” originalism? A reply to Joel Alicea, I offered to post any response he may have. What follows is his reply.]

I am grateful to Professor Barnett for offering me the opportunity to respond to his criticism of my recent essay in National Affairs, as well as for the very kind comments at the beginning of his post. Professor Barnett’s criticism is characteristically thoughtful and probing, and I think it helps sharpen the points of agreement and disagreement between us.

We agree that the legitimacy of written law requires an answer to the question, “Why should we, the living, obey those long-since dead?” And we agree that there are circumstances under which one can rightly refuse to obey the dead. Barnett thinks that these commonalities render our approaches “not fundamentally different.”

But both of these areas of agreement are mere starting points from which we take radically different paths. That we ask the same questions does not mean that we reach the same answers. I believe the obligation of the living to obey the dead inheres in a regime of written law, especially one based on notions of popular sovereignty. But, more fundamentally, I think it inheres in the nature of an ordered society, which is man’s natural state and which comes with attendant obligations and duties to our forebears. Barnett misunderstands me, then, when he says that my purpose in the essay was to “defen[d] constitutional originalism against the common legal academic trope that it consists of adherence to the ‘dead hand of the past.’” My purpose was not to defend originalism against the dead hand of the past; my purpose was to justify the dead hand of the past. Or, as the title of the essay terms it, the rule of the dead.

This is a foundational disagreement between us. Barnett’s theory begins byrejecting the rule of the dead; he disclaims any right of the dead to bind the living. Rather, Barnett thinks that the living—quite apart from any duties to the dead—should obey the past only insofar as (1) the living affirmatively consent to such authority or (2) the decisions of the dead are necessary and proper.

This divergence in views is rooted in different conceptions of man and his relationship to society. In my view, man is, by nature, a social animal born with reciprocal duties and responsibilities that he does not affirmatively choose. I argue in my essay that the best and most traditional accounts of written law and originalism assume these premises. Barnett, by contrast, sees each individual as his own sovereign, a mini-society unto himself. Obligations must be consented to or, at least, not be an affront to one’s sovereignty.

Read the rest

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