Thursday, March 30, 2017

This is the true face of the Alt-Right II

My first post by this title is here. It was sparked, in part, by a vile article at Radix Journal deploring the pro-life movement for being "dysgenic." Just to show anyone who is listening that this is not a mere accidental aspect of the alt-right, the infamous Richard Spencer has recently come out with a similarly despicable rant of his own, apropos of Tomi Lahren's firing for being pro-abortion. Jonathan von Maren quotes his comments at length here. I'm having a bit of trouble finding a link to Spencer's own video from which von Maren is quoting, but I'm going to assume that the lengthy quotes are accurate. Here are some doozies:

And if you look at the writing of people like Ramesh Ponnuru (of National Review) it is directly associated with this…that every being that is human has a right to life and so on. Well that’s not how we think as identitarians, to be honest. You are part of a community, you’re part of a family, you’re part of a collective. You do not have some human right, some abstract thing give to you by God or by the world or something like that. You’re part of a community and that’s where you gain your meaning or your rights. The anti-abortion crusade is often associated with family, the traditional family, but to be honest it’s descended into not just a human rights dogma but a kind of dysgenic “we are the world” dogma.

So if your community is dysfunctional or thinks you should die, you're outta luck, buddy. It's the community that makes it wrong or right to kill you. I guess exposing infants on hillsides in the Roman empire was just fine as long as they were exposed according to the rules of their community.

The most popular propaganda line for the pro-life movement is about “black genocide,” how this is “destroying black communities” and indeed is a racist plot by Margaret Sanger and so on. This gets to something that I think is a bigger point, and that is that the alt-right or identitarians, we can’t think about these issues in this kind of good or evil binary. We actually have to think about an issue like abortion…in a complicated manner, something that that issue deserves. Lothrop Stoddard talked about contraception, not so much abortion but contraception, as a potentially world-changing—for the good—technology, or something that could change the world for the worse. In a way he was absolutely right and I think contraception has to a large degree changed the world for the worse. Intelligent people will engage in family planning because they naturally have long time horizons, they think ahead. They aren’t just going to go run and have sex with someone without a condom and get them pregnant and so on…In a way, contraception has been terribly dysgenic in the sense that it is only the smart people that really use it. Smart people are not using abortion as birth control. Smart people are using abortion when you have a situation like Down Syndrome or you have a situation where the health of the mother is at risk. I would say that it is the unintelligent and blacks and Hispanics who use abortion as birth control, as a kind of late-term birth control. [snip] What I’m saying basically is the abortion issue is just a much more complicated issue than this kind of “good or evil” binary that the pro-life movement and the Christian movement want to use. We need to be more adult than they are.

I don't actually think the "black genocide" claim is the most popular pro-life line, but whatever. Spencer's point about what makes this "complicated" is that if the right babies are getting killed in the womb, it's okay. That's the "adult" way to think, according to Spencer.

We should recognize that the pro-life movement—this is not the alt-right, this has nothing in common with identitarians, and I think we should be genuinely suspicious of people who think in terms of human rights and who are interested in adopting African children and bringing them to this country and who get caught up on this issue. We want to be a movement about families, about life in a deep sense, not just “rights” but truly great life, and greatness, and beautiful, flourishing, productive families. We want to be eugenic in the deepest sense of the word. Pro-lifers want to be radically dysgenic, egalitarian, multi-racial human rights thumpers—and they’re not us.

As von Maren says, this does a service to conservatives. Spencer is absolutely right that pro-lifers are not the alt-right, and if he wants nothing to do with pro-lifers, the feeling should be heartily mutual. Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering if a campaign official for the Trump campaign was dog-whistling the alt-right when she referred to Mitt Romney as pro-adoption, I'd say this last paragraph bears on that.

Beyond drawing attention to this new evidence of the despicable nature of the alt-right with regard to the abortion issue, what I want to do in this post is to take you all the way back to 2009 and show some eerie similarities between Richard Spencer's disgusting recent comments and a bizarre, not-wholly-coherent column by paleoconservative guru Thomas Fleming. The overlap, I emphasize at the outset, is not total. Fleming, as a Catholic, is clearly somewhat "conflicted" (to use a jargon term) about the abortion issue, whereas Spencer is a full-bore fascist eugenicist pro-abort as long as it's the right people being aborted. But the similarities are there and are instructive, especially if one wonders how various paleocons who should know better have gotten caught up in the alt-right. Also instructive for those who want to draw a sharp distinction between paleoconservatism and the alt-right. As I've already pointed out, historically such a sharp distinction is dubious, since Paul Gottfried did an explicit "handoff" of the paleoconservative movement to the "alternative right."

