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Winning and Losing with Hobby Lobby

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Writing for The American Conservative on the recent arguments before the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby case, Prof. Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame assures us that he hopes the Christian firm wins its case; but the searing critique he levels against the company’s business model must leave many readers in some doubt as to his sincerity.

“Hobby Lobby is a significant player,” he asseverates, “in a global economy that has separated markets from morality.” It operates “in a decisively secular economic world.” In addition to being “almost wholly disembedded from any particular community,” Hobby Lobby’s business model, “like that of all major box stores,” is dedicated to, among other shady things: economies of scale, standardization, aggressive price-cutting, and reliance on cheap overseas producers. Deneen concludes this portion of the polemic with a doozy of exaggeration: the setting for his local Hobby Lobby is “about as profane imaginable a place on earth.”

Considering very recent news only, one might object that British hospitals have rather dramatically demonstrated to the imagination how much more profane a place may be. Hobby Lobby may be surrounded by ugly concrete and aging, decrepit strip malls, but one doubts it is heating stores with the incinerated flesh of slaughtered innocents.

To anchor his critique, Deneen supplies an engaging summary of the Hungarian scholar Karl Polanyi’s economic thought:

[Polanyi] described how economic arrangements were “disembedded” from particular cultural and religious contexts in which economic arrangements were understood to serve those moral ends — and hence, that limited not only actions, but even the understanding that economic actions could be considered to be undertaken to advance individual interests and priorities. As Polanyi describes, economic exchange so ordered placed a priority on the main ends of social and religious life — the sustenance of community order and flourishing of families within that order. The understanding of an economy based upon the accumulated calculations of self-maximizing individuals was largely non-existent, and a “market” was understood to be a part of the whole, an actual physical place within that social order, not an autonomous, even theoretical space for the exchange of abstracted utility maximers.

There is certainly something to this line of criticism. Commercial enterprises can unquestionably level and homogenize. Cut-rate utilitarianism, abetted by cynical businesses, often serves to fill the void in the naked public square. Innumerable communities across the country, once vibrant and distinctive, have been hollowed out by this utilitarianism.

But Deneen could hardly have picked a worse contemporary example to hang his theory on. As Ben Domenech remarks in his superb newsletter The Transom:

Pause for a minute to consider what Hobby Lobby is: it is a craft supply store, designed to supply resources for people who aspire to creativity – primarily housewives, churches, and children – and enable them to express themselves. The creations these Americans make with the products they purchase at Hobby Lobby are most often crafted not for themselves, but for other people: gifts with a personal touch, the collage of moments experienced with friends, the frame etched with verses, the necklace strung with little reminders of that day or that night drive or that sunrise watched together. Deneen doesn’t even understand what he’s criticizing; he may chide Hobby Lobby as a place for impulse buying, but it is the opposite of unmotivated impulse – you go to Hobby Lobby not to browse, but because you want to make something.

The attentive reader of Deneen’s essay could be forgiven for thinking that the Professor supposes Hobby Lobby and Walmart operate on the same business model.

The plain pitiful fact is that, right up until 2010, Hobby Lobby carried on as it had for many decades, selling crafts, distributing products, managing supply chains, employing many thousands of people, and subsidizing for them some sixteen different methods of contraception. Along comes Obamacare, functioning more like a vast grant of executive discretion (hardly a week goes by without a new delay or revision of dubious legality) than a law; and presently the bureaucrats inflicting this executive discretion determined that sixteen birth control methods are not enough. Businesses must also offer subsidies for several more aggressive methods of birth control: devices and pharmaceutical treatments potent enough to alter a woman’s reproductive chemistry such that a newly-formed human embryo would perish in the womb.

Supporters of Hobby Lobby are quite right in pointing out that the treatments in question can hardly be categorized as exclusively contraceptives when their biochemical action continues after conception. They are abortifacients in addition to contraceptives.

Let it also be noticed that Hobby Lobby has not, and will not, interfere in any way with an employee who undertakes to procure these abortifacients on her own.

Prof. Deneen implicitly accuses the Obama administration of “understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring.” The accusation is just. But Deneen goes badly astray when he includes Hobby Lobby in that accusation:

It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy.

“General practice” does a lot of work there. For next comes the charge of hypocrisy: “the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.” So even to the extent that Hobby Lobby (and its companion in seeking redress, Conestoga Wood) undertake to resist the advancing radical autonomy, they are surrendering to it.

But of course the “general practice” until very recently still preserved liberty of conscience, and no one thought twice about it. General practice permitted a compromise that secured free institutions against, on mandated abortifacients at least, constant harassment by enterprising bureaucrats animated by radical autonomy and hostile to their offspring. The contraceptive mandate advanced by means of tyrannical rulership, rule by caprice of the rulers, not by general practice understood as some kind of stand-in for democracy.

