Four Thousand Words In Response to a 1,500 Word Essay

I promised over the weekend that I would write a response to this piece. Here it is. It is 4,000 words. I am sorry. I hope my writing is good enough to pull you through.

It is a provocative article by a Ph.D. named Wendy Worral Redal entitled: "Mystery Unraveled: How a White, Moderate, Church-going, Middle Class, Middle Aged Woman Could Vote for Obama." This article made its way around the Facebook walls very quickly (297 comments as of this writing), appreciatively flogged by Christians occupying the Left End of the political spectrum. It is a sort of intellectual justification for occupying that position, and I can easily see why it is attractive.

It is difficult to know where to begin. But I must begin somewhere, so I'll start with this observation: it relies heavily on the meme (developed rigorously by left-wing writers in the past few years) that conservatives generally, and Christians specifically, are in a state of "epistemic closure." That is, conservatives have crafted a comfortable, impenetrable intellectual cocoon or bubble where, once inside, everything makes sense, but from the outside isn't rational at all. And this explains why we are all so shocked by the election results: we've all been inside the bubble sipping Kool-Aid, assuming that everybody else can see, for instance, the economic train wreck of the Obama Administration, and last Tuesday reality punctured the bubble rather rudely. A side-effect of occupying our bubble is that conservatives have simply given up on reaching people on the outside. Rational, moderate, persuadable people like Wendy Worral Redal, who insists she is no left-wing ideologue.

She engages in a very common sort of polemic, and everybody does it to some extent. "There are rascals to my right, idiots to my left, and I occupy the right and rational center." Not a bad strategy, so far as it goes. But there is one thing that needs to be true for this sort of argument to really be sound.

You have to actually have a credible claim that you occupy the right and rational center.

Now, what am I to make of an article seeking to open up dialogue and have a reasonable discussion that accuses conservative Christians of living in an intellectual bubble taking its cues from "right wing radio blowhards"? Or, as Argument Number 1 for voting for Obama, says: "I don’t believe Obama is a closet Muslim with a radical socialist agenda to undermine America. I don’t believe he has a false birth certificate and a fake Social Security card"? Or the off-hand comment, aimed at conservative Christians, "I can't imagine trying to explain the world without faith and science"? Oh, okay. So conservatives take their cues from right-wing "blowhards," believe Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya, and reject science? Caricaturing and, frankly, insulting your opponents so crassly is not exactly an effective way to establish your moderate and neutral bona fides, much less extend an olive branch. It sort of makes her final exhortation to "appeal to the better angels in one another" ring just a tad hollow. These are pretty strong clues, right from the outset, that the author is something substantially less than a neutral, above-the-fray, reasonable, and pragmatic inquirer open to being persuaded.

But there is more to make one wonder just how moderate is Dr. Redal. She makes a simple, one-sentence declaration: "I'm pro-life in the fullest sense of the term." I am certainly glad to hear it! Except that those words, "fullest sense of the term" actually hyperlink to a very recent New York Times editorial by Thomas L. Friedman. And do you know what Friedman claims in his editorial? He claims that you can be, like, totally on-board with abortion-on-demand but still consider yourself truly "pro-life" so long as you support green energy, the EPA, and gun control. Got that? Unfortunately for Dr. Redal, this is by definition not "pro-life" in the fullest sense of the term. For that would require supporting all Friedman's favorite pet issues and opposing abortion! I don't want to waste my time arguing with Thomas L. Friedman, who has a notorious man-crush on Chinese communism. And I cannot say I would be shocked if the author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded approves of the one-child policy, too. But I get pretty suspicious when Dr. Redal, whose credentials surely required critical thinking, is unable to pick up the scent of Friedman's habitual red herrings.

Okay, that sounds harsh, I admit. But really. Mr. Friedman writes,

And there is no way that respect for the sanctity of life can mean we are obligated to protect every fertilized egg in a woman’s body, no matter how that egg got fertilized, but we are not obligated to protect every living person from being shot with a concealed automatic weapon.

So, according to Friedman, to be pro-life you've got to be for gun control and against abortion. Right? Um, wrong. Being "truly pro-life" for Tom Friedman means you can support abortion-on-demand, so long as you believe in gun control, too.* In fact, the most "pro-life" politician Tom Friedman knows is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose pro-abortion stance is absolved by his banning of salt and 32 oz. soft drinks. (I wish I were making that up, but alas, no. Friedman really wrote that.)

*As an aside, does the New York Times have editors? I have never read the phrase "concealed automatic weapon" before. What is that? Somebody stuffs a fully automatic AK-47 down their pants? Does somebody other than Secret Service agents routinely conceal automatic weapons? The NYT needs a gun consultant, just to get the basics down. It certainly sounds scary, which is what Friedman was shooting for... oh, and by the way, I'm having trouble finding that Friedman editorial denouncing Obama for the Fast & Furious program. I'll keep looking, but don't hold your breath in the meantime.

