Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Dark Side (so to speak) of Liberal Support for Obama

The findings of the experiment summarized in this article are sad and, for the most part, unsurprising: our political inclinations influence our perceptions. No surprise there, of course.

The particular form that influence takes in this case is, likewise, the opposite of shocking. The experiment demonstrates (or supposedly does--the article does not mention if or where it has been published) that the skin tone of a biracial man (President Obama) is perceived differently depending on one's political orientation, on one's presumed evaluation of his politics.

Conservatives appear to perceive Obama's skin color as darker both than liberals perceive it and than it actually is. That is, Obama's blackness is so magnified in the eyes of conservatives (who are presumably more inclined to evaluate Obama negatively as a political leader) that it is not only constitutive of their overall perception of him (there is no way for them to perceive him other than as a black man) but disproportionately emphasized in their ostensibly objective physical (visual) perception of him.

Depressing, obviously, but hardly shocking, right? Something in the nature of studies that show overeating causes weight gain, or that the proverbial fat meat really is greasy?

This article deserves more attention for two reasons, however.

First of all, the author's disinclination to probe the other side of the coin is troubling. Conservatives see Obama as blacker than he really is, and liberals see Obama as whiter than he really is. The author of the study (the interviewee) seems careful to mention both sides of this equation when asked an open question, but the journalist seems disturbed only by the first half. The final two questions (and answers) of the interview aptly highlight why it's a problem that conservatives see Obama as darker than he is.

There is no corresponding question dealing with why it might be a problem that liberals see Obama as lighter than he is.

And that is the second reason: it is a problem that liberals see Obama as lighter than he is, and (apparently) to a greater degree than conservatives make the opposite mistake (five times vs. two times more likely).

The author of the study explains the phenomenon well: "Which means that liberals, who are going to think that Obama is generally good and generally American, may have these subtle associations linking him to the concept of white, which is reflected in their representativeness ratings. The opposite would be true of conservatives."

But the implications he and the journalist ponder together lament only the conservative side of the equation: "It suggests that there are still deeper challenges to overcome before we can truly understand the perspective of someone we disagree with."

What challenges remain, however, in the presence of someone we agree with?

It is not good news, in other words--nor even neutral news!--that liberals do not perceive Obama as darker than he is, because they still perceive him as whiter than he is. Liberals and conservatives alike still participate in the racist dichotomy, even if liberals participate in the dichotomy in a way that allows them, ultimately, to support "even" a black man for president, if they agree with his policies.

If, for example, pictures of Alan Keyes or Clarence Thomas were substituted, liberals would, presumably, commit the error that conservatives commit regarding Obama: black skin = bad man, white skin = good man. The fact that they are able to see men who agree with them as participating in whiteness to some degree is small consolation. They still frame their approval in terms of whiteness.

The study also raises the question whether a blacker black man could achieve the same success. Is President Obama's success made possible only because of his biracial heritage? If it were impossible to code him as even partially white--if his speech patterns, his skin color, his physical shape were more insistently associated with Blackness--would it prove impossible to code him as intelligent and capable for any but the most rigorously race-conscious liberals (that is, those conscious of and attentive to issues of race)?

It is an accomplishment--with congratulations due both to President Obama and to the American people--that the Oval Office no longer has a "For Whites Only" sign on the door.

But it remains a bittersweet accomplishment, in light of this study. Even Obama's presumed supporters need him to participate in whiteness to some degree.

I do not envy him the tightrope he must walk, and my respect for the relative grace with which he walks it mounts daily.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

No Longer Forthcoming!

I'm happy to report that a book review that I wrote three years ago is finally being published!

Scottish Journal of Theology 64.2

I was starting to worry that this was some new kind of passive-aggressive rejection: an acceptance letter followed by . . . . nothing.

These are, however, Presbyterians and not Methodists. They got to it decently and in good order.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Strong Words

I am an ethicist because I enjoy exercising my feelings of righteous indignation from time to time.

Usually, this leads me into trouble. I hear about an issue, a case, an action, a legislative agenda, and I immediately take a stand, pronounce judgment on all who are in obvious and morally culpable error, and then stand around somewhat shame-faced and backpedally when the situation proves more complex than I had initially understood.

In this case, however, I don't mind taking righteous indignation out for a spin.

Tweets, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers now bandy about a prayer, ostensibly wishing for a change of administration come November 6, 2012, but literally wishing, in the words of Psalm 109:8, for the shortening of the President's days so that "another" will "take his office."

First and foremost, this is a plain and embarrassing example of the biblical illiteracy of the church.

That Christians are passing along this verse without understanding the context in which it appears is a testament to how little and how poorly Christians read scripture.