The attenuation of cause and consequence necessary to implicate Hobby Lobby, via the economic analysis of “disembeddedness,” in the contraceptive mentality that has now gained force of mandate, strikes me as extraordinary. Hobby Lobby is discriminating and frugal in its use of suppliers; and just a hop, skip and jump later Hobby Lobby has acquiesced in a monstrous utilitarian system?

In truth, Hobby Lobby was incorporated to sell crafts, not wage war on modernity; and Conestoga Wood to manufacture and sell wood furnishings, not rebel against finance capitalism. Christian businessmen are under no standing obligation to stake their business in defiance of globalization. Already these particular businessmen have gone some distance in opposition to the radical autonomy of the world; that is precisely why they find themselves obliged to make a defense of their businesses before the Supreme Court.

There is a delicate matter of loyalty which may want for some consideration. The very day when the US Supreme Court, holding forth like a Star Chamber, weighed the question of whether law or Constitution permits this Mandate of the Last Four of Twenty to crush liberty of conscience, we are treated to conjectures and fulminations linking Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to every last excess or ordeal of globalization and finance capitalism. These two tiny Christian firms in a sea of corporate behemoths must endure friendly fire on the day of their testing; when the very test itself asks whether their liberty to stand apart from behemothism shall be suffered by the rulers of this world.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood ask permission to do business in America without being mandated to pay blood money for murdered human beings in their earliest stages of development. But it appears these commercial enterprises must first solve the errors of modernity and globalization before some critics will offer that warm and shining solidarity of comrades in their cause.

Comments (51)

Paul,

I like how you put this: "a delicate matter of loyalty which may want for some consideration." You are too kind to Professor Deneen -- his whole piece suggests a crabbed moral imagination that has given up on America (e.g. God forbid he stops to think of the convenience and help the car/ugly parking lot/big box store has been to millions of Christian families who value putting their four kids in a mini-van as they make a trip to the strip mall to shop for Sunday school craft projects).

I also like how you nail him on this fundamental point:

But it appears these commercial enterprises must first solve the errors of modernity and globalization before some critics will offer that warm and shining solidarity of comrades in their cause.

Indeed, should we all give up fighting the good fight against Roe v Wade, Lawrence (and corrupt legislatures that attempt to pass laws saying same-sex "marriages" are valid), assisted suicide, etc. until we solve the problem (assuming there is such a problem in the first place) of the global economy? I know you are more sympathetic to Deneen's overall criticism of modern market capitalism, but even if I were willing to buy in to the criticism -- why is it either/or and not both/and when it comes to fighting liberal madness? Or as I said up above -- perhaps Deneen has just given up on the American project (no ordered liberty for him) and would rather live in a confessional state?

Either way, thanks for taking him to task.

Thanks for taking Deneen to task, Paul. What you say about co-belligerence and friendly fire is right on the money.

I think it especially perverse of Deneen to imply that seeking a conscientious objection from a wicked government ruling is some kind of cop-out or betrayal because it allegedly is a "concession to the culture of autonomy." This is the kind of faux intellectual nonsense from Deneen's ilk that really makes me angry. Taken literally such a censure would imply that a company pressed to do evil is in some way _wrong_ for seeking to be permitted by the government _not_ to do evil. They are allegedly wrong because seeking an exemption from doing evil on grounds of conscience is a "concession to autonomy." Notice the implication that conscience is some sort of invention of American individualism and that references to it in a legal case are concessions to wrongheaded thinking. (Catholic doctrine itself, by my understanding, does not thus condemn appeals to conscience.) Would it have been better, then, for Hobby Lobby to have gone under without a fight? Less "individualistic" because involving no plea for an exemption on grounds of religious conscience? Fie on such nonsense.

Because, after all, not to be small, local, and "embedded" is exactly the same thing as being committed to all of the worst excesses of finance capitalism AND of radical autonomous liberalism run amok. And, to try to use the embedded culture's avowed methods of socially acceptable requests for redress is logically equivalent to endorsing all of the worst things radical anti-moralists try to gain when they abuse the very same means of redress.

Daneen must have already scraped the bottom of the barrel searching for things to get a bee in his bonnet about for writing purposes. And then gone on digging right through the bottom into just ordinary life, but he didn't notice.

And it's usually the good guys, not the bad guys, who make any serious try to get religious conscience exemptions anyway. The worst thing I can think of in my own living memory as a high-profile religious conscience case is Indian peyote ceremonies.

