Why I Don’t Care about SR15 and the End of the World

Back in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report (known now as SR15) on the importance of keeping climate change below 1.5 degree Celsius in order to prevent catastrophic changes to the global ecosystem. It sent shockwaves through much of the interested news media, particularly its recommendation for radical and immediate reductions of carbon emissions if the goal is going to be met.

Observing a high school government class earlier this week, some students were discussing these latest apocalyptic predictions and what could or should be done about them. With that great convinction and imprecision that characterizes impromptu high school debates, students broke down into two broad categories. Either they believed “we have to do something because like I think it said we’re all going to die by 2040 or there will be no more oceans or whatever” or else they argued that “climate change is just part of the way the world is; it’s normal; so if what we’re doing works for us then, I mean, why bothre changing?” I was appalled, mostly by the gross misunderstanding of the scope and nature of the problem by both camps.

Let me start by pointing out (if it needed to be said) that I am not a climate change skeptic. The world is warming and humans are a significant cause of that. My acceptance of these facts is rooted less in a clear understanding of the scientific evidence than in a clear understanding of history. When the climate changes, whatever the cause, there are dramatic and global effects for humans. Global warming at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum eventually provoked a radical alteration of the way humans had organized their socieites for hundreds of thousands of years. Global cooling in the 13th and 14th centuries fueled disease outbreaks that devestated the global population. The climate is changing, and that means radical changes for human society. (For evidence that we caused the change this time, we need only look to the coincidence of global warming and rapid global industrialization.)

The changes that are happening to the global climate right now are of a magnitude that the world has not seen since the outset of human civilization. I typically use the Ice Age to talk to my students about this, pointing out that for the last 10,000 or so years the world has been in a pattern of roughly half a degree of temperature fluctuation. The existence of human society as we know it is requires that consistency to flourish. Ryan Glaubke addressed the same point exceptionally well in a recent Quillette article:

We should remember that it isn’t so much the survival of our species that is at stake, so much as the survival of our society. Civilization, as we know it, got its foothold during a particularly placid time in our planet’s climate history. Little ice ages and medieval climate anomalies notwithstanding, the Holocene epoch—spanning the last 10,000 years, give or take—has featured a prolonged and relatively stable warm period that proved a suitable backdrop for the development of agriculture, cities and all the flurry of human activity that these permit. The downside is that the societies we have built are predicated on the stability of that same climate system….This era of stability ended roughly 150 years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution….Global mean temperature already has risen approximately 1°C since 1850. To find a comparably abrupt climate shift, we’d have to venture back 130,000 years, to a time just before the Earth plunged into its most recent Ice Age. To find carbon dioxide concentrations comparable to those we observe today, we’d have to go back much further—three million years, in fact.

Glaubke says there is good reason to be pessimistic about the fate of the earth (or rather the fate of human civilization as we know it). The purpose of his article, however, is to inspire just the opposite: climate optimism. He notes that the apocalyptic cynicism of many is actually hampering the ability of climate activists to get anything done. When we stress the nigh-insurmountable scale of the problem in the hopes of scaring people to action what we actually scare them into is cynical resignation. In short, people turn into that aforementioned high schooler whose response is, “It’s gonna happen anyway, so I’ll just keep doing me. You do you, boo boo.” Glaubke says that only confidence in the solvability of climate problems will inspire action.

Okay. But I still don’t care about whether we hit the 1.5 degree mark. Or if human society as we know it crumbles. Or if we technology is the vehicle that will carry us to our climate salvation or the rope with which we’ll hang ourselves. I just don’t care.

Glaubke, the woke high schoolers, and the climate skeptics alike all share a common conviction that the problem resolves into a question of whether and how we should act to acheive a certain (perhaps impossible) climate goal. That, to me, is precisely the problem. We ought to steward the environment well not because we may all be dead if we don’t but because having a right relationship with the non-human world is a moral good in itself. From a spiritual perspective, it doesn’t matter if humans fix the problems we created. It only matters that we repent of having created them.

