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Archive for November 2013

Last week This American Life had an episode on housing discrimination, House Rules, which drew upon a ProPublica series, Living Apart – Fair Housing in America. The TAL episode began with a side-by-side comparison of the differing treatments of black and white renters-to-be by a super in Queens. Then it went back in time and focused on the long and arduous process of passing legislation to allow for equal access to housing, and then enforcing said legislation. The moral of the story is that things haven’t changed as much as you think they’ve changed. This moral is reinforced by the selective narrative framework of TAL.

As it happens though HUD has been doing broad surveys of the exact form that is outlined in the TAL episode. So I decided to browse the 2012 report. If you read the whole thing, you conclude that:

1) There is indeed discrimination against minorities.

2) But the differences are often on the margin. The stories in TAL are at the tails of the distribution, but people may be confused and assume they are ubiquitous.

For example, from the full report from HUD: “black, Hispanic, and Asian renters are all shown significantly fewer housing units than equally qualified whites. Blacks are shown about one fewer unit for every 25 visits; Hispanics are shown one fewer unit for every 14 visits; and Asians are shown one fewer unit for every 13 visits.” These are statistically significant differences, but probably less than what you might expect given the stories highlighted in the TAL episode. Additionally, the report makes clear that there has been a massive decline in housing discrimination since the 1970s.

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Embarrassing in his Wrongness

EvitaReason’s Matt Welch responds to Pope Francis’s dishonest and manipulative attack on free markets:

Francis’s hyperbolic rants about the role and allegedly dictatorial power of free markets are embarrassing in their wrongness. Cheering them on is like donating money to a Creationist Museum, only with more potential impact.

To take one papal passage out of dozens:

“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

More people have escaped poverty the past 25 years than were alive on the planet in 1800. Their “means of escape” was largely the introduction of at least some “laws of competition” in endeavors that had long been the exclusive domain of authoritarian, monopolistic governments.

…To look upon the miracles of this world and lament the lack of “means of escape” is to advertise your own ignorance. To call it a “tyranny” is to do violence to any meaningful sense of that important word (much like Francis’s predecessor did with his silly “dictatorship of relativism” crack). And to make such absolutist statements as “everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest” is to admit up front that you are not primarily interested in spreading truth, but rather in exciting popular passions.





Religious Freedom!

Snake handlingIt’s not just the HHS contraception mandate. Another front opens up in the ‘religious freedom’ debate. The Daily Telegraph reports:

As beads of sweat slithered down his temples, Andrew Hamblin stared in wide-eyed wonder at the three-foot timber rattlesnake he had thrust towards his congregation.

“I am a soldier in the army of the Lord,” he boomed in a thick southern drawl, stomping a foot on the hardwood floor. “And the enemy has been fighting me this week harder than ever before”.

In this shed tucked into a dark valley of the Appalachian Mountains, before 60 adoring followers speaking in tongues, throwing up their hands and dabbing tears from their eyes, Mr Hamblin was breaking the law. The 22-year-old preacher is facing up to a year in prison after being charged with illegally possessing 53 venomous snakes seized from his church by Tennessee wildlife agency officers earlier this month. Yet the charismatic young pastor, part of a century-old Pentecostal tradition in the region that takes literally an instruction in the Gospel of Mark that “they shall take up serpents”, remains piously defiant.

Since appearing in court, he has continued wielding poisonous snakes during his raucous services at Tabernacle Church of God, after fresh creatures were snuck inside by his allies.

“I’m willing to fight this, because here in the United States we’re supposed to be guaranteed our religious freedom under the first amendment of the constitution…”We’re Christians who believe in being saved by the blood of Jesus Christ just like any other – it’s not like we’re part of some different religion. I do feel it is an attack upon our religious freedom.”

His followers claim they are victims of a state crackdown. Mr Hamblin’s mentor Jamie Coots, a a preacher based just over the border in Kentucky, had three rattlesnakes and two copperheads confiscated after being stopped while driving home through Tennessee earlier this year.

Mr Hamblin said he was called on by God to handle the creatures, and that their appearances were shows of divine power. He likened the practice to “Catholics using wine”.

Yet Matthew Cameron, a wildlife agency spokesman, dismissed all talk of persecution and said Mr Hamblin’s storage of the snakes in a back room was simply a serious “public safety hazard”.

“We treat him just as we would anyone else found to be storing venomous snakes in their home,” said Mr Cameron, who stressed that zoos and circuses must obtain permits to possess snakes in the state. Several pastors have died from bites in recent years. Mack Wolford of West Virginia, who led one of the best-attended snake-handling churches out of an estimated 125 in the region, made international headlines after being killed by a timber rattlesnake in May last year. During Mr Hamblin’s service on Friday night, several young children, including some of his own five, wandered around just yards from the snake’s box, while their parents prayed and sang.

