A Primer on the Meaning of Political Opposition

As Trump’s shocking campaign promises have given way to the even more shocking realization that he actually meant them, our country’s already fevered political polarization has intensified to the boiling point. This polarization, and its occlusion of the possibility for meaningful political discourse, is in my view considerably more dangerous than anything Trump himself is likely to do. Trump is, as Alastair Roberts has recently reminded us, much more a showman than a conniving dictator, and although his autocratic leadership style is sure to undermine the rule of law (ironically, the very “law and order” he claims to re-establish), those who worry about a repeat of Hitler’s Germany are, I think, giving Trump way too much credit. The Art of the Deal is not exactly Mein Kampf.

However, an individual leader is always considerably less dangerous than the mindset he instills (or helps capitalize on, or both) among his followers and the society at large. And the greatest danger for a political society, one that does tend to prove conducive to the emergence of totalitarianism, is the illusion of the binary choice: there are either two options here, and if you are not for X, you are against it. If you are not for me, you are against me. While such a binary choice is often real in the realm of truth, it is rarely so in the realm of politics. Demagogues, however, are a master of reducing the complexities of politics to the simplicities of the binary choice, and Trump is, in this at least, the arch-demagogue.

Up through Trump’s actual inauguration, though, most thoughtful conservatives seemed to be resisting the pull of Trump’s all-or-nothing framing—after all, nothing is more antithetical to the true conservative mindset (though this has become something of an endangered species in recent decades). Nothing has been so disturbing to me about the past couple weeks as how rapidly this seems to be changing. In true progressive fashion, many “conservatives” have reflexively greeted concerns about policy by changing the subject to questions of sweeping (often caricatured) principle. This was of course the standard liberal move during the Obamacare debate: “You think this isn’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you don’t care about poor people getting healthcare?” We are in danger of witnessing the exact same drama play out in reverse: “You think Trump’s executive orders aren’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you think that unrestricted immigration is a good thing and we should have totally open borders?” Of course, progressives are making this much easier by too often playing right into it, and voicing their opposition only in the shrillest and most sweeping terms of humanitarian sentimentalism.

Amidst all this, it is important to remember what a complicated and nuanced thing political opposition is, and in the manifold debates to follow in the coming weeks and months and years, to do others (and ourselves) the favor of rigorously distinguishing exactly which form we are facing or seeking to articulate.

Of any proposed policy, we must ask the following questions: Read More


Abortion and the Politics of Protest

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Kathryn Walker reviewed a book called Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris.  I hadn’t so much as heard the book before, but my interest is certainly piqued now.  Harris, like so many others in my generation, finds herself, despite having been given a full-blown fundamentalist, pro-life, right-wing upbringing, having somehow wandered across the political divide, so that she is now unmistakably left-wing, though still, I take it, evangelically Christian.  In this book, she chronicles her journey and tries to explain why.  For a fuller summary of the book, I certainly recommend Walker’s excellent review; if I ever get around to reading it myself, perhaps I’ll offer my own review, but for now, I simply wanted to pick up on one interesting question that Walker raises.

Walker does not share Harris’s newfound sympathies for the Left, but she does at least give her a fair hearing, and grant that she may have some good points.  But for Walker, the most important issue is still abortion, and she can’t accept Harris’s rationale for minimizing that issue.  Harris remains pro-life, but has lost her sympathy for the pro-life movement, it’s foot-stomping and sign-waving, and wants to invest her effort into caring for women, rather than politicking.  But Walker asks toward the end of her review why Harris happily engages in sign-waving in protest against Bank of America—”she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.”

Walker’s question set me pondering a bit, because I must confess I find myself feeling a lot like Harris at times.  Of course I still think abortion is a great evil, a heart-breaking crime against the defenceless children, and often against desperate mothers as well, who are pressured into it.  But I have so little sympathy left for the pro-life movement.  There, I said it.  I’ve admitted it.  I cannot make myself care all that much whether a candidate is pro-life, as a litmus test for voting for or against him.  Of course it’s relevant, but then, so are the candidate’s views on gasoline taxes.  I simply cannot get worked up about the issue as a political issue (though I can get worked up about the issue in other respects; I found the portrayal of abortion in Ides of March heart-rending).  But, I do get worked up about corporate greed.  I don’t sympathize with sign-waving abortion protesters, but I can be brought to sympathize with sign-waving Bank of America protesters.  Is there any good reason from this, or is it just some kind of hypocrisy or something worse? 