Here is Fleming's column. It got negative commentary at the time at W4 from one of my co-bloggers in a main post and even more in the comments to that post.

There are some interesting similarities between what Fleming says and what Spencer says. First, both of them use a kind of vague communitarianism and the dislike they feel (and their followers feel) for the language of individual rights as sticks with which to beat the pro-life goal of outlawing abortion. Spencer says outright that you get your rights only from the community. I kind of doubt that Spencer would want to take that to mean that he can be killed with impunity by a private entity, without having committed any crime worthy of death, if that's what "the community" decides, but he's very eager to apply this "nobody has an individual right to life" mantra to the unborn child as an argument that it's perfectly fine for unborn children to be killed at will by their parents. Especially if it's the "right" babies being aborted.

Fleming, similarly, seems quite opposed to the idea that abortion should be illegal and that it should be deemed a harm to the individual child.

But the fact remains that natural reason did not teach the Greeks and Romans that it is wrong to kill an unborn or newborn child, though some thought abortion shameful. There was no prohibition on abortion in Roman law, except where the father was not consulted. In that case, she was guilty of depriving him and his ancestors of an heir. This is, at least, a more wholesome approach than our current abortion law, though it rests not on reason but on family loyalty. [LM: How nice. What if the father is the one who wants the baby dead?]
The most basic error is to cover Christian truth with the tinsel trappings of Enlightenment universalism that makes everyone owe everyone else the same duties. Thus, we hear sweeping claims, expressed in a Kantian idiom, that it is everyone’s duty to prevent a nonChristian female from killing her child, whether she lives in China or Peru.
Mothers, in this tradition, do not have a universal obligation to prevent abortion but a specific obligation not just not to kill their children but to nurture and cherish them.

Fleming's sweeping talk about giving each mother an obligation to prevent other people's abortions is, of course, a strawman. I don't expect every individual pro-life mother to be out there marching for pro-life laws. She may be busy nursing her baby or doing any of a number of other good things! But Fleming's clear "down" on a duty to prevent non-Christians from committing abortion certainly looks like a "down" on pro-life laws.

The money quote is this:
The cumulative effect of much of the professional pro-life ideology is to distort and deflect the question, away from the really important thing, which is how to convert nonbelievers, who will then be far less likely to kill their babies, toward comparatively trivial legislative policies and judicial agendas.
One wonders if Thomas Fleming would regard it as similarly "trivial" to outlaw the private killing of himself. As opposed to "the really important thing"--converting people to Christianity so that they are much less likely to go out and murder Tom Fleming! Like Spencer's, Fleming's disdain for the outlawing of private murder and his disdain for the wrong of murder to the individual killed is highly selective. That is, it is most likely confined to those he doesn't think much of, though he doesn't show any good reason for thinking less of an unborn child than of an adult paleoconservative.

It is not necessary to talk, if one hates "rights talk," about a right to life in order to say that abortion is always wrong. And not just a wrong to the community, much less to the father (who may be as murderous as anyone else in a given situation), but wrong because it is murdering the baby--hence, a wrong done to the baby. So if you don't like "rights talk," don't use that as a stick to beat the pro-life movement any more than you would use it as an argument for removing laws against murdering you or your five-year-old. As usual, it all comes down to the status of the unborn child and to whether it is always wrong deliberately to take the life of the innocent. Smug "communitarian" talk and pushing people's buttons about "Enlightenment universalism" and what-not are no substitute for argument on this central point.

Second, Fleming's argument resembles Spencer's horrible rant in that Fleming clearly thinks that, if you're not a Christian, you don't have any really good reason to oppose abortion in all cases:

The argument, then, that all seriously moral people would oppose abortion cannot be true. It is a little like saying anyone remotely interested in science would agree with Newton or Einstein.
Now, there is an element of truth in the argument, which is that just as we do not wish to be killed unjustly, we should not kill unjustly. But what if abortion is not unjust? What if we regard it as, in some cases, a necessity or at least a preferable option? After all, just because we do not wish to be executed does not mean that we necessarily oppose the death penalty. We might even say that were we to commit a cold-blooded murder, we should deserve killing. Thus, if we think life is not worth living without an IQ above 75 or without a reasonably healthy body or without loving parents, we might say that abortion in such cases is reasonable and just...

