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Swift justice

By Lorenzo


Evening of May 11, 1812: broker John Bellingham shot and killed Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons.

May 15, 1812: John Bellingham tried at the Old Bailey.  A claim of insanity was not accepted.

May 18, 1812: John Bellingham was hanged by the neck until dead.

No mucking about in those days.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Never reason from a static coalition

By Lorenzo

From the Great Depression election of 1930 to the Contract with America election of 1994–so a period of 64 years–the US House of Representatives had a Republican majority for precisely 4 years (two terms): 1947-49, 1953-1955, the terms of Speaker Joseph William Martin Jnr.

Since the Contract with America election, the only non-Republican Speaker has been Nancy Pelosi (2007-11). So, after having a US House of Representatives majority for 4 years out of 64, the Republican Party has since had a majority for 16 out of 20: a majority confirmed, indeed increased, in the recent midterm elections, with the Republicans achieving their largest majority since 1928. [Or, at a State level, since 1920: with the Democrats down to Civil War levels of (lack of) State control.] Suggests that shifts in the electorate have been heading the Republican’s way.

Density, diversity and Democrats
Yet, it is very easy to find analyses which will tell you that long-term demographic trends are working against the Republican Party. One of the more striking such analyses is a population density analysis by Baltimore entrepreneur-blogger Dave Troy. With a couple of striking graphs, he points out (in a November 2012 post) that, once population density in a county hits 800 per square mile, it votes Democrat; with such voting increasing the more population density does. Indeed, as density also means diversity, it correlates strongly with racial residence patterns–except it apparently only takes 3% Asian population or 9% Hispanic population to trigger Democrat majorities at a county level. Hence, he concludes that

The real drivers seem to be density and diversity. Density (such as found in cities) corresponds with diversity. Diversity leads to progressive voting behaviour.

The Atlantic magazine took up this theme in a November 2012 article, that the US political divide was a rural-urban one:

The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside. Not just some cities and some rural areas, either — virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer about where people live, it’s about how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy — or amid rough-and-tumble, in-your-face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.

The voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.

This divide is how things are trending:

This divide between blue city and red countryside has been growing for some time. Since 1984, more and more of America’s major cities have voted blue each year, culminating in 2012, when 27 out of the nation’s 30 most populous cities voted Democratic. According to Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and The New York Times, the 2012 election marked the fourth time in the last five federal election cycles that voters shifted away from the party of the sitting president. Despite that constant churn, one part of the electoral map has become a crystal clear constant. Cities, year by year, have become drenched in more blue. Everywhere else is that much more red.


For years, this continues: Urban and rural counties jostling with a small pool of counties which go back and forth every couple of elections. There’s no real realignment, just a constant tug of war as the nation grows further divided.

Now, if density and diversity favour the Democratic Party, has the US got more or less densely populated and diverse since, say 1994? Especially compared to, say 1932-1993? Even since 1984? And how has the Republican Party done in House of Representatives seats in that time, worse or better?

One sees the little problem: identify that density and diversity favour the Democrats, note that the US is becoming more densely populated and diverse, and conclude the Republicans are on a long-term losing wicket. Dave Troy warns so, in his original post:

Red state values are simply incompatible with density.

Only subsidized suburban housing and fuel prices are insulating the United States from this global trend, and even with these artificial bulwarks, there is no good reason to think that America’s future lies in low-density development.

Density is efficient. Density produces maximum economic output. An America that is not built fundamentally on density and efficiency is not competitive or sustainable. And a Republican party that requires America to grow inefficiently will become extinct.

While the Republican party is retooling in the desert, it should carefully consider whether its primary issue is identity politics or whether its platform is simply not compatible with the global urban future. If that’s the case, an Hispanic candidate running on the same old Republican platform will simply not resonate. The Republican party must develop a city-friendly platform to survive.

Cities are the future and we need candidates from both parties that understand that reality.

OK, so he is warning about the future, rather than simply consigning the Republican Party to long-term loser status. Still, there is a paradox here: density and diversity favour the Democrats according to a rural Republican v urban Democrat division which has been becoming more and more entrenched since 1984 in a US that has been becoming more diverse and more densely populated, yet the Republican Party has been having its most electorally successful period in close to 90 years.

Yes, there are some (re)districting issues, but that does not get you very far at all in explaining the apparently contradictory pattern of “hostile” demographics yet Republican electoral success.

I would suggest a more basic issue: in a two-Party system, both Parties are effectively coalitions of interests and groups. In a highly competitive two-Party system, they are dynamic coalitions. Even with a rural-urban divide, there is nothing magical about 800 people per square mile. Push the “crossover” number up a bit to, say, 850 people per square mile, and the Republican vote goes up significantly. Push it down to, say 750 people per square mile, and the Democratic vote goes up significantly.

 So, if Republicans soft-pedal cultural issues which are working against them and start talking about poverty, equal pay, income inequality and black disadvantage (their Senate majority now includes South Carolina’s first black Senator since Reconstruction), then the cross-over point can shift–in their favour. [The Republicans made gains in all demographic groups.] That is how two-Party systems work, in genuinely competitive environments.

Yes, of course demographic changes are of interest–but they are of interest in how electoral contests will be framed, not (in genuinely competitive systems) as permanent predictors of winners. Which, if that is the point Troy was trying to make, is a good one. But don’t buy into “Party X is doomed because [insert demographic trend here]“. It is simply not how competitive two-Party systems work.

Oh, and what does the Party of an unpopular President doing madly in second term midterms tell you about the prospects for 2016? Essentially, nothing.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud]

Ebola, Ferguson and political narratives

By Lorenzo

The Ebola virus reaching the US and the ongoing troubles and controversy over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri display the power and the dangers of political narratives from all sides, both of US politics and more broadly.

Thus, one of the more tired and embarrassing responses to Ebola mis-steps in the US has to been to decry “budget cuts” at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and related agencies, thereby fulfilling two perennial progressivist tropes–there is never enough money and more money makes it better.

Evading responsibility
Embarrassing because:

  • dealing with viral outbreaks is rather their core business [particularly the CDC, but the US Health and Human Services Department generally], and having an appropriate action plan ready to go should not be very expensive [even if implementing it may be]; and
  • (2) the NIH spends a considerable amount of money, an amount which has gone up dramatically over the last decade and a half.

In 2000, the NIH had a total budget of $17.8bn, which rose rapidly to $28.6bn in 2005 and has hovered around $29-$30bn ever since. Quite a lot of money and not subject to any serious cuts. (It is a bigger budget than the Australian Defence Force.) This did not stop the current head of the NIH blaming the failure to come up with an Ebola vaccine on “a decade of stagnant spending“. Yes, that is a bureaucrat evading responsibility, but the Huffington Post headline blames “budget cuts”; and the “budget cuts!” and “more money!” memes are very useful for evading responsibility.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a budget of around $6.5bn in recent years, also after considerable increases under the Bush II Administration.

Then there is the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which the NIH and CDC are part of. It, and its subordinate agencies, has a total budget of, in 2013, $886bn; in 2014, $958bn; and, in 2015, $1trn. That is a significantly bigger budget than the US Defence Department and more than twice the expenditure of the entire Federal Government of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Again, effective plans for dealing with a possible viral outbreak which has been raging in West Africa for months, how much does that cost, really? [Including health guidelines one might adopt from people with experience.] The HHS has, for example, enormously more resources than, say Nigeria or Senegal, who have both successfully dealt with much worse outbreaks and provide learning experiences that a competent bureaucracy might notice. (Though Peter Turchin raises a rather nastier possible explanation for the somewhat lacklustre response.)

If a trillion dollar budget does not generate satisfactory competence in a basic area of responsibility, no amount of money is going to. Indeed, at that sort of scale, more money, and the extra responsibility that does with it, is almost certainly going to generate less basic competence, not more. It does rather look like something of a failure of the administrative state (though the degree of “failure” is being rather overdone).

Apart from being easy tropes, fulfilling a preferred political narrative, “budget cuts!”, “more money!” also do something such narratives are often about–they divert attention from awkward facts likely to cause cognitive dissonance. The cognitive dissonance here being a (very well-funded) government bureaucracy does absolutely nothing to provide any guarantee of effectiveness, or even basic competence. The omni-competent state that progressivist politics implicitly or explicitly postulates will solve problems–if just given the correct goals and the funding-which-is-never-enough–does not really exist.

