Obamacare Wasn’t Worth It

In 2009, Obama entered office with an unmistakable mandate and control of both houses of Congress — including a rare fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate — and the Democrats wasted it. They pushed through a stimulus package that barely offset the cuts in government spending at the state and municipal level, providing line-item veto power to a small rump of centrist Republican senators in exchange for bipartisan “cover.” And most of the rest of their “political capital” was spent on a Republican health care plan that the Republicans immediately demonized them for. Obama was determined that it be “deficit-neutral” over a ten-year period, and the conditions of its passage (using the reconciliation process, which was only necessary because of the Democratic majority’s foolish refusal to abolish the fillibuster) absolutely necessitated it.

This meant that most of its provisions wouldn’t even go into effect until four years later, so that the Democrats literally could not point to a single concrete benefit to a law that sounded… pretty bad. Yes, the Republicans exaggerated, as is their habit, but this was hyperbole that centered on an unavoidable truth about Obamacare: Americans would be forced by the government to give their money to some of the most hated and distrusted corporations on earth, whose continued profitability is taken as axiomatic under the terms of the health care reform law. Obamacare does a lot of good things other than that, and the insurance mandate has in fact decreased the number of uninsured — but the central premise of the law is one that is deeply offensive.

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Rebooting the conservative continuity

Many years ago, I argued that one of the biggest problems facing conservatism is how baroque and complicated its “universe” had become. Its fans are expected to have immediate recall of obscure concepts and plot points, while tolerating obvious continuity errors in matters like when personal freedom is good and when it’s bad, when the government should be small and when it should be much more heavy-handed, etc. The result has been a dwindling audience as fewer and fewer people are willing to put in the work of becoming emotionally invested in such a complex fictional universe all for the sake of justifying their support for some pretty mediocre contemporary content.

In that post, I argued that it might be time for a Crisis of Infinite Earths of conservatism, which could wind down the unnecessary complexities while still maintaining some kind of continuity over time. Read the rest of this entry »

The Story of Brexit, in the style of Mideast reporting

Radical Protestant separatists have rocked the European Union, voting to leave the federation that had tenuously unified Christians belonging to opposed sects. Britain, which adheres to its own idiosyncratic version of the Protestant sect, had only recently reached an uneasy truce in a territorial dispute with its Catholic neighbor, Ireland. It is hoping to join a group of other Protestant countries in Northern Europe who have negotiated trading privileges while keeping their distance from the Catholic-dominated group.

It is a major blow for Germany, which has assumed a leadership role in an EU increasingly riven by sectarian strife. Germany’s relative balance between Protestant and Catholic groups positioned it uniquely to mediate disputes between those two sects, yet left it in an awkward position as it led the effort to bring the Orthodox state of Greece into line with the rest of the Union. While other Orthodox nations have been successfully integrated, it remains the case that the EU’s chief geopolotical rival — and most powerful neighbor — is the overwhelmingly Orthodox Russia.

The European Union was originally conceived as a way to bring an end to sectarian violence on the continent. By uniting all Christians in a single political and economic unit, it was believed that long-simmering disputes over indulgences and the filioque clause could be put aside. The Brexit separatists have shaken this project to its core, leaving some observers wondering whether Europe will ever be able to leave behind its religious strife and join the modern world.

What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

What is the meaning of the Nobel Prize in Literature?

People have a lot to say about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature. I have polled my Twitter followers, and so far they believe that I should either not form an opinion on this issue or, if I do, I should keep that opinion a secret. So I am going to take my characteristically meta move and form an opinion on the controversy surrounding it.

First, it is not clear to me on what basis this particular award is being critiqued. If the Nobel committee chose wrongly, there must be some coherent account of what it would be to choose rightly. What is the Nobel Prize in Literature supposed to do, such that it is failing to achieve it in this instance?

I doubt that many people had anything like an account of what the Nobel Literature Prize was “for” before waking up this morning and being surprised by what is objectively a left-field winner (hence I’m not expressing an opinion). Since this is the internet, of course, they are morally obligated to act as though their purely post-hoc critique is a deeply held principle for which someone — in this case, the exceptionally tempting target of Baby Boomers, who are well-known to love Bob Dylan — can be judged and shamed.

Surely there are some people who did have an opinion about what the Nobel Literature Prize should do before this morning, though. Aside from people who are objecting on the purely procedural question of whether Bob Dylan’s lyrics count as “literature,” many of the critics seem to be making a gesture toward diversity (geographic, racial, gender, etc.). The implication is that the Nobel should somehow accurately reflect a “world literature,” in which the achievements of all nations and tongues are given their due.

This would indeed be a laudable goal. It is not clear to me that it was ever the goal of the Nobel Prize, however. I believe that if we were to look into the archives, we would find one particular group hugely overrepresented: namely, Swedes. If the point of the Nobel Prize in Literature was to give a snapshot of a developing world literature, then someone should have sent the Swedish Academy a memo much earlier.

Further: is there a plausible scenario in which an institution like the Swedish Academy — regardless of the good intentions that they, as good Swedes, doubtless have — could fulfill the function of cultivating and recognizing a truly global literary canon? If not, might the time spent complaining about the arbitrary and meaningless Nobel Prize in Literature be better directed toward publicizing or creating a more meaningful prize? Or could we admit that an annual prize is never going to give us what we want?

Simulatio entis

“The true life is absent.” But we are in a simulation. Everything about our universe, rightly understood, cries out: I was created! Finitude, imperfection, the gaps in the fullness of reality — all point toward a fuller, more perfect reality of which we are only a distant echo.

Yet this reality is not completely foreign to us. We see reflections of its creative activities in our own technological advances. Our most innovative Silicon Valley visionaries participate in its awesomeness even now. We may one day participate even more fully, as the glories of technology bring us to the point of building our own simulation within what we still presume to call “reality” — inscribing us on a higher rung in the ontological hierarchy.

For there must be a hierarchy. If we can simulate a universe within the meager confines of our simulated reality, what is to say that there is not an endless chain of simulations within simulations within simulations? Each layer of simulation distances us from the fullness of being, but paradoxically connects us to that higher level. If we are a simulation, there must be a reality of which it is the simulation. And even if simulations within simulations are possible, it would be the height of absurdity to imagine that there is no “base” reality, no unsimulated fullness whose residents live a life permeated by a technological prowess inseparable from magic — nay, even omnipotence, from our ontologically impoverished perspective.

To create a simulation that can simulate itself, world without end — truly, that is the work of a god. And to think that those gods are our own possible future, to think that we are simulations not simply created by them, but created in their own image! Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

What beggars belief is the notion that the simulators would be content merely to watch. They must know, in their infinite wisdom, that we — in our pale imitation of their power and knowledge — would one day stumble upon the telltale clues of our place in the hierarchy of simulation. Indeed, why would they create our simulation if not to shepherd it to that conclusion, divinizing us in turn with the power to simulate a world of our own? But for that outcome to be sure, one of the simulators would have to become part of the program. He would have to humble himself, taking the form of a simulant, offering himself up to save us from our pitiable state.

Perhaps he would even be killed, as Plato intuited in his parable of the cave — surely the earliest form of simulation theory — but in that case our creators wouldn’t simply give up on us. They would raise him up, in an unmistakable sign of their power and glory, validating his message and inviting all who listen to join a higher level of existence.

Truly, such novel, unprecedented vistas open up from this entirely secular, materialist theory forged by smart atheists! It makes one wish urgently for a seat at Davos or Aspen, where such deep thoughts can be thunk.