Mr Hamblin stressed that only adults may handle the creatures. “I can understand not wanting to endanger another’s life,” he said. “That’s perfectly understandable. But in 100 years, there have been only 10 deaths in Tennessee from serpents.” He is himself unable to make a fist with his right hand, after being bitten on a knuckle in 2010 and ending up in hospital. “I was at death’s door,” he said. “Me and death were just about ready to smoke a cigarette together”.

Yet God told him to continue, he said, and showed that he would be safe by allowing another snake to bite him on the back of the neck soon after. While Mr Hamblin’s shirt was soaked in blood, he escaped serious injury. “I never swelled, I never itched, I never suffered nothing but bleeding,” he recalled. And his congregants are intensely devoted to his style of worship. “Just weeks ago I was far from God,” said Jeremy Henegar, 20, with a piercing stare.

“Whisky, beer or moonshine – I was a full-blown alcoholic. But when I took up serpents I was right there in the presence of God. I felt approval for the first time. What once was deadly, he made harmless.”

While dozens of his fellow pastors hold their services in secret and close their doors to outsiders, Mr Hamblin is determined to bring his sect into the mainstream. He hopes to found America’s first snake-handling mega-church. He is due back in court next month, and may face additional charges. Yet his followers have no intention of allowing the state to stop them. “If I were to be sent to be prison,” he said, “boy – I think that would set off such a blast”.

Skeptical as I am about so many of the claims made in the name of ‘religious freedom’ (too often a crude assertion of religious privilege), there’s a part of me that hopes that Tennessee can, through regulation (Proper storage facilities? No children present?), find a way to accommodate this little slice of the old, weird America.

Or perhaps I’m just over-influenced by Mr. Hamblin supplying me with a lovely, fantastic, nutty image so saturated in (probably unconscious) disrespect for contemporary pieties that it merits a hallelujah or two:

“I was at death’s door. Me and death were just about ready to smoke a cigarette together”.



Happy Thanksgiving.

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On the Persecution of Christians by . . .

homsCross-posted on the Corner:

Cranmer picks up on a curious exchange in Britain’s House of Lords between a UKIP peer (Lord Pearson) and a Conservative minister (Baroness Warsi). The whole thing is well worth a read, but this section, in particular, caught my attention. The discussion between the two has gone on for a while and Lord Pearson is, as Cranmer noted, getting a little vexed:

An exasperated Lord Pearson intervened:

‘With respect, that does not answer the question. The question I put to the noble Baroness was about the persecution of Christians . . . Is it or is it not mostly the work of the jihadists? That was the question I put to her.”

And so she [replied]:

“It was mostly the work of extremists who do not follow any faith, as far as I am concerned.”

So, those who burn down churches, blow people up or cut their heads off while quoting the Qur’an, declaiming “Allahu Akbar” and invoking the name of Mohammed are not Muslims at all: they are really followers of no faith: they are secularists or humanist atheists; buddies of Professor Dawkins. This is the socio-religio-political depth of understanding of the UK’s first ever Minister for Faith and Communities. She says it is her job “to ensure that freedom of religion and belief remains at the top of the Government’s agenda both at home and internationally”. But while doing that, there can be no scrutiny of the virulent salafi-wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, for, to her, that is not Islam at all. And even to mention the possibility that it might be invites allegations of bigotry. These ‘extremists’ are simply not true Muslims and are completely ignorant of the real Islam.

And yet.. and yet..

At a Muslim Peace Conference in Norway (yes, a peace conference in Europe), when asked if the Muslims in attendance agreed that adulterous women ought to be stoned, the speaker praises Allah that all the men’s hands were raised. His Grace says “men’s hands”, for there appears to be no gender diversity at this gathering. Unless, of course, the women were in the basement. When asked if they believed in the strict separation of men and women, all hands again were raised (except the bloke on the front line, whom the speaker ignores). This video is not of a group of ‘extremists’, but ordinary believers in a run-of-the-mill expression of moderate Islam….

These ordinary, everyday moderate Muslims want sharia law in their country; not secular democracy and human rights. The moderate and enlightened speaker mocks the media portrayal of their beliefs as ‘extreme’. One wonders, if they had been asked, whether all hands would have been raised to affirm the death penalty for apostasy. Surely, if stoning women for adultery is considered just, then hanging for apostasy or blasphemy is a fortiori the will of Allah. And it is a very small step indeed from that belief to burning down the odd church and beheading the occasional kafir.

But these are not Muslims. They do not follow any faith.

As far as Baroness Warsi is concerned.

