Thursday, July 29, 2010

From Knoxville With Love

Over the past week I’ve been listening to two new albums from bands located in Knoxville, TN. My family’s life is intertwined with both; and were it not for that fact it would have been easy (I’m sorry to admit) for me to overlook both. As it turns out, both records have been a delight, albeit in rather different ways.

Ben Howard is my first cousin once removed, son of the woman who was the nearest thing to a sister when I was growing up. He plays keyboards and handles website duties for the Christian indie band, Standing Small. Ben has been associated with the group for years, but not originally as a performing musician. He started as a roadie and soundman and merch guy, and eventually worked his way into the fold – becoming the right hand collaborator of Ryan Fletcher, the group’s guitarist and lead vocalist. These guys have day jobs. That hasn’t prevented them from playing the upper South and Midwest church and Christian festival circuit. Strangely, the farthest east they seem to come is Greenville, SC, and for some odd reason I have never been in Knoxville visiting family when the band was onstage.

Standing Small: Ryan Fletcher, Corey Goins, and Ben Howard

In fact, I hardly ever see Ben himself. We maintain contact via Facebook. He sneaked me an advance copy of the band’s new album, Asleep at the Oars, Dreaming of Freedom, (available for free download for a limited time) via zip file. I unzipped and loaded it into my iTunes, and have played the record incessantly while working at my desk. This is in every sense a “concept album.” A recurrent, rise-and-fall piano theme is reworked through the breadth of the recording. The music hinges itself to dramatic changes in modulation and tempo. At times the drums are bombastic. There are no ostentatious guitar leads; yet, Fletcher’s acoustic rig peaks through the swirling wind and clouds of percussion and keys like the mast of a tall ship. His voice rings out like the beam of a lighthouse (like Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Fletcher frequently employs the falsetto). In keeping with the general theme of the album – a frail band of unsalty believers huddled on a vessel blown across the treacherous Tiberian Sea of life – the lyrics are understandably introspective, confessional (“Call in The Troops”), nearly desperate. On “Oh Brother” the vocals are downright plaintive. Halfway through the record it’s not at all obvious that the crew will reach its destination. And the analogy of Jonah (“Man Overboard”) makes clear that our valuables – including our own self-preservation – have to go in order to lighten the load and retain seaworthiness. But in the end it is a sovereign Hand that calms the waves and awakens the crew from their doldrums.

Alseep at the Oars is poignant, but not overbearing. It’s a perfect record for a long drive, or a time of reflection staring out a window. Or at a computer screen…

Our unlikely association with the Dirty Guv’nahs began at a baby shower. Our friend Jill Andrews invited us to her special day, and among the first guests to walk in was a strapping young man wearing a New Zealand All Blacks warm-up and sporting dark glasses and a ‘fro a la Hyde from That Seventies Show. He reached out his hand and drawled, “I’m Cozmo.”

It turned out that guitarist Cozmo Holloway was transitioning from his old band, a funk group called Dishwater Blonde, to the Dirty Guv’nahs, a household name in Knoxville. For three years running “the Guvs” have been voted K-town’s best band. Their Southern rock rumblings were felt all the way up in Woodstock, NY, where the legendary Levon Helm (of The Band fame) invited the Guvs to come record their new album, Youth is in Our Blood, just before Christmas of 2009.

At the baby shower my wife and I told Cozmo that if his band needed a place to stay when visiting Charlotte to give us a call. To my initial chagrin that call came back in the winter. I had misgivings about keeping a half-dozen 20-something year old rockers in our home, given that their show would end past midnight and they wouldn’t return to the house until the wee hours of the morning (what would our elderly neighbors think?). The band arrived on a Friday afternoon before I got in from work. I saw the “Blue Bullet,” a Ford van older than any of the band members, with its trailer parked in my spot in front of the house. When I walked through the door it was as if I had never met a stranger. The Guvs were all perfect gentlemen. They ate supper with us, helped clear and wash dishes, played Wii with our kids and a game of “Family” with us, and thanked us profusely for the hospitality. That night I never heard the band come in. They tip-toed into the house at 3:00 am and went to the upstairs guest rooms. The next day they arose for a late brunch and bassist Justin Hoskins told us the bizarre story of how they acquired their name (too long to go into here). They gave us t-shirts and bumper stickers.

They came back for another stay at our home in the late spring, christening our house their “B & B” in North Carolina. Both times their shows were too late in the evening for our family to attend. At the conclusion of their second visit they gave us a pre-release copy of their new album.

