Positive Rights and the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare)

The big story today every news outlet and political blog is talking about is the SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act, ruling 5-4 in favour of the Act’s constitutionality. Now, I’m not a constitutional scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m not going to say anything at all about whether I agree with the ruling on constitutional grounds. Anything I’d have to say about that would be based purely on second-hand information I’ve picked up while following this story, so it would be of very little use to you or me to go on about it. Where I do have some experience is in the realm of meta-ethics, and I think this is the more interesting area to go looking into this story. Clearly, a personal bias, but write what you know, right?

At the heart of the question about the ACA in particular and socialized medical care in general is whether healthcare ought to be considered a right, and on what grounds. Critics of the Act, when they aren’t bogging everything down in myriad fine points of constitutional law they believe backs up their opinion, are usually basing their objection to this law on the grounds that it involves invoking something called positive rights, and claiming that this is an improper move to make philosophically. In the brand of conservatism currently ascendant among North American right-wing parties, there is no such thing as a positive right, only negative ones. (For the purposes of this post, “conservative” is used as a blanket term covering conservatives, neo-conservatives, libertarians, and anyone else on the right-wing side of the political spectrum.)

So what is the difference between a positive and negative right? The simple answer is that a positive right places an obligation on others in society to provide something for you, while a negative right places an obligation on others to avoid doing something to you. In the example of something like free speech, nobody is obligated to provide you with a forum to voice your opinion, but they are required to allow you to speak your mind when you do find a way to do so, hence free speech is a negative right. An example of a positive right would be something like education, where everyone in your community pays school taxes that go to provide children with the necessary buildings, supplies and staff, so this would be considered a positive right, as it requires citizens to provide tax dollars in order to provide the needed funds.

The reasoning behind conservatives’ rejection of positive rights as a concept is the way they ground the notion of rights in general. Violating a negative right involves hindering a person’s free exercise of will in an unjustified manner. Most conservative theorists will recognize that negative rights are not absolute, and very few would fight for your right to yell “FIRE!!!” in a crowded theatre, to use the standard limitation example. In most conservative theories of rights, your right to swing your arms around is absolute, right up to the point of making contact with my nose. You are free to own what you like, say what you like, do what you like, so long as it doesn’t unfairly interfere with the things someone else might want to own, say or do.

This view of negative rights hold up under both conservative and liberal theories in most cases, with a few points of disagreement on the fine print items like hate speech or contraceptive use. In principle, there is much more agreement than disagreement on the topic of negative rights, but the matter of positive rights is a point of major division. While conservatives deny their existence, liberals (and again, “liberals” is a broad, catch-all term here for anyone left of center) have usually tried to justify the concept of positive rights by pointing to the fact that negative rights are useless without certain positive provisions, like literacy, health and similar social spending programs. The thinking is that if you don’t have your health, you can’t exercise your right to public assembly, or if you aren’t literate, you can’t freely participate in the public exchange of ideas, and there is something to be said for this kind of argument. The problem is, this is a utility argument that most conservatives aren’t buying because it interferes with the way they’d like to exercise their own freedoms, violating what they see as their negative rights against government interference in living a self-directed life.

Fair enough, I suppose. If you do in fact wish to keep your money to yourself to the greatest extent possible while living in a society, it would run counter to that wish if society were to require you to hand some of your money over to provide care and education for others. In the world of Citizens United, you could even call it a restriction of your right to free speech; giving your “voice” to political programs you don’t support yourself. However, is this really the whole story, or is there something more that is being neglected?

What about the benefits I derive from you being healthy enough to do your job and provide the goods or services I need, or from the education and training that enable you to contribute to society? I gain a real benefit from the fact that the people around me are for the most part literate and able-bodied enough to keep the economy going, does that count for nothing in the question at hand? Every single day, I gain some small benefit from the fact you went to school, got regular check-ups, were able to drive to your job on public roads, and are kept safe by police and fire services. Granted, the benefit I gain from you personally may be exceedingly small, but the correlation here is that I very likely have only done you a similarly small amount of good too. Looking at the aggregates, however, the whole thing scales up in a big hurry. When everyone makes a small contribution to the general good, everyone benefits from it, either directly or indirectly, in big ways.

Your lifetime road taxes would likely pay for about a mile of pavement, but all our taxes pooled together build necessary infrastructure that gets us all where we’re going. Your lifetime contributions to the health system might pay for an x-ray machine, but the tax pool once again builds whole hospitals and medical schools. Now, how much would you benefit from your own personal x-ray machine without a skilled technician to run it for you, a doctor to interpret the results for you, or a surgical team to do something about it if the work of the first two turns up something scary?