My point is that Dr. Redal found all this reasonable and persuasive enough to declare her emphatic agreement. She's cool with pro-life "in the fullest sense of the term" meaning supporting abortion-on-demand so long as you support the EPA, gun control, and banning sugary drinks at the same time.

She's also totally cool with her gay friends getting "married," for their excellent contribution to the "social fabric."

She thinks Keynes is cool, and Adam Smith is "Kool-Aid."

She thinks the "primary mission" of insurance companies is to deny coverage.

She thinks conservatives want dirty air and dirty water; to dismantle the EPA; she cannot "imagine" a world leader not "grappling with climate change"; and she thinks it is "grave foolishness" to not have government-funded green energy companies.

She thinks rich people got rich because they have unfairly benefited from public infrastructure and a "wildly deregulated Wall Street," and so they need to shoulder more of the burden.

She even manages to throw in a clear dog-whistle reference to "equal pay."

Let's be real here. This litany of talking points could have come straight from the fax machine at the Democratic National Committee. Far from being a pragmatic and persuadable voter, open to dialogue with conservatism, Dr. Redal appears to be a clone of Elizabeth Warren, both feet firmly planted in left-wing ideology. And her protestations to the contrary are, frankly, disingenuous.

Look. I have no objection if you want to argue that left wing ideology is compatible with Christian doctrine on a variety of things, and to say that that caused you to vote for Obama. You'd be wrong, but have at it. I can respect the likes of Jim Wallis for at least this much: he doesn't pretend he is anything other than politically left wing. I won't call a foul on you if you want to try to honestly make that argument. In fact, that would be exactly the kind of discussion we need to have. What I am not okay with is somebody putting on a persona of a non-partisan, open-minded, above-it-all, good faith voter and then proceeding to repeat a litany of talking points that could have come from Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, or Markos Moulitsas.

I don't doubt that Dr. Redal perceives herself as being pretty much non-partisan, occupying the political center. I am not saying she is lying. Putting the best spin on it that I can, I think she has managed to fool herself.

So where does that leave us? How do we proceed? Well, it brings us back around, ironically enough, to the question of "epistemic closure." Most of Dr. Redal's reasons for voting Obama have to do with some impressions she has (e.g., Mr. Obama is a "deeply sincere, smart, and principled man"), or her understanding of various factual matters (e.g., Keynesianism works). Here is the question I have for Dr. Redal:

If you are wrong, would you want to know it?

I really, really wonder about this. Dr. Redal has a "bubble problem" of her own. Many of her points have obvious responses from conservative writers and thinkers (not the sort of people you'd describe as "right wing radio blowhards"), but she appears to be unaware of them. There seems to be a lack of intellectual curiosity, exhibited by the caricaturing of conservatives as a bunch of mind-numbed "birthers" who want the air dirty and our water putrid. A good-faith, intellectually honest, persuasive essay works like this: you argue against the best representatives of a given point of view. In that regard, Dr. Redal's essay is, as the youngsters say these days, an "epic fail."

But it is not enough for me to simply establish that Dr. Redal is not what she claims to be. Her actual points need to be addressed. So I am going to go through Redal's list of five reasons she voted for Barack Obama. I am doing this primarily for those who read and were inclined to be persuaded by her essay, in hopes that they have not yet reached the point of epistemic closure.

1) I don’t believe Obama is a closet Muslim with a radical socialist agenda to undermine America. I don’t believe he has a false birth certificate and a fake Social Security card. I think he is a deeply sincere, smart, principled man who is far from perfect but deserves a chance to continue what he has tried to begin.
I will leave aside the swipe at "birthers." I want to focus on the belief that Barack Obama is a "deeply sincere, smart, principled man." It is a difficult thing to challenge this sort of subjective impression (and this will become a recurring theme), but I will challenge it nonetheless.

You may have forgotten this little episode, so I'd like to remind you of it. On the eve of the historic House vote on the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama had a serious problem. That problem was named Bart Stupak, a representative from Michigan, Democrat, and, well, pro-life in the fullest sense of the term. Stupak led a small coalition of the now-extinct species called "pro-life Democrats," and Barack Obama needed their vote. Without the support of Stupak & Co. his signature legislation was headed for failure rather than "BFD," to use Joe Biden's phrase.

