Archive | June 2012

The Loyalty of Dogs, Dudes, and the Divine

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AS I lay spooning my beagle in the afternoon sun, I basked in the canine’s unconditional loyalty.  I thought, no matter how foolish I act, no matter how much of my blighted character I set before this dog, he’ll still come when I call, sit when I say, kiss when I cajole, and shake when I shoot out my hand.  Dogs aren’t like people; bestowing loyalty carefully or conditionally.  Certainly, if my only interaction with my dog, Dane, consisted of physical beatings or verbal beratings, I would never command his loyalty.  But human loyalty always submits a much taller order than the absence of abuse or the occasional pat and doggie biscuit.  The fact is, canine loyalty is a low-risk, high-return investment every time.  When I do something to let down a friend, I always run the risk that he will, at some point, decide that I’m no longer worthy of his trust.  But, unless I go to great lengths to alienate my dog (in Dane’s case, I’d probably have to just kill him), I know that he’ll always run to meet me when I get home and happily pester me whenever I’m outside.  Enjoying this reality, I scratched Dane’s ear and took comfort in a loyalty whose expiration was nowhere in sight.

And then, crestfallen, I realized I was grievously mistaken. To prefer the security of my pet’s loyalty to the selective fidelity of a friend is a profound perversity.  There are few sentiments more pathetic than the preference for the cheap and unearned over the costly and conditional.  Prizing something for its easy acquisition rather than for its inherent merit is cowardly, for it is only done by those who fear to put up risk for more precious rewards.  The very fact that my choices may enhance or undermine the loyalty of a friend should mean that any loyalty another person extends to me will command my reverence, respect, and labor.  It is ironic, then, that loyalty is a quality whose value is contingent upon its conditionality while also being a quality whose meaning connotes longsuffering.  The loyal person will bear with many abuses.  Yet, the extent of the loyalty is always dependent upon the value the person places upon the object of their loyalty.  Thus, a costly loyalty will have steep conditions while also having a tremendous tolerance.  The greatest loyalty can be both earned and lost, but only through proportionately great actions of commitment or betrayal.  The nigh-indelible loyalty of a dog is nice, but to imagine, even for an instant, that I am better off with unconditional loyalty than conditional loyalty is both small and selfish.

Now, those of you who are of a Christian persuasion may wonder at my position.  For, I seem to have suggested that the value of loyalty rests in the nature of the conditions upon which it is predicated.  Thus, since a dog’s loyalty is, once earned, almost without condition, it is almost without value in comparison to a human loyalty which I must labor to maintain.  If my thesis is correct, then the divine faithfulness, which is seemingly of greater intensity and lower conditionality than that of the dog, ought to be at the very bottom of my scheme.  Thus while I may escape cowardice by preferring conditional loyalty, I must apparently also embrace blasphemy by devaluing divine loyalty.

But, dear Christian, fear not.  For, while it is true that the faithfulness of God is not conditional with respect to my actions, that by no means proves the conclusion that God’s faithfulness is unconditional.  In fact, it rests upon conditions which are even more demanding than the most judgmental of friends.  God is faithful to me, not because I always hold up my end of the bargain, but because He is totally concerned with His own joy, glory, and holiness.  God is thoroughly God-centered (as any holy being must be), and His commitment to the redemption of His creation is an outgrowth of his self-centeredness.  In order to bring me back into a right creature-Creator relationship with Him for the purpose of His glory, God has to satisfy an incredibly high standard—making me righteous (again, for those of you who know me, you’ll know that this is just about the most difficult thing imaginable).  It just so happens that God Himself fulfils the conditions of His faithfulness, in order that it may not be conditional with respect to my actions in particular.  In this way, again, God’s loyalty to me is shown to be valuable by virtue of the extreme conditions that are laid upon it.

Since, however, I could more easily dispose of my dog’s loyalty than I could of God’s, despite its deeply conditional nature, I am in the precarious position of being able to repeatedly transgress a loyalty which I cannot abrogate but which is more valuable than any of which I could dispose.  In this way, I enjoy the ease of a loyalty which will never dissolve while knowing it demands of me the respect of a loyalty which I could never earn.  The safety of God’s faithfulness calls me to rest in the sacrifice of Christ, but the expense of His faithfulness impels me to strive in a manner worthy of the conditions that demanded that sacrifice.  I can only pray that my efforts are genuine enough that I do not turn the divine loyalty into a parody of my dog’s.

