When “autonomy” is a rhetorical ruse

  1. When “autonomy” is a rhetorical ruse
  2. Fortify your crap detector with “agnotology”
  3. American Healthcare: Singapore, Finland or ???
  4. SPLC’s bait for lazy journalists
  5. Delusion begs explanation
  6. What the Protestant Reformers believed
  7. Benedict Option and the Dark Mountain Project


Neil Gorsuch apparently wrote a very perceptive book:

Judge Gorsuch … draws heavily on the writings of euthanasia proponents to show that what starts as a call for greater choice and self-determination inevitably blurs into invidious discrimination against the disabled and elderly—and even eugenics. Too much autonomy begets coercion.

Those who see “death with dignity” as a natural component of the liberal program should pay attention to the judge’s chapter on the euthanasia movement’s history, which he traces to the social Darwinism that swept America beginning in the late 19th century and remained popular until World War II. Leading euthanasia proponents, he shows, were also enthusiastic eugenicists.

“Chloroform unfit children,” suggested Clarence Darrow of Scopes Monkey Trial fame. For Harvard Prof. Earnest Hooton, involuntary euthanasia, applied to the “hopelessly diseased and the congenitally deformed,” was the key to American demographic renewal. One founder of the Euthanasia Society of America described World War II as “biological house-cleaning.”

The postwar revelation of the Nazis’ medical atrocities and systematic efforts to wipe out people with disabilities reversed the American euthanasia movement’s fortunes. But this proved only a temporary setback. The cultural ferment of the 1960s allowed the movement to reframe itself as one concerned with autonomy and self-definition.

Yet in their more honest moments some euthanasia proponents still talk of a “duty to die” to free up resources for the next generation, Judge Gorsuch notes. Even proponents who insist they seek to restrict the practice to the terminally ill must concede that, once opened, the gateway to a generalized right to euthanasia—and perhaps the involuntary variety—can’t be closed.

True, as is being proven where euthanasia has been legalized. And the double-dealing of autonomy-talk is far too rarely noted.


Scientists were publishing solid evidence of a link between smoking and cancer. From the viewpoint of Big Tobacco, more worrying was that the world’s most read publication, The Reader’s Digest, had already reported on this evidence in a 1952 article, “Cancer by the Carton”. The journalist Alistair Cooke, writing in 1954, predicted that the publication of the next big scientific study into smoking and cancer might finish off the industry.

It did not. PR guru John Hill had a plan — and the plan, with hindsight, proved tremendously effective. Despite the fact that its product was addictive and deadly, the tobacco industry was able to fend off regulation, litigation and the idea in the minds of many smokers that its products were fatal for decades.

So successful was Big Tobacco in postponing that day of reckoning that their tactics have been widely imitated ever since. They have also inspired a thriving corner of academia exploring how the trick was achieved. In 1995, Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University who has studied the tobacco case closely, coined the word “agnotology”. This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced; the entire field was started by Proctor’s observation of the tobacco industry. The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.

Agnotology has never been more important. “We live in a golden age of ignorance,” says Proctor today. “And Trump and Brexit are part of that.”

In the UK’s EU referendum, the Leave side pushed the false claim that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU. It is hard to think of a previous example in modern western politics of a campaign leading with a transparent untruth, maintaining it when refuted by independent experts, and going on to triumph anyway. That performance was soon to be eclipsed by Donald Trump, who offered wave upon shameless wave of demonstrable falsehood, only to be rewarded with the presidency. The Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of 2016. Facts just didn’t seem to matter any more.

We need some agreement about facts or the situation is hopeless. And yet: will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists had an excuse for their stumbles: the tobacco industry’s tactics were clever, complex and new. First, the industry appeared to engage, promising high-quality research into the issue. The public were assured that the best people were on the case. The second stage was to complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have any number of causes, after all. And wasn’t lung cancer, not cigarettes, what really mattered? Stage three was to undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports would be dismissed as anecdotal, epidemiological work as merely statistical, and animal studies as irrelevant. Finally came normalisation: the industry would point out that the tobacco-cancer story was stale news. Couldn’t journalists find something new and interesting to say?