Well, there may be a few good reasons, or at least partial reasons, and I wanted to explore them.

There are, I suppose, two distinct issues, though I have elided them here.  One is protesting, the other politicking.  Protesting is of course generally political in its orientation, but is essentially indirect, seeking to influence the attitudes and the milieu within which political decisions are made.  By the latter, I mean direct lobbying for legislative, executive, or judicial action, crafting laws, promoting candidates with desirable positions on an issue and attacking candidates with undesirable positions.

Skeptics like myself (and I would take it Harris) doubt whether the politicking is a meaningful or useful way of advancing a pro-life agenda.  Certainly, prima facie it would seem to be misguided: (1) abortions were widespread in the US well before Roe v. Wade; (2) Roe v. Wade was a judicial decision, not a legislative one, and the judiciary is by far the most independent branch of our government, and the most difficult to influence through political action (rightly so); (3) empirically, it is hard to see that 39 years of feverish pro-life politics have yielded any significant gains.  Digging deeper, it seems like abortion is not really by its nature primarily a political issue.  Of course, legal systems have an obligation to protect life and prosecute murder, but legal systems can only function within a framework of broadly shared moral assumptions.  If a culture has reached the point where no one sees the problem with something, then trying to stop it by outlawing it is like spitting in the wind.  (Of course, this is oversimplistic—there are other less drastic ways of trying to legally limit abortion, which may be effective.)  But of course a second point to note here is that few people get abortions because they think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do.  I don’t know statistics, but my guess is that most women who get abortions don’t like the idea at all, but they’re frightened or pressured or desperate enough to do it anyway.  In such a case, making a law against it isn’t necessarily going to change many of their minds.  It might dissuade a lot of abortion doctors, but there will still be plenty willing to supply a black market.  

Contrariwise, it seems clear that political action is a meaningful and effective way of confronting economic injustice, particularly when that takes the form of large corporations engaging in dubious behaviour that prioritizes short-term profits over long-term considerations and the well-being of society.  I would argue that, normatively, regulation of justice in economic exchange and justice in distribution of goods is one of the core functions of a well-ordered government.  But of course, nowadays conservatives have gotten it into their heads that in fact, it is precisely economic decisions that are private and individual, lying outside the proper purview of public justice.  To be sure, such regulation will not be wholly effective, but the fact that the injustices in question are not simply or even primarily the result of individual decisions, but are structural and institutional in nature, suggests that legislative action is a natural, appropriate, and effective way of addressing these problems.  Indeed, I could go further, and point out that the very mechanisms by which investment banking is made possible do not simply spring out of the state of nature, but are the product of political and legal structures.  The corporation itself is a legal creation, as are the securities with which an entity like Bank of America makes its money—they simply would not exist apart from some kind of legal edifice.  Therefore, to call on the law to redress their abuses, one might suggest, is the most natural thing in the world.  Empirically, we could point out that politicking against particular abuses by big business, in favor of the rights of labor (in the first half of the 20th century primarily) and the rights of the consumer (in the second half of the century primarily) yielded enormous, measurable gains.

 

When it comes to protesting, well, it is worth asking exactly what protesting is intended to do?  Protesting is, to be sure, often quite directly political in orientation.  But such phenomena as pro-life marches and the Occupy movement are not best described as a kind of popular political lobbying.  In its most coherent form, protesting is a form of public witness against injustice—it seeks to call attention to, to name, an evil that is being done amongst us, with the intent of influencing the perpetrators to rethink their actions, and, perhaps more plausibly, of influencing our fellow citizens to become attentive to the injustice so that they will share our judgment of it, and join their voices with ours in calling for an end to it (whether that end come from individual, social, or political action).  

