Joe Biden

The Surprising Revelations of “Useless” Facts

There’s something quaintly enjoyable about useless facts. I own a couple of such books, which are filled with random, quirky – and, it must be said, astonishing – nuggets of information. Part of the appeal is learning something new; I often like to store my quarry away, satisfied that I have received something fresh to sustain my already-extant thirst for knowledge. It’s an easy process, too. But the beauty of discovering something about the world that was previously shrouded in mystery lies in the effect such a fact can have on the contours of one’s thinking. More than simply pieces of knowledge, shorn of all context, some facts have the ability to tell a story about the way a portion of the world works. Indeed, they contain within themselves an entire narrative, waiting to be unfurled. Take, for example, this little tidbit, which I found in a book of strange facts published by the British magazine, Prospect:

“Without the black vote, the Democrats would have won the US presidency only once, in 1964″ (“‘You are in Fact One-Third Daffodil’ – and Other Facts to Turn Your World Upside-Down,” Tom Nuttall, p.53. Emphasis mine).

This is quite interesting, for a number of reasons. What looms largest in my mind is what the fact reveals about the Democratic Party’s apparent dependence on the votes of African-Americans for ongoing electoral success. I knew that blacks voted for Democrats in large numbers; but little did I realise the extent to which one of America’s two great political parties relied on that ethnic bloc for victory at the ballot box. In fact, statistics regularly put the percentage of African-Americans voting Democrat at approximately 90%. As the National Review highlighted last year, 92% of blacks voted for Al Gore at the 2000 election, whilst 88% voted for John Kerry four years later. This comes, despite African-Americans constituting just 13% of the population of the United States (US Census Bureau, 2011). It has been said that if the Republican Party could peel away just 5-10% of the black vote, the Democrats would be in “perpetual electoral jeopardy” (Peter Kirsanow, “Blacks, Democrats and Republicans, National Review, March 15, 2011).

What could possibly explain this perennial, and chronic, electoral situation? How does one offer an interpretation for why the US Democrats have had to rely so heavily upon the black vote for so long? From the outset, the answer is apparent: mutual, reciprocal dependence. In other words, it seems that the perverse – and ultimately illusory – symbiosis between African-American voters and Democrats has fuelled and perpetuated certain cultural, social and political strains prevalent in both groups. To be sure, neither African-Americans nor the Democrats are monolithic blocs. However, over the past 50 years, they have bound themselves together in a socio-political relationship – which, whilst offering the Democrats a narrow foundation for success at ballot box, has in fact imprisoned many African-Americans within oppressive material and psychological conditions, from which escape has seemed unlikely. Indeed, it seems that both ethnic community and political party are marked by certain perceptions that are harboured, nurtured and maintained by both groups’ electoral-political behaviour. I’ll return to this theme a little later; now, however, I want to concentrate on the reasons for, and the implications of, this perennial political trope.

Why might this relationship have arisen? The root causes appear to lie in a confused mix of past injustice; lingering historical guilt; the propagation of statist ideas regarding the elimination of poverty; the prevalence of African-Americans in job sectors that traditionally lean towards the Democrats; and the self-styled depictions of the Democratic Party as the saviour of the African-American community (certainly encouraged – or at least, not discouraged – by black leaders). Very few people these days would attempt to rebut the notion that blacks in America have, historically, been an oppressed minority. It is clear that the manifold grievances of even present-day blacks are legitimate. The Democratic Party, however, seems to have taken legitimate claims of discrimination and transmogrified them into a successful electoral strategy – portraying itself as the party of “black salvation”, so to speak. One might dispute this contention, but it’s at least an inarguable proposition that African-Americans – judging by recent voting trends – view the US Democratic Party as the exclusive political answer to the community’s perceived problems. Still, as Joe Biden, the current Vice-President, recently claimed, Romney & co. want to “put y’all back in chains” (The Huffington Post, 8th August, 2012). There has been some dispute over the exact referents in his remark; but, with hundreds of black people in the audience – and even black commentators arguing that his words were a coded form of race-baiting (see Arthur Davis’ piece in The National Review) – it seems that Biden’s words were meant to reinforce a particular political narrative: that whilst Republicans would like to try and stall progress made in regards to issues of race, the Democrats are the true friends of minorities; they alone have the ability (not to mention the desire) to “save” the black community. Biden, with his confected play-on-words, artlessly exposed what has, it seems, been long insinuated. It’s just the latest in a long line of rhetorical jabs that reflect the Democrats’ contrived portrayal as the party of racial liberation. Although that chiliastic thrust reached its zenith with the election of Barack Obama, it’s one that has persisted for the past five decades.