But wait, you might say, I purchase private health insurance, which protects my right to freely choose my provider, while pooling my money with the money of other healthy people hedging against that future something scary. It’s the best of both worlds, I get to keep my negative rights while taking advantage of pooled risk, it’s great! Well, that’s as may be, it very well might be great for you, but what about everyone else? What about the future doctor who comes up with a cure for your future something scary? Or rather, the kid who would have been that doctor, if he hadn’t made the rash decision to be born to a poor family and died of a childhood disease because the crappy insurance his parents could barely afford wouldn’t cover that particular childhood disease, or at least not in a timely manner. Yeah, that kid. The one who would have saved your life if he’d lived to adulthood.

Are you starting to see the reasoning here? Your positive rights are derived from the laundry list of ways I benefit from your flourishing. You become a teacher and I learn to read, you become an EMT and I survive a potentially fatal accident. The way that society interconnects all of us and spreads social goods far and wide gives rise to an obligation on my part to see to it that the whole thing keeps on giving me schools and hospitals. Because I can flourish due to what others have done for and given me, I have an obligation to provide for the flourishing of others.

Nobody, and I mean nobody is exempt from this. I’m sure there are some Ayn Rand fans out there that see every one of their fellow citizens as parasites and leeches, cloying at them with their groping, overreaching hands for the fruits of my labours, what I’ve earned by the sweat of my brow. While these people are passionate and often convincing, John Galt is a work of fiction, there is nobody alive in the real world who does no depend on others for their flourishing and survival. Without the farmers providing the food, Mr. Galt dies of starvation; without the justice system and general sense of moral standards, Mr. Galt dies with his head caved in for the sake of his tie pin and the cash he’s carrying. Everyone depends on the kindness of strangers, just as a prerequisite of living around other people.

To sum up, if you really are determined to owe no man for anything, it’s too late, the ledger is already way past your ability to pay it back. The efforts of millions of other people have gone into making you who you are, there is no such thing as a self-made man. If you’d like to cash out and move forward as a free spirit, calling no man sir, I would invite you to make your way out to the woods and Walden the hell out of your suddenly much fewer remaining years. The rest of us will accept our obligations to the people around us and enjoy the countless benefits of living cooperatively with other people


The Bible Lebowski: Biblical Themes and Tropes in The Big Lebowski

1. The Story

The Big Lebowski is a story of mistaken identity, kidnapping, violence, death and bowling. In the opening of the film, its narrator describes the Dude as the man of his time, as the man who just fits perfectly in his place and time, as, well, as the Dude. He first appears on-screen in sandals, shorts and a bathrobe, long-hair and bearded, wearing sunglasses in a grocery store shopping for half & half, strongly suggesting an image of a burnt-out hippie Jesus of Los Angeles, circa 1991.

The story is driven by the Dude’s desire to receive compensation for the soiling of his living room rug at the hands of thugs who were looking for money from the Big Lebowski, another Jeff Lebowski with a prodigal wife. When Big’s wife is kidnapped, the Dude is called in to act as bag man for the ransom, but through a series of errors and poor decisions, the kidnappers do not get the money and Big receives a toe as evidence of their resolve. It is eventually revealed that almost nothing is as it seems, nobody is who they say they are, and in the end the Dude is left to simply abide.

2. The Characters

Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski

The Dude is the Christ-figure of the film, but not in a conventional manner. Visually, he resembles the popular image of Jesus, long-haired, bearded, in long, flowing robes, wearing sandals and generally hippie-like, but the Dude is a Christ-figure in a world where he failed in his attempt to save humanity, had not been crucified, and went on to drift through life without direction or purpose. He is a jumbled, confused version of the biblical Jesus, shuffling through a mostly aimless life without purpose. To borrow the term from Big, he is the Jesus of the Bums. His revolution failed, the bums lost, and now he’s just floating through without purpose. The only motivation we see from him is the restoration of his valued rug, because it really tied the room together. He has given up on the project of saving the world, now all he wants is to restore the integrity of his own home space.

John’s Gospel begins with the statement, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (NIV) and in line with this identity of Jesus as the Word, and the Dude as a skewed Christ figure, we get the result that nearly every scene in the movie contains an exchange where one character completely misunderstands what’s been said by another. When the Dude quotes Lenin, Donny responds by saying “I am the Walrus”, referring to John Lennon; when Brandt shows off all of Big’s various awards and photos with the famous and powerful, as he gets to the picture of the Little Achievers, the Dude gets confused over the phrase “These are Mr. Lebowski’s children, so to speak,” assuming that Brandt means that the children are his own illegitimate children by various mothers of various ethnic backgrounds.

