Tag Archives: religion

How Libertarians brought America Big Religion and Bigger Lawsuits…

(originally written Nov 2010; uploaded Aug 21, 2012 as part of my Great Upload of Musings…  for balance, I’ll soon post the follow-up which praises some portions of libertarian philosophy which are very dear to my progressive heart.  Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and I’m not above shacking up with occasional allies.  :)  )

 

It looks like the Democrats are going to get clobbered in the [2010 midterm] US elections. Economic malaise tends to do this to governing parties, which is one reason currency devaluation is the policy-du-jour: if country A can make its currency cheaper, it becomes more competitive and can export goods (and unemployment!) to countries B, C and D, whose currencies remain more expensive. It’s this kind of race to the bottom which has given gold aficionados their current decade in the sun. Of course, though Hemingway never lived to write about it, the sun also sets… :)

The Tea Party’s emergence has been an interesting but predictable phenomenon. The stagnation in American incomes for the past generation has finally hit a boiling point (what took so long?). Increased prosperity has largely been confined to the top 1% — and even then mainly the top 0.1% — of income earners in the population; those nice folks whose job titles begin with “Chief” and end with “Officer”. :)

In many cases, union-busting concessions levied in the name of improving competitiveness went straight into C-suite compensation: “trickle-up economics”, as it were. I don’t have the American numbers handy, but here are some Canadian ones. Perhaps one day, left-leaning parties will realize that they’ll get more support if they confine talk of tax increases to the very, very topmost folks. Noblesse oblige, and all that.

 

The anti-government stance of the — ugh — “Teabaggers” contrasts spectacularly with the strikers in France. The French were striking over a government plan to increase in the retirement age (from 60 to 62), to address pension costs. In other words, they were striking for more government (services, spending and so forth). Meanwhile, in the US, the Tea Party is agitating for less government.

One wonders if this different outlook comes from the two countries’ respective revolutions. In France, the French aristocracy was overthrown by the downtrodden masses, whereas in America, the British nobility was overthrown by a homegrown one. This is a simplification, but is reflected in the voting rights that resulted: every man in France had the right to vote as of 1792. (Revolutions, counter-revolutions, empires and monarchies made this a bit dicey for a few decades… ;) ) In the US, until about 1840, you couldn’t vote unless you were a property-owning white guy. So it was really a democracy of the rich. Not unlike today, really… ;) The rest of the XY club got to vote one Civil War later, vote-suppression campaigns notwithstanding. To give the US some credit, women’s suffrage arrived there in 1920, beating France by a quarter-century.

 

The Tea Party’s anti-government stance traces back to heavy funders the billionaire plutocrat Koch brothers, who have that libertarian streak common to the ultra-wealthy, and the clueless rubes who believe they’ll join those ranks if only [X] gets out of their way. The brothers Koch, building on decades of conservative dogma, have cunningly equated [X] to government; and specifically, a government that gave tax cuts to the bottom 98% of the population as one of its first orders of business.

As a quick recap, libertarians want minimal state interference in their daily lives. Most oppose motorcycle helmet laws as unnecessarily restrictive, but the hardliners — the few, the lucky few, that band of brothers — are still fighting… seat belts. And income tax. And public schools! Mind you, all groups have their flaky enthusiasts. ;)

Libertarianism has cast a large shadow over the American experience, and can be argued (weakly or strongly, you decide :) ) to be responsible for two standout features of American society: its litigiousness and its religiousness. This is ironic, because lawsuits are about the only thing that can cut the ultra-wealthy down to size… and because by and large, the only things libertarians abhor more than government services, are religious services. (Pun intended.) If you think governments are fussy about personal liberties… ;)

 

Putting my “Freakonomics” hat on, the litigious aspect of American society comes out of rational self-interest. If someone gets hurt — at work, in traffic, or elsewhere — and there’s a 1% chance a million-dollar complication will result later in life, very different results occur if you’re part of a universal healthcare system or not. In the former case, you won’t pay anything out-of-pocket: you’ll be subsidized by your fellow citizens. Unless there’s a matter of punishing gross negligence, you don’t have an incentive to sue. Besides, litigation is time-consuming, expensive, and stressful.

