Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Everything for everyone?"

I am concerned with the way polemic and inaccurate statements are bandied about as uncontested "fact" and my growing conviction is that we need to keep challenging the fuzzy thinking. In the Jesus Creed post quoted from below (I like Jesus Creed because all sorts of people "gather" there and thus the diversity of opinion is broad) Scot McKnight, Jesus Creed blog owner, has been talking about the changing philosophy of education funding since the 1960s, in which higher education was seen a public good.

From Jesus Creed at http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/09/12/ucal-education/#comments

In order [in California] to assure access for all, tuition charges were banned—only “fees” for some costs other than education were allowed. Most funding was to come from taxpayers. The premise was that higher education was a public good for the state, which was nursing its own future entrepreneurs and taxpayers. As Mr Kerr put it, the universities were “bait to be dangled in front of industry, with drawing power greater than low taxes or cheap labour”.

That consensus has been upended. In 1990 the state paid 78% of the cost of educating each student. That ratio dropped to 47% last year, and will fall even more during the current academic year, after the latest round of budget cuts, overseen by Jerry Brown, the current governor and son of Pat Brown.

From a frequent blog responder:

California tried to provide everything for everyone, and they went broke. Thus, things ended up worse (and yes, worse for the same people they were trying to help) than had they simply been responsible in the first place. It’s odd that people continue to not get this after so many examples. Ultimately, when the same thing happens on a national scale, the truly poor will be the ones most hurt. Our desire to provide everything will ultimately lead to the most vulnerable (some like to call them “the least of these”) ending up worse than before. This is why people claim (rightly, in my view) that endless amounts of ‘helping people’ results in those people being worse off than before.

My response:

California never tried to provide “everything for everyone.” That’s simply not an accurate statement. I lived in California years ago and was not allowed to loll around collecting a welfare check. I worked hard to make a living. However, in the past, responsible people have believed that investing in the civic sector by providing “for the larger good” was an honorable, responsible and worthy task to be engaged in by sober, mature citizens. My heart broke when I read that people cheered at the latest Presidential debate the idea of letting a person without health insurance die in the emergency room. My heart breaks to be part of a society in which we are not a commonwealth anymore but a a group of individuals each out for himself or herself. My question is–under the guise of the unchallenged (by some) assumption that we “can’t afford things” anymore, which flies in the face of massively improved productivity in the US over the past 20 years– or that the least bit of sharing in the culture for the common good somehow equates to “socialism”–are we becoming evil? Is the Christian ethic of the Good Samaritan being subordinated to the lust for money?

My response was perhaps overly impassioned but I am concerned about, for instance, people cheering the idea of letting an uninsured individual die in an emergency room. Sometimes I feel I went to sleep in my beloved United States and woke up in a nightmare land. What can we do?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Saying no to blood sports: A Portraiture of Quakerism III

Perhaps the section of Thomas Clarkson's 1806 A Portraiture of Quakerism most congenial to modern sensibilities discusses the Quaker prohibition on blood sports and cruelty to animals. This prohibition is not, Clarkson points out, against hunting game for food--it is a prohibition against hunting for sport. It is not censuring or forbidding having animals as stock for food, labor or wool--it censures causing such animals unnecessary sufferings.

Clarkson splits this section into three parts, leading with rational and empatheric reasons to avoid harming animals, then discussing Old Testament and New Testament objections to cruelty.

Rational reasons are as follows:

It has been matter of astonishment to some, how men, who have the powers of reason, can waste their time in galloping after dogs, in a wild and tumultuous manner, to the detriment often of their neighbours, and to the hazard of their own lives; or how men, who are capable of high intellectual enjoyments, can derive pleasure, so as to join in shouts of triumph, on account of the death of an harmless animal; or how men, who have organic feelings, and who know that other living creatures have the same, can make an amusement of that, which puts brute-animals to pain.

In keeping with his campaign to "normalize" Quakers, Clarkson aligns their anti-cruelty sentiments with those of the mainstream poet and abolitionist Thomas Cowper, a favorite of both Quakers (both Olney, Maryland and Olney Friends Schools are named in honor of Cowper's home town of Olney in England) and Anglicans (Jane Austen, for example, was a great fan of Cowper).

Cowper, too, railed against animal cruelty in his long poem The Task:

Detested sport
That owes its pleasures to another's pain,
That feeds upon the sobs and dying shrieks
Of harmless nature, dumb, but yet endued
With eloquence

Clarkson then goes on to find a prohibition against animal cruelty in the Old Testament:

The Jews obliged all their converts to religion ... to observe what they called the seventh commandment of Noah, or that "they should not eat the member of any beast that was taken from it, while it was alive." This law therefore of blood, whatever other objects it might have in view, enjoined that, while men were engaged in the distresing task of taking away the life of an animal, they should respect its feelings, by abstaining from torture, or all unnecessary pain.