At first glance the Guvs seem to wear all-too-obvious influences on their rolled up sleeves: the Black Crowes, John Mellencamp, perhaps a dash of Hootie & the Blowfish; but I’m not sure any of those artists really inspire their sound. On closer listening they are reaching for something higher. With Holloway and Michael Jenkins’ twin guitar attack on songs like “Wide Awake” and “New Salvation,” there are shades of Dickie and Duane (or, if that seems a bit lofty, perhaps Jim James and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket); certainly, Chris Doody’s simmering organ summons memories of Idlewild South.

Ultimately, what made the album stick for me was our belated opportunity to see the band perform live at the recent Bele Chere festival in Asheville, NC. I was completely unprepared for the explosiveness and unabated energy the Guvs bring to the stage – especially in Jenkins’ and frontman James Trimble’s relentless histrionics. It was hard to believe these were same gentle souls who rate among the best house guests we’ve ever hosted.

Bele Chere, Asheville (July 25, 2010). My family is on the front row to the far left (our daughter's red hair and younger son's orange shirt are clearly visible)

But I knew, the first time I saw Cozmo at that baby shower, that something was definitely cooking.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fried Baloney Sandwich

American Hypocrites

The only thing Americans hate more than big government is the absence of government protection.

By Anne Applebaum

I've now listened to Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" video. I've watched the Tea Party evolve from a joke into a political force. I've read up on the primary candidates who want to take back government, take down government, burn down Washington.

I've seen it all, heard it all, and I don't believe any of it. A rose is a rose is a rose—and hypocrisy is hypocrisy, whether it takes the form of champagne socialism or mama grizzlies who would go on the rampage if, God forbid, their mortgage tax relief were ever taken away.

If you don't live here all the time, and I don't, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans—with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession, and above all their addiction to government spending programs—demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don't just want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is either prevented or fully compensated. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

When, through a series of flukes, a crazy person smuggled explosives onto a plane at Christmas, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible. When, thanks to bad luck and planning mistakes, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible again.

In fact, the crazy person was stopped by an alert passenger, not the federal government, and if the oil rig is ever fixed, it will be through the efforts of a private company. Nevertheless, each one of these kinds of events sets off a chain reaction: A new government program is created, experts are hired, new machines are ordered for the airports, and new monitors are sent beneath the ocean. This is how we got the Kafkaesque security network that an extraordinary Washington Post investigation this week calls, quite conservatively, "A hidden world, growing beyond control."

For this hidden world, with its 1,271 different government security and intelligence organizations and its 854,000 people with top-secret security clearance, is not the creation of a secretive totalitarian cabal; it has been set up in response to public demand. It's true that the French want to retire early and that the British think health care should be free, but when things go wrong, Americans also write to their representatives in Congress and their commander in chief demanding action. And precisely because this is a democracy, Congress and the president respond, pass a law, put up a building.

The mechanism works the same way even when there isn't an emergency. To put it bluntly, middle-class Americans of the right, left, and center have now come to expect a level of personal financial security that—despite the stereotypes—most people would never demand from their governments. In a review he wrote earlier this month, Brink Lindsey, the vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute—a man who knows what he is up against—pulled up some extraordinary statistics. Most Americans, it turns out, are suspicious of the free market. And most American also approve of high government spending. The majority of Americans are wary of global trade, don't trust free markets, and also think "the benefits from ... Social Security or Medicare are worth the costs of those programs." And when the sample is restricted to people who support the Tea Party movement? The number is still 62 percent.

Yet it is Social Security, Medicare, and the ever-expanding list of earmarks—federal grants—that are going to sink the U.S. budget in the next few decades, not President Obama's health care reform (though that won't help). Yet in Washington, these expenditures are known as "third rails": If you touch them, you're dead. President George W. Bush talked a little bit about making individuals more responsible for their retirement, and then he gave up. The "privatization" of Social Security, as it was sneeringly described, was just too unpopular, particularly among his own supporters.

Look around the world and we don't seem as exceptional as we think. Chileans are willing to save for their own retirement. Most Europeans are reconciled to the idea that not everybody, at any age and in any condition, is entitled to the most expensive medical technology. A secretary of state or defense traveling with dozens of cars and armed security men would seem absurd in many countries, as would the notion that the government gives you a tax break if you buy a house, or that schools should close if there is ice on the roads. Yet we not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we reserve the right to rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created—democratically, constitutionally, openly—to deliver it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lewis vs. Wallis

“Is there a widening rift between politically conservative and politically liberal evangelicals? What are the basic causes of tensions between evangelicals Left and right, and what can we do to address those causes?”

David J. Theroux is Founder and President of the Independent Institute and the C.S. Lewis Society of California. He responds:

The unfortunate support for years by some Christians of what is commonly called “Progressivism” reflects the modernist folly since the nineteenth century of deferring intellectual and moral authority to the utilitarianism and moral relativism of the secular world (“the end justifies the means”). It comports neither with the teachings of Jesus nor with the Christian tradition of natural law, either in moral ethics or economics. During George W. Bush’s presidency, for example, many “Conservatives” embraced the “Progressive” myth and sought on utilitarian grounds to justify invasive wars and occupations, the USA PATRIOT Act, torture and renditioning, and massive expansions of federal power, foreign and domestic.

