Monday, September 23, 2013

The TEA Party's Self-Destruct Button

In 2009 I attended a Southlake TEA Party rally. It was fun, in a sort of, “So this is how wealthy white people protest?” kind of way. Even the handful of counter-protesters were, let’s say, charming. One guy, dressed like a clown, held a sign that read, “Ignorance is underrated.” I agree, metaphysically. After all, the Gnostics were the first Christian heretics. But I digress. The rally was a fun-and-games type cheerful environment that balmy April morning. But 2009 seems like so long ago now. The movement has evolved since then. In many ways I relate to the TEA Party’s critique of the fiscal excesses of the Federal government. I agree with the best American instincts that the movement represents – freedom, self-reliance, and limited government. But now they have a problem. Inevitably, the rebels become the authority—eventually. What then? There seems to be a civil war of sorts happening within the Republican Party. Ted Cruz represents a flashpoint in that struggle, and it’s latest front has “establishment” types lined up against TEA Party types like Cruz vis a vis a government shutdown over defunding Obamacare.

I remember the logical contradictions of those early days (2009). “Keep Govt out of my Medicare.” “Don’t Steal From Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.” Really? When I first saw those kinds of signs I laughed out loud. What else can one do? It’s what I call a “piƱata of asininity.” But over the course of the past few years, those signs got me thinking. The inherent weakness of the TEA Party is that it rests ideologically on the fault line of a logical contradiction. During the 2012 campaign much was made over Romney’s “47 percent” comments, and people like Sarah Palin bemoaned the fact that 47 percent of Americans pay no Federal income tax at all. I scratched my head. The “TEA” stands for “Taxed Enough Already,” so isn’t it good that 47 percent of pay no income tax? And that’s INCOME tax. The 47 percent actually pay PLENTY taxes—social security, property, gas, sales, etc. To say that they are not taxpayers violates an essential rule of honest debate—first tell the truth, then give your opinion.

Those kinds of statements and anecdotes won’t destroy the movement; they just make the spokespersons look stupid. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since this kind of populism feeds on anti-intellectual sentiments and the eschewing of “elitism.” (notice the picture above?) So what contradiction will destroy the movement? There are two separate ideological strains running through the heart of the TEA Party. The first is Libertarianism. As a political philosophy, Libertarianism is pure. It believes in limited government. Period. Government exists only to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual. Nothing else. In Ayn Rand’s Libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” the hero, Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers,” Galt lectures the “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.” “Atlas Shrugged” was published over fifty years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before. At TEA party rallies and other conservative protests, you will find signs reading “Atlas Shrugs” and “Rand Was Right.”

The second strain is social and religious conservatism. These are evangelicals who have become politically active. I know these people. They are my “clan.” And trust me, they do not want limited government—they want government to enforce their brand of morality in what they believe is a “Christian nation.” These are the people who supported George W. Bush. And there lies the problem. Libertarians will readily say that “W” is the worst President this country has ever had!

So let’s run through the issues: War in Iraq? Social conservatives generally supported the war, and continue to support our military intervention in other countries. They love the military, and will lash out at anyone who does not “support the troops,” apparently giving no thought to the logical contradiction of supporting the troops while opposing the mission. Libertarians do not support the war, have a quasi isolationist view of military intervention, and generally see our invasion of Iraq as a military and diplomatic blunder. What about drugs? Social conservatives support the “war on drugs” and seek even tighter laws and crackdowns. This is a moral issue to them. Libertarians support the legalization of drugs, particularly marijuana. For them it’s cut and dry—it’s none of the government’s business what you put into your own body. Speaking of your own body, what about abortion? This is the hallmark issue of social and religious conservatives. Overturning Roe v Wade is a crusade. In the meantime, they attempt every way possible to make abortion more restrictive. There is no issue bigger than the rights of the unborn. Libertarians are pro-choice to the extreme. Its’ the woman’s body—what she chooses to do with it is between her and her doctor. Period. And then there’s the ubiquitous issue of gay rights, particularly gay marriage. Naturally, social and religious conservatives abhor the idea and fight it on every front. They claim to protect the “institution of marriage.” Well, not them, but the government. Again, libertarians do not balk. Their understanding of limited government says that it’s not the government’s business, and thus gay marriage is perfectly okay. Social and religious conservatives and libertarians are like oil and water—they do not mix!

The only thing keeping this alliance together at the moment is an irrational, fact-free hatred of President Obama. Social conservatives and libertarians must have a common enemy, and that enemy must be as insidious as possible. He has to be a “socialist.” He’s “the most radical president we’ve ever had.” He’s “anti-American.” He wasn’t even born here! Hatred of Obama is the glue that holds the movement together. But it’s a weak bond. I have seen this time and time again. Ultra conservative movements eventually self-destruct in an ideological explosion of bitter wrangling and in-fighting. This is not the new American Revolution. The Revolution happened when the majority of Americans twice elected Barack Obama.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Good Parents; Bad Kids

William recently turned six! He’s not a baby anymore—something he constantly impresses on my more sentimental instincts. It’s because I long for him daily. There is a searing, almost constantly panicked sense of missing out. But still, we are now faced with the daunting task of making him understand that temper tantrums won’t work because adults still run the world!

It seems that a lot of good homes, dare I say “Christian homes” do not produce particularly good children. Why? There are people who blame TV violence, video games, rap music, divorce, the absence of fathers, bad schools, and poverty. But what about parents? What are parents doing wrong—especially well-educated parents in intact homes, with no financial worries? So, based on my own experience and thinking, here are some suggestions why good homes and parents sometimes produce bad children.