The phrase “What the fuck” occurs at total of 23 times throughout the movie, usually in the form of “What the fuck are you talking about?” or some variation on this theme. People in this film do not understand each other, they talk past one another; misunderstandings and confusion abound throughout. This is a world where ambiguities are never understood in the way they’re intended, it is almost as if Los Angeles is suffering a new confusing of language in the manner of Babel in Genesis 11:5-8.

In addition to the confused dialogue between characters, the Dude echoes back lines throughout the movie, but rarely correctly. The opening scene of Bush Sr. talking aboutIraq’s invasion ofKuwaitfeatures the famous line, “This aggression will not stand . . . This will not stand!” comes back in his first meeting with Big as, “No, look. I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this will not stand, man. I mean, your wife owes – “. Maude’s phrase “she has been ‘banging’ Jackie Treehorn, to use the parlance of our times,” turns into the misapplied “Young trophy wife, I mean, in the parlance of our times,” when he tries to use a term he doesn’t quite understand fully.

In addition to the merely ambiguous use of words, the Nihilists speak German without translation, Maude speaks Italian, the Stranger speaks through a moustache-obscured mouth with a drawl that turns “bear” into “bar” (causing the Dude to completely misunderstand what’s been said), and heavy accents are common among supporting characters. Words are confused, meanings are misunderstood, people trail off and jump from one topic to another without any connection. It’s a world where language has come detached from meaning, where the film’s incarnation of the Word is out of connection with his purpose.

Isaiah 9:6 reads: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (NIV) and the term “Prince of Peace” is a popular term of reference for Jesus, but while the Dude self-identifies as a pacifist, he is not a very peaceful person much of the time. There are spots through the film where the Dude is at peace (usually when he’s in contact with his valued rug or soaking in his tub while finishing off a joint) but in nearly every conversation with Walter, the Dude gets to a point where he’s yelling and swearing, and in the final confrontation with the Nihilists, he makes an attempt at physical violence before Walter steps in and finishes the fight. He is the least peaceful pacifist anyone is likely to encounter, a further misalignment in the Dude’s role as Christ-figure.

While lying in bed with Maude, the Dude claims to be one of the authors of the original Port Huron Statement (not the compromised second draft) and a member of the Seattle Seven (there were six other guys), pointing to his role as a failed saviour figure. He was once an idealist, a radical hippie who tried to change the world and save it from itself, but now he does, “Oh, you know, the usual. Bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.” Rather than the Saviour of Mankind, the Dude is a drug-addled burn-out who can’t keep the thread of what’s going on around him in spite of being witness to everything that occurs in the film except Bunny passing behind him and Jesus Quintana walking around his neighbourhood to inform people of his status as a sex offender.

The Dude was once a passionate crusader, fighting to right the wrongs he saw in the world, attempting to enlighten people about the dangers attached to our modern lifestyle, but his peers sold out, fell out and generally tuned out of the movement, leaving the Dude aimless and alone. This is the Jesus of an alternate universe, a world where millionaires are broke, kidnapping victims are driving sporty red convertibles aroundPalm Springsand a visit to the doctor about a sore jaw is really screening for a potential father.

Matthew 13:55 identifies Jesus as the son of a carpenter, in relation to his hometown’s response to what he was teaching in the synagogue, and at 1:13:40 of the film we see the Dude as a rather inept carpenter. He pounds several bent double head nails into a piece of 2×4 as a brace for a chair intended to block his front door. However, the door opens to the outside, so his work is for nothing and Jackie Treehorn’s thugs walk in through the unlocked entrance to fetch him for their boss. Two scenes later, he trips over the board he nailed to the floor as he returns home and falls at Maude’s feet. This is in keeping with the theme of viewing him as a cockeyed Christ figure, a carpenter who can’t manage to nail a board to the floor, or notice that the door he’s blocking from the inside opens the other way.

In contrast to Christ, when the Dude is faced with temptation, he gives in almost immediately. When Walter hatches his plan to steal the ransom money, the Dude offers only token resistance as his friend runs away with the job of delivering the million dollars to the kidnappers. Earlier, when he meets Bunny, it is only his lack of money that keeps him from acting on her offer of a sexual exchange, even though he had just moments before met the girl’s husband. When Maude presents herself to him and asks him to love her, he is distracted by the fact she had been wearing his robe, but as the scene fades back in, we find them in bed together. Drugs, alcohol, women and bowling represent irresistible temptations for him, in rather sharp contrast to the way Jesus is described in Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (NASB) While the Dude resembles Jesus in that he is frequently tempted, he consistently fails the test and goes along with whatever plan is presented to him. He genuinely does want to do the right thing, but he completely lacks the strength of character to resist anyone’s influence.

The scene where the Dude comes to Jackie Treehorn’s home is a nice parallel with Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the synoptic Gospels, but true to form it runs backwards in the Dude’s case. Rather than ending on a high place, Jackie takes the Dude into his house, high above the hedonistic beach party he emerged from. At the first offer of money, the Dude gives up everything he knows without hesitation. There is no need to press him further, no need for two more temptations; he caves in immediately and completely.