When we put things this way, I think it is possible to see why someone might consider this a rather clumsy response to the issue of abortion.  For it makes sense that a protest should be as public as the sin itself is.  Adultery is rampant in our culture, and while there are plenty of Christian voices calling it to account in appropriate ways, there has not been, to my knowledge, a National Anti-Adultery Rally, or a National Right to Fidelity March, or anything of that sort.  Of course, part of this is because we now consider adultery a sin but not a crime; but that’s not all of it.  For neither are there regularly large Anti-Drunk-Driving protests, despite the widespread deploration of drunk driving and its disastrous consequences.  For these problems, widespread as they are, are essentially an aggregate of individual, essentially private (though I do not mean to say that any sin is entirely private) sins or crimes.  They do not rise to the level of a public sin, a structural sin.  They do not have an institutional form that can be witnessed against in public.  

One could argue that similarly, abortion is essentially an individual sin and not a structural sin, that “the abortion issue” is simply an aggregate of individual evil abortions, rather than a unitary public evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The problem is not “abortion” as an abstract force of injustice, but particular acts of abortion—individual agents in the midst of individual crises, making individual wicked decisions.  The situations that lead women to seek abortions are unique to each woman, and so the best way to stop abortions is to work with individual women to help them.  Not, of course, that there are not many wonderful Christians out there doing just this; but we are asking now whether the sign-waving, marching, protesting side of things contributes to this work at all, or rather undermines it.

And of course, there is a “structural” element to the problem of abortion too—the poverty and abuse that drive so many women to desperation, to a sense that abortion is the only way out, the treatment of women as useful objects for sex, for which pregnancy is an awful inconvenience (this is not to say that there are not a great many abortions that are simply wicked unconstrained decisions of convenience).   But it is precisely this structural element that the pro-life movement, as a political movement, tends to most ignore.  

On the other hand, the Occupy movement, inasmuch as it has a coherent message, is bearing witness against a public, structural, institutional sin.  The greed, inequality, usury—however you want to label the core problem—that today infects our society is a structural sin.  Yes, of course, there are greedy individuals, and if no individuals were greedy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had in recent years.  But the evil, and the harm that it does, far transcends individual greedy decisions; it would be possible for most of the investment banks’ employees to be good decent people just doing their job, and for all the problems still to persist.  The systemic usury and injustice of the financial system is the result result of warped incentive structures, poor laws, a loss of sense of the true purpose of financial institutions, collusion amongst the powerful to protect one another and veil their dealings from the public, etc.  Therefore, public protest, as a way of calling attention to the systemic problems, as a way of naming this evil and inviting us all to join in decrying it and undermining is foundations, seems highly appropriate.  

(Of course, I acknowledge that the abortion issue has a counterpart to this kind of corporate corruption, in the so-called “abortion industry”—doctors, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, entrenched advocacy groups, etc., that have a vested interest in perpetuating abortion, hiding the truth, and manipulating the powerful.  I think that pro-lifers perhaps overstate their case here sometimes, but inasmuch as this is a real power, a real fortress of evil, it warrants a forceful public witness.)

Having said all this, though, I think it is fair to admit that neither of these is, I think, the real reason why Harris (and myself) find ourselves naturally more sympathetic with sign-waving against crony capitalism than with sign-waving against abortion.  The real reason is that the former is new and the latter is old.  We grew up with the latter, and we frankly find it a bit tiresome and grating now.  It feels like our sub-culture has been harping on the same old problem forever and ever and it’s time to just deal with it and move on.  Whereas, although for our parents protesting the evils of capitalism might’ve been a common enough part of their experience, for us, it’s new, fresh, and a bit exciting.  

Now, I say all this in a tone of somewhat mocking self-criticism, but there’s more that needs to be said here as well.  For one thing, just because something’s appeal lies partly in its newness does not render it invalid.  I think stodgy Baby Boomers are right to point out that the enthusiasm for social justice causes among the rising generation is partly fuelled simply by the novelty (to us) of the cause; but I would also make the case that the cause still happens to be a very just cause, worth getting passionate about (and yes, perhaps protesting about, though that’s really not my cup of tea).  

