Franzen 2006

The Discomfort Zone
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I am constantly awed by the strange places I will come across an engagement or a novel argument.  When I lived in Vegas back in 1996-97 I once had Mormon missionaries knock on my door.  I invited them in for a chat.  They were nice enough and I gave them a good run for their money.  Enough so, that they then asked if they could return the next night with an elder(?).  Of course.  So I made dinner for the next night, for the three of them, myself, the girlfriend and the GF’s father and stepmother (the two of them went to the same church(?) as the missionaries and had heard about this meeting.)  Dinner ended and the GF’s stepmother excused herself and my GF (I guess good LDS practice is to let the men do the serious intellectual lifting.)  And it began.

“Do you believe in God?”  “No.”  And they were done.  They had not done any training about how to handle an atheist, after all, who in Vegas admits to not believing?  They were skilled to the initial concession and then working away at their prey’s underthought belief system.  It was a short conversation with the usual gambits: better-safe-than-sorry, isn’t-it-depressing-to-just-die, and the oh so persuasive relativism-is-anarchaic.  I didn’t budge, having easily worked through these problems well in advance of the meeting.  We all left on good terms and they even learned that non-believers can be caring and compassionate and even live as and appear to good believers.

There are times in my prostelizations that I feel like those missionaries.  Once someone concedes that she has an obligation to help others out then I can work through their underthought politics to get them to my politics.  Libertarians are to me what the careful atheist is to a Mormon.  Libertarians do not rush into the initial concession most do and they put up a fight about the very premise of an obligation to an-other.  I think I can win this debate based on a preferred worldly outcome, but as an obligation?  That’s a more difficult engagement, precisely because of my atheism.

In any case it is odd to come across an anti-libertarian argument in a fiction writer’s essay about his mother’s death (or is it really about Katrina and New Orleans?)  Jonathan Franzen, of The Corections fame, makes the following argument in The Discomfort Zone:  “When private donations replaced federal spending, you had no idea who was freeloading and who was pulling twice their weight.” (8)  The rant is that libertarians contend private parties replace governmental charities in the face of a vacuum, but there is no clearinghouse for who is charitable and who is not.  An interesting argument, but not a persuasive one.

First, it still begs the question of obligation.  Maybe it is true that people do not replace the governmental charities, but the Libertarian says the argument still assumes one is obliged to be charitable. Second, the accountability question is obviated by the Libertarian argument that people become more charitable when they are not required to be so.  Franzen’s argument only gains traction once the Libertarian claim has been studied empirically and found to be inaccurate at which point the Libertarian has already lost the fight.  The truly moot argument is Franzen’s.

Yes it was a novel argument, but that’s possibly because it is a non-winning argument. Nonetheless, it was an unexpected turn and moves me closer to embracing Franzen as a writer and thinker (I did enjoy The Corrections but after a couple of years I am unable to think of a thing about the book except that it involves parents aging and dementia.)

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One thought on “Franzen 2006

  1. Sidney Carton

    The Missionaries reply to you is not surprising. We are taught to build on shared beliefs in teaching. It becomes difficult to do so when we fundamentally disagree on such a basic topic as God.

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