An Antidote for Smugness

Suppose Frank and Joe get into a Facebook debate, and suppose Frank knows a lot more about the issue over which they’re disagreeing. Neither one of them is really an expert, but Frank has read a lot more and maybe even has some sort-of relevant background. The longer the discussion goes, the more he realizes that Joe doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Let’s give Frank the benefit of the doubt. He’s not just a victim of confirmation bias. Joe really doesn’t know that much about the issue, it’s evident in what he’s written, and Frank’s assessment on that score is accurate.

So, naturally, this can lead Frank to feel a little smug, and smugness is toxic. It’s a poison that clouds our thinking, alienates us from people who could be our friends, and fuels arrogance and pride.

Frank is self-aware enough to realize that he’s having this reaction, but–as it turns out–there’s more to good character than just being able to recognize your own bad behavior. It’s good to suppress an angry outburst, for example, but it’s even better to overcome the anger itself. Controlling behavior is nice, but shaping character is better. Unfortunately, character can’t be shaped directly. We have to come at it sideways and ambush our own bad character traits when they least suspect it. We have to–wherever possible–cheat.

So here’s an idea.

The reason that Frank knows more than Joe about this issue is that Frank took the time to research it. He read dozens of articles. Joe didn’t, and so Joe doesn’t know as much. Instead of attributing his superiority in this one realm to some kind of personal attribute, Frank should ask himself: “What was Joe doing with the time I used to study this issue?”


Maybe Joe is lazy, and Joe was just watching reality TV show reruns. Maybe Joe is actually very curious and diligent, and was using the same amount of time studying some totally unrelated topic which–if they discussed it–would quickly demonstrate to Frank what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t really get it. Or maybe Joe wasn’t  studying, but he uses his time volunteering to make his neighborhood a better place.

It doesn’t really matter, because–in practice–Frank will never know. The point of the question is to ask it, because asking it reframes the context of Frank’s smugness. It’s not about some kind of overall, general superiority of intellect. It’s about the simple fact that Frank spent time studying a particular issue, and Joe didn’t. This is a smugness antidote. On top of dispelling the person-to-person comparison, it raises questions for Frank, such as: Was studying this particular issue really that wise an expenditure of his finite time and energy? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn’t, all things considered. This should make Frank a little uneasy. That’s healthy. Certainly fair healthier than smugness, at any rate.

I am not a very good person. This isn’t a statement of false humility. I suspect, all things considered, that I’m probably about average by most comparisons with others, although I’ll never really be sure. But that’s not the point. I don’t care about comparing myself with others; I care about the gap between who I am and who I’d like to be. And the person I’d like to be doesn’t have to devise strategies for decency or play tricks on himself to mimic virtue. That’s what I mean when I say I’m not a very good person.

But we don’t get to choose the kind of person we are. Not in an instant, anyway. We come into this world with a load of genetic and environmental baggage that, by the time we get around to being thinking, self-aware little human creatures, is already more than we could ever hope to sort through in a life time. All we can ever do is start where we are. Hopefully we make incremental steps in the right direction, but human character can’t be perfect in a life time. There’s the old expressions, “fake it ’till you make it.” We’re never going to make it. So we just have to keep faking it. Play-acting at being a good person–when it’s done out of a sincere desire to learn to be good–is the best we can hope for.

This is one technique I try to remind myself to use in that game, and I thought I’d share it.

God at War: Interview with Greg Boyd

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for god at warA couple months ago, I gave a talk on “trials and their purpose“, which basically become a discussion of the problem of evil in Mormon thought. I read a number of books in preparation for it, including David B. Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, Michael Austin’s Re-reading Job, and N.T. Wright’s Evil & the Justice of God. Two books that I didn’t finish prior to the talk was Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil and Gregory Boyd’s God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict. The latter in particular I wish I had finished in time. Boyd, a Princeton-educated theologian and pastor, approaches the problem of evil from what he calls the warfare worldview: the perspective that this world is a battlefield between spiritual forces of good and evil. He argues that the

biblical authors generally assume the existence of intermediary spiritual or cosmic beings. These beings, variously termed “gods,” “angels,” “principalities and powers,” “demons,” or, in the earliest strata, “Leviathan” or some other cosmic monster, can and do wage war against God, wreak havoc on his creation and bring all manner of ills upon humanity. Whether portraying Yahweh as warring against Rahab and other cosmic monsters of chaos or depicting Jesus as casting out a legion of demons from the possessed Gerasene, the Bible as well as the early postapostolic church assumes that the creation is caught up in the crossfire of an age-old cosmic battle between good and evil. As in other warfare worldviews, the Bible assumes that the course of this warfare greatly affects life on earth (pg. 18).