Bias: Why Can’t It Just Get By Us?

EVERY sentence, at least, every sentence which does not begin with a complete explanation of the origin of things as justification for that sentence (including language; let that wrinkle your brain), is an expression of bias.

[If you do not like biased articles, then you may feel free to depart this blog forever.  I will not say that you will be missed, for fear of suggesting that I harbor some preference or, if you will, bias, in your favor.]

I mean, every time we speak, we presuppose that the objects about which we converse have some reality which may be apprehended by others and that our words are capable of impressing the senses of our audience with at least some of the meaning with which we seek to imbue those words.  Communication, then, involves a serious philosophical commitment, taking several definite positions on doctrines over which heavyweight philosophers have disagreed (I’m looking at you, Berkeley, although I admit that the word heavyweight may have been ill-chosen to describe a subjective idealist, in more ways than one).  While you may not intend to convince me to hold any of the above prejudices (a typical objective of ‘biased’ communication), any demand, request, imperative, or query which you might put to me both contains particular prejudices and relies upon my acceptance of at least some of them in order for your communication to be successful.  The rest of your success is probably dependent upon the volume and tenor of the communication, along with the attractiveness of the face from which it emanates.  But, I digress.

These tangled sentences are the result of a good friend’s facebook post.  Writing on another friend’s timeline, this girl, let’s call her Cordelia, observed that the total number of footnotes that she used in papers during her first semester was under forty.  Competitive soul that I am, I found it necessary to look through my freshman essays to see how many notes I footed during my first semester.  Cordelia, I crushed you.  But, more importantly, in browsing my freshman essays, I crushed myself.  Not only were every one of my papers atrocious from a purely stylistic perspective, they were filled with unsubstantiated bias.  I realized that the only reason I ever had trouble writing short papers as an underclassman was that I saw no reason to offer any factual, rational, or authoritative justification for my own opinions.

Then it hit me.  Not only is bias unavoidable in an abstract sense, it is incredibly useful in a practical sense.  If bias was completely eliminated from communication, there could not possibly be a career in journalism.  I’m not taking a cheap-shot at newspaper men.  (Newsie girls, you’re on your own.)  I’m suggesting that, when it comes to communication that must be constrained by time, copy space, and circulation place, it is critical that writers and readers cultivate a few common prejudices.  (I may be a lunatic, but I’m not alone.  See Christopher Lasch, Revolt of the Elites.)  It would be impossible to write a four page essay or a five hundred word article without relying heavily upon existing prejudices and it would be fruitless to do so without attempting to move the audience to a particular conclusion.  Sure, it might be a conclusion so innocuous as “it rained an inch yesterday” or it may be so controversial as “a little bias is a good thing,” but either way both aspects of bias always exist.

Journalism, then, probably shouldn’t be a pursuit of objectivity (since the very suggestion that “objectivity” should be pursued stems from a particular bias).  Instead, let our communication be admittedly biased but open to question.  We all have an agenda when we speak, so let’s at least be honest about it so that we can actually construct arguments which test the validity of our bias.  One cannot easily pick apart a supposedly “neutral” story about a particular event, even if it is biased.  When, however, a speaker clearly admits that he starts from a particular perspective with a goal in mind, his words invite fruitful discussion about the prospective from which he proceeds along with the manner of the words he employs.

No, I’m not advocating the communication of falsehood when I condone bias.  Yes, I’m aware that, sometimes, bias is understood as the selective use of truth to the extent that it constitutes falsehood.  I rely, as we all do every time we listen to another speaker, upon the discretion of the communicator as he speaks to prevent this much bias from being introduced.  It’s not a perfect world and nobody knows everything, so we can’t expect to communicate perfectly.  The problem is, communication is imperfect even when, if not especially when, we claim to pursue objectivity.  Thus, it’s far less deceptive (and far more productive, from a sociological standpoint), to promote robust discourse through the use of bias than to stifle dissent by the claim to neutrality.

For Self-Government (and Soda!)

THERE are too many atrocities on the internet to comprehend.  Until today, I had resisted the urge to confront them personally, being all-too-aware that my response might well inaugurate an additional online atrocity.  But, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on all sugary beverages over 16 oz. has dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the blogosphere (those of you who know me well will not be surprised).

