Free-Floating Hostility

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

What we're up against

Running the treadmill at the gym last week, I started to formulate a biblical argument for preserving Social Security. It was based on the idea in the Torah that Israelites were supposed to leave parts of their fields ungleaned, making sure that the "the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow," had something to eat. Since God is the de facto head of state in the Torah, the message is that governments are meant to provide for the poor. I told Anna about my revelation on the treadmill and she was far less excited, reminding me that:
1. I don't believe in divine will as a good reason for any political decision, 2. I'm not actually trying to argue that Republicans are evil, and
3. I decided against becoming a rabbi when I had the opportunity.

She is right on all of those counts. Therefore the argument did not make it onto the blog and is now just being posted as a lead-in. Writing in 34, Jeff posted the link to the two stories from the Times Magazine detailing the so-called "conservative new deal." I was sucked in by this passage right at the top

(GOP activist Grover Norquist's) particular genius is for persuading one organization to reach beyond its own agenda to help out another -- for getting, say, the cultural traditionalists at the Eagle Forum to join the business libertarians at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in opposing fuel-economy standards for automobiles by convincing the traditionalists that, as Norquist once explained to me, ''it's backdoor family planning. You can't have nine kids in the little teeny cars. And what are you going to do when you go on a family vacation?''

That says to me that President Bush's right-wing agenda is seen by many as a wholistic ideology. Suddenly, after talking to this Norquist guy, cultural traditionalists can be talked into supporting SUV's over, say, clean air and water for family vacations into the woods.

I mention this because, over the next 18 months, we will see a sustained, well-coordinated, and passionate assault on the social safety net. I will give the President and his peeps the benefit of the doubt and say they are driven by ideology rather than malice. It seems as though it is going to come from all corners, with no specious arguments left untapped.

I fear the underlying consequence will be to turn our country into 1786 France with better technology. That's why I was tempted to think biblically, to try and speak to the plurality of people who identify themselves as Evangelical Christians. It would, of course, be disingenuous of me to pull this out in the course of an argument.

I'm trying to gather ammuntion to counter people should I get into arguments about this. I'm not silly enough to believe that I can change anyone's mind, especially the mind of a person prone to arguing about Social Security. This is about gathering material, creating my own talking points. It's just hard for me to come up with pithy things to say about social security or the tax code because like most Americans, I don't truly understand them.

I know that I believe in the social safety net, the proposition that everyone is responsible for everyone else. But in this, a case of all-out campaign against something I believe in, it seems like I need to be able to argue from every viewpoint. I do, however, promise to leave biblical arguments to the experts.

6 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at January 20, 2005 5:56 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Two nights ago on the Daily Show, the writer of "G-d's Politics" was on and he dropped a wonderful stat about how many lines in the New Testament are about poverty. Something like 300 lines about it. There is at least one about paying taxes even. "Give unto Ceasar..." Nothing about privitized accounts (or evolution, homosexuality, blowing people up, or the death penalty).

    The argicultural laws Mike mentioned are explained in two ways. 1)While human ownership (private property) is a good thing (because it encourages innovation and work) it is not an absolute thing. Rather ownership is a relative claim. G-d owns everything relative to you, so he can regulate the nature of your ownership, taking away parts of your crop for the poor, the Temple (rain tax man), and the environment (ever 7 years the field needs to be left alone). He makes you give some of your stuff away just to remind you it is his more than it is yours. 2)There is a pretty clear indicator of a basic responsibility to social justice and your fellow Israelite. Part of what you have must go to the poor. This is just part of what being an Israelite was about.

    However, most of this is Old Testament Law and most Evangelicals ignore that to get to the first 7 days of the Torah and the last 24 hours of Sodom and Gamorrah. (Remind me to send that rhyme to Akil.) However, if there is one Old Testament text Christains definitely love, it is Isaiah because of it can be read to prophesize Jesus' coming. (A tangent. Why was Isaih Thomas' nickname "Zeke?" It would make sense if he was named after a different prophet, Ezekiel, but not Isaiah. That never made sense to me.) Anyway, of all the Bibilical texts, Isaiah is the most committed to social justice. Basically he says, serving G-d without social justice is not going to cut it.

    1:17 "cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppress, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."


    10:1 "woe them that decree unrighteous decrees, and to the writers that prescribe oppression. To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!"

    The rest is a whole lot of the prophet making clear that no matter how many sacrafices you bring and prayers you make, G-d is not buying it until there is social justice. As he says at 1:14, "Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates: they are a trouble to me; I am weary of enduring them. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood."

    So the question is, why not frame this debate in moral terms and appeal to evangellicals. Why not suggest, while Republicans are not evil (and I do not think they are) that the decision to phase out Social Security instead of fix it is an immoral decision? It is moral to have a system that helps the elderly and disabled if they need it. It is immoral to ignore such people.

    Anyway, that is all the religion I can offer today. The shrewd Clintonian and perhaps proper answer is that Privatized Accounts on top of a fixed and secure Social Security system is the way to go. Democrats just need to articulate it more clearly.

    For more info:

  •   Posted by Blogger BrooklynDodger at January 20, 2005 7:38 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • The simplest answer to private accounts was posted to BrooklynDodger's at home protoblog at

    Argument 1 for private accounts is that investing in the stock market rather than US Treasury bonds will give better interest and ultimately a higher monthly benefit. That gain in return could be accomplished by opening the investments that the Social Security Trust Fund can make. Administrative costs would likely eat up any increased return from a good investing strategy.

    Argument 2 for private accounts is that the government might default on those bonds. Certainly the Bush deficits increase the chance of default, but should that happen the entire economy would crash anyway.

    There are a bunch of other deform ideas such as increasing the retirement age and changing the indexing of benefits, both of which are simply benefit cuts. Legitimately, if people live longer, they need more retirement money, and something has to be done to take this into account. But that's irrelevant to "it's your money."

  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at January 20, 2005 2:16 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • At the risk of sounding outdated, I reaffirm that an argument for the behavior of a political party or a political body such as congress should never be based on theology or interpretation of holy texts. It isn't that I don't find the passages Dave and Mike have pointed to fascinating; I do, and as to how they should guide our acts as three inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition they are highly relevant. But I fundamentally (har) object to the conflation of that argument with the moral imperatives of a secular or ecumenical office including the President's or that of any member of congress. I'm not being original here, but I abhor the practice of basing political morals on texts and traditions not shared by all Americans. Otherwise what was the point of the constitution? At that time nearly all Americans were Christians, but Americans still saw fit to spell out common precepts and to accept them as theirs to love, hate, honor and change. Unless one of us believes that, say, Hindus, don't vote, then even framing the argument in the context of the Torah is just a capitulation to the religious right. It is their goal to move religiosity (and not too many flavors of it) to the center of politics and every time we answer that challenge with religious theory instead of facts and law, then we have implicitly adopted their plan. Even on a blog I think that is incredibly important. That was why I originally objected to Mike's proposal to post a biblical argument against privatzing social security. By the way I have no idea why he brought up his abandoned plans for the rabbinacy, I sure didn't. I thought that it was pretty hot when he wanted to be a Rabbi.

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at January 20, 2005 3:10 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Well, my post was motivated by two factors. 1)Mike's engagement with the Old Testament, which I did not want to leave without some interaction. 2)As you said yourself, chicks dig the Torah. Perhaps this caused some confusion about my intentions or feelings on these issues.

    I think there are several distinctions at work in this general debate. First, whether morality (secular or otherwise) should be considered by the Modern State? Second, if it is supposed to consider morality, how does it derive its moral notions. Third, how much of a role religion can play in this process of derivation.

    I think a State should consider morality in making its decisions. Secondly, I believe this morality should be derived from the shared values of its citizenship. Thirdly, I believe religion has no role in the formal process of law making and policy setting, but does have a role in translation, motivation, and politics.

    So while Congress should not say, "Social Security should exist because of the Torah," it may say "Social Security should exist because we as Americans have a moral imperative to take care of the elderly and the vulnerable." For Joe Lieberman, that may translate as one thing. For Ted Kennedy another.

    However, with the current make up of our country, this translation element cannot be ignored in practical matters. Their our various constiuencies that react to particular language. I think it is important to use that language to engage those people. Consider what it has done in the past....

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at January 20, 2005 3:16 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Just as an addition to my last post...when I mentioned Liebermen and Kennedy, I just meant two different moral traditions. My intention was to mention more. So the moral imperative that I was talking about was NOT exclusively religious. Rather, it could be translated into Marx, Ghandi, Secular Humanism, or Kant. I only wanted to point out the role of Religion in articulating moral imperatives and there strength in grounding them. Other world views do this too and should.

  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at January 20, 2005 8:23 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I agree wholeheartedly that religion informs the morality behind political issues and that that is neither good nor bad but simply inherent to a religious person's conscience. And the distinction you (Dave) make between formal lawmaking and motivation is apt. I concede that the two are separable.

    My objection to the set of ideologies that I am lumping together simplistically as religious conservatism is not that it justifies its political positions with religious dogma but that extends that to an imperative to the rest of us. My faith in pluralism is stronger than my faith in any one of the religions that contribute to my moral character and I feel the need to be vigilant against adopting the same normative theology of our imagined opponents.

    Mike's post was titled "What we're up Against," and argued that the Torah teaches us to provide for the poor. What bothered me about that and about your first comment is the implication that religious conservatives don't believe in providing for the poor. I'm sure you'd agree that's absurd. It came off to me as an exercise in proving that our political antagonists are hypocrites rather than an opening a dialogue. Part of this is also coming from larger issues than just the post and my own defensiveness about my murky religious identity.

    I guess I went too far in my earlier comment. What I would like to say is that the overlap of religious morality and political morality has to be compartmentalized more neatly than I felt it has been on this blog posting. Demonstrating how the Torah passage in question relates to the privatization of social security sits fine with me because it assumes a common value of compassion and responsibility. I'm fine with saying "We, your political opponents, coming from different cultures traditions from yours, feel that your tradition is reconciled to our political position thus, therefore please join us."

    I believe in moral imperatives, but I don't believe they can be determined by other people or other groups. When we impose our interpretation of any text on our opponents, as I felt you and Mike were attempting to do, then there's not enough difference, for my conscience, between us and "what we're up against."

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