Even assuming all of Deneen's characterizations of Hobby Lobby were perfectly accurate, I fail to see how it would be of any serious importance. I get that he thinks America is a hopelessly corrupt commercial republic and that Hobby Lobby is in some abstract way in cahoots with The Forces of Evil, Inc. But granting him his case on that particular point (which is a sloppy one, as Paul demonstrates), I'm moved to quote one important figure, "What difference does it make?" Hobby Lobby, as a Big Bad Corporation, has the resources to fight on behalf not just of its own freedom, but on behalf of the general principle of religious freedom that extends just as well to the small, mom-and-pop stores that he favors. To snipe at them as he does here is 1) needlessly and ostentatiously contrary, in keeping with the whole ethos of TAC, 2) a case of shameless hobby-horsing, i.e., dragging his pet gripe against corporate America into a controversy that happens to be current.

This staking out of a position hostile to Hobby Lobby appears forced and, again, all too much in keeping with the general ethos at TAC, which is to find some "conservative" or reactionary basis for opposing conservatism. What a scam.

I think I'm with Deneen here. Paul's point about "friendly fire" is fair enough; it's an argument about questionable timing. Yet Deneen's argument isn't going to influence the Supreme Court to rule against Hobby Lobby. Rather, what it does do is to take advantage of the attention on Hobby Lobby to point out that a win in the case does not alter the concessions on a different battlefield; and in fact, it contains the risk of inuring us to the continuing losses on that battlefield. Perhaps here at WWWtW we are too unaware of the strand of popular conservativism that has convinced itself that building a concrete box that sells garbage for profit is a great moral endeavor, and gets even greater if it allows yet another concrete box to be built somewhere else. And how much greater still when some of that garbage has on it the Lord's holy name!

I admire Ben Domenech's attempted defense of the store--or more accurately, those who shop there--but it is no less blinkered than Deneen's. Raw materials for crafts may be Hobby Lobby's bread and butter (I'm guessing that's true) and I would never wish to disparage someone who spends their time and money to scrapbook their family memories. But I think it is Domenech who has forgotten what these stores are like: the big (and medium) ticket items are pre-made furniture and design pieces made yesterday in a factory to look like they were made fifty years ago by hand; the checkout counters are festooned with the same candy and tabloid magazines you see at, well, every other big box store for the purpose of slyly sneaking another two dollars out of your wallet; and a majority of the so-called Christian items on the shelves are junk for children like plastic sunglasses or an inflatable beach ball that will eventually force the unfortunate purchaser to choose between keeping another useless broken item in their lives or tossing the name of Jesus in the trashcan.

Deneen is right: A victory over a perverse definition of "women's health" will untimately be conflated with a victory in favor of economic autonomy. Let us at least take the opportunity to talk about one profanity while hoping for the demise of the other.

A victory over a perverse definition of "women's health" will untimately be conflated with a victory in favor of economic autonomy.

I'm sorry, but that's nonsense. Those of us who really cheer (unlike Deneen, who isn't really cheering) for Hobby Lobby are cheering for people who are responding to what they see as a call to risk all for a principle. It is you and Deneen who are trying to make this about the alleged evil of "economic autonomy." No doubt we disagree about all of that (no doubt at all), but it is dragged in and forced here and is not why the proponents of Hobby Lobby are praying for a win.

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2013/01/hobby_lobby_for_the_sake_of_th.html

It's rather interesting, as well, that you sound as if you have never been to a Hobby Lobby.

And really, garbage? Yeah, that's all Hobby Lobby does--sells garbage for profit.

This kind of pretentious self-righteousness and exaggeration is utterly unconvincing.

Yet Deneen's argument isn't going to influence the Supreme Court to rule against Hobby Lobby. Rather, what it does do is to take advantage of the attention on Hobby Lobby to point out that a win in the case does not alter the concessions on a different battlefield; and in fact, it contains the risk of inuring us to the continuing losses on that battlefield.

I'm sorry, but I just don't see that at all. By this logic we should have never offered moral support to Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty guy, and should have simply cast down our eyes while leftist sodomites were trying to destroy and delegitimize him, on the grounds that because he runs a big, incorporated business we should never confuse ourselves by defending the core principles of Western political culture, at least insofar as they might be applied to him. Tactically speaking, this is quite unprincipled, and strategically speaking, it is boneheaded to the core. It is like saying that we really shouldn't defend the Fourth Amendment rights of liberal journalists because we might be distracted from the completely unrelated problem of liberal media bias. It makes no sense, unless you've just got an axe to grind and you just don't want to quit grinding.