Wow, that's a toughie. I'm sure George Weigel, at whom Fleming is launching his ire in this piece, would find himself utterly at a loss for words in the face of such an argument.

Speaking for myself, I find Fleming's words here extremely creepy. He obviously has a lot of sympathy for this pro-abortion "argument." Throughout the piece he repeats statements to the effect that Christian women don't kill their unborn babies (that's nice), and he regards himself as a Christian. So presumably he thinks (to this extent unlike Spencer) that it's actually wrong to kill unborn children.

But he clearly regards the wrongness of abortion as really hard to see and as a distinctively religious proposition, which explains his disdain for the "trivial legislative policy" of outlawing abortion. One can gather, hopefully, that as a Catholic he would say that it's even wrong to commit abortion if the child would otherwise have to live with an IQ of 75 or below (!) or without loving parents, but Fleming takes little trouble to say so, and he certainly has no passion for saying so. Instead, all his passion is directed at spitting out the word "liar" at Weigel for arguing that abortion can be seen to be wrong by the natural light:

The real question is not whether abortion is consistent with reason but rather,whether it is right to lie in a good cause. That is, at best, what Weigel has done. Many pro-life arguments I have studied come down to well-intentioned lying, by which I understand not only a conscious and deliberate lie but the reckless disregard for truth engaged in by pseudo-intellectuals who pretend to learning and authority they do not possess.

What did George Weigel say to bring down the charge of "lying"? This:

[The Pope] told Pelosi, politely but unmistakably, that her relentlessly pro-abortion politics put her in serious difficulties as a Catholic, which was his obligation as a pastor. He also underscored — for Pelosi, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara Mikulski, Rose DeLauro, Kathleen Sebelius, and everyone else — that the Church’s opposition to the taking of innocent human life, at any stage of the human journey, is not some weird Catholic hocus-pocus; it’s a first principle of justice than can be known by reason. It is a “requirement of the natural moral law” — that is, the moral truths we can know by thinking about what is right and what is wrong — to defend the inviolability of innocent human life. You don’t have to believe in papal primacy to know that; you don’t have do believe in seven sacraments, or the episcopal structure of the Church, or the divinity of Christ, to know that. You don’t even have to believe in God to know that. You only have to be a morally serious human being, willing to work through a moral argument — which, of course, means being the kind of person who understands that moral truth cannot be reduced to questions of feminist political correctness or partisan political advantage.
And just reading that should make it evident that the charge of "lying" is the merest spittle-flecked silliness.

Also slightly creepy is Fleming's attempt to play gotcha with other arguments against abortion:
Among the worst are the utilitarian arguments that tell us we may be losing countless Beethovens and Shakespeares, to say nothing of millions of taxpayers who will pay my Social Security. But what if if turns out that in economic terms, abortion is a net gain, in preventing the birth of millions of welfare-dependent blacks and Mexicans? Would that make abortion a civic duty? Live by bad arguments, die by bad arguments.

I hold no brief for the "countless Beethovens" argument against abortion. But it's obvious from everything else in the article that Fleming would have no more sympathy for a pro-life argument that started with the premise that it is always wrong even to kill eugenically inferior unborn babies because all human beings are intrinsically valuable. That would be "Kantian idiom" and the "tinsel trappings of Enlightenment universalism." So the non-utilitarian pro-lifer can't win either with Fleming.

At a minimum, we can say that Spencer's position represents the non-Christian logical outcome of Fleming's position concerning non-Christians and abortion. Richard Spencer doesn't pretend to be a Christian, so he does believe that eugenic abortion is great, that killing millions of (otherwise) welfare-dependent blacks and Mexicans is good, and that it wouldn't be a bad idea to bump off children in the womb if they will (shudder) grow up with an IQ of 75 or below. And Fleming, by his own lights, has nothing to say to him. Unless Spencer converts, I guess it's impossible for him to see that his position is monstrously wicked.

Meanwhile, both of them play to their base's gut-level loathing for "those other guys"--the Satanic neo-cons, for Fleming and his paleos, and the c------s, for Spencer and his alt-rightists. Isn't it interesting that these are pro-lifers in both cases?