But in the latter case, medical complications could very well bankrupt you. (Medical costs are perennially the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US.) As such, litigation becomes a matter of self-preservation. Instead of one out of a hundred victims receiving a million dollars of medical intervention at some point in the future, all hundred will be in the courts to get the money that could save them from bankruptcy, up-front. That’s a hundred million dollars cash; an enormous drag on the system. All thanks to the paradigm shift from a country of millions, to millions of fiefdoms of one. :)

 

In recent centuries, the welfare state (in rich countries) has expanded into roles religious communities have traditionally paid — caring for the ill and infirm, minding children, and so forth. The reason churches and temples provided these services instead of business people, is that it’s tough to profit from these activities. (The current setup in most places, where houses of worship can provide such services alongside the public sector, is probably a good thing all in all, because a little competition keeps everyone honest.)

In the US, though, the paucity of public social spending means religious communities have retained a tremendous influence; they’re the only groups who will consistently provide the social services non-multimillionaires will depend on at one point or another in their hopefully-long lives! As such, being part of a faith community is a matter of rational self-interest for the average American; in addition to the spiritual nourishment they hopefully provide, they usually offer support / safety net services when there’s no publicly-funded game in town…

Batman and other cultural stories (1 of 2)

The horrible, horrible shooting at the recent Batman movie made me decide to delay sending this out, since times of tragedy aren’t appropriate for semi-flippant ruminations. In light of our southern cousins’ gun culture (and US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia’s suggestion that Americans’ right to bear arms might extend all the way up to shoulder-mounted weapons like anti-aircraft missiles) one wonders whether the satirists at The Colbert Report will announce a PR blitz built around the phrase “nuclear weapons don’t kill people, people kill people”…

But back to our subject line.

With the acclaimed completion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy, we’ve gone through three live-action incarnations of the franchise in the past forty or so years. As a contemporary mythology deeply imprinted in the modern North American psyche, Batman is an excellent springboard for us post-religious secularists to understand the cultural stories of our spiritual siblings.

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So let’s start by cycling through the incarnations of the caped crusader, whose basic character biography can be summarized as:

1) boy from rich family watches his parents get shot dead,

2) by a low-level gangster

3) and grows up wanting to avenge their deaths

4) so he dresses up like a bat and fights crime, using weapons and gadgets his money gives him access to,

5)  sometimes accompanied by a teenaged sidekick named Robin.

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More after the jump!

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Doubting “doubting” Thomas

(written March 17; uploaded Aug 9)

Dang, I missed being able to send this out on 3:16 — wouldn’t that’ve been topical! Oh well, St. Patrick’s Day it is, then…

I should also note that I’ll be using the conventions of modern scholarship.*

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I’ll be picking up a physical copy of the latest National Geographic, as its cover story “The Journey of the Apostles” has a great bit on “doubting” Thomas, whom tradition has it (and scholarship largely accepts, based on the balance of evidence) travelled to Jewish colonies in India, to proselytize there.

Sadly, when Portugese imperialists got to India around 1600 and discovered a heretical Christian sect with their own holy texts, they kinda had all the bad books burned. Which means that we may never know the literature the relatively-isolated Thomas Christians passed down from generation to generation. (Happily for them, Thomas Christians are still around in India, which hit on the idea of freedom of religion about two thousand years before America’s Founding Fathers made a big deal of it.) A hint of what might have been, comes from the “Jesus Sutras“, a set of Chinese-language Christian scriptures discovered recently in China, dating to roughly 1000 years ago.