Such tactics are now well documented — and researchers have carefully examined the psychological tendencies they exploited. So we should be able to spot their re-emergence on the political battlefield.

“It’s as if the president’s team were using the tobacco industry’s playbook,” says Jon Christensen, a journalist turned professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wrote a notable study in 2008 of the way the tobacco industry tugged on the strings of journalistic tradition.

One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, typed up in the summer of 1969, sets out the thinking very clearly: “Doubt is our product.”

(Tim Harford, The Problem With Facts; H/T The Browser)

Just how toxic is it when the White House seems to be deliberately sowing doubt and ignorance? I’m not going to cite specific instances since repetition, even in context of refutation, may only strengthen Trump’s confabulations (look at the third definition).

The sane segment of America needs to start with the axiom that “Trump lies constantly, reflexively, stopping only when he’s on a script prepared by someone else for him,” and to refuse to get bogged down in the details of particular cases.


At the New York Times on Sunday, two columnists proposed two different paradigms for healthcare reform in the U.S.

Anu Partanen, an immigrant from Finland, holds her native land’s system up for emulation, contrasting how it frees both patients and doctors from dealing with multiple complexities. The Republican’s idea of freedom to choose

requires most Americans to spend not just money, but also time and energy agonizing over the bewildering logistics of coverage and treatment — confusing plans, exorbitant premiums and deductibles, exclusive networks, mysterious tests, outrageous drug prices. And more often than not, individual choices are severely restricted by decisions made by employers, insurers, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and other private players. Those interest groups, not the consumer, decide which plans are available, what those plans cover, which doctors patients can see and how much it will cost.

It’s not just American patients who endure endless bureaucratic hassles. American doctors were also significantly more likely to report as major problems the amount of time they spent on dealing with administrative burdens related to insurance and claims, as well as on getting patients medications or treatment because of restrictions imposed by insurance companies, compared with doctors in most of the other 10 countries studied — including Sweden and Britain.

In contrast:

Finland has invested in a universal, taxpayer-funded and publicly managed health care system. Finns constantly debate the shortcomings of their system and are working to improve it, but in Finland I never worried about where my medical care came from or whether I could afford it. I paid my income taxes — which, again despite the stereotypes, were about the same as what I pay in federal, state and local income taxes in New York City — and if I needed to see a doctor, I had several options.

For minor medical matters, I could visit a private physician who was provided as a perk by my employer. Or I could call the public clinic closest to my home. If I saw the private doctor, my employer picked up the tab, with the help of public subsidies. If I went to the public clinic, it might cost me a small co-payment, usually around $20. Had I been pregnant, most care would have been free.

If I had wanted to, I also could have easily paid to see a private doctor on my own, again with the help of public subsidies. All of this works without anyone ever having to sign up for or buy health insurance unless he wants additional coverage. I never had to worry whether I was covered. All Finns are covered for all essential medical care automatically, regardless of employment or income.

Overall, Americans spend far more of their hard-earned money on health care than citizens of any other country, by a very wide margin. This means that it is in fact Americans who are getting a raw deal. Americans pay much more than people in other countries but do not get significantly better results.

What passes for an American health care system today certainly has not made me feel freer. Having to arrange so many aspects of care myself, while also having to navigate the ever-changing maze of plans, prices and the scarcity of appointments available with good doctors in my network, has thrown me, along with huge numbers of Americans, into a state of constant stress. And I haven’t even been seriously sick or injured yet.

As a United States citizen now, I wish Americans could experience the freedom of knowing that the health care system will always be there for us regardless of our employment status. I wish we were free to assume that our doctors get paid a salary to look after our best interests, not to profit by generating billable tests and procedures. I want the freedom to know that the system will automatically take me and my family in, without my having to battle for care in my moment of weakness and need. That is real freedom.