Rhetoric is one thing. But how has this salvationist portrayal been reflected in political-policy terms? Several items of policy supported by Democrats have been used as a means of suggesting that they alone hold the keys to liberation for African-Americans – thereby inducing them to vote, with herd-like unanimity, for the same party time and time again. The precise mix between sincere (if misguided) compassion and cynical, hard-headed politicking may be difficult to unravel. Still, despite the perceived benefits that flow to the African-American community as a result of voting Democrat, doing so is actually detrimental to blacks. Several political prescriptions have become near-scriptural in their authority over the shape and contours of Democratic thinking. One such policy is welfare entitlements [1], which typify the way some ideas are able to mask their socially deleterious effects with the feted illusion of good-will and politically-induced denialism. Indeed, after 45 years and several trillion dollars, welfare policies have contributed, it seems, to a culture of grievance and dependency – something which has been especially destructive for the black underclass in the United States (see Peter Kirsanow, “Blacks, Democrats and Republicans”, National Review, March 15, 2011). Moreover, it has been particularly damaging to black children, with some 39% living in poverty today (as compared with 14% of non-Hispanic white children – see “The Annie E. Casey Foundation” and its “Kids Count” Data Centre).

Research confirms this broad-brush statement. The conservative think-tank, “The Heritage Foundation”, conducted an extensive analysis in an effort to understand the differences in black and white child poverty rates [2], in light of the fact that 33.1% of black children, as compared with 13.5% of white children, lived in poverty in the United State when the report was published (see US Census Bureau, 1999). They found that, of the major possible causes of child poverty prevalent in the United States, welfare dependency – along with single parenthood – was the most significant. The report stated that black children were five times more likely to be on welfare than white children, often owing to the fact that they grew up in single parent households (with close to three times the number of black children born out of wedlock than white children).

Some might argue that the process runs in the opposite direction: in other words, generalised poverty causes welfare dependency, rather than the reverse. Hence, the need for policies that parties such as the Democrats espouse. The authors of the report contended, however, that this assumption betrays a lack of understanding in regards to the way welfare entitlements work (in the United States, at least). For instance, welfare pre-conditions prohibit the extent to which the mother (for in these scenarios, it is inevitably the mother who is left to raise the children) can work. Since welfare is usually very low, a single mother who is unable to work is kept in a state of chronic poverty. Increases in welfare can only go so far, meaning that they cannot – on their own – lift individuals (much less single-parent families) out of the poverty cycle. In addition, the report argues that increases to welfare actually lure women out of the workforce, which can dramatically reduce their short- and long-term earning capacity even if they leave behind their reliance on welfare. Others may argue that it is racial discrimination in, say, the labour market, that causes poverty – and, therefore, inordinate levels of welfare dependency and single parenthood in the black community. The implied conclusion is that welfare is a necessary attempt to redress the balance. Again, the writers of the report counter this argument with the fact of higher rates of marriage and family stability amongst African-Americans in the 1940s, when income disparities were much starker, and racial oppression more pronounced. Today, black income rates are 85% of white incomes – still demonstrably inequitable, but a vast improvement over the past 70 years. It is the rise of single-parenthood, along with the attendant consequences of welfare dependency, which has led to enduring, inter-generational impoverishment amongst the black community. Of course, the point is not to analyse or evaluate the collapse of marriage within the African-American community (though there may be reason to think that welfare can have a damaging cultural impact in this respect). However, the point is that policies such as welfare entitlements, far from constituting a response to racial inequality and the entrenchment of penury, actually perpetuate them. In the process, some of the country’s most vulnerable – that is, impoverished children – are left behind.

Nevertheless, the Democratic Party has persisted in advocacy for this kind of response to the tragic phenomenon of black poverty. And, as I noted earlier, it would appear that the party has styled itself as the political paragon of racial and ethnic justice. Commitment to welfare is one substantive manifestation of this now-concocted self-identity – one that seems to have degenerated into a craven electoral strategy, reinforced by the brazenness of race-tinged rhetoric. Of course, with the troubled history of black-white relations brooding over the United States, who wouldn’t want to portray themselves as a fierce advocate for racial justice? Why would a political group not seek to supply the answer to protracted socio-ethnic issues? The problem is that the Democratic Party has embroiled itself, as well as the African-American community, in a monstrous cycle from which extrication seems impossible. With remarkable inoculating power, the policies espoused by the Democratic Party have kept both it and many American blacks trapped in a kind of mutually dependent relationship that reinforces the illusion of need and advancement. The more blacks are trapped within a state of dependency, the more government largesse seems necessary. None of this is to suggest that all blacks, or even the vast majority, are on welfare. Many are part of the middle-class. However, the reality of high rates of welfare dependency within the black community – combined with the collective sense of grievance stoked by some black leaders and members of the political class – has encouraged this enduring, yet perverse, socio-political bond.