Bart Stupak insisted that Obamacare not pay for abortion and abortion-related services, for this would necessarily violate the religious consciences of many Americans. There he stood, and he could do no other. Mr. Obama, in one of those deeply sincere, principled moments, promised Bart Stupak that in exchange for his vote he would sign an Executive Order prohibiting federal funding of abortion in the implementation of Obamacare. Stupak agreed, and his coalition gave Mr. Obama his narrow legislative victory. Mr. Obama even held up his end of the bargain. He signed the Executive Order, which he promptly threw into the trash can while the ink was still wet. Instead, he instructed his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to craft a new regulation that not only provides abortion, contraceptives, and sterilizations, but makes groups like Roman Catholic charities pay for it. That's pretty sick and twisted, actually. There is no massaging this fact: Barack Obama's HHS mandate is the exact opposite of what he promised Bart Stupak. This was not just a slap in the face; this was rubbing his nose in a pile of manure.

Deeply sincere? Principled? I am sorry, but this ranks as one of the most flagrant, cynical, Machiavellian back-stabs in the history of this Republic of ours. You may believe all you want that Barack Obama is a sincere and principled man. Ask Bart Stupak about it.

Finally, I will just note the very odd phrase at the end of Dr. Redal's point: Obama deserves a chance to "continue what he has tried to begin." Has tried to begin? I don't even know what that means. He's had four years, but hasn't been able to even begin yet? Given that he had a Democratic Supermajority for two of those years, if he hasn't begun yet you can add deeply incompetent to the list of his attributes.

2) I’m more comfortable taking a risk on Obama’s economic agenda than Romney’s. The numbers are starting to look up. I’d rather hedge my bets with Keynes than Adam Smith. Mitt wants to cut spending and slash taxes, and give most of those tax breaks to the richest Americans. That doesn’t square with my sense of what’s rational or what’s just. We’ve tried that before, and that Kool-Aid does not trickle down for me.
Once again we are left to argue with Dr. Redal's subjective views of what "squares" with her sense of rationality and justice. The problem is we have no earthly idea what her views of rationality and justice are. Since she doesn't say, then this isn't an argument at all. It is an instance of... emoting. Mitt Romney, she writes, "wants to cut spending and slash taxes, and give most of those tax breaks to the richest Americans." Well, that's certainly one way to describe it. What is left out, of course, is that according to the Congressional Budget Office, those "richest" Americans pay a whopping 70% of the Federal tax burden. So, simple question: what percentage actually would "square" with Dr. Redal's sense of what's rational and just? 80%? 90%? How about 100% of the tax burden paid by the top 1%? That very well might square with her sense of justice, but it is not a justice that can be supported by, say, the Bible or Christian theology. If she won't put a number on what tax burden she considers "just," we can safely ignore this "reason."

And I think it further needs pointing out that Mitt Romney's crazy ideas about cutting spending and slashing taxes was championed in an earlier age by that right-wing fanatic...John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Which makes it a bit ironic that she writes, "We've tried that before, and that Kool-Aid does not trickle down for me." Every time tax rates are lowered on the upper ends of the tax structure, you get economic growth and more government revenue (which is, I assume, the primary goal in Dr. Redal's mind). She is entitled to her own opinions about what "trickles down" for her, but she is not entitled to her own facts.

3) I’m willing to take a chance on Obamacare. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than a system that excludes millions and is dedicated to lining the pockets of insurance companies whose primary mission is not to cover care but to deny it. The Affordable Care Act is not “socialized medicine” in which the government dictates my health care. It’s a hybrid system that worked in Massachusetts; I’m ready to see how it goes in the rest of the U.S.
Obamacare is a system supported by large pharmaceutical companies because it would (ahem) line their pockets. I am not sure when, in the liberal mind, pharmaceutical companies became "good" corporations, but it seems that is now where we are. My point? Replacing a system that lines the pockets of one group with another system that lines the pockets of another group is not an improvement. Therefore, "lining the pockets" cannot be Dr. Redal's real objection, since somebody's pockets are getting lined either way.

And I suppose she can be forgiven for not noticing that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Obamacare still "excludes" 30 million people. So much for that. Again, she is entitled to her subjective opinions about what she's willing to "take a chance" on, but she is not entitled to her own facts. Both of her reasons for liking Obamacare are false. Somebody's pockets are getting lined, and 30 million people remain uninsured.

4) I care deeply about protecting this planet, our home. How could we elect a president who is so cavalier about God’s creation that he wants to dismantle the EPA? Really? The clean air and clean water acts established under Richard Nixon aren’t important to keep for our kids? I can’t imagine a world leader not grappling with the problem of global climate change. Solyndra was a debacle, but to suggest that we ought not to pursue green energy isn’t just short-sighted, it’s grave foolishness.