Worse, as we have seen with the head of the NIH, the memes in question actively work to evade responsibility–and that is precisely the point. Holding government agencies and spending programs genuinely accountable for their competence and effectiveness not only makes “the government will fix it” much more complicated, it can actively and seriously undermine that central presumption.

This is not merely an “political narratives” issue. It goes right to the heart of holding governments and their agencies accountable. Political narratives matter, and in a very direct sense.

President Obama’s response to the agencies on the ground letting him down–in the “embarrassing the President in the news cycle” sense–was to appoint an Ebola “czar”. Both he and his predecessor have been very inclined to such appointments, far more so than previous postwar presidents. That is partly because both President Obama and President Bush II are mediocre administrators, by US Presidential standards. It is also likely to be partly a response to the 24-hour news cycle–President Clinton was much more inclined than his postwar predecessors to appoint such folk, though not nearly as inclined as his two successors. It may also be partly a response to the growth of the US Federal Government–the more it does, the harder it is to coordinate.  But I would rate administrative competence as the main driver: Bush II and Obama are simply not very good at such (witness Obama’s appalling failure to appoint people to vacancies on the US Federal Reserve Board), and political officers are what you turn to when you can’t make the ordinary bureaucracy do what you want.

[This piece on problems in the administration of National Security by the Administration is less than re-assuring, further indicating a lack administrative competence. Jeb Bush--who, as a former Governor 0f Florida, has a lot of experience in crisis-management--has criticised the Administration's simple message management, contrasting it with his own efforts in somewhat similar circumstances: also not an expensive matter.]

Three languages of politics
Which brings us to Ferguson, Missouri and the police-and-blacks issue that the killing of Michael Brown by police offer Darren Wilson and subsequent riots brought (yet again) to the fore. The controversy over what did and did not happen (the killing itself remains distinctly murky) provides an excellent example of Arnold Kling‘s The Three Languages of Politics (which he discusses here, I recommend listening): the progressive oppression/oppressor axis, the conservative civilisation/barbarism axis and the libertarian freedom/coercion axis.

Reading progressivist and conservative online commentary on matters Ferguson is to enter two different world views that barely interact. Among conservatives, it was about “race baiting”, appropriate behaviour when stopped by a police offer and (lack of) civic engagement–in other words, how progressivists make things worse and the civilisation v. barbarism axis. Among progressivists, it was yet another unarmed black men being killed in police-initiated or massively over-reacting incidents, police incitement and abuse of authority, narrow and unbalanced reporting of a mainly black community–in other words, a civil rights matter, one of oppression and oppressed.

Then there was the libertarian commentary, which particularly focused on the militarisation of US police forces–notably in Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s opinion piece in Time. Libertarians have been warming about the militarisation of US police for some time, as in this 2006 article by Glenn Reynolds in Popular Mechanics. A concern that has spread to conservatives, as in this 2013 Heritage Foundation analysis. Sen. Paul managed nods to both the civilisation/barbarism narrative:

The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.

And to the oppressor/oppression narrative:

Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them. …

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

While focusing on critiquing the militarisation of US police forces (freedom/coercion):

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Militarisation combines power and separation: it separates the police from the local citizenry while elevating their sense of power over them, not a happy combination. At which point, (conservative and libertarian) opposition to gun control is surely a factor. A recurring claim in favour of widespread gun ownership is that “an armed society is a polite society”. Historically, that is not true; it more often breeds a violent, honour-obsessed society. What an armed society does apparently breed is not polite police folk, but paranoid ones. And, with the militarisation of US police forces, courtesy of the US Federal Government, ludicrously over-armed paranoid ones; also not a happy combination.

But not randomly paranoid ones. Young men are the most likely corpses from fatal police-initiated/disproportionate reaction shootings, particularly young black men.

To the extent that these shootings become matters of public debate, they tend to disappear in the talking-past-each other self-supporting political narratives seen regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri. But freedom is, ultimately, indivisible. A long history of US police forces being able to evade responsibility for how they treat black folk (and other low-status groups, but particularly black folk) turns out to be not something that can be quarantined away from, well, everyone else. As a man whose son was shot by a police officer 10 years ago wrote recently:

Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.

Michael Z. Williamson (website here) is a military SF writer of libertarian views with a strong interest in military history. (His novel Freehold, for example, is basically the Winter War in space.) His recent collections of short stories and other writings, Tour of Duty, contains two pieces which detail his experiences with the IPD (Indianapolis Police Department). His view of the police:

Lesson here: they’re hired goons, not at all concerned with law and order (p.446).

They are mercenary thugs, hired by my tax dollars to oppress me in the name of corporate America. Not even whores, as whores are paid for their work (p.447).

His view of correction officers after being arrested and held overnight:

I have learned that you are petty, gutless Fascists who are so pitiful as to find solace in your own wretched lives in bullying people with problems, helpless to resist you, until they turn into caged animals for your amusement (p.462).

Remember, he is a white US military veteran. (If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, perhaps a libertarian is a conservative who has had one too many dealings with government officials.)

[Frank Serpico--yes, from the movie--discusses writes about the continuing problems of (lack of) police accountability in the US.]

Techniques of evasion of accountability can spread–both from bureaucracy to bureaucracy and from low-status group to well, anyone and everyone. Which, as this article in conservative journal National Review sets out, leads to a pattern of inadequately accountable government agencies:

It’s perverse: If an ordinary citizen makes a typo on his 1040EZ, he could be on the hook for untold sums of money, fines, even jail time. When the IRS abuses its power to harass political enemies, nothing happens. A few years ago, an employer of mine entered the wrong Social Security number on my paperwork — I have barbaric handwriting — and the error took months of telephone calls and mail to fix, a period of time over which I was threatened with all sorts of nasty consequences by the Social Security Administration and the IRS. But when the Social Security Administration oversees the payment of millions of dollars in benefits to Nazi war criminals summering on Croatian beaches, nothing happens. If you’re an ordinary schmo, a typo can land you in jail. If you work for the government, you can burn the face off a baby and walk.

The clear and present danger
Discussions of the uncivil tribalism of contemporary US politics and the power of political narratives tend to talk about it as unfortunate, regrettable, be nice if we could do better. But the problem is much deeper than that. The way the tribal narratives are actually operating is to frustrate political accountability and breed dangerously unaccountable government agencies.

If one is trying to deal with the world as it is, rather than as you would like to think of it, then the question becomes; is that an appropriate axis to view this problem? Or merely one you find congenial? For example, phenomena such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are really not usefully viewed through the oppressor/oppressed axis (unless, perhaps, you realise that their aim is to be oppressors). The civilisation-v-barbarism and even liberty/coercion axes are much more appropriate. (Which is why progressivists tend to end up saying such inane, or worse, things on the issue.) Though, that is a relative, rather than absolute judgement, since blanket condemnations of Islam are not useful either. Conversely, equal rights for queer folk really is not raging barbarism, not a threat to civilised order.

But the virulent political tribalism and war-of-the-narratives of contemporary US politics are having much more invidious effects in fostering a whole lots of distracting delusions about issues that seriously matter:

  • Government agencies are not automatically reliable toys which can be waved to generate social justice.
  • If you are going to be so keen on an armed society, you better think a lot more seriously about the position that puts police officers in.
  • Yes, there is a problem with police treatment of specific groups (particularly young black men) and no that is not about keeping you safe; obsessing with not conceding an inch to the concerns of those other folk is just creating homicidally unaccountable police departments and, by copying and contagion, undermining accountability in government agencies generally.
  • No, abusing due process to target those “evil others” really is a big deal.
  • Yes, there does come a point when privileging public sector unions undermines basic effectiveness and accountability.

And so on.

Creating cultures and processes of accountability in government agencies is hard, grinding work. Not least because it means giving up so congenial notions on the way through. But if the shouting political tribes of the US do not look up from their status games and start noticing what their cognitive civil war is doing in corrupting basic processes of government and government administration, then the culture of inadequate accountability among US government agencies is just going to get worse and worse. Which can lead to places I doubt few, if any, of the shouting political tribalists want to go.

ADDENDA After I posted this, I came across this comment by SF writer John Scalzi:

Broadly speaking, the Republicans are frothing ideologues, the Democrats are incompetent …

Sounds about right.