Few of those who pass along this meme take the time to read Psalm 109 in its entirety. The psalm is one of the "cursing" psalms--prayers that God punish the wicked or defeat the psalmist's enemies.

This particular gathering of curses is impressively specific and thorough: the psalmist wishes upon his adversary vicious enemies, financial ruin, death, poverty and homelessness for his children, and permanent damnation upon his soul.

It is an embarrassment to the church that so many people are passing along a verse whose context they don't know; it is an even more troubling embarrassment that they are not curious enough to find out.

But one doesn't need to know the context to know that this verse has no innocuous intent. "I'm just praying for someone else to become president! Like, next Election Day!" comes the quick response to any perceived question or correction. "I'm not praying that anything bad happen to him!"

This response betrays nothing but splendid, willful ignorance--not only of the context but of the plain sense of the verse in question.

To pray that someone's "days be few" is to pray that they die. Soon.

(I recommend that you ask people who disagree with this statement whether they believe in the literal interpretation of scripture. If they really do take scripture seriously, they will squirm. If they don't squirm, call them theological liberals.)

There is no possible alternative interpretation of the literal meaning of that phrase. This verse wishes for someone's early and imminent death. To advocate using this verse in prayer is to advocate praying for someone's death. There is no way to sidestep this issue. And there is no excuse for allowing people to try.

Some people with no particular interest in Jesus, no habit of prayer, and no substantive commitment to Christian scripture, are passing along this meme because it seems cute and funny to them. Delighted to find such an apt expression of their own sentiments in an otherwise charmingly old-fashioned book, they pass it along as if passing along a useful and attractive sweater that doesn't happen to flatter their particular figure.

They are abusing and deriding scripture, albeit unknowingly, but one can't expect otherwise from people who have no reason to take scripture seriously.

Many of the people who are passing it along, however, are people of prayer and professed biblical faith. They claim, in other parts of their lives, to take scripture seriously. Their participation in this meme needs to be named as the insult to scripture that it is. People who claim to value biblical faith must be called to shun vacuous and unserious uses of scripture. It is an embarrassment to the faith that Christians can be so publicly ignorant of their own scriptures and can permit or perpetuate sloppy interpretations of it.

If such displays of biblical illiteracy are an embarrassment, how much more shameful is the actual content of the meme.

One would think it should go without saying that praying for a political adversary's death is unbecoming to a Christian.

One would think it should go without saying that even if one admits that there might be circumstances in which praying for someone's death could be appropriate--say, under conditions of extreme persecution, inescapable abuse, or unrelenting tyranny--that even the worst of the current administration's failures and policies hardly rise to this level.

One would think it should go without saying that if one ever found oneself in a such circumstances, casual or triumphant pronouncements of one's tragic prayer are hardly the order of the day.

But if one thinks those things, one has not sufficiently reckoned with the doctrine of total depravity. Pace dear Thomas Aquinas, who is otherwise my guide in all things ethical and ecclesial, human reason and intellect bow to the deformed will with alarming consistency. One sees what one has willed to be there; one investigates as one intends to conclude; one reasons as one wills. Once one has cast one's lot with those who find nothing wrong with praying for the death of a political enemy, one is emotionally committed to reason that one has done rightly, even in the face of the plain sense of scripture.

The level of self-justification that arises in the face of any attempt at biblical correction is disheartening.

All the same, the effort at biblical correction is not wasted. It may be unsuccessful, especially in this particular instance. Once one is raised to a level of hypocrisy in which one can publicly pray for the death of a president with whom one disagrees after spending eight years arguing that the office of president must command respect irrespective of its holder (because that was just about the only refuge left for persons of a certain political persuasion), one is most likely immune to fraternal correction, no matter how gently or lovingly offered.

But it is not wasted.

I understand that some issues are too complex, too nuanced, too fraught to speak strongly or decisively. There is a reason that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church cannot offer clear and conclusive admonitions on such topics as abortion, homosexuality, or war.

But even Methodists can find a few topics on which to speak clearly and strongly. (I might wish that abortion, rather than gambling, was such a topic, but at least we picked something!)

Even ethicists who've learned to temper their strong words with the knowledge of previous missteps can and should find a few topics for which strong words are required.

It is my sincere hope that all Christians who take scripture seriously will object, publicly, to its public abuse. I hope all Christians will call other Christians to account for perpetuating this shameful meme and will call non-Christians to understand how poorly it represents the Christian faith.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Some News

I am excited to be able to share a professional development: I have accepted a Fellowship from the Wilke Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College, in Winfield, Kansas, and will be moving there this summer.