The morphing of paleoconservatism into the alt-right is not an accident. There are many morals of the story. Here's one: When your movement is defined entirely by what it hates rather than what it loves, to the point of despising those opposing heinous evils, don't be surprised when your movement turns into something purely dark and destructive.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

As for the Annunciation--The artificiality of "salvation history"

(This post should have gone up yesterday, but I thought of it only late last night.)

Imagine the Virgin Mary, sitting in her home in Nazareth, engaged in her work, or perhaps praying. It is an ordinary day. Nothing has warned her that this day is to be the day that lies at the center of all history.

Suddenly, an angel appears and salutes her and tells her that the Holy Ghost will come upon her and that she will give birth to the Messiah.

Mary realizes that it is an angel. The text leaves us with no doubts on that point. It is not as though she is confused into thinking that some merely natural being has visited her.

I often use the Annunciation as an example of the artificiality of the distinction between "ordinary history" and "salvation history" or "religious narrative." This pseudo-distinction will be used by those who want to confine miracles to only some places and times. It's especially popular among naturalists, semi-naturalists, and methodological naturalists who are opposed to a) the use of miracles as evidences for Christianity or theism and b) God's use of detectable miraculous means in the creation of the world or of species within the world. Die-hard theistic evolutionists are especially fond of it, because it allows them to appear to have some theologically principled reason for rejecting divine miraculous activity in biology. "Oh, that wouldn't have been salvation history, so God wouldn't have done that. We must hold out for some naturalistic explanation and accept one when it is offered." When one points out that, as Christians, we are bound to believe that God sometimes does perform miracles, that God does not leave the natural order completely undisturbed, they will piously intone, "Yes, but that's different. That's within salvation history, within a religious narrative, and can be interpreted within that context. Outside of that we should look for natural means." Here is an example thereof.

What this fails to recognize is that salvation history is seen as such only in retrospect. The people within the actual stories have to recognize the miracle as a miracle without some special "tag" that tells them, "Note: You are now in salvation history, so you're permitted to set aside methodological naturalism and interpret what is about to happen as a miracle."

To return to Mary: Many other virgins in Israel did not conceive and bear the Son of God. Many other days in the life of Mary herself, prior to this day, did not include angelic appearances. Mary had to be willing to recognize that an angel was standing there and giving her a message, and she had to believe that message, without thinking of herself as "living in a story." It is we, looking back on what happened, who place it within a "religious narrative" of "salvation history." To Mary, it was just the day on which Gabriel showed up and told her she was to conceive by the Holy Ghost. And she had to be willing to admit the possibility of a miracle in the midst of her own day-to-day life, or else she would never acknowledge a miracle in the first place.

In fact, any attempt to apply the "religious narrative" criterion consistently would result in a vicious regress, and no "religious narrative" would ever get off the ground. The witnesses of the miracle would have to know already that they were living through a moment of "salvation history." But how would they know that? Presumably only by receiving a message from God, attested in some way that they could recognize as supernatural. But they could not recognize that message as supernatural unless they already knew that they were living through a moment of salvation history, which would require a yet earlier message or sign...And so on. Meaning that there could be no "salvation history" or "religious narrative" that was recognized as such.

The same was true of Moses and the burning bush. No sign flashed across the sky before he saw the burning bush that said, "Now entering salvation history," just as an angel didn't precede Gabriel, marching across Mary's chamber with a banner that read, "You are now entering salvation history." Moses had to recognize that he was actually talking with God, that the bush was burning without being consumed, or else mankind could not have received God's message at all.

The angel's appearance to Mary and the Voice from the burning bush are the very constituents of God's dealings with mankind. They need no annunciation, for they are the Annunciation.

If this was true for the first witnesses of the miracles themselves, it is true for us as well. We should recognize these to be miracles because it appears that they really happened, that they were miraculous, and that God sent them to us for a reason, not because they occupy some above-the-skies Zone that we call "salvation history." For we could not know that they occupied any such Zone, or even that there were such a Zone, without knowing that they happened, and we could not know that they happened if those who witnessed them had insisted on methodological naturalism...unless pre-empted by the previous knowledge that one is living in the Special Zone where miracles are allowed to happen.