More importantly, the newness factor makes an objective difference when one is asking about the appropriateness of the rhetoric of protest.  No doubt part of Harris’s antipathy to pro-life protest arises from her sense that, after more than three decades of it, any positive potential has likely worn off, and it is much more likely simply to have the effect of hardening opponents, and alienating potential sympathizers who are simply sick of the conflict and polarization.  A protest movement is always at its most effective when it is brand new; pretty soon, it starts to grow stale and tiresome, and people just sound like they’re whining, or obsessed, or pathologically combative.  Indeed, just look at three months of the Occupy movement.  A couple weeks in, they were cool.  A couple months in, and it’s like, “C’mon guys, enough already.  Pack up your tents and stop digging pit toilets in the park.”  After the initial point has been made, and awareness has been raised, it is usually time to turn to more constructive, concrete, and patient means of bringing about change.  In large part, to be fair, the pro-life movement has certainly done this, and has succeeded thereby in incrementally reducing the rate of abortion and in some cases improving the legal restraints upon it.  But inasmuch as portions of the movement continue to adopt the posture of angry protest, demonizing opponents and refusing to vote for any political candidate who does not share their fervour on this particular issue, it risks not only failing to be an effective voice in American culture and politics, but also continuing to drive away young evangelicals, contributing to a widening political gap between the generations that threatens to further fracture American evangelicalism and harm our witness to a watching world.


Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 3: What is Christian Protest?

So, I’ve expended a great deal of metaphorical ink on attacking the idea that having a somewhat irresponsible government gives us license to avoid paying taxes.  Many people may say, “So what?  Who is this aimed at?”  Don’t most people, even most Tea Party conservatives, pay their taxes, fully and on time?  No one wants to go to jail, after all.  Perhaps some do try and get creative to minimize their tax burden through loopholes, but honestly, the average working-man doesn’t have time for such shenanigans.  So how is this relevant?  

Well, my parents always used to have a good principle: Obedience while grumbling and complaining is as good as disobedience.  Can we really claim to be upright citizens if we pay our taxes, but get out in the streets on April 15th to yell and carry angry signs?  If we mouth off on talk radio stations about how “oppressed” we are?  If we’re supposed to pay our taxes, then aren’t we supposed to pay without grumbling or complaining, without angrily protesting, without making it clear that we’re paying only because we have to?   

And yet, are we supposed to be meek sheep, silently obeying whatever we are told, no matter how unjust?  Jesus may have been led like a lamb to the slaughter, but he had no qualms about calling oppressors to account in no uncertain terms.  Complete silence and passivity in the face of injustice is not a manifestation of Christian charity, because it lets ones neighbors continue to suffer.  So what is the balance here?  This is the question not merely of taxation, but of all Christian political action.


Regular readers may recall a similar discussion that emerged in the course of my posts on coercion last summer.  There I argued against seeing the government as a coercive imposition, which we only obeyed so as to avoid going to prison.  Coercion, I argued, is in a very important sense in the eye of the beholder.  If you obey willingly, then you’re not coerced.  If you thinks that you’re obeying simply to avoid going to prison, then voila! you’re being coerced.  If Christians are to be above fear, then their obedience should never be coerced, but always be free.  And yet, the question arose, does this imply complete willing, uncomplaining, non-resistant obedience?  And if so, doesn’t that mean that oppression is simply allowed to continue?  If we willingly and fearlessly accept the oppression, then it is never called to account–and that is not love.  

So clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg of some rather big issues.  But I will try to offer a just a few thoughts specific to the issue at hand, though they will have implications for other issues.

 

In view of the considerations offered in the first two posts, there are two targets we must keep in our sights to guide us in this issue: greed and love.  The former we must always be on guard against, the latter we must always be guided by.  If we are protesting taxation because we think that we’re entitled to more of our own income and we don’t want anyone else to get their grubby hands on it, then we should probably reconsider our protest–it is probably not a godly one.  If we are protesting taxation because we convinced that others who can ill afford it are suffering, or because the taxes are being used to fund abortion, for instance, then we may be on to something.  There is still a right and wrong way to protest, but at least there is a good cause.  But what about something more abstract?  What if we are convinced that the current tax regime is inefficient and unhelpful, that in the long run it will hurt the economy and hurt needy people, etc.  Well, this too can be justified, though such protests, it seems, must be correspondingly more patient, muted, and willing to compromise. 