A political scientist notes the lack of interest in cooperation embodied in the competing narratives.

Public sector pensions are driving US city and state governments towards bankruptcy.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Orientation and action

By Lorenzo

The case of Gordon College (via) in Massachusetts, which propounds a traditional Christian view of homosexuality with a rather less traditional coda of sympathy, puts into sharp relief the “orientation is not sinful, acts are” position.

The policy of Gordon College is:

The orientation/action distinction has two major problems with it. First, it sets up an utterly unreasonable standard. Homosexuals are not permitted to act upon their erotic desires or to seek intimate companionship. To see how unreasonable this is, consider telling heterosexual people: you cannot have sex with anyone of the opposite sex, but marrying someone of the same sex is just fine.

Clearly, this is a standard that people are (mostly) not going to achieve. When the (predictable) high level of failure to achieve it then occurs, homosexuals are held blameworthy for failing to keep to an utterly unreasonable standard.

This is, of course, very much in the interest of priests and clerics–that a vulnerable minority have this completely unreasonable standard, that they are mostly bound to fail, imposed upon them. (Remembering that queer folk grow up us isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus.) When you are in the gatekeepers of righteousness business, differentiation, complexity and effortless virtue are very much part of the game. This imposing of an unreasonable standard on a vulnerable minority sells effortless virtue to the overwhelmingly heterosexual majority (imposing a standard that is little or no effort for them, but which they can feel terribly virtuous for keeping and terribly morally superior to those who do not), distinguishes between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” and establishes a criteria of righteousness that has to be (at least originally) told to folk by said gatekeepers. (Most human societies, at least pre-monotheism, did not find such matters to be of much moral moment. Nowadays, it tends to be a differentiator between the West and much of the Rest, many of whom–outside Islam–were taught that it was of moral moment by European colonial masters. What this piece does not get is that queer folk being a relatively small minority is, and has always been, the point–much like with the Jews, really.)

Devaluing people

Second, the action/orientation distinction wildly devalues the moral fact that there are people–millions and millions of people–with such orientation. In theist terms it amount to “God made a mistake, again and again and again; millions upon millions of times, and God keeps making it”. Claims about homosexuals having a “special calling” are nonsense on stilts, as we can see from the (finally now failing) endless efforts to deny homosexuals who act upon their erotic nature access to social goods. (That queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus also means queer folk disproportionately benefit from urbanisation and improved information technology, hence the increased contemporary saliency of queer rights.)

More generally, the action/orientation distinction holds that people (and the moral implications to be drawn from that) are not to defined by how all people are, only by how some people are. I have been reading Pierre Manent‘s The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, a book I find alternative frustrating and enlightening. Manent spends considerable time on Augustine‘s masterwork De Civitae Dei (The City of God), providing a revealing summary of Augustine’s views on nature and will:

We have here a fundamental Christian thesis that Augustine more than anyone else contributed to formulate and sharpen: man’s nature is good; his will is bad or inclined to evil … The very definition of a bad will is that it is the perversion of a nature that is good or capable of good. Augustine explains at some length how the human will, naturally attracted by the good, can nonetheless choose evil. The bad will does not have its cause in good nature; it is some way without cause.

Augustine was not an Aristotelian as such, his philosophical roots were in Neoplatonism, but that in itself is very much a philosophy after Aristotle. Moreover, Augustine looked widely for ideas and was a child of Aristotle in the sense that almost all Westerners are (and Muslims are generally not), accepting that there was a moral realm beyond revelation and that the world has an independent existence beyond the habits of God–so Augustine argued that, being the direct creation of God, the created world had greater authority (if they were in contradiction) than Scripture, which was the word of God mediated by fallible humans. (The Quran, by contrast, is the eternal, direct word of God unmediated by anything.)

We can see here the issue with same-sex attraction in this worldview. On the one hand, it is simply perverted will against nature. On the other hand, it is an orientation–people are strongly inclined to such “perversion”; millions of people. Hence formulations such as being “intrinsically disordered“. In the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger:

At the same time the Congregation took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being “intrinsically disordered”, and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, $4).

As this author reminds us, Aquinas–the supreme reconciler of Catholicism and Aristotelianism–held that all sexual desire outside marriage was “intrinsically disordered”. But there is a difference between heterosexual eros–which can find an approved outlet in marriage–and homosexual eros, which never has any approved expression ever, but must always be denied and sublimated. The latter is “intrinsically disordered” at a much more basic level.

Presumptions selectively natural

We can also see where the muddle comes from, at least in natural law terms. The typical natural law theorist is a heterosexual male, his sexual desires are directed towards women, casual empiricism shows that male and female animals mate to produce offspring. So, easy conclusion–his desires define human nature and mating defines the purpose of sex.

Where, in economics, the representative agent can only be properly modelled if they do not know they are the representative agent, the typical natural law theorist is much more arrogant. He, and folk like him, define human nature and what he has noticed about the natural world defines the nature of sex.

But some men have sex with other men and some women have sex with other women. Well, they are unnatural, they are acting against nature. Then folk even notice that some animals do the same (in the medieval period, hares, hyenas and partridges had that reputation). Well, they are being unnatural too, they are also acting against nature.

And so does the conclusion set the ambit of its premises. People who do not conform to the decreed nature do not count (as evidence toward human nature), observations of nature that do not conform to the decreed purpose of sex also do not count (as evidence about the purpose, function or role of sex).

The entire argument about queer emancipation is, at bottom, literally about whether they count as “real people” or not. Hence conservative monotheists define them out of such, and are outraged at any attempt to include them in. It is literally about defining the human and about whether everyone with a human face is “properly” human.

I (mostly) agree with Andrew Sullivan’s plea for genuine liberalism (and Scott Alexander has a helpful post about political tribalism and tolerance which is apposite), especially as Gordon College has a general ban on sexual activity amongst its students. Even more so given the rather repellant “secular commissars” trend identified by Damon Linker:

Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism’s moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.

As someone has said in a related context, no one expects the Secular Inquisition.

And yet, the idea that Gordon College has, in a free society, a right to act upon has a deeply disturbing core. Even with the Christian missionaries in Africa Linker discusses, Christian evangelising has also had repellant consequences, notably in the recent attempts to make homosexuality a capital crime in Uganda. To be fair, it is not heroic doctors but more spin-offs from tele-evangelising (to which effortless virtue is such an attractive sell) that is responsible, but the latter are partly levering off the former.

The position that Gordon College takes has roots deep in Christian tradition and they are, if anything, being much more liberal than that tradition generally was. But the orientation/action distinction used to make that tradition more palatable remains deeply problematic in ways which very much touch on basic moral protections and participation in society.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Quantity, physicality, source — the origins of currency names

By Lorenzo

The terms we use for units of currency–when they are not named after historical figures, terms for money or items once used as money–often come from one of three origins: quantity (number or, more commonly, weight); physicality (shape or content); or source. That pound (as in pound sterling, the oldest currency still in use) is originally a weight term is obvious–as it still is a weight term (at least, for those still using the old British weights and measures system). But can you tell me which of the three–quantity, physicality or source–the term dollar comes from? (Answer at the end of the post.)

(And if anyone could point me to the derivation of kip, the currency of Laos, that would be appreciated.)

Named after money or items used as money
Sometimes, it is hard to disentangle whether the unit derives from quantity, physicality or source. The dong, the currency of Vietnam, derives from the term for moneyreferring to Chinese bronze coins, with the Chinese terms it is derived from also referring to weight. So, is dong quantity, shape or source derived? The taka, the currency of Bangladesh also just means coin. As does the manat, the currency of Azerbaijan and of Turkmenistan. The Gambia dalasi probably derives from a local name for a 5-franc coin. The Peru sol comes from solidus (solid) a Roman coin but also means sun in Spanish.

The dobra of Sao Tome and Principe, comes from to fold; the connection to money is via doubloon, or in Portugese dobrao.

Currencies named after animals or shells typically have association with money or trade. The lev, the currency of Bulgaria comes from lion, as does the leu, the currencies of Romania and Moldovaas in the Dutch lion dollar or leeuwendaalder. The Croatia kuna means marten, whose pelts were used as trade items in medieval times. The Ghana cedi derives from a local name for cowrie shell, the most common money-item across time and space. The Guatemala quetzal, is named after the national bird, whose feathers were used as currency in Mayan times. The Papua New Guinea kina is named after a shell used in trade.

