Anti-racist Yard Sale

Hi Cogitators, after a bit of a hiatus, the Cogitduck comic strip is back!  I’ve revamped the aspect ratio to conform to a newspaper comic slot (wink, wink).  I also sketched and “inked” this on a Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet.  The S-Pen is pretty sweet!

For more info on the invisible knapsack of privilege, see one of my very first posts.  For my past references to the racist dog whistle, revisit my commentary on Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016, or my critique of a 2012 guide to decoding racist political ads.  And, most importantly of all, to learn about what Margaret Thatcher lamented as “anti-racist mathematics, whatever that may be,” visit here.

One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

Sequester: Obama forces the balance

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The federal budget sequestration saga culminated with a geeky–if odd–bang on Friday.  After days of touring the country and sounding alarms, President Obama denied he was feeding fears of fiscal “apocalypse,” felt compelled to concede, “I am not a dictator,” and confessed he could not change Republicans’ will through a “Jedi mind meld.”

In his Saturday radio address, the President acknowledged that Americans are tired of having to “careen from one manufactured crisis to another.”  It’s good to remember who is in the drivers’ seat.  It was President Obama who signed the legislation that triggered the sequester.  In light of this fact, Cosmoscon recently supplied a fitting name for the White House’s trite theatrics: Obamaquester.

In the days leading up to sequestration, the media indulged dire headlines.  Yahoo News’s leading caption warned Thursday, “Deep cuts to Begin.”  LiveScience jarred us with “Sequester cuts could hit scientists hard.”  The National Parks Service warned that bathrooms would go uncleaned, sending Mother Jones in a panic.  And the Navy announced the Blue Angels would cancel shows.  Mother Jones probably could care less for that jingoistic propaganda outfit.

The media has not been totally obeisant to White House talking points.  Clicking through Yahoo’s “Deep Cuts” reveals news copy weary of alarmism.  The Christian Science Monitor’s Decoder Wire challenged Obama’s characterization of “automatic” spending cuts.  Yet, as with many other media sources, it was reluctant to put the actual cuts in perspective.

Fortunately, the fiscal conservatives on WordPress have been on top of it.  The Southern Voice supplied a great Heritage Foundation graphic emphasizing that only budget growth shrinks under sequester, not the budget itself.  International Liberty highlighted effective sequester editorial cartoons.  I found Mike Ramirez’s pie picture to be an invaluable graphic.

The Moon in Daylight shared a great gamer’s analogy for Obama’s political strategy.  The President is a “munchkin mini-maxer.”  That is, he is a player who unscrupulously exploits a loophole in the rules or a coding glitch.  Instead of “investing” all his skill into a well-rounded array of abilities like negotiation, initiative, or magnanimity, Obama has pooled all his skill points into demagoguery.

This singular focus yielded political absurdity the day sequestration went into effect.  Besides denying that he was a dictator, he confessed “I’d like to think that I’ve still got some persuasive power left.”  And once Obama issued the “Jedi mind meld” snafu, the White House Office of Perpetual Campaigning parlayed it into a geeky-hip social media meme.  Should we expect less from the country’s premier community organizer?

One White House tweet implies tax hikes will “bring balance to the Force.”  But we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.  With a sluggish recovery, and over $600,000,000,000 in new revenue to pour in from the fiscal cliff deal, our economy needs more taxes like Luke Skywalker needed his hand chopped off by a lightsaber.  If the politics of sequester have to stoop to science fiction references, then it’s more fitting to say that our one-track president, with his incessant campaigning for tax hikes, “brings force to the balance.”  Politically, what Obama wants most and at all costs is to raise taxes for the sake of raising taxes.

The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster

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To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush.  Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy.  That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.

Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged.  The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.

A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation.  I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.”  By “moral monster” I mean “evil.”  The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be.  Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement.  After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.

Reading evil

Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise.  On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens.  Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it.  Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.

The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident.  Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.”  Moral Monster replicates this error.  For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content.  Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources.  To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty.  At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship.  Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.

What is the moral standard?

The reading is also informed by its moral ontology.  This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard.  A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad.  It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.

The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective.  Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief.  Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent.  A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.

Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists.  A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully.  But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.

Justice and the Supererogatory

In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice.  If God is good, he must be just.  Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time.  But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity.  That which not ought to be is erased.  The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”

Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all?  At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.

But Christian theology already supplies one.  Prior to creation, God was perfectly good.  He decided to do something extra that was meaningful.  He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice.  They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity.  This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it.  Some call it grace or mercy.  The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.

Conclusion: the stakes of evil

Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism.  One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible.  However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well.  This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.

El muralismo on campus

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Murals on college campuses can be weird and creepy.  When I visited University of Wisconsin, Madison a few years ago, I discovered one of them right in the midst of the student union.  From all other appearances, the union is wonderful.  It overlooks a large wooded lake, and there’s what looks to be a beer hall where students can weather the cold winters in contentment.  But when I went there, I found one room of the complex featuring twin murals facing each other.  They depicted landscapes and struggles, rich with a diversity of people, men and women of all races.

The controversial element of the mural is somewhat obscured in this official UW Madison photograph.

What did I do when I saw this?  Something I do whenever confronted with a work of this nature: I performed a white man check (disclosure: I am not a white man).  On one of the murals, the only two figures who appeared more than likely to be white men happened to each have a noose around their neck.  Perhaps they were martyrs for some good cause.  But I suspect the mural might have run into resistance if the noose had been around any minority status necks.  Really, does the heart of a Federally subsidized land grant university need to be so edgy?

Back on the Left Coast, the University of California, Davis, has its own diversity mural on the wall of its Memorial Union.  It depicts people, artifacts, and architecture from diverse cultures.  Performing the white man check on it reveals a forlorn-looking marble bust from Western antiquity, sulking in the far corner, while a colorfully painted Mesoamerican leads the rest of the world in a rollicking two-dimensional block party.