With Barack Obama as president, such “Liberal” (i.e., “Progressive”) evangelicals as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ronald Sider, who may have been critical of Bush’s abuses of power, now support authoritarianism by claiming that individuals choosing peaceful means that do not break the Ten Commandments’ and Jesus’ prohibitions against invasive force (i.e., murder, rape, theft, and fraud) are still “unjust” and require the intervention of government power to coerce innocent people to obey the “Progressive” vision of “social justice.” As a result, Wallis believes that government officials themselves should, as Bush similarly claimed, not just be immune from the Judeo-Christian standards for the rule of law but that their legal, institutionalized breaking of the Decalogue is somehow a higher “Christian” calling.

Comparing the views of Wallis to those of C.S. Lewis is instructive, since Lewis understood, unlike collectivists such as Wallis, that moral relativism is incoherent and unacceptable because the end never justifies the means (see, e.g., Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Especially timely and insightful is Lewis’s essay on the dangers, dehumanization, and immorality of welfare statism and therapeutic statism, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” from his book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

Wallis’s recent attacks on those who are challenging the Obama administration’s drive for gigantic government on every front is consistent with his confused support for authoritarianism as the vehicle for Christian love. In his enthusiasm for political power, Wallis has become an embarrassing apologist for the moral relativism of welfare statism, socialism, and corporatism, worshipping Obama and government power in a political idolatry. Can anyone imagine Jesus advising and defending the policies of the Caesar and the Roman Empire?

The Christian principles of other-directedness and support for civil society in no way equate with statism of any sort. Indeed, they are polar opposites. There are innumerable Christian writers throughout history who have made this point in championing individual liberty, personal responsibility, civic virtue and the rule of law, including Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederic Bastiat, etc. However, Wallis insists that we should put this all aside as “anti-Christian” because his “Progressive” state knows best and must not be impeded to utilize the very means Jesus taught against. Wallis’s reasons for doing so stem from his misguided belief in the junk-Marxist historical and economic myths that free individual choices and actions that create free market capitalism are inherently evil and unable to overcome poverty, racism, etc. As a result, Wallis believes that coercive means must take precedence over the voluntarism and Golden Rule mandated by Christian teachings. But these myths have been refuted repeatedly (see for example here, here, here and here) because the non-invasive processes of free markets and private, community-based welfare and charity are both the morally and most efficient means to serve and uplift others simply because they are consistent with Christian Natural Law.

Moreover, Wallis’s concept of “social justice” itself is meaningless and dangerous. Either individuals are “sacred objects” created by God with free will and individually subject to God’s judgment and worthy of mercy or they are material objects subject to the collectivist dictates of mortal and flawed men and women. As Rodney Stark (see for example his book, The Victory of Reason) and others have shown, it was the unique insights from Christian teachings that each and every individual has rights under God that made the progress possible in abolishing slavery, emancipating women, and creating free and prosperous societies in which abject poverty was replaced with abundance. Lewis was fond of quoting Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts, and here is a quote from the end of The Abolition of Man, which “Progressives” like Wallis could learn from:

“It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. . . . The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners. . . . Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao [natural law], or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery. . . . The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.”

As a result, Lewis was a devastating critic of the welfare state, nanny state, and the entire “Progressive” vision of the interventionist state. Sadly, Wallis champions all such measures and misleads some Christians into supporting the evils of moral relativism and legalized plunder on a vast scale.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Nullifying Non Sequiturs

Nullification Should Be Taken Seriously, Not Caricatured
July 6, 2010

Art Carden teaches economics at Rhodes College and is an occasional contributor to and other publications.

The weeks surrounding Independence Day are always a good time to assess the American experiment in liberty. For all of our successes, there remains a lot of discontent across the political spectrum. The federal government is fighting the states over the issue of medical marijuana, for example, and we're also preparing to add to the Supreme Court a justice who apparently thinks that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech" with respect to speech means that "Congress shall weigh the costs and benefits of making a law" before passing a law "abridging the freedom of speech." What option do the people and the states have if they disagree and wish to hold fast to the "Congress shall make no law" principle? Or what if they think the Federal government is overstepping its constitutional bounds?

