Smart people saying smart things

Smart people saying smart things December 17, 2011

Herman Melville: “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs” (1854)

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.

“Blandmour,” said I that evening, as after tea I sat on his comfortable sofa, before a blazing fire, with one of his two ruddy little children on my knee, “you are not what may rightly be called a rich man; you have a fair competence; no more. Is it not so? Well then, I do not include you, when I say, that if ever a rich man speaks prosperously to me of a Poor Man, I shall set it down as — I won’t mention the word.”

James Surowiecki: “Living by Default

Homeowners are getting lambasted for doing what companies do on a regular basis. Walking away from real-estate obligations in particular is common in the corporate world, and real-estate developers are notorious for abandoning properties that no longer make economic sense. Sometimes the hypocrisy is staggering: last winter, the Mortgage Bankers Association—the very body whose president attacked defaulters for betraying their families and their communities—got its creditors to let it do a short sale of its headquarters, dumping it for thirty-four million dollars less than the value of the building’s mortgage.

When it comes to debt, then, the corporate attitude is do as I say, not as I do. And, while homeowners are cautioned to think of more than the bottom line, banks, naturally, have done business in coldly rational terms. They could have helped keep people in their homes by writing down mortgages (the equivalent of the restructuring that American Airlines’ debt holders will now be confronting). And there are plenty of useful ideas out there for how banks could do this without taxpayer subsidies and without rewarding the irresponsible. For instance, Eric Posner and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, suggest that, in exchange for writing down mortgages in hard-hit areas, lenders would take an ownership stake in a house, getting a percentage of the capital gain when it was eventually sold. Lenders, though, have avoided such schemes and haven’t done mortgage modifications on any meaningful scale. It’s their right to act in their own interest, but it makes it awfully hard to take seriously complaints about homeowners’ lack of social responsibility.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “A Muscular Empathy

This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking “Why?” The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: “Sniffing Glue: A childhood in Christian pop

If you’re wondering what teenager in her right mind would listen to a forty-year-old Vegas showman with a Jersey accent rap about Jesus, the answer is: me. In junior high, I saw Carman in concert three times. The Standard was the first CD I ever bought. I rocked out to Carman on my Walkman on the way to youth group and dished with my girlfriends about what a hottie he was. At the concerts, I bought his T-shirts and posters, and when he called out “Who’s in the House?” I made my arms into letters, YMCA-style, with the rest of the crowd and shouted “JC!”

I was homeschooled up until tenth grade, and my social life revolved around church. I grew up submersed in evangelical youth culture: reading Brio magazine, doing devotions in my Youth Walk Bible, eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Left Behind series, and developing a taste in music that ran the gamut from Christian rap to Christian pop to Christian rock.

Libby Anne: “My Life as a Daughter in the Christian Patriarchy Movement — How I Was Taught to Obey Men, Birth 8 Kids and Do Battle Against Secular America

Deep within America, beyond your typical evangelicals and run-of-the-mill fundamentalists, nurtured within the homeschool movement and growing by the day, are the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. This is where I grew up.

I learned that women are to be homemakers while men are to be protectors and providers. I was taught that a woman should not have a career, but should rather keep the home and raise the children and submit to her husband, who is her god-given head and authority. I learned that homeschooling is the only godly way to raise children, because to send them to public school is to turn a child over to the government and the secular humanists. I was taught that children must be trained up in the way they should go every minute of every day. I learned that a woman is always under male authority, first her father, then her husband, and perhaps, someday, her son. I was told that children are always a blessing, and that it was imperative to raise up quivers full of warriors for Christ, equipped to take back the culture and restore it to its Christian foundations.

… I was taught that those outside of our beliefs, including humanists, environmentalists, socialists, and feminists, were evil, selfish people who were destroying our society, and that Christians who did not share our beliefs were “wishy-washy” and “worldy.” There is a very “us versus them” mentality in Christian Patriarchy. They were the enemy, the agents of Satan out to destroy belief in God and pervert the world. They cared only for themselves and their own desires and were not to be trusted. I was taught that the world outside was a scary and dangerous place. If I stayed under my father’s authority, I would be protected and safe.

You also have to remember the sense of purpose that accompanies the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. We were raised to fight the enemy, be that Satan or the environmentalists, socialists, and feminists, to come against them in spiritual warfare and at the polls. This is why Michael Farris, a proponent of Christian Patriarchy and the leader of the Home School Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to train homeschooled youth in the law and government. There were more interns from Patrick Henry College in the Bush White House than from any other college. Put simply, their goal is to take over the country, instituting godly laws ruling according to Christ’s dictates.