It is at this point that I come back to the original fact – that single match, which ignited the kindling flame of reflection on the matter. The Democrats’ reflexive dedication to welfare as a panacea for society’s ills – coupled with the obvious political benefits that have accrued as a consequence – has both created and sustained this state of affairs. Depicting itself as the locus of African-American salvation, the party has come to repeatedly bank on this narrative as the means for electoral success. Moreover, it seems that parts of the black community, driven perhaps by the lingering grievances of a by-gone era, see state-driven entitlements as both a right and a solution. All the while, they appear oblivious to the stultifying effects, and the identity of “aggrieved victimhood”, such ideas can engender. The Democrats’ long-standing dependency on the black vote, as revealed by a seemingly innocuous piece of historical minutia, has in turn created dependency within that racial bloc. The fact that blacks continue to vote in this way – despite clear evidence pointing to the detrimental effects of such electoral behaviour – has, ironically, galvanised further support for reflexive Democratic social/welfare policies. Their supposed legitimacy is reinforced, removing any incentive to alter what is otherwise causing harm to many of the party’s base. If much of the black community is kept in a perennial state of poverty, urged on by the illusory promise of welfare entitlements and the near-messianic message propounded by America’s political Left, then it will continue to recapitulate the kind of en masse support upon which the Democrats so desperately rely and encourage.

Thus, the tangled dance continues apace: political party and ethnic community trapped in a damaging relationship that reduces the former to a caricature bereft of new ideas, and the latter to a state of collective infantilism. Tragically, the Democratic Party must perpetuate the notion of black dependency in order to retain the comprehensive trust it obligingly offers at the ballot box. To do so, it must cling to policy prescriptions that maintain the very economic and psychological conditions which keep blacks locked into a position of dependency, and induce them to vote Democrat (with indomitable faith) in the first place. This is an enduring scandal within the chequered history of American politics. The only way to arrest it is to neuter the mythical power of the Left’s narrative, including the persistence of welfare as an unexamined solution to both the legitimate grievances of the past and the imagined grievances of the present. Once that is broken, the African-American community may well see beyond the narrowness of its seemingly pre-ordained voting behaviour. Moreover, whilst such change would undoubtedly undercut the very support the Democratic Party needs to prevail at election time (at least for a time), it could well have a more positive, long-term result: the creation of a re-invigorated political bastion that is no longer beholden to pernicious shibboleths or hackneyed electoral tropes.

*          *          *

It’s quite surprising how one little fact can set in motion a whole train of thoughts. What initially appeared to be the preserve of the lover of trivia has, in fact, helped to prise apart the complexities of a little-understood phenomenon. Of course, the fact alone is just that: a fact. Sitting in splendid isolation, it does very little beyond communicating its own contents. And yet, when seen as a window into a whole new world, it can be very powerful indeed – shaping one’s thinking and radically altering one’s perspective. In this case, it has opened up a discussion about race relations, the role of the state and the price of welfarist policy. It’s an important, multifaceted conversation that is eminently relevant, not only in the United States, but across the Western world.

Not so useless now, eh?

[1] This essay is not an argument against welfare entitlements per se. In fact, I support a strong social safety net in general, recognizing that there are many occasions where people, apart from anything they have done, are trapped in an environment of poverty. What I take issue with, however, is the unthinking reliance on welfare as an exclusive solution to the scourge of poverty. As the above information suggests, welfare entitlements, at least in the way they are sometimes constructed and distributed, can have the opposite effect. If it’s true that the causes of poverty and socio-economic dislocation are sometimes structural/environmental, then it is equally true that welfare can, in itself, become just another structure – perpetuating those daily tragedies of want and penury, whilst creating a whole class of dependents who have been robbed of the opportunity to develop strong, robust attitudes to life. And, needless to say, the greater problem I have with welfare is that it can be – and in fact, is – cynically used by political parties as they seek to portray themselves as the paragons of justice and compassion. I think such is the case with the modern Democratic Party and its historical overtures to the African-American community.