The Georgia lari derives from a word meaning hoard or property.

Historical figures
The lek of Albania is named after Alexander the Great, whose name is often shortened to Leka in Albanian. The Costa Rico colón is named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). The Honduran lempira is named after Lempira, a folk hero who led native resistance against the Spanish. The Nicaragua cordoba is named after the country’s notional founder, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. The Panamana balboa is named after the Spanish explorer, Vasco Numez de Balboa. The Tajikistan somoni is named after Isma’il ibn Ahmad (also known as Ismoil Somoni), regarded as founder of the Tajik nation. The Venezuelan bolivar is named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general central to the successful Spanish American wars of independence.

Plants, peoples, places
The gourde of Haiti means gourd as in plant. The Tongapa’anga is named after a vine.

Paraguay‘s guarani comes from an indigenous people whose language is taught in Paraguay. The loti of Lesotho derives from mountains. The kwacha, the currencies of Malawi and Zambia, means dawn.

The nakfa of Eritrea is named after the town that was at the centre of their independence struggle. The kwanza of Angola is named after a river. The pula of Botswana (also a dry country) means rain.

The oldest currency terms are almost all weight terms; such as shekel and talent. Shekels (sheqel) are still the currency unit of Israel. Some weight terms used in exchange never got beyond being a weight term–notably the Egyptian deben. Sometimes, the currency term just means weight–such as stater and peso. The currencies of ArgentinaChileColombiaCuba, the Dominican RepublicMexico, and Uruguay are all pesos. The Philippines also uses the peso, or piso. The Macau pataca comes from the Portuguese for peso.

Athenian “owl”, after 499BC

A (partial) exception on quantity and antiquity is the drachma, which comes from the verb to grasp, which does imply easy to handle. It is only a partial exception, as a drachma was also a small weight unit. The Athenian “owl” tetradrachm (because it had the owl of Athena on it) was perhaps the earliest trade currency coin. Drachma is the source (via Latin) for dirham, currently the currency of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and of dram, the currency of Armenia.

Using weight terms for money has been a continuing historical tendency–such as mark (still used in the currency of Bosnia-Hercegovina), the metical of Mozambique and the baht, the currency of Thailand. While the etymology of the Russian ruble is somewhat unclear, in the medieval period a ruble was a weight, the Russian equivalent to the markBelarus also has a ruble as it currency. The ouguiya of Mauritania derives from ounce in Arabic.

The tenge of Kazakhstan originally came from (weighing) scales. Apart from pound sterling (and its local derivatives in British territories), there is also the Egyptian pound, the Sudanese pound, the South Sudanese pound (and the former Irish punt).

Livre and lira are both derived from libra, a Roman unit of weight (also the source of the pound sign). The lira is still the currency of Turkey and is the local name for the Lebanese pound and the Syrian pound and colloquially for the Jordanian dinar.

Abbasid dinar 811

The most significant currency term derived from quantity which is a number rather than a weight was denarius (derived from containing ten), the source for the dinar and denaro, the Italian word for money. The currencies of AlgeriaBahrainIraqJordanKuwaitLibyaSerbia and Tunisia are all dinars, while Macedonia uses the (same derivation) denar. The former Iranian currency unit, the toman, also derives from a number.

The shilling, the currencies of KenyaSomaliaSomalilandTanzania and Uganda, derives from an old Anglo-Saxon accounting term.

Shape terms generally come from the use of coins. Yenyuan and won (the currency units of Japan, China and Korea respectively) all mean round or round object. The togrog of Mongolia originally meant circle or circular object.

Rupee derives from the Sanskrit rūpá, meaning beautiful form. The currencies of IndiaPakistanSri LankaNepalMauritius, and Seychelles are all rupees. While the Maldives uses the rufiyaa and Indonesia the rupiah (same derivations).

Ringgit (the currency of Malaysia, although it may also be used for the Brunei and Singapore dollars) means jagged, and refers to the jagged edges of the Spanish dollar (aka real de a ocho, aka peso de ocho, aka pieces of eight).

Kyat (the currency of Burma) comes from pulled together and apparently refers to the peacock seal of the original issuing King of Burma on the coin. The escudo, the currency of Cape Verde, comes from shield, referring to the heraldic shield on coins.

Other physicality
The material used could also be the origin of currency units; thus guilder derives from the Dutch or German for golden (gulden) and continued to be applied even when currency was no longer in gold. The Caribbean guilder is due to come into operation, replacing the Netherlands Antilles guilder as the currency of Curacao and Sint Maarten, in the Dutch Caribbean.  The zloty of Poland also means golden. The som, used by the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan means pure and implies pure gold.

Lübeck gulden 1341

The birr of Ethiopia means silver. The ngultrum, the currency of Bhutan, derives from silver bit.

The hryvania of Ukraine comes from a word meaning mane, but might also have implied something valuable worn around the neck. The word later came to be associated with silver or gold ingots of a certain weight, but that seems to have flowed from its use as a monetary term.

The earliest source term for currency I am aware of is the daric, named by the original issuer after himself. The most immediately obvious current source-derived currency is the euro, which has replaced quite a range of currencies. Names of countries, or contractions thereof, are used by several countries as their currencies. The currency of Afghanistan is the afghani; that of Bolivia the boliviano; that of Lithuania the litas; that of Nigeria is the nairaa contraction of Nigeria; that of Sierra Leone, the leone; that of Vanuatu, the vatu.

fiorino d’oro (florin) 1347

The first post-Roman gold coin minted in commercial quantities in Western Europe was the florin or fiorino d’oro, minted by the city of Florence. The florin is the currency of Aruba. The forint of Hungary is also derived from the fiorino d’oro. The solidus and the hyperpyron (super-refined) of the Eastern Roman Empire was also known as the bezant (Byzantium) after the original name of Constantinople.

Portuguese half real C15th

Ducat came from ducal, real means royal, and is still the currency of Brazil as well is the source for riel, the currency of Cambodiarial, the currencies of IranOman and Yemen; and riyal, the currencies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The ariary of Madagascar also derives from riyal. The Swaziland linlangeni means member of the royal family (i.e. royal).

The Czech Republic‘s koruna means crown, as does Denmark‘s kroneIceland‘ kronaNorway‘s krone and Sweden‘s krona.

The original franc 1360

The franc originally meant free (and frank), and became associated with coins from the Rex Francorum (King of Franks) on early coins. The original franc coin celebrated the freedom of Jean II, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers (so is apparently a pun). Francs are the currencies of BurundiComorosDemocratic Republic of CongoDjiboutiGuineaRwanda plus Switzerland (and Liechtenstein) and, in the form of the CFA franc, is the currency of France’s current overseas territories and of its former African empire; either as the West African CFA franc–the currency of BeninBurkina FasoGuinea-BissauIvory CoastMaliNigerSenegal and Togo–or as the Central African CFA franc–the currency of CameroonCentral African RepublicChadRepublic of CongoEquatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The rand, the currency of South Africa, comes from the Witwatersrand (“ridge of white waters”), the ridge Johannesburg was built on, and where most of the country’s gold deposits lie.

About the dollar
Dollar is most famously the currency of the US. The formerly US-administered territories of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau simply stayed on the US$ after independence. While East Timor just went straight onto the US$. Various local jurisdictions use the US$, such as the British Virgin Islands.

Countries sometimes “dollarise” because the local monetary authority proved to be too spectacularly incompetent in managing the preceding local currency. EcuadorEl Salvador and Zimbabwe fall into local mismanagement category (and other countries have also “dollarised” at various times). There are also countries where the US$ are as acceptable, or more acceptable than, the local currency.

Lots of countries have a dollar as their currency, apart from those already mentioned: AustraliaBahamasBarbadosBelizeBermudaBruneiCanadaCayman IslandsDominicaFiji, GuyanaHong KongJamaicaKiribatiLiberiaNamibiaNew ZealandSingaporeSolomon IslandsSurinameTaiwanTrinidad and TobagoTuvalu. Various Caribbean nations share the East Caribbean dollar. The tala of Samoa is dollar in Samoan. Most of these are former territories or protectorates of the British Empire–apparently, dollar is the preferred currency term for “not the pound (anymore)”.