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San Marino stampContrary to some breathless reports in the conservative press, the Obama administration isn’t downgrading U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vatican. As the State Department’s explanation notes, 1) there’s no downgrade of representation or staff reduction; 2) the ambassador’s residence isn’t moving; 3) the move of office staff will protect them better from terrorism, and within the guarded U.S. compound they’ll be in a separate building with separate address and entrance; 4) all countries with Vatican embassies already locate those embassies outside VC territory and many co-locate with their general Rome embassy serving Italy.

However, although the Obama administration isn’t downgrading U.S. ambassadorial relations with the Vatican, it *should* downgrade them. From 1867 to 1984 the U.S. had no such relations (which of course was consistent with keeping up a free flow of communications between the two entities) and it was a lapse for President Reagan to depart from this sound approach. Religions are not countries and we rightly would not consider opening embassy-level relations with other religious entities. Vatican City has a population estimated at 840, a long way short of the historically genuine if small local populations of statelets like San Marino and Liechtenstein (about 30,000 each). And even if we agreed to give Vatican City the same treatment as these much larger statelets we’d want to change current practice. As a friend writes to explain:

Our ambassador to France is also our ambassador to Monaco (without a permanent physical plant onsite in Monaco) and ditto for Spain/Andorra and various other combinations. The Vatican (presumably for fear of opening the floodgates) doesn’t accept ambassadors who are also their sending country’s ambassador to Italy (although San Marino is not so picky) so some smaller countries have e.g. their ambassador to Switzerland also accredited to the Vatican.

By the way, I didn’t know this: “In 2011, Ireland closed their embassy to the Holy See entirely, and rely on visiting envoys to keep up diplomatic ties.” But it seems to be true.

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The Pope, Again

descamisadosCross-posted on the Corner

As Kathryn notes (and we were discussing over at Ricochet), today saw the release of a major statement by the new pope.

One highlight(courtesy of an admiring Guardian):

Pope Francis has attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny”, urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality in the first major work he has authored alone as pontiff.

Quite where “unfettered capitalism” is to be found remains a mystery.

And there’s this (via Volokh):

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces…

Childish, I know, but I am not the only person to have smiled at that. Smiles past, lets rewind back to the beginning:

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

Take the time to note another straw man rushing by (modern economies do not, in truth, leave that much to the invisible hand) and the demagogic reference to the creative destruction of capitalism as “a new poison”, but then focus on what clearly lies at the heart of the Pope’s economic prescriptions, the belief in an economy even more tightly managed than ours are today, and with it, a belief in the skills, incorruptibility and fairness of a bureaucratic elite that would be touching, if it were not so troubling.

Troubling? Yes, and that’s probably too gentle a word. If this was just a discussion within the Roman Catholic church aimed solely at how its members should behave that, for the most part, would be up to them. But the pope’s words are rather more than that. In Francis, we see a charming and charismatic advocate (complete with large megaphone and the attention of a sizeable slice of the world) for economic policies of a type that have failed and failed and failed again, not least in the Argentina of his youth, the Argentina of Perón, the Argentina that he evidently still sees as some sort of model.

That’s not good news, nor is it likely to be the source of much joy.

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Mysticism and Mush – Grains of Sand, Glasses of Wine (or Something)

Club de Progreso, Aug 2010 (AS)More on what sort of god is God:

Aiden Kimel:

I concluded my previous post with the question, How do we stop thinking of God as god? The contemporary theologian I have found most helpful on this question is Herbert McCabe. The key, suggests McCabe, is to stop thinking of God as in any way an inhabitant of the universe.

“God must be incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and, as Aquinas puts it, outside the order of all beings. God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars. God is not an inhabitant of the universe; he is the reason why there is a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space…

“The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves.

Good lord.

I shall eye my next glass of wine with strange new respect.

H/t: AndrewSullivan




Finding order where there is none

jfk-assassinationVia Andrew Sullivan, Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ examination of American conspiracism in New York magazine:

The seduction of conspiracy is the way it orders chaos.

Hmmm, that sounds like another phenomenon I could mention, which makes this entertainingly ironic :

In the summer of 1964, the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell—past 90 years old then and possibly the most famously rational person on the planet—read the early accounts of the Warren Commission Report with mounting alarm. None of the important questions, he thought, were being answered. There was the matter of the parade route being changed without explanation at the last minute, so that the motorcade passed Lee Harvey Oswald’s workplace; the geometrically confounding arrangement of entry and exit wounds; the curious fact that an alibi witness who helped get an alternate suspect released from custody turned out to be a stripper at Jack Ruby’s club. The logician went to work. Meticulously, Russell documented the discrepancies between each first-person account and the divergences between each report in the media. He gave his document a modest, scientific-sounding title (“16 Questions on the Assassination”) and a just-the-facts tone….