It is also a view utterly incompatible with our continuance as a free people, and unsuited to the maintenance of real Christian civilization. The defense of basic political freedoms that apply to us all should not depend, and cannot depend, on whether we have some completely irrelevant disagreement with the party in question. This is feaux-prudential nonsense. A win in this case will do absolutely nothing to distract from issues that are already completely irrelevant to this case. It seems to me as though what Deneen is really driving at is that, dang it all, "Stupid Hobby Lobby is distracting conservatives from what I want them to talk about!" As I said before, this is a classic case of hobby-horsing, trying to smuggle in some irrelevancy because Hobby Lobby is in the news.

You're spot-on, Sage, and I have to say: Those who really strongly "get into" what Deneen writes and his ideas do tend to be riders of hobby horses in exactly that fashion. There is only one type of issue for them, it must be brought up at all times, and everything else is a distraction from it.

I suppose in due humility I should admit that I am at risk of making, say, the pro-life issue into my own hobby horse in something of that same way, but a) at least that really is directly about an intrinsically evil act and b) I do at least try to recognize the danger in myself and discuss a variety of issues.

"As I said before, this is a classic case of hobby-horsing, trying to smuggle in some irrelevancy because Hobby Lobby is in the news."

Actually, no. If you're in a canoe heading towards a waterfall, while it is undoubtedly a good thing to avoid the large rock directly in front of you, attention to that shouldn't completely distract you from trying to solve the bigger problem of the looming waterfall.

Chris Floyd's summary of Deneen's point is dead-on. Of course if you don't believe (or don't want to believe) that the waterfall exists that's a whole different issue.

Chris, I think the argument is about more than mere "questionable timing." It's about questionable reasoning.

Let's grant that there are abundant causes for criticism of globalization, finance capitalism, integration and standardization. Let's also grant that big box store architecture is rather wanting in any humane appeal. Let's further grant, even, that business or commerce as such is open to many rebukes.

Still I do not see the connection that in any way mitigates or attenuates our duty to uphold the principle of religious liberty. We do not have the luxury of having perfect cases and perfect clients or perfect solicitors for our principles.

Moreover, I cannot imagine Prof. Deneen is blind to the fact that adopting the Administration's side in this case means composing a precedent that any commercial enterprise must ONLY EVER be a commercial enterprise, and never consider itself a vocation for the glory of God. I cannot imagine Deneen would only affect to take Hobby Lobby's side, while secretly wishing ill of those particular litigants who maintain that even commercial enterprises must be to the glory of God. Since this bad faith is unimaginable to me, I am constrained to presume a want of right reason.

Yes, exactly, NM. If I don't believe the waterfall exists (for the record, I do), then that is a completely different issue. And again, carelessly tossing about the assumption that anyone who doesn't talk about what you want them to talk about must be completely distracted doesn't magically make it so.

If you guys are determined to miss the point, then fine, keep reiterating the same fallacious accusation over and over. But the bottom line is that Hobby Lobby's status as an incorporated entity is not the main issue in that court case, and it is you and Deneen who are determined that people remain completely distracted from that fact.


"Still I do not see the connection that in any way mitigates or attenuates our duty to uphold the principle of religious liberty."

True, but I don't think Deneen does either. I think that what he's saying is that an appeal to religious liberty that's ultimately grounded in nothing more than "free choice" gets us nowhere, and actually in the long run works against us. "Choice will devour itself" indeed, but not just in the realm of reproductive "freedom."

"carelessly tossing about the assumption that anyone who doesn't talk about what you want them to talk about must be completely distracted doesn't magically make it so."

Very true. But sometimes even people who believe need reminders, and those who don't need to be shown that the waterfall does in fact exist.

You may believe the connections don't exist. But that doesn't make it wrong for a person who believes they do to say so.

I haven't gone river rafting in many years, but as I recall it's often difficult to distinguish what sort of size dropoff approaches. It may be falls or it may be just rougher waters.

I find myself wondering what Hobby Lobby could actually do to gain warm, hearty support and solidarity from the likes of NM. Perhaps liquidate half its 500-some-odd stores and set up trusts for use by local agrarians (what happens to the former employees may not be mentioned). Perhaps liquidate all its assets, throw the capital into various funds, retire, vanish from public view, and thus finally be rid of the government (and NM's) scorn. At least storming out in a huff is something familiar.

Actually, as far as big box stores go, I rather like H.L. My fiancee is a crafter, and because of that we go there often. But my biggest beef with them is the preponderance of China-made low quality junk. I'm not keen on supporting the Chinese economy even if it does save us a bit of change on faux flowers or cheap tin wall decor.

an appeal to religious liberty that's ultimately grounded in nothing more than "free choice" gets us nowhere, and actually in the long run works against us.