[2] Go to Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson and Patrick Fagan, “Understanding Differences in Black and White Child Poverty Rates”, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports-/2001/05/understanding-differences-in-black-and-white-child-poverty-rates, May 23rd, 2001, for more details. Unless otherwise stated, all of the statistics supplied after this point have been garnered from the linked report.

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Postcards from the Marriage Wars (Part One): The Golden President Turns on the Golden Rule

On May 9th, President Obama told a TV interviewer that he supports same-sex marriage (SSM). This came soon after his Vice-President, Joe Biden, said he was quite comfortable with the notion. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the President’s revelation. He himself has said that his views on gay marriage have been evolving. Right now, he appears to have reached the end of that evolution, though one wonders if his VP’s comments gave him a nudge in that direction. Whatever the case, my point is not to interrogate Obama’s reasons for revealing what he did at this time (some candour on this issue is rather refreshing, actually). Instead, I want to examine the the President’s rather lazy use of the so-called “Golden Rule”, which he pressed into service as a kind of secular theological way of justifying his position. Here are his exact words:

“…the thing at root we [Michelle and Barack Obama] think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated”. (David Gibson, “Obama Backs Gay Marriage: Golden Rule Informs American Religion”, Huffington Post, May 11th, 2012. Emphasis mine).

That teaching is drawn from a portion of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount: “…do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12). Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should treat others as we would want to be treated when it comes to the thorny, and divisive, issue of SSM. That way, we can all get along. It also seems superficially plausible: if we want to get married, then why should we deny that to others? The Golden Rule, it appears, commits us to this position – and all with the imprimatur of divine authority. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the President’s would-be Christian justification.

Most obviously, Obama’s reasoning falls flat due to a basic error. Taken to its logical extension, one might be able to advocate for just about anything, provided one was a supporter of the act in question. This is patently absurd. As Catholic philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has written, the Golden Rule “is not a quid pro quo for preference satisfaction reciprocity. Otherwise, it would mean that if one were a masochist, for example, then one should inflict pain on others” (“The President, Jesus and the Golden Rule,” Catholic Thing, 11th May, 2012).  Conversely, if one simply didn’t want to get married personally, one would have grounds for reversing Christ’s maxim and denying same-sex couples what President Obama clearly thinks is a sacred right (or rite) demanded by Christ himself. I mean, if I am treating others as I treat myself, and I don’t want to marry, then refusing gay couples the opportunity to do so is consistent with the logic of the President’s preference-based interpretation. If Obama can cite this verse to support SSM, one can easily cite it based upon one’s own, contrary preferences. Thus, any superficial usefulness it might have possessed collapses into incoherence.

Indeed, The President didn’t seem to realize that the Golden Rule, when used in such a lazily secular manner, does not settle the issue of the moral status of SSM. Employing Christ’s maxim as Obama did only works if one is already committed to the rightness of SSM. One first has to establish that something is a good before it can be said that the Golden Rule impels one to extend that good to another. The problem lies in the fact that President Obama used this verse as a foundational reason for his support of gay marriage (note his words above: “…the thing at root…”). It is question begging, since it already assumes – without reason or explanation – the normative status of SSM. Now, one might argue that SSM simply represents the extension of marriage to include those who want to marry a person of the same sex; if this is so, and we think marriage is a type of good, then surely we should treat others the way we want to be treated? However, it is precisely the meaning and essence of marriage (and therefore, whether it is proper to extend its meaning to embrace same-sex couples) that is contested ground. The Golden Rule, on the other hand, assumes some shared vision of what is good for a person or people. Debate over SSM, which goes to the heart of the meaning of marriage as an institution, is not within its purview. And since the Golden Rule says nothing about SSM – nothing at all – then appeals to it as the most basic grounding for support of the concept are meaningless.