A Christian approach to the problem is neither to make an idol out of the environment and worship at the alter of its preservation nor to take the all-too-common evangelical approach of use and abuse in the name of “God will destroy the world anyway.” A Christian approach recognizes that virtues like justice, modesty, self-control, and respect for all God created extends to our behavior toward the non-human world. The best way to convince Christians to become environmentaly responsible and to live in ways that are sustainable ought to be to appeal to those core Christian virtues that govern our interactions with each other and with God. It shouldn’t rely on parsing scientific reports about arbitrary markers of climate catastrophe. It should be intrinsic to our moral lives. What is right is right regardless of what the UN says. And protecting and healing the environment is right, whether or not it saves civilization as we know it.

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Camus Week: On Going Back

Albert Camus is a dear intellectual companion, one to whose writings I return more often than any other philosopher or theologian. Years ago, I produced a brief series of comparative studies about his philosophy of absurdism, drawing heavily from his treatise, Myth of Sisyphus. Since then I’ve had many occasions privately to return to Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ other writings, but I have not given any more space here to his writings. So this week, marking the 105th anniversary of his birth, I wanted to offer a collection of quotes that I find meaningful.


At the end of Camus Week, I turn finally to an unambiguously hopeful moment, though it will be a journey to get there. I will, for the most part, let Camus relate the narrative himself. What follows is from Camus’ Return to Tipasa (1952). Tipasa, ruins of a Roman colony on the coast of Algeria, was a placed beloved by Camus in his youth and to which he had returned before. As the years wore on, however, he struggled to recapture the feelings that the place once fostered.

In front of the soaked sea I walked and waited in that December Algiers, which was for me the city of summers. I had fled Europe’s night, the winter of faces. But the summer city herself had been emptied of her laughter and offered me only bent and shining backs. In the evening, in the crudely lighted cafes where I took refuge, I read my age in faces I recognized without being able to name them. I merely knew that they had been young with me and that they were no longer so.

Yet I persisted without very well knowing what I was waiting for, unless perhaps the moment to go back to Tipasa. To be sure, it is sheer madness, almost always punished, to return to the sites of one’s youth and try to relive at forty what one loved or keenly enjoyed at twenty.

Camus knew that the place would not be the same and that he would not be the same–or perhaps, most precisely, that the two of them together would not be the same–but he insisted on returning. He could not drive out of his mind those days, more than twenty years earlier, when he had “spent whole mornings wandering among the ruins, breathing in the wormwood, warming myself against the stones, discovering little roses, soon plucked of their petals.” His return, however, seemed to have none of this. More frustrating still seemed to be his inability to come to terms with the change.

Disoriented, walking through the wet, solitary countryside, I tried at least to recapture that strength, hitherto always at hand, that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted that I cannot change it. And I could not, indeed, reverse the course of time and restore to the world the appearance I had loved which had disappeared in a day, long before.

Too much had happened in the intervening years, and Camus fixated especially on the war that had ravaged North Africa in the 1940s. The war had been a symptom of a great disaster rooted in human nature, a deficit in loving.

For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it. In the clamor in which we live, love is impossible and justice does not suffice.

Yet precisely at this moment of despair, Camus found hope not in Tipasa so much as his decision to return to it. He describes it like this:

I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice, and return to combat having won that light. Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new constructions or our bomb damage. There the world began over again every day in an ever new light. O light! This is the cry of all the characters of ancient drama brought face to face with their fate. This last resort was ours, too, and I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.

In the end, the Tipasa of the present was nothing like the Tipasa of the past; you cannot go back. But the love that Camus had for the place and the memory of the warm times spent there reminded him of the importance taking the world as it is rather than descending into a hopeless nostalgia for what it was. “I have again left Tipasa…but the memory of that day still uplifts me and helps me to welcome equally what delights and what crushes.” So even if we cannot ever really go back, Camus reminds us that the past comes forward with us and empowers us in the present–whatever that may have in store.

Tipasa Ruins

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Camus Week: On Deserts

Albert Camus is a dear intellectual companion, one to whose writings I return more often than any other philosopher or theologian. Years ago, I produced a brief series of comparative studies about his philosophy of absurdism, drawing heavily from his treatise, Myth of Sisyphus. Since then I’ve had many occasions privately to return to Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ other writings, but I have not given any more space here to his writings. So this week, marking the 105th anniversary of his birth, I wanted to offer a collection of quotes that I find meaningful.


