What Counts as Evidence?

I have already complained about the assumed powers of Americans to interpret and read signs (or artifacts), now I raise question about the ability to make reasoned arguments based on evidence. Here’s one example:

Chuck Todd channeled the Democratic Party talking points of the hour as he sought to attribute blame for the El Paso massacre to President Trump. Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was on hand to represent the administration. The look on Mulvaney’s face when Todd turned to him said it all (video below).

Todd posed a political accusation as something like a self-evident truth: “You don’t accept the fact that the president’s rhetoric has been a contributing factor at all?”

Todd warmed up for another question with a tendentious argument: “In fairness [sic], the president has spent the last month on Twitter stoking racial resentment. You can try to rationalize…”

What is important to see is that President Trump is bigoted, unpresidential, swinish, and winds lots of people up on Twitter. He does all of this seemingly intentionally. But none of that shows that he was even 20 to 30 percent responsible for the shootings last weekend. On the other hand, the failure of journalists to maintain reasonable standards has enabled #woke pastors to attribute shootings to covenant theology. The ties between media coverage and social justice pastor are likely much closer than those between POTUS and terrorists.

But in other spheres, seemingly less consequential, thresholds for evidence are much higher. Take “proving” the effects of civic institutions:

“unlike philanthropic investments in education and health, investments in our shared civic assets are rarely measured in ways that demonstrate their true impact. After a new park or library is built, it may be required to share data on the increase in visitors but not much else. No one asks: How are the users of this space benefiting? What benefits are surrounding neighborhoods reaping? And what impact did this investment have on our larger societal goals?”

That is right. Funders want data on impact, and the data we typically provide is irrelevant. We are asking the wrong questions. So, what is Marquis’ response to this crisis? Address the “evidence gap.” Rather than lament, oppose, and contest the growing infatuation with metrics, the Civic Commons project seeks to build “a new rationale,” a new measurement system to demonstrate the value of public spaces and assess their contributions to communities.

Although this piece expresses discouragement about establishing more hurdles for the Reimagining the Civic Commons project, at least it shows that some people are skeptical and need to be convinced.

Hooray for reason!

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Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.