To be more precise, however, I must admit that the ban alone is insufficient motivation for my change of heart.  A potential ordinance 1,200 miles from my home does not, in and of itself, impel me to create and maintain this blog.  No, it took a friend’s favorable citation of this post to inspire these comments.  If they (and all foregoing posts) constitute something worthwhile, then I must credit Drew Magary’s admirably passionate (albeit somewhat vulgar and misguided) rant.

Mr. Magary suggests that all complaints about the regulation of soda in New York City stem from a misunderstanding of freedom and democracy.  To those who “think the ban on large sodas is somehow an affront to American freedom,” Magary writes, “I have news for you:  You don’t live in a free country.  You never have and you never will.  That’s an illusion.  You are not free to murder people in America…You do not have absolute freedom to do anything you want in America, and that’s a good thing, because living with absolute freedom means you live in ****ing Deadwood.”

In one sense, Magary strikes against a common misconception:  that freedom is inversely proportional to extent of government restraint.  He rightly berates those who wish to see broken every politically-forged shackle on the human will. If being free means that absolutely nothing stands in the way of our choices, then no man, democrat or autocrat, has ever been free.

As Americans, we conceive of ourselves as free by virtue of our ability to select, through representatives, the particular constraints which must be enforced.  Magary acknowledges this but claims that, since we enjoy representative political institutions, we have no right to complain when unpopular measures are enacted.  Taking this position, however, ignores the double-sided character of the self-government by which we claim to be free.  For, while we enjoy a Rousseauian liberty through popular sovereignty, this liberty is predicated upon a citizenry which grasps Plato’s articulation of self-government (the rational element of the soul subordinating the spirited and appetitive elements).  The American experiment is a synthesis of The Social Contract and The Republic.  The social body cannot be constrained in its self-government unless the individual first exerts constraint upon himself.  The civil code extends to personal minutia (like drinking soda) as a function of the individual’s failure to govern himself.  Thus, while it is nonsensical for a democratic society to decry the soda ban as unjust, it is essential for our social health that we mourn its pronouncement as a sentence upon our own failure to govern our appetites.

There are two additional reasons for cautious opposition to this (and other) dictates of nanny-state liberalism.  First, it represents a qualitative departure from the two primary justifications for law:  harm and evil.  In a liberal state, the first justification tends to take precedence.  We do not question laws which clearly protect us from each other.  Magary rightly mentions laws against murder and obstructing traffic.  The law rightly restricts choices which harm or endanger others.  Laws may also punish acts which, while not necessarily harmful to others, are evil in themselves.  This sort of restriction has fallen out of favor in our society, since evil typically implies an underlying religious conviction.  Invoking a religion to define evil in law usually involves a constitutional violation, so few Americans are willing, for good or ill, to embrace regulations of this sort.

The soda ban can claim neither of these justifications.  Purchasing and imbibing an ice-cold coke does not hurt my neighbor and it (hopefully) doesn’t offend my God.   Thus, banning large sodas relies, not on the premise that civil law should protect us from harm, but that the government should promote our personal good, right down to telling us how much coke we can drink with our burger (and how much that burger should be cooked; seriously, who wants burgers cooked medium-well?).  Acknowledging the validity of this premise is a concession that civil power is bounded by no principle in particular, but only by the extent to which social planners can get away with making our decisions for us.  As self-government wanes, so will the arena of choice reserved to the individual.

Finally, imbuing our elected officials with power over personal (and largely inert) choices reveals an over-confidence in government.  Allowing government to supplant personal choice requires some conviction that government is actually capable of making better choices on our behalf than we would for ourselves.  This conviction isn’t all bad, especially when we’re dealing with choices which would likely harm others.  There is enough at stake to justify the risk.  But, on matters of personal consumption (be it coke or, I dunno, healthcare), the government does not possess the volumes of varying information to which the individual is privy.  Most importantly, the government is not subject to the consequences of those decisions.  The lack of information makes the crafting of policy difficult.  The absence of particularized consequences, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to gauge the economy of even the most thoughtful restrictions.  So, while we may have no grounds to combat such a law, heck, we may even be better off with a smaller glass of coke, the proposal of this ban should raise serious concerns about our society’s capacity for self-government, our justification for law, and our enduring (though consistently refuted) faith in the competence of government.