Joachminsthaler 1525, the original dollar

Dollar may be the most widely used name for currency units (followed by franc), but it has a remarkably specific origin. In 1520, the Kingdom of Bohemia began to mint coins from silver mined in St Joachim’s valley, or Joachminsthal (modern day Jáchymov). The coins became known as Joachminsthalers. Which became shortened to thaler (thing or person from the valley), which became a very widely used coin name. Most famously, in the Maria Theresa thalerThaler became the Dutch daaldar and English dollar.

So, the tala of Samoa is actually closer to the original derivation than is the English dollar.

It was also a bit surprising to discover how large Rome and Portugal loomed in Islamic currency names: between lira, dirham, dinar and various derivations from real, the glory that was Rome and the brief Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean seems to have left quite a monetary mark. Though less surprising given that Rome loomed so large in Islamic history, and the Ottomans had pretensions to being the Islamic successors to Rome, while the current-day users of derivatives of real have a long history of not being keen on the Ottomans.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The good people syndrome

By Lorenzo

I doubt that there is any more corrupting element in contemporary public debate than the good people syndrome: talking heads who say things, not because they have any knowledge or understanding, but because it is what good people say.

There are forms of it on a wide range of issues, and on all sides of politics, but it seems unlikely that the public debate about any issue is as thoroughly corrupted by the good people syndrome as that on Islam. 

Ignorant familiarity

Part of the problem is quite straightforward: Islam is a religion which is omnipresent in the news but absent in the shared experience of the overwhelming majority of Westerners. Furthermore, it is not merely a religion, it is also a civilisation; one with superficial similarities to our own but quite deep differences. Faced with the deadly combination of surface familiarity and deep ignorance, the good people syndrome fills the gap. Especially for modern secular folk, who generally just can’t take religious motives seriously. 

To take perhaps the most important difference: we in the West are children of Aristotle and Muslims are mostly not. We are generally not actual Aristotelians (though Aristotelian philosophy is currently enjoying one it recurring resurgences within Western philosophy). But we do accept two basic Aristotelian ideas–that the world has its own inherent existence and structures and the moral realm exists independent of revelation.

These ideas may seem so basic one might wonder how anyone could think otherwise. Well, mainstream Islam thinks otherwise, for it accepts neither idea. A consequence of the defeat of Aristotelian ideas in mainstream Islam, particularly due to the efforts and influence of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), the most important figure in mainstream Islam after Muhammad himself. 

For al-Ghazali, and mainstream Islam ever since, causation is merely the habits of God, which He can change at any time, while there is no good outside the realm of revelation. That is, things are good because God wills it, not–as in Christianity and Judaism, especially after Mosheh ben Maimon aka Maimonedes (1138?-1204) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)–God wills them because they are good. “Conversations” between the West and Islam are mostly dialogues of the deaf, because the underlying presumptions are so different.

The golden age of Islamic achievement largely predates al-Ghazali (and that of Arab achievement almost entirely does). Not entirely a coincidence, since causation as the habits of God and revelation as the limits of morality do rather inhibit intellectual effort being put anywhere other than religion. The shock of the Mongol incursions, including the end of the Baghdad Caliphate (1258), reinforced this inward looking tendency, this entrenched atavism. An atavism that Arab journalist Hisham Melhem identifies as central to the contemporary collapse of Arab civilisation but which he studiously fails to identify a source for. 


Islam became a civilisation remarkably uncurious about the outside world, poorly able to mobilise its resources. A civilisation which lacked responsive resilience, and so dealt badly with the challenges of history (as it largely still does, at least in the Middle East–Bengali and Malay Islam does rather better). Thus, Palestinian intellectual Ahmad Y. al-Hassan (1925-2012) can list a whole series of “bad things” which happened to Islam, but entirely fails to ask why Islam so persistently failed to rise to the challenges facing it. For example, Europe learnt far more from its (relatively minor) crusading effort (which al-Hassan paints as far more destructive than than it was) than Islam learnt from its centuries of far greater aggression against Europe and Christendom (which al-Hassan entirely ignores), even after Islam began to fall behind European technology and organisational capacity.

Awkward avoidance

One can understand the dilemma of Arab and Muslim intellectuals. It is not merely that not blaming Islam is what “good people” do, it is that opening up that issue makes any such intellectual a target for the homicidally enraged who are both a symptom and a cause of Middle Eastern Islam’s cognitive stagnation and disastrous divisions.

One can understand the dilemma of Western strategists dealing with the jihadis: say that the problem is Islam and that appears to make all Muslims (over a billion of them) the enemy. Yet, say the problem is not Islam, and one is basing one’s strategy on untruth and delusion–not a basis for any sort of success. For the jihadis are very much a product of Islam: indeed, they represent the modern iterations of continuing patterns within Islam.

So the problem is within Islam. Not an ideal rhetorical formulation, but one that has the advantage of being true.

The good person pay-off

But neither of these excuses hold for Western talking heads. They are not responsible for Western strategy and a clearly in minimal danger from enraged jihadis. Alas, that not-being-responsible-for-anything is much of the problem: given the lack of any responsibility (except,  clearly somewhat notional one to truth and understanding) aiming to be seen as one of the good people gives by far the best pay-off.

So ignorant nonsense gets spouted because it is established as what good people say.

I was confronted with a particularly egregious example of good people syndrome listening in a waiting room to some talking heads discuss the recent fatal (to the attacker) stabbing at a Melbourne police station. One of the talking heads opined about “disenfranchised youth”. The dead attacker (shot dead with a single bullet after stabbing two counter-terrorism officers at Endeavour Hills police station: a somewhat reassuring contrast to police killings in the US–i.e. not an unarmed man, not shot multiple times) fits in with a much larger pattern. The “disenfranchisement” of such homicidal males being that they are not–given their gender (male) and beliefs (Muslim)–master-belief overlords of what they survey, as promised by God through the Quran, the example of the Prophet and Sharia.

When Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to explain what the jihadis are about in his 29 September 2014 speech to the United Nations General Assembly all he had to do was quote them. Starting with the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi two months previous:

A day will soon come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master… The Muslims will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism… and destroy the idol of democracy. Now listen to Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. He proclaims a similar vision of the future: We say this to the West… By Allah you will be defeated. Tomorrow our nation will sit on the throne of the world.

Or, perhaps General Muhammad Ali Jafari, current commander of Iran Revolutionary Guards:

Our Imam did not limit the Islamic Revolution to this country… Our duty is to prepare the way for an Islamic world government…

Or Iran’s current Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a book written a few years ago:

We have a fundamental problem with the West, and especially with America. This is because we are heirs to a global mission, which is tied to our raison d’etre… A global mission which is tied to our very reason of being.

… How come Malaysia doesn’t have similar problems? Because Malaysia is not trying to change the international order.

Changing the international order to a Muslim order, of course. Such an order does not require everyone to be Muslim; just have the Muslims in charge and everyone obeying Sharia, the law of God, sovereign of all.

Such ambitions may seem mad–the master-race Nazis only wanted lebensraum; these ambitions are much more grandiose. But the Companions (Sahabah) of the Prophet overthrew the Sasanian Empire–heir to over a millennia of Zoroastrian empires–and half the Roman Empire in a few short decades. Ascribe the 1989-1991 fall of the Soviet Empire to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the example of the Companions of the Prophet has powerful contemporary as well as religious resonance.

(As an aside, it is also worth remembering that in 1923 Hitler was a beer hall agitator, leader of a small movement, part of a coalition whose attempt to overthrow a provincial government was put down with almost contemptible ease: 18 years later, his armies had occupied Austria and the Czech lands, had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and had reached the outskirts of Moscow.)

Besides, the journey itself is enough: die in the service of creating the Muslim World Order and off to Paradise you go. Not to mention a sense of brotherhood, purpose, masterly killing, plus possible rape and pillage on the way through. Hence Islam’s most obvious comparative advantage being in homicidal religious gangsterism.

But, hey, that is not what good people say.  And what they don’t know about Islam is almost everything.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

The eternal now of conservatism (3)

By Lorenzo

In my previous two posts, I looked at pieces by two conservatives–James Livingstone on gender and soldiering and Justice O’Scannlain on gender and marriage–who both imagine they are basing their reasoning on history and verities of human nature when they are doing nothing of the kind.