Oh, and one other thing: "Religious narratives" are confirmed by miracles. It gets the order precisely backward to say that miracles are verified by being embedded in "religious narratives." For why believe this religious narrative rather than that one? It is not philosophical reflection from your armchair that will tell you that Jesus was God the Son while Mohammad was a false prophet.

So I suggest that we give up on methodological naturalism altogether. Just drop it in the dustbin of history. No, that doesn't mean that God performs miracles randomly. It does, however, mean that Aslan is not a tame lion. He doesn't safely confine his miracles to those places that you think you can accept in a purely "philosophical" way, as part of a "religious narrative," without tarnishing your image as a Man of Science. There is certainly no reason to think that he keeps his hands out of biology. Indeed, Scripture suggests otherwise from the very beginning.

That people should be more open to miracles in the realm of biology, or in any other realm, and that we should be robust evidentialists, may seem like odd lessons to garner from the Feast of the Annunciation, but I give you the thought for the next time you hear someone say, "Oh, that's different. That's salvation history."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Are we conservatives still opposed to homosexual practice?

In the aftermath of the M.Y. flap, to which I alluded in the last post, I am moved to ask a question:

Are conservatives still opposed to homosexual practice?

Here's another question:

Do conservatives realize that homosexual practice between vulnerable boys, age approximately 17, and older men, entered into by the boys partly because they are in need of an older male role model, is profoundly unhealthy, a horrible perversion of the mentoring relationship?

This leads to another question:

Why in the name of all that is holy, and of our opposition to all that is hellish, would conservatives laud and support a man who lauds and supports those kinds of relationships?

Or are we just so desperate and uninformed that, having been told (truly or falsely) that this man doesn't support those relationships with boys as young as thirteen years old, we promptly conclude that we can go right back to treating him as a legitimate conservative author, pundit, and speaker and yell in outrage about the "terrible smearing" against him?

I kid you not: When I pointed out on Facebook that M.Y. has doubled down, repeatedly, on the alleged wonderfulness of relationships between older men and 17-year-old boys, I was at first told that this was false. When I provided the evidence, did the person say, "Oh! I didn't know that. Wow, that's really creepy; I'm going to have to re-think my support for him"?

Not a chance.

Since when do conservatives make an icon out of a man who glorifies (pardon my wording) buggery between boys who are desperately in need of help and older men?

Yet this, this, is M.Y.'s self-defense against the charge that he glorified it between thirteen-year-old vulnerable boys and other men. No, no, he didn't. Why, not at all. He never meant thirteen-year-olds. He means 16-and-17-year-olds. And then it can be wonderful.

Didn't know that? Well, if you didn't, you're not alone. And I put it to you that too many in the conservative media didn't emphasize this and condemn it because they are too busy trying to "redeem" M.Y., both as an individual and as a pundit. They should stop. Now.

Oh, by the way, in case you want some documentation, here you go. From the very press conference in which he apologized for his "imprecise language."

I shouldn’t have used the word “boy” — which gay men often do to describe young men of consenting age — instead of “young man.” That was an error. I was talking about my own relationship when I was 17 with a man who was 29. The age of consent in the UK is 16.
I did say that there are relationships between younger men and older men that can help a young gay man escape from a lack of support or understanding at home. That’s perfectly true and every gay man knows it.
This is the same type of thing that he said from minute 5 onward in his "apology video," which has been for some reason removed from Youtube. There he said that he "stands by" the comments that he made in the leaked videos as he intended them, because he meant those comments to apply to such relationships with 17-year-olds, and specifically had in mind his own "first boyfriend," when he was 17 and the other man was much older. So let's go back to the original video and even interpret his remarks as applying to 17-year-olds (waiving the fact that they really do seem to be meant to apply to 13-year-olds in the original context). Watch the video here. Now, let's be ever-so-charitable and assume his later reinterpretation. On that reinterpretation, what is he saying about sexual relationships between 17-year-old boys, or even 16-year-olds, and older men?

You know, people are messy and complex. In the homosexual world particularly. Some of those relationships between younger boys and older men, the sort of coming of age relationships, the relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are, and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable and sort of a rock where they can’t speak to their parents. Some of those relationships are the most -” [interrupted]
I think in the gay world, some of the most important, enriching and incredibly life affirming, important shaping relationships very often between younger boys and older men, they can be hugely positive experiences for those young boys. They can even save those young boys, from desolation, from suicide [people talk over each other]… providing they’re consensual.”
So are conservatives okay with this now? Should we be hastening to put this guy back in the position of someone we go to listen to, someone whose book should be sold, someone who was (poor fellow) "smeared" because people thought he was talking about 13-year-olds (a highly defensible position, by the way)? Should we regard him as a conservative?

