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20 October 2021

A Neo-Decalogue

I've been thinking a lot over the pandemic about how I come to such different conclusions about the world than others. Why do I wear a mask or get vaccinated when others react so strongly--even violently--against such practices? One explanation I entertain is that I have a different set of base assumptions about the world than those folks. I sat down and did the exercise of writing out those starting principles. This is what I came up with:

  1. Be compassionate. 
  2. People are essentially good. 
  3. People have inherent dignity that can be neither earned nor forfeited.
    1. Honor is a vice. 
  4. We must love ourselves, our neighbors, the stranger, and even our enemies.
    1. In doing so, we love what many have come to call God.
  5. Love is an action, not a sentiment.
  6. If I fail to help someone in need, it is a statement against my character; if one takes advantage of my willingness to help, it is a statement against their character. 
  7. Any advantaged ascribed status or identity that causes fear or division is a vice. 
    1. These include nationality, race, political party, and family.
  8. All else being equal, the interests of the collective supersede those of the individual.
    1. Indeed, the interests of the individual are best served through the collective. 
  9. Social institutions exist for people, not the inverse. 
  10. All choice and responsibility exist within the constraints of a context. 
I'm not sure these are inclusive, but they seem like they encompass the gist of what I was thinking. 

05 September 2021

The Rumors of Their Christianity Are Greatly Exaggerated

I find myself full of rage these days. There are lots of reasons for that, but a prominent one is this: the people in my family who most vociferously identify as "Christian" are the only people in my family who refuse to be vaccinated. A big part of this, of course, is the same old, tired story of Evangelical hegemony. I am a Christian, too!* Evangelicals have been quite successful at convincing themselves and others that Christianity is synonymous with Evangelical and that Christianity is monolithic. It doesn't matter that this is demonstrably false both in the past and today. (There is a distinct irony embedded in this as Evangelicals have unwittingly thwarted their own global proselytization campaign. Since people have increasingly associated being religious with conservative theology and politics which they find unpalatable, people are simply abandoning religion. In other words, people are saying, "If that's what it is to be religious, count me out.") The whole thing is infuriating on many levels.

In closing, if you don't love your neighbor enough to get vaccinated, maybe consider that you're not actually Christian.


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* - I attend far more consistently than any of them, have dedicated most of my education and scholarship to religion, and actually try to live out that gospel message of "love they God/self/neighbor/enemy," but as a mainliner, they fail to recognize me as Christian. In fact, they have at times evangelized to me as if I were ignorant to Christianity. I digress, though.

10 July 2021

Public Municipal Journalism, a Proposal

I've been thinking about the role of news media in the growing partisan divide and social instability in the US over the last few years. I think it would be an oversimplification to claim that news media have caused these issues, but it seems clear that they at best failed to moderate them and at worse amplified them. Part of the issue undoubtedly is that journalism in the US is predominantly for-profit. We've had a public discussion recently about the problems that arise when we allow profit motives into other essential institutions, like education and healthcare, but we haven't yet addressed the same concerns with the press. The à la carte nature of journalism in the US has fragmented the national narrative to the point of near-collapse, and that fragmentation is largely the result of the capitalistic pursuit of niche markets, selling a branded story that resonates with a particular worldview or identity. This has been particularly disastrous for local newspapers. How might we correct this?

I'm reminded of the idea of the fourth estate. What if we reimagined a free press as being free not only of governmental control but also of capitalist manipulation? I can imagine news organizations that are chartered with very specific operating constraints. What if news media were cooperative firms, owned and controlled jointly by the journalists-workers and the communities they serve? What if they were funded by local millage or bond? What if journalists finally abandoned editorials and the op-ed page?

Across Western Europe, public news media are widely used and trusted sources of news. Most other advanced, industrialized nations have public journalism which serves as the preferred news source, is trusted more than private news media, and is trusted far more than distrusted. While there are populist and ideological divides, the divides are generally far smaller than you'd guess and do not reverse trust (Spain being an outlier). Regardless, we can certainly do better in the US.

09 July 2021

Zero- and Non-Zero-Sum Advantage

I've been thinking a lot recently about "privilege," what I agree is more sociologically termed advantage.* Specifically, I've been wrestling with the practice of publicly forcing people to acknowledge their advantage. I think this crescendoed last summer during the BLM protests. On whole, I think that these kinds of correctives are good. Part of advantage, after all, is not having to recognize that advantage so making advantaged folks see and address their advantage opens the opportunity for social change.

Along the way, however, I think there has been a shift from making people aware of their advantage to shaming and stigmatizing that advantage. As an example, imagine a white woman posting a picture of the new home she just purchased to Facebook and her friends commenting on the post that she is blindly demonstrating her privilege. It is a fine line between rightly problematizing her ignorance of her privilege and problematizing the purchase of a new home per se. I propose that it is better to think of two kinds of advantage/privilege, zero-sum and non-zero-sum.

By zero-sum advantage, I mean those kinds of situations in which one benefits at the expense of another. Generational wealth is a good example of this since, under capitalism, one's economic fortunes are tied to the current and/or historic exploitation of others. Because of this, corrective actions are necessary beyond just consciousness-raising (e.g. reparations or redistributive taxation). My advantaged economic standing is systemically linked to the standing of others, which requires the reduction of my advantage.

By non-zero-sum advantage, I mean those kinds of situations in which one's benefit is not directly linked to another's disadvantage but is instead a comparative or relative advantage. Interactions with the police are a good example of this since the fact that whites are less likely to have negative interactions with the police does not explain the increased propensity for police to target (intentionally or otherwise) blacks. The disprivilege of BIPOC folks to be disproportionately mistreated by the police does not mean that whites should be exposed to more mistreatment; instead, the "advantage" of being treated fairly and humanely should be expanded to the disadvantaged.

In other words, non-zero-sum advantages should be extended to those who are disadvantaged, while zero-sum advantages should be removed from those who are advantaged. I think this distinction will be helpful in both the public discourse about advantage/privilege as well in its treatment.

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* - See here for a note about this.