Boyd traces God’s conflict with the forces of chaos and evil from the Old Testament (e.g., the hostile waters of creation, Leviathan, Rahab, the gods of Ps. 82, etc.) to the New Testament (e.g., Jesus’ exorcisms, Christus Victor atonement theology). According to Boyd, the evils of this world are not only caused by the free will of human beings, but the free will of demonic beings as well. The book is fascinating and certainly interesting for Mormons, whose own teachings and scriptures depict a pre-mortal “war in heaven” that continues today. Boyd’s analysis brings new meaning to Mormon’s words: “Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually” (Moroni 7:12).

You can see an interview with Boyd below in which he discusses some of these ideas.

On the United Debacle and Deliberation

By now you’ve all heard about United Airlines forcibly removing David Dao from a flight. That happened on Sunday, April 9th,  and so over the past few days we’ve had time for the first-round “analysis” (United is the devil incarnate) along with the second-round “analysis” (United is angelic) and even quite a lot of third-round “analysis” (capitalism is the devil). But we’re only just now starting to get the kinds of analysis that don’t deserve the Bunny Quotes of Shame.

Or you could call them the Air Quotes of Shame, I guess.

Newsweek is running one of the first of these analyses, and it concludes that United may actually have violated their own contract when they forcibly removed Dao from his seat. The contract allows them to prevent passengers from boarding in the event of an oversold flight, but the problem is that the flight wasn’t oversold (for one) and that Dao was kicked off after boarding rather than being denied boarding (for another). There are also provisions for kicking someone off a plan after they’ve boarded, but none of those provisions appear to apply in this case, either.

This is far from the last word. Jens David Ohlin, who wrote the piece, is a lawyer who’s read the contract, but he’s relying for his facts on news reports of what happened. He doesn’t have any more access to the facts than the rest of us. The “last word” is probably months or even years away, at the end of one or more lawsuits.

I wrote this post because I thought Ohlin’s analysis was interesting. But also because the whole “first post” syndrome is interesting in its own right. Over a decade ago, I spent way too much time on Slashdot. It’s a social news site–kind of like a pre-Reddit with only one forum and centered on tech–and one of the little oddities is that whenever a new topic was posted there was an immediate rush of utterly useless replies that said only “first post” (or intentional misspellings thereof, sometimes with vulgar and offensive commentary added in for trollish fun.) The replies were utterly useless, the Slashdot filtering algorithms almost always rendered them invisible for most users, but still there were actual human beings out there who either frantically typed and clicked to try and earn that first post privilege or, perhaps more depressingly, spent their time writing macros or scripts to win the prize for them.

Well, the initial reactions to the United debacle–as with all such controversies–are basically wordier versions of the same thing, just content-free “first post” declarations. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were hilarious. The memes were great. (And some of the Slashdot first posts, every now and then, were funny too.) But nobody knew what they were talking about. Seriously, nobody. As far as I can tell, 5 days later, we’re just starting to get analysis that isn’t a total waste of time to read. So, referring to all the blog posts over the past few days, why do people write this stuff? Why does anyone read it?

Those are kind of dumb questions. People read this nonsense because they’re curious and impatient. And people write it because they want attention. I’m not immune. In 2015 I wrote two hot-take pieces because I wanted to catch that viral wave. They were both shared widely on Facebook, but I noticed from the stats that only the headline of the first was shared. Practically nobody clicked the link to read my post. And on the second, as more facts came to light I realized my “analysis” had been exactly the kind of facile, self-righteous rush to judgment I usually deplored.