The end of the movie has the Dude talking with the film’s narrator, and his closing words, “Yeah man. Well, you know, the Dude abides,” come out as a profound statement, that despite all that has happened, the Dude remains himself, unchanged and “takin’ it easy for all us sinners.” It has the feel of a passage like Psalm 25:13, “His soul will abide in prosperity, And his descendants will inherit the land,” (NASB) describing someone living in the will of God. The Dude is nothing if not humble, and this is in the end what ties his character to the traditional notion of a Christ-figure. He never had any personal ambition past the restoration of his rug; it’s the only thing that the Dude holds on to from beginning to end. His home is his sanctuary, his Garden of Eden, and when it is violated nothing else matters to him but restoring it to its original state.

In this, the Dude again exhibits a genuine resemblance to Christ; his desire to restore his home leads him through difficult, dangerous times, through persecution and violence. In his negotiations with Big, with Maude and with Jackie Treehorn, this is the one constant of his character; he is driven by his desire to tie his home back together. It is a parallel to God’s desire to restore humanity after the Fall and the lengths He went to in order to make that happen. When humanity fell in the Garden, it was not entirely unlike Woo urinating on the Dude’s rug; the world was thrown out of order, in much the same way that the harmony of the Dude’s living room was broken by that act of unchecked aggression. In the end, the Dude is at peace, abiding; he has brought his life and his home back into alignment, and a new life has been brought about in the process of restoration, a new creation.

Walter Sobchack

Serving as a foil to the Dude is his best friend Walter. He is a Vietnamvet, and ties nearly everything in his life back to that experience. The other defining aspect of his character is his relationship to his ex-wife, Cynthia. Before marrying her, Walter converted to Judaism; in particular, he became shomer shabbas, a particularly orthodox group within Judaism. He does not work, drive, ride in a car handle money, turn on the oven or bowl on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. This is rooted in a strict interpretation of Exodus 31:13-17, which establishes Saturday as a day of rest in honour and remembrance of God’s creative work, from which He rested on the 7th day.

Throughout the movie, Walter presents himself as a strict adherent to the Law and to the letter. When Smokey’s toe goes over the line, Walter is so insistent that it be marked as a zero that he pulls out a loaded gun and threatens to shoot his opponent if he marks it an eight. When he is confronted by the waitress in the café about how loudly he is talking, he cites legal precedent from the Supreme Court and even more loudly insists upon his right to be obnoxious in public, throwing in the fact he served inVietnamfor good measure. He represents the Law and the gospel’s teachers of the law, the strict legal tradition that strains at gnats but swallows camels. He is willing to threaten deadly force in order to regulate a league game, but in doing so violates the higher law against pulling a gun in public and sticking it in someone’s face over a bowling match.

His personal identity is tied to “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” in spite of the fact that he is divorced from the woman who was his original reason for converting. He identifies with it the same way that the Pharisees and Sadducees did, claiming Abraham for his father in Matthew 3:7-9; not in the sense that they and Walter share Abraham’s relationship to God, but in that they are merely his blood descendents, or in Walter’s case his descendent by marriage. His faith is about following rules and seeing to it that others do as well. There is no grace or forgiveness in him, just a blind devotion to his idea of the Law, with a capital L.

In keeping with a Christian view of legalism, Walter is wrong nearly every time he makes a truth claim, and the surer he claims to be of something, the more certainly he is wrong about it. This hits its peak when Walter and the Dude confront Big, and Walter insists that Big is faking his disability, then lifts him out of his chair, only to find upon releasing Big that he is indeed crippled. In the gospels, the teachers of the Law are consistently portrayed as wrong about everything; they fail to understand what God is like, the very God who wrote the Law they claim to revere. Walter is the personification of Romans 4:14-16; he is all law and wrath, without a trace of real understanding or faith to temper his bluster with mercy or grace. He is a violent man, incapacitating all three of the Nihilists in spite of two of them being armed, and his amputation of Uli’s ear is reminiscent of a poorly and brutally applied “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23-25) ethical framework. The other amputation in the film is the toe taken from Franz’s girlfriend, so the system of retribution is out of line with what’s really going on.

In the end, Walter is chastised by the Dude for the mess he makes of Donny’s eulogy by rambling on aboutVietnamwhen he’s supposed to be focusing on remembering their friend. This is the only point in the film where we see Walter genuinely remorseful, and it is the point where Walter asks the Dude for forgiveness. He realizes that he’s missed the point of what’s going on, and appeals to the Dude’s forgiving nature in response. There is a complete change in demeanour on display, his shoulders slump and he takes on the posture of a child being scolded. Unable to stay mad at his friend, the Dude relents and embraces Walter, and their benediction is pronounced, “Aw, fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” As Big pointed out at the end of his fist meeting with the Dude, that really is his answer for everything, to just let it go and return to the alley.  Walter has adopted the Dude’s way of being, he’s a changed person in the end while the Dude simply abides.

Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos

Donny is, simply put, an innocent. He is to the Dude what Christians are to Christ, though to a small extent he is himself a type of Christ-figure in the background. He is seen bowling a perfect game through the movie until a single pin fails to fall, foreshadowing his own imminent death. He is a loyal friend to the Dude, and serves as the canary in the mine in relation to the Dude’s dedication to peacefulness. As the last of the Dude’s principles falls and he actively (if ineffectively) enters into a fight with the Nihilists, Donny falls victim to a fatal heart attack.

At his core, Donny represents the 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 sense of love, he is patient, kind, he doesn’t envy anyone, he never gets angry at Walter’s constant refrains of “Shut the fuck up, Donny” and similar abuse. In keeping with the skewed tone of the other characters, he does indulge in boasting about how well he’s bowling on two occasions, but in a world where the main Christ-figure is rarely without either a joint or a drink in his hand, Donny is as close to a pure soul as can be found among the main characters.

Jeffery “The Big” Lebowski

Big is a scheming, bombastic, judgmental man whose insecurities drive him to steal a million dollars from the family charity he co-directs with his daughter. He presents himself as an “Achiever”, but in reality he has achieved nothing for himself except a fortunate marriage to his deceased wife. He is a total hypocrite when we first meet him and he berates the Dude for being a layabout and a bum. The irony of his position is that while he is in the position of the rich man who is less likely to get into heaven than a camel is to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), he is in fact personally broke. He has no money of his own beyond the allowance his daughter provides him with. In the end, his judgemental nature comes back home, as he is confronted with the truth by Walter and the Dude. They know he is broke, that he stole a million dollars from underprivileged children and his late wife’s family fortune, and that his wife is in fact a runaway high school cheerleader and sometime underage porn star fromMoorhead,Minnesota, but he still clings to his illusion of position and power in the face of it all.

Like the powerful men of the Gospels, Big attempts to place the Dude in legal trouble, but in keeping with the overall theme of broken parallels, he fails utterly in his scheming. He is as broken as any of the other characters, but with the further flaw that he fails to find any catharsis in his character arc. It’s assumed that he has the cash in the end, but he also has his daughter to deal with, and the money will not be his for long.

Maude Lebowski

Maude is the least tragically flawed of all the film’s characters; she is a source of enlightenment and wisdom for the Dude, revealing information he would never otherwise have discovered himself. In biblical terms, she embodies Wisdom, guiding the Dude in his way through his journey. Walter also makes passing reference in his comment, “Aitz chaim he,” or “It’s the tree of life,” possibly a reference to Proverbs 3:18, “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.” (NIV) In as much as the Dude takes hold of her and follows her advice, he is blessed; by the same token, by rejecting his daughter, Big falls from his lofty position.

In keeping with the tree of life metaphor, she becomes a literal vessel of life as she conceives a child with the Dude. She is an artist, a creator, source of life and wisdom for those who avail themselves of what she offers. She rejects the Dude’s half-baked ideas about what is going on in the case, she prudently has him screened by her very thorough doctor before selecting him to father her child, and she is the source of restoration for his valued rug. Without Maude’s contributions, there is no way the Dude would have made his way through the case without winding up in jail or worse.

Bunny Lebowski/Fawn Knutson/Bunny LaJoya

In contrast to Maude, Bunny is the woman of Folly from Proverbs 9:13-18. She tempts men to their ruin in succession; Jackie Treehorn loses money to her, Uli loses his ear and a million dollars, and Big loses everything. Just as in verse 13, “she is simple and knows nothing,” (NIV) Bunny is completely oblivious of the chaos her spur of the moment trip toPalm Springssets in motion. She is not who she presents herself to be, and is known by three different names by various people in the course of the movie.

Jackie Treehorn

Jackie is, simply put, the devil. He emerges from the shadows as a throbbing, hedonistic party carries on behind him. He deceives the Dude, drugs him, tempts him with money, and gets everything he wants from the protagonist. His is also the name that evokes the most biblical and traditional imagery, a combination of the Tree that the snake talked Adam and Eve into eating from and the popular idea of Satan being a red, goat-legged being with horns. He is a pornographer, a hedonist and has corrupted the local police sheriff to his side; it is difficult to tack on much more that would make it any clearer who the bad guy is when he enters the scene. His thug Woo is the one who urinates on the Dude’s rug, despoiling his personal paradise and putting him on his path of action.