The New Testament, according to the Quakers, further enlightens humans in mercy and lovingkindness, leading to gentle treatment of animals.

But in proportion as he is restored to the divine image, or becomes as Adam was before he fell, or in proportion as he exchanges earthly for spiritual views, he sees all things through a clearer medium. ... Beholding animals in this sublime light, he will appreciate their strength, their capacities, and their feelings; and he will never use them but for the purposes intended by providence. It is then that the creation will delight him. It is then that he will find a growing love to the animated objects of it. And this knowledge of their natures, and this love of them, will oblige him to treat them with tenderness and respect. ... Hence they uniformly look upon animals, not as brute-machines, to be used at discretion, but as the creatures of God, of whose existence the use and intention ought always to be considered ...

Two notes--as he does throughout, Clarkson shows his understanding of Quaker culture by invoking George Fox, this time, Fox's outrage at hunting and hawking and other activities which cause animals to suffer. It's interesting that Quaker deployment of Fox as authority has not much changed in two centuries. Further, Clarkson plugs into a wider current of late -eighteenth century "sensibility" that was probably the first sustained modern view of animals as having a right not to be tormented. Of course, throughout history, individuals have objected to torturing animals, but the Enlightenment saw a rise of interest in a movement against animal suffering.

Finally, Clarkson understands Quaker theology as one rejecting mindless dominion and aligned to what we would today call "creation care."

Certainly, in a culture that could justify cruelty to slaves as "dumb brutes," compassion towards animals was of piece with compassion towards slaves. If it was wrong to beat beasts of burden unmercifully, so it was wrong to do the same to human "beasts of burden." As today, we see the linkage between how we treat the least in nature and how we treat the least of humankind.

I find little to argue with in the eighteenth-century Quaker ban on blood sports and animal cruelty: If only it were more embraced today. What is of more interest to me are blind spots. Many of those who hunted, for example, probably never thought about the terror and pain they were causing an animal, which leads me to wonder what cruelties we're blind to today? Can you think of any?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In between Quaker Portraitures: Pointon and Lindbeck

The article cited below by Marcia Pointon provides a late twentieth-century interpretation of the sometimes tortured eighteenth- century Quaker relationship to material goods. If Clarkson, in Portraiture, offered an idealized view of Quakers, his odd bedfellows in the fight against slavery, with an eye towards "normalizing" Friends to upper-class Britons, Pointon examines some of the difficulties eighteenth-century Quakers had in navigating the world of consumption. In doing so, she emphasizes how "this-worldly" Quakers were in their understanding of the power of material goods:

Marcia Pointon, 'Quakerism and Material Culture', Art History, September
1997, pp. 397-431 (HT: BPD)

As for George Lindbeck, one of the books I recently read for an ESR seminary class in Constructive Theology was Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine, a modern classic. In this book, Lindbeck argues that the notion of religion most common in the West since the nineteenth-century is "emotional expressivism," the idea that we each, as individuals, have "our own" individual, interior experience of the Divine. After we have that experience, which in this mode of undertanding, is considered universal, we "translate" it into the language and culture (sign-system) of a religious faith. Thus, if we're born in to a European-American family in Ohio, we would likely translate a mystical encounter with God into the language of Christianity; if born in Iran, we would likely translate the same experience into the language if Islam. In a nutshell, religion works from the inside out and flows from the individual to the community.

Lindbeck, whose initial agenda in writing the book was to devise ways to foster ecumenical dialogue, turns "emotional expressivism" inside out. Religion, he says, is a "cultural linguistic" system, first and foremost, in other words, a grammar. Rather than functioning secondarily as a communal expression of shared interior experiences, the culture and language of our religious heritage determines the kind of interior religious experiences we as individuals have. We go from the outside (culture) to the inside (mystical experience). And, if our "interior" religious experiences are structured by our language and culture (the religious rituals, stories, songs etc. that we learn), then the "mystical" encounters with the ineffable that a Buddhist has are fundamentally different from those of a Christian.

Understanding religions as cultural linguistic systems or "languages" is useful for interfaith or ecumenical dialogue because it respects, rather than erases, differences between faiths (nobody would ever, for example, posit that French and German are the "same") and it eradicates the need to establish one religion as "superior" to another (French and German are simply two different languages and one doesn't have to devise a hierarchy to show that one is better than the other).