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  • ako

    It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves.
    But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask
    “Why?”

    I’m uncertain about this.  If I remember correctly from when I read Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People (and I may not, it’s been a while), people who pictured themselves doing the right thing and intervening to help others when it was difficult or risky were more likely to end up actually doing so.  (I wish I had a copy of the book with me, because there were studies cited, but I can’t remember enough details.)  Which would suggest there’s a benefit to envisioning yourself as the hero. 

    I think maybe there can be a distinction between telling yourself “I obviously don’t have the moral courage and would fail” (which can discourage taking any action) and being aware that there would be difficulties and barriers and one would need exceptional moral courage in certain situations?  Because the simple “Well, I’d just do this thing that the vast majority of people found too difficult to do, and I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t!” approach can definitely discourage empathy.  But I think that it’s important to distinguish between taking all of the barriers and difficulties seriously and writing off the possibility of being exceptionally good, so that people aren’t discouraged from trying.

  • Jesus, Fred, with a lot of these types of posts, what could I possibly contribute, besides, “Yeah!”

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad to see more people shining a light on the Quiverfull/Patriarchy movement.  This is what the tv Duggars follow.  They’re not just a wholesome family that is larger than average.  Their mission is to convert people to their lifestyle, and their show is one way they are doing it.  They hide the unsavory aspects through selective editing, because most people really don’t want to hit infants or deny education to their daughters.  They are not as innocent as they seem!

  • I agree with you. History is full of heartening examples from even the darkest of times in our civilization. They were certainly no norm, but Charles Sumner did in fact exist. Newton Knight did in fact exist.

  • Hearing about these Christian warriors made me think of the Cylons. They have a plan, ordained by the One True God, for these colonies… (and you aren’t going to like it)

  • vsm

    I’ve never understood how it’s even possible to imagine what you would or wouldn’t have done in a given historical period. What kind of ‘me’ are we talking about? If it’s literally the ‘me’ sitting here on a computer transported back in time, I imagine I would have free my slaves, because I’ve grown up knowing slavery was not cool. If we’re talking about my exact genotype materializing in the womb of a Southern upper-class woman in the early 19th century, it would’ve turned into a completely different person than me and I don’t see much point in speculating about his morality. Maybe he’d have had the kind of experiences that would have led to him doing the right thing, in which case I’d be happy for him, or maybe he’d have been an abusive bastard, in which case I’d be happy if his slaves killed him in his sleep.

  • Anonymous

    Hearing about these Christian warriors made me think of the Cylons. They have a plan, ordained by the One True God, for these colonies… (and you aren’t going to like it)

    Except the Cylons were actually persecuted in the past couple decades.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not going to lie: DC Talk was pretty damn good. I might be guilty
    of still listening to their albums occasionally when no one else is
    around.

    I know how that works.  I still own every Living Sacrifice and Zao album and still listen to them pretty regularly.  Good music is good music, to the point where even my anti-theist self doesn’t mind how preachy both bands could get.  The irony, of course, is that so many (most?) “Christianized” versions of pop culture focus so heavily on the message part that the art suffers, which probably kills off evangelism attempts more effectively than anything else. 

  • Homeowners are getting lambasted for doing what companies do on a
    regular basis. Walking away from real-estate obligations in particular
    is common in the corporate world, and real-estate developers are
    notorious for abandoning properties that no longer make economic sense.

    This? So much.

    I related before about tricks businesses use to shed debts, usually involving bankrupting the old business and then starting up the new one at the same location so that all that’s happened has been a change of name.

    The fact that businesses can do this on a semi-routine basis, whereas individuals who used legal name changes to evade debt payments would be charged with fraud, shows how our society views the things business owners do (via their businesses) to be less criminal or oppobriuous because of the aura of self-reliance and success that the average business owner carries with him or her, however unjustified in reality.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, Carman was fun. When he wasn’t being dominionist, homophobic, and trying to be the Xian answer to Steven Seagal, he was fun.

  • P J Evans

    I learned that a woman is always under male authority, first her father, then her husband, and perhaps, someday, her son.

    That’s straight out of the laws of classical Rome. Really.

  • FangsFirst

    I’ve only ever listened to one super-openly-identified “Christian band” (they were first on Tooth and Nail), being Blindside. I always appreciated the “We’re clearly into our beliefs, but aren’t going to just sing “JESUS” constantly and openly, because you get that already, or if you don’t, this still holds some meaning for you–and, if nothing, else, I know I’m singing to Him and so does He” approach. I imagine other bands do this, but I stumbled into Blindside by accident.