Wildly heretical by most Christian standards, they poetically convey the transformative experience the faith has brought so many, over the years. If nothing else, they show the challenges of transposing subtle theological ideas across languages and cultures — something to keep in mind, when we consider that Christianity in Western Europe was a Gentile religion shaped by Latin-language liturgy based on manuscripts translated from Greek, about a Jewish founding community which spoke Aramaic! Suddenly the idea of the Buddha, a skinny Indian, being represented as a portly Chinese fellow, doesn’t seem so farfetched now, hmm? ;)

Now, I have sympathy for Thomas — so much so that Thomas was one of the few “normal” names I pitched for our son, early on — in part because I think he got a bad break with the whole “doubting” Thomas thing.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) the Big Three apostles are Peter, James and John. (And Mary, but that’s a different note, maybe for International Women’s Day or something.) While Jesus gives extra attention to the Big Three/Four, and Judas gets his big moment near the end, Thomas and the rest largely put in cameo appearances.

The Gospel of John is very different, coming from a different Christian community in a different area, with different priorities. And one of those priorities was sticking it to Thomas at every turn (hence the doubting-Thomas episode, among others). The Biblically curious only had one side of the story to go on, until a copy of The Gospel of Thomas was unearthed in Egypt about sixty years ago. Thought to’ve been written in a community near John’s community. And taking a few jabs at John’s beliefs about the Christ. Turn the other cheek, indeed…!  (This is the primary source for the preceding paragraph.)

So we now have the religious literature of two feuding, neighbouring faith communities, one of which came to overwhelmingly overshadow the other. To use a TV cartoon analogy, John is to Springfield as Thomas is to Shelbyville.

For many scholars, the Thomas Gospel is fascinating because parts of it may predate the Gospels. Among other things, it points to James the Just as the arbitrer of disagreements; he died in the early 60’s AD, while non-fundamentalist scholars tend to date the canonical Gospels to the period of roughly 70 to 100 AD. A healthy-but-not-overwhelming majority of scholars argue that Thomas came later, because other portions hint at the worldview of later-developing Gnostic Christianity. In a sense, it’s a case of whether scholars feel the glass is more half-full (parts of it seem early!) or half-empty (other parts seem late!).

As someone without a horse in the race, but with a chronic fondness for the underdog, I’m partial to the idea that there was an early Christian community espousing at least some of the ideas in the Gospel of Thomas, who didn’t get along with the community where the Gospel of John was written. Which would explain why both sides’ literature contains subtle digs against the other. It wouldn’t be the only case of this happening.

The unflattering depiction of Peter in the Gospel of Mark leads some scholars to think the author of Mark wasn’t a fan. Nor was John, who describes the “Beloved Disciple” in more flattering terms. (Tradition has it that the “Beloved Discipline” is John himself; convenient, eh? :) ) And nor was Thomas. But the fact that all three are uncharitable towards Peter, more or less proves he was an important figure in the early Christian communities. After all, if he was unimportant, why bother? In the same way, the Gospel of John’s criticism of the apostle Thomas suggests that there already existed a community identifying itself with that apostle, which had the “wrong” ideas about Jesus. Since Thomas doesn’t feature much in the other canonical Gospels, that community may have been pretty marginal. Perhaps because it didn’t yet exist…?  ;)

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It should be emphasized that none of these human foibles diminish in any way the life-changing experience of faith these early Christians were trying to convey in the words and deeds and miracles they recorded. While we live in a scientific era with a strict binary division between fiction and non-fiction, this was not the case when so much of the world’s profoundest religious literature was written. So it’s unfortunate that we moderns tend to get tied down in questions of factual accuracy, when the point of such scriptures is to point to timeless truths, not event-specific ones. A good modern analogy might be the US Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal”. This is technically untrue — we’re all different in our DNA, socioeconomic background, and so forth — and also overlooks half of humanity, but we accept it based on the deeper truth it points to. So it was for our forebears, and their guiding documents, in an earlier age.

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* funnily enough, one of the conventions is to refer to the authors of the various Gospels as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, despite the fact that these almost certainly weren’t the authors’ names. And though Matthew gets pole position in the New Testament, Mark was written first (then used as a quasi-template by both Matthew and Luke) hence the order I’m using here…