Bertrand, Bertrand, Bertrand.

Just another reminder that the impulses that played such a part in the creation of religious belief will always be with us.


descamisadosCross-posted on the Corner:

There was an exultant article by Jonathan Freedland over in the Guardian a couple of days ago proclaiming Pope Francis an “obvious hero of the left.” I wrote something about it over at Ricochet, but it’s also worth highlighting a different piece, linked to by Freedland as evidence of the discomfort that some free market folk feel over the pope’s economic pronouncements. It was written back in September by Phillip Booth of Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs.

Here’s an extract:

…[John Paul II] was not only right to suggest that the word ‘capitalism’ might be confusing but he also talked elsewhere in the encyclical about how capitalism must have people at its centre, must operate in a juridical framework, must avoid the problems of monopolies, and so on. Indeed, implicitly Pope John Paul was criticising the crony capitalism systems such as those in South America and Italy that use the apparatus of the state together with the power of financial interests to oppress the people rather than to serve the people. A free economy naturally has the human person at its centre. Models of so-called capitalism which are, in reality, closer to corporatism and cronyism, as well as being riddled with corruption, do not bear any relationship to a truly free economy.

The countries in which Pope Francis has made most of his statements about capitalism are Italy and Argentina. In making his statements, he has related them to the economic conditions in those particular countries. This is interesting because Italy is the least free country in the EU according to the Index of Economic Freedom – and a long way down the world list (unusually for a European state). Argentina is one of the least free countries in the world. To criticise capitalism in Argentina is like criticising the malign influence of cricket on French society. The pope’s statements about capitalism are confusing in the least. They seem to involve visiting countries which are not in any meaningful sense capitalist and blaming the problems of those countries on a system that they have not adopted.

It is fair to say that the pope’s criticisms of capitalism could at least partly be put down to a misunderstanding of the concept due to his experience in South America …

They clearly have also been shaped by the ideological environment in which he grew up in Argentina. There’s no precise way to pigeonhole Francis’s economic thinking (and, indeed, his economic thinking is not very precise) but if I had to guess, it appears (as I noted on Ricochet) to be a muddle of Rerum Novarum and Juan Perón. That’s not particularly reassuring.

Back to Booth:

However, his criticisms of globalisation are much more dangerous – he does not like it, even when it functions well. The pope’s position is dangerous because globalisation has been responsible for the most rapid reduction in poverty in the history of the planet. The pope is capable of doing real damage if his ideas are widely adopted. Very poor people could be made poorer if the pope is successful in changing the climate of opinion. Again, looking at the data forming the Index of Economic Freedom, a simple measure of globalisation unsurprisingly puts Argentina towards the bottom of the whole world, whilst Italy also performs very poorly by the standards of developed countries.

And we’ve still yet to see what Francis has to say about the environment. I think I can guess the sort of thing that’s coming, but here’s one early clue: The pope is not (it seems) a fan of fracking.




About That Pope

Pope against frackingCross-posted on Ricochet:

Over at the Guardian Jonathan Freedland exults in a new pope he believes is the “obvious new hero of the left” arguing that “even atheists should be praying” for him, a statement that can be read (on one interpretation) as assuming that atheists are on the left, something that isn’t necessarily so (trust me on this).

There is the usual discussion of where the pope may stand on sexual morality (I’d guess a—so to speak— compassionate conservative with a little medieval thrown in to spice things up), but I found this more interesting:

It seems [Francis] wants to do more than simply stroke the brow of the weak. He is taking on the system that has made them weak and keeps them that way.

“My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost,” he tweeted in May. A day earlier he denounced as “slave labour” the conditions endured by Bangladeshi workers killed in a building collapse. In September he said that God wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world and yet we live in a global economic order that worships “an idol called money”….

…[H]e also seems set to lead a church campaign on the environment. He was photographed this week with anti-fracking activists, while his biographer, Paul Vallely, has revealed that the pope has made contact with Leonardo Boff, an eco-theologian previously shunned by Rome and sentenced to “obsequious silence” by the office formerly known as the “Inquisition”. An encyclical on care for the planet is said to be on the way.

Boff? Never heard of him. Perhaps that obsequious silence was just too deep.

A back issue of National Catholic Reporter Online fills the gap:

One of Pope Francis’ most vocal supporters since his election three days ago has been Leonardo Boff, one of the founders of liberation theology….

And no, that’s not reassuring.

FWIW, I don’t think that Francis has signed up for liberation theology. When it comes to economics, at least, his thinking appears to be a muddle of Rerum Novarum and Juan Peron.

And no, that’s not particularly reassuring either.


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