Sodom and genocide

In his 2013 lecture, Justice O’Scannlain alludes to the work of Robert George and associates on the nature of marriage, particularly in the context of US Supreme Court decisions such as Lawrence which, in the Judge’s words:

struck down a Texas criminal prohibition on homosexual sodomy

The term sodomy, or, as Robert George likes to write, sodomitical, alludes to the natural law interpretation (in fact, perversion) of Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The terms invoke killing people for their sexual practices. To use the term sodomy and its cognates is to invoke “the people God wants dead”, the people who should be dead–if not literally, at least to any definition of the human.


Ironically, in view of Justice O’Scannlain’s hostile invocation of “abstract theory”, that is precisely what is wrong with the natural law interpretation of Genesis 19, an interpretation that has since become traditional, at least in Christianity and Islam: the imposition of abstract theory to pervert understanding of the original text. The original rabbinical understanding of Genesis 19, based on oral tradition and close reading of Scripture, was that the sin of the Cities of the Plain was that they were anti-moral: that they actively punished those who looked after the weak and vulnerable. Being struck down by God’s wrath for this makes at least some sort of grim sense, especially if Genesis 19 is read as a rape scene attacking that most vulnerable figure–the guest from afar. For a social pattern of stripping the vulnerable of moral and legal protections can go on and on: as the history of the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews and queers demonstrates.


What makes no sense is God destroying entire cities because He thought that butt sex was icky (especially as failure to engage in procreative sex means the “problem” goes away in a generation). But that is where the natural law interpretation of the Sodom story takes us–if only at some violence to the original scriptures. (Attempted rape no more invalidates same-sex activity than it does opposite sex-activity: and God had already decided to destroy the Cities before the apparent attempted rape of His messengers.) It makes entire sense if one’s role is to be gatekeepers of righteousness–for then the more bizarre and unexpected the demands of righteousness, the more you need said gatekeepers to tell you what they are.

Thus God “purifies” human society by killing the sexually divergent. As evidenced in the charming Jesus-the-genocidal story in the medieval bestseller compiled by a beatified Archbishop of GenoaThe Golden Legend.  But we really should not be surprised by such a tale being part of Church literature; the terms sodomy and sodomitical explicitly invoke the notion that society is purified by the death of such persons, the “unnatural” committers of treason against the immanent purposes of God’s natural order. 

Burning of Knight of Hohenburg & page for sodomy, Zurich, 1482

Norman Cohn famously labelled the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a Warrant for Genocide. Actually, the original warrant for genocide was the natural law interpretation of Genesis 19: the notion that society is purified by mass murder, by the slaughter of the different-and-vulnerable. Rather than, as in the original rabbinical interpretation, God particularly enjoining moral attention to, and protection of, the vulnerable. Natural law reasoning displaying its dark, and morally impoverishing, side.

Free-floating notions

Robert George and confreres base their arguments on claims about the nature of sex and the nature of marriage. As previously noted, the anthropologically defining aspect of marriage is that it creates in-laws: that is, it broadens kinship connections, it creates wider patterns of social support. That, along with the commitment to pooling effort and resources, is what makes marriage the preferred social mechanism for raising children–hence the anthropologically widespread practice of adoption. But to such natural law theorists, such anthropological evidence does not count. Much of the appeal of natural law theory is precisely the belief that one’s immediate apprehension of “the nature” of things is enough of a starting point.


There is also, in such writings, the perennial conflating, via the use of the terms procreation and procreative, of conception with child-raising (the bit marriage is actually useful for); a conflation which becomes bizarre in the significance given to acts of conceptive “form” even when actual conception is impossible. On the other hand, that such acts are in anyway problematised–as George and Bradly implicitly admit in their 1995 paper–is itself a mark of how they make the human dance to a conception of the narrowly physical so that structures of gonads become more important than the purposes of people.

That the approach problematises sexual activity so profoundly comes out when they write of, in said 1995 paper:

acts that might perform on each other’s bodies

A bizarre way to express giving another profound psychical and emotional joy. Pleasure, catharsis, bonding, expressing love: these profoundly human things are all imprisoned within the dictatorship of (the form) of conception. An impoverishing of erotic understanding which is also an impoverishing of biological understanding, since animals use sex in nature much more broadly than just conception–and the more cognitively complex the species, the more that tends to be true.


As for the notion that acts non-conceptional in form are an assault on the moral integrity of persons because it is mere instrumental use of oneself and another; that is just another manifestation of th aforementioned impoverished understanding. Not to mention one that would apparently make all soldiering (for example) inherently immoral, as generals regularly use soldiers in a quite instrumental fashion, to the point of expending their lives. The “preserving moral integrity” argument is just an attempt to make more palatable the underlying moral principle that gonads are more important than people. Successful only to the extent that, once again, human experience is ignored–particularly as queer people discover again and again, being open to themselves and others about their sexual nature is the path to psychological (and moral) integrity. 

But, in such natural law reasoning, anything in human psychology, social arrangements or in animal behaviour that contradicts the assertion that the structure of gonads counts more than the purposes, aspirations and experiences of people does not count. It is a particularly striking example of the besetting sin of natural law reasoning–that the conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises.

Useful for righteousness gatekeeping

Which makes such reasoning very attractive as a mechanism to buttress religious doctrine. As is fairly obvious in George et al talking of an “adequate reason” to have sex, thereby expressing monotheism’s perennial problematising of sex that (in monotheism, but not animism or polytheism) separates us from, rather than connects us to, the divine–except via the creative function. Hence the rhetoric about the “unitive” nature of sex that is conceptual in form. 


So, those who fall in love with members of their own sex are not entitled to have sex, except with someone they are not erotically engaged with, but never with someone they are. The structure of human psyches–millions upon millions of them–are subordinated to a pathetically narrow characterisation of a specific organ. Queer folk become just perverted mistakes, natural law theory says so: natural law theory which is allegedly based on the objective facts of human nature and existence, said objective facts excluding the existence of queer folk except as perverted mistakes. Their existence, aspirations, even experience, do not count as evidence.

But, apparently, evidence is not actually required. George et al are very big on the notion of intrinsic value, though they note that not everyone grasps such value:

people who fail to grasp the intrinsic value of such basic human goods ordinarily do not judge them to be valueless. …

If intrinsic value takes such special understanding to grasp, it seems a very unlikely basis for morality. But a very good basis for justifying the role of gatekeepers of righteousness. But we are not talking of something grounded in anything much:

Intrinsic value cannot, strictly speaking, be demonstrated. Qua basic, the value of intrinsic goods cannot be derived through a middle term. Hence, if the intrinsic value of marriage, knowledge, or any other basic human good is to be affirmed, it must be grasped in noninferential acts of understanding. Such acts require imaginative reflection on data provided by inclination and experience, as well as knowledge of empirical patterns, which underlie possibilities of action and achievement.

Except, as we have seen, great masses of experience and empirical patterns do not count. The conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises, where experiences and aspirations contrary to those “imaginative reflections” are discounted. Which do not turn out to be very “imaginative” at all, but, in fact, profoundly impoverished.

So narrow as to be not reasonable

It is clear that for Justice O’Scannlain, and for Robert George and his collaborators, by reason is meant what I am aware of and pay attention to.  Since what they say is based on “reason” what they do not know does not count and thy need not enquire into it. So the invocation of reason becomes a commitment to ignorance and to ignoring. Hence being highly selective of whose experience, and whose voices, counts.


Understanding the past requires not imposing our own preconceptions on it. Human nature is that which encompasses all humans, not just a selected subsection thereof. Tradition has to be judged in its context, history is wider than what is congenial or convenient. As is experience. Social arrangements are adaptations to circumstances, not magically grounded in verities of human nature. Merely waving around the words history, experience, tradition, reason, does not mean that you actually understand the first three, or are properly using the last.

And if history is based on a “fixed” human nature, but only some history counts, then those whose history does not count do not get to be part of what defines human nature. They get to be defined as outside the “properly” human.

Robert Livingstone, Justice O’Scannlain, Robert George all mistake historical contingencies for verities of human nature; they all invoke the “eternal now” of conservatism. An invocation far more marked by willful ignorance than understanding.