M.Y. is normalizing homosexuality in the conservative world. We aren't leftists, remember? Supposedly we realize that homosexual relationships are destructive and that very young men should not be mentored into the homosexual world. Supposedly we want men to find a healthy, normal sexuality. And if we're not idiots (never mind whether we're leftists or not), we realize that there is something wildly unhealthy about 17-year-olds who have a sexual relationship with a much older person because they "can't speak to their parents," because they are looking for a "rock" and "reliability," in short, as a substitute parent-child relationship. Hello? That would be creepy and unhealthy even if it were between a young woman and an older man and had those features. And let's admit, too, that there is no question of these being lifelong, committed relationships. Milo can blather all he wants about how "hugely positive" they are, but this isn't remotely like marriage.

I submit that the conservative fascination with this guy is a symptom of some sort of weird dysfunction in the conservative world that has come with the Trump phenomenon. It's a combination of several things,

1) Some conservatives just want an attack dog whom they can regard as being on "our side." It makes them feel good. They can let Milo be the jerk and sit around and snigger while he's nasty, without getting their hands dirty themselves, then talk about how he's "brave" and "bold" and "politically incorrect," while ignoring the true nastiness of, e.g., sending a pic of a black baby to Ben Shapiro when his baby is born.

2) Some conservatives, perhaps especially some who are conservative on the moral issue of homosexuality, have a kind of weird fascination with a homosexual like Milo because they feel sorry for him. They almost feel like they have a personal relationship with him, and they view regarding him as just a sick puppy whom we should have nothing to do with as "mean."

3) Relatedly, some conservatives want to fall all over themselves to be agreeable to any homosexual who doesn't fit the mold of leftist homosexuals in the U.S. If a homosexual is willing to admit that what he's doing is perverse (even if he keeps on gleefully doing it!), then they want to grasp at that as a sign that he's on the upward way, even though it probably isn't. This is also related to the "gay friendly" stuff we see in our churches.

4) Some conservatives (again, relatedly) have a "savior complex" towards certain individuals. They keep hoping they can "reach out to" these individuals and save them, even if that means giving them a public platform. The common sense position that it doesn't do a person with severe personal problems any good to be blowing kisses to his adoring fans doesn't resonate with these "conservatives." They hope to be enough a part of that adoring public to have the opportunity to save him as a brand from the burning.

5) Too many conservatives got attached to Milo through their attachment to Donald Trump, and now they feel like they have to stick to him because they have once chosen to identify him with "our side." This is precisely an example of the corruption of the right by Trump and those in his train (such as Milo) that we Never Trumpers predicted from the outset.

Part of what this corruption has done is to cause conservatives to ignore M.Y.'s passionate defense of man-boy relationships with troubled youths as long as the troubled youths are above the age of consent in a particular venue. This is sick stuff, yet nobody on the right seems to be talking about it. What's the matter? Are we conservatives still opposed to this kind of thing? Then let's stop making excuses. And let's get rid of this guy from our lecture circuit. We can pray for his immortal soul, but he isn't your long-lost brother or your child, and even if he were, he would be bad news. The best thing that could happen to him would be for him to have to get rid of his handsome young aides and get a different day job. Insurance sales. Or something. And be out of the limelight. Or better yet, go off to a desert island and pray and rethink his life. But if he isn't going to do that voluntarily, for goodness' sake, conservatives, stop giving him adulation and a platform. And stop it yesterday.

Update: Here's a working link to the "apology" video. Again, notice that right in the midst of his "apology," from minute 5 onward, he strongly stands by the idea that homosexual relationships between older teens and men older than themselves can be such a great thing. He's clearly describing something that any sane person will see is not healthy--a relationship in which the older man "takes care of them financially" and/or "emotionally," a relationship that is an "escape" from a situation where they are "having trouble with their mom and dad." The idea that this is a good thing is crazy, but he's promoting it as a good part of the gay scene.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Words are deeds

Now that the flap (you can probably guess what it was) that gave rise to this post is not the latest, hottest stuff in the news anymore, I feel at leisure to write a post about a point that came up in the course of Facebook discussions.