The Germans/Nihilists

The Nihilists are an example of Psalm53:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good.” (NIV) They have rejected the idea of God and any notion of meaning in the world. They believe in “nossing”, and they are indeed vile, cutting off a girlfriend’s toe in order to extort money from someone and threatening castration against the Dude. In keeping with biblical story lines regarding what happens to the wicked (particularly in the Old Testament), their only payment for the evil they’ve done is pain and disfigurement, they only lose from their efforts.

The Stranger

The narrator of the film is an unnamed cowboy, who has no internal frame of reference to the events he’s talking about to provide him with his story; he has no particular role in the proceedings, except for an encounter with the Dude at the mid-point of the film and in the final scene. He has intimate knowledge of the Dude, his personal habits, his character and the existence of his unborn child, and no obvious source for this information. It seems clear that if the Dude is a flawed Christ-figure, the Stranger serves as the film’s stand-in for God.

In line with the other off-center archetypes, the Stranger is a rambling, absent-minded God-figure who steps into the world for a sarsaparilla at a bowling alley bar and to chat with his wayward Son, chiding him for the number of cuss words he uses. The two speak warmly, but there is no recognition, no relationship, and a fair deal of miscommunication.

3. Summary

At its bottom, The Big Lebowski is the story of the Dude bringing his world back into harmony, if only in the limited scope of his living room. He is a Messiah who has mess up, compromised and all but completely surrendered his redemptive role. However, in keeping with the political rhetoric of the day, he has drawn a line in the sand; his compromise with the world goes just this far, no further. This aggression will not stand, and it is the Dude’s desire to restore his home’s integrity. It is a kaleidoscope view of salvation history, but if you tilt your head at just the right angle and squint a little, you can piece together the whole picture.

Our Bright Dark Age

The thought occurred to me that if I had been born at nearly any other time in history, odds are I would have died by now. For the vast majority of humanity, average life spans didn’t get much over 30 years until very recently in anthropological terms. Sure, there were pockets of longevity in there, and if you made it out of your teens you would likely make it to your 50’s or 60’s, but for the most part war, famine or disease would get you before you got through your 20’s. The notion that anyone would be having just their first child when they were well into their 30’s would have been unimaginable for most of our ancestors, and yet it’s becoming the norm among my peers. The way we live is such a total aberration, such a shift away from the historical norm, I can’t help but wonder when the bubble is going to burst.

Looking back over the ages, it seems that every time some civilization or other gets a serious power base going, revolutionizes their sphere of control and takes a leap forward, history has a way of clawing back most if not all of that forward movement. The Romans spread their culture over most of the Western world for hundreds of years, and then the Dark Ages came along and all but erased them under a wave of Huns, Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. But for a few remnants and pockets of memory in the form of libraries, most of us never would have heard of Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, and even Christianity’s survival would have been touch and go without the work of a few monks out on the fringes keeping their libraries tended. The Romans were a high water mark in many ways, their myriad faults notwithstanding, and it was by and large a bad thing for most people when its legacy was almost erased by barbarians.

Thing is, it seems like every historical high water mark has ebbed to the point of some new low, and usually at the hands of those we consider barbarians today. It seems obvious that these people were savages with no appreciation of what they were tearing down, but can it really be as simple as that? Did the Gauls sack Rome simply because they were crazed savages, or perhaps did they have a deeper motivation, maybe something rooted in Rome’s treatment of their tribes in what is now France and Germany? If a foreign army marched into your town, burned everything to the ground, killed anyone who resisted and then sold nearly everyone you know into slavery, what would be your general opinion of that army and its home country? Rome didn’t build her empire on fair dealing and respectful negotiations with the people they conquered, they conquered them. It was a brutal process that involved centuries of war and oppression, humiliation and retribution. While it could be argued that Rome wasn’t as cruel as some powers of its time, it’s hard to picture too many things more cruel than nailing your defeated opponent’s soldiers to crosses and lining them up along the road home, just as a display of power.

Now, if Rome’s high water mark was built on mass killing and slavery, and it looks very much like every single nation to make it to the top of the heap has taken a similar approach to achieving greatness, does it make sense to think that we’ve gotten to our own high water mark in some other way? Or perhaps should we wonder about what’s underpinning our own modern empire, and maybe consider the possibility that it could have something to do with a potential wave of “barbarians” or “savages” who are currently being crushed down and oppressed in our name?