Given the history and dynamics of monotheism–and natural law reasoning within monotheism–it is not surprising that matters of sex and gender should operate in such a way. (Especially for Catholic conservatives.) But what we want to see can be a very unreliable guide to what is. Pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim‘s explanation of the sexual division of labour was remarkably patronising of women:

According to his theory, among the very primitive (both in the distant past and today) men and women are fairly similar in strength and intelligence. Under these circumstances the sexes are economically independent, and therefore “sexual relations [are] preeminently ephemeral”. With the “progress of morality,” women became weaker and their brains became smaller. Their dependence on men increased, and division of labor by sex cemented the conjugal bond. Indeed, Durkheim asserts that the Parisienne of his day probably had the smallest human brain on record. Presumably she was able to console herself with the stability of her marriage, which was the direct result of her underendowment and consequent dependence.

Apparently, it took a female anthropologist to put the pieces together.  Contrast the above with the key passage in anthropologist Judith Brown’s 1970 note on the division of labour by sex:

Women are most likely to make a substantial contribution when subsistence activities have the following characteristics: the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt attention; and the work is not dangerous, can be formed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.

There is no necessary connection between what is congenial and what is true. Hence this is what happens when previously ignored or excluded perspectives get to have their say. We learn things and our understanding is broadened. But not if we invoke history, tradition and reason to block doing so under the delusion that the resultant “eternal now” is clear-eyed justification for anything much, beyond a certain smug, ignorant, self-righteousness.

Broadening moral understanding

Jonathan Haidt has argued that conservatives tend to have a broader range of moral foundations than do progressives (pdf). George and his confreres clearly believe that they have a profounder moral grasp than do supporters of same-sex marriage. But one is much more struck by how impoverished their viewpoint is, not merely in the sense of being factually impoverished (though it is profoundly that) but also morally impoverished in the lack of awareness, or active disregard, for the wider human implications of what they argue for.


It is beyond the capacity of  public policy to change human sexuality, but it can easily punish the vulnerable for being different. Treating people as being outside the “properly” human has dire consequences for family dynamics, for human relationships and human lives generally. Hardly surprising, as the point of morality is to permit us to live together in much richer lives than would otherwise be possible: so naturally, reducing the, or excluding from, moral standing entire categories of people blights lives. But if said categories of people are outside the properly human, their lives and experience do not count; at least not enough to change moral understanding.

Which is precisely why the arguments of George et al are losing. Because, in the words of Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:

The increasing presence of “openly gay” people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.

Or, in other words, that people are more important than gonads. This ongoing shift in opinion may represent a narrowing of what acts are regarded as morally significant, but it represents a broadening of who is accepted as fully human, as a fully legitimate manifestation of the human, as enjoying therefore the full protection of morality and the law. And that is a profound moral advance: not a loss of moral understanding, but an expansion of it.


 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The eternal now of conservatism (2)

By Lorenzo

Catholic writer James Livingstone (see previous post) is hardly the only conservative writer who sees inherited social arrangements as based in verities of human nature rather than contingent historical circumstances.

Not counting as human

This notion of social arrangements as being rooted in verities of human nature, not the contingencies of history, can have a very dark aspect. At its worst, it can exclude the historically disenfranchised from being regarded as human, or at least, as “properly” human. This dark aspect lingers very close to the surface in a 2013 lecture by US Federal Judge, The Hon. Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain. 

In his discussion of the contemporary implications of Justice Joseph Story‘s (1779-1845) natural law jurisprudence, Justice O’Scannlain writes of:

the philosophical blindness of abstract theory detached from experience, tradition, and the very nature of man.

What if experience and tradition contradict themselves? Why does not history include the experience of the excluded or repressed? The notion that history, experience and tradition form a mutually supporting triad can only be maintained at the cost of significant, highly selective, editing of both history and experience. The selection processes of history are very far from being morally pure, or morally reliable, hence tradition can be a very dubious guide, especially if circumstances–particularly technology and knowledge–change. If we are to give credence to the past, we need to give credence to all of it.


Justice O’Scannlain sees the natural law tradition as providing grounding for principles of justice and morality in human nature:

If there are universal principles of justice … then those universal principles must exist by virtue of what it means to be human, and if there is no such thing as a stable human nature, then there can be no such universal principles.

Of course there are principles of justice–the first of which is that people count as persons. The problem with the alleged “natural law” is precisely that is typically conceived in a way such that various categories of people, their experience and history, are deemed not to count.

Justice O’Scannlain draws attention to, and critiques, the so-called “sweet mystery of life” passage in the US Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v Casey wherein the majority opined that: 

… at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

This reads as an attempt by the US Supreme Court to acknowledge a wider range of voices and perspectives had entered into the public arena than had much purchase there in the past. Not so much new voices as the voices of the previously repressed.  Justice O’Scannlain writes that:

The passage does not necessarily deny that there is an objective human nature, but it insists that the law cannot reflect a particular conception of human nature. as the Casey passage says, each of us is to decide for ourselves what defines our existence and the mystery of life.

He is much concerned with the loss of a fixed notion of human nature. But the question at issue is not about fixed notions of human nature, but preconceived ones–not the same thing at all. All humans are part of defining human nature, not just the previously socially advantaged. The real fight here is not over objective conceptions of human nature versus malleable ones, as Justice O’Scannlain claims, but between a narrow and a broad view of human nature. Justice O’Scanlain does not wish to acknowledge–nor have the law acknowledge–a diverse human nature, that sexual and gender diversity is also part of human nature: not as abstract theory, but as simple human reality.


Justice O’Scannlain writes of the US Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor, which struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that the decision:

affirmatively declares that there is no objective reality to marriage and that any contrary view is irrational. This goes a long way toward ultimately declaring that the objective view of human nature is itself devoid of reason.

Anthropologists have found only one feature of marriage common across all human societies–that it creates in-laws. Marriage is a social creation and exists in varied forms across human societies. Of course that leaves it open to particular societies to define it in particular ways. Western societies have never had exactly the same conception of marriage and have changed their conceptions of marriage in various, sometimes, dramatic ways across the centuries: notably the abolition of coverture marriage.

Just as does Kenneth Livingstone, Justice O’Scannlain provides an invocation of history and tradition wildly lacking in any sense of history and ignorant of its own tradition. In his use of a mythic, ahistorical (indeed, metaphysical) notion of marriage, “objective” is being used to support the pre-conceived, but in a way which dramatically floats free from actual history, rather than, perhaps somewhat more surreptitiously, editing it conveniently.

In discussing the US Supreme Court Decision Lawrence v Texas, which struck down a Texas sodomy law, Justice O’Scannlain writes:

Lawrence was content to minimize the importance of pre–sexual revolution history. Windsor, after acknowledging that the conjugal definition of marriage has existed literally “throughout the history of civilization,” minimizes this highly significant fact in order to discuss the “new perspective” of same-sex marriage.

The sexual revolution responded to changed circumstances (particularly female control over fertility due to the contraceptive pill) and voices previously repressed–often with considerable brutality–being able to be heard. 


Technology and knowledge had changed. And again, history does not tell us quite what the good Justice believes. If the US Supreme Court took the view that same-sex marriage has no history, then it was engaging in bad history. So much of the contemporary debate over marriage, but particularly conservative invocations of human nature, is about being highly selective about what history counts, and whose history counts. Or simply being ignorant of history.

And if history is based on a “fixed” human nature, but only some history counts, then those whose history does not count do not get to be part of what defines human nature. They get to be defined as outside the “properly” human; and the notion of “proper” and “improper” forms of the human never leads to good places. Hence natural law reasoning, when based one’s understanding of history and social arrangements as reflecting eternal verities of human nature rather than the contingencies of history, can have very dark implications (as I will explore in my next, and final, post in this trilogy).

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The eternal now of conservatism (1)

By Lorenzo

In a paper on how to reliably measure political (i.e. economic and social) conservatism, psychologist Jim Everett makes a useful distinction:

authoritarianism and conservatism are distinct because authoritarianism focuses on aversion to difference across space (i.e. diversity of people and beliefs at the present time), while conservatism reflects aversion to difference over time (i.e. change). As such, there is no logical connection between the two, even if they often co-occur in practice.