1) Goodness is Not Put First.
Most parents want their children to be good people; they just don’t make their child’s goodness a top concern. Parents are more concerned with their child’s being a brilliant student, a good athlete, or a successful professional. Would you rather have a kind child with average intelligence, or a brilliant child who isn’t kind? How much time to you devote to developing ethics in your child relative to developing other qualities? Do you monitor very closely how your child treats other people? What would your child say if someone were to ask them, “What do your parents want the most? For you to be happy, smart, successful, or good?” Most parents simply assume THEIR kids are good. Bad kids belong to other people. It is hard to raise a good student, but it is much harder to raise a good person. It is relentless, and requires attention to details. Why do I say this? Because the widely held belief that people are born basically good, and learn to be bad is not only wrong, it is dangerous. We are born morally neutral (innocent), but with tendencies towards both good and bad. Since we live in a fallen world, doing wrong comes easy. Goodness has to be cultivated. It takes as much time and effort as learning to master the violin, yet more parents give their children music lessons than goodness lessons. One more thing: there is a difference between goodness and following the rules. Turning your child into a morally blind automaton is not cultivating goodness!

2) Feelings Are Overemphasized.
I have observed parents give way more attention to how their child feels, rather than how they behave. If your child is a bully, don’t ask them, “What’s troubling you?” What your child FEELS may be important to you and the child, but the only thing that matters to the other 6 billion people on earth is how they ACT. We have to make our children understand that right actions trump good feelings, and that being upset doesn’t give them license to hurt other people. This runs counter to the almost religiously held belief that self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of making a responsible person. This is laughable. Children are born with nothing but self-esteem. They think the world revolves around their needs and wants – day and night! To be a good person, self-control is more important than self-esteem. Self-esteem has to be tied to good behavior, and it’s never too early to impress this on your child. If not, they grow up to be immature adults who throw tantrums whenever they feel uncomfortable or offended.

3) Parents Yearn to be Liked Rather Than Respected.
This one is hard for me. I feel like a complete hypocrite saying this. I’m Mr. “words of affirmation.” But my brain says that in the same way you cannot be an effective leader if you are afraid of being disliked, you cannot be an effective parent if you fear being disliked. This is especially hard for single parents (both men and women). It takes superhuman strength to be both mom and dad. It’s doubly hard to be both mom and dad in a disciplinary sense and still have your kids like you.

4) An Overemphasis on Micro-Goodness.
We have odd ways of defining what it means to be good, particularly in evangelical Christian circles. Goodness is very often expressed as trite moralisms. For Jesus this was like taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, while you have a plank protruding out of your own eye. It’s self-righteous and hypocritical. Jesus also accused the Pharisees of straining out a gnat, but swallowing a camel. We tend to blend into the culture in so many ways, so in order to be different, attention is focused on the trivial. We teach our kids that it’s okay to be captive to mass consumerism, as long as we don’t watch R-rated movies; it’s acceptable to pursue cozy affluence, as long as we don’t mow our lawn on a Sunday; it’s fine to be indifferent to systematic starvation around the world, as long as we don’t ever drink a beer. My point is that we need to teach our children that there are bigger issues of justice and morality in the world than counting "bad words" in a damn movie!! Of course, this is a judgment call every parent has to wrestle with, I'm just saying that good people understand that the world is bigger than their likes and dislikes and specific cultural expressions of morality.

5) The Belief in “Quality Time.”
This is a term we use to rationalize being gone from our kids a lot. I know. I use the term. When it comes to time with children I don’t think quality can be separated from quantity. Do we really think that parents who spend very little time with their kids can bond in an hour? Children open up to adults when they want to, which is usually only after a LOT of “non-quality time.” I know that most families are under enormous stresses and time constraints, so I hope this doesn’t sound too judgmental, but life is full of trade-offs. If you make good money working 60 hours a week, you may be able to buy your kids nice things, but you can only give them so much of yourself.

6) NEVER humiliate your child. There are obvious ways to humiliate a child—ignoring them, telling them to be quiet, laughing at their mistakes, yelling at them in the grocery store, not taking their ideas seriously, and never apologizing when you are wrong. Some parents, out of a sense of pride, tend to treat their children like owned commodities rather than autonomous human beings. This too, is a form of humiliation.

Monday, February 04, 2013

In Defense of Situational Ethics

If God is the source of moral values, what is moral and immoral, therefore, transcends personal opinion or societal norms. Without the transcendent (or substitute “rule of law” if you are a secularist) individuals are then free to make up their own moral standards. Such moral relativism brings to mind a Hobbsian world of mayhem, because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that saying “I think murder is wrong” is as meaningless as saying “I think purple is ugly” under such a system.

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many (particularly my fellow Christians, who believe in moral absolutes)—the assumption that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism. It is a mistake to argue that just as an individual’s determination of right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine right and wrong also negates moral absolutes. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. A moral absolute means that if an act is right or wrong, it is right or wrong for everyone in the identical situation. This is also called universal morality.

But “EVERYONE” is not the same as “EVERY SITUATION.” An act that is wrong, is wrong for everyone in the SAME situation, but almost no act is wrong in EVERY situation. Sex in a loving relationship is good, but when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil. Likewise, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” not “Do not kill.” Murder is immoral killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. Pacifists argue that it is wrong to take a life in any situation. This is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means “in every situation” rather than “for everyone in the same situation.”

The key element in morality remains this: There is good and evil, independent of personal or societal opinion, and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action in light of context, situation, and motive?”