After yesterday’s cheery note about aging and dying, it seems only appropriate to share an equally sanguine comment about deserts–in this case both real and conceptual. The following quote comes from the 1939 essay, The Stop in Oran. In it Camus describes the desolate qualities of Oran, Algeria’s major northwestern port, with evident affection. There is no one interesting group of people talk to, but then “you wouldn’t want one!” There is nothing to do, but that frees up the young people to indulge “for an hour in the intoxication of perfect existences.” Oran is a desert, and this is precisely what makes it beautiful to Camus.

There are no more deserts. There are no more islands. Yet there is a need for them. In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time….[A]t certain moments the heart wants nothing so much as spots devoid of poetry.

That’s what Oran was to Camus, a pleasantly dull manifestation of humanity’s need for nothing. “Mediocrity insists upon lasting by all means,” Camus observes, and that part of our own nature is not to be repudiated or ignored. It must be accepted if for no other reason than because it is the most enduring part of us. Camus observes,

…there is in every man a profound instinct which is neither that of destruction or that of creation. It is merely a matter of resembling nothing. In the shadow of the warm walls of Oran, on its dusty asphalt, that invitation is sometimes heard. It seems that, for a time, the minds that yield to it are never disappointed….Here are the deserts where thought will collect itself, the cool hand of evening on a troubled heart.

The language is darker perhaps, but it recalls the rapturous praise of mountains and forests and streams, which more traditionally have cured our restlessness by their sublimity. Camus merely introduces the notion that nothing rather than the magnificence of something may be the greatest curative at all.

Algeria in the 1960s

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Camus Week: On Getting Older

Albert Camus is a dear intellectual companion, one to whose writings I return more often than any other philosopher or theologian. Years ago, I produced a brief series of comparative studies about his philosophy of absurdism, drawing heavily from his treatise, Myth of Sisyphus. Since then I’ve had many occasions privately to return to Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ other writings, but I have not given any more space here to his writings. So this week, marking the 105th anniversary of his birth, I wanted to offer a collection of quotes that I find meaningful.


Having shared something of Camus’s thoughts about his youth, it seems only appropriate (here in the middle of Camus Week) to share a quote from Camus about aging. In his relentless quest to face the world as it is–or at least insofar as he can experience as it is–to talk about aging or time at all is necessarily to talk about death. Consider these thoughts from Myth of Sisyphus:

 Likewise and during every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it. We live on the future: “tomorrow,” “later on,” “when you have made your way,” “you will understand when you are old enough.” Such irrelevancies are wonderful, for, after all, it’s a matter of dying. Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.

Camus lends serious philosophical heft to the aversion that so many of us in middle age have to birthdays, as our enthusiasm for celebrating the passage of time and the relentless intrusion of tomorrow wanes in proportion to our age. There is a biblical analogue here in the command not to worry about tomorrow (since tomorrow will worry about itself). Camus recognizes the wisdom of this, but with his characteristic absurdist twist, also acknowledges the futility of trying to live by it. We should resist the coming of tomorrow with all our being, and yet we revolt against our own wisdom, constantly looking forward to something else “later on.” Camus, of course, offers no solution. Only a label–absurd. For him, that’s enough, and some days it’s enough for me too. Maybe tomorrow will be one of those days.

Algeria in the 1960s

 

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Camus Week: On Work

Albert Camus is a dear intellectual companion, one to whose writings I return more often than any other philosopher or theologian. Years ago, I produced a brief series of comparative studies about his philosophy of absurdism, drawing heavily from his treatise, Myth of Sisyphus. Since then I’ve had many occasions privately to return to Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ other writings, but I have not given any more space here to his writings. So this week, marking the 105th anniversary of his birth, I wanted to offer a collection of quotes that I find meaningful.


Eventually the wanton exercises of youth give way to the striving of adulthood, and so today’s quotes focus on what Camus has to say about work. Rather pointedly in Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher diagnoses what was and is the modern syndrome associated with work:

A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end.

That observation, while well said, is hardly novel in and of itself. But Camus’ answer is more particular to his absurdist philosophy and for that reason more interesting. As the title of the essay suggests, the comment is embedded in a larger discourse framed by the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the king punished to roll a boulder up a mountain for eternity only to have it roll back to the bottom again. Like the modern laborer, Sisyphus must accept “the torment of which he will never know the end” (except in death, a theme to be returned to tomorrow).