"The Unfinished Dream," UC Davis

The bust from Western antiquity (far left) looks a little bummed out compared to his Mesoamerican friend. (DavisWiki)

Another mural undertaken last year on the same campus elicited some unexpected criticisms from community members who felt underrepresented by it.  Critiques included that the mural did not represent students of Southeast Asian descent more clearly, and that it failed to recognize the campus LGBT community by the newer, more bleeding-edge politically correct moniker: LGBTQIAA.  The school newspaper’s editorial board recognized the absurdity of expecting such a project to so meticulously account for all “body types, sexualities, hair types and cultures.”

Unrealistic expectations aside, campus murals are often unsuitable to universities, inasmuch as they are supposed to adorn places safe for open intellectual inquiry.  El muralismo, the Mexican school of murals developed by Diego Rivera and others in the 1920s, inevitably incorporates themes of popular revolution and uprising.  Thick, sturdy figures populate brown-washed scenes of agrarian landscapes alternating with molten-lit caverns industrial might.  The imagery recalls the regrettable chapter of global history when national governments promised utopias by pursuing various forms of totalitarianism.

Portion of “Man at the Crossroads” by Diego Rivera. Note Vladimir Lenin at far right. (Wikimedia)

It’s incredible that significant parts of academic culture, so wary of fixed truth, would readily employ a format devised as unabashed propaganda.  Large and imposing, murals tend to bully a public space.  One will think twice before reading Thomas Sowell or mentioning William F. Buckley while under the watchful gaze of social revolutionaries.  Today, murals are not in service of class revolution as much as a progressive conception of diversity that feels awkward being in the same room as Plato and Thomas Aquinas.  Or Thomas Jefferson for that matter.

Winston Churchill

That stalwart defender of Britain, Winston Churchill. (Wikimedia)

To the extent that the universities’ commissioned artists might draw upon muralismo, diversity can’t even be properly served.  The range of physical differences among races, such as they might be conceived, tend to be limited when manifested.  Rather than people who look distinctly white, black, Asian, or whatever, everyone in these murals seems to have a tame variant of a mocha complexion.  The format is not just ideologically rooted, it is ethnically rooted.  To be clear, nothing is wrong with Mesoamerican culture and people themselves.  Problems of a related sort would emerge if a student association chose to depict diversity through Chinese scroll paintings or any other single format with a strong cultural association.

The next time some university entity contemplates public art for their campus community, they ought to look beyond the muralismo tradition.  It seems newer state schools are generally bereft of a classic form of art: statues cast in metal.  You know, like Lord Nelson at Trafalgar Square, or Winston Churchill near Westminster.  Maybe they’re avoided because there have been too many dead white men honored by the medium.

Giant robots vs. fracking

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I saw The Hobbit for a second time New Year’s Day.  There were some cool trailers.  More often than not, these previews are much better than the movies they advertise.  The greater delight come from teasing the imagination with a few catchy lines, the best part of the score, and a couple of towering shots.  When the full film rolls around, we tend to be disappointed with a waste of artistic resources.  As hard as it is supposed to be to break into screenwriting, why are the dialog and plot of most Hollywood films so terrible?

As for most of the trailers I saw last Tuesday–including Pacific Rim, The Host, Oblivion, and After Earth–there was a decidedly apocalyptic theme.  It’s pretty hard to get me excited about an epic-scale special effects film.  I liked the aesthetics of Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise.  But the plot looked trite.  Pacific Rim seems promising, though.  Because who doesn’t want to pilot a gigantic armored robot into combat?  And if nations have to unite for world peace, manufacturing such robots to fight gargantuan monsters would probably be the least annoying reason.

The outlier of the preview batch was Promised Land, starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski.  I believe the plot is effectively summarized in the second panel of the comic above.  I trust Michael Medved’s review when he dismisses it as cartoonish “anti-corporate propaganda.”

Such a film calls to mind the inexhaustible parade of earnest, shameless, liberal agitprop that has marched forth from Hollywood for decades.  Films like The Constant Gardener, Lions for Lambs, Ferngully, and Avatar.  You don’t need to watch these movies to know the slant, just the trailer.  Thankfully, the folks who make those short clips tend to do the job right.  If only as much could be said for most screenwriters.

Deepen your Christmas cheer

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Christmas is nearly here!  But the fiscal cliff is looming, the sadness of the Newtown school shooting lingers, and between sequestration and gun control, the national political climate is as sour as ever.

At minimum we have to deal with intransigence across the aisle, and at worst, even the morally milquetoast media has had to churn up some sort of recognition of evil in the world.

So we need not just the feeling but the substance of Christmas about as much as we ever did.  Few things speak to that feeling and substance as much as the classic Christmas carols.  Not like the several, insipid remakes of the trumpety 70’s standard This Christmas, but like the old, theologically rich hymns.  They enrich us with images of heavenly grandeur and poetically remind us not just of our dire rebellion against divinity, but of the awesome grace precipitated with Jesus’ incarnation.

This year I’ve found a couple of hymns particularly inspiring.  There’s the splendid grammatical construction in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, “let nothing you dismay.”  And as we sing on, we’re reminded starkly of a dark power at work in the world:

Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

We can enjoy the superficial cheer piped through department store speakers, but our joy is deepest when we countenance real evil, our own fallenness, and know that Christ has overcome these.  So in a sense films like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are quite fitting for the holiday season.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is another tune that delivers the theological goods with a poetic punch.  Within a few short lines near the end, we have unfolded Christ’s humility and the salvation of those who call on him:

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Take a little time to appreciate the noble sentiments that come with the classics this year, and you’ll deepen your sense of Christmas cheer.

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