The Fellowship was jointly awarded to me and another doctoral candidate, with whom I will share the teaching responsibilities, stipend, and housing that come with the fellowship.

Fortunately for that last bit, the other doctoral candidate is named Stephen Sours, and we're used to the shared housing part.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Good Death?

"Heart attacks are the number one killer of middle aged men!"
"20,000 people per year die needlessly because of the lack of effective treatment for this disease."
"20% of eighty-year-olds who will die this year will die of complications from Alzheimer's."
"Pancreatic cancer accounts for only 1% of the annual cancer diagnosis rate, yet 15% of the annual cancer death rate."

Fundraising for scientific charities or research, advocacy for federal funding, and bioethical arguments concerning medical technologies or public policy goals will often quote statistics concerning the death rate for a particular condition or set of circumstances.

(I just made all those statistics up, by the way. This is not the blog to read for accurate scientific data.)

These statistics are deployed in order to convince the listener/reader of the urgency of the need for donations, funding, excellent students to enter the field, policy changes, or whatever is being sought. "20,000 people per year? Oh, that's terrible." "What? The number one cause of death? That's where our research dollars need to go!!" "Such a high proportion of deaths? We must do something about that."

Because the answer to the implied question--"How many people per year should die of this or that condition?"--must, of course, be, "None, if we could prevent it!"

30,000 children under the age of 5 die every day from starvation-related causes. (That's one statistic I didn't make up, actually.) How many children should die every day from starvation-related causes? If your answer is not a resounding "NONE!" you are an inhuman monster.

How many people per year should die of pancreatic cancer? None, if we can prevent it.
How many people per year should die of AIDS-related illnesses? None, if we can prevent it.
How many people per year should die of MRSA? of heart disease? of leukemia? of renal failure?

None. Of course.

But the argument takes a different turn when you begin to ask a different question. Of what should people die?

What should be the number one killer?

In some cultures and in some times, the answer to this question was more clear. People should die in battle, if they could arrange it. Or they should die while on the hunt, or with their families, or in service to the gods. When one acknowledges that one must die, it is not too difficult to imagine better and worse ways to die.

Francis Bacon changed the course of history when he challenged the world to "call no disease incurable." Medical sciences--indeed, all the sciences--were given free reign. Any stricture, any obstruction, any challenge to biotechnological progress began to be considered an unfair or irrational or superstitious refusal to save people that could be saved.

After Bacon, the answer (largely implicit) to the question (largely unasked) "What should be the number one killer?" is a resounding, "Nothing." There are only bad and worse ways to die.

For the braver among us, those willing to conjecture about our own deaths, the answer might be "Old age." When pressed, most of us would like to die peacefully in our beds, having been cogent and independent up until the very end, with a minimum (if not a complete absence) of any kind of suffering or disability.

In its more temperate moments, that is the (more likely to be stated) goal of medicine, as well.

But as Joel Shuman notes in the essay "The Last Gift," the WHO and the Department of Health and Human Services do not recognize "old age" as a cause of death. Something specific must be named.

Thus every recorded death in the United States must have a medical condition, problem, or failure as its cause. And when every death is a medical failure, there is no death that might not be prevented or forestalled with technological improvement. Heart failure is a condition, a problem--not a natural terminus. Liver failure is not what happens when one's body has reached its natural capacity to filter its blood--it is the result of specific medical processes, any of which might be susceptible to our control.

There is, then, no natural limit to the reach of medicine. There is nothing that might not be prevented with a little more research, and thus there is nothing that should not be prevented. Any impediment to progress is morally equivalent to a death sentence for those suffering from whatever ailment may be helped by a proposed course of action.

It is appalling that 30,000 children per day die of starvation related causes. It should prompt urgent and concerted effort on behalf of the world's governments and NGOs against immediate and emergent causes (drought, crop failure, natural disaster, war), as well as against more subtle and possibly intractable causes (tyranny, poverty, greed).

But it is appalling not because all deaths are appalling. It is appalling because this earth provides more than enough food for us all, and because technology permits us to transfer the fruits of this abundant patch of earth to that distressed patch of earth, and because international diplomacy gives us the chance to convince even the worst tyrants to allow emergency aid to the starving. These deaths are appalling. These deaths are a result of human sin, or at the very least, of human inertia.

But is it possible to conceive of medical causes for death that are not appalling? not urgent? not inhumane?

There will always be a "top ten list" of causes of death. There will always be a top ten list of causes of death. Is it possible to conceive of a list that will not be a list of looming enemies?

If it is not possible, if there is no death from which we do not look to medicine to save us, we are in grave danger, though we do not know it.

Medicine becomes, in such a case, our god, and there is no end to the sacrifices it may demand of us.