But Camus is fascinated by Sisyphus not because he is tormented but because he continues in that torment even while knowing it is both torturous and eternal. “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would be his torture, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”

So what is Camus’ answer? Hedonism? Despair? No, it’s scorn.

The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

So there you have it. Next Monday, just remind yourself that the disdain you have for your job isn’t bitterness or cynicism. It’s philosophy.

Algeria in the 1960s

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A Non-Voter’s Guide for Thinking Evangelicals

This morning, Ben Witherington posted what he called “A Voter’s Guide for Thinking Evangelicals.” It clearly wasn’t meant for me, as I’m not sure I quite qualify as a “thinking evangelical.” I hope “thinking” applies, but I’m ambivalent about “evangelical.” Whatever the case, I didn’t find Witherington’s reflections particularly thoughtful in the end, but as I’m being bombarded by breathless pleas to vote at all costs by the media and by family and now by religious leaders I respect, I cannot help but respond.

Admittedly, I am paying close attention to the mid-terms, and I am deeply invested (emotionally at least) in their outcome. But the same could be said about the college football season. I have players (and increasingly a team) that I’m a fan of, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to become a booster and it definitely doesn’t mean I’m going to run out on the field to play a few downs.

But that is precisely what Witherington wants me and other thinking folk to do. It’s crucial, now more than ever, because “in some ways, this is the most important election in the 21rst century for Americans, as it is likely to determine the direction of our country for years to come.” That softener is subtle, but I didn’t miss it. We have to say “in some ways,” because we all know the last election was the most important of our life time until then. And the one before that was the last most important one. And next time will be the new most important. Ad infinitum. Inasmuch as each shapes the future of this (“our”?) country, they all matter for the rest of forever. Forgive me if I’d be a bit cynical–even if I were a voter–about this election changing the legislative course of American history in a system that very rarely accomplishes anything anymore. But you’re certainly going to struggle to convince me that everyone stands as a breaking point in American history. I’m too much of a historian to buy that logic.

Having issued the call, though, Witherington has four more pieces of advice (“VOTE!” being the first) for the thinking Christian that I think deserve to be considered on their merits.

1. Don’t vote based on party affiliation. Vote based on the morality of the candidate (as revealed by stances on the important issues).

Witherington lets you know what those important issues are, and they mostly revolve around a Christian use of money. No tax relief for the wealthy. No genuflecting before corporate donors and interests. Christians need to vote for candidates who behave like Christ if they want this to be a virtuous (Christian?) nation.

That sort of a-moral approach to dealing with things is what has been getting us in trouble for a long time and making us the laughing stock of the world. We pretend to be a virtuous country but end up electing the immoral.

The nationalism embedded in that argument is hard for me to square with Christian principles. Does Jesus really care if the US is a laughingstock? If not, should we? The bigger issue is the misguided notion that we can take a “moral” approach to politics and have “virtuous” country as a result. But, as David Lipscomb has pointed out and as I have quoted here incessantly, “there is not and never has been any principle of involving the moral or material good of the people in politics.”

In any case, the Christian obligation has never been to seek the redemption of governments or countries. Governments, the “virtuous” and the “immoral” alike, have the same eschatological fate. Destruction. They’re unlike people in this way, and for precisely this reason Christ tasked us to seek and save lost people and not to seek and save lost states. I want Ted Cruz to be a better person not so that he can be a better legislator but so that he can be a better person. Ironically, that involves him no longer being a legislator, thus killing two birds with one first-cast stone.

2. Don’t vote in such a way that rewards racial animus–on both sides.

On both sides? I should start by acknowledging my own hypocrisy here, as I have in the past expressed (and stand by) my agreement with Vernard Eller’s critique of identity politics. Perhaps that’s all Witherington was going for here. But it is hard to imagine a less appropriate time for Christians to be making an “all lives matter” style argument than when they are (unfortunately) turning up at the polls in this election. Here the philosophical wisdom of Eller (and my basic agreement with Witherington) must be balanced against the wisdom of Elie Wiesel: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

What Witherington offers is both true and not the message of the moment for Christians. Jesus ate with sinners and told them to sin no more, but it is safe to say that one of those facts resonated more loudly with the world than the other. All racism is bad, but there is a particular racism of the moment that should be attacked with special spiritual violence by the followers of Christ.