Be honest with yourself for a moment and just think rationally about the situation we’re all in. Does it really make sense to say that there are just evil people out there who hate us because we’re free, or should we be looking for a better explanation for the massive piles of hatred people all over the world have for the West? In human terms, is my 70 year life expectancy coming at the expense of someone else’s life or happiness? Take a moment and think about it, and if you come out of that time thinking your oppression footprint is zero, you need to go take another moment until things get a little clearer for you. Every extra year you live on this planet, and every miracle gadget improving your quality of life is quite likely offset by someone else having their time on Earth cut short or degraded, either in a war for control of the mining rights to a mineral necessary for your latest MRI or X-ray, or through Victorian work standards in a sweat shop making those little plastic miracles in your pockets and living room.

While reading a recent blog about our society heading towards a new Dark Age, it struck me that the writer was taking a very narrow view of history, which is very common among Western writers. What he missed was that the Dark Ages weren’t dark for everyone; they were just dark for Europeans. The Arabian Peninsula and North Africa were going through something of a Renaissance during that time, and Asia was hitting a similar high water mark as the Mongolian Empire solidified power and evolved into the Golden Horde. If the West in general and America in particular really does slide into a new Dark Age, it is very likely that we are going to see those powers rising up to fill the power vacuum portrayed as savages, as barbarians and outlaws; in fact, we are already seeing that in the vilification of Muslims and China. Muslims are dangerous radicals bent on destruction, China is a tyrannical monolithic power out to take over our stuff and rule us through economic leverage; this is the narrative our popular culture is feeding us on a constant basis. This is also the narrative Roman culture fed its citizens about the Huns who came and crushed the Western Empire, and it is the narrative the Eastern Empire followed when talking about an Arab culture that produced the works of Avicenna and Averroes.

All this talk of barbarians at the gate, of foreign powers looking to take over the world, it’s all just history repeating itself for the nth time, and we need to see it for what it is. The way to avoid a new Dark Age isn’t throwing blood and treasure at things until we’ve beaten the world into submission, it is to open our eyes to the way the world really is and stop talking about other cultures like they’re dangerous aliens. Muslims don’t really want to kill you and your children because Mohammed told them to, they just want to live in peace and raise their families, same as you do. The Chinese don’t really want to crush the world under the boot of global domination, they just want a standard of living we’ve been rubbing in their faces for centuries. They are all just people, same as you and me, and for the vast majority all they want is to have a little security and comfort in their lives, nothing much more. It’s only the power-hungry few who drum up fear and anger among their people, who portray our global neighbours as our enemies, and get obscenely rich in the process. We need to stop handing over control of everything to these madmen and see them for what they really are, hoarders on a planetary scale. Until their monomania for power and wealth is brought under control, none of us will be able to live in peace and justice with our neighbours, so we need to start calling them out for what they are, stage an intervention and get us all the help we need.

On Montreal and Beyond

One of the biggest stories of the year has been the ongoing protests in Montreal, started in response to tuition hikes, but now grown into a much broader movement. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure over the provincial government’s handling of the protesters, the repressive legislation drafted to discourage people from exercising their rights to peacefully express their opinions, and any number of other personal reasons. Of course some people have taken advantage of the groundswell, and groups like the Black Bloc anarchists have tried to hijack the attention being given, but for the most part, the protesters themselves have been the ones turning the agitators to police and maintaining the general order. All in all, it’s a huge movement with a lot of momentum, but an increasingly vague focus, similar in many ways to the Occupy protests we’ve seen over the last year or so.

In response to the protests, a lot of people on the outside have been saying that the students are spoiled brats who should shut up about their tuition increase because they’ve been enjoying much lower rates than students in the rest of the country. There is a lot of merit to this argument in the eyes of many a John Q. Public watching from the sidelines, but I’m not convinced that there really is a lot of meat on the bone here. Yes, Quebec university students have paid much lower tuition rates than their counterparts across Canada; I’m sure by now most Canadians have seen the National Post infographic that has been making the rounds on most of our facebook feeds for the past month loudly attesting to this fact. However, while this has been used as a bludgeon in an attempt to undercut sympathy with students facing a huge jump in the cost of their educations, to me it conveys a totally different message. What I get from reading that graphic isn’t “Oh, those Quebec students are being crybabies, they’re paying half of what I did, and you didn’t see me out in the street protesting,” instead I start thinking, “Why did my education cost twice as much as it would have in Quebec?” Telling me that someone else isn’t being screwed over quite as hard as I am shouldn’t give rise to feelings of envy (though it certainly does for many people, hence the infographic showing up everywhere); it should inspire feelings of outrage at how badly I’m getting the shaft. This is not a new strategy, I’m sure the Romans knew what they were doing by treating their house slaves better than their field slaves in order to make both forget who their common owners and oppressors were. Being told that another worker in the sweatshop is treated better shouldn’t make you forget who runs the shop, but people can be petty and short-sighted, so we forget the context and just focus on the points of inequality we’re told to get mad about.