Obama seemed also to misunderstand the nature of Christian ethical teaching. It is not the case that one can use a verse, completely shorn of its context, to make a point. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the President did. He neglected to mention that Christ’s maxim was a summation of the “Law and the Prophets” (part of the very same verse). What this means is that the Golden Rule is integrated with the rest of the Scriptures; it does not stand alone, in splendid isolation, ready to do the work of anyone who wants to justify anything on the basis of reciprocal preference. It is grounded in a particular theological context that says nothing at all about SSM, but which upholds the ideal of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (see Genesis 1:27; 2:23-24). What’s more, Matthew 7:12 is integrally tied to the rest of Jesus’ teaching – teaching which makes plain the fact that he upheld the creational ideal found in the Bible’s premier book. In fact, just twelve chapters after uttering the Golden Rule, Jesus pointed to the fact that “at the beginning” marriage was created as a union between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:1-6). Now, one might object that these verses don’t say anything about SSM either. Two things can be said in response. First, Jesus’ citation of the Genesis text implicitly ruled out sexual unions that lie outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage. His citation, I submit, assumed exclusivity of scope. Second, Jesus was an observant Jew, steeped in the OT, and living in the socio-cultural matrix of first-century Judaism. Support for homosexual acts – and therefore, advocacy of SSM – would have been highly unlikely, to say the least.

The upshot of all this is that President Obama has – unwittingly, perhaps – pitted Jesus against himself. One cannot believe what Jesus taught in Matthew 19, and yet use Matthew 7:12 as a way to advocate for SSM. Either that, or it appears the President has implied that not even Jesus taught in accordance with what the leader of the free world thinks is a proper interpretation of the Golden Rule. For Obama, who states that he and his wife Michelle are practising Christians, something is seriously amiss. How, pray tell, would he reconcile his reading of Matthew 7:12 with Christ’s teachings on marriage (found in the very same gospel)? If it’s true that Christ upheld the ideal of heterosexual marriage, and regarded homosexuality as a sin (as any observant Jew of his time would have), how would the President be able to maintain his religious and theological justification for SSM when it brings him into jarring conflict with the central figure – and the ethical model – of the faith he professes?

As one can see, several problems abound with Obama’s tortured, and tortuous, theological reasoning – and all this before we arrive at an exegesis of the passage in question. Looking at it in context, it’s clear that Matthew 7:12 can only be used as a justification for SSM advocacy by way of imaginative sophistry or intellectual laziness. It comes as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which, although beloved by people who say they admire Christianity (but cannot really commit to all of its teachings), is actually directed towards disciples. This is made plain at the beginning of the section, in Matthew 5:1. Rather, it is an “in-house” sermon, directed towards those who already followed Jesus. Even if Obama’s interpretation were hypothetically plausible, it still would not warrant support for a change in public policy (true, Obama stated his stance on SSM as a personal view. But as President of the United States, and thus that nation’s leading public figure, his personal views cannot easily be disentangled from his public stance on issues).

Everything I have mentioned – the various layers of context within which the Golden Rule sits, Obama’s lazy and undiscerning application, and Jesus’ own recorded stance on the question of marriage – leaves one dubious about the prospect of Christ’s maxim doing all of this theological and intellectual heavy lifting. However, if we move on to the immediate context of Matthew 7:12, that prospect seems even more remote. Just before he uttered his famous words, Jesus spoke of asking (God, presumably) for one’s needs to be met. He then used his present audience in an analogous manner to show them that God could be trusted to supply their needs (Matt. 7:9-11). Moving from the lesser to the greater, Jesus concluded that if sinful human fathers would nonetheless liberally supply their children with everything they needed, how much more would one’s Heavenly Father supply one’s own needs, and work for one’s own good? Reading verse 12, it is apparent that Christ’s “Golden Rule” exhortation was the direct implication of God meeting the needs of his disciples. In like manner, they are to treat others in the same way, with the way one treats oneself (defined in a basic, commonsensical manner) acting as a yardstick. Their lives are to be characterized by a regard for others’ good that mirrors God’s regard for theirs’. In view of what Jesus preached just one chapter earlier – exhorting his disciples to refrain from worrying about the basics of life, precisely because of God’s provision (Matt. 6:25-34) – it seems one has some details regarding the kinds of goods and the sorts of needs one might meet when treating another as oneself. As I noted earlier, such a specific, and contemporary, concept/issue as SSM was never within the purview of Jesus’ teaching at this point.

It is sad to see someone of such intellectual acuity commit such an elementary blunder in an effort to “reconcile” the teachings of Christ and the church with modern-day concerns that are diametrically opposed. We can be thankful that President Obama has at least shown enough candour on this issue to be forthright and honest. As a lawyer, however, one thinks he would have been able to do better. But hey, I suppose that’s what you get when you try and please two groups whose disagreement over this issue could not be sharper. More seriously, it shows us that there are times when Christian ethical teachings simply will not submit to secular concerns, no matter how much one may try. Not even a President, powerful as he is, can reconcile the irreconcilable.