3. Christians must be consistently pro-life (before and after birth).

To which I say, amen. And what? I love that Witherington is advocating on behalf of a consistent pro-life stance; life and the proper valuation of it are key features of the Christian ethos. But being pro-life is the basis for being anti-politics. Politics is violence. Max Weber famously, and oh-so-correctly, defined the state as the “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” To be a government is to have an exclusive prevue over legitimate violence. Tolstoy, reasoning equally soundly from this to an anti-political position, put it this way:

Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organized violence.

And this way:

Everywhere and always the laws are enforced by the only means that has compelled…some people to obey the will of others–that is by blows, by deprivations of liberty, or by murder.

Democrats and Republicans and fiery Vermont Independents are all invested in this system of violence. To vote for any of them is to invest yourself in that system as well. Our government maintains power through war, policing, and capital punishment–not by accident and not because it is less moral than it should be but because that is the essence of government. You can’t be politically pro-life, not in the consistent way that Witherington advocates. You can only be pro-life if you are anti-state. Because, and again I invoke Tolstoy, “the misdeeds of our rulers become our own if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying them out.”

4. The most important thing when we vote is not money but our moral integrity.

I couldn’t agree more, but then this is precisely the reason not to vote. Witherington concludes that our moral integrity is reflected in “how we vote.” I suggest, in contrast, that our moral integrity is reflected in whether we vote. To vote is already a moral capitulation to evil, and even Witherington himself cannot avoid this. He describes voting as a process of choosing “the lesser of several evils” to keep from “permitting the greater evils.” But that’s not the way evil or moral culpability works.

The idea of a gradation of evil, in which lesser evils are permissible in the face of greater evils, is a problematic concept, one without a solid biblical or theological grounding. Evil is an absolute reality; you cannot reject God just a little bit. Our choice to participate in evil (i.e. sin) is equally absolute, and it is that willful capitulation to that which is not God that constitutes the sinfulness of acts and of the people who commit them. That is why Paul doesn’t follow his declaration that “no one is righteous, not even one” with “but at least Beto isn’t as bad as the other guy.” In fact, he’s precisely trying to argue against that logic, that somehow the Jews are less evil than the Gentiles. By the law, all are sinners–not a variety of lesser or greater sinners but sinners alike. By faith, we are redeemed from that sin, again not in degrees but absolutely.

In every instance to choose evil is to reject God, and our life is a series of those absolute choices. Our culpability lies in whether we decide in each moment to turn toward God or away from God. Nothing compels us to vote, to choose (in Witherington’s own words) to do a little bit of evil in the hope of averting a bigger evil. Turning again to Romans, Paul specifically enjoins Christians not to fight evil with evil but to overcome evil with good.

Sure, it would be easier to achieve greater economic equality at the ballot box–easier for me because I have to do less and easier in the sense of being more expedient. But evil is often a more efficient means of action, whether or not it springs from good intentions. As a Christian my obligation is to confront these evils not with “lesser” evils of my own but with good. There is no reconciling the imperative to love and the election of a representative to conduct lesser acts of violence as my proxy.

 

In the end, I return to the analogy about college football. Yes, I’m paying attention. Yes, it matters to me. But I want certain candidates to lose the way I want Alabama to lose, because their evilness consists primarily in doing what they’re supposed to do more effectively than their opponents. Politics and civil government are predicated on the preservation of power through violence, regardless of person or party. There is truth to the argument that some politicians do evil more often than others, but the system itself does not allow for the possibility of a net good. Everyone who embeds in a system like that, everyone who actively participates, comes away an accomplice and does so to the great detriment of their moral wellbeing.

Now where’s my sticker?

I Didn't Vote

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Camus Week: On Being Young

Albert Camus is a dear intellectual companion, one to whose writings I return more often than any other philosopher or theologian. Years ago, I produced a brief series of comparative studies about his philosophy of absurdism, drawing heavily from his treatise, Myth of Sisyphus. Since then I’ve had many occasions privately to return to Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ other writings, but I have not given any more space here to his writings. So this week, marking the 105th anniversary of his birth, I wanted to offer a collection of quotes that I find meaningful.