I had another encounter with hot-take fame earlier this year when I wrote a fairly negative review of the newest book in The Expanse series. I listened to the book right after it came out, wrote a review like I always do, posted it, and then was perplexed to see comments and likes start pouring in. It turns out that–just like with news stories–whoever gets the first reviews out for a new book gets the most attention. This is why there are so many people who cheat and write “reviews” weeks or months before the book actually comes out. And–also just like with news stories–the hot takes break down into simplistic takes: 4- or 5- star raves and 2- or 1- star slams. As of right now, my review appears to still be at the top of the list of over 800 reviews. I doubt it would have done so well if I’d published the review later or published it with 3-stars.

So I get it, the temptation to write and to read rapid reactions is strong. But it’s also–usually–a waste of time. We can get more accurate info and more reliable, interesting analysis if we can just wait a few days. And if enough people do that, maybe we can find a way to curb first post syndrome.


The Great Enrichment and Social Justice

“The suddenness of the Great Enrichment is nuts,” writes Will Wilkinson at the Niskanen Center. “Graphs like this one actually conceal how nuts it is. Imagine a linear horizontal axis that is nothing but a flat line hovering above zero for, like, a mile. And then, about a second ago in geological time, wham! And here you are, probably wearing pants, reading about it on a glowing screen. Nuts is what it is.”

What caused it?

Joel Mokyr says it was the development of science and technology. Douglass North and his followers, such as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, say it was a matter of stumbling into the right political and economic “institutions”—of getting the “rules of the game” right. Acemoglu and Robinson say institutions need to be “inclusive” rather than “extractive.” They become more inclusive when ruling elites take a little pressure off the boot they’ve got on people’s backs (which they do mainly when cornered by effective collective action from below) and allow economic and political rights to expand. Deirdre McCloskey says the Great Enrichment came about from a shift in beliefs and moral norms that finally lent dignity and esteem to the commercial classes, their “bourgeois” virtues, and the tasks of trade and betterment. This revaluation of values was the advent of what has come to be known as “liberalism.”

Each of these views is part of the truth. The debate is mainly a matter of how beliefs and norms, institutions and incentives, scientific knowledge and technical innovation all fit together. Which are the causes and which are the effects? There’s no way to adequately summarize  the involuted nuance of the debate. But it’s not wrong to sum it up bluntly like this: humans rather suddenly got immensely better at cooperating and now a lot of us are really rich.

But you know what’s also nutty?

What’s nuts is that nobody kicks off a discussion of justice, distributive or social, with the fact of the Great Enrichment. Because the upshot of our best accounts of the most important thing that has ever happened to the human race seems to be that equalizing the distribution of rights and liberties, powers and prerogatives, respect and esteem led to an increase in the scope and productivity of cooperation, generating hugely enriching surpluses.

And these gains spurred further demands for and advances in inclusion and dignity—that is to say advances in giving people what they’re morally due, in virtue of being people—which led in turn to broader, more intensive, more creative cooperation, producing yet more enrichment, and so on. There appears to be a very happy relationship of mutual reinforcement between what is very naturally called “social justice” and the sort of enrichment that is known to produce longer, healthier, happier, human lives.

How come? Why doesn’t this mass improvement in the lives of millions get mentioned much?

The 20th century socialist-leaning left misdiagnosed the sources of the economic growth. The Great Enrichment was rooted in the exploitation of labor and the depredations of colonialism, while ongoing post-capitalist production was largely a matter of technology and rational state management. Poverty is toxic and the effects of widespread wealth are beneficial. But wealth in excess of potential-realizing sufficiency isn’t improving. Stable equality is improving, and brings out the best in us. Continuously rising market-led prosperity, on the other hand, encourages uncivic avidity and generates inequalities that undermine the amiable stability of egalitarian social justice.

The left-leaning 20th century literature on the distributive aspects of social justice as often as not treated wealth like manna from heaven. It’s as if the astonishing bounty of the Great Enrichment was something we’d just stumbled upon, like a cave full of naturally-occurring, neatly-stacked gold ingots in a newly-discovered cave beneath the village square. How do we divide up the gold among the villagers? Equal shares seems fair!