That's true enough, but I wish he had stated it as simply as that. That he goes rather beyond this point of broad agreement is where I have trouble with his article.

Does Hobby Lobby endorse some generic notion of "free choice" which ought to encompass any and all choices? Not to my knowledge. I would not agree that their actual appeal, if successful, will in any way work against us either in the short run or in the long run. On the contrary, their appeal is an example of standing up for a principle that certain things should not be done and that they will not cooperate in doing them, which is the opposite of "anything goes" free choice-ism. Moreover, the fact that they are out there taking the heat and risking their life's work is an example of being willing to suffer for principle that also works to the advantage, in both the short and long run, of the True, Good, and Beautiful.

I'd add, too, that the appeal to religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case isn't grounded in an abstraction like free choice. In terms of the actual court case, it's grounded in the text of the statute in question, i.e., the law. The law itself was not motivated by, and does not in its text express any special privileging of, freedom of choice as some kind of summum bonum. So again, the question of relevance arises, and from that, the suspicion that relevance was never a concern of Deneen's to begin with.

Did you guys actually read the whole piece or just Mr. Cella's excerpts? Because Deneen talks about the "choice" element and in doing so demonstrates the relevance in the essay itself.

Yes, NM, I did read the whole piece, before Paul's piece here ever went up. Deneen, as usual, is not arguing. He's doing vague free association of precisely the sort that you have time and time again, in thread after thread, both here at W4 and also at my personal blog, endorsed as deep thought. But actually, free association stinks as argument. Some of us are therefore unimpressed by it as a substitute. I realize that this is disappointing to anyone who thinks it counts as deep thought.

Yeah, I guess if it can't be reduced to formulae or some sort of quasi-philosophical equations with lots of P1's and P2's it ain't worth spit.

In fact, the associations are valid, and it is only your ideological commitment to capitalism that prevents you from seeing it.

That's right. That's exactly what my articles in, say, The Christendom Review are like. Formulae with lots of P1's and P2's. NM, the vague association of ideas that sort of seem to "go together" in the mind of some distributist just *is not argument*. That's what you do not understand and have never, ever understood.

~~the vague association of ideas that sort of seem to "go together" in the mind of some distributist~~

This very statement strongly indicates that you've never really engaged the thought involved, as it's often neither vague nor distributist, as the perusal of a few of any number of books on the subject would tell you.

My own commitment to capitalism, such as it is, is not very strong and I am inclined to open-mindedness in that debate, which is to my mind one of the more important and interesting divisions that exists among conservatives. (I think the "your" in your comment was directed at Lydia, but just in case...).

As for the article, I've read it, and had much the same reaction as Paul. Talking about "choice" in such a way that the connections are not explicit, and in such a way that does not rationally lead a person to conclude that we should be focusing on Hobby Lobby as a Very Bad Actor (rather than as the plaintiff in an extremely important case that affects every American enterprise, even the sole proprietorships favored by critics of capitalism) just isn't going to cut it with me.

It really is a simple instance of Deneen making what is at bottom a very weak case, and doing so on behalf of what looks for all the world like the ideological bees in his bonnet. The Hobby Lobby case just isn't about the things he wants it to be about, and his article gives me no reason whatever to believe that it is. And yes, there is something more than a little sordid about using this occasion to heap ignominy on Hobby Lobby, when it is behaving in a way that is actually at odds with the zeitgeist and in a way destined to get it very rough treatment from the liberal establishment. Talk about refusing to take "yes" for an answer!

I think Paul raises a very pertinent point: What would the Greens (owners of Hobby Lobby) have to do to make Deneen and company really like them and think they are doing the right thing? Shut down their company? Would it be enough for them not to buy from China? Or would that still not be enough if they didn't move out of their buildings and break up into others, much smaller, located on shady streets and built in an architectural style Deneen prefers? Which would undoubtedly be sufficiently economically radical a move that the business would fail.

More: Is not the entire existence of a niche market for crafters in _some_ sense, presumably a sense disliked by Deneen and Nice Marmot, part of that general idea of having hobbies, pleasing oneself by buying things for those hobbies, choosing the store that has good prices even (shock!) to provide supplies for those hobbies, doing something fun largely just because one finds it fun and considers it meaningful, and the like? I mean, all of that fun-hobby-craft stuff just isn't terribly ascetical. No doubt we could all get along well enough in terms of the bare necessities of life without all the things Hobby Lobby sells and without all the things people make with the supplies Hobby Lobby sells. Well, except for all the employees who would lose their jobs if Hobby Lobby shut down. But the point I am making is that, indeed, Hobby Lobby is a place for people to make _choices_, to satisfy not-strictly-necessary human _desires_, to do so by way of the _economic market_ and by way of market-type considerations such as price and breadth of selection of products. Since, as far as I can see, all those things call down the wrath of Deneen and co., it seems that Hobby Lobby cannot really win approval without committing hari kiri. But should that not be a reductio of the position?