Today’s selection is taken from Summer in Algiers, a love letter to Camus’ longtime home. Camus, born in French Algeria, grew up in Algiers and eventually attended the University of Algiers. Written in 1936, when Camus was still a very young and very unknown man, Camus begins the essay with a conspiratorial tone, as if he is letting us in on some private part of himself: “The loves we share with a city are often secret loves.” Much of what follows is a picture of Camus’ youth, not merely the context but the spirit of the thing. In the course of his essay, he offers this telling description of what it is to be young:

The distinguishing mark of youth is perhaps a magnificent vocation for facile joys. But, above all, it is a haste to live that borders on waste….In that plenty and profusion life follows the sweep of great passions, sudden, exacting, and generous. It is not to be built up, but to be burned up. Stopping to think and becoming better are out of the question.

Here, for me, Camus captures what is best and most deplorable about our young selves. Standing just at the cusp of critical adulthood, Camus looks back on a time of reckless, unfettered living with a mixture of nostalgia and criticism, something that I imagine characterizes how many of us think about our younger years.

Then we lived like we were inexhaustible, rather than (as now) perpetually exhausted. The axiom that youth is wasted on the young seems at once true and profoundly false. Given my youth again, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with it. I wouldn’t know how, in Camus’ words, to “exhaust the experience of a lifetime” in ten years of adolescence. Perhaps it’s best that we lack the ability to actualize our nostalgia (midlife crisis convertibles notwithstanding).

Algeria in the 1960s.png

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Causality vs. Moral Culpability (Remix)

In recent days I have noticed increased traffic on an old post here from 2011 on the difference between causality and moral culpability. Since I know for a fact that I’ve not gotten any more interesting, I can only assume the increased interest is related to the still swirling debates about the extent to which the president and current administration bears responsibility for the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last Saturday.

This is an issue that I am passionate about (causality vs. culpability, not blaming the president), but it is still with some trepidation that I see more attention (must less bring it myself) to that old post. Even back in 2011, it drew accusations of slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and misogyny. (Which on the one hand was hurtful and on the other hand finally made me feel like a real conservative.) It wasn’t all mindless vitriol. There were real problems with the way the argument was laid out, something brought to my attention by a commenter on the now defunct Blogger version of this site. Now, in the #metoo era, it probably sounds even more tone deaf than it ever did.

I suppose the natural response would be to obscure it somehow (as if my own obscurity weren’t enough). I should pay it $130,000 to disappear, or treat it like an old yearbook that someone else wrote and that, in any case, was an adolescent joke that doesn’t mean what you think it means anyway. But I won’t do that. Because, like I said in the comments on Blogger, the argument I make is valid notwithstanding problems in how I made it. And because this is a conversation that we desperately need to have, especially now that the moral shoe appears to be on the other foot. It turns out, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander after all.

So, to the question, is the president responsible for the Tree of Life shooting, the answer is yes. And no. If responsibility is understood as causality, than it seems that we can draw a pretty commonsensical conclusion that the incendiary rhetoric that is a hallmark of this administration has inflamed and empowered radical elements who now feel compelled to take action of the kind that he has enjoined through dog-whistling innuendo or under the guise of hyperbole. This is not the same, however, as saying that the president is morally culpable for what happened. That belongs to the moral actor alone. There is no sense in which the blood of the eleven dead are on the head of the president. Whatever causal relationship his actions had to the final outcome, he bears no moral responsibility for the behaviors of anyone other than himself.

That doesn’t mean that the president shouldn’t change (though it may speak to whether or not he has a moral obligation to). In my original treatment of this topic, I dwelled at some length on the fact that we regularly seek to regulate morally neutral actions in order to control outcomes. It’s worth revisiting that argument for a moment here:

[N]eutral moral causality is not entirely out of our hands. While it may be psychologically dangerous to dwell on this in the actual instance of tragedy…we make these kind of decisions all the time, trying to control or predict insofar as is possible for us the various morally neutral causes which may come to bear on our lives. If you don’t want to get mugged, don’t walk down a dark alley at night. It’s common sense.

If you don’t want your political parishioners to carry out acts of domestic terrorism–mailing bombs to former presidents and shooting up synagogues–don’t peddle conspiracies about how Democrats and Jews are coming to take or destroy everything you love. It’s common sense.