But when we say “protest,” what do we mean?  There are, of course, violent forms of protest, but thankfully, I don’t think that’s what anyone has in mind the current atmosphere of Tea Party America, so I will not here try to pursue the vexed question of whether violent resistance to government is ever justified.  However, the question of violence cannot be quite so hastily laid to rest, for there are ways of being violent without engaging in actual violence.  You may recall that a few months ago, when the Arizona congresswoman was shot, there was a great deal of discussion about all this, and I weighed in with some thoughts criticizing the violent attitudes and rhetoric that had come to dominate the political scene.  

 

If political action for Christians is supposed to be an exercise in love of neighbor, and not an angry insistence on one’s own “rights,” then it goes without saying that violent rhetoric, which does not show love for one’s adversaries and rarely does any good for one’s friends, is inappropriate.  There is of course no clear line on what constitutes “violent rhetoric,” but certainly much of what we hear on talk radio and occasionally in political protests falls under this heading.  

The most appropriate forms of protest are those that have been built in to our political system.  For while Romans 13 may appear to endorse a kind of political quietism, we should remember that there weren’t really any legal channels for protest and remonstrance in Neronian Rome.  We, on the other hand, do have elected representatives, however skeptical we may be that they will actually do their jobs.  Through them, we are invited to give our input regarding perceived injustices, we are given an opportunity to protest without taking matters into our own hands.  So if we are honestly concerned about the effects of a policy, and what it might do to our communities, there is nothing wrong with seeking to make this concern known through established channels.  This goes for either of the causes of protest I mentioned above (i.e., downright oppressive or wicked vs. long-term harmful).

Unfortunately, we have witnessed in recent decades the progressive erosion of the established channels.  Political policy is progressively shaped only by plebiscite, a perpetual referendum on the unreflective sentiments of the whole populace, carefully manipulated by incessant marketing and media spin.  The “established channels” for making our concerns known are increasingly those of the opinion poll, the street march, talk radio, and social media.  Sheer quantity, rather than quality, of opinion expression is the barometer that guides our politicians.  It’s like those talent shows where they vote for a winner by seeing which part of the crowd can yell the loudest.  

Such a climate poses great temptations for Christians–the temptation simply to add our voices to the shouting match, and thus lose the ability to communicate anything coherent or uniquely Christian.  If we gather together to celebrate a “Tea Party” with a bunch of angry people fighting for their “rights” or preaching resistance to “tyranny,” people who decry any taxation used for things they don’t personally approve of as “theft,” then however godly our own motives, our voice is subsumed into theirs.  If we have the most loving motives in the world, and want to make a Christ-like witness in the public square, this is almost impossible if our voice is simply drowned in the cacophony of dissent.  Not only that, but I think we deceive ourselves if we imagine we are immune to losing the clarity of our own convictions.  How many Christians, I wonder, start out with a recognizably Christian rationale for protesting against “big government” or “oppressive taxes,” and end by speaking nothing but the language of greed and rights–“Mine! Mine! Mine!”?

It is not, I think, necessary to carry on all political action in explicitly Christian terms, or to refuse to ally with any who do not share all our goals and convictions.  However, we need to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.”  We need to be always ask, “Can Christ’s love be shown through this sort of action?  Can I bless my neighbor through this sort of action (not only in the short term, but in the long term)?”  And we must be carefully attuned to the possible side-effects of our actions, to the way our protest will come across, whether it will bring Christ into contempt, whether it will advance the agenda of elements that are ultimately destructive to any Christian charity.  

 

So, can we, as Christians, protest taxes and other perceived injustices?  Well, possibly.  But can we protest as Christians?  That is the question.  If we cannot, if we can only speak as outraged property owners, or as capitalist ideologues, or as troublemakers who remain perpetually unsatisfied with any status quo, then we’d best stay out of the brawl and find better uses of our time.