Lydia, to my way of thinking, the fact that the Greens provide a forum for choosing is less significant than the fact that they, unlike other big box stores like Best Buy, provide a forum for choosing wholesome and respectable goods, mainly for the purpose of enjoying productive leisure. All in all, a they're a very strange hate-object for the right, if that's what they're supposed to be.

I couldn't agree more, of course. But that is because when I criticize the market it isn't qua market, full stop, but qua market _for_ this or that which should not be sold and bought. Perhaps something should not be sold and bought because it is too precious and sacred (children, sex). Perhaps something should not be sold and bought because it is an evil product or service (murder for hire, pornography, instruments of torture). But it's not buying and selling that are corrupting, nor choice amongst places from which to purchase, nor preference satisfaction (in itself) but buying and selling what should not be regarded as matters for the market.

Can't speak for Deneen, but I'd say that the BigBox phenomenon is negative on the whole, but that H.L. may be one of the better actors in a largely bad scene. As I said above, my biggest gripe with them is the overabundance of Chi-Comm produced junk.

And cheap doesn't always equal good, either in products themselves or in a cultural sense. See Ellen Ruppel Shell's book Cheap.

"Is not the entire existence of a niche market for crafters in _some_ sense, presumably a sense disliked by Deneen and Nice Marmot, part of that general idea of having hobbies, pleasing oneself by buying things for those hobbies, choosing the store that has good prices even (shock!) to provide supplies for those hobbies, doing something fun largely just because one finds it fun and considers it meaningful, and the like? I mean, all of that fun-hobby-craft stuff just isn't terribly ascetical."

No. If any conservatives have espoused a proper understanding of both leisure and craft it's the Crunchies and the Porchers.

One doesn't need paper flowers to make crafts any more than one needs a new ipad. So the criticism that electronic gadgets are bad because people don't need them can't really be sustained if one approves of buying paper flowers to make unneeded party favors. Moreover, a generally _ascetical_ critique of the market, which you have indeed made, NM, cannot be sustained if you exempt preference satisfaction, etc., in the case of craft supply stores.

"One doesn't need paper flowers to make crafts any more than one needs a new ipad. So the criticism that electronic gadgets are bad because people don't need them can't really be sustained if one approves of buying paper flowers to make unneeded party favors."

No, because a proper understanding of leisure contains an aesthetic element, which the use of paper flowers may very well fit into.

And certain electronic devices aren't bad solely because they're unnecessary, but also because they contribute to and exacerbate problems of a consumerist, acquisitive, narcissistic culture in a way that paper flowers do not.

An "ascetical" critique of the market is not aimed at the market per se (markets being, of course, necessary), but at the acquisitive, self-aggrandizing nature of the modern capitalist system.

For a brief but very good examination of these issues, take a look at William Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. It's published by Eerdmans and only runs about 125 pages.

I used to think, back in the 1980s, that electric toothbrushes were purely frivolous, unnecessary gadgetry. Then along came the sonic ones that do a better job than any human-powered one can do. And then I learned about people with muscle problems who can, just barely, hold a toothbrush but cannot actually manipulate it at all. And I decided that my original conclusion was a little hasty.

I used to think back in 1978 when my brother got a Commodore 64, that home computers were pure, unadulterated gadgetry, serving no actual necessity and perilous little of even "entertainment" value. Then came along this, that, and the other thing (especially the internet) and I can work from home and help run my household better, and my wife can run her consulting job from home so that she never has to give up home-schooling, and I decided that my original conclusion was a bit hasty.

And certain electronic devices aren't bad solely because they're unnecessary, but also because they contribute to and exacerbate problems of a consumerist, acquisitive, narcissistic culture

Nowadays I am always cautious to leap from the conclusion that certain electronic devices are, in the hands of some users, contributing to and exacerbate problems of consumerist, acquisitive, narcissistic culture", to the conclusion that it is THE DEVICES THEMSELVES that of their own nature contribute to a consumerist, acquisitive, narcissistic culture.