Or else wealth was something workers produced automatically by working only to have it stolen by the idle rich, who control the state’s goons. Or wealth was something that mechanical and social engineers could get together to produce with the right combination of workers and machines. Since it was no problem whatsoever producing more than enough for everybody (our best men are on top of it!), there was no good reason for anybody to have more than everybody else.

Wilkinson takes a swipe at both Rawlsian leftists and Hayekian libertarians, but especially the latter for their rejection of the concept of social justice. He concludes,

[M]any advocates of economic liberty…reflexively badmouth the welfare state with little regard for the possibility that the welfare state is an efficiency-enhancing institution that helps maintain popular support for relatively free markets by ensuring they more or less benefit everyone. Meanwhile, people who like social insurance, and worry about bad luck and the human costs of capitalist creative destruction—that is to say, mostpeople—turn away in contempt or bemusement from what’s advertised to them as the politics of freedom.   

More importantly, and more disastrously, rejecting the very idea of social justice, letting it harden into principle, hobbled classical liberalism’s ability to make the argument it has always been making, in less attractive terms, all along: that social justice is, first and foremost, a supply-side concept; that social justice is about the moral equality, respect, and rights that call forth cooperation and foster the creativity and cultivation of potential that generates ever larger surpluses, which, once they’ve been created, we can worry about divvying up; that social justice is a cause and effect of the Great Enrichment; that increasing social justice will make us greater and more greatly enriched.

It’s a potent and beguiling argument. It is an important argument. I’m convinced that it is, in broad strokes, a sound argument. The failure of our forebears to make it shouldn’t stop us from making it now.

I think he’s on to something.

Total BS: Short Video featuring Harry Frankfurt

Image result for on bullshitSeveral years ago, philosopher Harry Frankfurt released his brief essay On Bullshit through Princeton University Press. The basic idea was that bullshit was different from a lie. A liar knows (and cares about) what the truth is and attempts to hide or distort it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, are more interested in persuading without any regard for the truth. The rhetoric could be true or false, but the only thing that truly matters to a bullshitter is that the audience is convinced. In short, liars conceal the truth. Bullshitters (sometimes) conceal their disinterest in the truth.

You can see Frankfurt discussing this concept in the fairly new video below.

Times & Seasons: Trials and Their Purpose

Image result for suffering

I gave a talk this past Sunday in sacrament meeting on the theme “trials and their purpose.” I received a lot of good feedback and posted it at Times & Seasons. My main focus is that God does not “give” us trials in any literal sense. To do so would would, in most cases, violate natural law, human agency, or morality. Here are a couple excerpts:

In the opening of the Genesis account, the world is described as “without form, and void” (Gen. 1:2). The Book of Abraham states that it is “empty and desolate”; a place in which “darkness reigned” (Abr. 4:2). And yet, out of the darkness and chaos, God was able to fashion something he could declare as “good” (Gen. 1:25). God did not create the chaos, but he did forge something beautiful from it. Similarly, I seriously doubt that God is the one wreaking havoc in your lives, but he can plow through it with you until you emerge a (hopefully) more compassionate, loving, and empathic person on the other side. Consider the case of Joseph sold into Egypt. Following the death of Jacob, he told his now fearful brothers that while they “thought evil against [him]…God meant it unto good” (Gen. 50:20). It’s safe to say that God did not cause Laban to cheat Jacob, leading to the unhealthy competition between Leah and Rachel and the rift between their sons. God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to throw him into a pit or sell him into slavery. What God did do was redeem the evil situation for good. This is likely what Paul meant when he wrote that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Or what Lehi meant when he told Jacob that God would “consecrate thy afflictions for thy gain” (2 Ne. 2:2). Or even what the Lord meant when he told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail that his suffering would “give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Indeed, trials can give us experience and can work toward our good; what some have referred to as “soul-making.” Psychologists have described the positive outcomes of highly challenging life crises as “posttraumatic growth.” However, this is miles away from the claim that God willed Joseph Smith’s imprisonment. Indeed, God attributes it to Joseph’s captors being “servants of sin” and “children of disobedience” (D&C 121:17). But he does comfort Joseph with the promise that “thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” (D&C 121:7-8).