Ross Douthat (who has been putting forward a series of “what if’s” that he knows can be fanciful) suggests Singapore as a model:

In theory there is a coherent vision underlying Republican health care policy debates. Health insurance should be, like other forms of insurance, something that protects you against serious illnesses and pays unexpected bills but doesn’t cover more everyday expenses. People need catastrophic coverage, but otherwise they should spend their own money whenever possible, because that’s the best way to bring normal market pressures to bear on health care services, driving down costs without strangling medical innovation.

This theory — along with, yes, a green-eyeshade attitude toward government expenditures on the working poor — explains why conservatives think a modest subsidy to help people buy health insurance makes more sense than Obamacare’s larger subsidies. Republican politicians may offer pandering promises of lower deductibles and co-pays, but the coherent conservative position is that cheaper plans with higher deductibles are a very good thing, because they’re much closer to what insurance ought to be — and the more they proliferate, the cheaper health care will ultimately be for everyone.

Is there an existing health insurance system that vindicates this boast? Yes, in a sense: There is Singapore, whose health care system is the marvel of the wealthy world. Singaporeans pay for much of their own care out of their own pockets, and their major insurance program is designed to cover long-term illnesses and prolonged hospitalizations, not routine care. The combination has produced genuinely extraordinary results: The island state has excellent health outcomes while spending, as of 2014, just 5 percent of G.D.P. on health care. (By comparison, a typical Western European country that year spent around 10 percent; the United States spent 17 percent.)

However, there has never been a major Republican policy proposal that just imitates what Singapore actually does. That’s because the Singaporean vision is built around personal responsibility and private spending, but also a degree of statism and paternalism that present-day American conservatism instinctively rejects.


The wickedness of the SPLC’s blacklist lies in the fact that it conflates groups that really do preach hatred, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Nation of Islam, with ones that simply do not share the SPLC’s political preferences. The obvious goal is to marginalize the organizations in this second category by bullying reporters into avoiding them, scaring away writers and researchers from working for them, and limiting invitations for them to discuss their work.

Why CIS should only now qualify for the blacklist is something the SPLC offered no explanation for. Only in a blog post by America’s Voice, an allied group, were SPLC spokesmen quoted explaining how CIS meets their “rigorous criteria for designating organizations as hate groups.” Judge the rigor for yourself. Reason one: CIS has published work by independent researcher Jason Richwine, who wrote a contentious Harvard University dissertation on IQ a decade ago. (His work since has been on other subjects.) If this is evidence of “hate,” then the SPLC is going to need a bigger blacklist; other places that have published Richwine’s work include Forbes, Politico, RealClearPolicy and National Review, and his co-authors have included fellows at the American Enterprise Institute and New America.

Reasons two and three are almost too trivial to believe: CIS’s weekly email roundup of immigration commentary (from all sides) has occasionally included pieces by writers who turned out to be cranks; and a nonresident CIS fellow attended the Christmas party of a group the SPLC dislikes. Seriously, that’s it.

[T]he SPLC’s protestations of neutrality are false. It is an integral part of the immigration-expansion coalition, as even the briefest look at the “Immigrant Justice” page on its website will confirm. Regardless, the SPLC’s smearing of political opponents continues to be reported as news; hours after publication of the latest SPLC blacklist, the New Yorker retailed the “hate group” charge against CIS.

My goal is not to plead to be taken off the SPLC’s blacklist, but to condemn the blacklist itself and the willingness of news organizations to participate in this silencing campaign by using the blacklist label in their stories. This attempt to narrow public debate is harmful to our civic life. Widely held concerns among the citizenry don’t just go away because gatekeepers of public debate decide not to allow them to be aired. As the cliche has it, this is why you have President Trump. And further attempts at suppression will yield worse.

(Mark Krikorian, emphasis added) I don’t know much about Mr. Krikorian or his Center for Immigration studies, but the thrust of his criticism of the SPLC’s blacklist is spot-on. One of my beefs with the Indiana Bar is that they lionized SPLC’s self-promoting grievance monger Morris Dees a few years ago.