They often co-occur in practice because societies have frequently used mechanisms to minimise diversity of people and beliefs, particularly in specific social roles. If those mechanisms weaken, or are explicitly challenged, that will lead to change across time (likely to be resisted by conservatives) as well as more diversity across space (likely to be resisted by authoritarians). So, conservatives will find themselves committed to blocking diversity and authoritarians to resisting change.

The more one is aware of the diversity of human arrangements, the less likely one is to be to be discomforted by diversity or change. Which is to say cosmopolitanism–awareness of the contingency of human arrangements–tends to be antithetical to both conservatism and authoritarianism. Especially as it generates a broader view of what can be made to work–making both diversity and change seem less threatening–and a broader view of what aspirations and capacities people have or aspire to.

Patrilineal plays

Not all human societies have, for example, been patrilineal (male-line descent). Plough-based farming societies and herding societies are, for entirely understandable reasons. As anthropologist Judith Brown’s 1970 note on the division of labour by sex explained, women have tended to do activities compatible with child-minding, men those that were not. More specifically:

Women are most likely to make a substantial contribution when subsistence activities have the following characteristics: the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt attention; and the work is not dangerous, can be formed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.

Neither herding nor plough-based farming were compatible with child-minding, so men did them. Which meant that men left the main economic asset (land or animals) to their sons (i.e. patrilineally), which meant that males controlled the dominant economic asset. So, women moved in with their husband’s family (i.e. such societies are overwhelmingly patrilocal).

Since maternity is certain but paternity is not, it became important to both control, and be seen to control, the fertility of women. The women of the husband’s family would help police the respectability of wives: the “damned whores or God’s police” phenomenon. (Some societies were bilateral–both male and female descent counted–but such societies were still mostly patrilocal, since patrilineal descent counted.) Families were expected to reliably deliver the controlled fertility of their daughters to any husband’s family: the dynamic which is the basis of (dis)honour killings. 

Needless to say, all this involved massive discounting of the decision-making rights and capacities of women, though the degree to which they did so varied considerably between societies.

Matrilineal alsos

But there have been matrilineal and matrilocal societies. Hoe-based farming is compatible with child-minding. So, in many such societies, women did the farming and left the land to their daughters. Husbands would move in with their wife’s family. As plough-based farming is more productive than hoe-based farming, and herding was the only significant alternative to farming for complex societies, patrilineal-and-patrilocal arrangements came to dominate human history. Making such arrangements seem “natural”. But they are simply historically contingent reactions to circumstances. As circumstances change, so will such arrangements.

For example, increased prosperity makes neolocal (husband and wife move into their own residence) much more common, which inhibits supervision of women by their husband’s relatives. Increased prosperity increases non-parental child-minding. Technology increases the demand for female labour. Most dramatically of all, the development of the contraceptive pill gives women safe (especially compared to pregnancy), cheap, reliable control over the own fertility.

All this dramatically weakens previously operating selection mechanisms directing women into particular social roles. It turns out–surprise!–that women have broader aspirations than those they were previously channelled into. Hence the development of the “women in all walks of life” phenomenon.

But if you think that those patrilineal-and-patrilocal mechanisms represented “natural” society, and operated for reasons which are inherent in the nature of the human, and not in contingent social circumstances–in other words, operated according to some proper “eternal now”–then all this can be a touch confronting.

As this piece on gender and warfare illustrates nicely. Catholic writer Kenneth Livingstone makes some perceptive points on why the Islamic State finds it so easy to recruit young Muslim men from all over the globe. (This piece by Danish psychologist Nikolai Sennels provides a supporting perspective.) It is when Livingstone comments on his own society that his ignorance of the contingency of human social arrangements, his commitment to the “eternal now” of conservatism, becomes most striking.

Utterly precedented

He finds the US Army’s acceptance of women and queer soldiers to be

unprecedented social experiments …

Which is precisely what they are not. Many societies had female warriors. About one fifth of Scythian and Sarmatian warrior graves are of women. (Possibly, the source for the Greek legends of Amazons.) Out in the steppes, restricting fertility had value, since it took a lot of grass to support animals sufficient to support one human and grasslands could not be made larger or more productive by human effort, given the technology of the time. Moreover, the distances were vast and the herding-men were often absent from camp: it made sense to teach women to fight, if only to defend the camp and the children. Once you did that, using young women as scouts and archers in raiding parties, and even armies, was a natural step, which was taken.

Low-population-density societies often made the same decisions: hence warrior women being a feature of both Celtic and Germanic societies. So, no it is not ”unprecedented” to have warrior women. Indeed, given that Celts, Germanics and Indo-Europeans generally are the source cultures for Britain, and those societies descending from them, it is part of the deeper history of Mr Livingstone‘s own cultural origins. Alfred the Great‘s daughter Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, was a noted war leader, for example. If, however, you live in an “eternal now”, it will not even occur to you that such history exists or, indeed, is possible (except as an “unprecedented social experiment”).

As for queer soldiers, since most human societies have not thought such matters to be of much significance, there have been plenty of queer soldiers in history. The Spanish, for example, recorded their startlement at finding “sodomite” warriors being both accepted and effective in Amerindian societies. (In accordance with their own understanding of higher morality, they burnt such as the stake if they captured them.) The Sacred Band of Thebes provides a particularly striking example of queer soldiers. The Greeks thought same-sex love interest so entirely compatible with the heroic warrior that localities would boast of which particular local young man was one of Heracles‘s lovers. While same-sex mentoring, including sexual relations, was an entirely accepted part of Spartan culture: particularly appositive, given that both kingly families claimed descent from Heracles.

That, under the influence of monotheism (despite much rationalising to the contrary, it had no other basis) Western armies banned same-sex relations between soldiers indicated that queer men were certainly willing to be soldiers. As, clearly, women were and are, if given the opportunity. The question comes back to what selection/control mechanisms were operating (and why).

Livingstone is too sophisticated to simply go for “women and queers being soldiers is icky” and so makes a somewhat different claim:

Well, yes, it can be a bit confusing when the person in charge of manhood training is a woman. It’s not a question of competency, it’s a question of gender roles.

Actually, no it is not. Being an effective warrior has no matching connection to gender roles, unless a society chooses to construct itself in that way. There is nothing in the human which requires that to be so.

Basically, Livingstone’s claim is that (straight) boys can’t cope if they have to share. Which is nonsense on stilts. The notion that Scythians, Sarmatians, Celts, Amerindians, Spartans etc were ineffective warriors because they fought with women and/or queers simply shows flagrant ignorance of history. But such ignorance is what the “eternal now” of conservatism so often proves to not only be based on, but to actively require.

Gang games

Middle Eastern oasis-herding–being far more localised–was different from steppe-herding in that it lacked incentives to arm women and was entirely compatible with their highly-controlled cloistering. The more women are blocked from participating in public life, or power-activities such as fighting, the more their standing in that society is weakened. It is no accident that women had much higher status in Celtic, Germanic and steppe-society than the Middle East. Nor is it likely an accident that women had higher status in the steppe-origin monotheism (Zoroastrianism) than they did in the Middle-Eastern origin monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Hercules and Iolaus, with Eros between them, C4thBC.

In fact, the ability to utilise talents across its societies is one of the West’s great advantages. Livingstone can see the male-gang aspect of Islam but, because he looks at gender and sexuality as part of an eternal now, as rooted in verities of human nature rather than the contingencies of history, he is blind to where the West’s advantages lie. A fragile masculinity which cannot share, and so must be pandered to at the cost of the restriction of others, is not the basis of a resilient society. On the contrary, acceptance of the values of self-expression and tolerance of diversity are strongly correlated with better governance (and higher incomes).  

Understanding the past requires not imposing our own preconceptions on it. Hence archaeology is finding more evidence of women buried with weapons as archaeologists stopped insisting that anyone buried with a weapon had to be a man. Lost in his “eternal now”, Livingstone cannot see the present because he does not see the contingency of history, and so of social arrangements.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

In a nutshell

By Lorenzo

I can summarise my previous long post on the Middle East very simply: Palestinians are currently Jim Crow-era Southern blacks for whom the only sufficiently acceptable peace outcome is that they become Jim Crow-era Southern whites.

Given that Israel lacks the power to change the Palestinian mindset–which predates the creation of Israel–and the Palestinians lack the power to achieve their consensus peace-through-overlordship, the conflict will just go on and on.

ADDENDA And this is an example of what I mean.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud].