Category Archives: things which are terrifying


I don’t know how you come down on the incarceration question… whether it’s for rehabilitation or revenge…. But I was beginning to think revenge is the only argument makes any sense.

— H.I. McDonough, Raising Arizona

When Elana and I were courting — when we still thought having a baby was a long way off — we had a lot of discussions about raising kids. These discussions were sometimes very abstract, and sometimes they involved very aspirational notions, such as, “Wouldn’t it be nice to raise our kids on a farm?” (We do not own a farm.)

Elana was not just fantasizing, however, when she said she would never spank her kids. She was very serious on this point. “I’m not telling other people what to do, but no child of mine will ever be spanked.”

I was more on the fence. On the one hand, I had been spanked, quite a bit. I was spanked on the behind with open hands and flyswatters and once, when I was an amazingly mouthy pre-teen, my dad even smacked me across the face. I don’t believe corporal punishment did harm, in and of itself, to my relationship with my parents or to my self-esteem or my ability not to murder people. Lots of my friends were spanked, and none of us has grown up to so much as get in bar fights, let alone become violent criminals.

It was just part of the culture of parenting in Georgia in the 1970s, and we all generally looked back on our spanking episodes with amusement. The angry parent brandishing flyswatter or belt or kitchen spoon seemed to us, in nostalgic hindsight, a little cartoonish — inexplicably but hilariously violent, to be avoided if possible, but not abusive.

On the other hand, I couldn’t think of a single time corporal punishment had changed my behavior for the better. On the contrary, during a ten-year epic battle with both parents and teachers over whether I would do homework and participate in class, the desire to avoid spanking never encouraged me to do my homework or become a better student, in part because blowing off homework felt good now, while a spanking might or might not feel bad later.

This is not to say spanking had no effect: I did still want to avoid the spanking, if possible, and so I became a rather inveterate liar. I don’t know if I was a good liar — you’d have to ask my parents about that — but I lied prolifically, because, after all, the only real proof my parents had of my misdeeds came at report card time. (This was back when teachers and parents weren’t in such constant contact.) This was my childhood logic: lie all quarter long, sleep in class, accumulate months of homework-free days, and then deal with the spankings at the end of the term. It was a horrible, guilty, harried existence… but I did get out of a lot of math homework.

I know a lot of people claim that spanking did them no end of good. The story usually goes something like this: “When I got out of line, my dad would wallop me good. He did it to teach me a lesson, because he loved me. And I learned to be a good person and work hard and respect my elders because of it.” Now, I don’t deny any part of that except the “because of it.” I’m sure your dad loved you and wanted to teach you how to be a moral and responsible person, and I’m sure that you did, in fact, learn to be a good person from this dynamic with your dad. I’m just not sure the spanking magically transmitted the morality into your bloodstream via your asscheeks.

My guess is that the fact that your dad was attentive to your moral progress and strove to correct you when you were wrong was the determining factor, not the spanking itself. The spanking was a kind of placebo ritual, which your dad, following generations of good dads before him, performed for your benefit, carefully explaining its purpose. He could have performed other rituals, of course — he could have told you to say ten Our Fathers, for example, in order to cleanse your sin away and discipline your soul. But spanking is a good ritual for kids because it’s physical and easily understood, and because kids would like to believe that the memory of the pain will remind them not to transgress again in the future.

This turns out not to be true, of course, because children have notoriously poor impulse control even when they’re under threat. But the child wants it to be true, and the dad believes it, and so they perform the ritual together. The child is reassured that his father cares about his behavior, and he strives to be worthy of his dad’s approval. That, I suspect, is why spanking “works,” to the degree that it does, sometimes, for some people.

But if the child doesn’t care? If he would like your approval but not as much as he’d like to skip homework/tease his sister/paint the dog blue? Or worse yet, if he sees the thing you’re asking him to do as having no value, as an arbitrary demand on your part? Well, then you’re nowhere, I think.

Science bears me out, by the way, on corporal punishment encouraging kids to lie, and lie big. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in their eyebrow-raising book on scientific studies of parenting, Nurtureshock, write about Victoria Talwar, a child psychologist who studies lying. (The relevant chapter can be found here; scroll down past the text of the NPR story to find it.) Talwar does variations on an experiment in which children are given an opportunity to illicitly peek at the answer during a guessing game. Her interest is not just in which kids peek, but which kids lie about having done so.

Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age — learning to get caught less often.

Talwar did a version of the peeking game in western Africa, with children who attend a traditional colonial school. In this school, Talwar described, “The teachers would slap the children’s heads, hit them with switches, pinch them, for anything — forgetting a pencil, getting homework wrong. Sometimes, a good child would be made to enforce the bad kid.” While the North American kids usually peek within five seconds, “Children in this school took longer to peek — 35 seconds, even 58 seconds. But just as many peeked. Then they lied and continued to lie. They go for broke because of the severe consequences of getting caught.”

Even three-year-olds pretended they didn’t know what the toy was, though they’d just peeked. They understood that naming the toy was to drop a clue, and the temptation of being right didn’t outweigh the risk of being caught. They were able to completely control their verbal leakage — an ability that still eluded six-year-old [American children].

In other words, corporal punishment, which is painful, gives a child a strong incentive not to get caught, and the more intense the punishment, the higher the stakes and the greater the lie. (In my own experience, I found this to be true even when the crime in question was lying itself.)

So I’ve seen little evidence that spanking curbs bad behavior (except inasmuch as it’s perceived as a sign of love and attention), and I’m pretty sure it gives kids a good, concrete reason to lie.

But for myself — I won’t presume to speak for other parents — there’s a more powerful reason not to hit my kids. I think it makes me a worse person.

In 1996, right after I graduated from college, I spent a few months in Florida watching my sister’s kids while she finished her degree and studied for the MCAT. As an uncle and the only adult looking after three children under 6, I was granted guest spanking rights. And occasionally… I exercised them. Here are my observations:

  • I spanked when I was pissed off. It was not that I spanked as part of a coldly rational system of discipline; I spanked when the kids were out of control and I wanted to re-assert my authority.
  • Once I had opened the spanking can, I found that I went to it sooner and sooner.
  • This, of course, meant that the kids got inured to it. Having been spanked, they knew it was unpleasant… but also that they could endure it. I would have had to hit them MUCH harder to get their attention — to the point of bruising, probably, which I think we can all agree crosses some kind of line.
  • Spanking and yelling didn’t end misbehavior, but their mom’s attention and affection at the end of the day generally did.

Corporal punishment felt, to me, like bullying. And it was very attractive for precisely that reason — because bullying annoying people is very satisfying. But it didn’t feel like a good way to get respect from the kids; in general, the spanking came about because I had already lost their respect and obedience.

Which leads me to my final thought on corporal punishment: it doesn’t teach either the parent or the child anything about how to live in the world. At no other time in life — in no other relationship — is a beating an acceptable way to solve a problem.

If you work in an office, you can’t turn your subordinate over your knee. If your friend takes up smoking, you can’t smack his hand with a ruler. I’ve seen many, many parents and other caretakers take a child by the arm and say, “You wait ’till we get home. You’re gonna get an ass-whupping!” But what would you think of a man who said that to his wife?

I was on the subway once and the woman across from me smacked her tiny son repeatedly for crying. I didn’t do anything about it, because in our society there’s a sacred line drawn around parenting decisions. I felt I lacked moral authority, and that if I tried to stop her other people in the car might turn against me and defend her.

But consider the case of Rep. Bob Etheridge, who slapped around two college students who tried to ambush-interview him:

Commentators from the left (Glenn Greenwald) and the right (Michelle Malkin’s guest blogger) have noted that Etheridge is clearly guilty of assault here.

But what if the cameraman, or the young man he dragged around by the arm, had been his 7-year-old son? Why should we consider it assault when a grown man hits another grown man but good discipline when a grown man hits a defenseless small child? It doesn’t matter that the child “deserves” it or “might learn from it.” Lots of people deserve an ass-whupping; that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Or as Chris Rock once put it: “You know what they say: ‘There’s no reason to ever hit a woman.’ Shit. There’s a reason to hit everybody — just don’t do it. There’s a reason to kick an old man down a flight of stairs — just don’t do it.”

To hit my son, I think, would be to allow myself a particularly satisfying way of ending an argument — one that I’m not allowed in any other sphere of life — for no better reason than that I’m bigger and the law permits it. I think that kind of indulgence softens your character and leads to moral weakness, as surely as sugary drinks soften your teeth and lead to cavities. It makes you a person less able to deal with the real world, and it teaches your kid that you are periodically a failure of an authority figure whose only recourse is to violence.

That’s not the relationship I want to have with my son. When he looks back on our life together, I know he’ll see a huge number of failings, places where I could have done better. But I hope he won’t see me as an ineffectual buffoon who felt he had to use force to get someone a sixth his size to stop throwing french fries in the McDonald’s.


if you’re not experimenting on your child, you’re doing something wrong

So I haven’t written anything in a couple of weeks, and I had some exciting ideas worked up about food and also war crimes, but I’m putting those on hold in favor of science.

Our son has a fair number of toys at this point. A number of generous people have contributed new and old playthings for his amusement. Many are met with indifference; a few, like the grabby-ball with the rattle trapped inside and the wand-rattle with the spinning mirror, are favorites. But almost all of them are made of plastic, and being the sort of people who worry at night about pthalates and BPA and the Chinese plot to bring down America by making us a nation of hermaprhodites, we thought it would be nice if he had some wooden toys. So we headed on down to the local IKEA, because obviously nothing in IKEA is made in China, and we bought our son this baby gym:

Brightly colored! Dangly things!

(We also got him a sheepskin to lie on, because apparently he doesn’t enjoy lying on the industrial carpet in our hotel room that much. Go figure. Also because a sheepskin basically triples your baby’s powers of cuteness.)

So we got home and put him on his back on the sheepskin (which he loved right away) and assembled the gym and put it over him… and we saw something we’d never seen before. He whipped his arms out to the side as though he was falling; he seemed unable to focus his eyes. Then he started waving his arms, grabbing the wooden feet of the gym as if to steady himself, and began to cry in fear. It wasn’t the sharp cry of pain or the annoyed complaining of being hungry or tired. Instead there was a long, steady ramp-up that led to full-throated screaming.

We took him out of the gym.

Now lots of times kids don’t like stuff. That’s fine. But we are nerds, and also we had just spent TWENTY-FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS on that gym. So we were determined to get to the bottom of the problem.

Here is a diagram from overhead of how we had set the gym up originally:

As you can see, the gym is perpendicular to the baby.

We tried taking the toys off the gym and dangling them over him one by one:

Don't laugh at my drawings! I was working with a touchpad.

That went well, so we strung the toys on a tape measure over him. This also did not freak him out. So it didn’t seem to be the toys dangling overhead.

We tried repositioning the gym in various ways. First we rotated it 90 degrees, so it was parallel with his midline:

This could also be a picture of a construction accident.

He was fine with that — slightly nervous at the re-appearance of the gym, but not panicky.

Elana lay down on her back and put the gym over her face. “The underside is very dark compared to the ceiling overhead,” she noted. “Maybe he’s having a depth perception problem?”

We put the gym over him again and watched him carefully. Now starting to become familiar with it, he didn’t freak out right away, but reached out for the toys. But he reached past them, or off to the side, as though he could see them but couldn’t work out quite where they were. And his eyes got that unfocused look again. Then he panicked and started to cry.

Normal parents, at this point, would probably conclude that that was enough for one day.

We did not do that.

We put the gym over him with a cloth spread out just above it so he couldn’t see the ceiling. He didn’t love it, but he didn’t strenuously object this time.

We tried turning it upside-down and holding it by its feet, so that the bar was above his face but the legs weren’t in his peripheral vision. Fine. We held a folded-up towel over him at the height of the gym. Also fine.

Hmmm. Mysterious.

Eventually we gave the experimenting a rest and let him use the gym for something else — standing practice. (Also biting practice.)

The best theory we had was that perhaps something about the contrast between the dark underside of the gym and the bright white ceiling was producing an optical illusion that interfered with his vision. The following morning, Elana put him down with the gym next to the window, where the brilliant early light lit up gym, baby, sheepskin and room in a very even and pleasing way. And hey, presto! he suddenly liked his gym. He played with it for quite a while.

So that seemed like a validation of our theory. But I think maybe there’s a more interesting facet to this, because now he’ll play with his gym at any time, under any lighting conditions. Here is a video taken at night, to prove it:

So here is what I think. I think the gym gave him a new vision problem that he hadn’t faced before — it presented objects in multiple planes of depth in his field of vision; the nearest objects were also swinging in unpredictable patterns. I think he literally could not focus the first few times he lay under it, and it may even have made him feel like he was falling.

But as we experimented with different positions and put the gym over him again and again in different ways, I think perhaps his brain began to figure out how to process that information. And then in the morning, when he was fully rested and all the planes in his field of vision were equally well-lit, something in his visual cortex went CLICK!, and it was fine and he had mastered the problem. Simply by repeating the experience for him over and over with slight modifications, I think, we may have helped him work out how to understand it.

Anyway, that’s my theory, but if you have another 5-month-old that I can repeat this experiment on, please contact me.

I’ve just got to get these last few ibexes in….

Today I was channel-surfing in order to find something suitable for Henry to watch, and I saw something on the “American Life Network” called Ancient Secrets of the Bible: Noah’s Ark — Fact or Fable?. It was being billed as a documentary, so I sort of assumed it would come down on the side of “fable,” but that’s because I still tend to think of documentaries as stodgy, fact-laden things. Whereas even full-fledged evangelicals reviewing Ancient Secrets of the Bible on Amazon warn that

[I]f one is looking for unbiased viewpoints and for an actual academic bible study, the series title is very misleading…. Even my friends who are ministers saw the series more as entertaining propaganda than revealing any actual historical or scientific secrets….

Anyway, this one was about the story of the Great Flood, and it had a number of, erm, scientists talking at length about how the Ark would have been super seaworthy, and how you wouldn’t really have needed every animal on earth to fit in the Ark — whales, for example, could just have kept swimming!

I find stuff like this irritating, because it seems to me that people spend HUGE amounts of time trying to prove that a book like Genesis is some sort of true and factual history of the Earth — which efforts are, of course, really aimed at proving that Genesis is the literal word of God, even though the Bible itself makes no such claim.

And so, in a quest to prove that the Bible is exactly the sort of document that it isn’t, the video parades by a series of people in coats, some of them claiming to be scientists, to testify to the seaworthiness of the Ark, or to explain that “two of every living thing” doesn’t mean as many as it sounds like, because, for example, all breeds of dog have a common ancestor.

These arguments always tend to be specious or irrelevant, though this guy, for example, goes to pretty extraordinary lengths to ignore the text in order to make the text sensible. Claiming that by “clean animals” God only means the ten kosher mammals mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:4-5 is reasonable, but to then claim that by “every unclean animal” God is referring specifically and only to the unclean animals mentioned here and here — to include rabbits, rock hydraxes, and pigs, but not hippos or kangaroos — takes a certain amount of narrow legalism, and it certainly flies in the face of the obvious meaning of Genesis 7:17-21:

I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it…. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.

I have highlighted the Lord’s multiple uses of “every” and “all” because I’m an asshole and I’m making a point in a snarky way. But, seriously, here is that guy’s argument:

The broad words of Genesis 6:19: “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark” and a similar phrase in Genesis 7:15 are clearly inconsistent with the sacrifices of Genesis 8:20 and the seven pairs mentioned in Genesis 7:2-3. Since the phrase “two of every kind” is an overgeneralization, the preceding phrase “every living thing” can also be treated as an overgeneralization and be interpreted narrowly to mean every living thing of importance that Noah owned or had custody of. If Noah was asked years later how many animals he took on the barge, Noah may have replied, “Every one; I took them all.” In such a remark, the words “every” and “all” would mean only that he did not leave any of his animals behind, not that he took every species on the planet….

Noah’s clean animals included cattle, sheep and goats. His unclean animals included raven, swine and eagles. They were his inventory, his stock in trade. But most of the world’s animals were not included. Exotic zoo animals such as elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, apes and kangaroos are not mentioned in Genesis or Deuteronomy and were not included in Noah’s inventory. Since it would be impossible for Noah to attract millions of animals from all over the planet, he did not do so. The animals came to the ark because local herdsmen brought them to the ark.

This argument is nonsense from the get-go. Noah kept eagles as part of his stock-in-trade? Well, that explains why he needed the rock hydraxes, I guess: eagle food. And the last line flatly contradicts the Lord’s assertion that every kind of animal “will come to you to be kept alive,” as well as providing some tragicomic scenes just before the flood:

HERDSMAN: Hey Noah, that’s one big boat.

NOAH: Yup. The Lord God’s gonna destroy the world by unleashing the floodwaters.

HERDSMAN: You don’t say. And you’re gonna float it out in that thing?

NOAH: Yes, that’s right.

HERDSMAN: Oh. Can I come?

NOAH: ‘Fraid not. You’re sinful and God is grieved that he made you.

HERDSMAN: Oh. Well, would you take my camels with you? They’re good animals, and I’d hate to see anything happen to them.

NOAH: No — I’ve already got two camels. Do you have any hoopoes? God seems to think they’ll come in handy.

These people seem, at first glance, to have a more scientific approach — at any rate, they have a lot more numbers on their website. Also, they take the novel, if completely unwarranted, approach of claiming that “kind” doesn’t mean species — it means genus or even family:

The word species and the biblical word “kind” are often used interchangeably. This is incorrect since they are not synonymous. The biblical word “kind” denotes an organism that reproduces others like itself…. The word kind is probably closer to the modern taxonomic unit of genus, and in some cases the larger taxonomic unit, family.

The Canidae (canine) family includes about 14 genera of dog like animals. These include the coyote, dog, wolf, jackal, etc. The ark did not have to contain the hundreds of species of canines that make up this group. In reality, these were all represented by a few “kind.” These “kind” would then produce all the animals that make up the Canidae family.

Gosh. I thought evolution took too long as it was. Who knew it was actually so speedy?

Anyway, after excluding fish — because, you know, fish live in water, don’t they? — these folks also decide to leave plenty of other animals off the Ark, too:

Noah would not have to be concerned with the aquatic mammals such as the dolphins, whales, porpoises, sea lions, and walrus. There are also many aquatic reptiles that could survive outside of the ark. These would include many types of snakes, alligators, crocodiles, and sea turtles. There are almost a million species of arthropods that would survive the flood. Animals such as the following: shrimps, crabs, lobsters, and many other crustaceans. All of the insects could survive outside the ark. Mote than 35,000 species of worms and nematodes would also survive the flood.

All right, first of all — insects drown. There’s actually a mosquito trap that depends on it.

Second of all, these guys are still failing to account for the Lord’s emphatic instruction to take two of “every kind of creature that moves along the ground.” (Emphasis mine, not the Lord’s.) That means, I’m sorry, every snake, lizard, beetle, ant, scorpion, hedgehog, and so on.

But let’s assume for a second that they find a way to wriggle out of those problems. There’s still the basic fact that their idea of how things “survive” is that of A CHILD. Noah stays on the Ark for a year, and the waters cover the Earth completely for at least 150 days. No land creature on earth can hold its breath for that long, but even if it could, let’s say, float, how could it live for five months to a year when its entire ecosystem has been destroyed? What would it have eaten? How would it have plausibly reproduced? The life cycle of the painted lady butterfly is 21 days, and during that time it relies intensively on specific types of plants as part of the process.

Oh, dear — plants. Why did God forget about the plants? 150 days of complete immersion in water would be enough to turn the earth’s surface into a complete desert. And although I’m sure someone will argue that Noah could have brought enough seeds to repopulate the earth with plants (even though, you know, he had no access to several of the continents, and even though this is supposed to have have happened just a few thousand years ago), this again shows an extremely childish understanding of how individual organisms relate to their ecosystem. A plant does not exist in isolation, nor can you just stick it in some dirt and hope for the best. Destroy the environment completely, and you destroy the ability of each individual creature to feed itself, reproduce, and go through its life cycle.

Then there are the fishes, whales, and other waterbound creatures that the authors of Genesis, and our ersatz scholars, don’t even bother with. Genesis tells us that the mountaintops were covered (7:20) to a depth of 20 feet, which means that the waters must have covered Everest. Assuming that the seas prior to the flood were at about the same height they are today, this means that there must have been enough water to cover the surface of the earth (510.07200 million km2) to roughly the height of Everest (over 8km), or about 4,513,117,056 km3. That’s about 3 times the volume of the earth’s oceans now. So suddenly all the earth’s water creatures are living in a space 4 times the size of the space they were living in previously — meaning predators and prey, herbivores and their food, are now much farther apart. The ocean, formerly teeming with life, is now fairly empty, and many if not most creatures would starve.

Coastal water ecosystems, meanwhile, which rely extensively on photosynthesizing and photosensitive organisms, would of course be obliterated. And while we’re pondering this — does it rain salt water or fresh? If it rains fresh water, most of the sea creatures would die, but if it rains salt water, most of the freshwater fish are goners.

In the end, I prefer the first guy’s theory, in which God is more interested in saving Noah’s property than in preserving genetic diversity. It contradicts the text, but it doesn’t contradict basic biology. Of course, there’s a simple solution to all of these logistical issues with the flood story — God just uses magic to recreate life anew at the other end. That almost has to be the solution, because there’s an olive tree growing somewhere even before Noah gets out of the Ark.

But as soon as God starts using magic powers, we’re immediately struck by the ridiculousness of the whole story. If God regretted how men turned out (somewhat undermining any claims to omniscience or wisdom), why didn’t He just wink all the evil men out of existence? Why does He go out of His way to “destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it”? On the other hand, if the entire creation is unsatisfactory, why bother repopulating it with “two of every creature”?

And finally, and most damningly, why is God unaware that His plan isn’t going to work?? God makes a covenant with Noah, supposedly the most righteous of men — and then not four verses later sin returns to the world in a particularly embarrassing and squalid fashion: Noah gets passing-out drunk, Ham checks out his father’s “nakedness,” and when Noah wakes up he petulantly curses Ham’s lineage. These are the people You chose to save? Why not just start over entirely?

None of it makes sense if the God of Genesis is the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise, and yet completely benevolent God we like to think of today. On the other hand, the story of the flood makes some sense if the God of at least that particular story is an older, more mythological god, a god who makes mistakes, who can’t see or even imagine the future, who is carried away by human passions like grief, regret, and anger. And the aftermath makes sense, too, as a crude and obvious Just-So Story cooked up to make it okay to enslave Canaanites. In other words, this story makes perfect sense as an ancient myth welded with some clumsy tribal propaganda. It makes not a lick of sense as a story about any sort of loving, or even moderately humane, uber-Deity.

All of which is only by way of saying that I hope my son doesn’t waste his life trying to defend a collection of obviously man-made myths as the literal transcription of the words of an anthropomorphic (and apparently very confused) God. So we’re not going to watch Ancient Secrets of the Bible in our house. I know how impressionable young people can be — I was terrorized out of my gourd by Orson Welles in The Man Who Saw Tomorow when I was about ten. Welles, hosting a supposedly nonfiction investigation into the predictions of Nostradamus, made what sounded to me like very convincing arguments that the French astrologer had predicted just about everything in history, and that his latter predictions strongly suggested a coming apocalypse precipitated by a Middle Eastern madman. My mom and my sister laughed it off when I came upstairs, white as a sheet, convinced we were all going to die in the very near future. But I kept it in the back of my mind for years, waiting for the inevitable, and even today it’s hard for me to be sure that this guy isn’t going to destroy us all:

(That is Ahmedinejad, isn’t it?)

Anyway, I’ve been trying to figure out what I might tell my son about God, or, in keeping with the context of this post, what I might let him watch on TV to form an accurate opinion of how the world works and what kind of being or force might be running it. My own agnosticism and inability to stay firmly within the religion in which I was brought up stems at least in part from the horrific displays of cruelty and suffering you can see in, oh, Disney and the BBC’s earth. Or, as my wife memorably put it, “All this natural magnificence makes me want to die.”

I can accept human suffering within a religious framework. I can accept that as generally moral creatures we’re here to be a balm and a comfort to one another, and without suffering there wouldn’t be much basis for morality or balming or comforting. I get that. But that doesn’t really explain the overwhelming viciousness and selfishness that the entire world both exhibits and suffers from. Most sentient creatures are born to eat or be eaten by other creatures, and not in a nice way, and there’s no getting around that. Everything gets sick, everything suffers, everything dies (and rarely in bed).

Fervent literal-Genesis Christians will tell you it’s because of the Fall without stopping to work out the implications of what they’re saying. God made tiny baby birds to be eaten by snakes and cows to become hosts for insect larvae and great noble-browed bears to lie down and die of starvation and exhaustion in the Arctic circle because some human woman ate some fruit she wasn’t supposed to before she even had the knowledge of the difference between good and evil. I’d rather have an indifferent God than a God who behaves like that.

And I’m not alone. Jesus says, in Luke 11,

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

In other words, we can’t hold God to a lower standard than we hold ourselves. If we, who are evil, wouldn’t think of condemning thousands or millions of men and other creatures to die for the act of a single person, how can we believe in a God who would do the same? Or, to approach another theological briar patch the same way, if we sinners, who are low, angry, and vengeful, wouldn’t punish someone infinitely for a finite lifetime of transgression, how can we believe that the loving and just Creator would do the same?

My wife is not bothered by many of the traditional theological bugaboos. Recognizing the fragmentary, mosaic nature of the Bible, she believes in the good words of Jesus and ignores most of the rest and is a contented Christian. I’m in a somewhat different boat. The Baha’i Writings are harder to take piecemeal (at least, according to Baha’is), and anyway, as I said above, the natural world inclines me to disbelieve in a personal God who manipulates things on a day-to-day basis for anyone’s benefit.

But at the same time, I miss the sense of having a personal, conversational relationship with the universe. And I would feel dreadful and ashamed if I inhibited any budding sense of the divine or the ideal within my children. (Or anybody else, really.)

So. You see. I start out this post smug and playful and end up humbled and serious.

Here is what I say, then, to my son: do the best you can. Put your faith in reason and science and our shared experience and do not seclude yourself in burrows of illogic and bigotry masquerading as faith in something higher, and do the best you can. If there is a God worth meeting, He won’t fault you for it.

developmental milestone #47

Ah, Jesus. It’s happened already. I didn’t want to believe it. I mean, here’s a kid who can’t even reach for things yet, or sit up by himself, or belch without assistance. Here’s a guy who’s still sometimes afraid of his own farts, is what I’m saying.

But he watches TV.

I don’t mean he’s programming the TiVo for Top Gear. But starting about three weeks ago I noticed him staring at the sizzling, flickering rectangle whenever it came into his field of vision. At first I thought he was just noticing it the way he notices any intense light source. But after a few days it became clear that he loved the TV for something more than its brightness. If you turn him away from the TV, he cranes his head around trying to find it again — something he doesn’t do with lamps or windows. And unlike other sources of light, TV actually seems to calm him down when he’s upset.

Sorry, let me just quote that last part again and add some typesetting for emphasis:

[U]nlike other sources of light, TV actually seems to calm him down when he’s upset.

This is freaking me out.

For the record, the AAP recommends, in a short, stern, and citationless statement, that you not let children under 2 watch television. Science Daily gives more details here, noting specifically that the idea of “Baby Einstein”-type videos helping your kid learn seems not to be borne out by science.

Watching TV programmes or DVDs aimed at infants can actually delay language development, according to a number of studies. For example, a 2008 Thai study published in Acta Paediatrica found that if children under 12 months watched TV for more than two hours a day they were six times more likely to have delayed language skills. Another study found that children who watched baby DVDs between seven and 16 months knew fewer words than children who did not.

The problem, researchers point out, is that time in front of the TV oftens substitutes for time spent interacting with parents and siblings. And as anyone who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language knows, four hours of Telemundo is not the same as four hours of active conversation with a native speaker.

On the other hand, as these parents will tell you, sometimes it’s nice to let the little wriggler zone out in a narcotic stupor for a few seconds. Sometimes you don’t want to be somebody’s physical trainer, language coach, and best friend all at once. Sometimes you just want the little pasha to hang out for an hour and not require much of you.

We do not plunk Henry down in front of the TV by himself. Even if we wanted to, he HATES being by himself. But here’s the thing: I like TV. I like it a lot. I like to watch it. It’s bright and colorful and makes pleasing noises. I’m watching it right now. And I have already learned to walk and talk.

I have adopted various placement strategies to keep him from looking at the TV while I watch it, but I can see already that that’s not going to be a long term solution. Man… this is bumming me out. I wonder what it’s like to live without TV.

Mr. Sysco, Ms. Time-Warner, won’t you please have some tea?

Warning: This is pretty far outside the normal purview of this blog, except inasmuch as unfettered corporate power is one of the major reasons our health care system is as broken as it is. If you came for baby news, there’ll be some in the next post, I promise.

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that Congress may not restrict the amount of money that corporations spend on ads advocating for or against a specific electoral candidate. I’ve been struggling with my own feelings about this, because it seems like a complicated issue, and because it seems the ramifications of the decision can’t yet be fully seen.

Not everyone felt they had to think it through. Keith Olbermann felt pretty confident declaring it the worst danger to the republic since Dred Scott:

Then Ezra Klein came on Olbermann’s show and reminded him that corporations could already contribute to ads that say, “Ask Congressman So-and-So why he voted for the puppy-stomping bill.” This decision just allows them to tack “And don’t vote for him!” on the end.

Olbermann has also been going around proclaiming that his show might not be around for much longer, because the corporations will take over the government and quickly eliminate their progressive critics. Which is, I think, an overly simplified understanding of how corporations operate. NBC, GE, and the Sheinhardt Wig Company are making quite a bit of money on Olbermann, and today’s social mandarins are in any event too adept to go in for brute totalitarianism. Corporations are masters of soft power and the use of persuasion, and I don’t see them eliminating the likes of Olbermann, if only because the polarized political debate he helps encourage is a useful distraction, keeping the proles divided into political tribes instead of united to fight for their own best interests.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the usually worthwhile Glenn Greenwald, defending the decision, went embarrassingly negative in the comments section of his own column, calling his readers ignorant for disagreeing with him and accusing Ghost in the Machine‘s Kevin Murphy of working for the MiniTru.

(I always wonder whether Orwell, in the beyond, wishes he had never written Nineteen Eighty-Four, given the way his imagined Oceania has become such a convenient cudgel in high school debates and, apparently, the comments section of Salon magazine.)

So maybe there’s been some craziness on all sides of the debate.

But there’s a serious point lurking in there somewhere: the Court’s decision strengthens a couple of dubious legal concepts: the personhood of corporations, and the equation of money and speech. (The Court also added a third hilariously dubious proposition: “[T]his Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.” But that argument is so laughable on the face of it that it’s almost immoral to dignify it with a rebuttal.)

Is money speech? In one sense, it certainly seems to be. You can’t reach an appreciable audience without spending money. (Even supposedly “free” media like blogs and podcasts tend to be the province of those with the luxury time to spend on them, and those that achieve serious popularity are, in many cases, promoted by the moneyed media.) And while I’d like to believe that Bill Gates isn’t entitled to a million times as much speech as I am, the truth is that he can buy airtime on any network he wants, and I can’t. This is even more true of large corporations, whose stores of wealth dwarf even Mr. Gates’s considerable personal treasury.

In other ways, of course, money is not speech at all, and to confuse the two is dangerous. Money, unlike speech, can be converted into goods and services, which is why I’m allowed to send my Congressman a letter, but not a check, to persuade him to change his vote.

Money also isn’t speech because, well, it doesn’t say anything. When Rush Limbaugh wanted to influence the 2008 Democratic primary, he had to make the case to his listeners that they should vote for Hillary Clinton, a woman many of them despised. He had to in some sense make his mind known and stand behind his thoughts as a representation of his character. Paying the same people to vote for Clinton is, in some circumstances, illegal, and certainly uncool. But more to the point, it doesn’t require any moral or intellectual investment by the person spending it. Unlike speech, money does not require its user to engage the minds of its recipients, to convince them, to form a coalition based on shared ideas and shared values. Speech is protected in the Constitution because well-deployed speech binds us together in a common purpose; it is the glue of a civil society. Whereas money paid for the same purposes may achieve seemingly similar short-term results, but at the cost of leaving us as atomized and habituated to looking out only for our own coarse short-term interests.

So money inhabits a shadowy area — in a geographically vast country, it’s clear that speech that reaches a significant portion of the electorate will have money behind it. Yet money is not itself speech. How, then, to regulate the influence of money on our political process while not treading on speech rights themselves?

Perhaps the way to look at money is as a tool for use in the broadcast of speech. There is nothing in the First Amendment that suggests that Congress can’t regulate the mere means of speech. Indeed, carefully constructed regulation of the mechanisms of speech can make speech clearer and more easily heard, as in the case of the FCC regulating the bandwidth and power of radio signals. A case for limiting campaign contributions could be made on that analogy alone — it seems self-evident that the public has a compelling interest in ensuring that a powerful entity’s speech can’t interfere with or drown out the “signal” of weaker entities.

To be fair, the Court considers this argument and rejects it in Buckley v. Valeo: “[T]he concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.” But what does it mean to “restrict speech”? Here again, Greenwald’s arguments are useful as a starting point:

Anyone who believes that [money isn’t speech] would have to say that there’s no First Amendment problem with any law that restricts the spending of money for political purposes, such as:
“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;” or
“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money advocating Constitutional rights for accused terrorists; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such matters, provided no money is spent”; or
“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money promoting a candidate not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party; all citizens shall still be free to advocate for such candidates, provided no money is spent.”

Clever, but the above examples miss a crucial distinction between a law that is conditioned on the particular opinion expressed (which obviously violates the spirit of the First Amendment) and one that affects all opinions, including those favored by the ruling party, equally. The modest attempts by Congress to equalize the spectrum on which political opinions are broadcast — so to speak — very obviously fall into the latter category.

Moreover, Greenwald’s own position leads to law that, implicitly if not explicitly, says:

“Citizens shall be entitled to exactly as much speech as they have property; the right to effective free political speech shall be conditioned on the ability to pay for it.”

Which can’t be the way we want to interpret the First Amendment, either.

Justice Kennedy’s majority, quoting Buckley, seems not to be fully engaged with the real world on this point:

The First Amendment’s protections do not depend on the speaker’s “financial ability to engage in public discussion.”

And yet, of course, it’s clear that in a world of unregulated spending on electioneering, one’s ability to speak in any meaningful way depends exactly on the speaker’s financial wherewithal.

Finally, the equation of money with speech — which started with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and has been the consistent position of the Court majority right up through Citizens United — leads to some logical problems with the rest of campaign finance law. If I have a right to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections with advertising, why can’t I contribute unlimited amounts to a candidate directly and let her buy advertising with it? Why can’t I spend on that candidate in unlimited ways, especially if I view my campaign contribution as essentially deputizing that candidate to speak for me in the political arena? If my campaign contribution will make Barack Obama or John McCain a more effective spokesman for my point of view, shouldn’t that expenditure also be a form of protected speech? Why allow any limits on campaign finance at all?

Greenwald also argues that the Citizens United decision doesn’t rest on corporate personhood. This is true — at best — only in the most technical and narrow sense. Even Justice Scalia, concurring with the majority, notes that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights (or at any rate, in the first eight amendments) are rights of the individual American citizen:

The dissent says that when the Framers “constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.” That is no doubt true. All the provisions of the Bill of Rights set forth the rights of individual men and women—not, for example, of trees or polar bears. But the individual person’s right to speak includes the right to speak in association with other individual persons. Surely the dissent does not believe that speech by the Republican Party or the Democratic Party can be censored because it is not the speech of “an individual American.” It is the speech of many individual Americans, who have associated in a common cause, giving the leadership of the party the right to speak on their behalf. The association of individuals in a business corporation is no different—or at least it cannot be denied the right to speak on the simplistic ground that it is not “an individual American.”

This is, on its face, the strongest argument that corporations have free speech rights — because they are collections of individuals. But consider — surely not all voluntary associations of individuals can be considered as having political speech rights. The city council is a group of American citizens, yet we would doubtless find it improper for the city council to spend its funds on political ads encouraging people to vote for the incumbents on that same council. Likewise, our all-volunteer Army is an association of individual human beings, but it does not follow from that that the Army may invest its money in ads advocating for a specific foreign policy. (Indeed, Army officers are limited even in their individual speech rights — as they represent the armed wing of their society, they may not criticize or undermine the civilian leadership while speaking in their capacity as a representative of the military. In other words, here is a case where membership in a group limits one’s personal First Amendment rights!)

Leaving aside governmental organizations, consider the case of churches: is there any clearer example of a free association of individual Americans based on a common intellectual framework, usually with the intention of changing the society at large? Yet it is commonly accepted that as a result of being granted special privileges by the government (tax-exempt status), and based on a compelling state interest to avoid the appearance of any establishment of religion, churches are not allowed — at least in theory! — to engage in political advocacy. A church may not spend money on candidate ads and a preacher may not urge his flock to vote for a particular candidate.

(That this restriction is frequently flouted or cunningly circumvented by means of technicalities is no challenge to its constitutionality or appropriateness.)

Corporations are similarly granted special privileges by law — and these privileges arguably make them something greater than simply the sum of their shareholders. Corporations are effectively immortal, something clearly not true of ordinary men. They act as liability shields to their members, which effectively reduces an individual shareholder’s moral and financial stake in the social consequences of the behavior of the corporation. And the construction of our tax code makes it far easier for Exxon Mobil to claim its political-speech expenditures as losses (to offset its tax burden) than it would be for an employee of that same corporation to do so on his 1040.

There’s nothing wrong with these privileges, per se — they are all designed to make business more rewarding and the accumulation of wealth easier. (The immortality of the corporation as an entity, for example, makes it possible for people to invest in long-term, costly business ventures together without worrying that the whole deal will fall apart if a single investor passes away.) But because this artificial legal construct receives special statutory consideration from the government — because it is, in a very literal sense, constituted by the government — it is not unreasonable for the government to set certain conditions on the body as a construct, while leaving untouched, obviously, the rights of the shareholders, officers, and employees as individuals. This is especially the case if the rights granted the corporation cause it to behave in ways fundamentally different from the way that the same group of Americans would act if they were constituted as a non-incorporated group.

The for-profit corporation presents special problems as an association of individuals, because it’s not clear, if a corporation spends money on political advertising, whose political beliefs are being represented. Those of the employees? Probably not. Those of the shareholders? Well, that’s hard to say. The decision to spend money will certainly be made by the company’s officers, who are both legally obligated and personally motivated to maximize profit for the corporation. This means that shareholders who may desire political action that reduces those profits — by, say, increasing corporate tax burden, or imposing more stringent environmental regulations — are disenfranchised from this particular kind of political speech. In short, corporate structure forces corporate officers to act in the best interests of the corporation, even if a majority of shareholders in the corporation were willing to reduce their own profits for the public good.

This in and of itself should point to a disconnect between the obvious First Amendment rights of the individual shareholders and the alleged free speech rights of the corporation as a thing. (Or, despite Greenwald’s objections, as a “legal person.”) It cannot be the case that the corporation’s speech enjoys First Amendment protections because a corporation is an association of actual persons unless its speech fairly represents the views of at least a majority of those persons.

(It must also be noted that although a citizen may freely depart from membership in a political party when its advocacy no longer aligns with his own beliefs, it is rather more difficult for a shareholder or an employee to simply walk away from the for-profit corporation, since his livelihood may depend on it.)

Some models to right this problem have been suggested: NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice proposes requiring shareholder approval for political spending.

Finally, I mentioned before that corporations can write off their election spending as business expenses, while spending by individuals does not enjoy similar tax advantages. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of Citizens United — it appears to actually give corporations a huge tax advantage over individual Americans when it comes to electioneering. A dark horse candidate like Howard Dean or Barack Obama, relying on a grassroots network to gain and sustain campaign momentum, is put at disadvantage, since individuals wishing to spend on ads for such a candidate are not able to put their spending in the “loss” column.

Corporations are also problematic because they do not require U.S. citizenship of their shareholders, officers, or employees. The Court explicitly did not rule on the consitutionality of 2 USC 441e, which prohibits “foreign nationals” from interfering in American elections — the term being defined to include corporations and other associations. But it’s been argued back and forth in the media and the blogosphere whether this includes foreign investors in American corporations, American subsidiaries of foreign companies, and foreign corporations or governments which own stock in American companies through intermediaries. Talking Points Memo covers some of the main concerns here, while Joe Conason here rounds up experts who believe that the ruling definitely allows foreign-owned American companies to spend on electioneering.

Brad Smith of the “Center For Competitive Politics” claims that the problem has been overstated:

[T]he FEC’s regulations [11 CFR 110.20(i)] provide that:

A foreign national shall not direct, dictate, control, or directly or indirectly participate in the decision making process of any person, such as a corporation, labor organization, political committee, or poltiical organization with regard to such person’s Federal or non-Federal election-related activities, such as decisions concerning the making of contributions, donations, expenditures, or disbursements in connection with elections for any Federal, State, or local office or decisions concerning the administration of a political committee.

That is an extremely broad prohibition on any involvement in decisions on political activity. 

So what is left? Well, conceivably a group of foreigners could form a U.S. corporation, then hire some permanent legal resident aliens (“green card” holders) to make decisions about spending its money….

If this were really a worry, it could be addressed legislatively simply by broadening the definition of foreign national to include corporations with majority foreign ownership.

There are several problems with this sunny gloss on the issue. First, it’s not clear that corporations with “majority foreign ownership” are the only ones in which undue influence can be exerted. Imagine a corporation whose stock is purchased by three major investors — two domestic, one foreign, none owning a controlling interest. Any two can form a coalition, however, and create a controlling number of votes. Can it really be argued that the foreign investor would not have a dramatic influence over the governance of that corporation, even though he didn’t control a “majority” of the stock? In this case, we might well hope for the board of directors that ignores its shareholders’ wishes, but that’s hardly a guarantee.

Second, to exclude foreign-owned corporations presents its own problems — chief among them that it switches the problem of limited speech based on corporate identity for one of limited speech based on foreign citizenship. But this is arguably even more unfair, and certainly susceptible to constitutional challenge. Now you would have American corporations, with American employees, whose fortunes may rise or fall based on the electioneering of other corporations, yet which have no opportunity to speak for themselves. It can hardly be the case that we want to put some American corporations at a competitive disadvantage based on the identity of their owners. (Or, indeed, their officers — the above FEC regulation is vague enough to make it questionable whether, for example, an American-owned American corporation with a foreign national for a CEO, CFO, or other influential officer could legitimately engage in election spending.)

Third, there is, of course, the practical problem of determining who owns what, and where loyalties lie, given that corporations can own other corporations. For example, we can easily imagine a U.S. corporation, Corporation A, which is owned by Corporation B, whose owners are foreign but which has been incorporated in the United States. Is the owner of Corporation A a “U.S. person” (Corporation B), or a “foreign national” (the investors)? Add a few levels to this scheme — move ownership in and out of the country, hide it in the Cayman Islands, use proxies — and as a matter of enforcement it becomes far more difficult to determine who is exerting control over a given company.

That FEC regulation, which sounds very broad and inclusive, is on closer reading simply vague. What does it mean to “direct, dictate, control, or directly or indirectly participate in the decision making process”? Can we simply exclude “majority foreign ownership,” as Mr. Smith claims? It seems unlikely that that will close the hole, because even if the statute is made perfectly clear, the nature of corporate ownership doesn’t allow for practical identification of who is allowed to spend money to influence American elections and who is not. Corporations are not citizens; they do not carry passports; and tracking influence through a chain of corporate ownership (to say nothing of the composition of the board, which poses its own problems) is a significant impediment for legal enforcers and a practical impossibility for the average citizen who may wish to know what foreign power is sponsoring a given advertisement.

These problems were not created by Citizens United, of course — corporations had a limited ability to spend on electioneering prior to this. But Citizens United raises the stakes and — at least potentially — makes it more attractive for foreigners to use a variety of identity shields to control American corporations for the purpose of pouring money into our electoral communications.

Some have argued that banning foreign influence may itself be unconstitutional. Justice Stevens, as usual, is on point here:

“The notion that Congress might lack the authority to distinguish foreigners from citizens in the regulation of electioneering would certainly have surprised the Framers, whose ‘obsession with foreign influence derived from a fear that foreign powers and individuals had no basic investment in the well-being of the country.’”

So these are the arguments against the majority’s ruling in Citizens United. They are many and compelling. And yet… intuitively, the Court’s decision doesn’t feel wrong, given the facts of the case.

Citizens United, a politically conservative non-profit, made a video called Hillary: The Movie. It was an unabashedly partisan attack on Hillary Clinton, who you may remember was running for president at the time. Citizens United wanted to run ads for the movie, which it would show on pay-per-view channel DirecTV. In January 2008, the U.S. District Court in Washington ruled that they could not run ads for the, uh, film, because doing so would constitute “electioneering communication.”

Despite my personal distaste for Citizens United and its views, I think none of us want to live in a world where a document expressing political opinion is not available to those who wish to purchase it. Buying a movie on pay-per-view is essentially the same act, after all, as purchasing a book at Borders, and it can’t be the case that, say, ads for Sarah Palin’s memoir count as electoral or candidate ads, even if they occur around the election.

Or, a closer analogy: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 played on pay-per-view on 1 November 2004, and Moore himself expressed hope that the film would influence the 2004 presidential election. One cannot imagine a constitutional challenge to the advertising of that pay-per-view broadcast, so what makes Hillary: The Movie any different? The fact that it was produced by a corporation? So what? Moore certainly spent corporate money to make his film.

Trying to determine where personal expression stops and corporate expression begins is a bit of a fool’s errand. An exemption for “media corporations,” the traditional solution, is at best a fig leaf, since not only are media corporations frequently owned by other, larger corporations, but nearly every large corporation today produces some sort of independent content, much of which can’t be neatly classified as advertising.

Perhaps those of us concerned about corporate overreaching ought to accept that campaign finance reform is not the field in which we’re likely to win major victories. Instead, perhaps we ought to rethink the corporation itself — its structure, its legal loyalties, its moral obligations.

The modern corporation, as Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Balakan demonstrate quite convincingly here, is not a natural, unchangeable phenomenon. It was created through a series of quite deliberate legislative and court decisions for the public good. The corporation should be considered a machine for making money, whose legal structure requires it to place profit over all other concerns. But if we created a machine to make money, there is no reason we can’t tinker with that machine to make it behave differently — particularly if its own shareholders choose to put other values first. The Brennan Center’s suggestions, which I linked to above, are a good first step. But there’s no reason we can’t expand on that idea and rethink the ground rules for capitalism from the ground up, so that phrases like “corporate money” and “corporate influence” cease to ring so ominously in our ears and corporate management can be tempered with morality and social responsibility.

why I am not a Republican

Hey, look — I’m basically a pretty conservative guy. I don’t like terrorists. I do like shooting guns, when I get the opportunity, and I would like to see a balanced budget and I basically want to be left alone and to leave others alone. Also, thinking about gay sex makes me sort of uncomfortable.

So when you factor in my maleness and my whiteness and my general level of economic frustration, I ought to be pretty much square in the middle of the Republican demographic. I ought to be, at the very least, a kind of sensible P.J. O’Rourke/David Brooks/George Will-style Republican. And yet somehow everything about the post-Gingrich Republican Party strikes me as ridiculous, clownish, disastrously unproductive, and harmful to our country.

Our two electoral parties don’t nearly do justice to the breadth and subtlety of political thought in our country, but they do offer, roughly, two competing stories about the world. In one story, life is a zero-sum game in which paying taxes merely impoverishes you without giving you anything in return, those who fail in the Holy Practice of Business should be punished by “the market,” and any form of collective action inevitably leads to collectivism. In the universe of this story, each of us must spend his every waking moment vigilant — vigilant! — against creeping socialism, terrorists, Mexicans and gay sex. But mostly creeping socialism.

This is where the rubber hits the road, because it’s the creeping socialism argument that screws everybody equally. When we remain Eternally Vigilant against socialism, we declare that we must all hang separately lest we all hang together; that only the cowardly and the weak would act other than in their own self-interest and only the depraved and the avaricious would countenance any modest sacrifice for the public good; that a sliver of safety for all must come at the cost of Forsteresque privation for one; that any admission of the role of chance and misfortune in human affairs necessarily degrades the roles of morality and individual effort; and that all suffering comes on two accounts — the providential hand of God, and the foolish attempts of government to thwart that hand.

In short, Republican ideology appeals to the part of us that is risk-averse. It appeals to the part of us that is small and afraid and wants to hoard everything and most of all wants to feel that there is some measure of control in the world. Republican conservatism offers a fiction that if you do the right things and don’t take chances and keep your head down, you will prosper. The corollary of that proposition, of course, is that in the natural order of things, you’re only poor, sick, or miserable because you deserve to be.

I think that’s why conservatism is often wrapped up in sexual anxiety — sex has the power to make us feel ashamed and uncertain and is that peculiar field in which we’re unusually subject to post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: I had gay sex, so my mom died. And so whenever Americans forget to be afraid of economic failure, conservative rally-horns shrill about lesbian marriage and wanton abortion-seekers, because if you’re subject to shame in one arena you get used to being shamed out of better things in all arenas.

Now, the other story, the one told by Democrats, is far from perfect, and the tellers themselves are by and large useless. (Was there ever a more whey-faced, weak-kneed, wooden, uninspiring cartel to hold power in a great empire? Scott Brown is only the latest in a series of Republican mental vacancies to win on personality and the ability to say something, anything, in a simple sentence.) But the basic story is just this: life is unpredictable, so let’s look out for each other.

That’s it. That’s the whole difference, basically. Republican conservatives want to mitigate risk by circling the wagons and holding onto everything they’ve got for dear life and hoping that rain will fall only on the unjust. Democratic liberals, on the other hand, want to mitigate risk by sharing it. Are you afraid of falling ill, or being poor in your old age, or being unable to give your child a decent education? Liberals — or hell, let’s call them what they are, which is a very milquetoast form of socialist — liberals say, “Hmmm. Let’s see if we can create an orderly way of helping one another avoid those pitfalls.” Republican conservatives, on the other hand, offer you this advice: “Don’t trip.”

And that’s a perfectly legitimate approach to American life, I suppose; I’ve painted this in moralistic terms, but humaneness isn’t a condition of citizenship, and selfish, fearful, risk-averse bullies get up and salute the flag every morning just like the rest of us.

But economically, does the “every man for himself” philosophy make sense for America? Ayn Rand, patroness to a century’s worth of adolescent blowhards, lionized publishers and businessmen and… um… architects… and other hardy invidualists, without ever quite considering that a modest welfare state actually makes entrepreneurship more attractive. And by welfare state here, I don’t mean bread lines and five year plans for steel and badly made cars. I mean, you know, “We won’t let you die on the sidewalk.” And the simple truth is that a man who’s less afraid of dying like a bum on a ventilation grate is more willing to take the economic risks that starting a business, or even leaving your job for a better job, can entail.

I offer myself as a simple example. Because I’m in the Army Reserve, I have very cheap and nearly bulletproof health insurance. (It’s also subsidized by the taxpayer, so it’s, say, 60% socialist.) It’s portable and not at all dependent on my full-time employer. This offers me quite a bit of latitude. Chances are pretty good I’ll end up in some sort of government job, but it’s by no means certain. I could, if I wanted to, start a business (Elana and I often talk about our future web-consulting service, Or — more likely thanks to that other great socialist victory, the G.I. Bill — I could go back to school and become a lawyer or an agronomist or finally study Arabic at an advanced level. I could develop skills that not only make me a better commodity on the job market but actually add to the total pool of intellectual capital our society has to draw on.

I can take any or all of these paths and ultimately contribute in my small way to the growth of our economy, rather than hunkering down into a dead-end job as an assistant manager at the Taco Bell, because I have cheap, portable health insurance provided by the government. I am a better asset to our great capitalist experiment because of a carefully targeted bit of socialism.

Republicans — at least the vocal ones — want to create an environment in which failure is brutally punished and no one ever takes risks because there’s no safety net. That’s great for large, oligopolistic corporations, who would like laborers to be cowed and willing to take half a loaf because they’re afraid of getting nothing at all, but I don’t think it’s good for innovation or entrepreneurship. If we create a society in which the cost for trying something new and untested is bankruptcy and ruin, what message are we sending to those whose as yet unexpressed genius ought to carry us into the future? How will we foster either labor or capital that can react quickly to changes in the global marketplace, if change is associated with risk and risk is associated with personal doom? Pure-market capitalists love to talk about the motivation that the reward of profit provides, but a hypothetical carrot will hardly overmatch the everpresent threat of a very real stick.

Constructing more and safer paths to success does not impoverish the roadbuilders, nor does it benefit only those who take those roads. Easy access to education and flexible and secure health care and pensions enable those with ability and drive to react to changes in the economic environment, to increase the overall number of business experiments from which we draw our few runaway successes, and therefore to ultimately build wealth for the whole society.

And that is why I am an economic conservative who is in favor of socialism.

but what will we tell the children?

I hope you had a good Christmas; ours was lovely. My family doesn’t normally do Christmas — we were always the sort of culture snobs who thought that Christmas should be a Christian holiday and everyone else should butt out. And since we weren’t Christians, we did.

But my wife is Episcopalian, and there is a grandchild, so my parents got very into the spirit of the thing with a ham dinner and stocking stuffers and a really lovely candle display on the hearth. Later in the evening, after my dad had gone to work — his holiday tradition, an act of infidel charity performed so that some believing soul might spend the night at home with family — we watched It’s A Wonderful Life, that great secular paean to duty and misery and not getting what you want, and we got to talking about what makes Christmas such a great folk holiday.

Why is it that Christmas, a theologically somewhat minor festival, is nonetheless easily explained to even the smallest children of even the most far-flung cultures, while Easter, whose antecedent is supposed to be the crowning climax of the Christian story, comes across as abstract, highly mythological, overly constrained by the rhythms of liturgy, and devoid of human feeling? Sure, these people might disagree:

But it strikes me that what they’re doing has more in common with this:

or even this:

than this:

We knocked around the theory of the winter solstice as a universal calendar pivot, of course, but I’m not sure I buy that. Certainly a winter holiday would have appealed to the ancient Germanic and Celtic tribes who were among Christianity’s most eager converts, but I suspect the return of the summer sun meant less to the Copts, for example, and nothing at all, really, to a kid in Miami on whom the symbolism of the evergreen fir or spruce so carefully recreated in plastic and aluminum in his living room is probably lost. When you’ve got palms and sunshine and twelve-hour days all year round, who gives a damn about the solstice, the equinox, or any of the rest of it?

No, I think Linus hits the nail on the head: Christmas is about being afraid and lowly and then realizing that a savior is born. Christmas is about how the birth of a child renews the world. Kids love the Christmas story because it’s about Someone Who is loved for His potential, rather than anything He does in the story, and adults love it because it’s about adoring Someone Who, in some unspecified, future-tense sort of way, will redeem your life and make it all worthwhile. Christmas is about the deal between children and parents.

The problem Easter has is that it’s hard to live up to Christmas’s giant, vague promises. When you get down to specifics, everything is less satisfying. There’s no shame in this, really. Many science fiction writers have perished under the weight of an unsustainable premise: the Matrix series is at its best in the first movie, when it’s hinting at a truer, realer world beyond our own and a savior to shake us from our slumber. Then we find out that the real world is kind of lame and the savior is less than inspiring (and also just part of the program). The first film actually cleverly acknowledges this kind of disappointment (“I know what you’re thinking…. ‘Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill??'”) before wrapping everything up with some ass-kicking and bullet-dodging. But for some reason the story goes on for two more movies, with spider-worm-robots and rain-fighting-sunglasses-guys and blah-blah-sacrifices-himself-blah-blah-blah….

Where was I? Oh yes — Christmas.

Christmas represents our covenant with our children. At Christmas the child is magical and divine for no reason other than his existence, and parents come in two flavors: meek (Mary, Joseph) and omnipotent (the Other Guy). And everyone else exists to adore and to give gifts.

Since H. was born he’s been showered with both gifts and third-party adoration, so that part’s well in hand. But man… we have had a hard, hard time treating this kid like the divine gift that everyone around us believes him to be. It’s as if the Wise Men and the shepherds were all prostrating themselves before the Lord, while Mary and Joseph huddled in the corner saying things like, “We’ve GOT to move out of this manger and get an apartment of our own!” and “Why don’t we find his prophesying as cute as everyone else does??”

We’re probably not as badly off as the anonymous Metafilter poster who timidly admitted to the whole online world that she didn’t think she loved her six-week old. But the nearly-unanimous outpouring of support and “me too!” anecdotes her post received makes me think this is a fairly common phenomenon. For some reason, nature has chosen to make babies both amazingly dull and amazingly annoying in their first few months. Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby On The Block, calls this the “fourth trimester,” which is accurate up to a point — your baby is still only about as interactive as a fetus (hint: he will not be joining you for racquetball), but he’s no longer self-contained and easy to keep clean.

And of course all that is true if you planned to have a baby. We didn’t — which makes us, okay, a little like Mary and Joseph. But I’ve always liked the Mary of the Qur’an, who expressed what I think are fairly realistic new-parent feelings:

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): “Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!” (Sura 19, verse 23)

Sure, God tells her to reach up and shake the palm tree, which comforts her with a shower of fresh dates. So I’m not saying these things don’t work themselves out, or that you don’t at least get some snacks out of it. But it’s worth noting that Islam considers Jesus to be merely a man — albeit a Holy Messenger — and not in any way a part of the person of God. Maybe it’s okay, in Muslim societies, to feel like a baby is less of a personal savior and source of meaning in your life and more of a terrifying spiritual commission imposed upon you by forces greater than yourself.

The reasons I love my son at this point are slightly embarrassing, having little to do with his character or deeds and a great deal to do with:

  • his bear-like gruntling
  • his fat little neck, in the folds of which he seems to make some sort of artisanal cheese curd
  • his dramatic gesturing, which makes him seem a lot like a silent film star
  • his usual response to tenderness and cooing, which is to fart disdainfully
  • his generally contented and mellow nature
  • the sweet, soft hoots he makes when he’s sleeping at your chest

Also, literally as I write this, he seems to have given his mom his first genuinely social smile. That little bit of coin will go a long way in the parent-child economy, I think.

Yes, he’s an amazingly sweet baby, and I can only imagine him growing into a wonderful, curious boy. I have no doubt that in 18 or 20 years I’ll love this young man like my own life. But there’s no arguing that he will have, in a fairly substantial way, replaced my life, obliterated it and plowed it under and reseeded it. All of which is fine, and ultimately we made that choice and I’m proud that we did. There’s something badass about abandoning your comfortable life as a beach bum to do something hard and socially worthwhile. But….

The other night Elana and I were talking, and we hit on the subject of how to tell Henry the story of how we got married and how he came to be. Every family develops an origin story over time, and to be honest I’m concerned about what ours says to our kid. Because there are only two ways that this plays out. One is that we never get over our RUINED LIVES and we burden our son with guilt about it so that he never feels entirely secure or loved or wanted. I don’t think that will happen, for several reasons.

First, there was no guarantee we were going to become successful writers/rail-riding hobos/alligator wrestlers anyway, so you can’t blame a kid or anybody else for that. Second, I’m pretty sure we would have gotten married anyway — I’ve been at least a tiny bit in love with Elana since the first time I read her writing, which was actually a week or two before we met. She’s sitting next to me now, just reading something on the internet and feeding Henry, but her hair’s still up in this adorable folded-over ponytail thing from our day out and we just had a fairly hilarious disaster-bath with the baby and I want to marry her all over again. So. Not everything that happened here was unplanned, let alone unwelcome.

But the other narrative is wrong, too — the one where he grows up thinking that if he gets some girl pregnant before they’re married or have jobs or health insurance, it’s no big deal and everything will work out fine.


I want my son to be terrified of sex, terrified of birth control failures and terrified of the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. I want him to wear six condoms at a time and use spermicidal jelly as a body wash, or maybe go to the seminary for a few years in his youth. Or prison. Or something. Anything but having a baby when he’s not ready. And I say this not because I don’t love him, but because in some weird, uncertain way I do, and I don’t want things to go hard for him.

Elana and I worry about what will happen if Henry someday grows up and reads this blog. Who knows how extensive and searchable the archives will be in the GOOGLE BRAIN-NET of 2030?? Should we talk about our doubts? Our fears, our concerns, our ambivalence? Should we admit that we are not good parents? I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt his feelings or make him feel unwelcome — especially if he stumbles across this when he’s, say, nine years old — but I really want to drill down the right lessons here.

So, Henry-Of-The-Future, here’s the deal: you’re not responsible for, nor can you control, your parents’ feelings about the way you came into the world. Therefore, I encourage you not to worry about that stuff. Are we ambivalent at the moment? Yes. But think about it this way — our love for you is a lot like your intestine: when you first come into the world, it’s immature and fragile and even a little painful. But by the time you’re old enough to read this, it will be completely sealed and fully functional. So now, having gotten that out of the way, please, take your dad’s advice —


Your mom and I love you very much. Now turn off the brain-net and go play in the yard-bubble.