These are extreme examples, of course, and should not be taken as meaning that students are like slaves and sweatshop workers, because they obviously are not. The examples are only meant to highlight the principle involved through raising it into sharper relief where it can be seen more clearly. It’s not slavery or forced labour, but it is exploitation in its own way. Students are being handed more and more of the burden of paying for their educations, while the rest of society gets to reap the benefits that come from having a better educated population for a cheaper and cheaper price tag. Say what you will about elitism, but you can’t argue that a society with fewer doctors, engineers and thinkers is better off than one with more; it’s not a tenable position to even entertain the thought of defending. We all gain greatly from the efforts students put in during their time at school, why shouldn’t we all bear the cost of those schools? And it’s not just in tangible terms you can put on a balance sheet and figure out to the nickel, there are any number of intangible benefits society gains from a better educated public. Besides more doctors, nurses, engineers and managers, we also get better artists, better writers, and people who can better explain the flaws or benefits in a given public policy our government puts forward for our approval. The cynical part of my brain wants to stick on this point for a while and go on in depth about how the people setting education policy are doing things the way they are because they’re also the people who want to set any number of other policies they’d rather not have explained or examined by people who are educated in how to spot bad policies and arguments. Suffice it to say that there are people in government who could be seen to have a vested interest in seeing the general education level drop, particularly in the Liberal Arts and leave it at that.

Another point many people seem to be unaware of is that when you declare bankruptcy, student loans are the only debt that can’t be included in those proceedings. Your mortgage, your car loan, every other form of debt can be covered by bankruptcy, but no matter what happens, you will be paying off your student loans until they are done with you. Why is this? You could make an argument that your house, car, and other assets can all be foreclosed upon or seized, but your education can’t be repossessed, but is this really a solid objection to make? If your house burned to the ground and your car was stolen, and then you subsequently declared bankruptcy, it’s not like the bank is going to magically rematerialize your home and car in order to resell them, so this can’t be why student loans are the unforgivable debt among debts. Maybe it would be helpful if we stepped back and looked at who takes out student loans, and saw that it’s not usually the children of the wealthy applying for financial aid, it’s the middle and lower class kids racking up the student debt. Here’s where I’m maybe going to let my paranoia run a little, but in terms of upward mobility, what moves people up faster than education, and what keeps them down more surely than massive debts? If you wanted to sit down and think of a way to ensure that people on the lower rungs didn’t start climbing upwards, could you think of a more effective way to do it than pricing education well out of the reach of most families and making student loans unforgivable? That covers both your bases, you have fewer low-income families sending their kids to school, and the ones who do come out of school with nearly a mortgage worth of debt they need to dig out of before they can get back to zero. Better yet, if it turns out that those graduates from lower income families can’t find gainful employment in their field and wind up at the point of declaring bankruptcy, making the tens of thousands of dollars represented by the average student’s loan unforgivable will guarantee that they never get out from under the load put on them.

In the interest of disclosure, I feel I should mention that after earning two university degrees myself, I have student loan debts I’m not likely to have paid off before my son starts university. I knew what I was signing up for when I applied, but I also bought into the received wisdom that a degree is as good as a license to print money, and without one you’ll never get ahead, so I chose to take on that burden with open eyes. I do regret it now that I have a family, and especially now that I’m unemployed, but at the time it was a rational decision made with my full awareness of the risks involved. My objection isn’t that my student loans should be written off because I made a bad bet on my employment prospects, it’s that students should not be presented with that decision in the first place. I firmly believe that universities and other post-secondary schools ought to be seen as public investments in our collective future, and that we should endeavour to see to it that anyone who wants to spend the time improving their skills and their minds by earning a degree or diploma ought to be supported by everyone, because everyone benefits from it. Sure, there are going to be drop-outs and people who try to work the system to avoid “real” work, but punishing the majority for the actions of a very small minority shouldn’t be a governing principle for any country, any more than I think public high schools ought to be de-funded because the odd 16-year-old drops out. I don’t dream that free post-secondary education is something we’re going to see in this country any time soon, if ever, but making it affordable is something we should be striving for.

In closing, put it in a little smaller context and apply all of this to public high schools. Would anybody reasonably say that we’d be better off if families were made to pay directly for the full cost of their children’s high school or even elementary educations? Would we be better off as a society if poor families couldn’t send their kids to school and we wound up with a largely illiterate population? If it’s so ridiculous in this context, why can’t more people see that it is just as ridiculous when you bring it back out into the area of post-secondary schooling? We all gain when education is available to more people, we should all share the cost. Heaping it on students because it was their choice to go to school would be ludicrous if you said it about elementary school, what makes a university education any different? The protesters in Montreal aren’t just right, they’re not going nearly far enough in pressing for higher education for all, for the good of all.