…It should be recognized that Christ came to conquer death and hell (2 Ne. 9), which should indicate that they have no place in His kingdom, no eternal purpose. He came “to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12), not dole them out. He came to bring good news to the poor, not tell them that poverty is a great learning tool. He came to preach deliverance to the captives, not explain how prison and slavery would teach them valuable lessons. He was sent to heal the brokenhearted, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18); not to lecture them about how God works in mysterious ways. When the woman with an issue of blood touched his cloak, Jesus didn’t say, “That’s cute, but your 12-year hemorrhage is an excellent learning opportunity.” Instead, she was healed (Mark 5:25-34). When friends of the paralytic lowered him from the roof, Jesus didn’t say, “You know, I’m sure God is just trying to teach you something with this whole paralysis thing.” No, he forgave and healed him (Mark 2:1-12). If we want to know how we should think about trials and suffering, we should look to the Savior. He confronted evil and drove it out. He nurtured those suffering and relieved them of their afflictions. This is what His kingdom looks like. And if we are trying to build God’s kingdom here on earth, we should be engaged in the same kind of work. We are meant to build Zion in the midst of Babylon. We are meant to, as Joseph Smith put it, “turn the devils out of [hell’s] doors and make a heaven of it.” This doesn’t happen by resigning ourselves to evil and suffering, but by opposing it. But not only is Christ our example, he is our hope. He offers hope for a time when all these things will cease. And He offers hope in the present as one who loves and weeps with you in your trials.

Read the whole thing here.

The Doors of the Sea: Interview with David Bentley Hart

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for the doors of the seaIn preparation for an upcoming talk in church on “trials and their purpose,” I purchased Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. Written after the massive South Asian tsunami in 2004, Hart addresses the most common objection to God’s existence: the problem of evil. Instead of intellectualizing, justifying, and rationalizing the evil and suffering we see and experience in the world, Hart condemns it. He reminds readers that Christ was sent to conquer death and all those things associated with it. In short, death, evil, and suffering play no role in God’s ultimate purposes because these are the very things Christ’s atonement and resurrection are meant to be victorious over. Hart movingly concludes his book with the following:

[F]ortunately, I think — we Christians are not obliged (and perhaps are not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day — to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children — and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, and the forces — whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance — that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

…As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (pgs. 101, 103-104).

You can see a brief interview with Hart below discussing the problem of evil below.

Why Is Swearing Offensive?

Warning: language.

That’s all swearing is, right?

I find swearing to be a interesting taboo, one I engage in without any real sense of guilt. In my religious community, I’ve heard the virtues of having “clean language” and how Mormons “don’t use that kind of language.” I’ve also heard variations of “if you cuss, you must not be intelligent enough to express yourself in another way.” Ironically, this is often thrown out by individuals possessing an unimpressive vocabulary and poor communication skills (jokes on them, according to recent research).

But why do we find swearing offensive? It’s obviously not something innate in the words themselves. It’s absurd to argue for a literal evil inherent in the arbitrary sounds that a certain group of people attach meaning to, especially when those sounds are meaningless to those unaccustomed to them (Japanese, Russian, or French swear words mean nothing to me since I don’t speak any of the those languages). According to philosopher Rebecca Roache, swear words

have a special role in expressing and communicating emotion. The expressions ‘My car has been stolen’ and ‘For f**k’s sake, my f**king car’s been stolen!’ both assert the same thing, but the second also conveys a sense of anger, desperation, and annoyance, thanks to the inclusion of swearing. As the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has remarked, ‘[s]wear words don’t describe your feelings; they manifest them’. It is this unique role in expressing emotion that separates swearing from other uses of language, including other types of taboo language.

This rings true to me. Before authoring The No Asshole Rule, Stanford’s Robert Sutton published an article in the Harvard Business Review on the subject. He recollects, “I argued that censored and watered-down variations like “the no jerk rule” or “the no bully rule” simply didn’t have the same ring of authenticity or emotional appeal, and I would be interested in writing an essay only if they actually printed the phrase “the no asshole rule.” …HBR not only published the rule…but the word asshole was printed a total of eight times in this short essay!” Jerk or bully don’t carry the same intensity as asshole. They don’t convey the same amount of disgust, frustration, anger, or even hurt. It’s fairly easy to brush off, “You’re a jerk!” It stings a little more when you’re called an asshole.