Enter prize-winning historian and bestselling author Thomas E. Woods. I've had the pleasure of working with Professor Woods at the Mises Institute's "Mises University" summer program and trading notes about some of his projects, so I was looking forward to his new book. In Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, Professor Woods offers a thorough-but-compact discussion of the doctrine of nullification. As he writes, "nullification begins with the axiomatic point that a federal law that violates the Constitution is no law at all" (p. 3). It is, according to the framework established by the Founders, an essential part of the system of checks and balances that defined the federal union. Even though they established federal-level checks and balances, the founders were troubled by the notion that the Federal government should be its own judge.

Nullification was formalized in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, and it essentially says that the states are not bound to enforce federal laws that step outside the bounds of the central government's Constitutional authority. That raises two obvious questions. First, what are "the bounds of the central government's Constitutional authority"? Second, what is the Constitutional relationship between the states and the central government? Woods discusses the three provisions that have been used to justify expansion of federal power--the "general welfare" clause, the commerce clause, and the "necessary and proper" clause--and argues convincingly that these were largely clauses of convenience that empowered the government to do the things necessary to fulfill their constitutional mandate. In Woods's interpretation, this meant that the government had the constitutional authority to do mundane tasks in pursuit of their constitutional goals. They could buy lumber to build "needful buildings" and paper on which to print government documents without explicit permission, for example (p. 29). As Woods interprets it, the interstate commerce clause establishes the United States as a free trade zone. It does not give the government carte blanche to do as it pleases as long as it can cook up an "interstate commerce" rationale. Citing James Madison, Woods asks an important question: if the general welfare clause is sufficient to justify pretty much anything the Federal government wants to do, why bother with enumerated powers? Indeed, why even bother with a constitution?

Unfortunately, sympathy for nullification and states' rights has been smeared by the association of these ideas with slavery. This is most unfortunate because it conflates a question of unambiguous moral evil (slavery) with a legitimate and difficult constitutional question. Those skeptical of nullification might cite the defense of the doctrine by John C. Calhoun, who was also an outspoken defender of slavery. The rhetorical road leads to slavery when it doesn't lead to Hitler (and Woods invokes Hitler's opposition to states' rights on pp. 120-121). Nullification is to be opposed because some of its defenders were also slave owners and slavery apologists. Producing this non sequitur requires a tortured and invalid line of reasoning:

Tom Woods defends nullification. John C. Calhoun defended nullification. John C. Calhoun defended slavery. Therefore, Tom Woods is defending slavery.

Consider the following:
American presidents defend the idea of a strong military. Hitler defended the idea of a strong military. Hitler was a genocidal maniac. Therefore, American presidents defend genocide.

I'm also reminded of something a friend wrote on his whiteboard in college:
God is love. Love is blind. Ray Charles is blind. Therefore, Ray Charles is God.

All three are silly. For an entertaining treatment, see how Woods addresses some of the “slavery and racism” objections in his "Interview With a Zombie" spoof.

In chapters 3 and 4, Woods explores how Northern states invoked the principles of nullification in response to perceived usurpations by the central government and defends the compact theory of the union, which holds that the United States are--not is--a collection of free, independent, and sovereign territories rather than subordinates of the federal government. As one example, Woods offers New England's reaction to the 1807 prohibition on American ships participating in international trade. Massachusetts legislators argued that it was "not legally binding on the citizens of this state" and Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull argued that state legislatures had the "right" and the "duty, to interpose their protecting shield between the right and liberty of the people, and the assumed power of the General Government" (pp. 62, 63, 67). Elsewhere, Woods discusses the concept of jury nullification, which holds that in any trial the jury is not merely deciding whether the law has been breached, but whether the law itself is permissible (p. 129). If, in the words of Theophilus Parsons, "(a)n Act of usurpation is not obligatory--it is not law" (quoted on p. 129), this suggests a more animating contest of liberty, and graver duties of citizenship, than the notion that citizenship is equivalent to obedience.

It's clear from the book jacket, the back-cover blurbs, and the style that Nullification is a polemic rather than a scholarly treatise, its eighteen pages of endnotes notwithstanding. The last chapter, "Nullification Today," is looser, more conversational, and more strategic. Nonetheless, it offers resources that scholars and pundits will find useful. The second half of the book consists of documents related to the nullification doctrine, including the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and the March 19, 1859 Joint Resolution of the Legislature of Wisconsin by which Wisconsin nullified parts of the Fugitive Slave Law. According to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others, the states were one line of defense between the citizens and the people; indeed, Jefferson referred to the State authorities as the "colleagues" of the Federal authorities (p. 4). The compact, conversational style make it a good book for anyone to have on the nightstand. The references to the founders and the documents in the second half of the book make it a useful book to have on the shelf.

No doubt scholars who disagree with Woods will have important and substantive criticisms. Nullification is at the forefront of debates about the relationship between the states and the federal government with respect to immigration and medical marijuana, among other issues. It is an idea that deserves to be taken seriously rather than caricatured. Nullification is a step in that direction.