On March 1, President Trump made a quiet sort of history. Forty-one days into his presidency, according to The Washington Post‘s fact-checkers, he went his first 24 hours without making a false or misleading claim.

Okay, if you want to think Washington Post fact-checkers are no better than Morris Dees, go for it. But if you do, you may just be the subject of the article whence it and the following came:

So how did a vulgar, thrice-married, proudly greedy, once-socially-liberal, wealthy New Yorker who admitted to groping women and serial adultery win over religious conservatives?

Mugambi Jouet, a fellow at Stanford Law School, argues at The New Republic that “Trump and his evangelical supporters think alike in more ways than people realize,” and that his factual relativism is actually a bonus.

Trump is not an evangelical, yet he too routinely defies rational thought and is unabashedly skeptical of education. While there are numerous reasons behind Trump’s political success, these circumstances shed additional light on why evangelicals have been among the citizens most receptive to Trump’s systematic misinformation. Evangelicals are not only heavily represented among creationists, but also among citizens who perceive climate change as a “hoax,” accept calculated falsehoods about the evils of “socialized medicine,” and think that Obama is a covert Muslim. [The New Republic]

Now I know that many Evangelicals subjectively were voting against Clinton, not for Trump. I get that.

But I also know an Evangelical who (granted, she found my opposition to Trump infuriating) solemnly assured me that he was the best candidate she’d ever had the privilege of voting for — and she’s been voting since 1968.

That such delusion exists begs explanation.


All the early reformers, including Luther and Calvin, believed Mary to be Ever Virgin. The practice at the time of Jesus was to refer to all cousins as siblings, so none of the early Christians believed Mary had born any children other than Jesus. Furthermore, the veneration of the Virgin did not begin with Rome, but began in the Early Church. The problem with our protestant brethren is that everyone has become an authority, so the the teachings and practices of the Early Church have been forgotten, replaced with the mess that followed with individual interpretation of the Scriptures.

(Abbot Tryphon)


Rod Dreher discusses at some length an Irish Zen Buddhist and his “Dark Mountain Project”:

Peter Ross of the Boston Review has an interview with Paul Kingsnorth, the co-ounder of a dystopian movement called the Dark Mountain Project. It’s not a political or religious thing; it’s a group of artists, writers, and thinkers who are focused on ecology, and who believe that civilization as we know it is unraveling, and can’t be stopped. From its website:

It might also be useful to explain what Dark Mountain is not. It is not a campaign. It is not an activist project. It does not seek to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change. Rather, it is a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial.

Peter Ross describes the Dark Mountain vision as the belief “that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process.”

There really are a lot of parallels between Dark Mountain and Dreher’s Benedict Option, which reinforces my belief that a genuine artistic vision sees and communicates truth — the distinction between “truth” and “fact” being one that eluded my rather literalist and fundamentalist-tinged youth.

*   *   *

It may seem that I’m obsessed with The Benedict Option. I’m really not.

I just finished on Saturday reading some books by Dreher’s kindred spirits, back to back, and couldn’t bear to launch right into The Benedict Option even though, pre-ordered months ago, it was obediently waiting on my Kindle at 5:30 am March 14. I need a break, which Patrick Leigh Fermor is providing. I expect to start The Benedict Option later this week or next.

In a few years, we may still be talking of the Benedict Option as we still talk about Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square. But I rather doubt it. Dreher, who recently was still calling himself “your working boy,” is a journalist. Perhaps he’ll soon be seen as a public intellectual with fairly skimpy academic credentials. Neuhaus, though, was a major public intellectual whose bona fides included civil rights work in the 60s, pastoring a multiracial New York City church, and then converting both from liberal to neocon and from Lutheran to Catholic (although that came two years after his magnum opus). His book had a depth Dreher’s is unlikely to match.

Instead, I suspect that having coalesced around the Benedict Option for a while, we will learn some valuable things that we really do need to learn at this particular historic juncture, as much from the discussion of the book and prequel and sequel blogs as from the book itself.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.