Image result for pardon my french you're an asshole gif

In order to understand outbursts of expletives, “we need to consider not what the speaker is referring to or talking about, but what he aims to indicate about his emotions. This makes swearing, in such circumstances, more like a scream than an utterance: just like a scream, it expresses emotion without being about anything.” After further analysis, Roache gets to the crux of the problem:

[O]nce we have established preferences about behaviour, the capacity for certain behaviour to become offensive arises quite naturally…Suppose that you make a new friend named Rebecca, and you fall into the habit of addressing her as Rachel. After you have done this a couple of times, Rebecca politely points out that her name is Rebecca, not Rachel. If, after she has drawn your attention to this, you persist in calling her Rachel, she is likely to begin to feel annoyed, and she might repeat the request to call her Rebecca. If you ignore her request a second or third time, then – provided that she has no reason to believe you have failed to understand her requests, nor that you are incapable of easily complying with them – she is likely to eventually view your behaviour as offensive. What started out as merely a dispreferred (by Rebecca) way of speaking, then, becomes offensive.

…When you continue to call her Rachel even after she has reminded you of her name, she concludes that you are being unreasonably inconsiderate of her wishes. And when you persist in calling her Rachel even after she has pointed out several times that this is not her name, it is difficult for her to avoid the conclusion that you are deliberately using an inappropriate form of address in order to upset her.

..In this example, we do not find an explanation for the offensiveness of the dispreferred expression in the expression itself. There is nothing whatsoever that is offensive about the name Rachel. Rather, the expression grows to be offensive after it has filtered through a chain of inferences that speaker and audience make about each other and about each other’s inferences. In essence: you know that Rebecca’s name is not Rachel, and you know that she dislikes being called Rachel, yet you nevertheless continue to call her Rachel; Rebecca knows that you know all this, and concludes from your behaviour in light of this knowledge that you are hostile towards her; you, in turn, recognise all this yet persist in calling her Rachel; Rebecca sees that you do this and so takes offence. Let’s call this way in which the offensiveness of dispreferred behaviour arises from these sorts of inferences between speaker and audience offence escalation.

She concludes,

What does this tell us about whether or not swearing is morally wrong? It is helpful, once again, to compare swearing to etiquette breaches. Since it’s preferable not to upset people where we can easily avoid doing so, we have some reason not to swear in contexts where it is likely to offend. The same holds for etiquette breaches. Even so, in most cases, we tend not to view breaches of etiquette as immoral, even where it causes offence. You would find my refusal to thank you for your good turn rude, but you would probably not deem it morally suspect. You would make a similar judgment were I to swear in the course of a polite conversation.

The whole thing is worth reading, though perhaps not for those easily offended by foul language.

Theology of Work: Flourish

Sunday will soon turn into Monday. The sun will set on the Lord’s Day–the Christian Sabbath–and rise again at the beginning of a new work week. This intimate connection reminds me of Jewish theologian and Civil Rights activist Abraham Heschel’s comments on work’s relation to the Sabbath:

Image result for the sabbath heschelAdam was placed in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Labor is not only the destiny of man; it is endowed with divine dignity. However, after he ate of the tree of knowledge he was condemned to toil, not only to labor “In toil shall thou eat … all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:17). Labor is a blessing, toil is the misery of man. The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity. Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command: Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work [Ex. 20:9]…The duty to work for six days is just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day.

I thought of this while reading this piece on developing a theology of work in the face of growing protectionism. As the author explains (in this admittedly long excerpt),

[T]he failure of modern conservatism to combat trade protectionism is not just a failure to communicate economics; it’s a failure to promote a holistic philosophy of life and a healthy theology of work, one that’s oriented not toward a self-constructed “American dream,” but toward an authentic pursuit of full-scale freedom, good stewardship and human flourishing…Though it will pain many Americans to hear it…work is not ultimately about you. Yes, work provides sustenance and stability. Yes, it puts bread on the table and a roof over our heads. Yes, these are baseline comforts of a stable society, and yes, self-preservation is a good thing.