One difference, of course, is that while walking in an alley at night may be stupid but it isn’t wrong (morally). Peddling false conspiracy theories, particularly about minorities, is. But if the president needs to be chastened, it is not for the events at a Pittsburg synagogue but for the events at his political rallies before and since.

Most of the media has been uncharacteristically careful in trying to make this distinction (with the exception of Fox News, which benefits from a martyr president pilloried for crimes he didn’t commit). They dutifully note that no one but the shooter is responsible for the shooting but that the president must do more than talk about unity and coexistence during a tragedy. There is a plausible causal relationship between demonizing your enemies to whip up fear and fearful people taking matters into their own hand.

My biggest problem is the hypocrisy involved in this argument from progressives, the same sorts outraged when I applied this logic to protecting children (and ourselves) from sexual predators. I watched the Kavanaugh hearings closely and can say with confidence that Democrats would have screamed bloody murder if anyone had tried to pivot to have a conversation about safe practices for young women to avoid situations like these. Like Republicans whining about the injustice of blaming the president, Democrats would be right only if everyone paints with huge, childlike brush strokes.

It’s no one’s fault but Kavanaugh’s (allegedly or whatever) that he assaulted one or more women in his adolescence. But that shouldn’t stop us from teaching our daughters not to go to frat parties. The evidence is ample that frat culture is rape culture. Informed women concerned about their wellbeing avoid rapey situations. If I had read two dozen studies about the high prevalence of rape at Wal*mart, you better believe I would start shopping at Target. The truth is, we know what situations and behaviors are dangerous, and we should train ourselves and our children to avoid them.

And that’s what people should be calling on the president to do. Legally (if not morally) he is entitled to say whatever he wants about how Hillary Clinton is paying young, strong Muslim men to hide opioids in their sombreros, sneak across the border in NAFTA trucks, and illegally vote for Beto O’Rourke. But the evidence seems ample and clear now that this sort of crazy behavior is linked causally to crazy behavior of a more violent sort. So let’s stop it, Republicans.

Women/children are not morally responsible for their own assaults. The president/Republicans are not morally responsible for the assaults of their constituents. But every action has consequences, whether we’re responsible for them or not. So let’s stop confusing the issues and start dealing with the problems.

All of which seems obvious to me, but apparently it takes a non-partisan ideologue to make both cases. Fortunately, I’m just such an ideologue.

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Trust People to Ruin It Themselves

Andrew Hartman recently shared this quote American radical Goerge Goetz (better known as V. F. Calverton):

The people may make a mess of things, but at least they will have made it and not the bankers and industrialists, and it is always better to suffer and die for something you have done yourself than for something that has been done to you.

I would probably say that the people will make a mess of things, but either way he makes a good point about the possible consonance between pessimism and radical politics. Step aside utopian progressives; cynical radicalism seems even more suited for the present moment than for Calverton’s pre-World War II era.

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As an afterthought to my comments in honor of Alaska Day, I wanted to share this widely incorrect prediction from Frederick Whymper about the long term significance of the Alaska purchase for US-British relations in North America:

There are, however, many, both in England and America, who look on this purchase as the first move towards an American occupation of the whole continent, and who foresee that Canada and British America generally, will sooner or later become part of the United States. Looking at the matter without prejudice, I believe that it will be better for those countries and ourselves when such shall be the case.

We shall be released from an encumbrance, a source of expense and possible weakness; they, freed from the trammels of periodical alarms of invasion, and, feeling the strength of independence, will develop and grow; and—speaking very plainly and to the point—our commercial relations with them will double and quadruple themselves in value. No one now supposes, that, had the United States remained naught but “our American colonies,” they would have progressed as they have done; and it is equally obvious that our commerce with them must have been restricted in equal ratio. That it is the destiny of the United States to possess the whole northern continent I fully believe.

The prediction was wholly consonant with earlier turn of the century expectations in the United States that the eventual merger of British America (Canada) and the US was both desirable and inevitable. The invasion of Canada during the War of 1812 had this hope at least partly at its root. I had not, however, seen good evidence that the dream had persisted all the way into the 1860s. Of course, at least from some perspectives, support and opposition to deals like NAFTA may very well be considered an extension of this debate about the (at least economic) merger of North America’s two great Anglo spaces. Whose to say what the future holds, but something tells me that Whymper’s predictions will never be vindicated, at least not as he imagined them.

One more thing about Walrussia

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