Human creativity is able to see small, incremental improvements in activities or products X, Y, and Z, improvements that maybe are not a necessity for 95% of users, but maybe are a necessity for 5% if X, Y, and Z are to be achieved. What we humans are not capable of seeing is the 30 or 300 further developments off of those 3 small incremental developments out through 50 years of further creativity by 10,000 other humans. So, in my opinion, we have a choice: we can either forbid change and development altogether, the way the Amish do, or we can accept that nearly all of the small, incremental improvements of creativity are not generally "necessities" properly speaking but are still morally licit ways of bending human creativity to the dominion of the world. In the absence of any clear reason to choose the Amish way of suppression, I choose the latter way of granting freedom to the human mind, to human creativity for solving "problems" even when the problems are merely ones of inconvenience. This implies, as an automatic consequence, fits and starts and trials and errors and foolishness of excess fiddling of men who are clever but not wise. That's the price, and I am willing to pay it.

No devices appear in a vacuum, nor are they used in one. One can, for instance, say all sorts of nice things about TV, but overall I'd say its effect on the world has been largely negative. Manufacturers, marketers and advertisers all have input into both the milieu in which the item is released, and the communications "bubble" which surrounds and accompanies the device upon its release. The stated goal of advertising is the organized creation of desire, and this is designed to create dependency. All of this in my view subverts a proper Christian understanding of wants, needs, and desire, and thus precludes us from arguing that the devices are neutral. (Unless you're arguing that they're neutral "as they lie there," which is a completely uninteresting observation, like saying dynamite is perfectly safe until it explodes.)

Interestingly, the commercial model of TV programming appears to be going away, or at least is trending toward becoming very attenuated, what with netflix and other time-unhinged watching modes. The Madison Avenue "commercial" for TV may have have an end-date. I have been saying it needs to go for over 30 years, and suggesting other economic models to drive it.

As with dynamite, once the concept and technology are out there, having discovered that the most common usage of it is actually harmful to people isn't enough of a reason to propose outlawing the darn thing, it is reason to push for better uses for it.

(Unless you're arguing that they're neutral "as they lie there," which is a completely uninteresting observation, like saying dynamite is perfectly safe until it explodes.)

Dynamite is indeed an interesting example, since it was originally used for mining purposes.

Tony's latest comments are well taken. Streaming TV over high-speed internet is indeed rapidly displacing the regular commercial-break model. Except for during the occasional live sports event, television commercials never enter my house. We stream shows and movies through Amazon Prime. It is a near certainty that my children will grow watching far fewer trashy TV ads than I did.

Correction: above I said that advertising's goal is the organized creation of desire. That's a misquote. It's actually "the organized creation of dissatisfaction," as quoted by one of Henry Ford's marketing managers. I'd say that's worse.

"having discovered that the most common usage of it is actually harmful to people isn't enough of a reason to propose outlawing the darn thing, it is reason to push for better uses for it."

Or perhaps, in the matters of TV, iPhones and such, encouragement towards self-limitation of use? Which brings us back to "asceticism" and desire, but is something that the Right never seems to want to get into. Talk about the hatred of human limits!:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2013/03/i-have-a-right-to-be-unlimited/print/


"It is a near certainty that my children will grow watching far fewer trashy TV ads than I did."

True, but this doesn't lessen the impact of the ubiquity of trashy advertising everywhere else.


True, but this doesn't lessen the impact of the ubiquity of trashy advertising everywhere else.

Not by itself it doesn't, but I'm sure a lot of people are doing exactly what Paul is doing. Moreover, technology and desire have produced Ad-block Plus, Do Not Track, and similar software which greatly reduce the ubiquity of advertising (both trashy and merely annoying) on the Internet. I would resist using the Internet much if I did not have ad blocking software.

As Lydia observed, NM, there are plenty of ways to limit your exposure. A lot of people know about them and use them. The fact that you feel powerless is probably a function of your agrarianism limiting your ability to head over to Google or Mozilla addon stores to find that they have a cottage industry of privacy-enhancing addons for their browsers. You do use Chrome or Firefox, right?

Paul, that's certainly the case with me and mine. Still, I also take NM's point that advertising has Vays of Making You Vatch, like those damnable blaring screens that are starting to pop up at gas pumps.

Overall, fee for content replacing fee for service is going to be an improved model for all involved (except ABC/CBS/etc.), but it's not a panacea.

Chrome. And yes, I use Ad-block, which works pretty well.

But Sage is correct. Get rid of it in one place and it inevitably shows up in another.

Yes, Sage -- and live sports are still a big problem. Endless Viagra ads, asinine beer ads, headache-inducing cars ads: they drive me nuts. Whenever possible I stream or DVR sports. But alas, there are plenty of situations where that's not possible. The upcoming Masters tournament has long been a favorite of mine, ever since Augusta National, under pressure from monomaniac feminists, announced that they have finance the loss of revenue to CBS in exchange for minimal commercial interruption.