But we are no longer isolated hunters and gatherers. We live and work within a far-flung economy, and our hands are united with a large community of people. We are part of civilization, a glorious handiwork of human laborers — creatures made in the image of a creative God — working and collaborating together, and that is a good thing.

As Lester DeKoster reminds us, work is ultimately about “service to others and thus to God.” With this theology at our backs, the economic fruits of free trade are simply fruits: byproducts of humans working and serving together as God created us to do.

“Work restores the broken family of humankind,” DeKoster writes. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding … As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.”

…If work is about service to others, no longer should Foreigner X or Migrant Worker Y or Unskilled Laborer Z be viewed as “stealing your job,” though the frustration will surely persist. Instead, we should realize that they, like us, are finally able to participate in the global economy, offering their own forms of service and their own unique gifts and talents in new and efficient ways. They are participating in God’s grand design for work.

Through this lens, the prospect of job loss is no longer an occasion to mope about what was or wasn’t an “American job” in years gone by. The pain and nostalgia will likely endure, but we can remain hopeful and confident in knowing our work is not done. In these cases, job loss is simply a signal of how we might best use our time on behalf of others. It’s an opportunity to adapt and retool, to serve the community in new and better ways, as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be. That’s going to require an entire shift in the imagination of America, but it’s one that will revive and replenish far more than surface-level economic growth.

Happy Sabbath. And happy Monday.

All Trumped-Out

I couldn’t bring myself to include an image of Trump. So here’s Betty and her sloth.

I’ve been feeling Trumped-out since before the election, and I had hoped post election (perhaps naively even after he won) that the Trump obsession would dwindle to a hum. I’ve been dissapointed to say the least (please, Facebook, bring back memes about cats and tacos, I’ve had enough Trump.) I have, however, managed to come across some articles within the Trumpian madness that are actually worth the read.

First, from the NYT, an Italian confronts the similarities between Trump in America and their own media tycoon, Berlusconi, who was prime minister in Italy for a total of nine years. His suggestion on how to combat Trump: stick to policies, ignore the person (Please, ignore the person!).

Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.

From the Cato Institute, a critique of Trump’s inaugural address, that ignores the style of the address and worries about the substance. The author notes that words indicating an adherence to or respect of the Constitution were missing.

Still, I wish the speech had used the word “Constitution,” or “law” in a way beyond the phrase “law enforcement,” or “Framers” or “Founders,” or “Declaration” or “Amendment” or “individual” or perhaps “rights.” The one occurrence of “right” was in a passage about “the right of all nations to put their interests first.”

From Politico, an indictment of journalistic temper tantrums that describes how journalism should behave (hint: let the facts speak for themselves, oh, and shut up about crowds (and tweets)), and recalls similar (though stylistically different) issues brought about by the Obama administration.

As I’ve hypothesized before, there is a method to Trump’s tweets. Whenever he finds the noose of news lowering over his thick orange neck, he takes to Twitter to change the subject. The more outrageous and self-serving (or should I say “self-dealing”?) the tweets are, the better his results…

Consider the Obama presidency. As former Politicos Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in 2013 in a piece titled, “Obama, the Puppet Master,” he was “a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.” … Obama, VandeHei and Allen explained, took “old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting).” In doing so, “Media across the ideological spectrum [were] left scrambling for access.”

And a, clearly biased, take on Betty White’s thoughts on the current political climate (it’s her birthday and I couldn’t find any less biased articles that focused on this point instead of the fact that she is 95!) from IJR.  Even if the article/headline is a stretch, I think Betty has great advice for all of us. Includes a video of Betty and her sloth doll (PS: my son got the same sloth for his birthday.)

I think that’s the time to buckle down and really work positively as much as you can. Instead of just saying, “This is terrible. He’s terrible.” Just think, “Alright, there’s nothing I can do about that right now but I can do the best in my little circle. So if I do that, maybe you’ll do your best and we’ll get through this.”