Mitt Romney has never suggested dismantling the EPA or repealing the clean air and water acts. Making up your own facts seems to be a theme here, and it is not an attractive habit. Moreover, Mitt Romney gave a full-throated defense of green energy research in the second Presidential debate. She might have missed it, but he said he supported grants to research institutions, universities, etc., to explore alternative energy possibilities. He then rightly pointed out that Mr. Obama's practice is to give taxpayer money to for-profit businesses that go bankrupt. "You don't just pick winners and losers. You pick losers." Since Romney never suggested that we "ought not to pursue green energy," Dr. Redal is again vigorously opposing the "grave foolishness" of imaginary people.

And "grappling with climate change"? I think that's something scientists should do, not politicians. Whenever they figure it out, get back to me.

5) I believe a graduated tax system is the most moral means of structuring an economy. I think that rich folks who benefited so disproportionately from a wildly deregulated Wall Street need to return to shouldering more of our shared burden. Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Suffice it to say that I don't believe a graduated tax system is the "most moral means" of structuring an economy, and I have biblical and theological reasons for that. Her simple equation of God demanding more from those who have been given more and the State demanding more is pure-and-simple Hegelianism, the identification of the State and the Divine, and the classic rationale for the various collectivist (and bloody) tyrannies that reigned around the world in the 20th century. Does she have anything to say about that?

But I'll go back to this: the "rich folks" shoulder 70% of our "shared burden" right this very minute, meaning that the burden is very quickly not being "shared" at all. How much more will satisfy Dr. Redal? I will take this argument seriously when an answer is supplied. Because without it, it isn't an argument at all.

She goes on:

Now, plenty of wealthy business owners are going to argue, ‘This wasn’t given to me, I built it.’ Yes, you did, with a public infrastructure supporting you. But until we have genuine equality of opportunity in this country – including equal pay for equal work – some people can build a lot more than others.
Now we're in Elizabeth Warren territory. Successful business owners got to be successful because "public infrastructure" supported them. This doesn't make sense at all. It is impossible to disproportionally benefit from public infrastructure. Every single person can use a road. Every single person can use a bridge. In fact, the "public infrastructure" she invokes provides genuine equality of opportunity, which she then says, in her very next sentence, doesn't exist. And I would simply add that poor people did not build roads and bridges that made rich people rich. The business owners being castigated here for having the gall to take credit for their accomplishments paid for the public infrastructure.

And on:

There are parents who hire me for $50 an hour here in wealthy Boulder to coach their kids on college application essays. They fly to visit schools so their kids can interview in person. You think that teenager of a single-mom Wal-Mart clerk struggling to pay her rent has the same crack at a premier college education and the connections that come with it? Where is the equal opportunity?

Is Dr. Redal suggesting that the government needs to start flying every economically disadvantaged family to college interviews? If not, I have no earthly idea what any of this has to do with why she voted for Barack Obama. She thinks everyone is entitled to an Ivy League education? Or something?

And don’t tell me that working woman is a sponger. Don’t tell me that Diego who painted my house or Beatriz who sometimes cleans it is a freeloader. As a Christian, I am told to care for the least of these. When I vote, their self-interest should be as important as my own. “Sink or swim,” or “Go home even though you’ve lived here since you were two” is no more a path to economic autonomy than a government check is.
Now we're throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. Conservatives believe in "sink or swim?" Well, you are, once again, entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. You can start reading about a conservative vision of civil society from someone pretty relevant to this discussion, Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, here. It is, to be frank, a slanderous lie that his vision is, in the President's words, "You're on your own."

As for the "sponger," "moocher," or "47%" issue, as far back as Aristotle thinkers have noticed the fundamental problem with apportioning wealth in purely democratic societies. The poor, who are usually a numerical majority, can simply vote themselves more and more wealth, and the rich will be victims of the tyranny of the majority. Our Founding Fathers dealt with this issue by protecting private property rights. Does Dr. Redal have any suggestions? Or does she deny the problem? She wants the "rich" to pay even more than 70% of the financial burdens in this country, but won't say how much more. I don't think it is so outrageous to suggest there might be some "mooching" envy involved in her view of things.

Finally, Mitt Romney candidly promoted immigration reform that specifically rejected the idea of "Go home." Once again, she is arguing with a figment of her imagination.

This has been quite an astonishing litany of straw men Dr. Redal has demolished. She's accused conservatives of a whole lot of very ugly things, from not caring about the poor to wanting to poison the air and water. So she follows all this up by extending her olive branch:

May we each appeal to the better angels in one another as we start healing the wounds of this election season.

I don't know about you, but my "better angels" do not feel very appealed to. In short, Dr. Redal's essay is disingenuous because it dresses up a fairly standard left-wing vision in "moderate" clothes, pretending to be something it is not. And the host of straw-men caricatures and falsely imputed motives make the piece not only wrong from an argumentative standpoint, but condescending.

Brian Mattson