Meanwhile, TV artistry has seen a recent boom, and much of that quality is available on Prime or Netflix. My wife and I recently went back and watched the entire run of Firefly. I've seen all the high praise for Breaking Bad. Eventually it will be available to stream. I can wait.

For the kids, we basically confine them to films on DVD, mostly Pixar classics like the inimitable Finding Nemo.

Yeah, my kids only barely know what standard broadcast TV is like. But that little bit is bad enough, that's for sure.

NM, I can grant you that we need to think better about restraint, including BOTH self-restraint and societal restraint of things like bad advertising. There should be perfectly good reason for society to say no more to the R-rated commercials on PG rates TV shows, that's just plain WRONG. And that's just for starters, of course.

My wife and I recently went back and watched the entire run of Firefly. I've seen all the high praise for Breaking Bad. Eventually it will be available to stream. I can wait.

Firefly is awesome, and I too want to start "Breaking Bad", but you HAVE to watch "Sherlock". Absolutely sensational show. "The Reichenbach Fall" is a stunning piece of work, some of the best 90 minutes of television history.

Paul -- The fact that we don't, as you say, have the luxury of perfect cases and perfect clients* is precisely why Professor Deneen says he hopes Hobby Lobby wins. And if we take him at his word, his support--however tepid and contingent--is why your argument is essentially that he shouldn't be criticizing Hobby Lobby's participation in an inhumane globalized economic system AT THIS TIME, when that company is fighting for a cause that you both support. It's a perfectly reasonable argument for you to make and strategically speaking may be the superior one. But as I stated, Professor Deneen's article is not going to influence the Supreme Court one way or another. What it does is encourage us to discern the true agent of value in the case, which is the principle of religious liberty and not necessarily its imperfect champion.

But thank you for not accusing me of undermining our continuance as a free people and the maintenance of real Christian civilization.

* Although the Little Sisters of the Poor, for whom my wife worked for awhile, were a near-perfect client for a slightly different case.

Lydia -- For whatever it's worth, the characterization of "selling garbage for profit" was used more generally by me to talk about some conservatives' glorification of the profit motive and unfettered commerce. If you wanted a description of Hobby Lobby itself to spit back at me, you only needed to look at the next paragraph for a slightly more nuanced one. I was in a Hobby Lobby last week and took my examples from that direct experience. I bought some of those bracelet rubber bands, which are also junk but are at least junk that occupies my daughter with a productive endeavor.

Breaking Bad is one of the best series ever, not least because, in addition to fine acting, writing and directing, it's also one of the most morally serious ever. Don't let the dark humor fool you -- there's no Coen-esque ironic winking going on there. Morally speaking it's deadly serious.

Sherlock is indeed very good, but I like another Brit series, Luther, even better. Idris Elba (The Wire) is fantastic in the lead role.

Chris, I see you apparently think we should be "criticizing Hobby Lobby's participation in an inhumane globalized economic system" at some time or other. So let's try this: What would Hobby Lobby have to do to make you approve of them? Is there anything they could do that would not be tantamount to ceasing to exist or driving themselves out of business that would induce you to say we could stop criticizing this "participation"?


By the way, you are still wrong that a victory for Hobby Lobby "will ultimately be conflated with a victory in favor of economic autonomy." This case isn't about that, never was about that, and even those of us who have far more sympathy than you evidently do for "economic autonomy" (whatever, exactly, that allegedly bad thing is) don't think that that is what a victory here would be about.

By the way, I also have a low tolerance for fiddly stuff around the house, but is there really an objective sense in which rubber bands for making bracelets are "junk" any more than many another easily destructible and cluttery crafty supply item? There are rubber band bracelet patterns all over the Internet, some of them rather elaborate and even pretty. My personal dislike of "junk" in _that_ sense of things that are ephemeral, fiddly, and not overwhelmingly beautiful is actually rather strong. It extends to a large swathe of the craft industry (popsicle sticks for making projects, for example). Though I am defending Hobby Lobby here, I am not crafty in the least.

But at least I recognize my own animadversions as non-normative and subjective.

But thank you for not accusing me of undermining our continuance as a free people and the maintenance of real Christian civilization.

That can be arranged, Chris.

Been re-reading Ellen Ruppel Shell's book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. For an eye-opener on why Hobby Lobby's dependence on cheap Chinese production is not a good idea get the book out of the library and read her chapter on China, "The Double Headed Dragon." Her comments don't mention H.L. by name, but her overall critique of our dependence on cheap Chinese junk implicates any retailers who are part of this dependence.

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