Lindbeck thus argues that since there is no single transcultural experience of the spiritual there is no need to posit a transcultural, overarching experience of religion: “One can no more be religious in general than one can speak language in general,” he writes. Religion is located in particularity. This leads to the now familiar move from doctrine to stories--religion is not a set of propositions but a community of people who share a language and heritage for understanding the divine.

Lindbeck's theory is obviously problematic for Quakerism, as this is a faith group that highly values individual mystical experience. At that same time, the Society of Friends is a highly communal--and even orally-dependent--group. The question becomes, how does Quakerism align with and challenge Lindbeck?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Portraiture of Quakerism II: Prohibitions

In volume one of A Portraiture of Quakerism, abolitionist Thomas Clarkson systematically works through the various activities, common to his English upper class, that are prohibited by the Quakers, and endeavors to explain the rational basis for these prohibitions. In this post, so it stays reasonably short, I will look only at one. His goal is to make Quakerism, which no doubt appeared at times a bizarre, fundamentalist (ie, arbitrary and irrational) and forbidding cult intelligible to people of a certain class and education. While framing his story as describing the “quaint Other,” Clarkson’s agenda, I imagine, is to render Quakerism more respectable and rational, in order, thus, to render abolitionism more respectable and rational. Notably, Portraiture appeared in 1806, a year before legislation was passed banning the slave trade (though not slavery) in the British Empire. It is true too, that over the course of 150 years, Quakerism had in fact shifted from its radical and apocalyptic beginnings (early Quakers did not think the End Times were coming soon—they thought, with the execution of Charles I that the End Times HAD ARRIVED, a concept known as Realized Eschatology)—to a group that, influenced deeply by Enlightenment thought, and the reality that the New Jerusalem had not yet descended, had become more rational. Whether this embrace of rationalism was a step forward or backwards is, of course, still debated among contemporary Quakers

To a modern Quaker reader, the prohibitions Clarkson has so far described--against gambling/lotteries/games of chance, music, dancing, theater, novels and blood sports—break into two categories: prohibitions that (in a softer way) are still strongly accepted and prohibitions that are rejected. Modern Quakers would probably accept and support the prohibitions against gambling/lotteries/games of chance and blood sports and reject the prohibitions on music, dance, theatre and novels.

The Quaker prohibition against gambling which Clarkson justifies at length we would sum up as recognition of its addictive nature—the Quakers, rationally, want to avoid a pastime that can lead to ruin. Other comments he makes as reasons to avoid gambling, lotteries and card playing—the last, which we know from Jane Austen, was a common pastime—include their tendency to be a waste of time, their tendency to habituate people to the concept of effortless gain and their tendency to excite passions.

Clarkson emphasizes rationality when he writes: “For when they [Quakers} consider man, as a reasonable being, they are of opinion, that his occupations should be rational. …. “ and “The Quakers are not so superstitious as to imagine that there can be any evil in cards, considered abstractedly as cards, or in some of the other amusements, that have been mentioned.” But cards take away from more fruitful occupations.

A chief objection, then and now, to gaming Clarkson writes is the following: “For by gaming a man learns to pursue his own interest solely and explicitly, and to rejoice at the loss of others, as his own gain, grieve at their gain, as his own loss, thus entirely reversing the order established by providence for social creatures.”

Reading this section in light of Jane Austen, I’m reminded of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, whom we find at the beginning of the novel so engrossed in a game of lotteries at Mrs. Phillip’s that she hardly notices Wickham. This characterizes her as immature and childlike, impulsively fixated on the moment to the exclusion of all else, but also, in light of Clarkson’s words on gambling and gaming, as in an environment that excites her passions and primes her for “quick win” risk-taking—in her case, being the first married of the Bennett sisters. She does rejoice at her gain of a husband ahead of her sisters and Austen does lead us to understand Lydia’s “elevation” as a grotesque reversal of the social order, all the more galling for Lydia’s cluelessness about the sacrifices that saved her.

I think today about the state lotteries and casinos, and personally, can't help but agree with the early Quakers on the corrupting influence of this. I too think that the idea "I too could be rich tomorrow," no matter how remote, encourages people to support regressive tax laws that make it harder to build a juster society. I tend to believe that there is something insidious and destructive in the valorization of the pursuit of quick riches, especially when it is only for the very, very few and the rest are left in poverty ... but the question arises: in prohibiting gambling, lotteries and games of chance, are the Quakers merely attending to the outward shell and not the inner soul? Or, as George Lindbeck suggests in the Nature of Doctrine, does the outward (social) form of the faith largely determine the inward experience? Where do you fall on lotteries?