    Though I do occasionally do near spit-takes when I crack open liner notes and find “First, we want to thank Jesus Christ” from bands I never expected.
    Like in Stone Temple Pilots’ Core.

    Not that I see anything wrong with that, of course. Just surprised the hell out of me.

  • runsinbackground

    I don’t disagree with you that there is a cultural disconnect between the perception of this type of tactic when it’s employed by individuals vs. it’s employed by companies, and that this disconnect is not a Good Thing, especially when it’s used to shame people into avoiding making moves that would benefit them. However, I’m not sure that I like your analogy to personal name-changes: when the first company declared bankruptcy, sold all its assets, and folded, it ceased to be. The fact that its assets happened to be purchased by a second company whose principle stakeholders are the same as the first is irrelevant from the point of view of the laws governing corporations, which are the rules of the game. The more I think about this the more I think that a really good analogy might not be possible, but it puts me in mind of someone faking their own death, obtaining a new name and official identity (birth certificate, Social Security Number or equivalent, etc.), repurchasing their  home and other high-value assets, remarrying their partner (if any), and “adopting” their children (if any).

  • cyllan

    And this is why corporations are not people.

  • Daughter

    The patriarchy movement article was interesting in that the author described herself as having a happy childhood and not really questioning it until she was exposed to other ideas as an adult. She also says that most girls who grow up in the movement are like her in that respect.

    I’ve done a lot of reading on the “No Longer Quivering” web site, so that may influence my opinion, but it’s hard to imagine that that’s the case.  Maybe that’s the public face people show, since she mentions that they attempt to attract others with the appeal of “perfect” families.

    The author states that her happy childhood was due in part to her mother being (mostly) healthy and energetic and able to easily manage so many pregnancies and children, and due to her father being laid-back.  She notes that not all families had such qualities.

    I would guess that most families would lack such qualities.  Pregnancy takes a real toll on women’s bodies. In past eras, women may have had a lot of children, but they did what they could to space them out. (My paternal grandmother’s 7 children were born over a 20 year period). Breastfeeding can suppress ovulation, and so for that reason the patriarchy movement discourages breastfeeding–despite the fact that the Biblical prophet Samuel, whose mother Hannah had dedicated him to the Lord, didn’t enter the service of the temple until he was weaned (and also walking and talking)–so about age 3. You would think they might see breastfeeding as God’s way of managing family size, but it seems their agenda of growing an army for God is more important.

    Even their Biblical inspiration verse about a quiverful of children being a blessing (Psalm 127:5) is credited in the Bible to Solomon, a man with hundreds of wives.  In other words, he had a quiverfull of children because he had so many wives, not because each given wife had so many children. And the patriarch Jacob, famous for his 12 sons, had them with four different women.

    So I can’t imagine most women being about to handle the expectations as easily as the author’s mother, or most girls accepting the responsibilities as cheerfully.  And I can’t imagine the pressure on the men being much easier.  You’ve got to financially provide for those big families almost solo, along with having the weight of all the decision-making for your wife and kids. If you’re a jerk, you might relish your authoritarian control.  If you’re not, the burden must  be horrible, which I imagine would make most men less than pleasant to be around.

  • Anonymous

    I would note that Libby Ann has a wonderful blog at lovejoyfeminism.blogspot.com . She’s a fairly outspoken atheist at this point, unlike many other Quiverfull survivors. I would say her tone in this article is an attempt to provide an evenhanded view of why Vision Forum-style teachings are attractive to people and why some Quiverfull families have successfully raised a second generation; if you read her blog, there’s a lot of pain there too. It’s worth remembering that these are not Amish people or Mennonites with a long history in the US; this is a movement that dates more or less back to the Reagan administration, so the first generation of people raised like this are coming of age right now.

  • Anonymous

    (It’s also worth noting that her story – went away to college and began to doubt her family’s belief system – is popularly cited as a hypothetical reason why young women do not need to go away to college. The Duggars were pretty clear from the start, for example, that their girls were probably not going to go to college for religious reasons.)

  • You know, I recall a political cartoon from the days shortly after 9/11 which had a bunch of militant mujahideen in a cave reading a note which said, “U.S. to the Taliban:  Give us Bin Laden or we’ll send your women to college!”  

    The mujahideen were looking shocked and horrified at the note.  

    I am wondering what the reaction of the Quiverfull movement would be if they were sent a similar note.  “Stop trying to undermine the secular government or we’ll send your daughters to state colleges.”  

  • Rikalous

    See, I figure that if meeting other people and getting educated makes believers abandon The One True Way, that’s a big hint that it isn’t The One True Way.