A certain public figure made recorded statements that seemed to endorse (some) instances of sexual intercourse between adult men and thirteen-year-old boys. He got in trouble in the court of public opinion for making these claims and then said (I leave it to others to guess whether I found the claims convincing or not) that he hadn't really intended in his (rather glowing) endorsements to refer to thirteen-year-old boys but rather to such encounters between men and boys over the age of legal consent in Britain--namely, at least 16. And that in particular he had in mind his own wonderful homosexual relationship with an older man when he was 17. Indeed, he's doubled down and has gone on at some length about the wonderfulness of homosexual relationships in which older teen boys are mentored by, given stability and a sense of identity by, older men who are having sex with them. Well, that's obviously much, much better./sarc

In the course of debating all of this and how bad, exactly, it was, I was much struck by the comment of a friend who made much of the supposed contrast between words and deeds. The "certain public figure" in the last paragraph has, one supposes, never actually had sexual relations with a thirteen-year-old boy. So even if he were endorsing some of those relationships, it was argued, this was much, much less bad than the actions of a left-wing figure (Lena Dunham) who by her own statement did actually sexually touch her little sister. Dunham engaged in acts, you see, while M.Y., even at the worst interpretation of what he was advocating, engaged only in words. See? See?

Well, no, I don't see. Similar statements came up during Trump's campaign. You've all heard the meme: "I'm more concerned about what Hillary has done than about what Trump has said."

That sort of thing makes a good soundbyte, but it's misleading. This needs to be understood: There is no general ethical principle that non-verbal deeds are worse than verbal deeds. I put it that way deliberately, because saying something is an action. It's not a non-act. It's not being passive. It's entirely plausible that a particular verbal action could be just as bad as, or even worse than, a given non-verbal action.

If Person A advocates sex with eight-year-olds and Person B actually engages in, let's say, adultery with an adult, is it obvious that the latter has done something worse than the former? Yet the adulterer is doing an "act," by the colloquial definition, while the talker is, supposedly, just "saying words."

But let's try to make the crimes involved more similar. Suppose that Person A advocates murdering white people because of the "legacy of slavery." He engages in repeated incitement to such murders. Person B is one of those influenced by him and he murders a single white person out of racial hatred. But as far as Person A knows, there could be many more murders as a result of his advocacy. Indeed, that's what he's attempting to bring about! Can we say with any confidence that the inciter has done something less bad than the murderer because he "just said words" while the murderer actually "carried out an act"? I would say that is not clear at all! Indeed, one could even argue in a given scenario that the inciter, an Iago of racial hatred, is the more guilty party.

It's not enough to respond to this argument by saying, "Of course I acknowledge that words mean things and that words are important." It's not enough, that is to say, if one continues thereafter using the cliche, "A said words. B did deeds. So why is everyone [or the left, etc.] more upset with A than with B?" It all depends on what the words were or what the deeds were. The use of such cliches may be a shorthand for, "I don't think that A's words were worse than B's deeds. In fact, I think just the opposite." But in that case one is going to have to gets one's hands dirty and talk about exactly what A did say and why it wasn't as bad as B's non-verbal act. One isn't going to be able to remain above the fray and decline to comment on the degree of alleged badness of A's words. And one isn't going to be able to get away with saying, "I'm not defending A at all." Because one is at least comparatively "defending A." One is saying that A's verbal acts weren't as bad as B's non-verbal acts. That is a contentful proposition that can't be settled merely by the acknowledged fact that A's acts were verbal while B's were non-verbal.

The cliche, "I'm more worried about what B has done than about what A has said" encourages laziness in thinking and debate. If it's a shorthand for a stronger claim, then it's a sloppy shorthand that attempts to get out of the harder relevant work of thinking, investigating the facts ("Okay, exactly what did A say, what effects is it going to have, what effects could he have foreseen, what did he mean?"), and arguing.

It may be true from a purely pragmatic, legal perspective that words should be less often criminalized than non-verbal acts. I'm all in favor of the First Amendment. But even in the legal realm, there is no absolute rule that words can never be justly or (in America) constitutionally subject to civil or criminal penalties. All the more so, in the moral realm we shouldn't be quick to assume that words aren't as bad as other deeds.